After five days of easing into things -- per NCAA rules -- Southeast Missouri State began full-contact, two-a-day practices Thursday.
And as far as the Redhawks' defense is concerned, it's never too soon to start setting a tone.
"We're really trying to get after it, trying to take things to a higher level, trying to set a new tone," said senior safety Mike Miller following Thursday's evening session at Houck Stadium.
Southeast's defenders certainly feel they have something to prove after last year's dismal showing, when the Redhawks ranked statistically among the nation's worst defensive units.
After Southeast's defense had improved significantly in each of coach Tim Billings' first five seasons at the school, the bottom fell out in 2004, when the Redhawks ranked last among 119 Division I-AA teams in total defense, allowing 492.8 yards per game.
The Redhawks also were toward the bottom nationally in rushing defense (244.5 yards per game, 115th), pass defense (248.5 yards per game, 113th) and scoring defense (36.7 points per game, 110th). All but the rushing figure ranked last in the nine-team Ohio Valley Conference, and that was a lowly eighth.
"Absolutely, we have something to prove," said senior defensive tackle Brandon Bohnert, who tied for the team sack lead last year with four and was second in tackles for loss with 7.5. "When you finish at the bottom of the [statistical] rankings ... you definitely want to bounce back."
Added Miller, Southeast's top returning tackler who was second on the team last season with 86: "We're working on consistency, that's what really hurt us last year. And we missed so many tackles. We're doing a lot of tackling drills. We're preaching no mistakes."
All of Southeast's defensive assistants are new this year, which Bohnert believes will help revive the unit.
"With new coaches, I think everybody is extra motivated," Bohnert said. "We've been working real hard so far."
Billings, who will again be the Redhawks' defensive coordinator as Damon Bradford continues to serve in Iraq, believes a major upgrade within the unit is attainable -- and he knows that will be vital if Southeast has any hopes of bouncing back from last season's 3-8 record.
Southeast's defense was riddled by injuries a year ago, when several players either missed most of the season or performed banged up. They are now healthy, and seven starters return -- including six of the top seven tacklers and players who accounted for all 11 interceptions.
"We have good athletes on defense, a number of veterans and some new faces," Billings said. "Big plays killed us last year. We're concentrating on doing a better job of tackling and not giving up the big plays.
"I think we can be a lot better on defense, and we have to be."
Billings said the team has accomplished much during the early stages of preseason workouts, which began Saturday.
Under NCAA regulations, the first five days of practice were noncontact, with the first two in helmets only, the next two in helmets and shoulder pads, and the fifth in full gear.
Teams were limited to one practice per day during those first five days, and even after that period squads are prohibited from holding two-a-day workouts on consecutive days. Southeast will basically work out twice daily on alternate days until school starts Aug. 22.
The Redhawks will have their first scrimmage Saturday at approximately 5 p.m.
* Senior safety Brandon Colar, expected to be a key member of the secondary, is no longer with the program. Billings said Colar already graduated and decided to accept a job offer "that was too good to pass up."
"Brandon would have helped us, but fortunately we're pretty deep in the secondary," Billings said.
* Sophomore offensive guard Francisco Perez, who moved into the starting lineup late last season, has not yet practiced and could miss the season opener because of an injured pectoral muscle.
* Southeast recently added a pair of Division I-A transfers to the defensive line -- Sam Scroggins (6-foot-5, 245 pounds) from Minnesota and Aaron McKenzie (6-2, 290) from Wake Forest. Both saw either little or no game action at their former schools.