A Season Of Change

Rick Sarro Thursday, September 5, 2019 Comments Off on A Season Of Change
A Season Of Change

2019 McNeese Season Preview

By Rick Sarro

Cover By Jason Carroll of Epic Image – Additional Images courtesy of McNeese Sports Information

If you just scratch the surface of this McNeese football program for 2019, you will find numerous story lines, meaningful questions and enough chalkboard theories to shake a cowbell at. But rest assured, the main plot and character in this drama is new head coach Sterlin Gilbert and the offensive facelift he is overseeing.

Subplots to what Cowboys fans hope will be a box office smash action thriller are the near-complete overhaul of the coaching staff, an influx of transfer players and a change in culture, discipline and vibe.

Gilbert quickly labeled his overarching stamp on this team as “La Familia.”  

It worked well for Vin Diesel and the Fast and Furious franchise. And the “La Familia” approach has made an undeniable impression on the players.

“When you step into the fieldhouse for those 6 am runs, you just feel the vibe. Everyone’s bought in and there’s a different mentality. He’s just started to shift that culture back where it needs to be,” gushed quarterback Cody Orgeron. 

Gilbert says La Familia is not just a slogan that’s made for locker room banners. It’s the foundation he is using to rebuilt and reshape the program. “It is what we are trying to live and working to be — close as a football team. And it was vital that those 21 new players that came in bought into what we are doing. Cody Orgeron and Chris Livings are the epitome of that change, and they are leading the way and setting the standard. It just trickles down.”

This culture leans heavily on player accountability and responsibility both on the field and with academics, on which Gilbert and his staff have placed a renewed emphasis.

Head Coach Sterlin Gilbert
Photo by Jason Carroll • Epic Image

It certainly could not have been easy staring down 60-odd players who just spent three years under the spell of the fiery and outspoken Cajun local mainstay, former head coach Lance Guidry. But Gilbert is no shrinking violet. His road here took him from FBS programs like South Florida, Texas, Tulsa and Bowling Green, where he was a successful offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach. So stepping up to the podium as the new man in charge was smooth and easy.

And apparently, so was the decision to hire Gilbert last December when McNeese decided to part ways with Guidry.

Former Cowboys head coach Bobby Keasler, a key member of the search committee, told me it was  a no-brainer when you factor in the fact that “this man coached Texas and went up against the likes of Notre Dame and Oklahoma.”

About the only thing Gilbert has in common with his predecessor is they are both under 6 feet tall.

Gilbert is highly structured and organized. He’s quiet without a whistle around his neck and measures his words carefully. He’s very approachable but not overly warm and fuzzy. He’s business-like, intense and very serious about the business of football. He’s a West Texas native and a former prep star quarterback who went on to win two conference championships as a college passer at San Angelo State.

It’s this combination of intelligence, experience, a particular mentality and the fact he is an outsider who could bring a new style of leadership and fresh ideas that attracted both university president Dr. Daryl Burckel and athletic director Bruce Hemphill.

Did I mention Gilbert is also considered an offensive whiz kid?

His successful offensive track record and acumen were the about-face change McNeese was seeking in a new head coach. The university hierarchy of Burckel and Hemphill both played college football, and are smart enough to recognize how the game has changed and tilted toward the offensive powerhouses. So with that in mind, they had no qualms about hiring from beyond the McNeese coaching tree.

When it comes to revamping the Cowboys from the offensive side, I can’t imagine a better choice than Gilbert among the coaching candidates who wanted to come to McNeese and work at the FCS level.

A snapshot of Gilbert’s resume reveals that when he was offensive coordinator at, most recently, South Florida, Texas and Tulsa, his offenses ranked in the top 25 in several key statistical categories. That’s the top 25 in the nation among all FBS teams.  

That’s no easy feat when you are not at Alabama, Clemson or Oklahoma.

In his only FCS stop, at Eastern Illinois back in 2012, Gilbert’s attack led the nation in total offense, while he was honored as the FCS Coordinator of the Year. By the way, he coached a quarterback that won the Walter Payton Award as the country’s top FCS player that season. His name is Jimmy Garoppolo; he’s the talented starting quarterback for the up-and-coming San Francisco 49ers.

Gilbert’s success rate is impressive, and he attributes it to simply having a good playbook and believing in your system. “[It’s all about] having a plan; going out and executing the plan and believing in what we do. The unique thing is that only one time in my career I coached the same quarterback for two years in a row which is an odd thing. You have to go back to Jimmy at Eastern Illinois where I had him for two years. I go to Bowling Green for one year. Tulsa for one.  Texas for one. South Florida for two years with two different quarterbacks.”

Having talent at quarterback that can “throw it, spin it and go execute the offense” is where it all begins and ends, says Gilbert.

And there’s also the fact that offensive line coach Matt Mattox has been the Tonto to Gilbert’s Lone Ranger act since their days at Eastern Illinois in 2012. Mattox has been with him at every stop, fine-tuning this offense, which Gilbert said was “huge in handling everything up front” with the offensive line.

Mattox’s second job title is offensive coordinator, but he will not call the plays on game day. That’s been Gilbert’s forte since the two joined forces nearly seven years ago. Mattox points to the heavy workload that occurs from Sunday to Friday as they team up to prepare the detailed game plan.

“It goes back to the game planning and the work you do up to it. We don’t care, and we have never had an ego over who calls the plays and who gets whatever. It’s the game planning. The implementing. The breakdowns. Trying to get everything down and present[ing] a good package to your players weekly.”

New Look Offense

So what is this new Gilbert offense?  What is it called and why will it be hard for fans to make a beer run at Cowboy Stadium?

Well, I didn’t get any peeks at its earliest installation during spring practice because Gilbert has a policy of closing workouts to the media. I don’t like it, but he runs the ship and didn’t ask for my opinion.  

The spring game didn’t reveal much, as it was very structured with situational plays and close to the vest.

I did get a sampling of it at the tail end of the Cowboys’ first fall practice. And if they run plays with the pace I saw, you better not look down or blink come game time or you’ll be at risk of missing something.

Plays are called quickly, with linemen, receivers and running backs still getting in position. Once the ball is snapped, you may see quick, short passes on the outside or on crossing routes. The quarterbacks will at times throw from the pocket out of the shotgun or roll out, allowing receivers more time to find a soft spot in the defense or to get downfield for 15 to 20 yards.

There is play action, some misdirection and, yes, quick handoffs to catch defenses out of position or not fully in gap coverage.

Remember, Gilbert is a former college quarterback; he says, “I wake up in the morning thinking of throwing it downfield.” But his system gives nearly equal weight to running the football. “We put a premium on being physical and coming downhill with the football and get[ting] the ball to the playmakers however that be.”

There is no real name attached to the offense other than that it is a spread system with multiple receivers on the outside and slot receivers on the inside.  (Gilbert hired separate receiver coaches to handle outside — Lanear Sampson — and inside — Jeff LePak.)

The offense will use tight ends and running backs, mostly out of the one back set as far as I could tell.  

College football in particular, and the offensive side, has changed into a game of space. Offenses want formations, schemes and motions that will stretch the defense and open up pockets of space both short and long with the goal of getting a receiver or running back into an advantageous one-on-one matchup.

If the play call is right and a matchup favors the offense and the quarterback is able to deliver the ball quickly, then the play should result in positive yardage. That’s a lot of ifs, but this offense has a lot of options to answer those ifs. “You have to have guys that can do things with the ball in their hands in space,” said Gilbert. “That’s the key. Get it to your guys that can make plays and find the different ways to do that.”

This offense, much like any other, depends on the effectiveness of the quarterback.

Gilbert says it was “huge” to be able to decide on and name his starting quarterback coming out of spring practice and have that position settled in time for August preseason drills.

What Orgeron may lack in game experience (he started three games last season but took snaps in all 11) he makes up for in a high football IQ and an immeasurable desire to tap all his potential.

“He carries all those intangibles you want in a quarterback,” said Gilbert. “Great leadership. Hard-working guy. You go back into summer — all the things we did, he was the first guy to do it. He can make all the throws; extend the plays with his feet. He has that rare combination of doing all the things you want from a quarterback.”

The new coach has tried to fire up the fan base with promises that the canons will be busy with post-touchdown explosions this season.

What I can promise is that the offense will be very different. There will be a brisk pace of execution. There will be quick substitutions, if any, with a reliance on fast play calling and seamless sideline communication. Gilbert won’t back himself into a corner with stated expectations of a specific number of offensive plays. He adds he will speed up or slow down execution to whatever style will lead to success.

“Whatever it takes for us to win. Go fast, the whole time we will go fast. At some point, if we have to slow down, then that’s what we will do. We have the capability to just drop the hammer and put a foot to the pedal.”

Don’t Forget About The Defense

Gilbert’s lightning fast spread offense has garnered a lot of preseason attention. But you can’t win without defense, and the new coaching staff is well aware of McNeese’s long legacy of defensive prowess.

New defensive coordinator Jim Gush may not have his defenders sporting DWA shirts in practice. But he has them playing with the attitude and high desire to get to the ball quickly and hit.

Gush is a well-traveled, 36-year veteran defensive specialist, having spent time at FBS Baylor, SMU, Kansas State and Iowa State. He comes to McNeese after two years as head coach at Navarro College. He brings his 4-2-5 defensive scheme to a team that has made a living running the same formation.

On paper, it’s the same scheme, but will be different in several key areas. “We are more of a zone cover team in the secondary,” said Gush. (Last year the defense played primarily man coverage on receivers). “We call it match zone cover team. We will mix in three down (linemen). We call it our Okie package, and really teach it the same way we use our four down; instead of an over front it’s an under front, which gives us some flexibility in matching up against 10 personnel.” Gush speaks with an authoritative tone based on nearly 40 years of defensive coaching.

I would need Gush on a chalkboard or iPad for more than a few minutes to have a complete understanding of that defensive lesson. But what it boils down to is holding opponents to fewer points than your offense.

After decades on the sidelines, Gush has seen the game change so that defensive stats are viewed differently and the emphasis is now on different “bedrocks.” He said, “I don’t look at total yards that we gave up anymore — especially when you go against tempo offenses — because it doesn’t correlate any more. It’s average per carry. We really concentrate on turnovers, third down and getting the ball off the field. That’s the possession down, and our chance to give the ball back to the offense, which is our job. Now you have to play great red zone defense.”

More Gush bedrocks are defenders in gaps and forcing the opposing running backs to go east and west and not north and south. Against the pass, he says his goal is to force the widest throw for the least amount of yards. Next on his defensive checklist is “pursuit and tackling in space,” and avoiding the chunk plays that give up 20 to 30 yards in an instant.

You do all that, Gush says, the defense should be fine.

The defense returns starters on the defensive line and secondary, but is replacing both linebackers, including a huge hole once manned by All American B.J. Blunt, now trying to make the roster with the Washington Redskins. “We understand he was a really good player, so now it’s an opportunity for other guys to step up,” said Gush.

The defensive front should be the unit’s anchor, led by defensive end Chris Livings, who needs 11 sacks to break the school’s career sack record of 31, set by Bryan Smith. “We encouraged Chris to gain about 20 pounds. He was worried about losing some speed, but now he feels better about getting in there and mixing it up against the run,” said Gush.

Cody Roscoe is a force on the side.  Senior Colby Burton earned more preseason, All SLC honors and is the best cover corner. Junior Darion Dunn should start at the other corner, while seniors Jovon Burris and Calum Foster along with Gabe Foster will be solid at safety.

The base 4-2-5 defense will be tweaked up front. The secondary will opt for more zone coverage. The blitz packages will surely change. But what won’t change is the Cowboys reliance on defensive speed and physical play.

Quarterbacks Are A ‘Clean Canvas’

If you go across each position group, coach Gilbert will utter a phrase similar to “the deck isn’t set.” Translation: starting positions are still up for grabs and the competition is fierce and ongoing.

That’s the case except at the most important position on the team.  

That’s why Gilbert thought it was so pivotal that Orgeron separated himself in the spring quarterback race and rose to the top of the depth chart. This allowed the coaching staff one major question to check off the list.

The 6-feet, 1-inch, 187-pound junior has gone from a smallish backup to a still smallish starter in less than a year’s time since his first start last October in a win over Central Arkansas.  A combination of some home cooking this summer and a steady dose of weight room and training work has added seven pounds to his slight frame.

Now that Orgeron is leading this offense, it’s incumbent that he stays upright and healthy. He proved in limited action last year he can take some shots. The trick this Fall will be using his athletic ability to avoid unwanted contact. “With my legs and stuff I can kind of get away from those really big hits. I am built for it. I can stand in the pocket, take a few shots. It’s all about staying mentally tough and standing back up to fight on another down.”

His numbers last season were 50 of 90 passing, two touchdowns, 406 total yards with three interceptions. Throw in 43 rushes for 148 yards with a 16-yard run for a score in that win against UCA and you can begin to see how Gilbert sees he has something to build on.  “He’s a coachable kid and he really wants to be a very good football player,” said Gilbert. “You are not fighting through him going through a lot of different offenses or bad habits, so you get this pretty clean canvas to work with.”

Young Orgeron is lean on both prep and college football experience. But as the son of LSU head coach Ed Orgeron, the IQ and understanding of both offensive and defensive schemes is heavily imbedded in his DNA. Coaches’ sons have a way of learning the game’s finer points even though they may have spent many days on a tennis court, as Cody did growing up.

Once he decided to focus on throwing the football instead of making power serves in high school, Orgeron was all in. He earned his shot at McNeese because of his athletic potential, not because of his last name. He took that opportunity and just grinded.  

The redshirt junior outplayed the more acclaimed prospect Cameron Smith during spring, which led to Smith transferring out of McNeese. Orgeron proved he could make the throws consistently and accurately and gravitated to the new offense with relative ease. “I love it. The offense is not difficult at all. It’s stinking fast. High tempo, spread offense. Not really long verbiage.

“Every single play means making the right read and putting the ball where it needs to be in space. Knowing what the play call is for and designed for. Once I throw the ball, my job is done. They (the receivers and running backs) make me look good, making the catches and getting the yards after catch.”

But Orgeron will still have to deliver catchable balls to a wide array of receivers, one of which will not be his twin brother Parker, who decided to end his playing career after multiple concussions. Parker is now a student assistant coach working with the receivers.

One of Cody’s new targets is Davion Curtis, a sophomore Jr. Co. transfer who spent some time as a Texas Longhorn. Curtis didn’t shy away from comparing Orgeron with veteran Texas quarterback Sam Ehlinger. “He is a very smart quarterback. He knows the reads and he knows what he is doing. He has a great arm and is quicker than I thought when I first saw him on the field. He has great moves and ball skills. He knows how to break down a defense, and that’s what’s really important to me … breaking down the defense. I had that at Texas with Sam Ehlinger, and he (Orgeron) is just like Sam, just a little bit smaller.”

New offensive coordinator Matt Mattox would not turn away an Ehlinger clone. But in reality, this offense needs a quarterback who plays with consistency, possesses a quick mind to make the reads and decisions and has a particular on-field presence. “That guy has to be an even-keel quarterback and one we know we will get consistent play out of. At the same [he should be] a guy that can make plays on his own and can extend things. He can be a playmaker, but at the same time put us in the right position with every play.”

Junior Matt Keller, out of Archbishop Shaw High School, is the no. 2 quarterback in camp. He has enough skills and moxie to push Orgeron and keep anyone from getting too comfortable.  

Orgeron says he gets his “competitiveness, toughness and grind” from — you guessed it — his dad Coach O.  Cody knows he will be under the media microscope, and the focal point will be whether Gilbert’s grand offensive schemes work or not. “To be honest, there really isn’t that much pressure. It’s all a mental thing for me. If I just show up and do my job every single day, let God handle the rest, I know I will be in a good situation.” 

Offensive Line… No Stopping For The Weary

This new up-tempo, lickety-split offense should be no problem for the skill positions, those being the receivers and running backs. They are used to running and moving fast. It’s the big, lumbering offensive linemen that I’m a bit more worried about.

There won’t be many established huddles to offer a few seconds to catch one’s breath.

But that will work both ways. It’s said the hurry-up spread scheme is more of a stamina problem for the defensive linemen as they exhaust more energy chasing and tackling than their counterparts on the offensive side. You see it a lot by the fourth quarter when the quick tempo attacks simply wear down defenses with constant movement and a physical beat down.

“We want size, strength and guys that are athletic and who carry a physical mentality about themselves,” Gilbert explained, while talking about the profile and attributes he is building on offense.

If there is one position group that is most unsettled on the depth chart, it’s the offensive line.

“There are plenty of spots out there (that are open) and there’s going to be competition,” said offensive line coach/offensive coordinator Matt Mattox. “We are actively moving people — pitting guys against each other to determine who is going to separate themselves. When it’s all said and done, I want the five guys that anybody or any coach will know that’s the five best guys to be the starters.” 

Mattox will have a solid number of linemen who got significant playing time last season. Ten returning linemen will form a deep rotation led by All SLC senior guard Grant Burguillos, who was forced to miss spring drills while recuperating from a shoulder injury.

“I am just ready to put the pads back on and get after it. I have been working very hard this summer to make sure I am not held back physically. I think missing spring will give me an added hunger and new mentality coming into my last season.”

Depth, execution, communication and injuries plagued the offensive line last fall. They lacked consistency, and it showed in the numbers.

The Pokes’ historically strong running game was stymied — held to a low 109 yard per game average and an anemic 3 yards per carry. Those were unimpressive stats, especially coming from an explosive group of backs that included David Hamm, Justin Pratt, Ryan Ross and Ben Jones.

I expect those rushing numbers to improve this season, with the different approach and formations, along with a heavy emphasis on offensive line technique and fundamentals.

“No. 1 is physicality up front,” said Mattox. “We want guys that when we turn on film from high school to whenever they get here we want to see the physicality and the finish. Obviously, the mobility and athleticism and [the ability] to bend is important.  I’ve won with a 5-foot, 10-inch center and a 6-foot, 4-inch center. What it comes down to is: can you get the job done? And our job as coaches is putting guys in the right positions … [It’s] old school mentality and strong fundamentals.” 

The passing game will surely look and perform better than last season as well, as this offensive line is shuffled and shuffled again to find the best five.  

Sacks were a nagging issue in 2018, as they always seemed to come on critical third downs and halted drives. Some of the problem was quarterback James Tabary’s penchant for holding on to the ball too long while trying to find an open receiver. (More on that in the receivers segment.) That won’t be an issue with this offense and Orgeron.  

The options are one, two, maybe three, and then get rid of it or run the ball. “I like the high-powered offense and putting points on the board,” said Burguillos, the All SLC guard. “That’s what you play offense for, so I’m excited about it.”

Burguillos will anchor the line at left guard. Calvin Barkat came out of spring as the starting center, with returner Cutter Leftwich coming back from injury. Look for the other starters to come from a group including Jamarus Bolding, Tre Newton, Collin Fountain, Blaise Scriber, Caleb Gary and Zack Jones.

This is one of the deepest offensive lines McNeese has had in a number of years, and it comes at a good time, with a change of schemes that may require more linemen to make it work.

Receivers… A Mix Of New And Old Hands

If Orgeron is the ignition of this offense, then the receivers must be the pistons.

It didn’t take Gilbert long to review his roster and figure out he didn’t have an infusion of talent and help at receiver.

He used his connections and the NCAA transfer portal to find two pass catchers who could very well crack the starting lineup — Louisiana Tech transfer Rhashid Bonnette and Davion Curtis, a junior college transfer who originally signed with Texas when Gilbert was the Longhorns offensive coordinator.

Both have good size and speed and a proven ability to catch the ball and stretch the field. Curtis has the added benefit of having played in Gilbert’s system while at Texas, so he is ahead of the learning curve.

“(Gilbert) was my freshman year coach at Temple High School, and when I got to Texas as a freshman he was there too,” said Curtis. “Everything is just coming back to me. It’s so easy right now. I am loving it and taking it all in; teaching the younger guys and older guys that have been here what’s expected of us in this offense.”

Over two years at La. Tech, Bonnette hauled in 74 catches for 1,065 yards and three touchdowns. He made a quick impression and impact during spring. “What makes him so good?” asked Gilbert. “He can jump on top and over defenders. He loves the game and has some fight in him. A true playmaker.” Gilbert knows he has to get some production out of Bonnette for this one and only season with the Cowboys.

Pair these two receivers with returners Cyron Sutton (41 catches, 609 yards and three TDs last season), Trevor Begue and Nate Briscoe, and Gilbert sees a talented group.

“I think the receivers have a ton of potential. You talked about those guys with playing experience coming back. We have Curtis, who has played before. Roddy Bonnette has played. Draysean Hudson is a talented kid that flashed this spring. I’m really excited to see them in camp and see as a corps where they are physically [and] mentally … able to catch the ball and stretch the field.”

One thing that hampered the passing game last fall was the receivers’ inability to find the soft spots in the defense and just get open. The new Gilbert offense is not a cure-all, but will offer these receivers so many more play-making opportunities.

The objective is to attack the defense downfield, finding an open sliver of space and get yards after the catch (YAC — a new, hip stat).

“Catch first. Run second,” Curtis warned. “I have been in different offenses, like Tom Herman’s at Texas. They are trying to do tempo but not like the tempo we do here. The tempo here is get lined up fast, balls out, and everything is so quick. The speed that we have at receiver and running back is needed for this offense. I’m excited about the speed we have; the offensive line and the quarterback. We have [the] straight reads. It’s not hard to understand this offense. It’s very easy to catch on.” Curtis spoke with the confidence of a veteran receiver who grew up running this scheme.

The tight ends will play a much larger role in this offense. This position got much thinner in more ways than one when former All SLC tight end LaWayne Ross left the team earlier this year.

Junior Jacob Logan, at 6 feet, 3 inches, 240 pounds, will be the top returning tight end. He displays skill in pass routes and when held back to block.  

Trey Conerly and Dontay Hargrove are versatile receivers whom Gilbert is pleased to have at the position.

“We feel good about the depth at this position. Those guys have had a really good summer. Going back to the spring, we were excited about their capability and what they can do at tight end. It pushes the guys, and they are next man up.” Gilbert used the tight end to the tune of 43 catches and more than 500 yards of receiving during his last season at South Florida in 2018.

Running Backs… Run By Committee

When you have upwards of six top-flight running backs anxious to hear their number called, that’s a good problem to have.

Senior Justin Pratt is seeking a bounce-back year. Sophomore  J’Cobi Skinner may be hard to keep on the sidelines with his speed and shiftiness. Sophomore J’uan Gross is the power back at 245 pounds. Freshman Carlos Williams is vying for carries. Add in talented transfers Elijah Mack from South Florida and D’Andre Hicks from Appalachain State.

All seem to have different running styles, different shapes and sizes and different skill sets, which means the reps will be spread around and there will be a run by committee approach.

“The guys are all a little different in their own part and just to see how the stable ends up working. It has the potential to be a dynamic group of running backs,” says Gilbert, who coached the last 2,000-yard running back at the University of Texas in D’Onta Foreman of the Indianapolis Colts in 2016.

Pratt had a down year in 2018, with a mere 320 yards off 93 carries and only one score. Those are paltry numbers and not indicative of his abilities. He will have something to prove in this, his final season with the Cowboys.

Skinner, the former local star tailback from Sulphur, opened some eyes during spring drills and has had some nice runs in camp. At 5 feet, 9 inches, 180 pounds, he is the latest in McNeese’s long line of small, quick scat backs who finds seams in opposing defenses.

“I feel like I’m quick. I can make plays in the open field and make defenders miss. With the O line doing their job, it makes it easier for me, so I can’t take all the credit. I have to give some to them,”  said a young but wise Skinner, who knows he better give some love to his offensive linemen up front.

Skinner contributed greatly to the kick return game late last season, averaging 28 yards per attempt. He will help in that department this season. He is also ready to make his presence felt in the short passing game for which this offense will use the running backs downfield. “[We are] able to catch the ball because we do a lot of read option where you can throw to the receivers or running backs.”

Gilbert went shopping for runners as well during the off season and came back with transfers Mack from South Florida (Gilbert’s old team) and Hicks from App State.  

Add in the bigger, thick-legged Gross and the versatile Williams and this will be an interesting group to watch.

Gilbert wakes up wanting to throw 10 passes before his first cup of morning coffee. But he wants a physical, north and south running game that will balance and complement his quick passing.

For this attack to be effective, particularly early on in the season, the Cowboys have to establish a clear and willful intent to run the football. This will keep defenses honest up front, allow Orgeron time to build game chemistry with the receivers, extend drives and control time of possession if that’s the game plan needed to win.

Defensive Line… One Of The League’s Best

The Cowboy’s defensive line has a treasure trove of experience and returning talent that is the strength of the roster. It could very well be one of the top D-Lines in the Southland Conference.

They still have to go out there on Saturdays and prove that. But if everyone stays healthy, this line will do its part in this revamped 4-2-5 formation.

The D-Line’s consummate leader is veteran senior defensive end Chris Livings, who is tabbed as a preseason All SLC selection. Livings, who has battled various injuries the last two years, has been productive when healthy. He needs those 11 sacks to break the school career record, and it’s within his reach.

Livings, the younger brother of former LSU and NFL offensive lineman Nate Livings, doesn’t get caught up with the records, accolades and preseason hype. It’s about what you do when your hand hits the dirt and the ball is snapped one play at a time.

“I put the past in the past,” Livings said. “I tell the younger players to take advantage of this opportunity for playing for McNeese, which has a great history for defense. Play with a chip on your shoulder.”

Gush, the veteran defensive coordinator who has seen a lot of talented players in his career, loves Livings’ attitude and drive to compete. “No. 1, he is invested from the beginning, and all he is concerned about is being the best football player he can be and as good a teammate he can. He had a big year last year with sacks. And I have heard him talk about the sack record and it’s not a selfish thing. We are encouraging him to think that way.”

Livings’ running mate on the line is another talented force — junior end Cody Roscoe. The Houston native had 4.5 half sacks, 33 tackles and 8 tackles for a loss last year. 

Returning on the interior D Line is Jonta Jones, at 6 feet, 2 inches, 300 pounds, and senior Marval Bourgeois at 6 feet, 289 pounds.

Interchangeable linemen are a must on defense these days, as spread offenses try and wear you down with pace and possessions. McNeese has solid depth with Tyrique Gibson, Marcus Foster (who missed most of last season with an injury), C.J. Semien, Steven Conerly and the rangy 6-foot, 5-inch Cam Peterson.

Gilbert saw the strength at the defensive line but did not sit pat. Once again he “upgraded the roster” with two defensive line transfers. “[There’s] Earenest Grayson the freshman; [and] Damien DeGruy from Fresno State, who has three years. So there is some length and size there to add to Livings, Foster and Roscoe.”

Linebackers… New Lineup 

Gilbert, Gush and the entire new coaching staff knows how good the defensive stats put up by former All America linebacker B.J. Blount last season were. Blount will be hard to replace, so the staff turned to the NCAA transfer portal for help.

Two linebackers followed Gush from Navarro Junior College: sophomore Kody Fulp and Carlos Scott. Both have played in this defense and participated in spring drills.

Fulp has been a pleasant surprise with his physical play, range and instincts. “I like to hit people. With my size (6 feet, 2 inches, 235 pounds) it’s a big advantage for me.”

Fulp played under Gush at Navarro last year. He knows this defense and intends to help coach it from the field.  He says communication across the defense is key, and it starts up front with the defensive line, who will set the tone.

Stopping the run is the first order of business. That centers on the front linemen and linebackers. Gush will need his linebackers, many freshly clad in the blue and gold, to play fast and physical at the point of attack. “My philosophy is very simple in the running game. Put a body in the gap and make the ball go east and west, and not north and south.”

Pursuit of the ball and tackling in space are two fundamentals Gush will expect high execution on from his linebackers and safeties. According to Gush, inside play and stopping the run are two strongholds for Fulp. The young linebacker will be tested outside and in pass coverage.

Four transfer linebackers are on the roster to replace Blount and Christian Jacobs. Besides Fulp and Scott there are Justin Jackson, a graduate transfer from Angelo State, and Dorion Pollard from Butler C.C. Add returnees Darius Daniels and Andrew Hyancinth.

The numbers are there on paper, Fulp says. But he admits the results must come from the field in the end. “I think we can. We’ll see. Time will tell. I think if we learn the defense and be physically and mentally sound, we shouldn’t have a problem.” 

Defensive Backfield…Old Guard, New Approach

It was D.W.A. for the defense the last three years under head coach and defensive coordinator Lance Guidry. Defense With Attitude was mostly effective, as the unit ranked high in numerous statistical categories in the conference and on the national FCS charts.

But when the breakdowns occurred, they came fast and were damaging, as was the case in the 30-3 defeat at BYU and the season’s low point — that 45-17 road loss at Incarnate Word.

Guidry’s 4-2-5 defense relied on a lot of man-to-man coverage on the corners, and when that coverage failed, it meant huge gains down the field, and at times, quick scores.

Gush will run the same formation but will employ a different zone type coverage in the secondary, which returning cornerback Colby Burton likes. But he says change brings new challenges. “You have to be a lot more technical. Zone, combo man. You have read your keys and alignment is very key, where in last year’s defense we ran a lot more man.”

Burton, who was honored again with preseason All SLC recognition, says he was more of a zone cover cornerback coming out of high school  in League City, Texas. He added he is more at home in this defense.

The senior defensive back is undoubtedly the best at what he does in the McNeese secondary. Junior corner Darion Dunn should start on the other side, with Calum Foster vying for time.

The safety position is stacked with experience and playmakers like Jovon Burris, Gabe Foster, Cory McCoy and Colby Richardson. “I feel like it’s the most talented secondary we’ve had since I have been here at McNeese, when you talk athletic-wise like speed, range, with our safeties,” said Burton. “Across the board, we have a different type of guy at every position. And we all gel. And if we communicate well, we will carry the load.”

D.W.A. may be gone, but Burton says the grit and guts are still there to excel, and Gush is at the front of the pack. “The defensive tradition will always be the same here,” said Burton. “Coach Gush has the same mind set. He wants it. He says he’d be danged if he comes here to be an average defense. He wants to be the best defense in the country, and that’s all of our goals.”

Special Teams… New Legs

Don’t chuckle too loud, but former McNeese punter Alex Kjellsten probably received a fair number of votes for team MVP in 2018. I would have given several game balls for performances he put on the board last season, when he averaged nearly 44 yards a kick, with nearly 30 percent of his punts going over 50 yards.

Kjellsten, who spent a brief time in the NFL at punter tryouts in mini-camps, continually pinned opponents deep downfield with timely punts. He was the team’s most consistent and best special teams performer. I say all this because he will be a critical piece of the puzzle to replace.

Same goes for field goal kicker, with the departure of Gunnar Raborn, who hit 16 of 22 field goals for a nearly 73 percent hit percentage.

His brother Bailey Raborn is in the mix for both field goals and punter.  The junior from Lafayette handled kickoffs last year and was fairly deep in his attempts.

“There’s competition in that phase, as well as with punters, kickers and long snappers,” said Gilbert. “Just like offense and defense, that deck is not set in special teams.”

I think the Pokes are pretty set at kick return with J’Cobi Skinner, who manned that position well over the latter half of 2018. Receiver Cyron Sutton was used at punt return some last season, so he will be in the pool, along with, maybe, some new speed with the addition of Curtis, Bonnette or freshman receiver Mason Pierce, who is showing flashes this August. Pierce might end up being one of the few true freshmen that Gilbert intends to play.

The Schedule,  The Southland,  The Culture Change

This will be the toughest schedule McNeese has played since 2014, when they narrowly lost to Nebraska. Keep in mind the LSU game barely started in 2015 before lightning forced cancellation. And I do recognize the significance of playing UL-Lafayette in 2016.

This fall, though, the Cowboys will face the two teams that played for the SWAC championship last year, with Southern and Alcorn State in weeks one and three. Sandwiched in for week two is a trip to Oklahoma State, which will bring back Big 12 memories for Gilbert for the days when he was at Texas. Add Sam Houston State, whom McNeese has not faced in three years. 

The SLC home-and-away is a mixed bag. There are home games for Sam Houston and Southeastern Louisiana (Oct. 5), which will mark former head coach Lance Guidry’s return to Cowboy Stadium since he was fired last year. Guidry is now the Lions’ defensive coordinator. Houston Baptist and Northwestern State round out the games played in Lake Charles.

The Cowboys will go to Abilene Christian, Central Arkansas and Stephen F. Austin. The most difficult test will be the road games against two of last year’s FCS playoff teams from the Southland — Nicholls State and Lamar — played in the final two weeks of the regular season.

“It’s a tough schedule out of the box with those three games to start (Southern, Oklahoma State and Alcorn State). The thing we will find out over those three games is where we are at and who we are going into conference; that’s what it will ultimately be,” Gilbert pointed out.

“I know from afar that the conference has obviously been highly competitive. There’s good coaches and good players in the conference. I know where the media has picked us, and the coaches have picked us, and I have gotten that information in front of our kids. I told them the only way we can fix that is by winning,” said a determined Gilbert.

Defending SLC co-champion Nicholls State was tabbed the preseason heavy favorite with 20 first-place votes. Central Arkansas was second, followed by co-champ Incarnate Word. Sam Houston was voted fourth. Lamar was fifth with the McNeese Cowboys slotted sixth out of the 11 teams in the advance predictions.

First-year McNeese receiver Davion Curtis, that touted transfer from Temple C.C., says this team does have something to prove to the naysayers of the league. “If they want to put us in the bottom, that’s OK. We use that as fuel to get us better. We know what’s expected of us, so we just need to go out there and do what we need to do.”

And that is to get off to a quick and successful start to build confidence and early-season momentum before they hope to prove that SLC preseason voting wrong.

The Southern matchup had been discussed, scheduled, cancelled and rescheduled over the past 10 years or so. The Jags are finally on the schedule, and Southern will bring their famous band and fans, who will most assuredly sell out Cowboy Stadium for the first time since the Grambling game in 2002.

The Cowboys won a hard-fought 34-27 victory over Alcorn State in 2017 when a talented McNeese squad finished 9-2 overall. Alcorn will be better in 2019; so must the Pokes if they want to sweep the SWAC.

Gilbert has done all the right things and pushed all the levers necessary to put the Cowboys on the best possible path. He hired an experienced and talented coaching staff. He set the tone and his direction with the mantra “La Familia” that he says involves a brotherhood based on discipline on the field and in the classroom and on responsibility and accountability.

Gilbert went out on a limb and changed some school traditions, like moving his game day bench and sideline to the press side of the stadium. He didn’t object to the administration’s decision to move some late-season kickoffs to 4 pm.

His most critical and necessary move was to work his Texas connections and lean on the NCAA transfer portal to sign numerous junior college and FBS players who will bolster his roster and add immediate impact to several undermanned positions.

The 40-year-old first time college head coach admitted he has both “blessed and cursed the transfer portal. But right now we have benefited from it.”

You win with character and culture in the locker room; with a coaching staff that not only builds a game plan but can teach. You’re successful when all the players, not just your starters and leaders, buy into the direction and system. Games are won through the long weeks of practice and film study and focus on fundamentals. You are victorious when the coaches install the right plan and the players execute that plan on Saturdays with minimal mistakes. And winning is usually the result of who has the better players and who won more of the individual on-field matchups.

Gilbert is confident he has hit all those check boxes so far.

All the sweat, effort and toil of August camp will soon end, and the answers will come at kickoff on August 31 as a season of great change begins.

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