Greetings, Lion fans….this column comes about three weeks earlier than I was hoping to write it, but alas, the Lions ran out of miracles last Saturday in Stephenville. They went out as a champion should, fighting until the very last-minute. Down 34-15 early in the 4th quarter, the Lions summoned a little Hawkins Magic, and suddenly the game was 34-28, and the Lions had the ball on the Tarleton 28 yard line with two timeouts and 1:24 left, and the fans in purple were getting eerily quiet. A sack and Kane Wilson fumble, recovered by the Texans snuffed out the threat, and when the Lions were unable to prevent a first down, the clock ran out on the season.
” The hardest thing to do in sports is defend a title” Former Lion Billy Minor
There’s a lot to look back on, and even more to anticipate for 2019. Let’s take a look.
OVERVIEW- It was anticipated throughout Lion Nation that 2018 could be a different year. When you are having to replace three starters on the offensive line (including the vital position of left tackle), a standout wide receiver. and the greatest quarterback in Lion football history, plus facing a loaded schedule, we at The Wire knew 2018 could be a challenge.
WHAT WENT RIGHT-The running game for the Lions was far better than expected in the 2018 season. Despite an injury that limited EJ Thompson to what amounted to part-time duty, there were bright spots. Ovie Urevbu returned from injury, and contributed speed and explosiveness. Redshirt freshman Nate Davis showed flashes of ability and was a pleasant surprise. The future is very bright for him. Carandale Hale was Carandale Hale, which means, he was very, very good. Thompson still managed over 180 yards against Midwestern. As the year went on, Hale seemed to improve on ball security, and the running backs were able to share the load.
The offensive line came together as the year progressed and has the makings of an outstanding unit. It did appear at times that they had difficulty in protecting the quarterback, and the running lanes were not easy to find. They eventually came around, and look to have a better 2019 season. The three returning starters- guard Christian Hernandez, center Travis Dafft, and tackle Amon Simon….all redshirt sophomores. Add to that the depth that this coaching staff is known to stockpile through top-notch recruiting, transfers, and redshirt returnees, and things are looking up for as legendary offensive line coach Boley Crawford would say (and please excuse the language) “my pissants.”
Share the load. That was the theme of the Lion receivers this season. There were three huge surprises for the Lions in 2018, and none were bigger than Ryan Stokes. An outstanding combination of speed, hands, and big play ability, Stokes became the go to man when the Lions needed it. A circus touchdown catch in the “Twilight Zone” game vs. Midwestern(Two halves in two stadiums in two days), and the end zone grab against Tarleton that brought the Lions to within a touchdown, makes Stokes look like a #1 receiver going into next season. Chance Cooper started out hot, and stayed consistent all year. Matt Childers was, as I described in an earlier column, a “Swiss Army Knife” kind of receiver, doing a little bit of everything. Effective on the reverse, Childers also threw a touchdown pass off of a reverse earlier this season, as well as running solid routes and making the routine catch look easy. The good news….Stokes is a junior, Cooper is a sophomore, and Childers, a red shirt freshman. Add to that the return of redshirt sophomore Kelan Smith, who is sure to rebound from what was a bit of a down year for him, and things are looking up for the Lion passing game.
The most difficult position to replace will be tight end Vincent Hobbs, arguably the best to wear the blue and gold. Tyler Guice returns for his senior season similar in size to Hobbs, and showed promise as both a receiver and blocker.
WHAT WENT WRONG- In a word, quarterback. It was anticipated all during the spring that the junior college phenom, Kane Wilson, would be under center for the Lions when the season began, so to see red shirt junior Preston Wheeler at the helm of the offense was a surprise. Wheeler, after an unsure first half against Kingsville, seemed to come around, and drove the Lions to a 37-36 overtime victory, and the consensus seemed to be that he would grow into the job.
However, though, Wheeler never could seem to achieve the consistency and level of decision-making need to make the Lion offense run smoothly. An outstanding running game and stout defense masked the difficulties and indecision surrounding the quarterback situation.
Kane Wilson eventually took over as starter for the Lock Haven game, the Lions exploded for 68 points, and it appeared the offensive woes had been solved. However, injuries, the difficulty of defending a title, and just an overall funk seemed to plague the offense all year, resulting in an inconsistent showing. Fumbles, pre snap penalties, the occasional loss of composure, and dropped passes left the Lions a sputtering unit.
THROUGH THE LOOKING GLASS-Take heart, Lion fans. As I said immediately after the Tarleton game, the future is bright in Commerce, America. Kane Wilson now has a full season under Colby Carthel and Matt Storm. There’s an entire off-season and spring to work things out with the receiving corps.
The running attack of the Lions looks to be stronger than ever. EJ Thompson will be fully recovered. Carandale Hale and Nate Davis give Matt Storm a lot of options. The offensive line, while replacing Jordan Smith and Malik Ellis, return a young and improving core.
Remember this, Lion fans….while 2018 may have been disappointing, it was a 10 win season. Over the last 5 years since Colby Carthel unleashed the beast that is Lion Football, the winning percentage is 78.1 %. Over the last four, 80.7%. What does that mean? It means your Lions are in the hunt for a National Championship every year. We may not be bringing home the hardware this season, but you can rest assured, the road to the Division 2 title in football takes a turn down south, turns east down Interstate 30, and will go through a little town in northeast Texas.
And that’s a good place to be.