E.J. Speed paused for a moment and thought about the question, his hand holding his chin.

What would it have been like to have played all of the 2017 football season for the Tarleton State University Texans?

“Any time you're sidelined it humbles you. It makes you hungry to come back. You sit back and get stronger mentally,” the linebacker said. “I’m very hungry. I feel like I've got a lot to prove, and I want to take my team as far as I can.”

Statistically, Speed has nothing to prove. Despite playing only five games last season because of a foot injury, he posted numbers many players would love for an entire season. He finished with 41 tackles, including 24 solo, 8.5 tackles for a loss, an interception, and two fumble recoveries as the Texans finished 6-6. They were 4-1 when he played.

Speed is actually a graduate student, but is continuing to play thanks to redshirting twice — once as a true freshman in 2013 and again for medical reasons in 2014.

As a sophomore he led the nation in forced fumbles with five, playing in all 11 games. He registered 68 tackles, including 13 for a loss with six sacks.

His versatility includes having played quarterback for North Crowley, moving to wide receiver upon his arrival at Tarleton, switching to defensive end, and now settling in at linebacker.

“I’ve found a home at linebacker, but I did do some moving around,” he said with a smile.

Speed's knack of forcing fumbles could be key for the Texans, who had nine as a team last season.

“I’m a big Charles Tillman fan, and I love the Chicago Bears,” Speed said. “I watched his technique.”

Tillman, who played 12 seasons at cornerback for Bears, was known for his ability to force fumbles by stripping away from players, with his well-timed punch of the ball.    

“E.J. has a chance to be one of the better players in the conference,” Texans head coach Todd Whitten said. “He's had some bad luck. He deserves to have a great season that's uninterrupted by injuries.”

If that happens, Speed and the rest of the returners on the Texans’ defense could play a key role in the team contending in the Lone Star Conference. 

Another key returner after missing all of last season with a torn anterior cruciate ligament is redshirt sophomore linebacker Ronnell Wilson, who had 48 tackles, including 18 solo, in 2016.

“I’m excited, thankful, blessed. I want to play football again,” Wilson said. “I know we're going to have a special team. It's great to be back, along with E.J. He's one of those characters, he knows he's good, and his play will back it up. 

“And (Devin) Hafford came in with me. They saw his talent, and he just keeps getting better.”

Hafford, a junior defensive back, has been in the starting lineup since his freshman season. He's coming off a season in which he posted 76 tackles with 57 solo, along with a pair of interceptions. As a freshman he had 54 tackles with 37 solo.

“It's just a habit of running to the ball,” Hafford said of his knack for making solo tackles. “Of course, E.J. and Tyrell (Thompson) make my job a lot easier.”

Thompson, a senior defensive lineman, posted 57 tackles last season (24 solo), along with 10 tackles for a loss, 4.5 sacks, and three forced fumbles. He was named NCAA Division II All-American in his debut season with the Texans after transferring from Trinity Valley Community College, where he was the No. 12-rated junior college defensive tackle in the nation. 

Thompson called the Texans defense one of the most underrated in the conference. He said despite surrendering 28 points a game last season, they came through with numerous clutch plays, and that injuries took their toll.

“I feel like it's one of the best defenses I've ever been a part of, and with the guys we have returning and the guys we have coming in, yes, we are underrated,” Thompson said. “But starting August 30 they'll see how good we are.”

The Texans open the season that day at home against Delta State with a 7 p.m. kickoff.

Thompson said he also believes the Texans should play with a chip on their shoulder this season. At the Lone Star Conference Media Day they were picked fifth in the league.

“I felt disrespected. We were Midwestern's toughest game (in conference),” he said. “But they were basing that on us being in the middle of the pack, and now it's time to change that. I like to say we're going to go as far as we let us.”

The Texans lost 45-42 to MSU’s Mustangs, who finished 10-1 and advanced to the second round of the NCAA Division II playoffs. They also rallied from a 23-point halftime deficit to pull within five points of national champion Texas A&M-Commerce before falling 33-21.

“Everybody has a different perception of our defense, but we're going to show everybody this fall,” Hafford said. “I can't explain how hungry we are to get the season started.”