Adv00

Updated: August 8, 2003, 4:19 PM ET

LAKE CHARLES, La. -- Perennial powerhouse McNeese State has some work to do to latch onto the Southland Conference championship again this season.

Last year the Cowboys went 13-2 and advanced to the division I-AA title game. But seven starters are gone from that team and it won't be easy to replace players like Jermaine Martin, Hadley Prince, B.J. McNutt, Jeff Hamilton and three offensive linemen won't be easy.

But McNeese has, since it started its current string of success in the early 1990s, always been able to find people who can step up in these situations. This year should be no different.

The new offensive line was coming together in the spring. Cedric Lars is a capable strong safety. Matt Gore looked ready to be an every-play tight end. And for what the new starters might not have in terms of making the big plays that a Martin or a Prince made, you expect players like Rod Royal and B.J. Sams to be able to take up the slack.

The biggest question is not how McNeese will replace missing starters but how good the backup players will be.

One of the main things that gave the 2002 Cowboys their identity was their superior depth of experienced, veteran players. Where McNeese's opponents would generally come off the bench with a talent drop off, the Cowboys would keep the players coming and wear down the opponent.

They would start Vick King at tailback, but they'd come behind him with seniors Marcus Trahan and Jacob Prim, pounding opponents with a trio of talented, experienced backs.

Trahan and Prim are gone, King's backups, Terrance Moses and Chris Thomas, are mere redshirt freshmen. Both showed flashes in the spring, but will they be ready to take the responsibility of toting the ball on key plays?

There is the same situation at fullback, where Luke Lawton was backed up by Darren Oustalet and Andrew Robin, who is not on the team this year. Both were capable players who could just as easily be in the game at pivotal moments as Lawton.

This year, Lawton is backed up by redshirt freshman Jason Miller, who was a tailback in the spring. The third fullback will either be a walk-on or a true freshman.

You have the same situation at strong safety. Where Lars will be a capable player to step into Prince's spot and Achille Fairchild returns at the other strong safety, the backups are small, young and unproven.

The top two entering August are Stephen Barrett, a first-year player, and converted corner Scott Thomas. This season will be their first significant playing time in the secondary.

Even at quarterback, the loss of veteran backup Michael Allen means McNeese is an injury away from having either a walk-on or a true freshman on the two-deep.

Head coach Tommy Tate has always found the players to give his teams extra quality snaps and he has turned the term "creating depth" into his favorite personal clich De.

This year he will need to do just that.

This story is from ESPN.com's automated news wire. Wire index