The Hunter Sims era officially kicks off at 7 p.m. Saturday at Gordon Wood Stadium as the Howard Payne Yellow Jackets host the Southwestern Assemblies of God Lions in the 2016 football season opener.

Sims, who has been an assistant on the HPU staff the past six seasons, inherits a 1-9 squad within a program that is looking turnaround the misfortunes of the past decade. The Yellow Jackets are shooting for their first winning season since 2005, but Sims and his vastly experienced coaching staff are taking the one-game-a-time approach.

“I feel really confident,” Sims said. “I feel really strong and confident because of our assistant coaches and how much experience they bring to the table. We have a great support system — six full-time coaches, four GAs and seven student assistants. What’s different about this year compared to some of the past years I’ve been here is every position has a specific coach, the kids are getting coached all the time, and that’s the way it should be at the college level.”

Among the assistant coaches on staff are offensive coordinator Scott Clough and linebackers coach Cary Fowler, who have nearly 50 years experience between them.

“One thing I do have in my corner that I’m very fortunate about is one coach on the offensive side of the ball that’s been a college offensive coordinator for 24 years,” Sims said. “There’s probably not much of anything I’m going to tell him that he’s not already been through.

“On the other side of the ball we’ve got a guy who’s been a DII defensive coordinator for 18 years and a head coach for seven. It’s extremely balanced to where I’m comfortable because I have those two guys to lean on. That’s helping me be a little more even keel than I would expect to be just rolling into a first game. With that said I’ve coached in this conference about 10 years now so I’ve seen a lot, too.”

The Yellow Jackets have a few weeks of preseason practice and a scrimmage against Southwestern under their belts, and Sims has liked what he’s seen so far.

What I liked the most from the Southwestern scrimmage was the fact that we didn’t turn ball over,” Sims said. “What I hated was it was raining the whole time, a downpour, so we didn’t truly get to see our offense and our defense. But we got on top of them and didn’t let them come back, which was nice.

“What I didn’t like and know that we have to get better at is being able to spread the ball around a little bit to different guys. We have a lot of guys who don’t have a significant amount of playing time so it always put you on edge a little bit because you’re not sure what they’re going to do once the lights come on.”

Early standouts thus far include Comanche’s Caisson Montieth, who won a preseason quarterback battle, along with receiver Derrick Williams and tight end Eric Haverstock.

“The one position that everyone is going to look to immediately is quarterback and we have a new quarterback in Caisson Montieth,” Sims said. “That guy is just an athlete and a true competitor and I love having a pure athlete back there at quarterback.

“Derrick Williams played defense last year as a freshman and we moved him over to offense. He’s the fastest guy on the team so that gives us something we haven’t been able to do in a while and that’s stretch the field vertically. I’m excited to see that and hopefully it will pay off for the big play. And Eric Haverstock at tight end, he was out last year with a knee injury so he’ll be a redshirt freshman this year and we expect big things out of him and out of that position, especially since a lot schools don’t play with a tight end anymore. It’s hard to find them and he’s actually a converted receiver.”

The Yellow Jackets’ strength, at least early in the season, will likely be defense, where HPU returns the most starters. Players back from last year’s unit include linebackers Jason Disney, Britt Boler and Isaac Sanchez, cornerback Kris Mack and Abner Reyes along the defensive line.

“Defensively, I’m excited to see some of the guys come back with where they’re at,” Sims said. “Jason Disney led the conference in tackles last year, he was first-team all-conference and we expect big things out of him. We also expect big things out of Kris Mack, who was first-team all-conference and second in the nation in passes defended. Britt Boler is back as a sophomore and started virtually every game last year. Isaac Sanchez is out there as well on the other side playing outside linebacker. And Abner Ryes is one of our key guys on the interior. I’m excited to see how they perform Saturday.”

SAGU is coming off an 8-3 campaign that included a 38-24 triumph over Howard Payne in Week 3. The Lions are led by quarterback C.J. Collins, who returns after passing for 2,157 yards and 21 touchdowns a year ago, while rushing for 218 yards and three scores.

Also back from last year’s squad are the top two rushers — Ricky Bickham (676 yards, 4 TDs) and J.P. Lowery (421 yards, 2 TDs) and top two receivers — Chaz Moncriffe (38-343, 2 TDs) and Toras Hill (28-465, 5 TDs) — which should provide the HPU defense a formidable challenge.

“We’ll see a multiple offense and last season they were about 60-40 run to pass,” Sims said. “They return 11 players on their two deep and their quarterback is coming back. He’s going to be a three-year starter, 6-4, 210 pounds and plays really well. They have two good receivers that can stretch the field vertically and both of the leading rushers are back from last year.

“They were 8-3 last year, a really good team, but we played them early and I don’t think we realized how good of a football team they were.”

There will be no underestimating SAGU this time, as the Yellow Jackets hope to start the season off on the right foot. Limiting mistakes is the key, according to Sims.

“The two biggest things we really get on to our guys about is error percentage, which we want to be under 12 percent,” Sims said. “Obviously that means we’re not hurting ourselves but one of every 10 plays, roughly. A penalty, a sack, a fumble, an interception and a dropped pass, if we can just not hurt ourselves with those five categories we should be good offensively.

“On the flip side, defensively we want to be at a 20 percent havoc rate, which is roughly the same thing as offense, just flipped. We want to cause their plays to be bad. If we can do that, statistics show you’re going to win the high 90s — 96, 97 percent of your games — if you can do that.”

As is the case with most season openers, special teams will likely to play a pivotal role as well.

“Special teams is so critical because you’re live for the first time in a game,” Sims said. “A lot of coaches are extremely cautious practicing special teams because the risk for injury is pretty high, but it’s a third of the game.

“Coach Clough, our offensive coordinator, put a pretty interesting presentation together for our guys to get them to realize how important it is. In one of our games from last year, we just broke down a random game, every play that was run offensively for both teams averaged 5.6 years per play. Every special teams play averaged 41 yards per play. If you ever block a punt, your rate to win is a little over 80 percent.

“We want our guys to understand we want our best players playing on special teams and if they need a break they probably should take it on the offensive or defensive side.”

The Yellow Jackets won their first three games of the 2014 campaign — including a 38-25 triumph over SAGU — and Sims would like nothing more than to begin his tenure with a momentum-building victory.

“It’d be huge,” Sims said of a potential win in the opener. “SAGU was 8-3, our record was not nearly that last year. To say that it would be a statement game might be a bit of an overstatement, but it’s definitely a good measuring stick to know where we’re at as a program. Going in and playing a team that good and returning that many players will show us where we’re at and where we need to improve.

“Football’s one of those games where how you start off the first three or four games is about how you’re going to be for the year. It’s really hard in football to turn it around because we have so few opportunities. You have 10 opportunities where in basketball you may have 30 and in baseball you may have 40 to get in going. If we didn’t win it wouldn’t be the end of the world, but a win would be a huge shot in the arm for our program and our university.”