Story By Rick Sarro • Photo By Jesse Hitefield
If you say something enough times, it becomes a fact. Find your message or narrative, repeat, rinse and repeat again. It’s an adage that’s been around a long time and it works. Keep spouting off clichés at every opportunity and eventually they hold value.
In sports you hear it all the time … “Play ‘em one at a time,” “the past is the past,” “forget about the success or failure and move on to the next play and next game.” During 40 years of covering sports, I’ve heard these lines from every coach, player, manager or team executive verbatim, on cue.
McNeese coaches and players are towing the line like good company men. But my gut tells me these Cowboys have a chip on their shoulder and an itch for some measure of revenge for last season’s playoff snub by the NCCA/FCS Selection Committee.
The schedule makers didn’t do McNeese any favors in 2017 by putting the team on the road at Nicholls State to open the season with a conference game — on a Thursday night, no less. That’s a triple trap in any book: a short practice week (spent in Lafayette in UL-L’s indoor facility due to week-long rains in Lake Charles); an odd Thursday night road game against an upstart Southland Conference rival.
On paper, it should have been a McNeese victory. But that’s why they played the game.
The Colonels won it on the very last play of the game, 37-35.
Fast forward to a time months later, and Nicholls, with an 8-3 record, is awarded the third playoff bid from the SLC by virtue of that week-one win.
McNeese goes 9-2 and stays home.
“The only way to guarantee you get into the playoffs is to win your conference or come out second. We didn’t do that,” head coach Lance Guidry admitted during the Southland Media Days event in Houston. “This year is a different football team. Each year it is, and last year was a nine-win team. And this year is brand new.”
Guidry is a master at coachspeak, but he will venture off script when his Cajun blood gets fired up. And he did after the post-season snub last November. His mind and heart are on preparing his club for 2018; you can see that with comments like, “I think our guys are over it, and they want to go out there and win a conference championship,” and, “it made for a good off-season, a good spring training and a really good summer.”
SLC Commissioner Tom Burnett was not concerned with any NCAA backlash or locker room chalk board quotes. To his credit, he drew his sword and didn’t mince words during his podium address at media days. “I certainly believe we deserved a fourth team [in the playoffs; the other two were Sam Houston and Central Arkansas] last year. I’m still struggling with that … McNeese State, you really want them in that playoff considering all they did wrong was lose on that last play of the game at Nicholls in a season opener and they lost at Central Arkansas, which was a national seed,” Burnett argued.
When pressed about it after a recent practice, Guidry put his spin on the event from the historical angle. “I’m more disappointed in the history and tradition McNeese has had in the playoffs — not just recently, but all through the years. When a 9-2 McNeese team doesn’t make the playoffs, that’s a slap in the face by the NCAA. Hopefully, we get into the playoffs. We gotta get there by winning games and taking care of conference. But when we get there, we need to win games and make a freakin’ run so we get that swag back in the playoffs.”
Why rehash last season’s news?
I believe in this case, in this situation, with this team and coaching staff, the past is the present and will affect the future.
Behind closed locker room doors, these Cowboys will use those two conference losses and the missing of the playoffs in spite of having one of the top defenses in the nation as an unwavering, driving, motivating source of go get ‘em.
The Cowboys have the talent in some key positions and enough returning starters to remain in the league’s upper tier. The preseason coaches and sports information directors poll put McNeese fourth, with Sam Houston No. 1; Nicholls ranked second; followed by defending conference champion Central Arkansas.
Every season, teams must confront questions, concerns, positives and negatives. This McNeese squad has tailwinds to push them forward and headwinds to challenge their journey.
I always start and end with the quarterback. Returning senior James Tabary was voted to the preseason All SLC second team, while his boyhood buddy from New Orleans, Chase Fourcade, beat him out as the First Team quarterback.
Tabary needs to get off to a fast start in the season opener against Northern Colorado. He can build his confidence and momentum for the conference opener the second week against Houston Baptist, and, of course, the highly anticipated rematch against Fourcade’s Nicholls Colonels Sept. 15.
McNeese is as deep as it’s ever been at running back, with five runners, led by preseason All SLC tailback David Hamm and mighty mite Justin Pratt. Ryan Ross returns from that broken ankle for his senior season and he will make his presence known.
The offensive line has some returning experience, but as always, depth may be an issue.
The offense lost three legitimate starting receivers to graduation in Kent Shelby (trying to make the L.A. Rams as a free agent), Tavarious Battiste and Darious Crawley. There are a lot of bodies out at camp, and the offense will need four to five to really step up.
After years of my harping and asking this offense to find a tight end and use him, they did last season. Junior LaWayne Ross had a break-out season in 2017, which earned him All SLC First Team honors and national recognition as one of the top FCS tight ends in the country.
I know this defense has six starters back. But it lacks experience in the secondary and middle of the defensive line. I’m not sure how this defense will measure up to 2017’s performance, and maybe its unfair to expect such a thing.
Lance Guidry will continue his dual roles by also coaching the defense, and he feels this bunch has more skills. “I do think this year, we have more talent. We’re faster. It’s just they don’t have as many game reps under them. This year, we may have to play more man, which I like because I am a man-free and pressure guy. We have some really talented guys on the back end. Most of the linebackers are back, and the front line will be special. And it starts there.”
A key factor in any championship run is the schedule. This year’s slate is set up well for McNeese. The opener on the road at Northern Colorado is a very winnable match-up, mountain air or not. The Cowboys have key SLC games involving Nicholls and defending champion UCA (both losses last year on the road). Both games will be home at Cowboy Stadium. That’s a nice stroke of scheduling and timing.
Lower tier Houston Baptist, Northwestern State and Incarnate Word (a combined 6-27 record between all three in 2017) are on the road, and so is always tough Southeastern.
Stephen F. Austin, with an interim head coach after the abrupt off-season release of veteran Clint Conque, and Lamar, will be home dates as well.
The positives from the 2018 schedule are who is there and who is not, and the home and away dates.
For the second straight year, McNeese will not have to face perennial power Sam Houston State. Guidry has always said he would rather play the best to better gauge his club and garner more attention. But a win over Abilene Christian is always better than a possible tough loss against Sam Houston.
An FBS guaranteed money game returns to the schedule Sept. 22 at BYU.
A fat payday and an impressive showing on the road playing up will always help the playoff selection cause and bolster the budget at the end of the year in comparison to playing down against the likes of Tarleton State and Florida Tech, as the team has done in recent years.
BYU is not the Brigham Young of old, so who knows whether the Cowboys are capable of winning both high-altitude games and really kick-starting the year with hopes of a spectacular September. “We fly to BYU, which I think is a very winnable game. I know they are looking at film, and I’m sure they are very concerned about us because we can run [team speed. The schedule] is set up nice,” opined Guidry.
After spring drills, when it became clear that senior James Tabary had some good days and not so good practices, while sophomore Cody Orgeron turned some heads with his improved play, speculation was that the quarterback job was open for discussion.
Guidry stepped in and proclaimed there was no quarterback controversy, just competition.
The third-year head coach has stressed competition at all positions, as evidenced by his always changing DWA jerseys for defensive starters. That approach has leaked over to the offensive side, where every position this August is open to change, depending on performance.
Let’s be equally clear that Tabary is the Cowboys’ starting quarterback, and Orgeron appears to be QB 2 right now.
McNeese is in an enviable position at quarterback, with a two-year starter and a highly acclaimed Tabary returning for his senior season.
It was going to be hard for Tabary to repeat his break-out season of 2016 last year, and most agree 2017 was a drop-off. Tabary correctly defends his performance by noting that the Cowboys were 6-5 in 2016 and improved to 9-2 last year. “We did better as a team than the year before. We were 6-5 when I did all of that. Last year, we were 9-2. I am more worried about wins than what everyone else thinks of how I played. I’m all about the team.”
That’s exactly what you want your quarterback to say, and Tabary is a studied and prototypical quarterback. He tries to model his game after the play of his idol Peyton Manning. And he got the thrill of his life over the summer when he was invited to participate at the Manning Passing Academy in Thibodeaux.
“I’ve always looked up to that guy [Manning]. I asked him how he changes plays, what does he see, why does he change a play so much. How much film did he watch; how did he prepare before a game and [what was] his off-season preparation. I took a lot of that information and put it into my off-season work. It was really, really helpful.”
The upgrade with the offensive line in sheer numbers and depth will help Tabary stay upright, with more time to operate in the passing game. He has five high-quality running backs who will rotate and give him interesting options in the running and passing game. The return of All SLC tight end LaWayne Ross is a huge plus, as he averaged over 13 yards a catch last year.
The offense lost its top three receivers in Kent Shelby, Darious Crawley and Tavarious Battiste. They are all deep threats and have a ton of catches and yards. Tabary, who is adjusting to new receivers, noted they are doing well and are “willing to listen and learn.”
The offense led by Tabary may look a little different this season because they won’t be able to stretch the field as much, but that’s where the running backs come in. “We need to get those guys the ball: Ryan Ross, Justin Pratt, David Hamm, who is all conference. We need to get those guys the ball because they are big-time play-makers. They will open up the passing game and make it a lot easier.”
Tabary has a strong, accurate arm. He is a natural leader and commands the huddle well. He is respected by his teammates for the way he has built relationships across all positions and players. Tabary is a regular, running extra sprints with running backs and receivers after practice. Senior, All SLC quarterbacks don’t have to do that, but Tabary does.
Areas that need improvement are his pocket presence, footwork and ability to avoid sacks. Another is his passing completion percentage, which was 60 percent in 2016, but fell off a bit last year to 56 percent. The move of assistant coach and McNeese Hall of Fame quarterback Kerry Joseph to Tabary’s position coach will affect many aspects of the passer’s game.
“It’s awesome — him playing the position so long. From a player’s intel. What to look for, how to react and lead these guys in a right way. He has shown me how to break down defenses; stuff I have not learned before. It’s absolutely amazing.”
The story line with the all-important offensive line is numbers.
During spring drills, the Cowboys barely had enough healthy linemen to practice. When August camp opened, there were upwards of 18 linemen rotating in and out of drills. Four starters will return, with a few coming back after earning some valuable experience.
Junior guard Grant Burguillos is getting a lot of the preseason press. He will be flanked by a trio of proven linemen who will anchor the front five. “Grant has played in a lot of games,” offensive coordinator Landon Hoefer explained. Jimmy Converse and Kyle Zenon have played in a lot of games, and we have faith in them. We are pretty familiar with Joe Latronico at the center position and his ability to communicate the line calls. Tyrae Johnson has also played a lot of snaps. So what these guys built of the spring was toughness because of the shortage in numbers.”
New linemen Tre Newton and Zack Jones are getting plugged in. And according to Hoefer, they are figuring out what the new guys can do and are good at.
The O-Line helped the offense to a 173-yard rushing average last year, and more than 400 yards in total offense per game. That, coupled with more than 33 minutes in time of possession, had the offense in a solid position.
The key up front is keeping your star linemen healthy and having enough depth to platoon groups of players in and out to keep them fresh and ready for the fourth quarter. “[We have] the depth, and the biggest thing it brings us right now is competition at every position,” said Hoefer.
The Cowboys have three skilled offensive players on the preseason All SLC team, along with Burguillos. Tabary, running back David Hamm and tight end LaWayne Ross cannot succeed without an offensive line that can both run and pass block — and most of all, one that has enough talent to call up when injuries occur. And invariably, injury is always in the equation when it comes to the offensive line over the course of a long season.
Like clockwork, ever so often, McNeese finds itself with a treasure trove of running backs. This is one of those years.
Preseason All SLC tailback David Hamm returns for what could be a break-out junior season. Hamm led the Pokes in rushing in 2017 with 805 yards off of 152 carries for a 5.3-yard average to go with six touchdowns.
At 6 feet, 225 pounds, Hamm is a strong inside runner with enough speed to bounce it outside. He’s shown he is capable in the passing game.
With the loss of those three experienced receivers and the offense having to break in new starters at wideout, it appears the Cowboys will lean on the run game a bit more, particularly early in the season. Ball control is the goal, as is increased time of possession and spreading those hand-offs around.
“We are going to do everything in our power to execute this offense better than last year. Obviously. we are going to run the ball more; use the talents of J.T. [quarterback James Tabary] and the offensive line, with their power and skill sets,” said Hamm.
The Cowboys rushed for 1,906 yards last season for a 173 yard per game average. The total is more than 400 compared to that of 2016, which had only a 137 yard average. That’s a pretty solid increase; it helped in controlling the clock and keeping one of the nation’s top defenses well rested last year.
This crowded backfield includes junior scat back Justin Pratt, who ran for 663 yards and three touchdowns. This 5-foot, 7-inch, 205-pound dynamo is a treat to watch. Count how many tackles he breaks with those powerful legs and his low center of gravity.
Senior Ryan Ross returns to the line-up after missing all of last year with a broken ankle suffered in the previous spring. He brings a lot of experience, pass-catching skills, breakaway ability and a highly motivated mindset after sitting out 2017.
Benjamin Jones returns for his senior campaign. He should also be amped up to show what he can do with a few more carries. Jones is the fastest of the running backs, and will be an interesting option to Hamm and Pratt’s power game.
Rounding out this fivesome of running backs is redshirt freshman Mac Briscoe: tall, lean and quick; standing 6 feet and weighing 175 pounds.
Hamm is happy to have all that company in the backfield, and isn’t concerned that there is still only one football on the field. He says his running mates are all aligned with a singlemindedness to become the backbone of the offense and put the team first over any individual goals.
He points to the need of the offense to set the tone early in games with an aggressive ground game. “We have to attack from the start. We can’t get behind and then try to come back at the end of games. We have to start fast. That’s our key this year — is to start fast and end strong.”
The Klein, Texas, native is one of four Cowboys on the All SLC preseason first team. It’s an honor he admits is based on last year’s performance. But he will use it as motivation for this season. “I have to work harder now because nothing was handed to me. I worked my way up the ranks, but at the same time, I have something to prove every day. As a leader, I have to act like a walk-on.”
The challenge of spreading the ball around among all the running backs, receivers and tight ends will go to offensive coordinator Landon Hoefer. Now in his third year of guiding the offense, Hoefer says he is fulfilling his promise to put the best offensive personnel on the field to make plays. That means it could be three receivers, one tight end and two running backs; or two receivers and two running backs.
Hoefer and co-offensive coordinator Kerry Joseph will have the luxury of five different and unique running backs to build schemes around and plug into specific game situations. “What I am hoping we can do is specialize more and get guys into certain roles where they are really good at certain things. Maybe we emphasize having a third-down back and then having more first- and second-down backs and short-yardage backs — specific roles they can focus on and get really good at.”
That approach worked well in the early 2000s with fullback Luke Lawton as the short yardage go-to back who scored 31 touchdowns over three years.
One thing is clear: Hoefer won’t have to look very far to find a running back eager to get that one football in his hands as much as possible.
RECEIVERS / TIGHT ENDS
At the risk of repeating a key point, this returning offense lost its top three wide receivers. So to say the positions are wide open is an understatement.
Upwards of 12 receivers are competing for snaps, passes, attention and any opportunity to make a play and separate themselves from the pack. “Reps are hard to find right now,” said offensive coordinator Landon Hoefer, who has moved over to coach the receivers as well as allowing Kerry Joseph to focus solely on coaching the quarterbacks. “The guys are not getting as many reps as I would like because there are so many guys I want to look at.”
Junior Parker Orgeron has the most game experience among all returning receivers. In 2017, Orgeron, the son of LSU head coach Ed Orgeron, caught 23 passes for 250 yards and four touchdowns. He did suffer two concussions last season, leading to two missed games. With that in mind, Orgeron is playing sparingly in training with little to no contact.
The coaching staff knows what No. 19 can do, so they have focused their attention on the posse of other receivers, like sophomore Cyron Sutton, seniors Kylon Highshaw and Tre Roberts, and redshirt freshman Nate Briscoe, to name a few. There is no shortage of gumption and competition, which is exactly what this position group needs.
“It’s a great group, and they are competing against each other, and that’s all we are worried about right now,” Hoefer said.
In today’s Southland Conference, the better teams can gain chucks of yards, airing the ball downfield with hopes of big plays. The Cowboys had decent deep threats last season. But can they find a receiver to stretch the field in the vertical passing game? “I do think we have guys that can go deep (Sutton and Briscoe),” said Guidry. “I’m not saying they are like Batiste and Crawley from last year. But if we can run the ball, it will open up the play action pass, which will give us chances downfield.”
Every offense with spark and spunk seems to have a shifty possession-type receiver who can catch in traffic and run those underneath routes a la Julian Edelman and Wes Welker of the New England Patriots.
McNeese seems to have found a guy who fits that mold and prototype. Sophomore Trevor Begue, out of Lafayette’s St. Thomas More, has been all the rage so far in camp for his circus-like catches; his skill at getting open; or just for snagging balls when he’s draped in coverage. At 5 feet, 11 inches, 185 pounds, you might pass him on campus without the words “college receiver” ever coming to mind. But Begue is strong off the line and possesses a knack and resourcefulness he can use to find open spots in the secondary.
It’s easy to see his forte is route running and catching the football: two things high on any receiver’s list of must-haves. “He is the definition of what we are looking for in a receiver,” Hoefer said, with a gleam in his eyes. “He competes, and that overrides everything else. Everything is not always perfect (during an offensive play), but if you just fight for everything and compete, a lot of times it will work out. Trevor has displayed that better than anyone on the entire offensive unit.”
Catching passes is a critical part of wide receivers’ jobs. But so is blocking in space and breaking off routes to help the quarterback. One area the receivers have to improve on is creating separation from defenders and giving Tabary a target and window to throw to.
Tabary won’t have any trouble finding his returning tight end as a target upfield.
Junior LaWayne Ross, at 6 feet, 275 pounds, is hard to miss on any route. Last year, Ross’ route running improved greatly, resulting in open space and significant yards after the catch. The former running back turned tight end turned in a near-record-breaking season in 2017 with 42 catches for 570 yards. Those 42 receptions were second most in a single season in school history.
Ross, a first team preseason All SLC pick, has sure hands, nifty feet and enough power and speed to give opposing defensive coordinators headaches. Tabary couldn’t help but break into a wide grin when he was asked about his all conference tight end. “He’s awesome and a unique guy. Not too many guys can move at that size. He is like a big bear, but can dance like a ballerina. It’s unreal. We also have Austin Nelson back (who missed 2017 with an injury) to give Ross a break, so it’s great to have him back.”
This unit lost four starters from last season; all were consistent and productive defensive linemen. But I get the impression Lance Guidry is pretty confident in the D.L. talent he has to work with.
It starts at defensive end with former Barbe star Chris Livings, who’s back after missing much of the season with a broken wrist. Sophomore Cody Roscoe appears to be the frontrunner at the other D.E. spot. Christian Robinson and Jonta Jones, a couple of juniors who played some in 2017, will help man the interior.
A redshirt freshman tackle is turning heads in camp. He has a stranglehold on that much sought after DWA starting defensive jersey. No. 97 Cameron Peterson is a towering presence on the front line at 6 feet, 5 inches, 270 pounds. And he can move.
He will give the Cowboys good size and strength to battle 325-pound offensive linemen.
Outside of Livings, though, this defensive line lacks game experience, which will come soon enough. “There is nothing like game experience,” said Guidry. “You can practice all you want, but until you get into a game and do it, that’s a whole new experience.”
Livings says his time away from the game with that injury got his mind right and he is back more focused and motivated. The success of the line will hinge on his ability to put pressure on the quarterback and create disruption. “It’s great to get the sack. But just get in the quarterback’s face and deteriorate his focus and get our defensive backs in a better position to get a turnover.”
What this defense lacks in size at certain positions they make up for with speed. And that applies to Livings at 210 pounds. He relies on his quickness, his ability to establish good leverage and his flexibility to get by bigger, stronger offensive tackles; those things and a healthy dose of “grit.”
The worry is having a 300-pound lineman put his paws on the outside rushers and shove them to the ground or so far wide they are out of the play completely.
The Cowboys’ defense from 2017 set the bar high with national defensive rankings that led the SLC in upwards of 10 categories. It could very well have been one of the top McNeese defenses in recent memory.
The defensive line was an integral part of that success. It was a level of execution Livings says this year’s defense can match. And that begins between the ears. “[It’s about] knowing what we are doing and preparing for games. A lot of these guys played on last year’s defense. So they know what coach Guidry expects, and he demands a lot of us every day, from on the field to the meeting room. I think we are going to be great on defense.”
When you review any team and make projections for it, you try to dissect the talent and experience on the roster, and not what was lost from the prior year. That’s a challenge when you notice a defensive leader like linebacker Ashari Goins is not in the building and on the field.
Goins was a mainstay and three-year starter. He led the defense in tackles last year, along with eight and a half stops for losses and four sacks.
Those numbers can be replaced, but it will be hard to fill the leadership void and that nonstop motor.
In the Cowboys’ 4-2-5 defense, the two linebackers fill run gaps, drop back into coverage and run from sideline to sideline. Technique and proper positioning are paramount.
Senior Christian Jacobs missed all but two games last year because of injury. So he has some catching up to do. Senior Tré Porter had nine starts to go with solid reps in 2016. Former Barbe standout Khoury Kraus will need to step up, along with sophomore Andrew Hyacinth.
B.J. Blunt is back for his senior season after being converted from a hard-hitting safety to linebacker. Blunt, along with junior Marcus Foster, may be the best of the bunch when camp ends. A fast-talking, confident New Orleans native, Blunt is a loud, boisterous, emotional leader of the defense. His 43 tackles and nine and a half stops for lost yardage earned him first team preseason All SLC honors. At 6 feet, 1 inch, 210 pounds, he is a safety wrapped in a linebacker jersey. His tone and confidence will help him move up into the second tier of the defense.
He points to sacks and red zone defense as two of the most important defensive measures. And he doesn’t back down from comparisons to last year’s stifling defense, which he was a part of. “Let’s do better than last year. Most definitely. Being No. 1 in defense and all the good things we accomplished, we [still] didn’t get into the playoffs. So it’s always, let’s do better. We lost. We need to go 11-0,” Blunt said quite bluntly.
In the iconic boxing movie Rocky II, veteran trainer Mickey yells at boxer Rocky Balboa that what they need is “demon speed. Speed’s what we need. We need greasy fast speed.”
In a way, head coach and defensive coordinator Lance Guidry is getting more like Mickey every year. He preaches about the need for more speed, and how with every passing season, his defense appears to have more speed — especially in the secondary, where Guidry’s true defensive acumen lies.
Guidry loves speed across his entire defense because he knows their lack of size and brute force in many positions has to be compensated for with quickness. But it’s in the defensive backfield where speed from the safeties and cornerbacks is a prerequisite. This year, Guidry says, secondary speed will make the squad even better than the 2017 version.
He notes that safety Gabe Foster is a “track kid; a 200-meter guy.” Trent Jackson returns with the most experience, and is faster than last year’s starter Andre Fuller. The back-up free safety is Andre Sam, a converted receiver who can run, says Guidry. And when it comes to safety Jovon Burris, a junior college transfer and new to the program, Guidry could barely find enough compliments after taking a deep breath and saying, “he’s really good.”
Jackson, the elder safety, is aware this defense has had issues with giving up big, explosive plays in the past. But in this camp, his running mates are dialed in on their fundamentals and spot-on communication. “We have a lot of speed this year. Guys know what they’re doing. They’re buying in and spending extra time in the film room and paying attention to what we are doing. Everyone is working like everything is on the line.”
And it is when it comes to how defensive secondaries match up and cover opposing offenses who are content to throw the ball all over the field using four to five receivers on any given play.
Guidry would like to run more man coverage this season now that his DBs are faster than last season’s. But in man on man, one misstep can be the difference between an incompletion and a quick 6. “We like man. We like to run. We like our one on ones. [We] take our chances. We believe we are going to go get it. We have Gabe Foster at deep safety, and he can cover both sides of the field.”
Two cornerbacks return with a load of reps and game experience. Darion Dunn, out of Oakdale, made second team preseason All SLC with only two starts last year. At 6 feet, 1 inch, 180 pounds, he has good size and the speed to cover.
Junior Colby Burton is also second team preseason All SLC, with action in all 11 games in 2017 and eight starts at corner. Burton admitted that more press man coverage is a challenge, but said coach Guidry is making them “technicians” at the corners.
Mistakes in coverages will undoubtedly happen; the key is when and how bad of a glitch it is, keeping down and distance in mind. Giving up 8 yards on 3rd and 7 is manageable. Allowing a 30-yard gain on a busted assignment when it’s 2nd and 10 can be a back breaker.
Burton says you mitigate those type of plays well before the ball is even snapped. “It’s all pre-snap … all pre-snap. It’s all mental. Every rep, you have to win that one rep. If that’s your mindset, to win that one rep and not worry about the next play or the play before that, then you have a chance; big plays if they catch the ball, then we tackle and play the next play.”
There is much-needed depth in the secondary at both safety and cornerback. Some will have to grow up quickly. All better be in great shape, with two high-altitude games early on the schedule at Northern Colorado and BYU in Ogden, Utah. The prospect of two mountain games in the thin air over a three-week span doesn’t seem to bother Burton. “I’ve never been out of the state of Louisiana or Texas before, so it’s just mental to me. That’s the way it works.”
The back half of this defense will need to play very well for any shot at championship contention. Rivals like Nicholls State and Southeastern Louisiana return very talented quarterbacks, and equally skilled and productive big yardage receivers. There will be a number of conference match-ups against new head coaches and new offensive coordinators who will rely heavy on the spread offense and putting the ball in the air. That’s added pressure on a McNeese secondary that seems to have greased lightning speed.
If preseason honors mean anything, then the Cowboys have the best place kicker and punter in the conference, which may end up deciding some close games.
Kicker Gunnar Raborn picked up All America and preseason All SLC nods already. Senior punter Alex Kjellsten, out of St. Louis High school, was also named to the All SLC preseason first team.
Raborn was successful on 12 of 13 field goals and 27 of 28 extra point kicks last season. He is consistent inside 40 yards, and has proved he has enough leg, nailing a 52-yard field goal against Lamar.
Kjellsten ranked fifth in the SLC in 2017 with a 40-yard average. He booted 22 punts inside the 20-yard line and had seven kicks that went 50 yards or longer.
Special teams coach Dennis Smith has two of the best legs in the Southland at his disposal. But he knows they are only as good as his coverage schemes and blocking.
THE REST OF THE STORY …
The third year any coaching staff leads a program is always telling and critical. Guidry enters his third year having flirted with an assistant coaching job offer from Florida State over the off-season. He chose to return to McNeese, which should show his assistant coaches and players how committed he is to his alma mater.
He is an extraordinary defensive-minded coach who communicates with passion and emotion. He is fiery but organized, and gets his team to play hard and fast.
After going 6-5 in his debut season, Guidry led an improvement to 9-2 in 2017, but missed the playoffs. McNeese was possibly the only 9-2 team ever to be left home from post-season play since the FCS went to the playoff format.
This year’s 11-game schedule doesn’t include a Division II Florida Tech, which was a drag on McNeese’s overall RPI ranking. Guidry likes the way this schedule is laid out. It opens at Northern Colorado, which is located an hour north of Denver and plays out of the FCS Big Sky conference. U-NC went 3-7 last year and was 2-6 in conference play.
The Pokes open SLC play with Nicholls State again. That team scored a crushing 37-35 win in Thibodaux in last year’s season opener, which pretty much kept the Cowboys out of the playoffs. Guidry says he doesn’t have to remind the team about last season and the importance of this match-up. “It’s a big game for us and a big game for them. We will have to play better than we did last year, especially in the red zone.”
McNeese will be able to boost the budget on Sept. 22 at Brigham Young, their first FBS big guaranteed money game since that weather-shortened LSU match-up in 2015. If the Cowboys get off to a solid 3-0 start, they just might have the confidence and momentum to push the Cougars with a close game into the fourth quarter with a shot a pulling out an upset.
Once the conference kicks in full time, everything is up for grabs. Sam Houston, with 18 starters back, is again the obvious choice as the team to beat. The BearKats have led the FCS in total offense for the past three years. But record-setting quarterback Jeremiah Briscoe is gone, and the untested next man up is still unknown.
Defending SLC champion Central Arkansas is another club replacing an established quarterback. So the Bears will depend on a stout defense.
Nicholls State will return 18 starters — none more important than senior quarterback Chase Fourcade and star receiver Damion Jeanpierre. The Colonels will also man excellent offensive and defensive lines.
Five SLC teams will have new head coaches in 2018: Stephen F. Austin, Southeastern La., Northwestern State, Incarnate Word and Central Arkansas. Most, if not all, will have new offensive and defensive coordinators, so new look schemes will be the norm this season.
McNeese’s Guidry has not backed away from his bold statement that his goal is to win the Southland Conference championship and contend for the FCS national title.
The keys for the Cowboys in 2018 will be the offensive line’s ability to give James Tabary enough time to connect with young receivers, who have to get open and make the tough catches in tight coverage. Defensively, McNeese’s front six should be solid, so the onus falls on the secondary to play Guidry’s beloved man coverage, tackle in space, force more turnovers and avoid the rash of chunk plays for big gains.
This team will have an edge and an attitude about missing the playoffs for the second straight year. If they are good enough for post-season this fall, Guidry might just get that playoff run of victories he so desperately wants for the Cowboys.