JONESBORO, Ark. -- Steve Roberts brought an abundant amount of enthusiasm to Arkansas State last year and it paid immediate dividends.
The Indians won six games for the first time since 1995 and they were within a touchdown of winning three other games in a 6-7 season. Those in the Arkansas State family were ecstatic since the team had won just seven times in three seasons.
However, Roberts doesn't focus on what went right. To him, the job is just starting to get interesting.
"We could sit back and say, 'Whoa, we've come a long way," Roberts said. "You can sit there and think about that or you can really find out what the reality of the situation is. The reality is we're out of the starting blocks, but we're still in the curve. We haven't hit the straight stretch yet.
"We've got a long way to go in order for our program to be the type of program that we want it to be."
Arkansas State finished last year by losing four of its last six games. Three of those losses were to Sun Belt Conference opponents North Texas, New Mexico State and Louisiana-Lafayette and all three were by five points or less.
Being that close creates an expectation for Arkansas State to challenge for a conference title this year. Players certainly feel that way.
"The good thing is we were in those games," junior quarterback Elliot Jacobs said. "My freshman year we probably lost the last six out of six and none of them were even close.
"Now that we're in games and we know we can win, we know how to make those plays to win the game at the end."
Jacobs, a junior from El Dorado, has had a little pressure from junior college transfer Nick Noce, but Roberts said Jacobs should be the season-opening starter on Aug. 30 at Texas A&M.
Noce has been learning the system since arriving this summer from Cabrillo (Calif.) College, where he threw for 1,724 yards and 14 touchdowns last year.
Jacobs started the last 12 games, passing for 1,751 yards and seven touchdowns with seven interceptions. His ability to avoid the rush and a strong offensive line meant he was only sacked six times.
But even with Jacobs returning, Arkansas State will need some time to develop on offense with new starters at running back and on the offensive line.
"A lot hinges on the early play of our defense," Roberts said. "We've got to play great defense early. We've got to play great all year long, but especially early to give our offense time to jell."
The defense returns 10 starters, including two stalwarts on the defensive line with Corey Williams and Jon Bradley. Williams was second in the Sun Belt with nine sacks last year and he missed two games, while Bradley had eight sacks and 68 tackles. Both were named first-team all-conference.
All four starting defensive linemen are back, as are the backups for Williams and Bradley.
Every linebacker returns and only cornerback Chuck Allen is missing from the secondary, which finished 2002 with just five healthy players. The Indians tied for the league lead with 16 interceptions, including five from conference Newcomer of the Year Johnathan Burke.
"We've kind of got a chemistry going because we didn't lose too many people on defense," said senior linebacker Les Echols, who led the team in tackles for the second straight season with 105 and he had four fumble recoveries. "The defensive line is the strength of our defense and they keep the offensive line off of us and allow us to make the tackle."
After starting his career with a 9-19-1 record his first three years at Southern Arkansas, Roberts is 46-21 in the past six years. He won a Gulf South Conference championship in 1997 with the Muleriders and in his second and final season at Northwestern State he guided his team to the NCAA Division I-AA playoffs.
While at Southern Arkansas, his program ranked first in academic achievement three times. At this year's Sun Belt media days, Roberts and the Arkansas State football team were honored for having the top grade point average in the conference.
In one year, Roberts has succeeded in raising the Indians' standards off the field and he's also created something rarely seen in Jonesboro -- high expectations.
"I definitely know that we're moving in the right direction," Roberts said. "But we've got to scratch, claw and fight for every inch, every yard, every ball, every turnover, every special teams play ... in order for our team to be successful."
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This story is from ESPN.com's automated news wire. Wire index
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