LITTLE ROCK -- In the first three weeks of last October, Henderson State went from laughingstock to the Gulf South Conference story of the year.
The Reddies gave up 223 points in an 0-4 start and seemed destined for a fourth straight season with one or two wins. But a goal line stand late in the fifth game against Arkansas Tech set off a three-game winning streak and Henderson State won five of its last seven games.
"We always knew we were a good team," said senior cornerback Ben Witcher. "Against Arkansas Tech, they almost beat us in the last couple of seconds, but we stopped them a couple of times in the red zone and that was the turning point of our season."
Henderson State finished 5-4 in league play, its first winning conference mark in seven years.
In the offseason, coach Jesse Branch moved into a new athletic facility, complete with new offices, conference rooms and weight facility. With the new digs and a strong finish, he found something not seen at the Arkadelphia campus recently -- high expectations.
"The problem is our president telling people we're going to win eight or nine games this year," said Branch, who coached during the 1-10 season in 2001. "It's tongue-in-cheek I hope, but it is a thrill to have that kind of enthusiasm at Henderson."
Henderson State starts the season in rough fashion, on the road against McNeese State, the No. 1 team in the preseason NCAA Division I-AA poll. After that, the Reddies face Hal Mumme's passing offense at Southeast Louisiana before starting Gulf South play facing Central Arkansas' wide-open pass attack.
Branch is happy he has experience returning in the secondary with cornerbacks Ben and Sam Witcher and four-year starter Jon Cockroft at safety.
"In this league, with the way they throw the football at UCA and Harding, and SAU with the best receiver in the league (in Nik Lewis), we better be able to defend the pass," Branch said.
At linebacker, junior Earl Wilson leads a young unit after finishing second on the team with 76 tackles.
Junior quarterback Blake Christenson returns to lead the Reddies wishbone offense after rushing for 1,003 yards last year. He led Henderson State to NCAA Division II's fourth-best rushing offense at 286.5 yards per game.
Christenson was named the Gulf South's offensive player of the week three times last year.
JayvianJohnson, the Reddies' second-leading rusher last year with 731 yards at fullback, likely will miss the 2003 season serving in the U.S. Army Reserves in Kuwait.
Center Sylas Robinson, a preseason all-conference pick, anchors a quick offensive line.
This story is from ESPN.com's automated news wire. Wire index
MORE COLLEGE FOOTBALL HEADLINES
- Winston ruled to have not violated FSU code
- Sources: Stanford's Shaw plans to shun NFL
- Report: Former Clemson QB Kelly arrested
- Boise State's top rusher Ajayi to enter draft