McNeese coach Gary Goff is in the business of building a football program.
And like many businesses around the region, state and country, he is short on workers. For now, anyway.
On a weekly basis, the Cowboys’ first-year head coach has lamented a spring roster that was decimated by injuries, transfers and timing. (He will have his full recruiting class on campus by August camp.)
When Goff was named McNeese’s fourth head coach in five years, he quickly put on his project manager’s hat and assembled his coaching staff — the majority coming with him from Valdosta State. From that point on, he went deep into his coaching tool box to rebuild a roster, install totally new schemes for both the offense and defense, and, what was probably the biggest challenge, establish his culture.
You hear the word “culture” tossed around a good bit nowadays in sports, and at times it loses its importance and impact as it falls under the heading of cliché or media talk.
But in the case of Goff and McNeese football, the word culture was no cliché used to fill in a soundbite or press conference quote. Just ask a few of the players Goff has already disciplined.
After 40-plus years of covering football, be it high school, college or the NFL, I think I know what a rebuild looks like, and the 2022 Cowboys have all the traits.
There’s a new head coach and coaching staff. There’s a transfer quarterback who will be the starter. More transfers who are not even in the locker room right now will hold down other starting positions come August. It’s an unsettled roster when it comes to depth across pretty much all position groups.
And the icing on that rebuild cake is new playbooks that players should be studying like it was final exam week — not just for a week or so, but for the entire summer.
I mentioned the transfer quarterback who will be QB 1. Knox Kadum, formerly of Virginia Tech, feels differently about labeling this team a rebuild.
“I don’t feel that way. There is a lot of young talent, with some leadership roles. Guys that have been here before. I think part that makes it feel like a rebuild is the simple fact that it’s a new scheme on offense and defense, and guys are having to relearn a whole new thing. I think that’s why it’s been a little slow over spring. But I think we can make some really big jumps over the summer and going into fall camp.”
The Cowboys’ defensive star All SLC linebacker and tackler extraordinaire Kordell Williams also disagrees with my team-under-construction assessment. But he has always been one to see more positives than negatives — going back to the Covid spring season of 2021. “We are not rebuilding. I feel like we are picking up where we left off: making the adjustments we need to make. We are moving forward, but not rebuilding, though.”
In any case, Goff and his assistants, in their long meetings over the summer, will face more questions than DeShaun Watson.
Spring drills did little to solve the offensive questions related to both starters and backups. There was no depth, due to players healing from injuries or recent surgeries.
The most glaring concern is in the defensive backfield, where McNeese lost two starters to the transfer portal (Andre Sam and Chris Joyce), attrition and graduation.
You’ve heard of the global supply chain dilemma. Well, Goff had his worst shortage in the secondary. He went through most of spring camp and all of the scrimmages with literally two cornerbacks and two safeties on his defense.
Goff chuckled a lot about having to slow down his offensive tempo to give those four lonely defensive backs time to rest and catch their breath. I think his laughs were trying to mask his concern over this critically important personnel group and playing catchup this August.
The Cowboys aren’t the only team that will spread the defense and throw the ball at every blink of an eye. And Goff knows he will need a solid secondary to defend the pass.
I asked Goff if the offensive line and secondary issues are keeping him up at night. He laughed again, saying he is usually up at 4:30 am, so there are not many sleep-in weekends anyway.
“It is the roster (that disrupts his sleep). There’s no secret we are really thin at the offensive line. The good news about the offensive line is that we have four starters that didn’t go through spring. So that should improve [when they come] back in August. The secondary — we just don’t have enough bodies right now, so we are actively recruiting,” said Goff after the spring game that ends early drills.
“By the time we get to camp, we will have another five defensive backs to add to the roster. But, you are right: those two positions are extremely important, and if you go without one or the other you will be in for a long season.”
No doubt new offensive line coach Ryan Allgood will have to use some incoming newbies from the freshman recruiting class for O-line depth.
To help the secondary shortage, Goff asked quarterback Dillon Simon, formerly of Lake Charles College Prep fame, to shift to cornerback over spring and try his hand at defending passes instead of throwing them.
Like a good trooper, Simon was happy to oblige and displayed some encouraging coverage skills by the spring game. He is obviously a versatile athlete who Goff says just wants to get on the field and play football.
Nothing is set in stone. But depending on future defensive back transfers and secondary depth, Simon could very well remain in the defensive backfield rotation during August camp.
Walker Wood might be another player who could very well find himself in a different position. Wood, a former three-star transfer quarterback from Kentucky a few seasons ago, shifted to receiver last year. He is in a three-way battle for the starting quarterback position with Kadum and Cade Bartlett. Wood had some up and down performances in scrimmages, but put up his best showing in the spring game, completing 9 of 11 for 105 yards and two touchdowns.
The senior from Lexington, Ken., didn’t have many balls thrown his way last season, but is a natural athlete who can catch and an elusive runner, which he has shown on quarterback-designed RPOs (run, pass, option).
“There are some things he does really well and some things he has to improve on in order to stay at that position (quarterback), says Goff. “For some reason, if he doesn’t end up being the starter (quarterback), he is an athlete you want on the field somewhere.”
The foundation of this Cowboys football program is on very solid ground, with Goff at the helm and, just as important, an experienced and passionate coaching staff he knows well and has full trust in.
Goff’s much talked about Air Raid offense had a few shining moments during spring scrimmages. Kadum has shown he has the strongest arm, and his experience with the spread offense is evident, even though Goff says they have yet to test the quarterbacks with audibles and formation shifts.
Receiver Mason Pierce is a dynamo on pass routes and making yards after the catch. He had four touchdowns in spring scrimmages, but saw limited action in the spring game due to a toe injury.
Josh Matthews is finally showing he could be a threat, stretching the defense on deep routes and using his big frame to outmuscle cornerbacks.
Goff’s version of the Air Raid will require an army of receivers at Goff’s disposal, so I am sure he and new receivers coach Felton Huggins were tickled to see big body wide-outs Markel Cotton and Severyn Foster catching and scoring touchdown passes in the spring game.
If body types are any indication, the Cowboys might just have another thunder and lightning running back combo in the 5-foot, 9-inch, 175-pound scat back Deonta McMahon and bruiser Marcus McElroy, a 6-foot, 235-pound transfer from Colorado State.
McElroy hasn’t busted loose for long runs. But he was four for four, gaining first downs on short yardage plays in the spring game. His bulldozing running style and penchant for picking up first downs in traffic will keep drives alive and move the chains.
The offense is still looking for a tight end to emerge.
The strength of the defense, and possibly the team, once again points to the defensive line anchored by All SLC defensive end Mason Kinsey, who lines up with Accord Green and Masry Mapieu along with some newcomers.
The front seven of the defense may need to be stellar, as the secondary will be late in developing over August camp. Williams, the all conference linebacker, is everywhere and doesn’t miss many tackles, if any at all.
Junior linebacker Brayden Adams from Barbe had a great spring and further proved he is over that ACL knee injury that kept him out of the lineup a few years.
Williams raved about the play of young linebacker Micah Davey, who will see defensive snaps this season. The name should look familiar, as Micah is the son of former LSU and NFL quarterback Rohan Davey.
The most nagging and troublesome problem for the Cowboys of late — one that can’t be forgotten or overlooked — is the kicking game. Both place kicking (PAT and field goals) along with punting have been putrid going back to that odd Covid-induced spring season and last fall.
The inability to make extra point kicks or field goals literally cost former coach Frank Wilson games last season.
Goff is hoping he has solved the kicking woes with transfer C.J. Moya, who has consistently converted PATs and field goals in spring practices and scrimmages. His most impressive kick was a 42-yard field goal in the spring game, which drew one of the most robust round of cheers and applause by the fans.
It doesn’t end there, mind you. Moya and punter Callum Eddings have to prove they can perform under the lights on game nights when it counts.
So Goff’s first spring practice session is in the books. And he admitted he ran very “vanilla” schemes on offense and defense as he started the rebuilding process (my words, not his).
I’m sure he had more things drawn up to accomplish this spring. But the reduced head count forced him to revise his list of objectives somewhat.
“We are a long way from being perfect right now. But I’m very pleased with how these guys came out here. When you think about it, everything was new: the way we practice, our language, the schemes on both sides of the football and special teams. For them to come out here for the last four weeks and give it their all — I’m very proud about that. It gives us a lot of hope and high expectations moving forward,” Goff said with a smile.
Despite navigating around a severe shortage of players during spring workouts, Goff was able to keep a positive outlook. The smile test will be under a bit more pressure this August, though.
Catch Rick Sarro’s commentary and latest opinions on Soundoff on CBS Lake Charles Tueday and Thursday nights at 10:05 pm and again Saturday at 11 pm and Sunday at 10 pm.