Lance Guidry was right where he is most happy.
He was in the dirt teaching and coaching football; leading his D.W.A defense again; and, of course, running from one end zone to the other, yelling, screaming and motivating his Cowboys during some 15 workouts that comprised spring practice.
Guidry and his returning staff (minus defensive coordinator Tommy Restivo, who was let go after one disappointing season) recently wrapped up spring work that had some must-dos to get done before the team broke for the summer.
Plugging holes and retooling the offensive line topped the list for the offense. On the defensive side, there was the issue of leaky coverage on the corners and allowing too many explosive plays from the secondary as a whole.
There were questions over depth and personnel adjustments here and there. But the O-Line and defensive secondary were tops on the work list. Over the course of the spring practice, you could tell positions and playing time were up for grabs, as the coaches shuttled in a bevy of new players, including junior college transfers, re shirts and younger guys seeking a starter’s role.
March and April are when the initial groundwork is laid. August camp is when critical decisions on the starting line-ups are made. Guidry left spring feeling good about those two key areas of concern. “I’m very pleased where we are at right now. We added a couple of offensive linemen in there, and another corner. I think we have a chance to be really good.”
When Guidry is anywhere near a football field with players in pads, things can get amped up pretty quickly. The 46-year-old second-year head coach is an endless source of energy and charisma. He intends to use that and more to bounce back from last year’s 6-5 disappointment.
The shortcomings were evident in 2016. The normally powerful running game went dormant behind an inconsistent offensive line that felt the pain of losing a lot of senior leadership and talent. The defense held up pretty well with the front six, but breakdowns in the secondary resulted in an endless stream of 20- to 30-yard big gains and a failure to end offensive drives.
These obvious problems prompted quick and decisive actions.
Guidry fired Restivo as defensive coordinator and resumed the responsibility of running the defense. After losing talented offensive line coach Eman Naghavi to UL-Monroe — yes, former McNeese head coach Matt Viator was able to lure another of his former charges up north — Guidry hired the equally respected Ben Norton from Northwestern State to handle the O-Line and become the Cowboys’ new running game coordinator.
The defensive secondary had its full complement of returning players and up-and-comers looking to impress Guidry over the spring. So they were extra fast and highly motivated to return the defense to the level of execution demanded by the head coach.
Norton went back to the fundamentals and went searching for depth from the ranks of offensive linemen. It was difficult to gauge their success, as the O-Line was scattered over two squads during scrimmages and the spring-ending Blue and Gold game. The running game struggled and there were loads of quarterback sacks. (None actually put the QBs on the ground, but if they got close, a sack was called.)
At season’s end last November, Guidry told me he intended to get better and more experienced at the offensive line via transfers and junior college additions. He will see how that transpires in August, as La. Tech transfer Chris Aye and Andy Dodd, a recent transfer from LSU, are expected to hold down starting positions in 2017.
Spring is when the roster is shuffled and the personnel pieces are moved around so a better picture begins to take shape for the off-season and in time for August camp. Starting units get all the headlines, but establishing depth is equally critical.
“We had some young offensive linemen get a lot of good reps this spring,” says Guidry. “We know we have some other guys coming — a junior college kid and a transfer (Dodd) — so that’s really good. The corners played really well; the young guys. We feel good everywhere just about, you know. We made some strides in the defensive tackle by bringing in a Jr. Co kid. We are going to add some more young defensive backs in there. So I think we will have a talented team.”
Heading that list of young defensive backs Guidry referred to is incoming freshman recruit Hanif Muhammad from La Marque, Texas. Even though he didn’t play his senior season at Clear Falls High School, Muhammad received offers from Nebraska, Oklahoma State and Baylor, among others. That’s very rare and somewhat unprecedented; those same terms speak to Muhammad’s skills.
The Cowboys got to him early, and Muhammad “stuck with us the whole time,” Guidry said.
Muhammad is described as the most highly recruited player in McNeese history by Guidry. He will no doubt get serious consideration as a starter as a true freshman.
Senior safety Dominique Hill was a freshman phemon a few years ago. He’s been an all SLC player, and the secondary’s quarterback and leader the past two-plus years. Part of the defensive backfield’s problems last season stemmed from Hill’s missing the first six games due to violations of team rules dating back to the spring of 2016.
“It was very frustrating (being sidelined early in the year),” said Hill after the spring Blue and Gold Game. “It was frustrating for me to watch and tough for them not to have a leader to lean on. I was hurting for sure. But we are back to it this year, and we will be communicating and making big plays.”
Hill will be a senior this season, and has a lot to catch up on and prove. He’s heard a lot about the young Muhammad, but knows this is already an experienced secondary with talent in place. “The experience is there; the playmaking ability. Everything is there. We just have to go out and be dedicated to our craft.”
That craft needs to focus on better man coverage, improved positioning, disciplined tackling and elimination of those back-breaking, over-the-top big gainers from the opposition’s passing game. Hill nodded in agreement when I ran through that list.
It’s not as if the offense didn’t have anything to work on this spring. McNeese’s once feared running game lost its mojo last season, and getting it back is a must in 2017. Last year, the Cowboys averaged fewer than 4 yards per carry and a tick over 130 yards of rushing per game. That’s not good enough in an offense that’s still run first, pass second.
Second-year offensive coordinator Landon Hoefer, a man who speaks slowly and with measured words, says the team’s main offensive objective was to become more physical at all positions. According to Hoefer, that was accomplished.
But over the course of the two intra-squad scrimmages, the running game was still lacking, and that didn’t go unnoticed. “It’s concerning in the sense that we are not where we need to be,” says Hoefer. “We have about five or six guys (offensive linemen) we feel like we can win with. Over the summer, we have to find four or five others to pull up that slack.”
Hoefer’s offense is coming off a season during which first-year quarterback James Tabary set four new McNeese passing records that earned him Newcomer of the Year honors in the Southland Conference. The junior-to-be is a rising star in the league; destined for pre-season All Southland Conference recognition; and easily among the two best quarterbacks entering next season.
For the most important position on the field, McNeese’s only issue is keeping Tabary upright and healthy with time to work his passing arm, which missed the single season record for most passing yards by a mere 43. Tabary finished 2016 with 3,026 yards passing versus the single season record of 3,068 yards held by Blake Prejean.
The New Orleans native speaks quickly with that Crescent City ascent. But he’s in command of every word and thought. The Cowboys haven’t had that kind of leadership, confidence and presence at the quarterback position for a number of years now.
It’s a much-needed and invaluable commodity that’s extremely difficult to find and foster in a quarterback at any level of the game.
When Tabary came to McNeese last summer as a transfer from Arkansas State, he had to battle Grant Ashcraft for the starting position. That battle was won after only a few August camp practices. He was clearly head and shoulders the best quarterback.
Even though the position battle is over and this is his offense, Tabary says he goes into every practice with a chip on his shoulder the size of the Prudential rock. “I still approach every practice like I’m the fourth-string guy. That’s how you get ahead. Once you get ahead of yourself, everything goes out the door. I practice every play like it’s my last, and I compete like I’m the fourth string quarterback.”
He’s not spewing football clichés, either. Tabary means what he says, and it’s on display, as he says, at every practice.
That mindset, his intense work ethic and immense talent will no doubt put Tabary on the path to becoming McNeese’s all-time leading quarterback in passing yards, completions, touchdowns and completion percentage.
Hoefer likes to say, “If it ain’t perfect, it ain’t right. It’s not what we run, but how we run it.” Well, it’s not perfect grammar, but you get the idea. Tabary, with his grinder attitude and attention to detail, is the perfect quarterback for Hoefer’s laboratory.
The Cowboys didn’t have the luxury to stop and smell the roses or enjoy the spring sunshine. A lot of work was needed and it appears much was done.
Teams always go into any off-season practice worried about injury, and McNeese was lucky up until the final scrimmage. During the Blue-Gold game, senior tailback Ryan Ross suffered a dislocated right ankle on a running play.
There was possible ligament damage which could take up to four months to mend, according to Guidry. “You can’t predict injuries. They just come when they come. We are expecting him to come back and make a full recovery. If he doesn’t, he still has a redshirt year. God knows what he is doing.”
If there is one area where the Cowboys have ample depth, it’s at running back.
The puzzle that is the 2017 football team was laid out this spring. A few missing pieces were found and put in place, but a few remain missing. A clear view of that puzzle, with all corners and holes in place, tightly secured, will be the goal as the Cowboys open the season with a rare Southland Conference road match-up at Nicholls State to get things started on Aug. 31.
There’s not much time to enjoy the flowers or anything else this summer.