Lamar is coming off the school's most successful season since re-launching the program in 2010. 2013 saw what were previously blowouts turn into dog fights and included a win over Stephen F. Austin that may have been responsible for the coaching change in Nacogdoches. Add to that competitive losses against Sam Houston State, Central Arkansas, McNeese State and even Louisiana Tech and things are looking up in Beaumont. So what's next for Ray Woodard's Cardinals? Hop in a desk and lets work it out.
Questions that need answering...
How good is Caleb Berry?
Senior quarterback Caleb Berry may go down as the best quarterback in Lamar history. Berry's been a stabilizing force for a program that has sorely lacked one. The Needville native completed 62% of his passes in 2013 and had a 32-8 TD to interception ration.
Berry beat out incumbent Ryan Mossakowski for the job coming into 2013 and never looked back. Berry closed out the year by setting new single-season school records in completions, passing yards, touchdown passes and yards of total offense. He needs a similar season to own Lamar's career passing record book, replacing the great John Evans in most categories.
He didn't show any regression in the spring. With the number of targets Lamar returns Berry may be off for bigger and better things this season. Lamar returns 8 starters on offense including three offensive linemen.
Berry averaged 11 yards per completion, translation, the Cards aren't afraid to go vertical. He's consistent, but there are issues including the egg he laid against Sam Houston. The Bearkats stifled the Cardinal attack which led to a career low in completion percentage.
Close losses were progress in 2013, in 2014 they'll be disappointments. If Lamar wants to take the next step and close out close games, they'll need Berry to be a closer. There's a narrow margin of error between winning games and losing games, Berry and his offensive mates can see that the Cardinals end up on the right end of the ledger.
A productive Kade Harrington will help as well. Harrington was a few yards from cracking the century mark in 2013 and a decent running game is a quarterback's best friend.
Who are the other 9 guys on defense?
Lamar lost 9 starters from their 2013 defense. The problem isn't just quantity, it's the quality lost. Notably Jesse Dickson, the first All-American at Lamar since the re-start. Dickson led Lamar with 15 tackles for loss and 6 sacks. He was also the co-leader in tackles from his defensive end position. Let that marinade for a bit.
Ok, come back now. The Cardinals also lose All Southland selections Kollin Kahler and Tyrus McGlothen.
The coaching staff addressed the defensive departures during the signing period bringing in 11 players on defense, including five transfers. The area of most concern is the secondary where 4 starters are lost including McGlothen. All told the Cardinals lose 92 career starts in the defensive backfield.
Woodard is high on transfer Michael Sheridan and the return of special teams contributor Kevin Johnson who should see more time in the defensive backfield. Montez Hunter was active in the spring as well.
Up front, Lamar won't replace Dickson's productivity but they have a number of players who have stepped up including defensive end Keith Curran. Texas State transfer Tylond Robertson also made an impression in the spring. 6-6 300 pound giant Joe Okafor has the chance to be a monster after making the move to defensive end, provided he can move well enough.
Four new starters will play at linebacker for Lamar, the most promising appear to be Mike Hargis and Logan Moss.
The bigger loss may have been Bill Bradley's departure as defensive coordinator. The Cardinals led the Southland in pass defense the past two years and Bradley was a wealth of knowledge and experience. Silsbee native Craig McGallion moves to defensive coordinator after five seasons coaching linebackers at Lamar. The 3-4 scheme remains in tact, it will however be manned by a slew of new Cardinals.
Who's that guy?
Jayce Nelson JR WR 6-2 195 Port Neches Groves
Nelson got a lot of pub in the spring for a guy with 6 career receptions. He has apparently become a favorite target of Berry and the rest of the Lamar quarterbacks.
Nelson has the size to be a nice option in 2014. In the scrimmages Nelson made some explosive plays and did enough to be penciled in as a starter at wide receiver. He'll benefit from the likes of 2nd team All-Conference receiver Reggie Begelton being on the field to divert some attention, but the PNG native has made a splash and, more importantly, earned the comfort of the quarterbacks.
Woodard took notice as well, "With so many starters back on offense, we knew what we had with those guys, but Jayce Nelson and Dillon Barrett have really stepped up during the spring."