New Day Dawning: Five Thoughts on the 2023 Blue-Gold Spring Game

Greetings, Lion fans. It’s good to be back in the saddle, so to speak, so let’s get down to business. This Saturday evening, we get our first look at the Clint Dolezel era of Lion Football. There are so many questions, but we’ve managed to distill them down to the five most important facing what a new staff on the offensive side of the ball is mostly.

Let’s begin with the 30,000-foot overview of things. Yes, Clint Dolezel has come home to Commerce after achieving legendary status in world of Arena football both as a player and a coach. We realize there have been many concerns raised about his ability to adapt to the regular 11-man game. Let’s put that to bed right here.

Football is football. The fundamentals of blocking and tackling are still the same. The ball still must be thrown, caught, and run with. Penalties, turnovers, and obvious mistakes still have to be overcome. Having observed Coach Dolezel in the indoor game, we can say that he knows how to take every advantage given his team, and he knows how to get the most out of his talent available. He knows this game inside and out; he just has a lot more field to work with now. A lot of the offensive principles of the indoor game adapt easily to the outdoor game, according to Dolezel, it’s just that a lot of college and professional coaches really don’t know how to make it work. Dolezel does. For Brian and me here at The Wire, the most telling statement of Dolezel’s introductory press conference was he’s not afraid to change and adapt the game plan on the fly if things aren’t working. If there was an issue with the offense during the Bailiff era, it was the seemingly lack of adjustments. The square peg was continually attempted to be pounded into the round hole, and at times it just didn’t work. Dolezel appears to be ready and willing to completely scrap a game plan during a game in order to find what works. There was another football coach in Commerce that operated in a very similar manner. The field is named after him.

Ernest Hawkins had an idea of what he wanted to do every game but wasn’t afraid of mixing things up. Whether it was throwing it 20-30 times a game (that was a lot for his era), or handing the ball off 40 times or so per game, Hawkins did whatever had to be done to win. It will be interesting to see if Dolezel follows a similar path.

Now, onto the five most important issues that we’re looking at this Satruday…….

  1. Quarterback- Injuries at quarterback have absolutely derailed the past two Lion football seasons. 2021, the last season in Division 2, was expected to be a deep playoff run if not a national championship appearance. Pre season injuries, however, and an inability to develop any consistency, the Lions struggled to a 7-4 finish, and were our of the playoff picture. 2022 saw a promising start in Division 1 play, and the 9-2 record that we had predicted here at The Wire (and had our sanity openly questioned for it) was a very real possibility until injuries struck again, and unsettled, inconsistent quarterback play resulted in a 5-6 disappointment. This season, however, has a different outlook. Our sources indicate that returning starter Eric Rodriguez will miss most, if nor all, of the spring recovering from off season surgery. This means that competiton will heat up for the other 5 quarterbacks in the room, and should provide plenty or opportunity to show what they can do. Zadock Dinkleman returns for his senior year, and is listed as a quarterback, but there is a story floating around that he could return to tight end, where he was slated to be last season. Sophomore Thomas Landry also returns with a lot to prove. Transfers Josh Magana (Reedley College), Peter Parrish (East Mississippi CC, also was on the 2019 LSU National Chhampionship roster), and Caleb Welch (SAGU), all have a wide open road to earn QB1 status. Oh, and just wait until Eric Rodriguez gets healthy. This is going to be one to see.
  2. Wide Receiver- One of the best wideouts ever to wear the blue and gold, Andrew Armstrong, is headed to the University of Arkansas via the transfer portal (please don’t get us here at The Wire started on the transfer portal or NIL), so how do the Lions go about replacing 1,020 yards and 13 touchdowns? You start by returning two very good receivers in Jaden Proctor, who really came into his own as great #2 option last season, and the University of Colorado transfer, Keith Miller, who showed flashes of promise when given the opportunity in 2022. Mix in some depth and experience from Cameron Nellor, who spent 2022 as a quarterback, and Damirion Polty who showed some promise through a five game season for him. Add Brendan Easley, a 6’2″ 186 pound senior transfer from Morgan State, Jabari Khepra, a 5’8″ 195 pound senior out of Bishop Dunne High School and Illinois State, and freshman J’Den Wilson, a local Commerce High grad, who comes back home from Stephen F. Austin. Some of these four and five wide sets could get very interesting.
  3. Offensive Line- The Lions started five freshmen offensive linemen in 2022, and while they were pretty good for the most part, at times the inexperence and lack of size showed. Now, they’re sophomores, with a year of experience under their belts, and a year of strength and conditioning that being a Division 1 player demands. McKenzie Agnello returns at guard, and Chandler Donaway at center return, Transfers Kyle Bruce (6’4″ 310 lbs, Jr.) comes to the Lions from Mississippi Gulf Coast CC, Elias Deleon (6’4″ 310 lbs., Jr.) from Bethune Cookman, and Logan Wylie (6’2″ 300 lbs., Soph.) from Stetson are looking to make their mark. However, the most interesting thing are two true freshmen who appear on the roster. Cole Thrift (6’8″ 325 lbs.) from Richardson Pearce would seem to be a natural fit at tackle, and Matthew Welch (6’4″ 275 lbs.) from Lake Worth. Jadin Jones (6’4″ 288 lbs.) from Killeen saw plenty of action in 2022. If the Lion offense is to improve and light up the scoreboard, this is the group that has to make it go.
  4. Special Teams/Kicker/Punter– Mitchell McGarry, the “Thunder From Down Under” punter returns after a solid 2022 season. Other than a shaky start to 2021, McGarry has continually improved, and while his numbers may not be impressive, he has become a very effective weapon. Emmanuel Adagbon comes back for his senior season, and has proven to be one of the most accurate kickers in Lion history. He is sure to be pushed hard by Mississippi Statr transfer Aiden Martin, who handled the kickoff duties in 2022 and was very adept at denying opponents the chance to return a kick.
  5. Can the Blue Gang Be Even Better? – The tradition continues. What began with the late Bobby Fox in the early 1970’s , to Eddie Ray Vowell, to Mark Copeland, Henry Ross, Justin Deason, Scott Power, Xavier Adibi, and now Kyle Williams, the Blue Gang Mentality is as strong as ever. This until has carried the Lions the past three seasons. That is just a fact. In their first season in Division 1 , the Lions had a Top 10 defense in the nation. Not in the Southland Conference, in ALL OF FCS. And in early reports out of the spring. the Blue Gang has been even more dominant, although that is to be somewhat expected at this time. Defenses almost always out pace offenses, and with the Lions installing a whole new system this season, there are bound to be some struggles early. The secondary returns senior King Ambers, junior Max Epps, sophomore Kendall Paul, sophomore Jordan Polk, and senior Dariyon Taylor. This was a group that was not only good in coverage, but, to quote the professional wrestler The Rock, would “lay the smack down.” This particularly caught the attention of just about everyone in the press bos in Huntsville against Sam Houston, when one of the staff said to me, “your guys can hit.” On a down note, the Lions lost both Dee Walker and Michael Noble to graduation, but the cupboard is far from bare. Who steps forward? We’ll see this weekend. The defensive line returns junior Clifford Funderburk, junior Warren Robinson, and junior Bryson Stewart. Transfers stetpping into the mix are Levi Drake Rodriguez (6’1″ 269 lbs., Sr.) from SAGU, Juan Henry (6’0″ 250 lbs., Sr.) from Sam Houston, Gerard Joesph (6’5″ 254 lbs., Soph.) from UTEP, Kain Williams (6’0″ 245 lbs., Soph.) Northeast Oklahoma St., and Leon Young (5’10” 271 lbs., Jr.) from McNeese. Overall this group buys into what Kyle Williams is selling, and they get the tradition of great Lion defense.

There’s a lot to look forward to this weekend, and still many questions to be answered .While we won’t see probably even half of what the coaching staff has in the works, we’ll see enough to get a bearing on where things stand going into the 2023 season. It’s sure to be exciting.

Saturday Night. Great weather is anticipated, and it’s a chance to see a new edition of Lion Football.

I Can’t Wait. See You at The Hawk

Roar Back Here.....

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