Colby Carthel has moved on after one of the best runs in school history During his time, the Lions returned to national relevancy and then, becoming a national power for the first time since the Eddie Vowell years. 6 winning seasons, 6 postseason appearances, a Bowl Championship, a National Title, and 3 Conference titles have returned the Lions to the top of the Division II Hill. Former Rice and Southwest Texas State coach David Bailiff is now the new head coach in Commerce. Bailiff had the most success at Rice of any Coach in nearly a century and almost won an FCS title at his alma mater Texas State. Change is abounding, from offensive strategy, to defensive base formations, even the field at The Hawk is changing. Will the Lions stay in the top echelon of the Lone Star Conference and the Nation? Will Bailiff win here in his way? With a lot of talent returning and a fantastic recruiting class that has been signed, will it be enough?
Texas A&M-Commerce Lions
Head Coach: David Bailiff (First Season)
Offensive Coordinator: Billy Riebock (First Season)
Offensive Formation: Multiple
Defensive Coordinator: Xavier Adibi (First Season)
Defensive Formation: 4-2-5
National Titles: 1972 (NAIA DI) & 2017 (NCAA DII)
Last Conference Title: 2016
Total Conference/Division Titles: 25 (All Lone Star)
Last 10 Win Season: 2018 (10-3)
Last Postseason Appearance: 2018 NCAA Second Round
Last All-American: 2018: Kristov Martinez, Michael Onuoha, Dominique Ramsey, Reggie Kincaid.
New offensive coordinator Billy Riebock is a young and innovative coach who has a record of putting offenses together that move the ball effectively and scoring in the red zone. The Lions will rely less on the spread and air raid attack they had been running during the Carthel era and will include more running and power plays and some play action, which requires a mobile quarterback to make throws on the run. Despite the record of 10 wins, the Lions at time struggled on offense, especially when it came to sustaining drives and scoring touchdowns inside the red zone. Many of the staples of the Lion offense of the previous 6 years were not working as well as they had been in the past, and much of that had to do with personnel changing. Last year saw an offensive line was young and inexperienced, two quarterbacks duking it out for reps, and injuries to starters at key skill positions all caused the Lion offense sputter. However, when the offense was humming along, it was just as prolific as it has been in previous years. Kane Wilson returns at quarterback after posting an All-Conference season. Wilson took over as starter 4 games into the season and unseated Preston Wheeler, who started the season as QB1 last year. However, do not give Wilson the runaway nod just yet. Wheeler had his moments last year where showed he could command the offense, so this looks to be a race to the top to decides who wins the QB job. Keep an eye of JUCO transfer Armando Herrera, who more than likely will redshirt to learn the offense, and Canyon native Redshirt Freshman Gunnar Palacios who could see some time in any blowout wins as he showed himself well in the Spring game.
The Running backs are without a doubt the most potent and talented position. Carandale Hale and EJ Thompson return for their Junior seasons, both having had challenges of their own, but both also being key cogs in the National title run of 2017. Adding to that is the emergence of Nate Davis, a scatback of the purest form who is great at making explosive plays in open field and breaking into and running past the secondary. Expect all 3 to get carries and maybe even see some special formations for the different sets of talents these backs bring to the table.
Receivers last year were a combination of experience and youth, and growing pains were experienced. The Lions lose Darrion Landry to the NFL, along with Vincent Hobbs and Marquis Wimberly. All of the previously mentioned battled injuries at times last year. This allowed for the emergence of Chance Cooper, Matt Childers, and Tyler Guice. The one guy who was the most pleasant surprise and became a true game breaker was JUCO transfer Ryan Stokes. These four were responsible for a lot of offense last year and were forced to grow up fast. They are battle tested and made for a more diverse offense. Expect Stokes to be the guy who takes the one on one routes and Guice to do more blocking and midfield routes as the offense changes. One other thing to mention is that Kelan Smith, who replaced Buck Wilson in the 2017 playoffs, had somewhat of a Sophomore slump, but he was starting reemerge at the end of the season. Smith has all the right tools and if he makes a jump back to where he was in 2017, expect this group to really put up numbers and be effective.
The offensive line last year was young and inexperienced, but they return 3 of the 5 from last year and looked very good in the spring game. Center Ryan Peschka, tackle Amon Simon, and Guard Christian Hernandez return to anchor an offensive line that got better every week. Now, with a new offense comes new blocking schemes and also who will fill-in for graduated players Malik Ellis and Jordan Smith? Offensive line play is much more complicated than the average observer sees because how they play as a unit is what determines how successful they are. If 4 guys play their assignment well, but 1 blows his, your quarterback could be dropped for a 15 yard loss or a play turns into a total debacle. The line is often overlooked because of the very unsexy nature of the duties of an O-Lineman, but no doubt they are the most important group to ANY offense regardless of scheme.
Offensive impact players-
QB Kane Wilson-If Wilson plays well this year, the Lions will go as far as he does. He could make a case for being the best QB in the conference if he cuts down on turnovers and is allowed to make plays when the situation presents itself.
WR Ryan Stokes-Every good offense needs a home run threat. Stokes is that guy.
TE Tyler Guice-Guice doubles up as a pass catching threat and a solid blocker.
RB Carandle Hale-If Hale continues to work on his ball security, expect another good season for him.
OL Christian Hernandez-Hernandez is a young but very effective lineman. If he plays as well as he did last year, expect good things to happen.
Grades by position-
Running Backs-A Plus
Offensive Linemen-B Plus
In the great tradition of the Lion Football’s Blue Gang defense, last year’s defense may have been one of the top units in school history in the top 10 range or so. Of the 10 wins, 3-4 were won strictly by the outstanding efforts and play of last year’s defense. Now, the Blue Gang defense is being turned over to another young and innovative coach. Some of you may remember Xavier Adibi. He was an All-American at Virginia Tech and former NFL player from 2008-2012. Last year, he was a defensive analyst at Arkansas and is fairly young to the coaching staff, but had prior experience at Rice with Bailiff as an analyst, a scout, and a film guru. Most notably, Adibi will be responsible for the change in the Lion defense from multiple sets to the 4-2-5. Bailiff is trusting this young Buck to take a talented Lion squad and turn them loose to make plays in the 4-2-5. The defensive side of the ball seems to be excited and ready to make plays for their new coach. Let’s look at the defense.
DD Fletcher, Pierre Leonard, Jaylon Hodge, and Peyton Searcy now all return for the Lions on the defensive line. That is a talented and experienced bunch. Hodge got his snaps in last year filling in for the injured Searcy who is now back and healthy. Putting pressure on opposing QB’s and Stuffing running games are what these guys have done for 2-3 years now and with the added depth, expect it to continue. This is a group that is used to winning and crashing offensive parties.
The Linebackers will look different this year with the new formation coming in, one could expect 1-2 linebackers playing in support to help stop the run, while another perhaps dropping back in coverage. Neema Behbahani returns for his Senior year after having a stellar career and will probably be helping with run support, while Mark Westbrook might be the guy helping with pass support or playing somewhat of a hybrid position that supports both pass and run support. Either way there is also a deep support in the Linebacker crew where Coach Adibi might mix up coverage schemes.
The secondary of last year returns the most intact of any unit and perhaps has the most talent and playmaking ability. One of the great benefits of the 4-2-5 is that fact a defensive coordinator can put his best athletes on the field to make plays. The Lions return their two starting corners LA Dawson and Kader Kohou. Jaylon Edwards Cooper and Dominique Ramsey teaming up with Alex Shallow that round out the secondary. This group is perhaps the closest to a super team, as Ramsey is a returning All-American while 3 others are returning All-Conference performers should show up and show out in the form of turnovers, and neutralizing effective play-action and run-pass-option attacks that make up the offenses of the Lone Star Conference.
Defensive Impact Players-
Dominque Ramsey-Ramsey is perhaps the best player on the entire team. Not only is he a weapon anywhere he is at, he is a key cog to the Lion’s defensive playmaking ability.
Alex Shillow- A guy who flies under the radar a lot but is of immense importance to the secondary game with his smart play and cerebral approach to the game.
Neema Behbahani- The Heart of the Linebacking Crew returns for his final hurrah as a Lion and will be stretched in his duties being one of only two linebackers seeing most of the action.
Peyton Searcy- Returning from injury last year, expect him to make up for lost time while playing a hybrid position of Linebacker/Defensive lineman. Most believe he had the most upside of any returner last year. Now that he is healthy, we will get to see what he has, so long as he stays healthy.
Grades by Position-
Defensive Line-Solid A
Defensive Backs-A Plus
This year will be a time of rebuilding as two of the Lion’s specialists are no longer in Commerce. Kristov Martinez has graduated after setting LSC and School scoring records and saving his best season for last. He tied Fred Woods record for most All-American awards received by a Lion and Billy Watkins’ 25 year old scoring record. Meanwhile, punter Tristan Perry transferred to Texas Tech where he has a legitimate shot to start for the Red Raiders this upcoming season.
Fans did get to see future Kicker in Emmanuel Adagbon from Mesquite, out of Horn High School, who nailed a 50 yard field goal in a swirling late March wind during the spring game. Expect him to take the place kicking duties and he has a tremendous upside as he is just a Redshirt Freshman.
Jake Viquez looks to replace Perry at punter, as the two shared time their Freshman years. Viquez does have the potential to be an effective punter but needs the experience as Perry took the majority of the punts the past two years. Viquez is left footed, but the last footed punter the Lions had was a First team all American, so there is an upside to that. Last season he hit 3 punts for 50 yards or more and a career average of 35.3 yards per punt. With a full offseason under his belt, he could be a pleasant surprise. Viquez is also in the running for being the kickoff man, as he does have experience in that area too.
When it comes to the return game, Reggie Kincaid has graduated and that is a tough blow, but see Dominique Ramsey. Who else will step up with Ramsey with the return game?
The Lions picked up some great recruits in Bailiff’s first recruiting season. Here are some of the standouts. Hat tip to Russell McLean and Billy Minor for their input and research on these recruits.
JUCO Transfer Armando Herrera from Southern California a true playmaker and could be the next big thing with his ability to throw and to run. We got to see him in the Spring game and a redshirt year could make him that much better.
DeRondre Moore, WR, Rosenberg Terry-6’1″ 165 lbs. – In a word, this young man is FAST. He has very soft hands, is a great route runner, and goes up and attacks the ball….Moore is a very aggressive blocker, and is comfortable either in the slot or wideout positions. He is also a very dangerous kick returner in the mode of Reggie Kincade. In our opinion here at The Wire, Moore could be in the middle of the action come this fall.
Miklo Smalls, QB, Plano East-6’2″, 185 lbs.-Smalls comes to Commerce after spending a year as a part-time starter for Baliff at Rice, then transferring to Last Chance U. He has a very strong-arm, and can make all the throws needed. Stands tall and poised in the pocket….He throws a very catachable ball, and is extremely accurate. He has good speed and is very good on the zone read.
Marcus McClanahan, QB/WR, Dallas White, 5’7″, 165 lbs.-Has good speed and quickness, is an elusive runner. He has also played at defensive back, and shows good technique and tackling skills.
Kendron Johnson, WR, Whitehouse, 6’3″, 190 lbs.-Great size and speed, very strong, with soft hands, and a skilled route runner. Can break tackles, and fight off press coverage. Has tremendous potential.
Eric Hebert, WR, Manvel, 5’4″, 145 lbs.-Don’t let the size fool you. Hebert would be the kind of small, fast receiver that Mike Leach would have loved when the Pirate was swinging his sword on the South Plains. A natural fit as a slot receiver, Hebert is also an outstanding returner of punts and kickoffs. David Baliff found a real gem here.
Spencer Long, RB, Barbers Hill, 5’11”, 200 lbs.-A tough runner with very good speed…. Great strength, and a very good runner between the tackles. He has good hands, and despite his size, could be a good fit as a tight end.
Jackson Allen, TE, Marion HS, 6’4″, 220 lbs.- A big frame with room to grow. Very sure handed, Allen is very good runner after the catch, and is a solid and aggressive blocker.
James Clark III, OL, Dallas Bishop Dunne, 6’4″, 255 lbs.-Great strength and footwork, particularly in pass protection. Clark is a dominant run blocker, is very aggressive, and has a bit of a nasty streak.
Xzavion Florence, S, Dallas Kimball, 5’10” 180 lbs.-Very good speed combined with a quick first step. Florence is an aggressive blitzer off the corner, and likes to get after the passer. Has the ability to move to linebacker if necessary.
Kobe Savage, DB/QB, Paris, 6’0″, 175 lbs. – He has great speed, and throws a ball that is easy to catch. Savage is one of those players that a coach finds a way to get him on the field. Has the potential to be a very good kick returner, or as a threat at QB in a Wildcat formation or short yardage package.
VS. Selección Nuevo Leon-The Bailiff era opens with an international flair as Mexico’s best Collegiate team comes to Commerce to face off with the Lions.
@ Western Oregon-Lions take a trip to the Pacific Northwest for an important in-Region tilt.
VS. Eastern New Mexico-The Hounds visit Commerce with their potent ground attack. Will the new Lion offense be effective in fighting off the Hound’s ground and pound attack?
@ Colorado State-Pueblo-The Lions head to the Rockies to hopefully avenge a loss from last year that was a very winnable game, and another very important in-region game.
@ Texas A&M-Kingsville-Lions head down to South Texas and look for their their 8th straight win in the Chennault Cup series.
VS. Midwestern State-The hate runs strong in this game. It is the most important home game of the year. Can the Lions use their talent to take down Bill Maskill and the Mustangs in Commerce? The Hawk will be rocking for this game.
@ Tarleton State-The biggest game of the year, as this could be the Championship game for the conference in Tarleton’s newly renovated stadium. The heat in this once somewhat tame rivalry is turning up.
VS. Western New Mexico-Lions celebrate a homecoming against a slightly improved but still struggling Western NM team.
@ West Texas A&M-The Buffs and the Lions square off in a game where the Carthel’s are now gone, but the hate still remains between the cross state rivals in a brand new stadium for West Texas A&M.
VS. Texas Permian-Basin-Last season the Falcons almost took down the Lions and ruined their postseason chances. Expect the Lions to take UTPB down in a vengeful manner.
@ Angelo State-Lions face a new staff in San Angelo. Expect the unexpected when playing the Rams.