Last year, McNeese State was one of those 1-AA teams that embarrassed a BCS conference opponent on their home field. Behind senior quarterback Cody Stroud, the Cowboys broke out to a 40-7 third quarter lead enroute to a 53-21 pasting of the Bulls to open the 2013 season. McNeese State would go on to finish the season 10-3, earning them a #6 national seed in the 1-AA playoffs. But only five starters return from the #6 scoring offense in 1-AA, meaning that McNeese State is facing a rebuilding project.
And that rebuilding project starts at quarterback, where Southland Conference offensive player of the year Cody Stroud exits. Enter former Kansas State quarterback Daniel Sams, who gradually lost playing time last season to Jake Waters. This spring, Sams unsuccessfully tried to switch to wide receiver at K-State, then decided to transfer to McNeese State at the end of the spring semester. By stepping down to 1-AA, Sams is eligible immediately as a junior. Sams' skill set would seem to be the polar opposite of Stroud, who was strictly a passer, losing 83 yards on 39 carries last season. Sams, on the other hand, rushed 152 times last season for 807 yards and 11 touchdowns. Despite earning honorable mention all-Big XII honors from the coaches, Sams wasn't much of a threat through the air, completing 38 of 52 passes for 452 yards with four interceptions. Needless to say, the McNeese State offense is going to change in 2014 to take advantage of Sams' skill set. When you look at how SB Nation's Bring On The Cats reviewed Sams' role in the Kansas State offense last season, you get a glimpse of the talent that he'll bring to the Cowboys:
Sams can throw the ball; he's got a cannon. He's just a little erratic. But he's made some big plays with his arm this year. His strength is in his very deceptive and elusive running ability, and he's able to sneak through the line of scrimmage a lot of the time and burn you like a tailback.
In the spring, McNeese State was already practicing the zone read with their existing quarterbacks, so while Sams may be new to McNeese State, the offense was already transitioning to one that will exploit his talent.
Leading rusher Marcus Wiltz is gone (1,278 yards and 11 touchdowns last season), opening the door to backup Kelvin Bennett. The 5'11" 172 pound junior rushed for 774 yards and four touchdowns last season. Junior fullback Dylan Long also returns; he rushed for 335 yards and ten touchdowns in 2013. With the transition to a more run-oriented zone-read offense, look for Bennett to put up much bigger numbers in 2014.
Another reason why the running game will take on increased importance for McNeese State in 2014 is the lack of depth in the receiving corps. Only three of the top six receivers return, led by senior Ernest Celestie, who received an NCAA exemption for a sixth season of eligibility. Celestie spent two years at Texas Tech, but was unable to play due to a heart condition. The 5'11" 183 pound receiver caught 31 passes for 565 yards and five touchdowns last season, despite being hampered by a foot injury all season. He missed all of spring practice recovering from surgery on his foot, but is expected to be ready to play this fall. Senior Jereon McGilvery (6'3" 197 lbs.) and junior David Bush (5'9" 180 lbs.) also return. McGilvery caught eleven passes last season for 219 yards and two touchdowns; Bush caught 20 passes for 194 yards and a touchdown.
The offensive line returns four starters, which makes it the foundation of the McNeese State offense. 6'2" 325 pound senior left tackle Antoine Everett was a second-team all-Southland conference honoree last season, while 6'3" 293 pound junior center Nick Gorman was a third-team all-Southland selection.
Defensively, McNeese State returns eight starters from a defense that ranked 75th in scoring defense in division 1-AA. Pick your statistic: 83rd in total defense, 68th in rushing defense, and 97th in passing defense. Up front, the Cowboys will be led by 5'10" 263 pound senior defensive tackle Kevin Dorn, who totaled 52 tackles (7.5 for loss) last season. 6'3 245 pound defensive lineman Danyel Hunter did add nine quarterback hurries last year while totaling 23 tackles.
Junior linebacker Bo Brown (6'1" 232 lbs.) was a third-team all-Southland conference pick last season, with 75 tackles (12 for loss) and nine quarterback hurries. Senior linebacker Deonte Thompson (6'2" 225 lbs.) added 31 tackles. But the strength of the defense last year was in the secondary, where 5'9" 182 pound senior safety Aaron Sam leads. Last season, Sam was the Cowboys' leading tackler with 84 (7.5 for loss). Junior cornerback Gabe Hamner (6'0" 190 lbs.) added 48 tackles and defended 10 passes.
McNeese State doesn't play on Labor Day weekend, meaning that Nebraska won't have any video to prepare for the new McNeese State offense. Bo Pelini might splice together some video of Sams' at Kansas State along with past history of the Cowboys' offense to try and prepare for what they might see. But you have to expect that the Huskers should be able to run at will on McNeese State, and if that happens, the Cowboys won't be claiming another Division 1-A pelt this season.