McNeese’s first-year head football coach has been on the job a mere four months, and he has been quite busy. But Sterlin Gilbert still finishes every other sentence with “there’s still a lot of work to be done.”
The pecking order started with recruiting, then came the hiring of a completely new coaching staff, which was quickly followed by his first spring practice.
Those 15 practices and scrimmages crammed into 34 days recently culminated with the annual spring game inside Cowboy Stadium, where fans and media alike got their first long look at Gilbert’s work so far and how this football team has changed.
He had to start with altering the culture and laying the foundation and spirit that he believes will be the bedrock of his vision for success.
Senior cornerback Colby Burton, one of the team’s elder leaders, was quick to recite the Cowboys’ new mantra under Gilbert’s direction. “Family and developing relationships outside of the football field. It’s not all about football with him. Building friendships that will last through life. It’s all about building relationships for later in life, because football will end for everybody. That’s one thing he preaches, La Familia, and we are buying in.”
Family, support and trusting teammates; creating a bond beyond the white stripes; academic excellence and accountability … all that sounds like something in a recruiting letter. But Gilbert accepted this job stating those beliefs, and he hasn’t backed away from them.
When the gear went on and it was time to work, it was all about competition at every position and evaluation.
The spring scrimmage demonstrated that this offense won’t waste any time between plays. The offense will have an uptempo philosophy and the defense will be built on technique and physicality. “We were just OK pace-wise. We ended up with a little over 100 plays. From a tempo standpoint; speed standpoint; we have to improve and be faster than that. We turned the ball over too much on offense. We have to take care of the ball. From the defense we created turnovers with some physicality. So that’s a positive,” Gilbert explained.
All the chatter about this new spread, quick-calling offense seems to center on the passing game. But in most, if not all, of the scrimmages over spring, the Cowboys gained more yards on the ground than in the air.
In the spring game, they rushed for 233 yards of their total of 383. The two new Reggie runners, Williams and Francis, flashed some power and speed. The two Briscoes, Mac and Nate, got their heads down for solid runs. And newcomer J’uan Gross looks the part of a big, strong bruiser; he had 29 yards on 8 carries with one touchdown.
“We talk and preach about it every day,” Gilbert said. “Set a tone with physicality on both sides of the ball. Being able to run downhill up front with the running backs.”
I was particularly interested in the quarterbacks, as I usually am, and with this team, it will be a heightened focus.
It’s a three-man race for the starting quarterback’s job; the contestants will be last year’s backup Cody Orgeron, redshirt freshman Cam Smith and junior reserve Matt Keller. All three showed good accuracy at times, stretched plays with mobility and running and found their best receiver options under scrimmage conditions.
But the stats were not eye-popping, with 19 completions out of 32 attempts for 150 yards and two scores. Orgeron, who has been taking most of the snaps with the first team offense, went 5 of 10 for 65 yards along with 39 yards rushing. Smith finished 5 of 8 for 39 yards and a touchdown pass and Keller was 6 of 9 for 38 yards.
Gilbert says all of the quarterbacks “have a lot of room for improvement and [have got to] be better with reads and understanding our schemes and where the ball has to go and how to get it there.”
A working depth chart by position may be formulated after Gilbert and his staff review all the practice tapes and evaluate individual players for specific positions. As far as the all-important quarterback spot goes, it was an open competition and the head coach wasn’t prepared to slot any of the contenders by order just yet.
“All three of those guys (Orgeron, Smith and Keller) did some really good things this spring, and all three bring different things to the table. But from a time frame standpoint, sooner [rather] than later we’ll make that decision.”
Gilbert measures his words very carefully, especially when he’s talking about the quarterback position. It will be his most important personnel decision and one that will be instrumental in the Cowboys’ success rate this season.
He admits Orgeron’s game experience is a plus for him. Smith clearly has the stronger arm and Keller possesses solid passing skills, good size and athleticism.
Orgeron’s football IQ, and his understanding of routes and ability to read defenses, is part of his DNA, his being a coach’s son. (His Dad is LSU head coach Ed Orgeron.) Young Orgeron needs to bulk up over the summer to better withstand the pounding on a game-by-game basis.
Smith has a live arm and good instincts. He is a highly rated recruit out of Delray Beach, Fla., and may just need game reps to build his confidence. Keller is an X factor because of his lack of game snaps. He will need an excellent August camp to move up the QB ranks.
Of course, their ability to run this lightning quick offense will depend on the offensive line, which is rebuilding from last season. Several would-be starters sat out the spring game, so a true picture will have to wait till August.
This West Texas spread offense, which will have tight ends out wide and running backs in pass routes, will open up options for more playmakers to be on the field. The receiver’s position will be without the sure-handed Parker Orgeron, who, after consulting with his father Ed and the family, has decided to end his playing career after five known concussions.
Parker, who is now helping coach the receivers, was an excellent possession type pass catcher with strong hands. Filling those receiver voids will be junior college transfer Davion Curtis, Trevor Begue and youngsters Quincy Cage and Zach Hayes.
Cyron Sutton, returning for his junior season, is expected to be the top receiving weapon and deep threat for the Cowboys.
What Gilbert likes most about his defense is their physical play and penchant for big hits and separating the football.
The defensive line and secondary with the highest rate of returning starters will be the strength of the team as a whole.
Consider the fact that the offense is undergoing a complete system change with new terminology, pace and quarterback. It stands to reason they will have more headwinds.
The defense, under new defensive coordinator Jim Gush, will remain in the 4-2-5 scheme, but with a different approach. “I feel like as a secondary with this defense, we will be able to make a lot more plays,” said Burton.
“[We’ll be] baiting guys to throw the ball, where last year we played a lot more man. Man up and you win your matchup. Blanket coverage the whole game. We have a lot of zone pressures and blitz with a bit more zone.”
McNeese’s defense won’t have the extent of changes experienced by the offense. The defense will have more familiar names and experience to lean on. “You’ve got guys that have played quite a bit, so their experience is obviously beneficial. But that kid is having to undergo a complete new overhaul from a scheme standpoint. I think there are some guys on defense that have played a lot of football that have an opportunity to be really strong,” Gilbert said with conviction.
With the majority of spring practice closed to the media and public, there are many unknowns about the Cowboys of 2019.
Who will be the starting quarterback? Is there enough returning and new talent on the offensive line to make this uptempo offense click? Can they replace three of their top-tier running backs? Will tight end LaWayne Ross return to his All SLC performance of two years ago? Will the defensive line with loads of talent coming back be even better than last year?
Will the secondary improve their coverage with the onslaught on spread offenses in the Southland and cut down on those back-breaking blown plays that gave up big chucks of yards? And can the defense find a replacement for All American linebacker and star play-maker B.J. Blount?
Those are just a few of the questions surrounding the Cowboys coming out of spring. And I didn’t even touch on special teams with kicking and punting.
Gilbert’s game plan began with building a family culture within the walls of the fieldhouse and locker room. Spring gave him his first opportunity for hands-on coaching and evaluating of the players. The off-season will be busy with film reviews, more player analysis, conditioning and preparations for preseason practice.
It won’t be long before August gets here. All those questions will soon be answered.
Rick Sarro’s perspectives and commentary can be heard on Soundoff 60 Monday through Sunday evenings at 9 pm broadcast on channel 4 on Suddenlink.