All-SLC picks Gabriel, Washington find comfort level
It may have taken some time to get there, but it’s probably safe to say Southeastern Louisiana University football players Gasten Gabriel and Todd Washington have found their comfort zones.
Both are seniors who earned preseason All-Southland Conference recognition after putting together solid junior seasons last year.
Gabriel, an offensive lineman and former West Feliciana High School standout who is entering his fifth year after redshirting in 2009, was a first-team All-SLC preseason selection this season after earning second-team All-SLC honors last year.
But earning that second-team honor didn’t come without its share of challenges. The Lions changed coaches after Gabriel’s sophomore season with Ron Roberts taking the helm from Mike Lucas. And with that came a new approach for Gabriel and his offensive line mates.
“The biggest thing we had to do with Gasten was we just had to switch his mindset basically,” SLU offensive line coach Travis Mikel said Saturday during the team’s media day. “You know, they go from throwing the ball roughly 70 times a game, now we’re going to run the ball 50 to 60 times a game. And the mentality change there is key. It’s not an easy thing to do.”
But the challenges didn’t end there. In an effort to get their best players on the field and build some depth, Roberts and his staff opted to shuffle the offensive line, which meant Gabriel moved from his customary left tackle spot to right guard for the first three games.
“It was different because you’re used to playing outside, used to being on the outside blocking fast guys, and then you’re moving inside blocking more heavy-set guys, stronger guys,” Gabriel said. “It was a tough transition, but I dealt with it and tried to do the best possible thing I could in that situation.”
The Lions lost to Missouri, South Dakota State and UT-Martin in those first three games, but heading into the fourth game of the season against McNeese State, the Lions shuffled the offensive line again, and Gabriel settled back in at left tackle. The Lions won 25-24 and set the course for a 5-6 season, including 5-2 in the Southland.
“We got to a point where we all just sat down together, we were like ‘guys, let’s go back to what we’ve been doing and let’s just play’ ” Gabriel said. “And that’s what we did.”
And Gabriel is hoping the Lions can build on last season’s momentum.
“We’ve got basically a good nucleus, plus the new guys that’s we’ve added on, they’ve come in, especially during camp and have become major pieces, and that’s really going to help us this season that we have depth.”
But Mikel, who said Gabriel has become more physical and aggressive, said another position switch won’t be happening — at least not while he’s at SLU.
“If he’s going to make it to the next level, he’s probably not going to be a tackle,” Mikel said. “He’s going to be an athletic guard. But for me, he ain’t going nowhere. And I don’t plan on taking him out much either.”
Washington, a cornerback and former Lutcher High standout, heads into the season as a second-team preseason selection.
Washington and his defensive teammates also went through their share of adjustments last season getting accustomed to defensive coordinator Pete Golding’s 3-3-5 scheme. But Washington, a Memphis transfer, said the transition wasn’t difficult thanks to the coaching staff.
“The transition was actually very easy,” Washington said. “These coaches break down defense to a T. They’re going to make sure you know what you’re doing, everybody’s on the same page. They’re great.”
Washington finished last season with 27 tackles, a team-high nine pass break-ups and one interception while playing in the same defensive backfield as Robert Alford, who was a second-round pick of the Atlanta Falcons in April’s NFL draft.
“Rob got a lot of attention last year, but you go back and break down films, Rob had more balls thrown at him than Todd did, and there’s a reason for that,” Golding said.
“From a confidence standpoint last year, (Washington) wasn’t comfortable looking up for the ball, you know, he didn’t want to get beat. So now he’s getting that confidence where he feels good about it to where he’s making a lot more plays on the football. If he can come out of here with five or six picks this year, I think he might end up going higher than Robert (Alford).”
But Roberts isn’t putting that kind of pressure on Washington.
“It’s not like, ‘oh, he’s got to fill Robert Alford’s shoes,’ ” Roberts said. “Todd Washington’s got to be Todd Washington, and he needs to take care of the things he can do and play his own way. And when he does that, he’s going to be a great player.”
And while Washington knows it would be nice to follow Alford into the NFL, he’s more focused on SLU’s season.
“He’s an exceptional talent, and seeing him do the things that he did is a great motivation,” Washington said of Alford. “It convinced me to just work as hard as I can and leave zero regrets on the field this year, and I’ll take it from there. I just want to accomplish our team goals first. If I can do that and help our team, ultimately everything else will take care of itself.”
Roberts said receiver Blane Arnold of Catholic High (undisclosed) is out of action and “may be back midway” through the season, while linebacker John Roberts of St. Michael the Archangel (knee) will miss the season. ... SLU announced WHMD-FM, 107.1 in Hammond has joined the Southeastern Sports Radio Network for football, and KSLU-FM, 90.9 will continue to serve as network’s flagship station.