The Sam Houston Bearkats enter the FBS under the stewardship of long-time head coach K.C. Keeler, considered one of the top head coaches in college football. Who makes up the rest of the Sam Houston coaching staff as they get ready for life in Conference USA?
Sam Houston Bearkats Coaching Staff 2023
Head Coach, K.C. Keeler
Keeler became the Sam Houston head coach in 2014, and the upcoming college football campaign marks his ninth season at the helm. While the Bearkats transition to CUSA will be the first time he has been a head coach at the FBS level, the pedigree he brings from the FCS level is almost unprecedented.
Keeler is the only coach in FCS history to win national championships at multiple schools, having guided the Bearkats to glory in 2021 after leading Delaware to the promised land in 2003. Although he never won a title with DIII Rowan, he led them to the title game multiple times, making him the only coach in NCAA history to take three programs to a title game.
He leaves the FCS with 259 career wins, which is the second most among active coaches at the level. As a result of his success, Keeler has multiple conference coach of the year awards, while also receiving national honors on several occasions, including being named the Eddie Robinson National Coach of the Year following the Bearkats’ 2016 campaign.
A former high school linebacker and tight end, Keeler tasted success as a player before establishing himself as a winning head coach. He played on defense for the 1979 Delaware DII title-winning team and had an NFL dalliance with the Philadelphia Eagles. Additionally, Keeler is a well-respected figure in the community due to his charitable endeavors.
Offensive Coordinator, Brad Cornelsen
As they transitioned to the FBS level, Keeler sought to add some experience at that level when compiling the Sam Houston coaching staff for the 2023 college football campaign. In January 2023, it was announced that former Memphis and Virginia Tech quarterback coach and offensive coordinator Brad Cornelsen would join the program.
Cornelsen’s heritage lies at the quarterback position. During his career at DII Missouri Southern State, he became the first quarterback at that level to throw for over 4,000 yards and rush for over 2,000 yards in his career. As a result, he entered the program’s Athletics Hall of Fame in 2014, the same year he helped engineer a bowl win for Memphis with Paxton Lynch as the quarterback.
In addition to Lynch, Cornelsen has helped develop college football stars like Josh Jackson, who set Virginia Tech freshman records in 2017, and Jerod Evans, who set eight single-season Hokies records in 2016. He arrives at Sam Houston after serving as the offensive coordinator and quarterback coach with the Hokies for six seasons. His full coaching résumé can be found below.
- Missouri Southern (student assistant, 1999)
- Northeastern State (student assistant, 2000)
- Northwest Missouri State (graduate assistant, 2001)
- Oklahoma State (graduate assistant, 2001-2002)
- Illinois State (WR coach, 2003-2006; QB coach, 2007)
- Oklahoma State (quality control coach, 2008)
- Northeastern State (offensive coordinator, 2009-2011)
- Memphis (QB coach, 2012-2014; QB coach and co-OC, 2015)
- Virginia Tech (offensive coordinator and QB coach, 2016-2021)
- Sam Houston State (offensive coordinator, 2023)
Co-Defensive Coordinators, Clayton Carlin and Joe Morris
A former linebacker and captain at Fort Lewis, Joe Morris joined the Sam Houston coaching staff ahead of the 2021 spring season. Morris was also the head coach at his alma mater for two seasons but arrives in Huntsville after spending the past two seasons as the defensive coordinator at West Texas A&M. In addition to co-DC duties, Morris also coaches defensive ends.
Formerly a defensive coordinator at Coastal Carolina, Clayton Carlin came to Sam Houston in 2016 and was promoted to DC in 2017. One of the longest-serving coaches on staff, he cut his teeth at Nebraska when the program was a national powerhouse. He has produced top-tier units at every stop, most notably with the 2020 Bearkats defense that had six first-team all-Southland honorees.
Tight End Coach, Matt Merkens
The Merkens name is inextricably linked with the Sam Houston program, with Guido Merkens playing for the program from 1974-1976, and his son Matt playing under Willie Fritz and Coach Keeler. Matt Merkens has been on the Sam Houston coaching staff since 2015. After filling several assistant and quality control roles, he was promoted to tight end coach in 2021.
Linebacker Coach, Jared Hensley
Another member of the Sam Houston coaching staff who worked his way up to his current role, Jared Hensley joined the program in 2016 as a defensive quality control coach. He began coaching the Bearkats’ linebackers in 2019, leading to multiple all-conference honorees. Hensley also served as a defensive coordinator at the high school level in 2012.
Running Back Coach, John Johnson
With Zach Hrbacek set to earn national attention in 2023, John Johnson is a member of the Sam Houston coaching staff that you should get to know. His success is already well-documented, coming to the Bearkats from South Dakota State, where he mentored Pierre Strong and Isaiah Davis.
A former fullback at Oklahoma State, Johnson also has professional experience, having been a summer intern with the Kansas City Chiefs. He also punctuated his college coaching career with a stint with the Atlanta legend of the Alliance of American Football.
Cornerback Coach, Thomas Rocco
Thomas Rocco joined the Sam Houston coaching staff in 2022 as the cornerbacks coach, having played the position in the early 2000s before an injury curtailed his playing career. He arrived in Huntsville after spending the previous three seasons as the head coach at Tyler Junior College. Rocco also has defensive coordinator experience from multiple positions.
Wide Receiver Coach, Chris Buckner
The Sam Houston coaching staff welcomes back Chris Buckner for the 2023 college football season. Formerly the RB coach on the title-winning Bearkats’ staff, he spent 2022 coaching WRs at Texas State. Buckner began his coaching career at Jackson State and has had stints at Savannah State, NC Central, Western New Mexico, and Southern Miss on his college coaching résumé.
Defensive Line Coach, Ike Eguae
After impressing as a defensive tackle coach on the other side of The Battle of the Piney Woods, Ike Eguae joins the Sam Houston coaching staff as the defensive line coach for the 2023 season. Eguae has also been the DL coach at Coffeyville Community College, Pittsburg State, and Fort Hays State, where he led four players to All-American recognition.
Offensive Line Coach, Brian Natkin
The addition of Brian Natkin for the 2023 college football season gives the Sam Houston coaching staff an infusion of NFL experience. Natkin had been an assistant offensive line coach for the Arizona Cardinals prior to coming to Huntsville. He also has college coaching experience at UTEP — his alma mater — Northern Colorado, Midwestern State, and Hutchinson Community College.