The McNeese Cowboys’ quarterback duel is over, and the man with the quickest draw won.
Arkansas State transfer James Tabary beat out juniors Grant Ashcraft and Joe Lissard for the job after roughly two weeks of August drills.
This was first-year head coach Lance Guidry’s most important personnel decision to date, and likely for the season, and he did not take it lightly.
“Me and coach [offensive coordinator Landon] Hoefer talked about the quarterback situation in depth,” said Guidry. “Lean on the offensive assistants, as well. I talked to the defense and got their opinions, and all of us were hitting on the same things. So we decided the first game starter would be James Tabary.”
Guidry is a life-long career defensive man. He was an all SLC defensive back for McNeese in his playing days. He has been a secondary coach, defensive coordinator with the Cowboys and at Western Kentucky and is now head coach. But he knows this decision isn’t the same as deciding on a starter at strong safety. “That position (quarterback) is looked at a lot differently.”
The offensive line and secondary, with questions and concerns swirling around new starters and the like, will play critical roles in how this team gets out of the gate. But the quarterback position, and how well Tabary plays, will ultimately decide whether the Cowboys win or lose.
Guidry wouldn’t have opted for Tabary, a sophomore with three years of eligibility, if he couldn’t make all the throws that he can, according to the head coach.
Tabary’s quick release and passing accuracy put him over the top. But Guidry’s reasoning that his new quarterback has more upside for improvement after only a few short weeks in the system stood out to me as the foundation for the decision.
“The difference is James has only been doing this (working the offense) for 16 practices, while the other quarterbacks had all spring. James, with only 16 practices, showed us a lot of things, and he will only get better.”
Arm strength, lightning-fast release, his abilities to be a good decision-maker and make a quick study of the offense and a big upside for game-by-game improvement are what separated Tabary from the competition. The goal of grading higher after each game will be important for the new quarterback as the games get tougher and the stakes higher.
“I’m a pocket passer that can manage a game really well,” Tabary stressed. “I’m not a running quarterback, but if needed, I will get you a first down. I always get my mental preparation right. The physical stuff comes, but you have to prepare yourself mentally.”
That mental preparation began soon after Tabary transferred from Arkansas State back in April. Guidry admitted he wasn’t seeking or expecting a quarterback transfer, but that changed when Tabary made himself available as a sophomore with three years to play at the FCS level. When the transfer was complete, Tabary went to work in the film room, and has been logging hours ever since.
The New Orleans native and former Holy Cross High All State quarterback brought valuable experience with him from Arkansas State, where he started three games as a freshman and garnered enough snaps to complete 65 of 105 passes for 788 yards and four touchdowns.
That’s more real game reps than all of McNeese’s other quarterbacks combined.
“It helps me because I know game tempo and have been in game-like situations,” Tabary said. “It always goes back to experience and film work. I can check out of plays and make decisions against the defense. I’ve always done that and that will be expected here.”
“We were able to see on film he was a talented kid and won some games already as a starter in FBS football,” Guidry said of Tabary.
Guidry let it be known that during spring and going into August drills, the starting QB job was Ashcraft’s to lose. At the same time, it was going to be an open and spirited competition. Ashcraft, an imposing 6-foot, 6-inch junior from Humble, Texas, has been biding his time through a redshirt year and two years behind Daniel Sams, who also transferred in from Kansas State.
It became a two-man battle between Ashcraft and Tabary. During the final intra-squad scrimmage, Tabary’s clear ability to find the right receivers, deliver the ball with speed and accuracy and a beautiful touchdown toss in the end zone elevated him as the top choice.
“With the offense we are running, it will be in the quarterback’s hands a lot more than it has been,” said Guidry. “We need a cleaner pocket guy who understands moving up in the pocket with some awareness and has a quick release. This is a quick-release offense.”
Tabary ended up at McNeese after he wasn’t chosen as the starting quarterback at Arkansas State following spring practice. He did something that violated team rules and “team trust,” and was dismissed from the squad by Red Wolves head coach Blake Anderson.
No one involved, including Anderson, Guidry and the young quarterback, has divulged what exactly happened. But all, including Tabary, agreed it was a learning experience and some needed maturity came along with it.
“I am learning from my mistakes,” Tabary told me. “I have grown as a man. We came to a point where it didn’t work out the way I wanted it to. Then again, I am glad I am here at McNeese.”
The Cowboys apparently weren’t Tabary’s first choice. He says his short list of possible transfer schools were East Carolina and Ball State, who, according to Tabary, offered him scholarships. But his desire to play right away and the thought of playing for Guidry (“I just love the guy”) led Tabary to Lake Charles.
It’s a bit unusual for a player with FBS starts with transfer options to other FBS schools to move to a smaller FCS program. But Tabary doesn’t fit any particular mold.
He’s an extremely confident young quarterback with superior skills and a strong work ethic. He also may not have been so wide-eyed and in awe of being at the FBS Mid-Major level. Tabary noted to me that there isn’t a huge gap between the talent level at McNeese and the FBS schools he’s competed against.
“I am the most competitive guy you will ever meet in your entire life. I want that national championship. I have not really won anything in my life. I helped Arkansas State win a conference championship (Sun Belt Title), but I wasn’t the guy. You have to think we are going to be the best in the country, and that’s how it’s going to be.”
Once Tabary and Guidry were able to spend significant time together on the field, a natural connection formed. You see both perform their tasks with a lot of emotion and passion, and lead with those qualities along with an intense competitive spirit.
Guidry quickly saw that his 6-foot, 2-inch, 205-pound quarterback excelled at a consistent high level, but also brought out the best in the players around him. “He is very, very competitive. He’s an emotional-type player, and with his emotions makes the players around him better.”
Uptown city boy meets Cajun country coach. It’s an odd mix that will have to jell quickly.
The season opener against Tarleton State should pose few problems for the Cowboys, who are picked as high as 11 in several pre-season FCS rankings.
The stakes and competition will be much higher for game two, as McNeese travels to UL-Lafayette Sept. 10.
Tabary is quite familiar with the Ragin’ Cajuns from the Sun Belt, and has now learned of this heated regional rivalry. He has his own reasons for wanting to beat UL-L.
“I can’t wait for that game. U-L didn’t offer me (a scholarship) coming out of high school. It was kind of an insult, so I can’t wait to get out there.”
Tabary has all the physical tools and football IQ Guidry is looking for in a starting quarterback. The emotions and competitiveness come as lagniappe. It’s like a second helping of rice and gravy when you weren’t expecting it.
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