MURRAY —It was an exciting day in Nashville Monday with media members getting to sit down for the first time with head coaches and players from the football programs in the Ohio Valley Conference.
The Racers were projected to finish fifth in the preseason coaches poll this year, a far cry from last year’s eighth-place projection that the team blew out of the water with their fourth-place finish, going 5-3 in conference play.
It’s because of this that it comes as no surprise that Stewart said he doesn’t pay much attention to those preseason polls.
“We are so grateful for this event, very grateful for the work that goes into it; it is an incredible event and done very well,” Stewart said. “However, the information part of it, we don’t put a whole lot of stock into. We are completely worried (only) about ourselves. I’ve never seen a preseason poll that wound up being exactly right come the post-season. I don’t take it back, I don’t use it as fuel for the boys, whether we should’ve been higher or lower or anything like that. We won’t talk about it, to be perfectly honest with you, because we’re going to be 100% infatuated with us and that’s the only people we care about.”
This approach worked wonders last season with the Racers getting out to a 4-0 start in conference play. That came following a tough out-of-conference schedule that included SEC opponent University of Kentucky and one of the top programs in the FCS in Central Arkansas.
By the time the Racers were through the first three games, they were 0-3 but they were battle-tested and ready for the conference opener against UT-Martin. They won that game 45-38, then followed it up with a 48-41 win over Eastern Illinois and a win over Tennessee State 45-21. Next up was their biggest win of the year over Eastern Kentucky 34-6.
Back-to-back losses followed as the Racers hosted Jacksonville State and lost 42-15 and then traveled to Tennessee Tech where they narrowly lost 27-24.
They would split the final two games with a home win over Southeast Missouri 40-38 in dramatic fashion with Malik Honeycutt’s dramatic kick return touchdown to give the Racers the win. The last game was on the road at Austin Peay and the Racers lost 48-23.
Before Week 11 against SEMO, Honeycutt was a serving in a backup capacity when it came to returns. All that changed when the junior inserted himself into the kick return unit with just 20 seconds left and ran 79 yards for a touchdown that sealed the MSU comeback win over the ranked Redhawks. The following week, Honeycutt took a punt 80 yards for a score against Austin Peay in a game where he ran back kickoffs and punts and finished with 137 all-purpose yards.
It came as no surprise on Monday that the Racers swept the special teams awards with Gabriel Vicente, the kicker who was named to the All-OVC first team last year, Steve Dawson, the punter who earned All-OVC first-team honors last season, and Honeycutt, who burst onto the scene late last year, all being picked as preseason first-team guys at their respective positions on special teams.
“We’ve been very blessed, very fortunate with the three that we have right now, with Steve Dawson at punter, Gabe Vicente as our kicker and then Malik Honeycutt,” Stewart said.
Funnily enough though, Honeycutt could’ve gone the whole year as an unknown had it not been for a bit of assertiveness on his part.
“I’ll be the first to admit, if not for him jumping in there unknown to me and doing the kickoff return without telling anybody, who knows if he’d have that award because I wasn’t smart enough as a coach to put him in and he was taking so many snaps offensively that he didn’t do a whole lot of returning for us until the SEMO weekend then the next thing you know in three games he had two returns for a touchdown,” Stewart said. “So I’m very excited to see him with a full season, to see what he can do back there returning the football.”