Rick Sarro Thursday, April 2, 2015 Comments Off on FIRST LEG OF THE JOURNEY

There are more than a few parts of a college football year; from the off-season, to the heavy load of recruiting and signing players, scheduled weight room work, unsupervised players-only practice and then preseason August camp.

The first true leg of real preparation for the season is spring practice, which the McNeese Cowboys recently began.

Head coach Matt Viator has upwards of 10 returning offensive starters and 7 defensive returnees ready to get back to work.

Viator and the staff have a depth chart penciled in; they have a pretty good notion who will start where come September, when they head to Baton Rouge to open the 2015 season against the LSU Tigers. Spring always poses the biggest questions as to where the depth behind the starters comes from, and who can contribute where on the roster.

“Spring is about trying to establish some depth, first and foremost,” explained Viator. “Seeing if the young guys who redshirted last year, or the ones who didn’t play much, are ready to step in and see more playing time. We also want to see if the guys who started or played a lot last season have improved, and where they are.”

With the season opener still months off in the distance, human nature might be to dial it down when it comes to speed and effort. That’s the exact opposite of what the guys manning the whistles are looking for.   Spring practice is a gauge for a player’s willingness to work, and a way to find out just who will be ready mentally and physically in September.

“We’ve always used the spring to compete. I’m big on that, and on trying to put kids in competitive situations. It creates toughness in your football team. We go a lot of ones-against-ones (first-team offense vs. first-team defense) and twos-against-twos,” Viator says.

The player count will be nearly 100-percent, minus wide receiver Kent Shelby and defensive back Jalen James, who are both still recovering from knee injuries suffered last season.

As is always the case, a lot of media and fan attention will be focused on the quarterbacks, and the competition for the starting job between Daniel Sams, Tyler Bolfing or Will Briscoe. That’s the critical position, of course, but probably more pressing for Viator and his defensive coaches is filling three holes on the defensive line.

Mainstay starters Everett Ellefsen, at defensive end, and tackles Sean Brown and Kevin Dorn, have graduated, with only senior defensive end Brian Hine coming back. A number of D-linemen picked up valuable experience last year; but are they ready to man up as starters?

“We have some guys who played significant snaps, but we need those guys to take the next step. We have Isaiah Golden (Texas A&M transfer), and need to see where he can fit in. We have more depth than we have had in years past, but they are unproven to a certain extent,” says Viator.

Golden will be an interesting story this spring. His path from College Station and the FBS ranks to McNeese has been well documented. He burst on the scene, starting six games for the Aggies in 2013; but an arrest on burglary charges, marijuana possession and violation of team rules forced A&M head coach Kevin Sumlin to remove Golden from the program.

The 6-feet, 2-inch, 310-pound former four-star recruit out of Carthage, Texas, traveled east to Lake Charles, and secured a transfer from Viator. Golden is an intriguing talent in a position that is very hard to recruit. It’s difficult to find the mixture of size, speed and skills you need at defensive tackle. Golden obviously comes with a history and baggage, but has stuck around Lake Charles to repair his reputation and rebuild his football career.

“It’s been a while since (Golden) has played football, and you can’t discount that,” says Viator. “He will be rusty, for sure. When he takes the field for us, it will be the first time in 15-16 months that he has played football. Watching him in the off season — the physical abilities and the rest — he looks the part. I’m excited to see how he can make our football team better.”

Viator’s excitement is tempered by the realities of the situation. Golden has had a troubling amount of off-the-field issues, and has been away from the trenches of competitive football for a year and a half.  He’s laid low in the Lake Charles area, stayed in shape, and has established a relationship with the coaching staff since he first knocked on their doors last June.

“I’m cautiously optimistic, I guess,” says Viator. “I obviously know him, and have established a relationship with him since he came here. He is doing the things he needs to do. I think it’s a work in progress, and a  process we are going to go through. So far, so good. He has always been very, very respectful to me, dating back to last June, when I first met him. I think he wants to get another shot, at least that’s what he says. It’s only been two months since he has enrolled. So far, he’s been good.”

Golden has the skills and size to lock down a starter’s position. If he can build on his early success and the promise he showed at Texas A&M, he could be a force on the Cowboys defensive line for years to come.

The depth question comes into play at linebacker, as well, but Ashari Goins played well in lengthy stretches from mid-season on as a freshman. Bo Brown and Wallace Scott return for their senior seasons. Expect more talent to rise from the redshirt ranks.

Viator jokes that he lost only two star starters from his entire roster, but one happened to be a national All-American, and the other a perennial All-Southland Conference performer.

The All-American was left tackle Antoine Everett, from the offensive line, and the All-SLC was safety Aaron Sam, from the defensive backfield.

Four starters return to the O-line, which has solid depth, as well. The O-line will be led by new offensive line coach and former Cowboy Eman Naghavi. Naghavi takes over from Rob Sale, who accepted the offensive line coach’s job at Georgia during the off season.

Viator praised Sale for his experience and teaching skills. The fact that another Cowboys assistant coach is making the leap to the FBS level and the SEC is a testament to Viator and the McNeese program.

Sale, who also spent time at LSU (as both player and coach) and Alabama, leaves a foundation of talent for Naghavi to work with.

The former McNeese offensive lineman has spent the last few years at Texas, and brings experience at the position, along with a growing coaching resume.

“More than with any of the other assistant coaching positions, I really like to hire O-Line coaches who have played the position,” says Viator. That playing experience is not so critical in other positions, but it really is for the offensive line. They are a unique group, and very close knit. It’s better to have one of their own, like Eman, as their coach.”

Besides the question of depth, rebuilding the defensive line, and finding someone capable of filling Aaron Sam’s playing and leadership role, the spring practice will also focus on the quarterbacks — yes, the position every arm chair coach loves to debate and dissect.

There are questions and concerns for the Cowboys.

First off: Will Daniel Sams be fully able to practice and throw during early spring drills, as he is coming off a second thumb ligament surgery? He injured the same thumb on his throwing hand during the Southeastern Louisiana game, which ended his junior season early.

Sams’ progress was hampered after his transfer from Kansas State last summer because of the injured thumb he suffered while playing for the Wildcats. His throwing was limited during last August camp, and it showed, with a low 47-percent completion rate during the season.

Viator admits it’s not as critical to have Sams practice full time this spring as it was last August, because he is now familiar with the playbook, his receivers, the mechanics of getting in and out of plays, and the signals. But, Viator says, “I would love to have him for a full spring.”

Sams’ athletic skill set and his shifty running was evident from play one last season. He led McNeese in rushing, averaging 71 yards per game, which is not a positive in my book. I know the Southland Conference had a number of starting quarterbacks who were mobile, and ran for significant yards. You want a threat at quarterback who can gain positive yards by running, but there is also that increased risk of injury, like the one that brought Sams down.

Bolfing had a higher passing efficiency rate, but was no running threat.

Sams will have to improve his throwing accuracy and his ability to stretch the field in the passing game. According to Viator, the Cowboys “really had no offensive flow in the first half of (last) season.”

The hope is that Sams will be close to 100-percent from day one of spring practice, but if not, there is a one-week gap because of spring break, and he could get more work in over the second split of drills in April.

It is critical that Sams is healthy enough to run the first-team offense in spring, and make improvements in connecting on all the passing routes with different receivers. Bolfing and Briscoe will get snaps. There will be some interest in what sophomore Grant Ashcraft can do at quarterback, as well.

McNeese appears not to have a depth question at running back, but Viator hates to talk about that deep pool, because there have been years where the Cowboys saw nearly every tailback go down with injury.

Senior Kelvin Bennett missed most of last season, with various ailments. So he was a non-factor. Transfer Derrick Milton was sidelined, as well, which opened the door for freshman Ryan Ross, who was impressive over the last half of the season.

Senior Dylan Long is back to add his short yardage and nose for the end zone. Nate Holmes, who missed most of last season with an injury, was moved to receiver from tailback.

Half of the kicking game is changing, since field goal kicker Alex Kjellsten decided to transfer back to LSU. Redshirt Trent Manuel will take over that job, with senior Jean Breaux returning as punter.

It wasn’t that long ago that the Cowboys suffered mounting injuries on offense, which contributed to a late-season slide and three consecutive conference losses that negated any hope of making the FCS playoffs.

Spring is a time to put that 6-5 season behind them, and look to the future — a future with questions, for sure, but with a team ready and anxious to find the answers.


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.

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