With 17 starters returning, the excuses are few for West Alabama.

For the second straight year the Tigers were picked to finish third in the Gulf South Conference, but they’re hoping to advance far beyond last year’s first-round exit.

Redshirt sophomore Jacob Murphree and junior transfer Jack McDaniels are both faring well in the battle to succeed quarterback Harry Satterwhite, the program’s all-time No. 2 passer.

Sixth-year coach Brett Gilliland said Murphree has the edge in chemistry with receivers and knowledge of the offense, but McDaniels’ situational awareness is better. He added that there’s no timeline to announce a starter, but whoever does start will have plenty of help around him.

There’s depth in the backfield, with redshirt junior Derrick Underwood joining transfers James Smith and Reggie Davenport and redshirt freshman Demetrius Battle to form a committee of diverse skill sets.

The team also has two junior receivers, two senior offensive linemen and senior tight end Qua Boyd on the preseason All-Conference team.

Gilliland said the team’s offensive and defensive lines have the chance to be “pretty special” – as they should, since they return all nine total starters.

The D-line, he said, is the heart of the defense, which led the conference in run defense last season and encourages players to prioritize team accomplishments over their own.

“That sometimes doesn’t mean you get the tackle or you get the stat, but you’re opening things up for your teammate to be there and do his job,” Gilliland said.

Gilliland said he has been pleased with the team’s family dynamic, especially with a roster comprised of 43 returning lettermen and 40 to 50 newcomers. How they bond and play as a unit will be a key factor in whether the team can outplay its preseason ranking.

“I don’t put a lot of stock into it, to be honest with you,” Gilliland said. “But I hope at the end of the year we’re not third.”