There’s not much left with any connection to McNeese’s football season now that Sam Houston State is the only Southland Conference team remaining in the FCS Playoffs. If you’ve lost track of the post-season, the Cowboys were passed over by that 10-member FCS selection committee; and both Nicholls (at large) and SLC champion Central Arkansas lost during the first two rounds.
McNeese head coach Lance Guidry must still be shaking his head and lamenting the play-off snub. But he was hoping all three conference teams would play deep into the tournament. That would elevate the SLC from a national perspective, and prove to the committee that on a deserving year, the Southland should have four teams in the play-offs.
I made the case for McNeese’s at-large play-off bid. As Guidry said in his post-season press conference, “I understand it, but don’t think it’s fair. We should have gotten the nod to get in. But I don’t make those decisions. I just coach ball games and win as many as I can that’s on my schedule. Sometimes life isn’t fair.”
He has since moved on to recruiting, player evaluation and preparations for spring practice. Guidry possesses a high level of energy and optimism all day and every day. But he’s particularly excited and eager for 2018.
However you shuffled the starting line-ups from the season, McNeese is losing 12 starters, with five on offense and seven on defense by my count. Graduation is hitting the wide receivers and defensive lines, with all three wide receivers and three D-linemen leaving big holes to fill in ‘18.
Wide-outs Kent Shelby, Tavarious Battiste and Darious Crawley are gone, with only slot receiver Parker Orgeron returning. Receiver talent, including Cyron Sutton, is waiting in the wings; Guidry got some glimpses of it this fall. The Cowboys will need some younger guys to step up this spring, and Guidry still may have to dip into the Jr. Co. ranks for help.
Defensive end Jammerio Gross Whitaker, along with tackles Antonio McGhee and Kurt Viges, all played their final games in the season-ending win over Lamar. But the D-Line will return talented defensive end Chris Livings, who got red-shirt relief after suffering a hand injury and was forced to sit out most of the season. Defensive end Micah Udeh filled in and got some valuable playing time for next season.
There is youth on the D-Line defensive depth chart — Cody Roscoe, Jonta Jones, Christian Robinson and more. “We are loaded at defensive line, and have a defensive tackle that has not played that might be the best on the team,” teased Guidry.
“The biggest hit we will take is at wide receiver. But most of our offensive line is coming back, along with all of our running backs, and quarterback, of course.”
That quarterback is James Tabary, who didn’t match his record-setting sophomore season of the year before, but will be the SLC’s top-rated QB with the departure of Sam Houston’s Jeremiah Briscoe and Hayden Hildebrand from Central Arkansas.
Tabary had trouble establishing consistent rhythm and tempo at times, and may have endured a bit of a sophomore slump. (He was a junior, but starting his second season at quarterback.) He’s a proven leader with an intense work ethic. So no doubt Tabary will use this off-season and spring to bounce back for his upcoming senior year.
“It’s our job as coaches to make sure that he plays better than the past season, and I think he will,” said Guidry. “By any means, he was productive enough for us. We won nine football games.”
LSU transfer Andy Dodd manned the center position all season. He will have to be replaced, but four starters are returning. And with the “revolving door” at O-Line Guidry described, there will be ample talent to battle for playing time.
Good, steady offensive linemen are always in high demand at every level of football. So, don’t be surprised if a few junior college names pop up this spring.
McNeese’s defensive player of the year should be senior safety Dominique Hill, who finally played most of the season healthy. Hill might get some NFL looks this spring; whenever he leaves, those will be big shoes to fill. “It’s hard to replace a guy like that. But Cory McCoy (freshman-Leesville) came in and filled in for Hill for two or three games, and played outstanding,” Guidry recalled.
The secondary will have to replace senior stars in safety Andre Fuller and cornerback Jermaine Antoine. But the unit shuttled in a lot of players due to injury and the like, so game experience will not be in short supply next season. And neither will defensive back speed, according to Guidry.
“We’ve got some really good young defensive backs coming back who can really run. We were fast at defense, but we will actually be faster this year … I know that’s hard to believe for some people, but we will have a faster defense next year.”
From the top to the bottom of the roster, Guidry and his staff have spied out a collection of immediate needs. They will keep their options open by way of player transfers and junior college signings. “Maybe an older wide receiver, an offensive lineman, a deep snapper and probably a kick-off guy (not enough kick-offs deep in the end zone) are what we are looking for.”
This will be the first year of new NCAA rules that will allow the larger FBS (Power 5 conferences and mid-majors) an early December signing period for high school players. The smaller FCS teams, like McNeese, will continue to finalize recruiting in February.
One point of view is that those FBS schools will get first crack at securing top-tier high school talent that might have opted for FCS programs: talent like Hanif Muhammad from La Marque, Texas. If you recall, last spring, Muhammad, a highly rated defensive back out of Clear Falls High School, had solid offers from FBS schools like Kansas State, Nebraska, Illinois, UCLA and Washington State, among many others. But he signed with McNeese instead.
Muhammad, who didn’t even play his senior prep season because of an injury, suffered a knee injury and another setback over the off-season and was forced to red-shirt in August. He’s expected to return to action for the Cowboys this spring.
Guidry feels players of the stature of Muhammad still might sign early with an FBS team. But at least programs like McNeese will then know who’s still on the market so they can avoid wasted recruiting time and travel. “If they (FBS teams) sign them early, we will know that kid is done,” said Guidry. “We don’t bring in a lot of our kids on an official visit until January, so we are not going to sign kids early. It clarifies who we are really on, and it (the NCAA early signing period) really helps us. And I know it really helps the big schools, because they can get that class out of the way and can start working on high school juniors and sophomores.
“They (FBS schools) recruit a totally different way than we do. We (McNeese and FCS schools) recruit on that year alone, and the FBS schools always recruit two to three years out in front.”
The 46-year-old Guidry completed his second year as Cowboys’ head coach, and improved from a tumultuous 6-5 first season to a solid 9-2 year in 2017. He says he’ll continue wearing two hats, as head coach and defensive coordinator. That may change down the road, but only if, as he says, “he can hire from within his staff” or find someone with a McNeese history who knows how defense is played in this program.
Guidry says he won’t venture outside the program too far to hire a defensive coordinator, as he did during his first season, when he brought in Tommy Restivo from South Carolina State. Restivo lasted one season, and was let go, prompting Guidry to resume his former role of running the defense.
Guidry feels strongly that the Cowboys are on the right track, and they will continue with the stated goal of winning a national championship. He realizes now more than ever that the FCS playoffs come first, and he must control what he can control and not leave anything in the hands of the selection committee.
“Them (the players and coaches) getting snubbed — they are going to take it personal. They know we have to win conference next year as the only way to the play-offs. That’s what we always sell around here: can’t win the national championship if you don’t make the play-offs.
“That’s always our goal — to get back to the national championship game. But if you have to win conference to get in, then that’s what we will do. Our schedule next year is really good. We play Northern Colorado and BYU. Both of those games we feel we can win. And then we go into conference play and will see where we pan out.”
Remember that Guidry is a glass-half-full kind of coach, and missing the play-offs will only help him put that oversized chip on his players’ shoulders next season.
I wouldn’t mind being a fly on the wall during McNeese’s first team meeting before spring practice as this fiery Cajun delivers another impassioned speech on what his Cowboys need to prove and play for in 2018.
Get Rick Sarro’s perspectives on sports on Sound Off 60, which airs Monday through Sunday nights at 9 pm on Suddenlink Channel 60 and Saturday and Sunday mornings at 9 am, as well.