Changing the culture of an athletic program as a first-year head coach is never easy.

He has to look into the eyes of players, most of whom he did not recruit, and convince them that their way will make the team better.

When looking at McNeese State football head coach Sterlin Gilbert, one has to realize the figurative tightrope he's walking.

Gilbert preaches competition. Every day, every play. And that's not only fine but necessary. If the players and coaches can't compete in practice, what makes you think they'd compete in a game?

So what's the problem? From all accounts the Cowboys are getting after it in training camp, which is what they need.

The issue is what the competition could manifest if not properly harnessed. It stems to last year when the offense struggled mightily and the defense played well most of the time. I've been told that the locker room was fractured, and that was one reason why.

There were defensive players who gave interviews and said that they felt like they needed to not only keep the opponents off the board, but either score or force a turnover deep in opposition territory to give the offense a short field to work with. Sometimes even that wasn't enough.

McNeese defenses have always carried that proverbial chip on their shoulders. They were called the "DWA" (Defense With Attitude) for a reason. That type of thing really works when all three phases are in lockstep. But in football, if one side is struggling, and other side is keeping the team afloat, there's a natural tendency for the locker room to be divided.

So one of Gilbert's biggest tasks, aside from resuscitating an offense that rarely had a pulse last season, is to keep the competition at a high level without any hard feelings off the field.

On the first day the Cowboys were in full pads, Gilbert made the team run after practice, something which rarely happens because they usually hope to go at such a fast tempo during practice that it serves as conditioning.

I don't know the reason for making them run, but from the tiny bit that I saw, the offense and defense were in team drills going after it, and things got chippy. Offensive assistant coaches, as they've been known to do, thought the defensive players could have eased up with some of the hitting, and they let the defensive players know about it.

By making the team run extra after practice, Gilbert was trying to nip in the bud any animosity.

The "la familia" motto and principles of family, accountability, discipline, and so forth, is good. But that stuff gets tested when the pads go on. A lot gets tested when the pads go on. And during training camp, there's always going to be one side of the ball upset after a rep. That's what happens when you practice against your teammates.

Obviously, the easiest way to deal with this is to go out there and win games with the offense scoring in bunches and the defense being stingy and not allowing many yards or points. I believe that the defense is talented and should do well enough. The major question is still with the offense.

What if they do come out and struggle to work out kinks early on in the season? How will the players react? Gilbert has seemingly done a fine job creating a family atmosphere, but we all know that can change if results don't go how they want.

In Saturday's scrimmage, the offense scored on the first play. Just what you want if you're Gilbert. Then they failed to scored on the next 12 drives. That's a long time without scoring. For a frame of reference, McNeese had 13 offensive drives in the season-ending loss to Lamar in 2018.

Maybe the up-tempo offense will yield more drives per game this season, and the McNeese offense did pick up towards the end of Saturday's scrimmage, but the offensive consistency has to pick up before Aug. 31 when a good Southern University team will roll into town. And then a road game against Oklahoma State as well as a home game against Alcorn State. No easy start to the season.

So for Gilbert, it's simple: improve the offense and make sure the locker room is harmonious. It sounds simple. If he can do that, this will definitely be a winning season.

Welcome to the world of being a Division I head coach.


David Berry covers McNeese State athletics. Email him at dberry@americanpress.com

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