Greetings, Lion fans, having a week off halfway through the season is certainly a welcome relief, this week it’s back to the grind and the beginning of Southland Conference play. Brian and I thought this would be an ideal spot to reflect on the season so far. What’s gone well, what hasn’t, and what has surprised us so far. So, let’s dive right in.
OFFENSE: B. The only reason this is not an A is the issues at quarterback with the Eric Rodriguez injury, and the departure of what was anticipated to be a great season from Ohio State transfer Jagger Laroe. Laroe just never seemed to establish himself from the beginning this season, and when Rodriguez stepped in, the team responded to him. After a similar outing against Tennessee Tech, Laroe, much to the surprise of everyone, Laroe chose to leave the program and the school.
Much like 2021, Rodriguez came in with determination and intent, along with a toughness that belies his 5’9″ frame. His strong, solid, arm, and the ability to make plays with his feet. Until his ankle injury on the opening drive of the second half of the Tennessee Tech game, the Lion offense was rolling. The good news is, after missing the Sam Houston and North American games, and with this week off, he should be in great shape to begin Southland play this week against Southeastern Louisiana. On a positive note, the health of Rodriguez doesn’t raise the alarms that occurred when Miklo Smalls went down in the 2021 off season. Offensive coordinator Billy Riebock now has two proven backups in which to turn. junior Zadock Dinkleman, who had moved to tight end, performed admirably against a tough Sam Houston team despite short notice and a limited game plan. With a full week to prepare, Dinkleman looked much more comfortable and in command of the offense. Royce City freshman Tyson Oliver got over a full half’s worth of work against North American, and turned in a solid effort
The running back by committee approach has served the Lions well. Sophomore DeMarcus Hosey, do it all junior Spencer Long, freshman Reggie Branch, and freshman B.J. Phillips have opened some eyes, and while not having eye popping stats, have held their own. Supplemented by senior speedster J.T. Smith, the Lion offense has been able to establish a balance to the attack.
The offensive line has been one of the biggest surprises of the season so far. Two freshmen start in this group, and so far the bright lights and bigger stage haven’t seemed to affect them. Chandler Donaway, and Mackenzie Agnello, along with sophomore Jadin Jones have more than held their own up front and are getting better week to week.
The receiving corps has been nothing short of outstanding. Sophomore Andrew Armstrong has set a blistering pace, and already is drawing comparisons to the greatest of Lion pass catchers. The challenge for David Bailiff and his staff is to develop other talent to not allow opposing defenses to concentrate on stopping Armstrong. Senior B.J. Busbee is beginning to establish himself along with sophomore Jaden Proctor. Junior Ke’Andre Street is beginning to get noticed and making some plays. Freshman Austin Samaha has developed into a very reliable tight end.
The offense seems to be rounding into shape and getting healthy at just the right time.
DEFENSE: A+. Kyle Williams’s unit has been spectacular. What has been discussed here on The Wire, The Blue Gang is not just a catchy name for the defensive unit, such as the Wrecking Crew of Texas A&M-College Station, or the Black Shirts of Nebraska. It is a belief in a way of doing things. A collective mentality. And with a mention on the ESPN TV broadcast two weeks ago, it appears to be going viral and taking on a life of its own.
Senior Celestin Haba anchors the front four and has been quite the disruptive force. Sophomores Leon Young and Clifford Funderburk have been outstanding in tying up offensive linemen, allowing senior linebacker Dee Walker and Michael to roam free, sideline to sideline and make plays. Senior Justice Williams has contributed great depth and experience, as well as a knack for always being around the ball.
The secondary, led by senior Darius Williams, has been much better than anticipated, given the youth that is relied heavily upon. Sophomore Kendall, Paul, Maxwell Epps, and freshman Sean Krystoff-King have been quite the surprise so far. After somewhat of a shaky start, they are starting to jell, and have gathered quite the attention with their ability for the big hit.
SPECIAL TEAMS: B+ Again, not stats that would make you say “Wow!” , but very effective Junior Emmanuel Adagbon, while not having been called on for a field goal of distance, has been spot on accurate with the exception of one missed extra point due to a bad snap. Adagbon has displayed a bigger leg in warmups, and seems to have range out to 45-50 yards, but so far has not been called on at that kind of distance.
Sophomore punter Mitchell McGarry has been much, much better than his seasonal average would indicate. McGarry has been very good in digging the Lions out of a hole when pinned deep in their own territory, as in the Sam Houston game. His punts seem to have developed a back spin that golfers on the PGA Tour would envy and have kept opposing offenses at bay. Freshman Aiden Martin has been outstanding on kickoffs.
Probably one of the biggest powder kegs just waiting to explode has been the Lion return game. Senior B.J. Busbee finally broke out to a degree against North American, and the aforementioned J.T. Smith is a threat to score every time a kicked ball goes into the air. It is not a matter of when this group breaks a big return, but when.
COACHING/INTANGIBLES: A+. In a word, this pride of Lions is YOUNG. Redshirt freshmen, true freshmen, and sophomores are sprinkled up and down the roster, and many see quality playing time. David Bailiff and his staff have done a masterful job in blending this young, inexperienced talent with just the right amount of upperclassman experience, and the results have been much better than expected. Problems that seemed to surface in the early season have come under control, and now that Billy Riebock has a group of quarterbacks that he can rely on to execute the game plan, his playbook has opened up and he has found some creative ways to get playmakers the ball. J.T. Smith scored twice against North American, once on a short swing pass, and another on a reverse. With a healthy Eric Rodriguez seemingly ready to return this week, the sun is indeed rising on Lion Nation, and the upcoming conference schedule is setting up nicely. This team that stands at 2-2 could very easily be 3-1 or 4-0. They are right where they need to be, in the hunt of every game, with a chance to win.
The Lions have proven to themselves that they belong at this level. Now, starting in Hammond, Louisiana, this week, it’s time to show the Southland Conference, and the rest of the country.