Greetings, Lion fans, and after a long winter of what can only be described as complete disappointment and frustration, a new day dawns in more than one way across Lion Nation with this week’s Blue-Gold Spring game. After being denied an opportunity get a look the past two years due to COVID restrictions, it appears that we as fans will finally get to return more of a routine.
There are so many questions yet to be answered, made even more complicated with the transition to Division I-FCS and the Southland Conference. A&M-Commerce has been listed so far as one of the top transfer portal destinations in the state. How many will we eventually see and what impact will they have? There have been more than a few roster moves in the off season, and quite a few new faces in the blacklands.
The new faces aren’t limited to the players. The Lion coaching staff has seen a rather large turnover, the most notable being defensive wizard Xavier Adibi leaving Commerce for a defensive analyist’s position at his alma mater of Virginia Tech. Returning to the Lion staff are offensive coordinator Billy Riebock, special teams and running back coach Jack Welch, Strength and Conditioning coach Joey Caldwell, tight ends coach Peyton Pardee, as well as cornerbacks coach and new defensive coordinator Kyle Williams.
Now, let’s take a closer look at those new faces among the coaching staff:
Ronnie Vinklarek (Offensive Line)-Vinklarek is well respected at both the professional and college level. He was on staff with David Bailiff at Rice from 2009-2017 and was offensive line coach at the University of Houston during Andre Ware’s Heisman Trophy season. He has had numerous stops in the NFL, CFL, and XFL. (Note: I had the chance to meet Coach Vinklarek at the Spring League Championship game in Houston in 2021 while watching Lion great Luis Perez. He is very knowledgeable and personable.)
Kyle Williams (Cornerbacks, Defensive Coordinator) Williams is new to the defensive coordinator’s position, but not new to Commerce, having come to the Lions along with Adibi in 2019, so he is very familiar with the Lions “Blue Gang” mindset. Not much should change on the surface, but Willliams is sure to put his own stamp on what has been one of the top defenses in all of Division 2. Williams’s previous coaching stops have been at USC, Evangel College, UT-Permian Basin, and Sul Ross.
Tyron Carrier (Wide Receivers)- Carrier takes over what is probably the deepest and most talented position group in Commerce. He is very familiar with the Spread/Air Raid approach to offense, having served on Dana Holgorsen’s staff at West Virginia and the University of Houston. Carrier also had a great playing career at Houston, where he still holds an NCAA record for kickoff returns for touchdowns.
Curtis Fuller (Safeties)- Fuller comes to Commerce from a high school program in North Carolina. He has multiple stops in the NFL in his coaching career, most notably winning a Super Bowl ring with Green Bay at Super Bowl 45, and was on the staff of the Carolina Panthers at Super Bowl 50.
Michael Smith (Defensive Line)- Smith has spent the last two seasons as defensive line coach at D2 Black Hills State. He was an assistant for Tom Herman at Texas and as a graduate assistant for defensive wizard Bob Davie at New Mexico. Smith was a player for David Bailiff at Rice.
Jack Tyler (Linebackers)- Tyler comes to Commerce from an assistant’s position at Virginia Tech, with a previous stop at D1-FCS power James Madison. Tyler was an all-ACC linebacker for the Hokies.
The major questions and concerns for the Lions this spring is undoubtedly the offense. 2021 was a forgettable season for the Lion offense, who failed to finish in the top 50 in any category. Injuries and the lack of settling at quarterback, the lack of production from the tight end position, and what can only be described as questionable decision making led to an offense that Corey Hogue of Dave Campbell’s Texas Football generously described as “anemic,”
But it is a new day and a new season in Commerce, and a chance for renewal and change. The drumbeats out of the Lion camp are that the offense will return to more of an air raid style, with a lot of four and five wide receiver sets. Ohio State transfer Jagger Laroe is said to be taking a lot of snaps with the first team offense
The offensive line has some work to do, with only two returning starters. There are many D1 FBS transfers on the way, and there is still a lot of depth and solid talent.
The running back situation is more of a question mark. The top three backs from 2021, Hale, Thompson, and Lealiiee, are all gone, so there are some wide-open opportunities for someone to step up.
The wide receiver position is probably the deepest and most talented group. Matt Childers returns, as well as Kenedy Snell and Kevin Ledee, both of whom have had over a full year in the Lion system. Add to that some solid high school recruits and Colorado transfer Mark Miller, this should be a group to watch.
The group that is sure to draw the most attention and scrutiny is quarterback. It will surely be the most crowded. Miklo Smalls should return healthier after a disastrous 2021 season. Add to that freshman standout Eric Rodriguez who did an outstanding job in spot duty last season, and Ohio State transfer Jagger Laroe, the competition is sure to be fierce, and to be watched closely.
On the defensive side of the ball, there are many more questions. Devin Beamon is the only returning starter on the defensive line, so there will be many opportunities for transfers, returning players, or recent recruits to step forward.
There are no returning starters among the linebacking corps, but plenty of players saw game time in 2021, and has been mentioned before, there will be many chances for a transfer or returning player to step into the gap.
In the secondary, the Lions graduate regulars Shillow, Ramsey, and Kohou, but Darrion Taylor and Darrius Williams return, so there again, are opportunities.
In the special teams area, Mitchell McGarry returns, and after a shaky start to 2021, recovered and had an outstanding finish to the season. All time great Lion kicker Jake Viquez leaves to graduation, and Emanuel Adagbon, who saw spot duty with kickoffs in 2021, looks to step in and continue what is fast becoming a tradition of great Lion kickers.
Lion fans, there are so many questions in so many areas in 2022. Transitioning to Division 1. What transfers are coming, and what can we as fans expect from them? What do the new coaches bring? Can Kyle Williams continue the outstanding tradition of the Blue Gang?
Offensively, how will Ronnie Vinklarek rebuild the offensive line? Which quarterback will step forward and take over? What adjustments will Billy Riebock make to return the offense to the explosive one that we saw in 2019?
Who will step forward to replace Lion legend Jake Viquez? Can Mitchell McGarry pick up where he left off 2021 in punting? Who takes over the return game with the departure of Kader Kohou and Dominique Ramsey?
This Saturday, we all take a big step toward answering some of those questions.
I can’t wait.