Greetings, Lion fans, and after a very long 288 days….it is finally game week! As was discussed in the Pre Snap Read, 2022 will be very, very different. New opponents. New road games. At the heart of the matter, though, two things remain the same: One, it is still Lion Football, and two, when it comes to defense, it’s still the Blue Gang.
I once was asked just what the Blue Gang was, and was it just another macho, catchy moniker for the defensive unit. I replied, “Absolutely Not.” It is not just a name, and it didn’t just come around. The 2022 season is now the 50th anniversary of the beginnings of what was not just a name, but of a mentality. The Blue Gang. Every single former Lion knows this- that if you wear the blue and gold, and you line up on the defensive side of the football, there is a standard of excellence to be met. That bar is set extremely high. Great defensive play is not just expected, it is demanded. Some see it as a birthright.
The resurrection of that mentality began in 2013 when Colby Carthel arrived in Commerce when he brought Justin Deason with him. That resurrection project took a while, but by 2017, it had faced every type and style of offense imaginable, from run dominated flex bone and triple option, to five widespread, and Air Raid attacks to win a national championship. In 2019, it fueled a completely unexpected run to the national quarterfinals. In 2021, while the Lion offense struggled, it was the Blue Gang that kept the Lions afloat, in every game, and the door open to a playoff berth up until the final week.
The Lions begin the 2022 season with their fourth defensive coordinator in five seasons. Kyle Williams, however, came to Commerce in 2019 with the latest in a long line of Lion defensive wizards, Xavier Adibi, and is well versed in the tradition.
WHAT TO EXPECT: The Oaklanders of Lincoln do have some speed and ability in some spots. but as has been stated in the Pre Snap Read, Lincoln is now entering their second year as an NAIA football program, and as a private university with just over 500 students, are in the midst of a giant learning curve, suffering from a lack of roster size and depth. The Lions will face this same situation to a degree later this season as they face more traditional Division 1 FCS teams.
Lincoln, again, has some very good personnel, but much like the University of Ft. Lauderdale in 2021 that the Lions faced, are still finding their way and are prone to mistakes and turnovers. The key will be for the front seven of the Lions to generate enough pressure on the passer to force him off his first read and make him as uncomfortable as possible. If they are able to accomplish that, the Lions should be able to turn the Oaklanders over and create short field opportunities for the offense.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR: In a word: Secondary. A strength of the Blue Gang, the secondary was decimated by graduation. It will be up to senior Darius Williams, sophomore Champ Mathis, and a name to keep an eye out for that the staff here at The Wire was particularly impressed with in the spring, redshirt freshman Sean Krystoff-King.
Senior Dee Walker returns to his linebacker spot, along with fellow senior Xavier Morris. Senior Michael had a very good spring game and looks to continue to improve. .
The heart of most defensive units is along the defensive line. It is no different for the Lions. Senior Justice Williams returns, along with senior Celestin Haba. Sophomore Clifford Funderburk, who always seems to be near the football also returns, as well as senior Ben Hutch.
Depth will be a major concern for the Lions defensively this season. How will the transfers fit in? Which underclassmen will step up and challenge for playing time? Can they stay healthy? Those are questions still to be answered.
THE LIONS WIN THIS MATCHUP IF: They play their style that has suited them well in recent history. Again, while Lincoln is talented at some individual positions, they are still very undersized and undermanned, are still just getting started. This should be a game in which David Bailiff and his staff should be able to get everyone that is available plenty of valuable game experience. That being said, by no means should the Lions take this game lightly. They need to get the Oaklanders, down early, and keep the pressure on.
A new season begins. The conference may be new, the opponents new, but what never changes…it’s still the blue and gold, and it’s still home.
See You Thursday
Personal Note: (This is now my fifth season (fourth full) covering Lion Athletics. I hope that all of that take the time to read what I write have enjoyed it as much as I have had writing it. There are many people to thank-Brian Pate, for taking a chance and calling me; to Tim McMurray and his wife Vicki for support and guidance when I was just getting started and giving me instant credibility; to coaches David Bailiff, Billy Riebock, and Joe Caldwell, for allowing me to bend their ear; and last, but certainly not least, the Hawkins family for always being a friend, and to Ernest Hawkins, wherever he is for taking a chance on me 43 years ago, and for never stopping being my friend- Russell)