Grading the McNeese Cowboys at midpoint of season

By By Alex Hickey / American Press

We’re halfway through the season, and with McNeese State ranked ninth in the country it’s obvious that the Cowboys have done

a lot of things right.

As a 5-1 record shows, it hasn’t been

perfect. Anything that could go wrong did in a 41-6 loss at Northern

Iowa, and the Panthers

obviously found some things that other teams may try to exploit in

the future. We’ll just have to see if any of those teams

have the talent to pull it off quite so well.

The UNI game aside, it has been a

sterling first half, highlighted by blowout wins over Football Bowl

Subdivision South Florida

and Southland Conference rival Central Arkansas. Even the 44-42

win over Division II West Alabama is looking pretty darn good

after the Tigers worked D-II’s top-ranked team, Valdosta State, by

a 49-30 margin.

So it will come as little surprise that the Cowboys have turned in a good set of grades on their midterm exam.

Quarterback

A Some — possibly even those writing in this space — never thought it would happen. But Cody Stroud has become the straw that

stirs the drink in his senior year. Commander Cody is seventh in the nation in passing efficiency, and has targeted every

eligible target on the field at some point. His late-game comeback drive against West Alabama showed he could get it done

in the clutch.

Tyler Bolfing did a nice job in his one drive a game during nonconference play, but Stroud has firmly established this as

his team.

Running backs

A When your No. 3 running back ranks

in the national top 50 in rushing touchdowns, you’re clearly having

some success on the

ground. Marcus Wiltz is clearly the best back in the league not

named Timothy Flanders, and if Kelvin Bennett finds a seam,

he’s gone. The performance of bruiser fullback Dylan Long has been

this year’s revelation, and the return of Javaris Murray

makes this the deepest group of backs in the Southland.

Wide receivers

A- If teams try to shut down Diontae

Spencer, Ernest Celestie will step up. And vice versa. The loss of Wes

Briscoe to injury

is significant, but Jereon McGilvery and David Bush have shown

signs of being effective third options. This group struggled

to break free against a physical UNI secondary, but has played

well otherwise.

Tight ends

A The presence of Nic Jacobs changes

everything. Defenses must respect his combination of speed and size. If

they respect

it too much, the receiving corps can tear teams apart. Kendale

Thomas and Zach Hetrick have also done well as blockers, which

allowed the shift of Long from fullback to tailback and turned him

into a much greater asset.

Offensive line

A-

If we graded on a curve, this group would be getting an A+. You can’t

ask for anything more from three new starters, including

two who were defensive linemen last year. But there have been the

inevitable spurts when youth has shown, such as a rash of

false starts against Weber State and a snap that went 20 yards

behind Stroud at UNI.

Defensive line

A- Two years ago, the Cowboys had 11

sacks. All year. That total was upped to 21 last season, and that

number is on pace to

be surpassed. McNeese went into Saturday with 15 sacks, which was

one behind Lamar and Southeastern Louisiana for tops in

the conference. Everett Ellefsen leads the league in sacks and is

second in tackles for loss. The play of the year for this

group was Kevin Dorn’s interception of a ball batted by Chris

Loveless at UCA.

Linebackers

B- McNeese is allowing 172 yards a

game on the ground, which is the third-worst mark in the league. It

could be the nature

of a 4-2-5 scheme, but many tackles on running plays have been

made by defensive backs. Brody Burkhalter had a huge late-game

sack against West Alabama, but this position is the closest thing

to an Achilles Heel for the Cowboys.

Secondary

B The toughest bunch to grade. The

Cowboys have been burned for big plays in every game but are often able

to counter it with

an even bigger play by a defensive back. Guy Morgan’s pick-six

against USF and Ryan Bronson’s 98-yard score at UCA were both

turning points in those victories.

This also speaks to the story at linebacker, but McNeese is the only team in the conference whose leading tackler is a defensive

back. In fact, the Cowboys’ top three tacklers — Terence Cahee, Guy Morgan and Aaron Sam — are DBs.

Special teams

A- Like everyone else, the special teams unit had a rough time of it at Northern Iowa. This is clearly the area where McNeese

has made the most strides. Even the potential worst special teams moment of the year — a blocked extra point against West

Alabama that could have been returned for two points the other way to tie the score — was averted thanks to holder William

Ryckman knocking the ball out of bounds.

Of note: Jean Breaux leads the league with 18 touchbacks on his kickoffs. Opposing kickers only have two against McNeese.

Coaching

A Matt Viator’s biggest offseason

goal was finding a way to keep players on the field after a rash of

injuries helped derail

the past few seasons. Other than the loss of Briscoe, which

probably would have required one of Superman’s knees to prevent,

that goal has been accomplished.

Putting Slade Nagle in charge of special teams has worked. Ditching the I-formation for a rotation of single backs has worked.

Perhaps most impressive was getting the team’s focus back after a blowout loss at UNI for the program’s first-ever win at

UCA.

There is a long road ahead, but Viator has pushed all the right buttons.