When Cameron Smith was recruited and signed out of Delray Beach, Fla., more than a year and a half ago, there was no doubt he was considered the heir apparent at quarterback for the McNeese Cowboys.
Apparently, I was the only one who thought that.
I can only draw that conclusion after there was little reaction or concern and few questions about the recent decision by Smith to enter his name into the NCAA Transfer Portal, thus ending all that next-in-line talk about following James Tabary at quarterback.
I was more than a little surprised that Smith’s decision to transfer didn’t garner at least a front page story in the American Press or more coverage on KPLC Sports. When Smith announced his plans via Twitter, we made it our top topic that week on SoundOff 60 for the simple reason that McNeese can’t have enough good quarterbacks battling for the most important position on the team.
Even though Smith, a redshirt freshman, only saw three plays of real game action last season, he was thought to be one of the leading candidates, if not the top choice, at quarterback going into spring practice.
At 6 feet, 4 inches, 190 pounds, with the strongest arm among the quarterbacks on roster, he had a prep resume that far exceeded anyone else when it came to running plays.
He was athletic, had a live arm, was mobile enough to stretch plays and was not entrenched in the past offense of former head coach Lance Guidry.
New head coach Sterlin Gilbert was hired, packing a new offensive philosophy and playbook that promised an uptempo attack that would produce yards and points. And when it came to deciding on that most important position, Gilbert made it clear he would roll the ball out on the field and let an open competition among the passers decide who would run his offense in 2019.
Unfortunately, Gilbert’s decision to close practice and scrimmages to fans and media alike shielded my eyes from this quarterback battle. So I could only rely on hearsay and weekly practice stats that were released intermittently.
Stats only provide a piece of the puzzle — not the full picture, of course. But it became apparent midway through spring drills that junior Cody Orgeron was taking more first-team reps and establishing a leg up on Smith and junior quarterback Matt Keller.
In the final intra-squad scrimmage to end spring practice, none of the quarterbacks had eye-popping numbers. Orgeron and Smith had touchdown passes and each made plays and mistakes. Keller showed some arm strength and accuracy, but also revealed some limitations.
Once again, when asked, Gilbert was noncommittal on the quarterback position race, saying only that he and his staff were hoping to build a depth chart “sooner rather than later” after dissecting all the practice tape.
If Gilbert has made any significant decisions about who won starting positions coming out of spring drills, he is keeping them under wraps. A roster chart has not been released and I don’t expect one anytime before, say, mid-August, at the earliest.
Gilbert is headstrong about circling the wagons and keeping information and team details close to his vest and out of the media’s view.
“La Familia” is his creed for the Cowboys and he will decide when the family needs to know.
I could be wrong, but my guess is Smith was not told anything specific about his standing in the quarterback situation. But right or wrong, he saw the proverbial writing on the wall that had Orgeron ahead of him and felt that Orgeron would open preseason camp as the Cowboys’ starter.
From a distance, and with not even a knothole peek at the quarterback’s reps and spring work, here is how I handicapped the competition.
Smith is bigger, stronger and could throw the deep ball better compared to Orgeron.
On the flip side, Orgeron can make the assortment of passes necessary in this quick, distribution type offense better than both Smith and Keller, and with more accuracy, which is paramount.
My take is Smith and Orgeron were both equally athletic and could make plays with their legs and feet.
Orgeron checked the box on more game experience, even though it was very limited.
Smith could withstand the physical pounding that is bound to come with the position, which would mean less worry and concern over injury. But on that note, LSU head coach Ed Orgeron, Cody’s dad, did confirm to me during his recent visit to watch the McNeese spring game that he intends to put 10 to 15 pounds on Cody’s 175 pound frame over a summer of home cooking in Baton Rouge.
The deciding factors between the two quarterbacks, I surmise, were Orgeron’s better command of the new offense and his ability to control the pace and get the offense lined up and in position quicker. Also, he simply made more plays and improved more consistently than Smith.
Coaches want to see progression, not regression, and they need and demand consistency — especially at quarterback.
The position is the hardest in all of sports and the most difficult to project when recruiting and developing any quarterback.
My belief is Orgeron won the spring battle on many of these fronts. But that doesn’t mean Smith couldn’t have leveled the field, and even overtaken his rival over the long, hot days of August camp.
That’s why Smith’s decision to transfer out of McNeese as a redshirt freshman is so befuddling.
The McNeese offense is coming off one of its most unproductive and inconsistent seasons in recent memory. In 2018, the Pokes averaged 110 yards rushing and a scant 180 yards passing per game. That’s less than 300 yards per outing. They were out-rushed, out-passed and out-scored.
In this age of high-powered, toss-it-around-the-yard offenses, it was akin to McNeese driving a Pinto while the opposition was steering a Porsche.
Gilbert was hired to change not only the overall culture, but in particular, the offense. For his schemes to work, and to get those cannons firing more often, as he promised they would this season, Gilbert will need a quarterback who can make the right decisions quickly and get the football into the hands of playmakers consistently with the fewest amount of mistakes.
That’s why the quarterback competition during spring and continuing into August was so critically important.
If Smith simply didn’t see himself fitting into the new system, or in sync with Gilbert and the coaching staff, then so be it. He has the right and process to move on to where he is more comfortable.
I’m just surprised he didn’t give it more time. I hope his departure doesn’t leave the Cowboys short of talent and depth at the most important of all positions — the one that will dictate this team’s success or failure.
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.