Not much went right for the McNeese Cowboys in that recent 47-17 smackdown by Central Arkansas on that purple-striped turf in Conway.
Except for the continued exceptional play and impact of tight end Lawayne Ross.
The Cowboys have manufactured a respectable 6-2 record so far, despite the ups and downs of the defensive secondary (chunks plays), offensive line (pass protection and injuries), quarterback play (in sync, check downs and injured pinkie) and special teams (kickoff coverage).
But who would have expected the one constant and positive trend to come from Ross and the tight end spot?
When you think of the McNeese offense, present and past tight ends don’t come to mind right off the top. The program has had a few standouts in that position, namely Corday Clark (All SLC in 2010), Wes Mangan (All SLC 2008 and ‘09), Chris Fontenot and Nic Jacobs (All SLC 2013). An impressive run at all conference tight ends, no doubt. But none possessed the big play abilities and run-after-the-catch skills that Ross does, except for maybe Clark.
Chris Fontenot tops the Cowboys’ career pass receptions for tight ends with 99 catches for 1,349 yards. Clark, who is tied with Alan Heisser in fifth place among tight ends, with 59 catches, could be the best comparison with Ross at this point in the younger Cowboy’s career.
But head coach Lance Guidry explains why Ross is unique and has separated himself early on.
“He is different from the tight ends of the past. I liked guys like Corday Clark and Wes Mangan — loved ’em, because they were talented guys, and of course the big kid Nic Jacobs, who transferred here from LSU and played in the NFL. But this kid (Ross) is better with the ball in his hands. Once you get the ball in his hands, he is able to break tackles and become a running back,” said a gushing Guidry.
It’s easy for Ross to shift into running back mode, because he came to McNeese as an all district running back from Richwood, Texas, and played in the backfield as a McNeese redshirt freshman.
With the graduation of Zach Hetrick, and with Austin Nelson leaving football to focus on baseball, the Cowboys found themselves in dire need of tight end help coming into this season. Their cup runneth over with running backs this past summer, with the depth chart going four to five deep, so Guidry and offensive coordinator Landon Hoefer began envisioning Ross at tight end.
All 6 feet and 260 pounds of himFor the second straight week, Ross has led McNeese in receiving yards. He grabbed five passes for a game-high 96 yards in the win over Incarnate Word, and came back last week with another five receptions (tied with Kent Shelby for game-high) for 78 yards.
It’s been a long time since a McNeese tight end has garnered game-high stats in receiving yards, and even tied a number-one receiver like Shelby for receptions. If you have followed my offensive preaching in his column over the years, you know I love the tight end position, and favor using it in the passing game.
In years past, it seemed the tight end was given lip service, and was an afterthought, used only as an extra lineman to block. With Ross’ skill set, it’s not a hidden or forgotten position any longer.
“The tight end is actually a big part of our offense. Coach Hoefer told me he wanted to find ways of getting me the ball, so when the ball comes my way, I have to make the play.”
And more times than not, he has.
Early on, it was clear Ross was Tabary’s safety net of sorts — the offense’s X factor. When a play was needed, number 40 was targeted, and he has delivered, with 29 catches for 408 yards over eight games. That ranks Ross second in total catches behind Shelby’s 37 grabs.
“When we are struggling throwing the ball, when we are struggling running the ball, he’s the X factor, and gets us going. He’s the go-to guy. Kind of the bell cow, to tell you the truth. When we need something going, we get it to him or Kent Shelby,” explained Guidry.
Ross noted that over the past few weeks, he has begun to feel more comfortable and confident in the routes, and has started running them “much faster” in practice. That led to his breakout 96-yard game against UIW, which he described humbly as “impressive.”
The magic behind a successful tight end is creating personnel mismatches. Send a prototypical 6-foot, 6-inch, 250-pound tight end into the defensive secondary matched up against a much smaller safety. Or put that same sized tight end with superior speed against a slower linebacker.
In most cases, it’s checkmate times two, and the tight end wins the matchup.
It’s a thing of offensive beauty to see the tight end streaking open down the seam, or a tight end that remains patient but then releases over the middle to find open spots in front of or behind linebackers.
The prerequisites for your tight end are that he must run good routes and be able to catch the ball in traffic.
Ross admits he is not one of those redwood-like 6-foot, 7-inch tight ends in the NFL (he cited Rob Gronkoski and Delaney Walker as examples), but says he can catch and block. And obviously, his years at running back have taught him how to run after the catch. Ross has gobbled up significant yards once leather hits his mitts and after first contact.
The Cowboys have not had an offensive player with his size and special combination of skills. Ross is a running back with soft hands, big and hefty enough to play with his hands in the dirt, on the line as a tight end. “Lawayne is very strong. He doesn’t just have speed, but he’s able to break tackles like a big old running back. He’s different from the tight ends we’ve had in the past,” Guidry went on to say.
It caught me by surprise that Ross was named to the Southland Conference’s preseason first team at tight end; it’s highly unusual for a player to be named to the team in a position in which he has not yet played a single down. But it seems the SLC voters knew better, and, as if on cue, Ross has become easily the best tight end in the league through eight games.
“Yes, it was a motivating thing for me (garnering preseason first team All SLC). But I have always put a lot of pressure on myself, even when I was at running back. I just have to come out every night and play as hard as I can, and the sky’s the limit,” says Ross.
Lawayne followed big brother Ryan (2015 and ‘16 leading rusher at tailback) to McNeese in 2015. After his redshirt freshman year, it became a family affair in the backfield, as Lawayne began subbing in for his smaller big bro, gaining 218 yards on 48 carries, with two touchdowns.
The Ross rushing tandem was split once Lawayne’s skills were needed elsewhere, and then Ryan suffered a broken ankle during spring drills. The injury took longer than expected to heal, so the senior to be decided on an injury redshirt year for 2017, with plans to return for the 2018 season.
Lawayne says Ryan is doing well, cheering him on and has “gained another perspective on the game of football, and will come back next year stronger than ever.”
It was another good outing individually for Ross against UCA, but he was held out of the end zone on a night the entire offense was held in check by the SLC’s best team, and one of the top five FCS programs in the nation.
Going into the Central Arkansas game, Ross said the offense was still plagued with “inconsistency,” and it showed, with two scoreless quarters in Conway. On the surface, the offense seemed to outplay UCA, with more offensive yards, more first downs and a huge disparity in time of possession. But lousy field position, two fumbles, a blocked punt returned for a touchdown, and, of course, those three huge touchdown passes of 45 yards or more by the Bears buried the Pokes.
McNeese’s chase for the SLC title ended in Conway.
They can still keep their hopes for a possible at-large playoff bid alive by winning their remaining three games.
To do that, the Cowboys may have to lean even more on the X factor.