Throughout the history of McNeese State football, Southwest Louisiana has always been sure to contribute players to the program who have made a difference.
Barbe High's Chris Livings won 2019 Southland Conference Defensive Player of the Year and is second in program history in quarterback sacks. Iota's Buford Jordan is second in program history in career rushing yards. Westlake's Terence Cahee, an assistant football coach at Lake Charles College Prep, was a captain on McNeese's 2013 team that beat South Florida and earned a trip to the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs. Those are just a few of the many players from the area who have gone to McNeese and played a part in the Cowboys' success.
Area players currently on McNeese's roster include Leesville's Cory McCoy, Oakdale's Darion Dunn, Sulphur's Jake LaFleur, Welsh's Zach Hayes and Caleb Gary, as well as LaGrange's Anthony Johnson. And after a year that saw McNeese essentially put local recruiting on the backburner, it seems like the Cowboys are back with an intention of truly canvassing the area hard again.
"We've got 10 areas in the state with our 10 assistant coaches," first-year McNeese head coach Frank Wilson said about recruiting. "And our recruiting starts in the city of Lake Charles. And then (we branch out) to Lafayette, we go down south to (as far as) Grand Isle, as southern as you can go, and all the way up to Shreveport and beyond."
To date, McNeese has offered six Southwest Louisiana prospects from the class of 2021 that have been verified by the respective high school coaches: Jaylen Joseph, Glynn Johnson III, Dillon Simon and Solomon Lewis of LCCP; Eli Goss of Westlake and Cejae Ceasar of Iowa. That is in stark contrast to the class of 2020, when there were no tracked offers for any local players.
Former McNeese head coach Sterlin Gilbert and his staff were in Lake Charles for one season, but their recruiting priorities were elsewhere. Because Gilbert was a former Texas high school football coach and had a lot of Texans on his staff, McNeese put out a lot of offers in the Lone Star State. And even when they did offer Louisiana prospects, they were all farther east along Interstate 10, in larger cities like Lafayette, Baton Rouge and New Orleans.
Local high school coaches remember how heavily McNeese recruited Southwest Louisiana prior to Gilbert.
"Back when coach (Lance) Guidry was there and before that coach (Matt) Viator, the (McNeese) coaches were always around it seemed like," said former Welsh and current Westlake head football coach John Richardson. "I had several kids from Welsh sign with McNeese. We really didn't hear from anyone (from McNeese) last year. Of course, the guy that was there (Gilbert) was only there one season. But they're recruiting one of our players right now. It's nice to have a little local flavor."
LCCP head coach Erick Franklin, who played wide receiver at Louisiana Tech, said it's nice to see the current McNeese staff, "making it their duty," to recruit locally, but he also didn't want to place all the blame on last year's staff for not offering any of his kids, offering a slightly different experience than Richardson's.
"I didn't have any problems with them; they came by my school," Franklin said of Gilbert's staff. "Really and truly, I didn't have any kids that were qualifiers (from the 2020 recruiting class) that could have went to the (Football Championship Subdivision) level, from a standpoint of grades. But they did come to the school a lot to see my kids, they just never really offered them."
Both Richardson and Iowa head coach Tommy Johns said current Cowboys offensive line coach Chris Truax is the assistant coach who has contacted them. Truax has an advantage as a local recruiter, having coached at McNeese from 1994-98. He also should be well versed in the Southland Conference, having also coached at Northwestern State and Stephen F. Austin.
The local high school coaches have responded well to Truax, but they also give credit to running backs coach Landon Hoefer for keeping in contact. That could well be one of the reasons that Hoefer is the longest tenured McNeese assistants. He has been on the staff since 2014, staying through Viator, Guidry, Gilbert and now Wilson.
"Landon does a great job of developing relationships around our area too with the high school coaches," Johns said. "So far (the new coaching staff) has been great."
Developing good relationships with area coaches will have short and long-term effects. Three LCCP players with McNeese offers are committed to other schools (Joseph to Grambling State, Simon to South Alabama, and Johnson to New Mexico State). Even if those players go out of town for school, they will keep McNeese in the back of their minds if they decide to transfer and come closer to home.
Former St. Louis Catholic punter Alex Kjellsten (LSU) and Barbe wide receiver Ernest Celestie (Texas Tech) did just that after signing with Football Bowl Subdivision schools out of high school.
Richardson said local recruiting will have a positive effect beyond the on-field play.
"Attendance being down at McNeese games the last several years, I really think getting in more local players like this is going to get the interest back in the program," he said. "Obviously college football is a business and you've got to get the best guys you can get. But anytime you can get local players in there, you're going to get more local interest, and hopefully the fan following that used to always be a part of McNeese football."