Rick Sarro Thursday, March 5, 2015 0

You’ve heard the sporting phrase ”win now.” It no longer applies to just professional ranks. In the college games, coaches and administrators, like it or not, have adopted that mantra and own the philosophy of “eye toward the future but win now while going there.”
McNeese head football coach Matt Viator has stated on many occasions that he changed or “loosened” his way of thinking about automatically redshirting freshmen players. Now if he sees a rookie talent that can help his team win, bolster his depth and fill a specific position void, Viator will clear the path for a freshman to compete and play.
That wasn’t always the case.
A few seasons ago, the Cowboys’ offensive backfield and defensive secondary were decimated with injuries and Viator ran short of bodies. Mid- to late-season, there was no one with any appreciable experience to call on as players were dropping like flies.
Viator can never be described as old school, stuck in his ways or stubborn to change. He saw that his way of redshirting rookies was shorting an already limited roster number, so he changed his protocol and opened his mind to playing freshmen.
By the season finale against Lamar last year, two true freshmen were in the starting line-up: tailback Ryan Ross and safety Dominique Hill. Several more freshmen contributed throughout the season.
FBS programs like LSU, Alabama, Texas, Florida, Florida State, Ohio State, Oregon — the list goes on —have been playing top flight freshmen for years now even though their scholarship numbers far exceed those of McNeese and the rest of the FCS.
It’s the norm now, and it affects the way teams recruit. Coaches are more apt to tell a graduating high school star that if he’s good enough, he will truly get an opportunity to play, or even crack the starting line-up, and not be blowing smoke.
McNeese is fresh off national signing day, and Viator wasn’t holding back early projections that a few of his 2015 recruiting class may be in the mix this August.
Topping that list are two local signees in defensive end Brandon Blackwell from Hamilton Christian and Barbe linebacker Khoury Kraus.
Viator calls the 6-foot, 4-inch, 220-pound Blackwell a “legit” speed pass rusher off the edge. His length and athleticism draw hefty praise. Viator is already thinking of how Blackwell can put on weight and keep his speed and quickness.
Kraus is a 6-foot, 2-inch, 225-pound “tackling machine” that the Cowboys have had on their radar since he began coming to Viator’s prep camps several years ago. “I just love that kid, and have been on him for a while,” says Viator. “It’s just a matter of where he plays. Khoury was a linebacker at Barbe, but with the spread offense, where does his skills translate here? I love his toughness. It’s not how tough you are, but how long you can be tough. He walks out there, and it’s 90 mph the whole time.”
Barbe defensive end Chris Livings, the younger brother of former LSU and NFL offensive lineman Nate Livings, will get long looks this August as well. At 6 feet, 2 inches, 210 pounds, he’s a first-team 5A All State performer who set a single season school record at Barbe with 12 sacks last season, along with 18 tackles for a loss, four forced fumbles, five fumble recoveries and 77 tackles.
You can never have too many skilled defensive backs, so expect McNeese to spotlight defensive back Petey Butler, a 5-foot, 10-inch. 175-pounder out of Neville High School and 6-foot, 2-inch, 180-pound Trent Jackson from Evangel Christian.
When Viator and his offensive coaching staff roll tape on Lawayne Ross out of Richwood, Texas, eyes widen and jaws drop, as viewers watch the 6-foot, 250-pound running back. If the last name rings a bell, be aware he’s the younger but much bigger brother of current Cowboys tailback Ryan Ross.
The coaches marvel at his size and speed, along with his ability to catch balls. (He had 23 receptions and averaged 13 yards per catch over his season.) Viator admits, “he will not be able to stay at that weight, but stay in the 240 range to remain as effective as he is. He is a big kid.”
The Cowboys are stacked at running back, with Ross returning as a sophomore, along with three returning talented seniors in Kelvin Bennett, Derrick Milton and bruiser Dylan Long. The younger Lawayne Ross may end up wearing red in 2015, but you never know.
Freshman long snapper Grant Merka is the only incoming rookie already assured of a starting position, as he replaces the graduating Hunter Romero, who held the job for four years. Deep snappers have to be ready to go from day one.
Two more local products will give Viator options at tight end. Mason Knighton is a 6-foot, 2-inch, 230-pounder from Sam Houston who’s also listed at defensive end. And then there’s Sulphur High School’s Austin Nelson, who played some as a freshman and went full-time football as a senior. In between, Nelson was strictly a baseball player, but shoulder and arm injuries ended his pitching career, prompting him to ask Tors head coach Jeff Wainwright if he had an extra set of cleats and shoulder pads.
He impressed Viator and the Cowboys staff enough with only a year’s worth of football tape. The “6-foot, 3-inch, 240-pound guys are hard to get. They just are,” says Viator.
McNeese signed 20 freshmen recruits, along with one notable transfer. Isaiah Golden is now officially and finally listed on the Cowboys’ roster. His move, transfer and signing with McNeese has taken over a year, with more than a few obstacles to overcome.
Golden, a former 4 Star recruit from Carthage, Texas, first signed with Texas A&M and started six games for the Aggies as a true freshman in 2013 as a 6-foot, 2-inch, 300-pound defensive tackle. He played well in 11 games, accounting for 30 tackles and three stops for losses.
He had trouble staying out of trouble, though. A February, 2014, arrest for marijuana possession led to a more serious arrest for aggravated robbery in May of last year. In June of 2014, Texas A&M head coach Kevin Sumlin dismissed Golden and teammate and accomplice Darian Claiborne.
Before the 2014 season, Golden approached Viator about a transfer and his desire to join the Cowboys in time for August camp, with hopes of playing in the season.
Viator decided against that move, maybe thinking Golden needed more time to mature and distance himself from the legal issues in College Station. Golden could have shopped his talents and eligibility around to other FCS or even larger FBS teams, but instead he decided to remain in Southwest Louisiana for football and personal reasons.
Obviously, Viator was duly impressed, and opted to officially sign him for the 2015 season. Golden’s arrest and past legal problems are heavy baggage, and will take time for him to shed. But Viator will give a young player a second chance if he proves deserving and willing to put in the needed work.
The former Aggie has a golden opportunity to change a troubled past, rehab a tarnished reputation, find a home and his place on a football team that both wants and needs him.
The Cowboys are rebuilding a defensive line with only one starter returning in defensive end Brian Hine. There is D-Line depth coming up from the ranks, but with limited experience.
This recruiting class will be inclined to fill line-up spots in two to three years. Their resumes include speed, height, length and more speed, which is always high on Viator’s wish list. “We need the speed. We need guys who can rush the quarterback. We need guys who can get up the field against these spread teams and make the quarterback throw it before he wants to or make him step to his left or right.”
These taller, rangier and faster defenders must work in “space” against offenses who will spread the field and force man-to-man match-ups. The need is to find defensive players who can play man, cover and tackle in wide open spaces, according to Viator. Like basketball, it’s a game of spacing and being able to match up defensively. You can’t expect to give up big chunks of yardage.
No quarterbacks were signed this fall, and for good reason. “Next year’s class is stronger quarterback-wise, and we feel we will be able to get a better player next year,” says Viator. “Without a doubt, next year’s class of quarterbacks are better.”
One challenge is that McNeese has three senior quarterbacks sitting on the roster, and all expect to compete for the starting job or get significant reps. The list includes part-time starters Daniel Sams and Tyler Bolfing, along with back-up Will Briscoe.
Talented, hotshot quarterbacks coming out of high school nowadays believe the future is now for them, says Viator. “You go recruit the better quarterbacks right now, and they think they are supposed to play tomorrow. That’s what they think, and the first thing they want to do is look at the depth chart.”
With three seniors anxious to go back to work this March in spring drills, there was no need to waste anyone’s time in trying to lure a quality quarterback this fall.
When Viator and his staff hit the recruiting trails, their message remains consistent and relevant. They want a “chance to win every time you step on the field.” The Cowboys have won twice as many Southland Conference titles as any team in the league, and Viator is quick to note McNeese has won more games since 1990 than “any other team in Louisiana — and that includes LSU.”
The off-the-field intangibles are what Viator really tries to impress on recruits. He says “the glass is half full” here, and the positives are many. “It’s a great place to go to school and love the town. I do love Lake Charles and the area. The best selling point is that we have great people here. They support football and McNeese, and I sell that.”
Selling and recruiting cost money, and with constant athletic budget cuts, Viator says he has had to be “creative and learn to do more with a little less.”
It’s obvious that with the state budget’s $1.6 billion shortfall, higher education will be slashed again, and athletic department finances will be reduced again. McNeese Athletic Director Bruce Hemphill, still on medical leave while he recuperates from cancer treatment, has had to lean on more private donors and fund-raising efforts to help fill some of that void.
The effects on recruiting are not evident to the prospects or in plain view of others, but they’re there just the same. “We did not bring in as many guys (recruits),” says Viator. “You can bring in 56 players (for on-campus visits), but I promise you we did not come anywhere close to that. We have to get more specific in who we want to bring in. We have to get in the car and go look at them. We signed 20 high school kids, but we probably only had 23 or 24 come to visit.”
Limiting on-campus visits saves money. Targeting players the staff really wants and needs to see and recruit saves money. Signing local talent saves money.
“I’ve had to do a lot more privately (the aforementioned private, individual donors) — a lot more the last three or four years. A lot more fundraising. We pretty much spent the whole summer doing that. But we’re fortunate in this area that people want to help us.”
Recruit players that can help win now. Build a program that can sustain a consistent level of success but also win now. Lure transfers for that quick jolt of talent because everyone else is doing it and winning now. (See Southeastern Louisiana and Sam Houston State.)
Do all that with less money and a more impatient fan base.
That’s the present and future of college sports.
Get Rick Sarro’s perspectives on sports on Soundoff 60, which airs Monday through Sunday nights at 9 pm on Suddenlink Channel 60 and Saturday and Sunday mornings at 10 am as well.