As Texas Southern University prepares for the 2017 season the buzz word for the campaign has to be “improvement.” Head coach Mike Haywood and staff face a formidable incline as they continue to rebuild the Tiger program.

Haywood’s Tigers were 4-7 overall, 4-5 in SWAC play in his debut season (2016). The Tigers were a tough out in all of their losses last season, especially in conference play and showed the type of resolve that gives hope for the future.

Unfortunately for TSU, playing in the ultra-competitive West Division of the SWAC conference means making your way to the top is extremely difficult. For the Tigers to improve they will have to rely on the strength of their defense.

The good news is they have some pieces with which to work. Junior linebacker Sean Jones is an All-SWAC First Team Preseason selection and TSU should have plenty of proven talent on that side of the ball.

Jones made 77 stops (10 for a loss) to go with three sacks in 2016, and should be a top defender in the conference this season. Along with top returning tackler senior Archie Rice (84 tackles) and top ball hawk Dondre Dobbins, who posted 60 tackles to go with a team-high three picks anchoring the secondary, TSU has cornerstones to build around.

“I think we did a good job recruiting a lot of depth on our football team at multiple positions on the field,” defensive coordinator Tom Anthony said. “We have three guys that started nine of our 11 games last season in Sean Jones, Archie Rice, and Dondre Dobbins. With that being said pretty much every other spot on our defense is open.”

Jones will need some running mates to emerge at linebacker beside him to replace now graduated contributors. The front line may also be a point of concern, as most of TSU’s key performers in the trenches have graduated. The defense, a sound and very much a “bend-but-don’t-break” corps, will also look for more splash plays, as the Tigers were in the bottom half of the league when it came to sacks and interceptions.

The offensive side of the ball is where the Tigers figure to struggle early in the season. Coach Haywood’s No. 1task will be to find a suitable replacement for last year’s starter Averion Hurts. Jay Christophe started the opening game last season before going down to injury for the year. He showed potential against rival Prairie View A&M University in throwing for 112 yards and a score while rushing for 46 more.

With the Tigers expected to return a good number of their skill players, a steady hand behind center may be all TSU needs to improve an offense that lacked in explosiveness and consistent production at times. Christophe needs to shake off the rust quickly for the Tigers to be respectable.

Tracy Johnson, Carter Jefferson and University of North Texas grad transfer Darvin Kidsey should be reliable options at receiver.

Leading rusher Brad Woodard returns, but after him the depth is filled with talented yet largely inexperienced talented. The same can be said for the offensive line.

The schedule-makers didn’t do the Tigers any favors. They lost on the road in their opener at Florida A&M. They now face PVAMU and Houston Baptist in successive weeks.

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