Another new era begins in Nacogdoches after a 1-7 finish to 2013. Clint Conque arrives fresh off a great run at Central Arkansas. The Lumberjacks have watched their rival take over the Southland in recent years, but with a new coach, a new quarterback, and a new identity better things may in store for the Jacks. Let's work out how we should Axe 'Em.
Questions that need answering...
How's the new guy working out?
Clint Conque had quite the run at Central Arkansas. Forgiving the gray and purple field, Conque transitioned UCA to the FCS and made them an elite program in the Southland. Leaving UCA for Stephen F. Austin was a bit of a surprise, after 14 years anywhere taking that next job is big step outside a comfort zone.
Conque gets a pay raise and access to one of the countries great recruiting hotbeds a few miles from his front door. After averaging 8 wins a season as UCA, the challenge of SFA will be installation of his system, recruiting the players already on campus to buy in, and to catch up with his former school and the rest of the Soutland's elite.
Finding players won't be difficult, east Texas is one of the deepest pools in the country. The Lumberjacks will need to wait a couple of years to see how the recruiting pans out, more important for the short term will be Conque's ability to remake the athletes already in the program.
He'll have some talent coming back with 1,000 yard rusher Gus Johnson and a stable of running backs as well as Tyler Boyd at receiver. The constant at UCA was the quarterback position. SFA has had a nice run at quarterback in recent history as well, though it hasn't translated into wins. SFA had an up tempo offense that put up points and yards under J.C. Harper, Conques challenge will be to add something on the defensive side of the ball to get the Lumberjacks over the hump.
The Southland is wide open, Sam Houston lost a lot of talent and its most impressive head coach in recent history, SELU has to prove it can sustain 2013's success and UCA will be breaking in a new staff. Incarnate Word, Houston Baptist, and Abilene Christian are a few years from competing in the league. If Conque can work some magic quickly, SFA could be in the mix for a conference title.
Any chance the defense won't be so bad?
Opposing offensive coordinators loved to see SFA on the schedule, the 'Jack allowed 49.3 points and 527.8 yards per game in 2013. When you're giving up half a hundred you aren't going to be that competitive. New defensive coordinator Matt Williamson will have his work cut out for him as the Lumberjacks transition to a 4-2-5.
He appears optimistic; “There are two things that I can promise to the fans – you’ll never see a team play harder than us, and you’ll never see a team play more physical than us. If we can control those two things, then we’ve got about an excellent chance of winning the football game and being successful.”
Right off the bat the strength is up front with defensive tackle rotation Donald Bryant, Lance Skyler, and Shayvion Hatten. Bryant and Hatten started their careers at Baylor and A&M respectively. Ismiah Mills came out of the spring having locked down one defensive end spot while a group of youngsters will fill out the front four.
Three seniors come out of the spring with the starting nod at linebacker. Collin Garrett will start at the Will linebacker slot, Nick Bryant will play the Jack and Rodney Young will hold down the Mike or middle linebacker position. Williamson likes the look of Young, "Rodney Young does everything right. He’s a very intelligent kid, a very instinctive kid, and always seems to be in the right place at the right time."
Bryant's Jack position will be a hybrid linebacker/defensive back in the 4-2-5.
If there was a deficit in 2013 it was in the defensive backfield, where the Lumberjacks allowed almost 350 yards per game. Returning starter Keavon Madison is joined by UTSA transfer Maurice Poullard. Both are seniors, Madison had a pick in 2013 and both have looked good in the spring.
Trey Vallier, the Lumberjacks 2013 leader in picks and pass breakups returns at one safety and sophomore J.C. Franklin steps in at the other safety position.
Williamson brings the ever important new attitude to SFA's defense. Perhaps a new attitude will bring about new results. Regardless the 4-2-5 base will give the Lumberjacks some advantage against spread teams. If they can hold opponents below 40 that's a huge improvement.
Who's that guy?
Zach Conque So. QB 6-4 225 Little Rock (Cathedral/UTSA)
Were you ever on a little team where your dad was the coach? There are two ways that can go, either the old man will make a point of grinding you down so your teammates know there are no favorites or he let's you pitch every game because he's going to insure you make the bigs.
We'll find out how the old man, Clint, handles his kid at SFA. Zach transferred to SFA from UTSA after spending 2012 and 2013 with the Roadrunners. Here's the trick, he's real talented.
Zach Conque has grown up around great quarterback play. Payton award finalist Nathan Brown threw little Zach passes when he was a junior high kid. Little Zach has grown up. His old man has groomed several big time quarterbacks. We'll find out if coaching your son is any tougher, cue the clips of Freddy Akers.
SFA has a job opening at quarterback Joe Minden looked like the front runner to fill it heading into the spring. That was until the Conques showed up. He and Zach split time with the first team for much of spring practice. At the spring game Minden went 13-20 for 147 yards while Conque went 18-26 for 242 with 4 TDs and 1 int.
For what it's worth no decision was made about a starter, though it sure feels like it's Conque's job to lose.