BEAUMONT — Renewed optimism — sprinkled with abundant changes — were starkly apparent in Lamar University’s pre-season football camp.
The renewed optimism stems from the team’s No. 1 goals of posting a winning record for the first time since the university reinstated its football program in 2010 and the Cardinals’ intense determination to prove they can, indeed, become a factor in the extremely competitive Southland Conference.
In Lamar’s two seasons of fielding a football team since 1989, the Cardinals posted records of 5-6 and 4-7 under coach Ray Woodard, who came to Beaumont after building an impressive resume, mainly in NFL Europe and on the Texas junior college circuit. In their first season of eligibility in the SLC since 1989, the Cardinals went 2-5 and in the conference and were sixth in the eight-team race in 2011.
The Cardinals gained even more incentive to prove their mettle in the offseason when they were made seventh place picks in the 2012 SLC Coaches and Sport Information Directors’ polls.
“One thing we found out first hand last year was how really tough the conference is from top to bottom,” said Woodard, who played his collegiate football as a defensive lineman at the University of Texas before moving on to a five-season career in the NFL, including being a member of the Denver Broncos’ 1986 Super Bowl team. “We learned that to climb to the top of the heap we’re going to have to work even harder in practice to play at the high intensity levels of the Sam Houston States and Stephen F. Austins in our games.
“Hopefully, with the depth we now have after enjoying another great recruiting season, it will help us sustain the kinds of late-season injuries that were so crippling to us last year. We know what we’re getting into now. It’s just a matter of taking care of the job on the field.”
Unlike last season, when the Cardinals returned 21 of their 22 position starters from the 2010 team, five offensive and six defensive regulars have returned this fall, but the prognosis isn’t nearly as bleak as many may suspect.
That’s where the change comes in.
During the offseason, Woodard lured six new assistants to his staff, including defensive coordinator Bill Bradley and offensive coordinator Larry Kueck, both of whom have varied backgrounds and have experienced vast success in their long careers. Also, Cardinals fans can expect to witness significant contributions from new players on both sides of the ball.
Here’s a look at four areas that should play prominent roles in whether the Cardinals can attain their goals during the coming season, accompanied with comments from Woodard, Bradley or Kueck:
Absorbing the losses
Performers like quarterback Andre Bevil, wide receivers J.J. Hayes and Marcus Jackson, linebackers Asiim Hicks and Darby Jackson, offensive linemen Cameron Epple and Anthony Oden, and defensive lineman Marcus Malbrough will certainly be missed.
Bevil put an exclamation point to Lamar’s return to the football field in the 2010 season opener by passing for a school record 429 yards against McNeese State, and he threw for 417 yards and four touchdowns in a 29-28 road upset of Southeastern Louisiana two weeks later.
In his career finale against McNeese State last year, Hayes snared a school-record 14 passes, and his 951 receiving yards for the season set another school standard.
Hicks led the Cardinals in tackles last season with 103, almost doubling the total of 58 by No. 2 tackler Anthony Beard.
Quoting Woodard: “Guys like Andre, J.J. and Asiim did fantastic jobs for us for two years, and sometimes it’s difficult, yet not impossible to find replacements for players them. We like to look at it in this vein – they set some fine standards to which our incoming players and our future players can aspire.”
The most prominent name on the Cardinals’ preseason depth chart, as far as newcomers go, is that of quarterback Ryan Mossakowski, who finished spring training listed No. 1 at the marquee position. The 6-foot-4, 225-pound transfer from Frisco by way of Northwest Mississippi Community College completed 177 of 293 passes (60.4 percent) for 2,422 yards and 26 touchdowns in leading the team to a 6-3 record during his sophomore season.
Quoting Woodard: “Ryan is the guy to beat out at the present time. He has great skills as a passer and as a leader, and he has a lot of experience. At the same time, though, Caleb Berry (6-1, 190, sophomore letterman) made a lot of progress during spring training, he’s looked sharp this summer and he’s a battler.
“Also, Dillon Barrett (6-5, 220 redshirt freshman from Dry Prong, La.) has looked good during the limited number of snaps he’s had, as has Matt Bergeron (5-11, 175, freshman from Mandeville, La.). I feel like we’re going to be four deep at quarterback going into the season opener (Sept. 1 at Louisiana-Lafayette), so we should be in pretty good shape there.”
Quoting Kueck: “Ryan has been running No. 1 since spring training, but Caleb made a lot of good improvement during the spring. We’re also doing our best to work the two younger guys (Barrett and Bergeron) in there when we can. All four of them are really studious guys, and I’m pleased with the amount of focus they have shown. They are eager learners. They are steadily improving, and the other guys on the team are showing a lot of confidence in them.”
Other newcomers expected to fill in gaps on the offensive side of the ball this season include redshirt freshman offensive tackle Justin Brock (6-4, 255 from Beaumont West Brook), junior left guard Brock Wampa (6-2, 310 transfer from Tyler Junior College), redshirt freshman right guard Scott Utterback (6-1, 285 from Vidor) and redshirt freshman wide receiver Reggie Begelton (5-11, 175 from West Brook).
Shoring up the defense
Last season’s Cardinals surrendered a whopping 430 points for an average of 39.1 per game. This total included embarrassing yields of 66 points to Sam Houston State and 69 to Stephen F. Austin in back-to-back games, and the team bowed out with a 45-point yield to McNeese State in Provost Umphrey Stadium.
The Cardinals finished last in the conference in scoring defense, seventh in rushing defense, fifth in passing defense and sixth in total defense.
In an effort to reverse these trends, the Cardinals have ditched their basic 4-2-5 defensive formation of last season in favor of the 3-4 system made notorious by Wade Phillips-coached defenses in the NFL for many years now.
“When I went to the 3-4 defense when I was coaching in NFL Europe, it was Wade’s playbook that I installed,” said Woodard. “It causes problems in protection for the offenses, and it puts more speed on the field and gives you more versatility.”
Added Bradley, a three-year All Pro safety with the Philadephia Eagles and a former University of Texas standout: “Our guys are loving the 3-4. What I saw in the spring and what our fans will see this fall is a lively defensive bunch that is fanitcal about running to the football. You can’t coach that. They have to want to do it.
“While we’re emphasizing the 3-4, we’ll throw in some four-man fronts just to keep the offenses off-balanced. When you’re in the 3-4, you’re taking a big man out and adding a linebacker. You’re getting more speed on the field, and you keep the offenses guessing on where the fourth pass rusher is going to come from.
“I learned the 3-4 from the master himself when I was with Wade with the Buffalo Bills. I learned so much from Wade, and it has proven beneficial to me throughout the rest of my coaching career.”
The starting outside linebackers for the Cardinals in their opener figure to be converted defensive ends Marcus Malbrough (6-5, 245 from West Brook) and Blake Chavis (6-5, 235 from West Brook), while James Washington (5-11, 220 from Houston Madison) and junior transfer Jermaine Longino (5-10, 220 from Trinity Valley Community College) are expected to start on the inside.
Unfortunately, the Cardinals must overcome the bad break of losing sophomore letterman Anthony Beard (6-0, 230 from Lumberton) to a knee injury in fall practice. Beard accounted for 58 tackles, with 7.5 of them behind the line of scrimmage, as a redshirt freshman.
Senior nose guard Adren Dorsey (6-3, 315 from Tyler John Tyler) and junior ends Jesse Dickson (6-2, 245 from Alief Taylor) and Mark Murrill (6-2, 250 from Lumberton) – all two-year lettermen – give the Cardinals an experience No. 1 up-front crew.
The four members of the starting secondary – cornerbacks Branden Thomas 5-9, 165 junior from Beaumont Central) and Adrian Guillory (5-10, 165 senior also from Central as well as Navarro College) and safeties Chad Allen (5-11, 190 junior from Coldspring) and Jordan Garrett (6-3, 190 senior from West Brook by way of Tulane) – are also veterans.