Story by Rick Sarro Photo Courtesy of MSU Sports Information
McNeese is part of a unique football fraternity as one of a small number of teams that played a spring season just a few months ago only to return to the turf to play yet another set of games this fall.
You thought the NFLers were having it tough with a new 17-game regular season upcoming. The Cowboys will total 18 regular season games when it’s all said and done. Yes, with a nearly five-month break in between. But still, that’s a challenging number of games in one calendar year.
I don’t think this issue is getting enough attention, concern or discussion from the media, observers, and in particular, the McNeese coaching staff or players.
I get it — McNeese chose to opt out of a fall season in 2020 due to COVID. There was no whining or complaining from the guys wearing the Blue and Gold.
Head coach Frank Wilson and his charges are pretty much downplaying these 18 games over nine and a half months. Wilson, though, is cognizant of the amount of physical work he is putting the team through this August, as he doesn’t want any wear and tear injuries popping up in October. “We are conscientious of sustaining and being able to peak at the right time and play your very best without flaw or injury.”
The return of fall football to Southwest Louisiana officially begins Sept. 4, when Division II defending national champion West Florida drops into Cowboy Stadium to test their mettle against the Division I Pokes.
A lot of work will be logged between the start of August and the season opener. But this Blue and Gold football team has been eagerly waiting for some hard knocks, especially during the critical foundation-building preseason camp.
The unprecedented seven-game spring season was unique, eventful and telling in a number of ways. I firmly believe it will be excellent preparation for the full 11 games just around the corner.
During the spring, Wilson, beginning his second season as head Cowboy, finally got to actually coach football with a team he was hired to lead over a year earlier when he accepted the job in January, 2020.
That 3-4 spring campaign was an invaluable test of senior quarterback Cody Orgeron’s fortitude, mental toughness and confidence to bounce back from several lousy games to end the season as one of the Southland’s hottest passers.
Last spring unveiled possibly McNeese’s most decorated and accomplished defensive player in 20 years in defensive end Isaiah Chambers. The former University of Houston transfer has made at least five national All American teams and still counting. He was first team All SLC after the spring and preseason All SLC, of course; he was also SLC and Louisiana’s Defensive Player of the Year — and that would include all those fall seasons played by the likes of LSU, UL-Lafayette and Tulane.
Chambers earned those honors after seven and a half sacks, 32 tackles and 14 tackles for loss while dominating opposing offensive lines with a full throttle motor from his 6-foot, 5-inch, 250-pound frame.
Wilson got quick confirmation that his top transfers on both sides of the ball brought talent and leadership in positions that were in high need of them. Transfer receivers Josh Matthews and Severyn Foster were impactful additions to the passing game. Former Arizona State running back A.J. Carter, when healthy, also had a powerful effect in the backfield. Tulane transfer Chris Joyce was a stalwart at cornerback, where McNeese was in dire need of a quick infusion of talent.
Defensive end Mason Kinsey, a junior college transfer, was one of the spring’s biggest surprises. He joined Chambers, composing a two-headed monster of quarterback sacks (four) and disruptive play.
Wilson was forced to do some fancy footwork and make some coaching moves when he lost both his defensive coordinator and secondary coach, who accepted other jobs early on. Wilson tabbed young defensive assistant Deron Wilson as his new DC and brought in veteran coach Willie Mack Garza to oversee the safeties.
Wilson had to do it again when linebackers coach Will Thomas left the team in the middle of camp due to pressing family and personal issues, according to Wilson.
University of Houston defensive graduate assistant coach Matt Ellerbrock joined the staff to oversee the linebackers.
The Pokes’ defense played their best ball over the latter half of the season. The staff moves involving D. Wilson and Garza proved to be prescient decisions by head coach Wilson.
That thrilling comeback 40-37 double overtime win on the frozen tundra of Tarleton State to open the spring season was quickly followed by the season’s most atrocious performance in that home-opening 48-20 loss to Incarnate Word.
I couldn’t figure out or explain the monstrous egg McNeese laid that afternoon. Maybe we can blame it on having to play a day game thanks to Hurricane Laura taking out the lights at Cowboy Stadium. Day or night, the game clearly showed Wilson the team’s lack of preseason practice and conditioning along with depth issues and inconsistent execution. These problems caught up with his Cowboys when they were playing against a pretty good UIW team.
Two more losses by a total of 6 points to Southeastern La. and Lamar followed. That’s when Orgeron took a few steps back. But he quickly regrouped with solid wins over Northwestern State and an impressive 41-31 home victory over 11th-ranked Nicolls.
They were back-to-back 300-plus yard passing games. But the Nicholls game was probably Orgeron’s best overall game, with all due respect to his 21 fourth-quarter points in the Tarleton overtime masterpiece.
Orgeron threw for 354 yards and 4 touchdowns against a Colonels team that had aspirations to compete for the FCS national title.
Wilson points to those two hard-fought losses to Southeastern and national champion Sam Houston, along with the win over Nicholls that will be the driving force behind the Cowboys’ success this fall. “When you talk about the Southland a year ago, you talk about Sam Houston. [You] talk about Nicholls State and Southeastern. Those teams score points in abundance. Gain yards in abundance. We probably played each one of them better than anyone else played them,” Wilson said.
If not for untimely turnovers and a few defensive lapses, McNeese could have notched a possible upset of the eventual FCS national champions on the road at Sam Houston, where they lost 27-13.
The tale of the tape for the Cowboys this season is the old cliché of complementary football, where all three phases play well and hold up their end of the game plan. In particular, the special teams must cover kickoffs and punts better because rare runbacks for scores are back-breakers and must-make field goals need to be converted.
On defense, it’s not so much how many yards they give up but how many points they surrender. And on offense, Wilson wants to force defenses to defend the entire field and says they need north of 28 points a game to win.
“For us offensively, you have to be able to score over 28 points a game in today’s football. We need to be able to keep guys in front of us and defend our endzone. That’s the name of the game for us defensively.”
Offense: Depth, Experience and Playmakers
Any time you dissect an offense, you start with the most important position on the field: quarterback, of course.
Orgeron, the former walk-on who is now a sixth-year senior, is entrenched as the starting QB. There was no quarterback competition this August, even though backup senior Walker Wood is keeping Orgeron honest and on his toes.
In seven starts over the spring, Orgeron completed a respectable 61 percent of his passes for 1,560 yards and 10 touchdowns against only three interceptions for a 223-yard average for passing. He also ran the ball 90 times — Wilson is quick to say the majority of the carries were not designed runs — for 257 yards and three scores. The biggest run was a walk-off touchdown trot at Tarleton to end that double overtime game.
Wilson credits offensive coordinator Ronnie Letson for improving Orgeron’s pre-snap reads and grasping the nuances of the third offensive playbook in three years. Remember, Orgeron became the starter under head coach Lance Guidry. Then came Sterlin Gilbert for one season, and now Wilson’s scheme is marking its third offensive system.
At the midway point of the spring season, it began to really click for Orgeron. And it all started at the line of scrimmage before the ball was snapped. “He began to get a jump from a pre-snap perspective and understanding what he can possibly get and it allowed him to get to his decision much faster. Our system took time to evolve, not just for him but for our receivers as well. We began to run the ball better, which opened up some things in the running game. Our blocking got better as the season went on, and we caught contested balls better than we did early on, and production happened.
“I just thought he hit his stride. [He] played well on the back end of the season, and it will catapult us into the start of this season,” Wilson noted with a smile on his face.
I caught up with Orgeron after the first practice of August drills. He possesses the air of confidence you would expect from a three-year starter. He has dealt with the expected highs and lows of playing quarterback, and it all goes back to recognizing the defense, knowing what to look for and putting the play in motion.
“No excuse, but this was my third system in three years, and it does take a little bit of adjustment. But I am fully settled into this system. [I have] full confidence with pre-snap, post-snap reads, and I know coach Letson is putting us in great situations and it’s up to us to execute. It’s really just confidence and going out there and playing with that swagger,” Orgeron said.
He also said he intends to stay more patient in the pocket and only run when his number is called or when a play breaks down and his legs are the best option for yardage. Those team-leading 90 rushes in the spring are not the direction or goal of this offense. So Orgeron will look to throw from the pocket or roll-outs more — “deliver some strikes,” as he said.
It’s year six and the final rodeo for this former state high school tennis champion. It’s been an amazing ride. The young man with the most recognizable name in Louisiana sports admitted COVID was a serious challenge for many people. But the virus gave him an extra year of eligibility. He works to balance the good and bad of the pandemic.
“COVID affected a lot of people in a lot of bad ways. And prayers to everyone that was affected. But it was a blessing in disguise for me, as I was able to get a sixth year — get my master’s. And I feel I still have a lot of talent: a lot of potential to tap into. I’m a late bloomer. [I started] playing football late in high school, so this sixth year was really a blessing. Nothing ever happens by chance. I feel this was all destined and planned for me, so I am looking forward to taking full advantage of this sixth year.”
Offensive Line: Old And New Faces
You usually don’t associate the word “thin” with any offensive line, but it applied to McNeese in the spring because of the lack of bodies and depth to rotate up front. Injuries at various times meant the Cowboys had maybe one or two scholarship linemen in the starting rotation.
Wilson kept saying all spring, “be patient with this line as help is on the way come August.”
Well, that help arrived in the form of Iowa transfer 6-foot, 6-inch, 340-pound Trey Winters and Central Michigan transfer Romello Tarver at 6 feet, 5 inches, 275 pounds.
There is no question of “where’s the beef,” as it can be found on this offensive line. And it was much needed.
McNeese has some returning talent in seniors Calvin Barkat and Caron Coleman, who has a ton of experience, along with junior Charley Zeno. But you need a solid eight linemen to survive an 11-game schedule.
Barkat, tabbed by Wilson along with Coleman as OL and team leaders, says he welcomes the incoming help. “We have good talent coming back, but [we were] needing some depth. And the incoming freshmen, and mainly Trey and Romello, will just make us so much better.”
Winters and Tarver signed with FBS schools (Iowa and Central Michigan) for a reason. They are imposing figures on the field. And sometimes you just need some extra big men to put an O-Line over the top. “Two massive offensive lineman (Winters and Tarver) give us the opportunity to compete,” said Wilson.
Crowded Running Backs’ Room — And That’s A Good Thing
With an improved offensive line, you would expect Wilson and Letson to lean on the running game this fall. They have six legitimate running backs they can lean on without too much drop-off.
That’s mainly due to the fact that perpetual injuries last season meant any able and healthy body got snaps and carries.
The snaps and carries went from senior Deonta McMahon to A.J. Carter, then to Carlos Williams followed by Josh Parker. Heck, throw in reserve quarterback Walker Wood, who played some running back late in the spring — being the lone healthy body who could take a handoff.
All these backs, including J’Cobi Skinner, averaged between 31 and 47 total carries. And none of the five got more than 200 yards for the season.
Wilson was forced to run by committee whether he wanted to or not.
The head coach, a former collegiate running back himself, says he likes the depth and all the returning runners. But that didn’t stop him from signing Tulane graduate transfer Stephon Huderson from the NCAA portal.
Huderson, 5 feet, 9 inches, 206 pounds, led Tulane in rushing in 2020 with 773 yards, four touchdowns and an impressive six-yard per carry average. That rushing total ranked second in the AAC last year. Huderson totaled 1,375 yards over his four years with the Green Wave.
It seems you can’t have enough running backs, and Huderson’s ability to find holes and yards and also contribute in the passing game might just make him McNeese’s No. 1 option. “I saw a team on the rise and needed to take that one step further from good to great. Frank Wilson has a good resume for running backs, and that connection to the next level (NFL) is very big.” That’s how Huderson explained his decision to join McNeese.
“He is built like they are supposed to be built … like a tank. Thick Dalton Hilliard-like legs. [He’s] not tall in stature, but squatty and low to the ground for a leverage advantage. He will add to the running backs’ room and give us quality depth while competing for the starting job,” said Wilson.
Receivers Big And Small
In the pass-happy, spread offense that is the hallmark of college football today, you can’t have enough receivers.
And as with the running back position, Wilson and his staff played Santa Claus with a coaching whistle over the off-season, offering a scholarship gift to La. Tech transfer Cee Jay Powell, who was a USA Conference Honorable mention for the league’s All Conference team in 2020.
Powell followed former La. Tech transfer and Bulldog teammate Josh Matthews south to Lake Charles. When I asked him why, Powell laughed, saying “Ruston didn’t have Billy’s Boudin.”
All joking aside, the 5-foot, 7-inch, 170-pound Powell intends to bring a range of skills to the position. “I can go across the middle or down the field. My speed and route running are what I can bring to the team. And yes, I am pretty much always open,” Powell said seriously.
Powell is seriously good.
His open field exploits are on display at nearly every practice and scrimmage. He hauled in four touchdown catches and 10 receptions over the team’s two intra-squad games.
The receivers’ room is interesting in that it includes the 6-foot, 2-inch Josh Matthews, the Cowboys’ leading receiver, with 32 receptions for 458 yards and four touchdowns. Sitting next to him will be 6-foot, 2-inch Severyn Foster, along with four to five young guns all 6 foot 2 or better.
Then there are the under-6 foot fellas, with Powell at 5 feet, 7 inches and speedster Mason Pierce at 5 feet, 9 inches. Both are expected to see a lot of action stretching the seam routes and jet sweeps.
“Cee Jay played next to Matthews at La. Tech. [He was] a dynamic play-making guy who lit our defense up in a year of being ineligible a year ago (he was able to practice with the team but not able to play),” explained Wilson.
Over the past year, dating back to 2020, McNeese lost its two leading receivers to the transfer portal, starting with Cyron Sutton and then the departure of Trevor Begue over the summer as he opted to transfer to Incarnate Word. Begue will face his old McNeese teammates twice this fall in a home and away series.
Wilson said he liked Sutton and Begue’s game, but admitted in clear terms that those two defections led to “upgrades” to the receiver position with the additions of Matthews and Powell.
If you have read this column before or watched my sports commentary on SoundOff in the last 26 years, you know I am a huge fan and proponent of tight ends and the use of them in the passing game.
Wilson vowed to incorporate LSU transfer tight end Jamal Pettigrew into his offense last spring, and he succeeded to a point.
The 6-foot, 7-inch, 245-pound Pettigrew did catch 18 balls for 132 yards but for only one touchdown.
For a Cowboys offense that had problems scoring touchdowns inside the red zone, or even inside the 10-yard line, Pettigrew was underused. He did have one or two noticeable dropped passes, which may have affected his confidence or Orgeron’s tendency to look Pettigrew’s way. But that needs to change in hopes of giving this passing game some diversity.
Pettigrew is a solid blocker and could be a better weapon down the field. But his number needs to be called more.
It’s not a secret weapon if you let it be known you have a secret weapon and you identify that secret weapon.
But I can’t blame Cody Orgeron for his excitement and anticipation of what back-up quarterback Walker Wood can bring to the Cowboys’ passing game — not as a passer, mind you, but as a receiver. Orgeron called Wood the team’s “secret weapon.”
That’s right — McNeese has their own Taysom Hill-like gadget guy, to a point.
Wood, a former 3-star quarterback recruit out of Lexington, Ky., who spent time with his home state Wildcats before transferring to McNeese last year, is getting reps not only at QB as Orgeron’s backup but also at receiver.
Add running back to his list of talents as we saw last spring, when Wood was forced into the backfield when the Cowboys literally ran out of healthy running backs. He totaled 43 yards off 15 carries for two scores. Not too shabby for his first crack at taking a handoff.
Even though McNeese has a deep and talented receivers group, Wood is getting some snaps at wideout and proving versatile there too. His four receptions for 65 yards led the team during their first August scrimmage.
At 6 feet, 190 pounds, Wood is a bit too small to put his hand in the dirt as a tight end as Mr. Hill does for the Saints. But his presence on the field could mean he’ll be catching passes, taking a quick pitch on a run design play or possibly a halfback type run/pass option.
Right now, Wilson and his offensive coaches are just tinkering and testing the waters with Wood. “We are going to maximize all the weapons we have. We can’t afford not to have a guy that’s talented not on the field. So our intent is to use every bullet we have week in and week out to give us a chance to win,” Wilson said.
The secret is out. Wood has carved his way into the offensive playbook.
Turn The Game In Eight Minutes
Anyone who has been around football for any length of time knows the first possession of the second half can set the tone going forward, both offensively and defensively.
Wilson says it’s not only the opening four minutes of the second half, but the final four minutes before going into the locker room that plays a huge part in the game’s final outcome.
His conviction brought to mind last season’s NFC Championship game between Tampa Bay and Green Bay. Tom Brady didn’t run out the final seconds of the first half. Instead he launched a deep pass into the endzone for a touchdown with no time on the clock.
Then, barely a minute into the second half, former LSU stud linebacker Devin White forced a fumble from Packers running back Aaron Jones, which led to another Brady touchdown pass and a 28-10 early 3rd quarter lead.
The game was essentially over. Brady and the Bucs went to the Super Bowl. Aaron Rogers and the Packers lost the NFC Championship game for the fourth time in the last seven years.
“Those eight minutes and the difference in how that pendulum swings the outcome of games is so big. It’s paramount. What happens going into halftime and what’s allowed to happen in that opening drive offensively and defensively — that’s an area we have really emphasized,” Wilson said.
Defense: Speed, More Speed And Defending The Endzone Starts With The Secondary
Over the past few seasons, and including Wilson’s opening spring campaign, the Cowboys’ defense would be stout and holding firm until a receiver or two got behind the coverage for chunk plays that resulted in big yards or scores.
Those pesky explosive plays burned the Pokes a few times in the spring against some dynamic quarterback play from Southeastern and Sam Houston.
McNeese’s defense allowed an average of 440 total yards (184 passing and 256 rushing) and 25 points per game. That seems like a lot of yards. But with the spread offenses, and four to five receivers to defend at any given time, defenses allowing 250 yards per game is a thing of the past.
“Yardage can be deceiving and irrelevant if points never happen. If there is yardage and points, then there’s reason for concern. If they threw for 600 yards and scored 62 points that’s a problem. But if it’s 350 yards and they scored 20 points, then OK, we defended,” intoned Wilson.
“We have to defend the endzone. We cannot let balls go over our head for long touchdowns.”
This takes us to the defensive secondary. It’s always a concern and a key unit for any defense in my opinion.
It was on Wilson’s radar to enhance the secondary via the transfer portal. He believes that was accomplished with the addition of recent Arizona transfer defensive back Jarius Wallace; Kansas transfer Corione Harris, who will play cornerback; and Lathan Adams, a Colorado State transfer.
The defensive backfield is anchored by All SLC safety Andre Sam, who led the Cowboys in tackles last spring with 52 stops along with three interceptions and two pass breakups. The junior from nearby Iowa is a versatile star player who always seems to be around the ball.
Sam expects to get more help from returning DBs who are faster and stronger both physically and mentally. “We are much faster and longer; smarter, stronger and faster. This summer went very well for the whole team, including the secondary.”
Chris Joyce, a Tulane transfer from a year ago, came into his own at one cornerback spot, leading the Southland with 15 defended passes, earning second team all conference. He will only improve going into his second season in the system.
Senior DB Colby Richardson can play both cornerback and safety and will give the secondary consistent play. Depth includes Enos Lewis, Trent Winbush, Rae’Kwon Starks, Gus Nave and freshman Quad Wilson, the head coach’s son.
Even with those numbers, Wilson saw the need to upgrade his secondary, because you simply can’t have enough talented safeties and cornerbacks. And did I mention speed?
Wilson has probably watched the movie Rocky II a few times and noted when the aged boxing trainer Mickey screamed, “we gotta get speed … demon speed. Speed’s what we need. We need greasy, fast speed.”
“All of our [defensive backs] can run. That’s something we covet. We wanted to improve on the speed of our team. We’ve had good players and physical players. But we always wanted to evolve from a speed standpoint,” Wilson stressed.
In today’s multiple spread offenses, Wilson says, you can defend 9 out of 10 deep throws, but the one you fail to cover is one too many and can cost you the game. “What we have now is quality and depth with speed at the corner position and at safety.”
McNeese’s linebackers seem to be an afterthought of late. The Cowboys haven’t had a standout linebacker since B.J. Blunt in 2018.
Darius Daniels and Kordell Williams return, but beyond that, all spots are up for grabs this August.
Last season’s backup linebacker Jake LaFleur is rehabbing an injury and won’t be available for a while. That may open the door for freshman Micah Davey, who Wilson says is improving and was a top signee for the Cowboys at that position.
If the last names look familiar, they should ring a bell for LSU fans.
LaFleur, from Sulphur, is the son of former LSU star tight end David LaFleur, and Davey is the son of former Tigers and New England Patriots quarterback Rohan Davey.
Defensive Line — No Doubt The Strength Of The Cowboys
This defensive dissection brings us to the gold mine of this McNeese team. The defensive line, anchored by the aforementioned consensus All American defensive end Isaiah Chambers, will give opposing offensive coordinators fits and worries this fall.
Chambers garners much of the defensive spotlight and attention and rightfully so. The 6-foot, 5-inch, 250 pounder from Houston led the Southland Conference with seven and a half sacks, which was second overall in the FCS. His constant disruptive play and gaudy defensive stats earned him the numerous honors listed earlier in this article.
Nowadays head coaches are constantly recruiting in some form or fashion. Re-recruiting your existing players is of paramount importance every off-season. The players now have the option of a quick exit via the NCAA transfer portal; or if they are good enough, declare early for the NFL Draft.
Wilson, a known recruiting savant, may have saved his best recruiting sales pitch for Chambers, who is not only talented on the field but in the classroom as well. He was last season’s SLC All-Academic and Student Athlete of the Year.
“He had other options (transfer or enter the NFL draft),” Wilson said honestly, explaining further that Chambers also lost all of his possessions after Hurricane Laura destroyed his apartment in Lake Charles. Despite the stress of two hurricanes and the COVID pandemic, Chambers sat down with Wilson and left that fateful meeting a Cowboy.
“He stood. He stood steadfast. And I think that right there epitomized the character of that young man. He’s loyal. He said he wanted to do something and stayed to do it. We were able to help him improve his game and make him that much more diversified and add more things to his tool belt. He hasn’t been content. He has only worked harder. He is everything you want. Epitomizes work ethic, team, selflessness, talent. Smart and bright,” Wilson said.
Last spring, Chambers finished fourth in the voting for the Buck Buchanan Award, which goes to the top defensive player in the country on the FCS level. Chambers is back on the Buchanan watchlist for this fall, of course, and admits he is not oblivious to all the attention.
“I’d be lying if I said I didn’t think about it. I tried to not let that get to me. If I want to get those awards again, I have to forget about it and do all the stuff I did last year again,” said Chambers.
Along with the QB sacks, Chambers amassed 14 tackles for losses — a defensive stat that I think deserves more cache. Chambers agrees, saying that tackles for losses are just as important as a quarterback sack.
Opposing offensive lines will surely try to double-team the All American. But he warns against that tactic. “Can’t really double team me because we have a lot of guys on the D-Line that are pretty good too. It will be pretty hard to double team me. But we have stuff planned for that.”
Chambers’ bookend mate at the other defensive end spot is one of those “pretty good guys.” Mason Kinsey, a junior and former transfer from Navarro Jr. College, was a terror as well last spring.
His 38 total tackles were fourth best on this defense to go with four sacks, seven tackles for losses, two pass breakups and a forced fumble. Kinsey came out of the blocks quickly in the spring season opener, with 10 tackles in that huge overtime win over Tarleton State.
The middle of the defensive line includes a stout Masry Mapieu, Accord Green and a couple of sophomores in Kinder’s Joey McNeely and Leon Young. Look for contributions from talented reserve defensive end C.J. Semien, a former Barbe Buc star, and Earenest Grayson, who snagged two QB sacks.
“We have a defensive unit [in which] both ends have garnered accolades and done it on the field. But you are only as good as your last play. But [we have] an experienced group that has had success for us,” smiled Wilson.
Gary Hyman, the coach who leads the McNeese special teams group, is very active on the practice field. He runs around the field yelling, directing and clapping.
He knows Wilson well, spending two years at UT-San Antonio as the special teams coordinator there before following his head coach to McNeese.
No matter how close their friendship may be, Hyman is feeling some heat on improving his unit’s execution and performance this fall — from converting critical field goals and PATs, to improving punt and kickoff coverage and returns, to more consistent punts, depending on field position.
Field goal kicker Jacob Abel returns from a solid spring season, connecting on 9 of 12 kicks. He was a perfect 7 of 7 from 29 yards or less but a troubling 0 for 2 between 30 and 39 yards. Those should be automatic makes.
Wilson reflects on some of the red zone scoring opportunities with ample consternation — not only for being kept out of the endzone for six points but for missed field goals. He says six points are always better than three. But when you settle for the field goal, you have to leave the field with three.
Abel should retain his field goal kicking duties. But he is being pushed by newcomer Graycen Kennedy, who converted a 28-yard field goal in the last scrimmage.
Wilson loves Australian punters from his days at LSU when the Tigers had a string of top-notch punters from down under.
In comes Eemil Herranen via San Diego, Calif., with a rugby kicking style Wilson says is effective in all weather conditions. But with near perfect weather conditions (despite the grueling 100-degree heat) throughout August camp and two scrimmages, Herranen has been so-so.
Wilson is concerned, saying the kicking game from kickoffs to field goals to punts has been inconsistent and has to get better.
With fewer than two weeks until the season opener, I’m not sure Wilson or Hyman know who their kickers will be just yet.
Speedster Mason Pierce should handle the load at kickoff and punt returns, but Cee Jay Powell may get some time back there as well.
2021 Schedule And Expectations
It must be noted that over this calendar year, McNeese will have played this year’s FCS National Champion in Sam Houston State, the defending Division II National Champs in West Florida and, of course, the 2019 FBS and College football national champion LSU Tigers.
Now that’s the kind of schedule fans love but coaches fret over, and for good reason.
The season opener over those Division II national champs will be a difficult test and has Wilson’s full attention.
Last year, the Argonauts out of Pensacola got the attention of the Southland Conference enough to garner an invite to the league, which West Florida promptly turned down.
They have their eyes set on higher ground, and aim to send a message to other interested conferences with an upset over McNeese on Sept. 4th.
From there it’s a mini-gauntlet for the Cowboys. Three straight road games at LSU on Sept. 11 (the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks), Southern University on Sept. 18 and the SLC opener at Incarnate Word.
The LSU game will attract national headlines and coverage because it’s believed to be the first collegiate game since 1982 in which a quarterback son will face his father, who is the opposing team’s head coach.
In 1982, NFL Hall of Famer John Elway, then the quarterback for Stanford, faced his dad Jack, the head coach at San Jose State. Jack won that game, beating John 35-31.
Nearly 40 years later, Cody Orgeron will run into Tiger Stadium to face his pops, Coach O and LSU.
“We mess around and joke about it all the time. We are going to come ready to play, and I’m sure he will have his team ready to play too. So it will be a fun night,” Orgeron smiled.
“It will be a very cool story. But their field is 100 yards, like anyone else’s, and I can’t get caught up in all the hype. I know people are going to be talking about it, but I just have to cancel the noise, go out there and play the game. It’s just another game to me.”
But it’s far from just another game for the sixth year senior quarterback who has aspirations to enter the coaching field once he finishes his playing career and his master’s at McNeese this fall. He described playing against his father’s LSU team as a once in a lifetime opportunity. Not just any old game.
It will be special for Wilson as well, who calls the Orgerons “family.” Wilson has been connected to Ed Orgeron since 1992, going back to their coaching stints at Nicholls, Ole Miss, Tennessee and LSU. Wilson and Orgeron have coached side by side at all those stops and have watched each other grow from assistant coaches into head coaches.
“Cody is family to me, and that’s his dad, so hopefully I can convince him (Coach O) not to call too many blitzes. Hopefully blood overtakes it,” Wilson laughed. “Expect a very competitive game from [LSU]. We are gonna compete, man. We are going to shoot our bullets and give it everything we have and let the chips fall where they may.”
That three-game road swing will end with a highly anticipated conference opener and rematch with Incarnate Word. Remember last spring’s home debut for Wilson’s Cowboys was spoiled by their worst performance of the season, losing to the Cardinals 48-20. The game ended with UIW coach Eric Morris tacking on an unnecessary late touchdown pass in the red zone instead of simply taking a knee to run out the clock.
Wilson clearly had some pointed words for Morris in their postgame handshake, if you can call it that. And the Cowboys coach is well aware the last two games have UIW winning with a combined score of 93-37. McNeese will have a home matchup against the Cardinals on Oct. 23 for round two of what I suspect will be very spirited and intense games.
The remainder of the season has McNeese facing Southeastern La., Nicholls State and Northwestern State on a home and away basis, and a lone game at Houston Baptist.
I don’t like this squirrely scheduling, but the SLC had no choice with the exodus of the Texas 4 (Sam Houston, Lamar, SFA and Abilene Christian to the WAC) and Central Arkansas leaving the conference as well.
Wilson and the players will repeat the old cliché that it’s hard to beat a football team twice in one year. But it’s the hand the league has dealt to McNeese, and the other programs as well.
The Cowboys were selected to finish fourth in preseason polls, which is really discounting the returning talent; the quality of transfers that has upgraded the roster; and the fact that McNeese finished the spring season winning two of three and had a legitimate shot at upsetting eventual national champion Sam Houston on the road if not for a late turnover.
Orgeron might have been playing the best of all the SLC quarterbacks over the last three games — one who has completed 70 percent of his throws for 951 yards with 7 touchdowns and no interceptions. That is a critical measuring stick in a QB-heavy league such as the Southland.
Southeastern, selected No. 1 in the preseason league poll, returns Walter Payton Award-winning quarterback Cole Kelley, along with a very good defense and a team that went deep in the FCS Playoffs last spring.
Nicholls State was tabbed to finish second. It returns senior QB Lindsey Scott and NFL-bound receiver DaiJean Dixon. The Cowboys’ most impressive win (all due respect to the comeback OT win at Tarleton State) was the 43-31 defeat of the Colonels at Cowboy Stadium late in the season.
Incarnate Word brings back their Jerry Rice Award-winning sophomore QB Cameron Ward one year wiser, along with bruising running back Kevin Brown, who averaged 10 yards per carry in the spring.
Even though it’s a scaled down Southland Conference team-wise, the league boasts one of the best defensive players in the FCS in Isaiah Chambers, the FCS’s top player in Kelley and Ward, the quarterback who leads the division with 24 touchdown passes. Toss in one of the top receivers (Dixon) and running backs (Brown).
The Southland received three FCS playoff bids last spring. This fall, if the records are good enough, the league should get an automatic qualifier for the champion and one at-large bid.
I would give the nod for the favorite to Southeastern Louisiana based on the quarterback and overall defense.
The Cowboys will be battling Nicholls State for that second spot near the top of the Southland. Officially, McNeese is still on NCAA probation. But it’s clear of those academic sanctions and eligible for the conference title and postseason play.
In my mind, that SLC opener at UIW after two hard road games will set the tone for the rest of the conference schedule for McNeese. They need to at least split with Southeastern, sweep Northwestern State and Incarnate Word and beat Nicholls and Houston Baptist. And I think they are very capable of doing just that. But it’s hard to handicap those unprecedented home and away league games.
McNeese can ill afford a misstep when it opens the season against West Florida, who will be a formidable challenge.
A 9-2/8-3 season is achievable, but will be a tall order in Wilson’s second season.
If the offensive line and secondary gels and stays healthy, I think these bigger, stronger, faster Cowboys will be in the hunt.
Chambers said it best … “we are excited and have a lot to prove this year.”