Aug. 20, 2014
BEAUMONT, Texas -
One of the major storylines heading into the 2014 season for the Lamar Cardinals was the fact that the defense returns only two starters from last year. A lot of the questions asked of head coach Ray Woodard
at the Southland Media Days event last month centered around the number of players Lamar lost due to attrition. When a team is forced to replace so many starters, the majority of folks, whether it be die-hard fans or the media, tend to focus solely on the losses, making any success the following season seem like a bit of a surprise.
If you take a closer look at the numbers, they may actually tell a different story. At first glance, the obvious stat is the return of only two starters, but a closer look will show that Lamar returns nine players who made at least one start for the Red and White in 2013. Upon first glance of Lamar's defensive line it shows that Lamar lost both defensive ends, returning only their nose tackle. But a closer look at the numbers will show that sophomore Omar Tebo posted four starts over center last season which has forced the LU coaching staff to move senior Joe Okafor from tackle (where he started eight games last season) to end. So, it can be argued that Lamar returns two starters on the defensive line.
"Whenever you lose guys like Mark (Murrill) and Jesse (Dickson) a lot of the focus will be on them not returning," said defensive line coach Carey Bailey. "But, we return a lot of guys who played last year. The snap distribution among the guys we lost and the returners was fairly even."
"I don't think it is fair to say we are replacing Jesse (Dickson) and Mark (Murrill). Those two guys were special players who brought so much to the table, but I think the guys we have here now have the ability to be better, as a group. We all have another year of experience under our belts, we know what the coaches expect of us and we've added some talented players," added Okafor.
Tebo's development in the middle of that line last season was a blessing in disguise for multiple reasons. The obvious point is the increased depth which gave the coaching staff a comfort level in moving Okafor to the edge. In addition, Okafor's time on the inside should help make him a better player on the end.
"Most people don't understand the season that Tebo had last year," said Bailey. "Had Kade not been here - and thank goodness he was - but had Kade not been here Tebo would've made a strong argument for freshman of the year. We watched him do some things that I've not seen a freshman do in a long time. Not only is he a strong, and fast young man but he really grew to understand the position last year. We watched him make plays where he was driving his man six or seven yards deep in the backfield."
"I think this is really going to be a good thing for Joe. Putting him over center things are happening faster because you right over the ball. But, having spent the time there that he did, and seeing how he has progressed we are now taking that speed and moving him to the outside. That is going to benefit him this year," added Bailey.
Entering the season, Bailey believes Lamar fans will have more to be excited about than just two names that may "headline" the Cardinals defensive front. A youthful squad of players, who when they put it all together, there will be no drop off compared to last year's team that graduated an All-American.
"We've added guys like Josh Frost and Seth Adams who have made us stronger," said Bailey. "I've been real impressed with Koby Couron. He has come out and worked really hard during fall camp and his hard work is showing on the field. Keith Curran is another one that has turned some heads during the fall. He is a converted linebacker who we moved midway through last year. He has taken the move to heart bulking up in the weight room and has worked hard in the film room to learn the position.
"Corbin Carr is another one who has really caught the eye of the coaching staff. I think he has surprised everyone this year. He is a young man who has gotten stronger, and really knows the position. All of these guys are really going to help this team," added Bailey.
Curran won the starting spot at defensive end coming out spring camp opposite Okafor and has done nothing to hurt those chance in preseason drills. Couron was listed second on the depth chart behind Okafor enter camp. Junior David Hollyfield returns from a 2013 season that saw him play in all 12 games earning one start. He finished the year 21 tackles, including 4.5 for losses. He comes to camp listed second on the depth chart behind Curran.
With Tebo entering camp as the favorite to get the starting nod at tackle, the battle for the second spot on the depth chart could go to Frost, a newcomer from Golden West Community College. Frost brings added size to the position at 6-0, 320 pounds.
"I feel the line is getting better every day," said Okafor. "I think we will be a lot better by the time we open the season. There are some little things that we need to get straightened out but that's why it is great to have a coach like (Carey) Bailey. He has the ability to focus on the small things, which helps us stay focused. We have the opportunity to be a very deep squad this year."
The average fan may look at a roster and insinuate how it would be nice to have a Dickson or a Murrill back for one more year. But every year there are surprises, players who step up and do more for a team than anyone thought possible. As Lamar was heading into the 2013 season, there were few outside the LU coaches who thought that Dickson would go on to be Lamar's first All-American since resurrecting the program, and according to some publications earn Southland Defensive Player of the Year honors.