Rick Sarro Friday, September 16, 2022 Comments Off on POTENTIAL, PROMISE, AND PITFALLS: THE 2022 MCNEESE COWBOYS

By Rick Sarro

I can offer up a slew of metaphors to describe McNeese’s 2022 football program and the season fast approaching.

The Cowboys, with their fourth head coach since 2018, are building from scratch.

The McNeese program has resembled a huge blue and gold punching bag, having endured self-inflicted damage from the coaching turnover and NCAA academic probation and external damage from Mother Nature’s wrath from both hurricanes, Laura and Delta.

This once proud football FCS power has been floundering and wandering in the vast wasteland of mediocrity after its first back-to-back losing seasons in 32 years and its last post-season win in 2002.

My favorite metaphor might be something akin to the Pokes are familiar with playing home games in the “Hole,” but also find themselves digging out of a hole because of all the aforementioned issues.

McNeese’s current situation is simple, but the answers and a pathway to success are anything but easy.

The 2022 storyline on this team starts and ends with an entirely new coaching staff (again) and a roster cull and cleansing that would make Mr. Clean blush.

Now, where the Cowboys go from here is more complex and littered with questions and speculation. A lot of college football teams will have new head coaches and coaching staffs this season. But I doubt any have a roster that started August training camp with 56 new players.

That’s a humungous and unprecedented number of new players that the coaching staff will spend an inordinate amount of time getting to know and building relationships with. The coaching staff will have to evaluate each player’s talent and skills. Hours of tape study will only go so far on player analysis. Coaches need to see players on the turf and hands in the dirt.

First-year head coach Gary Goff knew how arduous this task would be, so he didn’t flinch when he brought in only assistant coaches he knew and trusted from his staff at Valdosta State or men he has worked with in the past with established resumes.

From there Goff and his mates used the transfer portal as if it were a personal ATM. They didn’t have a choice after sending players who didn’t fit the team’s character or system on their way. A number of other Cowboys who didn’t see a future in Goff’s plans entered the portal on their own.

Then came a rushed and challenging recruiting season that had Goff bumping into four or five fellow new head coaches for Louisiana teams (LSU, La. Tech, UL-Lafayette, Grambling and Southern all have new head coaches this season.)

Once those challenges were met, it was time to begin installing entirely new offensive, defensive and special team schemes during spring camp. That was no easy endeavor, as the player head count fell to below 50 at times due to various injuries and roster shortages.

After a spring practice that opened up even more personnel and position questions, Goff got busy again on the transfer portal, signing more needed defensive backs, receivers and a new quarterback that odds are will be named starter in a few weeks. “Most of these transfers we’ve gotten are not just good players, but good, good people. I have seniors get up and talk to the team most nights. But hearing some of these transfers talk about having a second opportunity and being a part of a family and what they’ve learned and given advice to the freshmen has been spot on. [I’m] really proud that we’ve added some great culture to the program. And they are great players as well,” Goff emphasized.

As Goff was running around putting out brush fires, he saw two assistant coaches leave over the summer for FBS jobs at Arkansas and North Carolina. He squeezed in a short  vacation around the July 4 holiday. But soon thereafter he did some staff coaching shuffling and hired a new tight ends coach in Ryan Nehlen from West Virginia.

So that was your main narrative for McNeese football leading into August preseason practice: new head coach, new coaching staff and a roster turnover that had players wearing name tags to meetings.

The Pokes’ pathway to success I mentioned earlier begins at finding a new quarterback so let’s start there.

Offense… Land Of Opportunity

The McNeese offense had a completely different look on that very first August camp practice in bright sunshine and 95 degree heat.

Georgia Southern transfer quarterback Cam Ransom, at 6 feet, 3 inches, 225 pounds, is vastly different from former three-year starter Cody Orgeron, who stands 6 feet, 190 pounds. Orgeron played his heart out and sapped every ounce of talent out of his tennis-trained frame. But clearly these are two polar opposite quarterbacks.

The difference in Ransom’s arm strength, ball velocity and accuracy is off the charts. His upper and lower power build and strength looks like that of a true college quarterback. His fluid moves in and out of the pocket come with ease and a sense of purpose. Ransom exudes confidence, poise and leadership despite having spent just weeks on the team and in the locker room.

Ransom transferred in after new Georgia Southern head coach Trey Helton, who went cross-country and down a few notches after he was fired from USC, brought in his quarterback choice from the portal. Ransom got some limited action in 2021, completing 39 of 83 passes for 494 yards and 3 touchdowns.

The sophomore from Lakeland, Fla., has lived up to Goff’s gushing about his deep ball.  He can stretch the field with his arm strength, but that is only one aspect of what this new Air Raid offense needs. “He’s got a strong arm.  The ball just comes off his hand differently, that’s for sure,” Goff noted.  “Can he run the offense?” the coach seemed to ask himself recently.

Goff wants an “extension of him[self]” on the field at quarterback.  The system demands that the quarterback can make quick and accurate reads at the line and equally speedy decisions in getting the ball to the right receiver at the right time to take advantage of a defensive void.

This offense has a lot of run-pass options, and the quarterback will need to read and react with precision, maximize on what the defense is giving up, avoid bad plays against a defensive formation, and avoid turnovers and negative yards on first down. Goff expects a supreme Alpha dog in the huddle and at the line of scrimmage — one who can control offensive tempo and rhythm, and, of course, throw and run for touchdowns.

Ransom’s first extended work in pads came in the team’s first scrimmage when the lefthander QB completed 9 of 14 passes for 217 yards and four touchdowns after an early shaky start, which could have been expected. Goff saw both positive and negative in Ransom’s first scrimmage. “[I’m] very happy with [his] ball protection. He didn’t turn the ball over. Early on, two of those sacks were definitely his fault. That’s just timing; speeding up in his head of just where the ball should go. But that will get better with more reps.”

Ransom experienced some early camp adversity, tweaking his back in practice and forcing him to the sidelines for a few days. He responded well in the team’s first intra-squad scrimmage, leading the No. 1 offense with those four touchdown passes. 

Ransom appears to have all the physical tools. He definitely looks the part, with his size, athleticism and rifle arm. Clearly the chore of understanding this offensive scheme, the demanding decision making and the quick tempo it requires, will be areas of continued work and study.

Knox Kadum, the Virginia Tech transfer, and Kentucky transfer Walker Wood, both got in critical practice time during spring and early in August. Wood got all the reps due to Kadum’s injured throwing hand and Ransom’s back issues.

But once Ransom and Kadum were cleared for full contact practice, Goff decided to whittle his quarterback competition down to two. He went to Wood with the news he would be shifting back to slot receiver, which he played during that shortened spring season and last fall. “We need some help with the slot receiver to the right and I think Walker is a great leader. [He’s] a phenomenal athlete and I think he can help the team tremendously right there,” Goff explained.

“Walker is a great teammate. Obviously he wants to be the quarterback, right. He understood. He understands that he can still be a big, big part of this team and still be our leader. I want to get him the ball. It will also take some pressure off Mason and the other [receivers].”

Goff admits Ransom and Kadum, both FBS transfers, bring different skills to the QB room. Ransom extends plays with his legs and has a “cannon for an arm,” and Kadum sees the field well, according to Goff.

With such a limited number of snaps to evaluate these two quarterbacks so far, Goff didn’t sound like he was kidding when he said recently, “we might start the season playing both of them (Ransom and Kadum). I don’t know yet.”

One thing Goff knows for sure is his starting QB has to make the correct decision and get the ball quickly to the Cowboys’ rich variety of offensive weapons in space. “It’s going to be the guys making the right decisions and not sitting there trying to throw the home run ball every single snap. That’s not going to win you football games.”

Patience, poise and taking advantage of what the defense is willing to give up are tantamount in Goff’s offense. Don’t be misled by all the pass-happy hype that engulfs Air Raid offenses. Goff’s spread system relies heavily on a balance between the pass and run game.

Last season, while at Valdosta State, Goff had three running backs who rushed over 1,000 yards. The ground game was obviously a huge part of the Blazers’ third-ranked total offense in the NCAA, averaging 522 yards per game, with the team ranking fifth in total rushing, with a 267 yard per game average.

McNeese’s offense could very well have a 50/50 split between rushing and passing yards if Goff can replicate what he did at Valdosta in 2021. Keep in mind this is a totally different level of football — going from Division II to FCS — and the schedule’s tougher competition may dictate a different offensive game plan week to week.

The Cowboys are not short on talented running backs who bring different skill sets and a lot of depth.

Senior Deonta McMahon, who led McNeese in rushing last season with 573 yards and 8 TDs, is the unquestioned star in the backfield. He’s lightning quick, elusive, has a keen sense of spotting an opening and the speed to take advantage.

Senior transfer Marcus McElroy from Colorado State has shed 15 pounds from spring, but says his trademark power is still here. At 6 feet, 220 pounds, McElroy could be the inside runner this offense will need.

If they both produce, I see a “Mac Attack” headline coming from McMahon and McElroy.

The running backs room has another senior in Savannah State transfer D’angelo Durham along with sophomore speedster Josh Parker, who has had a good camp with breakaway runs.

“I think we have three animals back there. We have Deonta, who is electric and can hit a crease and he’s gone. Marcus is a big, physical runner who needs to get behind his pads a little bit more. And Durham is patient and lets the holes open up,” says Goff.

“We are really healthy right there in the backfield. And those guys bring a lot to the offense.”

I like the stable of backs and think McMahon, if he stays healthy and can get 15 to 18 carries a game, could be something special. He can be used in the short passing game as well, as Goff’s playbook has running backs split out wide as receivers.

If the quarterbacks show the patience that’s needed and take those underneath routes with the running backs, then the chains can move and the Mac Attack, along with Durham and Parker, will play a vital role in the offense.

Of course, all that potential on the ground will depend largely on the performance and consistency of the offensive line.

Every team. Every year. In every situation. It will always fall back on the offensive line. It’s an overused point of analysis every off-season, and for good reason. The quarterbacks, running backs, the passing game for receivers all depend on keeping defenders at bay and allowing enough time for the QB to set a play in motion.

No wonder the first fundamental of football comes first. Nothing happens offensively without blocking.

The job of any offensive line coach is never easy in August. But Ryan Allgood is in much better shape than he was back in spring when he barely had enough linemen to run an 11 on 11 drill. Players sitting out spring due to lingering injuries or guys held out because of new ailments handcuffed offensive line work and meaningful reps.

When August camp rolled around, the big bodies showed up en masse and some serious practice ensued.

I count upwards of eight linesmen who either started or were docked considerable snaps last fall who are back. They’re led by senior tackle Calvin Barkat and senior guard Caron Coleman. Junior tackle Charley Zeno returns, along with sophomore center Dylan Dauzart and sophomore guard Cam Foster.

The line has a few more sophomores like Jack Zelezinski, Hezekiah Nelson and Iowa transfer Trey Winters in the mix. They did not see much action last season for various reasons. Add that up and you had a lot of freshmen and sophomores thrown to the wolves in 2021. It looked like a train wreck most of the season.

What that portends this season is unknown. But you have to assume the experience gained last year, however difficult the learning curve was, will reap benefits in 2022.  

One thing you see that’s different this season is more size on the offensive line, which will easily average over 300 pounds. The Cowboys have at least four incoming freshmen who are 6 feet, 4 inches to 6 feet, 7 inches — and all weigh north of 300 pounds.

Barkat might have the FCS and NCAA record for the one player with the most head coaches. He is on his fourth head coach since coming to McNeese, as he started with Lance Guidry. He advanced to Sterlin Gilbert and Frank Wilson, and now will spend his senior season with Goff.

This offensive line will be solid and made better by going against a very talented and strong defensive front every day in practice. The Cowboys have a good mixture of experience and youth, with players who gained valuable playing time in last season’s struggles.

They gave up a lot of sacks in 2021 (not all their fault, as Orgeron had a tendency to hold on to the ball too long) and learned to play in adverse game conditions and behind-the-chain situations. That experience will aid them this fall no doubt.

I think they will get better, more consistent coaching with a goal of developing and improving every week.

Keeping key linemen like Barkat and Coleman healthy will be paramount. But this unit has enough depth to absorb some injury, with hopes of a limited drop-off in play.

Better quarterback execution and timing will make the offensive line play and look better, especially, in the sack stats.

“We are young there.  You are going to see some freshmen play on both the offensive and defensive lines. I do like our depth. And we have experience there and we will see how they handle it,” says Goff.

I was highly critical of the wide receivers and tight ends last year and that was warranted. Outside of the splendid season from Mason Pierce, the receiving group was unimpressive and unproductive. They could not get off the scrimmage quickly or cleanly and simply could not get open. When they did locate an open spot in the defense, catching the ball or producing appreciable yards after the catch was far and few in between.

Goff and his offensive assistants clearly saw the same thing when they were reviewing tape and that’s why they hit the transfer portal. Upwards of four receivers transferred in, along with two tight ends. There are also five freshmen receivers seeking playing time this August.

All Southland pick Pierce is the unquestioned star of the unit.  He plays far above his 5 feet, 7 inches, 155 pounds, making speculative leaping catches downfield or in traffic on underneath routes. Once the catch is made, Pierce sets his eyes on the endzone or a hefty gain.

Pierce, a sophomore who also handles kick return, says he feels comfortable in the new Air Raid style offense, but cautioned that the rest of his offensive mates must find the same level of comfort and understanding for the offense to produce.

He is never shy in saying he can do whatever is asked of him. And with the added receivers’ talent, Pierce expects even more fireworks. “I can go underneath or go deep. But now I have other people on the outside that can help me as well. The run game is picking it up too, so I feel we all can make plays,” Pierce said after the first team scrimmage in which he led the team with five catches for 139 yards and two touchdowns.

Pierce is dangerous and durable. He avoids the big hits and stays in the game. And with more touches both in receiving and jet sweeps he should match his All Conference numbers.

The added help on the outside Pierce alluded to comes with the number 0 — the number of San Diego State junior transfer Koby Duru. He has been impressive from the get-go. At 6 feet, 2 inches, 200 pounds, he is long, strong and fast. He catches the ball well in traffic and will come down with his fair share of those 50-50 balls downfield.

Duru has meshed well with the team’s older and younger players and has taken a vocal leadership role on the offense.

“[Duru’s] got great length, great speed and is so quick. It’s nice to have a threat on the opposite side of Mason so they can’t sit there and concentrate on Mason the entire time. We have a chance to be really good offensively but we have to continue to master our craft as far as the scheme,” Goff noted.

Returning receivers Josh Matthews, a senior who entered the portal but decided to return, along with Severyn Foster and Nate Briscoe, have to improve their ability to get open and make meaningful receptions.

Redshirt freshman Jon McCall at 6 feet, 3 inches, is a big target and could garner some playing time along with Jalen Johnson and Markel Cotton. This offense will line up four and five receivers, sometimes with the running backs and tight ends. But all of the routes are intended to spread and put pressure on defensive coverage and find soft spots.

The receivers’ job is to run correct routes against the correct coverage; find that opening or seam; and be ready to make plays when they’re targeted. Motion penalties, dropped balls or not being where they should be will cause pitfalls in execution and put the offense in undesirable down and distance situations.

That is clearly a sore spot and concern for Goff, who won’t tolerate those mistakes. That’s why he was so active in the portal for receivers who can fill voids now and give the unit more depth and options.

We haven’t seen much from the tight ends as yet. But sophomore K.J. Brown is back. Harvard transfer Kyle Klink, at 6 feet, 4 inches, 245 pounds, sure looks the part and has made some physical-type plays while catching the ball, which was a missing component in the tight end position the last two years.

Without a doubt, Goff feels he has two of the Southland’s top receivers and intends to target them as much as possible.

“I think Mason Pierce and Koby Duru are probably two of the best receivers in the FCS,” proclaims Goff.  “They got to be on that list at least. Now they haven’t done anything yet, and they have to perform in games, but from what I have seen out here, and I have been fortunate to work with some great receivers before, those two have big play potential.”

“But you have to have the right trigger man. You have to have the guy to get them the ball. “  

After the second scrimmage held under the lights, Goff saw both good and bad from his two quarterbacks. “They need to speed up the game a little bit. They are seeing the reads but are hanging on to the ball just a little too long for us right now. We need to tighten up that game plan for them; make sure they understand it and deliver the football. When they see, don’t second guess it … throw it,” says Goff.

It always goes back to where we began. The quarterback.

Defense… As Strong  As The Weakest Link

Every team and position group has to have stars to excel: key players who just stand above and beyond their running mates and, of course, the competition.

The Cowboys’ defense has two of them in senior defensive end Mason Kinsey and senior linebacker Kordell Williams.

There are a few more battling to crack that ceiling: senior defensive linemen C.J. Semien and Masry Mapieu, along with inside defensive tackles Accord Green and Joey McNeely.

Now you know where the strength of McNeese lies: again, it’s on the defensive front. That’s where the talent overload is located, with support from All SLC linebacker Williams.

That’s the good part of this story. The worry and questions focus on a defensive secondary that lost two All SLC players to the transfer portal: safety Andre Sam to Marshall and cornerback Colby Richardson to LSU.

I found only two defensive backs on the current roster who were listed on the Cowboys’ depth chart last season: sophomore Rae’kwon Starks and senior backup safety Enos Lewis.

That’s it for the secondary. All other spots are now filled with transfers and incoming freshmen. That’s building from scratch. And that can be a scary proposition. “It does scare you a little bit because they have to communicate and see things on the same level. Practice is one thing. Game time is another,” cautions new defensive coordinator Tony Pecoraro, who joined Goff from South Alabama.

“We have just a certain amount of practices before we play a game with a brand new group of people, so we have to do a great job of keeping it simple for them so they can process it and execute.”

It seems like McNeese’s defensive secondary has been plagued with allowing explosive, long touchdown run-and-catch plays for 10 years or longer. I know that may be an exaggeration. But it’s not that far off.

In today’s spread-and-throw offensive schemes, you can’t expect defenses to clamp down like a vice grip and hold teams to 250 yards of total offense. Those days are long gone. The Pokes’ secondary problems have been too many 20- to 30-yard passes behind the defense or a receiver catching a 15-yard pass and turning it into a 60-yard touchdown.

Pecoraro’s defensive playbook is more varied and detailed than the schemes McNeese has run over the past few seasons: so much so that senior linebacker Kordell Williams was moved to say it was nice to finally have a defensive scheme to play.

That’s a cold and bold indictment of past McNeese defenses. But it’s probably spot on, and I tend to side with the veteran, multi-year All Southland linebacker on that one.

Pecoraro says no defensive coordinator wants to give up big plays. But he feels it’s a matter of matchups and not asking a cornerback who can’t “press” to press (play close to the line of scrimmage on the opposing receiver) or having a defensive back run with a receiver if he doesn’t have the speed to match. “We have to do a good job to make sure that our matchups are on their best players.”

Sam Houston transfer cornerback Ke’Shon Murray has drawn great reviews from Pecoraro on his tight man to man coverage on deep balls. Malik Welch, a San Jose State transfer, is drawing praise for his length and boundary coverage.

Southern Miss transfer Tyler Barnes is a senior safety that Pecoraro describes as his “coach on the field” because of his knowledge of the playbook; both spent time in Hattiesburg.

“I think we will be a good group. Is it right now? I’m not sure. But I think we have enough talent.  We just have to grow fast,” Pecoraro said.

When you mention the Cowboys’ defensive line, Pecoraro’s eyes light up and he allows a smile to come through.

He admits this group is the strength of his defense (probably the core of the entire team, in my view), with its mix of All SLC players like Kinsey and Green. Toss in stalwart defensive tackle Joey McNeely and senior defensive end C.J. Semien and McNeese should have one of the best D lines in the Southland.

Depth should not be an issue with the addition of 6 foot, 4 inch, 300 pound defensive tackle Will Rogers, a South Carolina Gamecock transfer.  Returning senior Masry Mapieu will get considerable snaps, and redshirt freshman lineman Welland Williams has been the “surprise of August camp,” according to Pecoraro.

Kinsey will be targeted for more than a few double teams now that All American DE Isiah Chambers is gone.  Kinsey says he’s OK with that. He accepts that challenge and the high expectations put on this defensive line. “We are the heart of the defense. And I know it’s going to come down on us to make a play because the back end (the secondary) is depending on us.”

When it comes to carrying the defensive load until the secondary gels, Kinsey says it comes down to trust, which is an integral part of the culture Goff preaches every day. “At the end of the day it’s all about trust: about being a dependable teammate. I like these guys and trust them back there (defensive backs) and I know they trust us up front,” says Kinsey.

The middle of McNeese’s defense also includes a perennial All Conference star in linebacker Kordell Williams. The senior from Carencro seems to have led the Pokes in tackles ever since he stepped on the field. He is always around the ball, even if he isn’t the primary hitman. “Always at the ball, plays hard, relentless,” is how Pecoraro describes Williams. I will add he is hardnosed, intense and tough — a leader with great instincts. 

Did I say undersized?

At 5 feet, 10 inches, 205 pounds, Williams looks more like a defensive back than a linebacker. But he plays like he is 6 feet, 2 inches, 235 pounds. He is amazing to watch as he sheds off blockers and weaves his way through human traffic toward his target.

The linebacker crop will be better and deeper. Junior Brayden Adams is ready to make his mark. Look for redshirt freshman Micah Davey, son of former LSU and NFL quarterback Rohan Davey, who will see action as a reserve. An infusion of talent from the transfer portal saw Amaud Willis-Dalton come over from the University of Houston. He’s not huge at 6 feet, 1 inch, 200 pounds, but he’s lightning quick and displays great tackling discipline.

Williams is confident the entire defensive unit will show significant improvement over last season now that they have a defensive playbook and depth.

“We actually have a scheme this year. We have the right players in the right positions. We are two deep across the board and everyone knows what they are doing and everybody is coming out here making plays and flying around the ball,”  Williams says.

“It’s going to be something fun to watch.”

Special Teams…Actually Special  This Season

The field goal kicking was so bad last fall … Proceed to fill in the blank with any and all jokes.  

During a half-time promotion last season, a young lady took off her homecoming heels and converted the best looking extra point the Cowboys saw all season. Too bad it didn’t count.

At one point, former coach Frank Wilson asked us in the media if we knew of anyone with kicking skills.

The Cowboys were so handcuffed last year by the kicking situation they were forced to go for first downs well behind the chains in field goal range, thus bypassing a possible 3 points only to turn the ball over on downs on many occasions.

No question, the comical kicking hijinks cost McNeese at least three victories over a 4-7 record.

It had to be the first fan question Goff was asked after his hiring last December: “Are you going to get a kicker?”

And he heard about the kicking woes constantly, and again during the first scrimmage after a field goal conversion was followed by numerous  “hallelujahs” from the fans in attendance.

Among the new kickers working out during spring drills was junior college transfer C.J. Moya. Then came Ohio State transfer kicker Garrison Smith, who is leading the leg duel for the No. 1 kicking job.

 Smith has displayed pretty good accuracy and consistency between 35 and 40 yards. The real test will be from 45 to 50 yards under the lights, under game pressure.

The punting was a touch better in 2021, but there were a few head scratchers from time to time. Sophomore Callum Eddings is showing some much needed consistency, averaging 46 yards a punt in the second scrimmage and adding a 60-yard bomb. Punting stats aren’t sexy and fans don’t think about critical game situations when you need a huge kick to flip the field so to speak.

The special teams unit didn’t need any setback leading into August camp. But they got one when special teams coordinator and defensive backs coach Frank Wilson, Jr. (no relation to the former McNeese coach) was hired by North Carolina.

Wilson, considered in college coaching circles as a rising star, had been on Goff’s staff only a few months when he left for the Tarheels job as senior special teams analyst.

Goff shuffled his staff a bit, putting Thomas Reese over special teams and giving him a stint coaching the running backs.

Reese will need to focus on punt and kickoff return coverage, as that was a weakness as well for the Cowboys last year. But remember, this is nearly a total roster turnover, resulting in more talented athletes. The hope is they will be more focused and committed to doing their jobs — especially on special teams.

Expect a complete 180 from last season’s kicking fiasco. Admittedly, that’s a very low bar.

New Coaches…           New Players…                 New Culture …          New Attitude

When Gary Goff was hired away from Valdosta State as the Cowboys’ fourth head coach since 2018, he promised to get those cannons firing again in the Hole. He brought in some excellent assistant coaches he knew and trusted.

Spend any length of time during practice sessions or scrimmages and you can see much more one on one coaching going on. You’ll see teaching, the building of relationships and the all-important player development.

It does no good to recruit a pretty good player if you can’t make him better and enable him to reach his full potential. That was one of McNeese’s many problems and shortcomings in the last 5 years. Many players just didn’t get any better. In fact they regressed, as did the entire program. And it was clearly evident on the field.

Those two straight losing seasons were no accident or fluke. Those were two lousy McNeese football teams.  But to be fair, those two squads from 2020 and 2021 underwent extreme hardship and challenges from two hurricanes, a flood, a freeze and a coaching staff not totally committed to McNeese long term.

I believe players need to be held accountable, on and off the field. And on that note, the players’ roster needed a huge overhaul. Goff implemented his process of addition by subtraction.  The roster’s revolving door saw many leave and 56 new players enter.

That long list of transfers combined with incoming recruits and the lot of returnees has resulted in a noticeably higher level of sheer athletic talent. The current Cowboys are better, bigger, stronger and more committed.

Williams, the senior All Conference linebacker who has been through more downs than ups, sees the immediate impact of this talent infusion.  “They’ve added speed and experience. Guys just ready to win. Ready to fight. And talent of course.”

It’s not easy to build a winning team in seven short months. But Goff and his staff have accomplished that —  all the while communicating, establishing and reiterating the exact culture, rules and expectations of the  program’s new ethos.

The Cowboys’ new camp motto or mandate is “Tough, Attitude, Discipline.”

That will be tested on the first game out of the gate on Sept. 3 with a long road trip to Bozeman to face FCS second-ranked Montana State. The Bobcats averaged 400 yards of offense and allowed 310 per game last season.  Their most impressive win came in the FCS playoffs when they hammered an 11-1 Sam Houston State team on the road in Huntsville, Texas 42-19.

Pecoraro knows his defense and built-from-scratch secondary will be under a lot of pressure from a cohesive offense with one of the nation’s top FCS running backs. “When we get on that plane we have to feel like we are going to play the brand of football that we are proud of and the university will be proud of. Win, lose or draw. If it works out for us, awesome. If it doesn’t, we have to continue to grow.”

The second game will send the Cowboys on the road to Houston for a first ever matchup against Rice. I truly think this game will be a better barometer for the Cowboys as they will have that tough road matchup against Montana State under their belts and a clearer picture of what worked and where they need fine tuning.

The Rice game is also important as it will be an audition of sorts for McNeese playing a Conference USA team and how they can stack up in the league that could very well be their best pathway to the FBS level.

Alcorn State and Mississippi College will be the next two home games, as the Pokes finally return to home action under the lights. By the way, you may need to bring sunglasses, as I am told the new LED stadium lights will shine down a brightness never seen before at Cowboy Stadium.

Southland Conference play begins the week of Oct. 1 at Incarnate Word. Then after a bye week, there will be three more SLC games, then an interesting home date Nov. 5 against Eastern Illinois. The Panthers, the former team of quarterbacks Sean Payton, Tony Romo and Jimmy Garoppolo, could have used one of those guys last year when EIU went 1-10 and finished last place in the Ohio Valley Conference.

The Cowboys will finish up at Houston Baptist and with a season-ending home game against cross-border rival Lamar, who ditched the WAC after one season and returned to the Southland Conference.

Due to Lamar’s return to the league and Incarnate Word’s decision to remain in the SLC conference, schedules underwent some late changes, which included McNeese not playing longtime league rival Northwestern State, which is a shame.

In the preseason SLC poll, McNeese was picked as fourth best, with Southeastern edging out defending conference champion Incarnate Word for the No. 1 ranking.

Handicapping this league will be difficult as every team in the Southland will have a new starting quarterback under center, which is highly unusual.  That fact alone will put all the teams on a more even keel.  

You may recall that over the last two to three years, Southeastern La., Nicholls, Incarnate Word, Sam Houston and Houston Baptist all had star quarterbacks, while McNeese was treading water at the position.

Goff believes at this point his talent will match up man for man well against other Southland teams. But he cautions that he and his staff have not seen or played against any league opponents so far. He went on to say those other programs have also beefed up their rosters over the off-season with transfers, so it’s anybody’s guess until they line up and play.

Goff and his new band of assistants had a problematic spring practice because they were so limited when it came to healthy players. Ransom was not with the team as yet and was slowed down in August camp with the sore back.

 Kadum only absorbed a small amount of the playbook in spring and then he missed important days once August camp started with that thumb injury on his throwing hand.

It’s going to be a real challenge to have either one of the quarterback candidates fully prepared for Montana State with so few quality reps and so little work in practice, which I think will slow McNeese’s progress at the start of the season.

Goff has stressed time and time again that he needs a quarterback who can lead a tempo-oriented offense, make decisive reads, deliver the ball quickly to playmakers in space and minimize turnovers.

This season is hard to predict — in particular the conference games because there are a few new coaches and a complete turnover in quarterbacks across the Southland.

I think with the upgrade in athletic talent across the roster, a better offensive and defensive scheme, a much-needed change in focus and accountability among the players, an improved skill set at quarterback and a hard-working, diligent and committed new head coach, all that should carry the Cowboys to a 6-5 record in 2022.

An optimistic fan base may not think that’s very impressive. But considering those two straight losing seasons and just how deep McNeese fell into that hole of mediocrity, a 6-5 winning record will be pretty darn good.

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