Photo by SFA Athletics
Stephen F. Austin Football

SFA players trending up or down after the spring football season

April 24, 2017

It's been a little while since optimism like this has blessed Homer Bryce Stadium with its presence. All around the Stephen F. Austin football program, there's a sense that something special is being brewed for the fall semester.

And on Saturday, it was all on display. The retooled offense, led by quarterback Foster Sawyer, struggled to finish drives all evening, but showed flashes of the fast-paced, methodical unit that offensive coordinator Gary Crowton envisioned when he made his way to Nacogdoches last year. On the other side of the ball, the brand new 3-3-5 defense, led by former UT-Martin defensive coordinator Jeff Byrd, continued to come up with big plays. It has been a theme for most of the spring and a trademark of Byrd defenses in years past.

Stephen F. Austin will by no means enter the fall season as the favorite in the Southland Conference. Sam Houston State, returning the majority of their key contributors from last year's undefeated regular season, will almost certainly claim that preseason title once votes are cast. But SFA, assuming some key injured players return healthy, can relish in the underdog status and enter the college football season with arguably the most talent of the Clint Conque era.

After the spring football season, let's review some of the bigger story lines:

Trending Up:

Foster Sawyer, Quarterback -

SFA Athletics Stephen F. Austin quarterback Foster Sawyer throws during a March 2017 practice.

No surprise here. Foster Sawyer transferred from TCU with the intention of earning the starting quarterback job at SFA. So far, he's looked the part.

After the spring game concluded, Coach Conque did not hesitate to say Sawyer had drawn some clear separation in the quarterback battle. While the offense was by no means a polished product for most of the spring season, Sawyer has been generally accurate and in command. It would have been fairly shocking to see either Ryan Cottingame or Jake Blumrick outperform Sawyer in the competition, but they were promised a fair contest and mostly got one. Sawyer has emerged as the best signal caller on the team and has effectively (if not officially) been named the starter for the fall semester.

Trey Ramos, Safety -

There were a lot of young players forced into early action last season with a combination of injuries and depth deficiencies. As a true freshman, Ramos saw action in every game both on defense and special teams. Entering his sophomore season, already with more playing experience than most his age, Trey has taken more than a few steps forward.

It might not be fair to dub Ramos a surprise - there were plenty of folks around the program who expected his dominant play to surface this season. Still, he's been really, really good.

On Saturday, Trey was flying around the field making plays like always. Enjoy it, but don't be overly jarred. Great play from Ramos is going to be the norm pretty soon.

Josh McGowen, Running Back -

SFA Athletics SFA running back Josh McGowen breaks away during an open scrimmage at Carthage High School.

As a member of the scout team as a true freshman last year, the coaching staff at SFA knew they had a special player. Entering the spring season as a redshirt freshman, with injuries hurting the running back position, McGowen carried high expectations on his shoulders.

He has shattered all of them.

With four years of eligibility remaining, McGowen is electric, explosive, elusive, and just plain fast. Possibly the most exciting player on the entire roster, he has been a standout participant in nearly every team activity that has taken place this spring season. The one-two punch of Kijana Amous and McGowen has been a real bright spot this spring even with the absence of Loren Easly.

He might not be a household name in SFA fan circles yet, but be patient; he will be very soon.

Tamrick Pace, Wide Receiver -

Leaping onto the scene as a true freshman last season, Pace hauled in 52 receptions for 836 yards and eight touchdowns to lead all players. Some individuals around the program have questioned if he is perhaps the most talented receiver SFA has recruited in a significant while. They might have a point.

Pace has picked up where he left off last season, using his large frame to make contested catches, and his explosiveness to get separation even from what has (so far) appeared to be a solid SFA secondary. Even with the emergence of Texas A&M transfer Frank Iheanacho as another large red zone threat, Pace entered the spring season as SFA's best receiver and will enter the summer with the same title.

SFA hasn't had a 1,000 yard receiver since Tyler Boyd in 2013, using an offense that launched the ball into the air nearly 50 times per game. Barring an injury, it would not be surprising to see it happen again with Pace in 2017.

Gary Sampson, Defensive End -

Another young player who contributed on defense last season, Sampson has taken advantage of some extra reps with John Franklin nursing an injury. A tall, long and explosive pass rusher, Sampson has flourished in the new odd-man front and, together with Rayshad Nichols, promises a bright future for the defensive line in Nacogdoches.

Although we haven't yet seen the offensive line at full strength in a long time, the defensive front, led by Sampson, Nichols and Demetrion Amie were a huge pain for the offense on Saturday and made life as difficult for quarterbacks as possible without being allowed to actually hit them.

While linebacker remains a question mark in the 3-3-5 nickel-heavy scheme, the men up front should generally be a strength - especially once Franklin returns.

Trending Down:

Offensive Line -

In some ways I really hate to put the big men on this list considering they won't likely be the same group in the fall. Still, in the live contact competitions, defense has prevailed more times than not in the trenches.

Devonte Jones, the redshirt sophomore who started last season at right tackle before going down with a season-ending injury in the opener at Texas Tech, should return at some point this summer after missing all of the spring. Cooper Williams, Jones' replacement last season before he too went down with a season-ending injury three games later, should be making his return from ACL surgery in June. William Youngberg, a junior college transfer, also arrives this summer with a chance to contribute right away.

All things considered, there is still enough reason to be optimistic that the unit up front could be improved with all the assistance coming between now and the actual season. Nevertheless, the quarterbacks were fortunate that full contact on them was not permitted this spring.

Loren Easly, Running Back -

The Daily Sentinel SFA running back Loren Easly breaks a big run during a 2016 game versus Southeastern Louisiana.

For what it's worth, there's a good chance that we'll see plenty of Loren Easly this fall. SFA's most experienced running back has shown flashes of dominance in his first seasons in the ranks of college football, and his earth-shattering performance in the Battle of the Piney Woods a couple years ago will not soon be forgotten.

Unfortunately, injuries have continued to get the better of him. Once again, Easly has struggled to stay on the field. Coach Conque said shortly after the spring game that if it had been a real game situation that Easly likely could have played. There just continues to be questions of whether or not he'll ever quite be operating at 100% again.

In his absence, Josh McGowen has flourished this spring and certainly lifted some of the burden on what now appears to be one of SFA's deeper positions. Still, you have to feel for Easly who has been on the cusp of being great for awhile now, only to see the injury bug bite at the worst possible moments.

Alex Gregory, Defensive Back -

In our Shot of Jacks update this weekend, I complimented the effort that Gregory showed on Saturday. He tackled well and seemed to look his best in our sample size of the 2017 spring season.

That said, he has a big job to do in order to get back in good graces with those who most matter. His transition from wide receiver to DB has been anything but smooth and he spent the final weeks of last season on suspension. His raw talent will continue to generate opportunities but there is also plenty of depth in the defensive backfield where Alize Ward, Trey Ramos, Andre Wiley, Trent Perriman, Aaron Foy, Tarrin Mitchell, Marlon Walls and Lawrence Ghansah are all expected to contribute meaningful snaps. Along with transfers Bryce Gemmel and Davelle Fox, a weakness in years past has potential to be a position of strength. But playing time for Gregory, without distinguished improvement, might prove difficult.

That's not to say it won't happen. It just hasn't yet.

Rogue One moviegoers  -

The crowd for SFA's 2017 spring game was, by Southland Conference standards, really good. It was a chilly evening with plenty of wind, but folks huddled in blankets and seemed to mostly enjoy the experience. Despite the difficulty the offense had scoring, there were a few nice moments where the crowd managed to make some noise for a big play or two.

Unfortunately, rain has a way of dispersing a crowd quickly. A year ago, SFA played Star Wars: The Force Awakens on the lumbotron video board and it was a big hit. Families spread out blankets and it was a party on the turf of Homer Bryce Stadium.

This year, being promised a showing of Rogue One, plenty turned out once again. Although the precipitation didn't last more than a few minutes, at least half of the crowd was gone by the time the final whistle blew around 8PM. Thanks, Mother Nature.

No huddle points:

Linebacker remain a question mark as the summer approaches -

Judge the health of this defense by what you see from the linebackers this summer. That's probably the biggest mystery right now on Jeff Byrd's unit. A secondary that struggled for stretches last year has been mostly good in the new zone-heavy scheme and the defensive line has been great. Spencer Choka and Teddy Britton have potential to be good as starters, but there's an unknown maturity aspect that remains to be seen. Terrance Potts, the junior college transfer, could potentially help with that when he arrives this summer.

The skill positions on offense are stacked -

Although Trae Hart has been hurt, SFA will bring a miles deep group of wide receivers with them to Dallas when they open up the season at SMU. We've talked about Tamrick Pace and certainly Frank Iheanacho. Terian Goree, who transferred from North Texas, Kiki Hill, and others will all see playing time at wide receiver. Quarterback Foster Sawyer seems to be as advertised and although perhaps underutilized last season, Will Taylor, the senior tight end, has emerged as one of his favorite targets over the middle.

The team is still coming together and there's a lot of missing talent between injuries and late arrivals - but the passers, catchers, and runners on this SFA offense are definitely good enough to win.

Injuries can always derail a team -

John Franklin, Jack Martin, Alize Ward, Aaron Foy, Bryce Gemmel, Paten Snell, Zack Kanipes, Loren Easly, Jamall Shaw, Devonte Jones, Cooper Williams, Thomas Nolley, Trae Hart, Deion Bennett. Those are the names of 14 players who were not healthy enough to play in Saturday's spring game.

Among those on that list are seven starters from last year and three all-SLC players. Some injuries are relatively minor and include guys who could have played in a real game situation - others far more serious. All it means is, be optimistic but remain cautiously so.

We've seen two seasons derailed now because of atrocious health up and down the roster. Sometimes the football gods smile and sometimes they do not. Along with all the reinforcements expected with another semester on the way, injuries are fortunately not yet the headline.

Just keep them in mind as the start of the summer football program approaches.

What does success look like in 2017? -

Azle Sports Photography SFA players carry Chief Caddo off the field after defeating Northwestern State in the 2016 season finale.

There have been a lot of unhappy people in Lumberjack-land as each of the last two seasons have been derailed by uneven play and aforementioned injury. With a new year and new expectations, fans need to ask themselves exactly what success looks like this coming fall.

A lot of key contributors remain fairly young and we could expect this team to probably be even better a year from now. But this fall - 2017 - how is success and failure measured?

National title contention? Conference championship? Playoffs? Winning record? Beating Sam Houston State? Where do we draw the line for this program?

To be honest, that remains to be seen. This team will look quite a bit different when they kick off in Dallas this September than they do now. Still, you get the feeling that anything shy of seven or eight wins would be a disappointment, even in a league where the dreaded Bearkats remain the heavy favorite.

And so, Lumberjack nation, I'll end on this note. What does success look like to you? Comment your thoughts below.

SFA players trending up or down after the spring football season

How long do you want to ignore this user?
While my ultimate wish would be to see this team somehow, some way beat Prison Tech, I must confess that that will be a long shot, given the players they have coming back, especially their impressive QB. So, my more realistic wish would be to win eight games and get an at-large playoff spot.

I think we have a very good QB ourselves now. If only the offensive line (a major weakness last year, albeit mostly due to injuries), doesn't prove to be a sieve again and gets him killed.

In your article (great article, by the way!) you seemed to indicate that the defensive secondary could be the strength of this team this year. After watching that unit get burned over and over and over last year, I guess I'll have to take up temporary residence in Missouri on that one -- SHOW ME. Maybe we won't have to wait long for an answer to that, after the SMU game.

And I fully agree that Josh McGowen is going to be a very good Lumberjack for a long time, assuming he stays healthy. Pure athleticism like his doesn't come along very often.
How long do you want to ignore this user?
I don't think I've ever seen a really good secondary in Nac to be honest. That would be really good news. Just having a hard time understanding how they're better with mostly the same players. Maybe the scheme?

I think success for me is any form of playoffs. Conference championship, at-large, doesn't matter to me if we get one game past Chief Caddo.
How long do you want to ignore this user?
Isaac, did you notice the unforced fumbles by Sawyer mentioned in the SFA_03 post? Obviously, there is a long time between now and the start of the season but stuff like that scares me.
How long do you want to ignore this user?
Lumberjack fans are proceeding with extreme caution after the last two hyped seasons.
How long do you want to ignore this user?
I personally thought the secondary looked more of the same other than Ramos he seemed like he felt at home it didn't look like there where any big pass plays attempted run game looked ok Sawyer looked like he wanted to get rid of the ball more than complete a pass but it did look "better" it was also nice to see quite a few 2017 signees there on the sideline also.
How long do you want to ignore this user?
SFA88 said:

Isaac, did you notice the unforced fumbles by Sawyer mentioned in the SFA_03 post? Obviously, there is a long time between now and the start of the season but stuff like that scares me.
I did, although personally I think it was a little fluky. He was under pressure to get rid of the ball quickly because they were blowing dead anything close on the pass rush. I think he was just rushing a bit. Wouldn't put too much stock into that yet.

Regarding the secondary... to be clear, I think in general you can always recruit better receivers than DBs at this level. This scheme plays almost exclusively with a nickel back and focuses a lot on zone bend-but-don't-break coupled with big play turnover opportunities. Everything they've run this spring has been super vanilla so I'm not anointing the position group just yet. They're going to give up a lot of catches because that's what this defense does, but they just look like they have potential to be a solid ball-hawking group. We'll see...
The One
How long do you want to ignore this user?
I think us Lumberjack fans will be pleasantly suprised this year!
Page 1 of 1
Verify your student status
See Subscription Benefits
Trial only available to users who have never subscribed or participated in a previous trial.