On Sunday, Southeast Missouri State football’s head coach Tom Matukewicz and his staff officially named this year’s starting quarterback to be junior CJ Ogbonna after he and fellow junior Christian Perez battled for the position this preseason.
Ogbonna transferred to SEMO this year after winning the NJCAA National Championship at Hutchinson Community College in 2020. He will command an offense that possesses four Preseason All-Ohio Valley Conference selections in senior running back Geno Hess, senior wide receiver Zack Smith, senior left guard Jaden Rosenthal and senior center Shyron Rodgers.
Along with winning a national title at Hutchinson, Ogbonna threw for 736 yards, eight touchdowns and three interceptions on 92 attempts (62.0 completion percentage) through six games. He also ran the ball 29 times for 94 yards and one score.
“CJ is a dual-threat guy and is physically gifted in that way,” SEMO offensive coordinator Jeromy McDowell said in a press release. “He is really smart and can run the offense at a high level. CJ is able to utilize all the weapons he has at his disposal.”
Ogbonna will be taking over for former Redhawks quarterback Andrew Bunch, who completed 56.6% of his passes for 1,370 yards and eight touchdowns while being intercepted nine times after transferring from Nebraska of the Big Ten Conference.
With a quarterback like Ogbonna running the offense, SEMO hopes to return to its winning ways after going 4-4 overall (4-3 OVC) last spring. This .500 record came after the Redhawks made back-to-back FCS Playoff appearances in 2018 and 2019, where they combined for a record of 18-8 and 13-3 in the OVC (won conference championship in 2019).
Even though SEMO only won half of its games last season, two of the team’s four losses were only by three points, one in double overtime and the final a 21-3 road defeat by the hands of eventual OVC Champions Jacksonville State. However, the Gamecocks have officially left the OVC along with Eastern Kentucky as both schools now play in the Atlantic Sun Conference.
Murray State and Austin Peay both finished second and third respectively behind Jacksonville State and ahead of SEMO. The Redhawks fell to second-place Murray State 24-21 and third-place Austin Peay 49-42 in double overtime last season.
The Racers were picked to win the OVC in this year’s preseason poll after garnering 64 points and seven of the 14 first-place votes. SEMO and Austin Peay tied for second with 60 points and four votes for first place.
Moving back to Ogbonna’s fellow starters on offense, Hess was one of the 35 players named to the Stats Perform Walter Payton Award Watch List, which is presented to the national offensive player of the year in the FCS. He finished with 666 yards and 12 touchdowns on 137 carries last season (83.2 yards per game).
Hess will be joined in the backfield once again by fellow senior Zion Custis, who ran the ball 50 times for 184 yards and four touchdowns.
“[Hess] and [Custis] help us in different ways,” SEMO running backs coach Issac Reed said. “[Hess] is more of a downhill runner and makes guys miss. You want him in space because he makes things happen. [Custis] has elusive speed and brings another element to our kick return game as well.”
Ogbonna, Hess and Custis will be running behind an offensive line that returns a total of four starters. The two other returning starters besides Rodgers and Rosenthal are senior right guard Sage Sobrado and senior right tackle Nate Korte. Projected to start at left tackle is sophomore Phillip Wilder, who made two starts last season.
“We have a great group of guys,” SEMO offensive line coach Cooper Bassett said. “They are coachable and work very hard. Being able to work with a group that is hungry to get better makes it fun to come to work every day.”
As for Ogbonna’s receiving options, Smith is coming off a season where he hauled in 38 catches for 403 yards and four touchdowns in an offense that ran the ball 56.8% of the time through eight games.
Also lining up at receiver along with Smith will be the likes of seniors Johnny King and Aaron Alston, who combined for 49 grabs, 648 receiving yards and two scores. Alston nearly averaged 15 yards per catch as he made 18 catches for 256 yards while only playing in six of SEMO’s eight contests.
“[Smith] is the ultimate leader, and he has helped build our culture,” SEMO wide receivers coach Justin Drudik said. “His blocking is outstanding and he gets a lot of yards after the catch. … [King] should make some big strides after working really hard this summer. [Alston] is very athletic and plays at a high level.”
On the defensive side of the ball, the Redhawks had two players make the Preseason All-OVC Team, which were senior defensive end Bryson Donnell and senior outside linebacker Omardrick Douglas.
Donnell was SEMO’s fourth-leading tackler last season with 41 stops, while he also had a team-high four quarterback hurries along with three tackles for a loss and one sack. Douglas tied for a team-high five pass deflections and had 26 tackles with three and a half being in the backfield.
Other returning starters for the Redhawks defense include senior defensive end LaWilliam Holmes, inside linebackers senior Brandon Mincey and junior Mike Matthews, senior cornerback Shabari Davis and senior strong safety Lawrence Johnson.
Johnson hopes to improve off a campaign where he managed to lead SEMO in tackles at 55, and he also recorded four pass deflections, one interception and forced one fumble.
Matthews had the second-most tackles for SEMO last season with 45 while also recording three pass deflections. Mincey finished right behind Matthews with 42 tackles of his own, while he also produced four tackles for a loss and one sack.
Davis finished in a three-way tie for the most interceptions with two as he also broke up four passes and made 23 stops last season.
The seventh and final Preseason All-OVC honoree for SEMO was junior punter Zach Haynes, who was also named to the FCS Punter of the Year Award Watch List. He averaged 42.2 yards on 36 punts last season.
The Redhawks begin the season against No. 7 ranked Southern Illinois on Thursday, Sept. 2, at Houck Field.