The Official 2022 Texas A&M-Commerce Lions Football Preview

Greetings Lion fans, and with being in the middle of the dog days of summer, and current heat wave in Northeast Texas bringing up memories of the crucible of the summer of 1980, we realize that on the surface, there may not be much to get excited about outside of the promise of rain, or the temperature falling below 90 degrees. There may not be much wind blowing in a lot of parts of the world, but on the Blackland Prairies of North and Northeast Texas, the winds are always blowing. This year, nature’s winds are not the only winds blowing, but the winds of change are. As the French writer Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr wrote “Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose “ – the more things change, the more they stay the same.”

In just over three weeks, a new season of Lion football begins. This season, however, will be quite different. After 90 plus years in the Lone Star Conference, whether it be at the NAIA or NCAA Division 2 level, this season, David Bailiff and crew set their sights on the Southland Conference and Division 1 FCS. Familiar names like West Texas A&M, Midwestern State, Texas A&M-Kingsville, and Angelo State, have been exchanged for Tennessee State, Sam Houston State, Southeastern Louisiana, and McNeese State. The level of competition is sure to rise and rise quickly. The question in 2022 is, can the Lions rise to that challenge? Let’s dive right in and take a look.

Offense: If you’ve been a follower of The Wire, you know of the offensive struggles the Lions faced in 2021. From the injury that put 2019 superstar Miklo Smalls on the shelf, the early season struggles of Jaiave Magalie, the inability to settle on a quarterback, and the offensive play calling that just never quite seemed to fit. the Lion offense sputtered mightily in the 2021 season.

The 2022 version of the Lion offense, however, shows a tremendous amount of potential, mainly via the transfer route. Texas A&M-Commerce has been a top transfer portal destination, and the talent that has already arrived shows it. Ohio State transfer Jagger Laroe displayed a strong, accurate arm during the spring, and appears to be a good decision maker. Sophomore Andrew Armstrong showed great promise in the latter half of the 2021 season and looks to build on that promise. San Diego State transfer B.J. Busbee shows great speed and quickness from the slot receiver position. Gerard Franklin, who played 6-man football in high school in the New Orleans area, has developed quite well, and looks to continue that development. Offensive lineman Mitchell Gorgas, a Maryland transfer, quite possibly is one of the most key people to have arrived in Commerce this year. The success or failure of every football team is built along the offensive and defensive lines, and Gorgas goes a long way in improving an offensive line that has some holes to fill. Rehoboth Chibesa returns for his senior season, lending a great deal of size, strength, and experience. Sophomore Koby Leavitts has provided solid depth at running back and looks to continue that. Tulane transfer Kevin Ledee had an inconsistent 2021, and showed some promise in the spring, but still has much to prove, as does TCU transfer Kenedy Snell. Incarnate Word transfer Reggie Branch was a standout on a Crosby HS state finalist team, showed some real flashes of brilliance at running back during the spring game. Spencer Long returns for his junior season and is just one of those individuals that God smiled upon and said, “You shall be a football player.” A Swiss Army Knife for the Lions, Long is an excellent special teams player, and is more than capable of carrying the load at running back. He is just the kind of player that forces his way onto the field. Jaiave Magalei did somewhat overcome his shaky start in 2021 and continued to improve during the spring. The Lion offense should much more potent in the 2022 campaign with either Magalei or Laroe at the helm.

Offensive coordinator Billy Reibock appeared to really open up the play book in the spring and all indications are that the Lion offense will return to what was most successful in the past, meaning more of a traditional Air Raid style of offense, with more four and five wide receiver sets. That is not to say the running game is going on the scrap heap, however. A better than advertised ground attack won a national title for the Lions in 2017, and with such talent as senior J.T. Smith, who possesses world class speed and a Division 2 National Championship in the 100-meter dash, the Lion offense looks to reload in 2022.

Defense: In a word: TRADITION. The Blue Gang is not just a name, nor a group. It is a mentality. At a school that has produced such NFL level talent as Harvey Martin, Dwight White, Kevin Mathis, Eric Turner, Curtis Buckley, Fred Woods, Terry Bagsby, Autry Beamon, Tim Collier, Danny Mason, Antonio Wilson, and Jalon Edwards-Cooper, many Lion fans don’t just expect great defense, they feel it is a birthright.

Recent Lion teams have surely lived up to that expectation. It was the defense that shut out Central Washington in the second half of a 2017 playoff game that allowed the Lions to overcome a 21-point halftime deficit and win a game in double overtime that they probably shouldn’t have. Three weeks later, it won the Lions a title. In 2019, during what was perceived as a rebuilding year, with a new coaching staff. that same mentality fueled a playoff run to the quarterfinals. In 2021, it kept playoff hopes alive until the very last week of the season, despite all the offensive struggles.

In 2022, despite their fourth defensive coordinator in five seasons, the Lion defense looks to continue their stellar play. Sophomore defensive lineman Clifford Funderburk returns to create havoc in opposing backfields. Senior defensive lineman Celestin Haba had a solid 2021 campaign and looks to continue that progress. Senior defensive lineman Ben Hutch always seems to be around the ball. Senior linebacker and Arkansas transfer Dee Walker looks to improve on a very good 2021 season, as does senior defensive lineman Justice Williams. Senior Michael Noble, a Fullerton College transfer, had a very productive spring, and also looks to improve.

Kyle Williams might be new to the defensive coordinator position, but he isn’t new to the Lions, having arrived with in 2019 with Xavier Adibi, now at Virginia Tech. Williams brings a great deal of experience and is very familiar with the Blue Gang tradition. The defense is in very good hands, fans.

Special Teams: Despite an understandably shaky start in 2021, Lion punter Mitchell McGarry settled down, became much more consistent, and made the position his own by the end of the 2021 season. Despite a very stiff breeze during the spring game, much like he experienced in Pueblo last season, McGarry displayed a very strong leg and was very consistent.

Adian Martin, a Mississippi State transfer from the Houston area, looks to continue the tradition of great Lion kickers. Martin shows a strong leg and has a range to at least 59 yards out. He is also very accurate as well.

Another great Lion tradition is in the kick return game. Senior J.T. Smith looks to raise the bar set by Lion greats Sean Hooks, Reggie Kincade, and Dominique Ramsey. With his world class speed and quickness, Smith is a real threat anytime the ball goes into the air.

Season Predictions: There is so much unknown about the 2022 season, understandably. We’re approaching this from a best/worst case scenario as to how we see the season turning out.

Russell: Best Case- The transfers are as advertised. The roster depth holds up, the team stays relatively healthy, and with a break or two here and there, and I will say this here, and I may be one of the few in the media that think this….the Lions can pull off the upset of all upsets and beat Sam Houston State in Huntsville. Reminder: In 2015, Colby Carthel took a Lion team with not nearly the talent or experience level this edition does and had a lead well into the fourth quarter over a Bearkat team that made the FBS semifinals and was ranked # 7 in the FCS polls at the time.. That being said, if all goes according to plan, the Lions could finish as well as 9-2.

Worst Case: Injuries take a toll, the roster depth isn’t quite what was expected, and the anticipated growing pains come about…..6-5.

Let me say this now, and I can speak for both Brian and me on this point. At its low point, a 7-4, or even a 6-5 record this season, which in the past would be considered a huge disappointment, and simply not what we as fans have come to demand and expect, in this season of transition and uncertainty, would not be surprising or unexpected.

For the first time in a very long time, the Lions will be decided underdogs in most games this season. Yes, they will be Homecoming games for some teams. There is, however, and advantage in this. There is no pressure. There are no national championship expectations this season, although, the Southland Conference regular season certainly is the Lions for the taking. They should approach this season with a chip on their shoulder. A time to, as Christopher Walken once said in the movie Poolhall Junkies,

…Until one day, that Lion gets up and tears the **** out of everybody. Runs like the wind, eats everything in his path. Because, every once in a while, the Lion has to show the jackals who he is.”

And that time is now.

Roar Back Here.....

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