The Lion Wire’s Official 2021 Lion Football Preview

After a year-long pandemic, and an appearance in the national quarterfinals in 2019, David Bailiff and his team are more than ready to hit the field and start making statements that both the former Rice Head Coach and his Lion squad are not being taken seriously by outsiders. That is the not the case in Commerce, America and all of Lion Nation, which sees this season with more preseason expectations than in 2017, when Luis Perez and Colby Carthel took the Lions back to the top of Division II college football. The mission is very clear for this season, play their final game 45 minutes to the west in McKinney amidst a sea of blue and gold at McKinney ISD stadium and be the last team standing when the clock hits all zeros. Anything else would be considered by the program a letdown after all they have endured and waited for.

Overall

# 7 Texas A&M-Commerce Lions

2019 Results-11-3 overall, NCAA National quarterfinalists, # 9 Final Ranking

Head Coach-David Bailiff, 2nd Season, 11-3 TAMUC Record, 89-97 Overall

Offensive Coordinator-Billy Riebock, 2nd Season

Offensive Formation-Multiple

Defensive Coordinator-Xavier Adibi, 2nd Season

Defensive Formation-4-2-5

Last Winning Season-2019

2020 Results-Did Not Compete due to COVID-19 Pandemic.

Last 10 Win Season-2019

Last Conference Championship-2016

Last First Team All-Americans-Amon Simon, Dominique Ramsey.

Last Harlon Hill Nominee-Luis Perez, 2017 (Winner)

Last Postseason Apperance-2019 NCAA DII National Quarterfinals (Lost to Minnesota State-Mankato, 42-21)

Overall-

There was a lot of initial anxiety in David Bailiff’s first season. Many fans saw that he had an overall losing coaching record and was coming from an FBS school with not much tradition in winning. Then, he showed why he had produced the best stretch of football at Rice in the last 60 years, and why he had won conference and division championships in addition to Bowl games and had even almost won a National Title at Texas State. Bailiff took a powerful program and kept it that way and at the end of the season, the Lions were playing some of their best football in recent memory. At one point in the season, it appeared that all roads could surprisingly lead to McKinney. Then, the 2020 season was cancelled due to the NCAA deciding not to have Division II Championships in football. There was a lot of fear that the Lions would lose one of their strongest senior classes in school history, but the program found a way to keep almost all of them and bring them back under the very real hope of winning their 2nd national title in 4 seasons, and after 586 days since their last game, they are ready to go.

Offensive Preview-

The Lion offense under Billy Riebock changed strategy in their first year than what they had been running under Colby Carthel and Matt Storm. Gone are the aerial shows put on by Deric Davis, Tyrik Rollison, Harrison Stewart, Luis Perez, and Kane Wilson. With running backs Antotio Leali’ie’e, (Copperas Cove) Carandal Hale, (Greenville) and EJ Thompson (Cypress Cy Ranch) coming back, the Lion backfield should be the best it has been in years, maybe even in decades. All 3 backs offer different styles in running and different back strengths, but make no mistake, any of the 3 can carry the load and make plays and have done it in their Lion careers at one point or another. Look for this offense to feature all 3 of them at one point or another. At the Wide receiver position, Kelan Smith (First Baptist Dallas), Chance Cooper (Leander) and Matt Childers (Henderson), are all players who had to step up when they were underclassmen, return for their final season. Smith was a starter in the final 2 games during the 2017 national title run, while Childers and Cooper have seen more than their fair share of battle. Add to that the advent of Freshman star Michael Pheonix, (Conroe) a true freshman who was first team All State in Class 6A, and you have all the weapons necessary to do some major damage to any defense. Riebock’s offense uses a tight end more than previous offenses do, as well as a fullback. The only question is who will those Tight ends and Fullbacks be when the Lions get in the traditional power I. Tyler Guice has graduated and Drake Flores and Christion Brewington are the only other tight ends that saw action in 2019 and whether either will return is unknown, but if the ends do return, that will complete the puzzle. Riebock’s offense seems harder to defend than most offenses that are considered conventional, as what is old is now new. Most teams prepare for a 4-wide and wide open attack. The Lions can play either the three yards and a cloud of dust game, or can play with 3 and 4 wide, making their offense so dangerous.

The quarterback position looked to be fantastic until somewhat recently. Miklo Smalls (Plano East), fresh off a Second Team All-LSC performance in which he was the most efficient QB in the Conference in 2019, has not been seen in spring games or scrimmages and unconfirmed rumors are that he might not be able to go due to injury. This would certainly be a setback for the Lions, as Smalls was on the early preseason Harlon Hill Watch list for 2020 and 2021 and was selected by Dave Campbell’s Texas Football as the Preseason MVP for the Lone Star Conference. However there has been a late transfer from Louisiana-Lafayette in Jaiave Maglei (Tacoma Lakes, Washington). The 6’3 240 pound QB has an impressive resume. Hailing from Tacoma, Washington, he was an absolute stud on the high school level and has proven himself a capable signal caller on both the JUCO and FBS level. If Smalls cannot go for whatever reason, this looks to be the guy to run the offense. This also adds to the depth at Quarterback where Eric Rodriguez (Fort Bend Travis), ShunDarion Ward (Desoto), and Tyson Oliver (Royse City) provide organic recruits from Texas who know that being a quarterback in Commerce is Division II royalty.

The Lion offensive line is another outstanding unit, led by returning All-American Amon Simon. Travis Daft and Richard West and Christian Hernandez also return to the offensive line, giving it the strongest returning unit the Lions have had in a while. This group run blocks and also pass protects better than just about any group and how successful they are in the trenches will help determine if the Lion offense is able to be as explosive and efficient as it was in 2019.

Overall Grade: Solid A. The offense has all the playmakers in place to be as good as they were in 2019. If this group stays healthy, watch out. The backfield is star studded, the receivers are playmakers, and the offensive line is as good as can be. So long as whoever takes the reigns at Quarterback manages the offense and makes plays when they need to, this unit will be very tough to stop.

Defensive Preview-

The Lion Defense of 2019 started out somewhat in a struggling fashion. They met some teams that had some good offensive skill players and were learning the coverages of Xavier Adibi’s 4-2-5 defensive package. After the first matchup with Tarleton, the light bulb seemed to come on, and the Lion defense play a tremendous stretch of 7 weeks of defense that had everyone talking about the legendary Blue Gang defense moniker. The defense will lean on the entire unit, but Dominique Ramsey (Converse Judson), Alex Shillow (Pflugerville), Kader Kohou (Euless Trinity), Elijah Earls (San Antonio Stevens), and Devin Beamon (North Forney) are all returning starters and big time playmakers that will have offensive coordinators wondering if they should throw the ball to a dangerous set of safeties and defensive backs or take their chances running the football. As good as the star studded starters are, it is the deep bench of the Lions that makes them so potent on defense. It is a group of 4-5 superstars with about 15 outstanding supporting cast members that lead for a large stable of talent on this side of the ball. Aside from being big and fast, this unit hits to hurt and loves to punish people and create devastating turnovers that set the offense up in prime position to turn those turnovers into points. Adibi’s core of returners led the Lone Star Conference in sacks per game and finishing in the top two in total defense, passing yards allowed, rushing defense, red zone defense, defensive touchdowns, and tackles for loss. This unit is absolutely not to be slept on and might be the overall best two deep that this school, known for its defensive standouts, has had in a long time.

Overall Unit Grade-A Plus

Special Teams preview-

Lion Placekicker Jake Viquez (Rockwall) has been waiting for this for a long time. Heading into the previous season, Viquez was under a lot of scrutiny as to whether or not he could adequately replace the great Kristov Martinez. He responded with an All LSC Second Team performance where he was 15/21 in field goals with a long of 48 and 51-54 in PAT’s. He also served as the kickoff man and thanks to his mastery of the sideline pooch kick, created at least 5 turnovers on kickoffs and had return teams on their toes all the time. Viquez has been hitting 60 yarders in the wind with yards to spare, meaning that the Lions have a security blanket and are a threat to score anytime they cross midfield. Chances are he will also take the punting spot as well. Special Team Coach Jack Welch’s move back to the traditional punting style rather than the running rugby will serve Viquez well as he is a well schooled traditional punter. The once pupil of Lion kicking great Billy Watkins is showing he is just as important to this team as anyone else. The coverage team returns virtually all of their playmakers that led the LSC in turnovers created and fewest yards allowed per return. Long Snapper Wyatt Leath (Rockwall Heath) returns as the experienced specialist who was All-LSC, giving the Lions more proven talent on the special teams.

On the return game, the dynamic duo of Dominique Ramsey and Kader Kohou return and both guys are explosive returners. Ramsey is a threat to score literally every time he touches the ball as he is the prime punt returner, while Kohou handles kickoff returns. This is when the Lions are as dangerous as they can be. They have literally no weaknesses whatsoever in their special teams and have playmakers and reliable players on the special teams units that create turnovers and create scoring chances for the Lion offense.

2021 Schedule-

September 2-@ Colorado State-Pueblo-The Lions will return to the scene of the crime in 2019. A robbery actually, because the Lions were robbed of two scores (one for and one against) with RMAC officials who took one score off the board and gave a touchdown that was clearly out of bounds upon replay, leading to a hard to swallow loss that delivered a harsh blow to the Lions season in 2019. The will take on the 12th ranked Thunderwolves to start the season and a road win against a this team will help springboard the Lions and get the season started off right. A loss would be a big letdown, as the Lions have never defeated CSU-Pueblo. (Lost in 2018 and 2019).

September 11 VS Midwestern State @ Globe Life Park-Arlington-The Lions and Mustangs meet up at the former home of the Texas Rangers and both fan bases are primed over the matchup. The last time the two teams met, the Lions hammered the Mustangs, something that Lion fanbase had been waiting for years to happen, as close losses and close wins were becoming the norm in this series. MSU seems to be down this year, but don’t count Bill Maskill out. He has had success for a reason.

September 18-VS West Florida-In the biggest game that will be played in Commerce since who knows when, the preseason number 1 ranked and defending national champions West Florida Argonauts will travel from the Florida Panhandle to the Texas Blackland Prairies. Get your tickets for this one early, especially if both teams are undefeated heading into this one. Ernest Hawkins Field at Memorial Stadium will be louder than it has ever been and this could be a preview of the 2021 national championship game.

September 25-@ Texas A&M-Kingsville-The Lions will meet up with a new coach and staff in Kingsville. The Javelinas are completely rebuilding their program right now, and the streak of wins against the Lion’s long time historic rival moves to 9 straight wins in South Texas, taking General Chennault’s Cup once again.

October 2-Vs Fort Lauderdale-Lions will welcome their new Athletic Hall of Fame members with a route of a completely outmatched Eagles squad. This one will be over early and look for Bailiff to empty his bench in this one.

October 9-VS. Saginaw Valley State-The 2019 Cardinals went 5-6, but do not let that record fool you. They almost defeated Grand Valley State and hung in with second ranked Ferris State for most of their game. They are a middle tier team in the GLIAC, and while most would put a sure bet on the Lions, this game could be tougher than originally thought.

October 16-VS. Western New Mexico-The Lions run over a Mustang squad that is rebuilding under a new coach in front of a large homecoming crowd. That coach however, was under Colby Carthel at SFA. COVID regulations crippled the Western program at the worst possible time.

October 23-@ West Texas A&M-The Lions return to the beautiful Buffalo Stadium in Canyon. Hunter Hughes will have his Buffs ready and are fresh off an 8 win 2019 season and nearly got into the playoffs in their last go around. The WT fans want their good football program back. WT has a good team this year, just like they did last time. Expect a tussle in the Texas Panhandle in the East Texas vs. West Texas rivalry.

October 30-VS Texas-Permian Basin-Justin Carrigan and the Falcons of UTPB will come to Commerce and instead of playing the role of spoiler, they will come at the Lions with everything they have got, because the Falcons continue to rise, just like we said they would when they first started 5 years ago. If the Lions want to have a style points game, they have to play very well against an improved UTPB squad.

November 6-@ Angelo State-The Lions final regular season road trip could very well be the Lone Star Conference Championship game. Angelo is always tough, ALWAYS. They have not beaten the Lions since the 2014 conference playoff championship game and they want to change that. The Rams are the toughest conference game for the Lions in 2021. If the Lions want to be undefeated LSC Champions, this is another test they will have to pass.

November 13-VS Eastern New Mexico-Just like their counterparts to the west, the Eastern program, which was a winning program and had an 8-3 record with a win in the Heritage Bowl, is having to start from scratch due to the draconian COVID regulations placed upon them by their state, and they will have to pay for it dearly, and already have with the exit of Kelley Lee and a new coach that has changed Eastern’s pound and ground offensive attack, its trump card, to a wide open attack. It might work, and it might not. Either way, the Lions will have some greyhound for lunch in their final home game of the season.

The Lion Wire’s Prediction-11-0, LSC Champions, Lions will host at least 1-2 playoff games.

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