Greetings, Lion fans. We’re less than 48 hours from the kickoff of the long, and I do mean long, awaited start to another season of Lion football. Today, we’re going to take a closer look at the Lions “Blue Gang” defense vs. what has been in previous seasons, a potent CSU-P offense.
First of all, why do we refer to the Commerce defense as the Blue Gang? The term came about during the 1972 season, when the defense, led by all time greats like Harvey Martin, Autry Beamon, and Tim Collier, among others, just took over games. It was a constant swarm of blue jerseys around the ball. Much like the “Wrecking Crew” of Texas A&M-College Station, the tradition was not so much about the individual unit, but a mindset. That every play would be the equivalent of a street fight. Every yard wasn’t given up without a punishing hit. Every team on the Lions schedule would buckle the chin strap a little tighter, because they knew well that it would be a knock down, drag out affair.
That tradition that began in 1972 is still very much evident today. In the home stretch of the 2019 season, and through the playoffs. Texas A&M-Commerce arguably had the best defense in the nation. Not in the conference, in the NATION. In a 12 quarter stretch that encompassed the final regular season game against Angelo State, and the first two playoff games against Tarleton State, and Colorado School of Mines, the Blue Gang surrendered one touchdown. One. Tarleton, at the time was averaging 47 points and 550 yards per game total offense. Mines had a Harlon Hill Award finalist, and consensus All American on their offensive line. No matter. Before injuries finally took their toll, the Lion defense just shut down opposing offenses. Completely
Dont’ look now, Lion fans, but they’re back. And they’ve only gotten better.
Let’s dive right in and take a look.
OVERVIEW-The Thunderwolves, while not particularly explosive, are well balanced with a solid rushing attack and a group of very good receivers. The only question is at quarterback, where junior Gunnar Lamphere takes over for the departed Jordan Kitna.
The Lions return the bulk of a defensive line that tallied 45 sacks in 2019. Both Elijah Earls and Jaylon Hodge return, and transfers Justice Williams and Celestin Haba have been impressive in fall camp. Dee Walker, a transfer from the University of Arkansas, has been a standout at linebacker.
The strength of the defense, the secondary, returns the usual suspects- Alex Shillow, Kader Kohou, Darius Williams, and Mr. All Everything, Dominque Ramsey. Another name to keep an eye on is Rice transfer D’Angelo Ellis. Reports from camp indicate that Ellis is a real standout.
Overall, the talent on the defensive side of the ball is deep and the competition is fierce. Defensive coordinator Xavier Adibi and his staff feel quite confident in mixing and matching any number of players, and maintain a high level of success.
UP FRONT/TALE OF THE TAPE-
Thunderwolves Offensive Line: 6’4′ 312 lbs.
Blue Gang Front Six: 6’1″ 247 lbs.
The CSU-P line has great size and strength, and are very experienced. They are led by senior center James Parker (6’1″ 280 lbs.) While not particluarly impressive, they are very successful at the one thing that matters most-winning.
Redshirt junior defensive end Elijah Earls (6’0″ 240 lbs.,) returns at the Lions leading tackler with 52 (21 solo), and also a team leading 9 1/2 sacks. The aforementioned Jaylon Hodge (6’0″ 275 lbs. RS-Sr.) also returns, and solid performances last fall and spring from others like redshirt freshman Clifford Funderburk (6’3″ 230 lbs.) add much needed depth and talent to the defensive front. Transfer linebacker Peter Kwazibe (6’1″ 200 lbs., Sr.) is also a name to look our for.
THE BACK LINE/MOVERS AND SHAKERS- The Thunderwolves receiving corps, while not particularly flashy, is more than capable of producing the big play. In addition to Williams, junior Dionte Sykes (6’3″ 206 lbs.) had 17 catches for 397 yards, including a 70 yard strike. Junior Max Fine (6’1″ 196 lbs.) had three touchdown receptions in 2019 to go with 289 total receiving yards.
Gunnar Lamphere takes over under center, and if the offensive line can give him time, he has a lot of targets to choose from They will certainly be tested by a Blue Gang defensive unit that loves to dial up the pressure. Twelve sacks in the regional semifinals against School of Mines is a testament to that.
The Lions Back Line is group that should be very familiar to all Lion fans. This group is very experienced and savvy. Add to this a very good D1 transfer in D’Angelo Ellis, and the secondary can only get better. This is a matchup of position groups to keep a close eye on.
VERY SPECIAL, INDEED-The Lions hold a distinct advantage here. Currently(this is always a struggle in early season analysis), there is no kicker listed for CSU-P. Sophomore Justin Dwinell (6’4″ 199 lbs.) averages 40.6 yards per punt, with a long of 77, with one blocked kick.
Special teams, it is often said, wins or loses 2-3 games per year. Proof? In 2017, all time Lion great Kristov Martinez won games with game winners at North Alabama, and the classic double overtime thriller against Central Washington. A 48 yard blast into a strong wind took all the fight out of a Minnesota State team in the regional final. The Carthels, both Colby and his dad, Don, were special teams wizards.
Current Lion assistant Jack Welch is also a master of the special teams, and continues to build on that tradition. The Lion return game is arguably the best in the country. While Tobias Harris at West Texas A&M garners most of the attention, the Lions Dominique Ramsey, is, in the opinion of Brian and I here at The Wire, just better. Every time the ball is put in play, whether by punt or kickoff, everyone is on the edge of their seats, as Ramsey is a threat to score every time he touches the ball. Not to be outdone, redshirt senior Kader Kohou (5’11” 190 lbs.) took over for an injured Ramsey during a stretch in the playoffs, and astounded everyone with a real talent for picking up a punt on the bounce, and producing a big return. Add to this the outstanding performance of Jake Viquez, and the Lions special teams are in great hands.
BY THE NUMBERS-
Blue Gang Defense:
WHAT’S GOING DOWN-This is an early season matchup between two Division II heavyweights. Yes, the Thunderwolves have won the previous two contests. If there’s one thing we’ve learned about a David Bailiff led team, they know how to settle old scores. After almost a two year layoff, Bailiff and the Lions are hungry for a chance to send a message to the rest of the country-you want a national championship, the road that takes you there swings down Interstate 30 through a little town that’s just a dot on the map in northeast Texas. There’s a football team there that is pretty darned good. You have to face them sooner or later.
Early season contests against another really good team like Pueblo are always treacherous. They’re also a proving ground. Coaches find out just what their teams are made of.
The verdict here is, while there may be some kinks to iron out, the Lions advantage in talent, depth, and special teams are more than enough to propel them two a 10-17 point margin of victory.
It’s about that time, Lion fans. TIME TO HUNT.
See you Thursday