No. 63: Louisiana-Lafayette
By Paul Myerberg // Jul 7, 2012
Louisiana-Lafayette is one of those programs: clinging to relevance by the thinnest of fingernails, the Ragin’ Cajuns hope to catch lightning in a bottle with each new coaching hire. Rickey Bustle wasn’t lightning in the bottle, more like a flimsy nightlight, but Mark Hudspeth — now this, perhaps more than any hire in recent F.B.S. memory, had an immediate, lightning-quick strike on the program’s fortunes. Among Hudspeth’s first-year feats? Nine wins, Louisiana’s most on the F.B.S. level and tied for the most in program history. Total points: 420. Never before had the Ragin’ Cajuns scored more than 397 points in a season. A bowl game, the program’s first. Six straight wins in September and October, which alone would have tied a program-high for wins in a season in any year from 1994-2010. Of course, such unforeseeable success comes with a price: If Hudspeth continues to win, how much longer can Louisiana hope to retain his services?
13 (9 offense, 4 defense)
Last year’s ranking
- Sept. 1
- Sept. 8
- Sept. 15
at Oklahoma St.
- Sept. 29
- Oct. 6
- Oct. 16
at North Texas
- Oct. 23
- Nov. 3
- Oct. 10
- Nov. 17
- Nov. 17
- Dec. 1
Last year’s prediction
Good news first: Mark Hudspeth has already rejuvenated the program on and off the field, beginning with the new philosophies he’s installed on both sides of the ball and extending to the success he has had thus far on the recruiting trail. I do think that he’ll eventually lead Louisiana past the five-win mark that plagued Bustle throughout his tenure; I just don’t think that’s going to happen in 2011. In fact, thanks to depth issues nearly across the board and the inevitable struggles that accompany philosophical changes — though they’ll be good in the long run — I think we’ll again find the Cajuns among the bottom tier in the Sun Belt. So this year might not go so well for Hudspeth and the Cajuns, though he does grant the program some much-needed star power.
In a nutshell The only drawback to an otherwise perfect season? That the Ragin’ Cajuns might not have achieved the biggest rebound in the Sun Belt; that title goes to Western Kentucky, which beat Louisiana by 19 points in October. So the Ragin’ Cajuns weren’t the best story out of the S.B.C., merely a great one. I mean, nine wins… does that deserve an exclamation point? It should: this is Louisiana-Lafayette, not Louisiana State, and nine wins is cause for an offseason-long crawfish boil. Who’s bringing the Abita?
High point The wild and wacky New Orleans Bowl, which featured two then unknown events: one, a Louisiana-Lafayette bowl win — let alone a bowl trip — and two, the usage of the term “illegal stemming,” which allowed the Ragin’ Cajuns to call on kicker Brett Baer for the game-winning field goal as time expired. Laissez les bons temps rouler, and that’s the final Louisiana stereotype I’m going to use in this post.
Low point Losing to the Hilltoppers didn’t feel good, but Louisiana remained in the thick of the Sun Belt hunt heading into its trip to Jonesboro to cap the conference season. The Red Wolves had their number: the Ragin’ Cajuns put up a good fight, even taking a third quarter lead, but eventually lost, 30-21.
Tidbit Heading into last season, Louisiana owned the fourth-longest bowl-free streak in the F.B.S. – 41 years. With that streak gone, Kent State, at 40 years, now ranks fourth in the country. Third is Western Kentucky, which last reached the postseason in 1963, when it played in the Tangerine Bowl. Of course, W.K.U. absolutely should have made a bowl last years – perhaps at Louisiana’s expense, you could say. Second is New Mexico State, which now owns a 52-year streak. Who is first, you might ask? Oh, some school named Louisiana-Monroe, which hasn’t reached a bowl game in 65 years.
Tidbit (home games edition) Louisiana went a perfect 5-0 at Cajun Field last fall, going undefeated in home games for the first time since joining the F.B.S. and the fourth time overall. Louisiana also averaged a program-record 29,171 fans per home game, an increase of 11,788 fans per game over the 2010 average – that leap was the highest in the country.
Former players in the N.F.L.
8 CB Michael Adams (Arizona), OT D’Anthony Batiste (Arizona), CB Dwight Bentley (Detroit), DE Hall Davis (Oakland), TE Ladarius Green (San Diego), WR Brandon Stokley (Denver), CB Ike Taylor (Pittsburgh), CB Charles Tillman (Chicago).
Arbitrary top five list
Shows that give History Channel a bad name
1. “Cajun Pawn Stars.”
2. “Pawn Stars.”
3. “Only in America with Larry the Cable Guy.”
5. “Swamp People.”
Mark Hudspeth (Delta State ’92), 9-4 after his first season with the Cajuns. What he did from day one was breathe new life into this moribund program, promising an improved showing to every individual who would listen and then, amazingly enough, backing up his talk with the finest season in the school’s F.B.S. history. Hudspeth came to Lafayette — the city, not the school — from Mississippi State, where he spent the previous two seasons as a lead assistant under Dan Mullen. As Mullen and Mississippi State’s fortunes rose, so did Hudspeth’s. His duties with the Bulldogs included work as the wide receivers coach and as the team’s passing game coordinator, which might mean not have meant much, considering M.S.U.’s penchant for running the football, but there’s no discounting Hudspeth’s role in helping Mullen rapidly rebuild a down program in a deep SEC. Hudspeth was not merely known for his work under Mullen: he arrived as an accomplished head coach in his own right, albeit on the Division II level. He spent seven seasons as the head coach at North Alabama, posting a 66-21 mark that included a pair of conference titles and five N.C.A.A. tournament appearances. Hudspeth performed a slight rebuilding job at U.N.A., which boded well for his future with the Cajuns: the Lions went 4-7 in his first season but 13-1 in his second, beginning a six-year run among the best Division II teams in the nation. Hudspeth’s F.B.S. experience also included a two-year stint at Navy as offensive coordinator, though the Midshipmen combined to go 6-17 over that span. Despite that hiccup, Hudspeth has tasted near universal success, which along with his offensive background and strength on the recruiting trail made him a great fit as Rickey Bustle’s replacement. Through one season, he’s been the answer to Louisiana’s prayers.
Players to watch
There’s only one potential trouble spot on an otherwise flawless offense: tight end. After posting three outstanding seasons as the most underrated tight end in the F.B.S., Ladarius Green’s departure raises a bit of a red flag for a group poised to take another step forward in its second season in Hudspeth’s system. What Green did, in brief, was not only dominate the middle of the field – on an intermediate level, down the field and in the red zone – but also command attention from opposing defensive backs, making life a little easier for Louisiana’s talented crop of receivers. That’s the bad news: Green does leave a huge hole at the position. The good news? That if the Cajuns can find a replacement, this offense will be the best in program history.
And it should blow every other competitor – even if there aren’t many to chose from – completely out of the water. Start at quarterback, where the Cajuns return an all-Sun Belt pick in senior Blaine Gautier, who was born to play in this offense. A bit of a mess as a freshman and sophomore, shuffling in and out of the lineup due to his inconsistency, Gautier blossomed under Hudspeth’s direction: he threw for just shy of 3,000 yards with 23 touchdowns and only 6 picks, completing 62.8 percent of his attempts – and averaging 8.6 yards per throw, which is outstanding – and leading the Sun Belt in quarterback efficiency by a very wide margin.
You knew Gautier could run; he had 280 rushing yards in 2010, second-most on the team. He added another 486 yards last fall, again good for second-most. I had no idea that he had this sort of ability as a passer, and it’s this growth that made him the most improved quarterback in college football. What will he do in 2012? There’s absolutely no reason to think that Gautier won’t make further progression, though it’ll be hard for him to play significantly better than he did last fall. Clearly, however, he’s one of the top two quarterbacks in the Sun Belt. Louisiana will also use sophomore Terrance Broadway, a former Houston transfer who had a very impressive spring – he’ll play in a secondary role before assuming the starting role in 2013.
There’s enough depth at running back for Hudspeth and U.L. to move sophomore Qyendarius Griffin, a pretty major recruit for this program, out to linebacker during the spring. A second sophomore, Alonzo Harris (700 yards, 8 scores) was the Sun Belt Freshman of the Year last fall; he was at his best when earning 18 or more carries, which bodes well for his production as the clear top back in this offense. But with Griffin moved, Louisiana does need to find some backup production from a group of untested underclassmen. This includes smaller, speedier backs like Montrel Carter, Effrem Reed and Torrey Pierce, and perhaps a bigger option like Marcus Jackson – though Harris, at about 215 pounds, should be the Cajuns’ go-to back in short-yardage situations.
Don’t forget that Gautier is going to play a big role in the running game, so it’s not vital that U.L. get significant carries from the younger backs rising up the ranks. Nevertheless, it’s important the Hudspeth locate one backup that he can trust: after all, he does need to have a plan in place in case Harris does miss any significant time due to injury.
In my opinion, U.L. has the second-best offensive line in the Sun Belt – or third, just behind Western Kentucky’s seasoned front five. The Cajuns return four starters from last year’s group, losing only left guard Kyle Plouhar, and the line as a whole will take a step forward thanks to its growing experience in this offense. U.L. has dabbled with moving senior Leonardo Bates inside from left tackle to guard, replacing Plouhar, which makes some sense: Bates started inside before moving out to the blind side. But I wouldn’t mess with a strong tackle pairing of Bates and senior Jaron Odom, each of whom should earn all-conference honors; instead, I’d promote either redshirt freshman Mykheal Quave or sophomore Jarad Martin into the lineup at guard. Both are inexperienced, but removing one half of the Sun Belt’s best tackle pairing doesn’t make much sense.
In addition, Louisiana’s center, junior Andre Huval, is good enough to help ease a rookie guard into the starting lineup. While not a national awards candidate, Huval is one of the league’s top two or three centers, and someone who should earn all-conference accolades in each of his last two seasons. Likewise with sophomore Daniel Quave, Mykhael’s brother, who is still developing his game. If the Cajuns do go with Mykhael Quave, this offensive line will feature the only brother pairing I’ve seen in the F.B.S. thus far.
Now we come to the issue at tight end. Is it a concern? Absolutely. But it’s not a potentially crippling concern, as the Cajuns do have a tremendous amount of talent returning at receiver. The top three is the best in the Sun Belt: senior Javone Lawson (63 receptions for 1,092 yards), senior Harry Peoples (58 for 697) and junior Darryl Surgent (28 for 518). Lawson and Surgent are big-play threats, to put it lightly; the pair combined to average 17.7 yards per reception. Where U.L. separates itself from the rest of the S.B.C., however, is in its young depth on the second level. Keep an eye on the following freshmen and sophomores: James Butler, Jamal Robinson, Devin Figaro – a former Tulane transfer – and T.J. Worthy. Butler, who was in line for playing time last fall before suffering a knee injury, could be one of the biggest surprises in the conference.
You are going to see less production at tight end, as expected, but the Cajuns are still going to rely on the position. Junior Ian Thompson (10 receptions for 99 yards), last year’s backup, is the likely starter. The Cajuns also used another junior, Jacob Maxwell, in certain situations a year ago. This pair and sophomore Larry Pettis will try to duplicate some of the things Green brought to the table over the last few seasons.
Whether this defense improves depends entirely on how well U.L. can replace the seven starters lost to graduation. More specifically, the Cajuns are hoping that a slew of fairly impressive newcomers – most off the JUCO ranks – can help bridge the gap, moving seamlessly into starting roles and helping this defense improve upon last year’s finish. It’s important to keep one thing in mind: U.L. did take a step forward on defense last fall, allowing roughly a touchdown less per game than in 2010. Nonetheless, the Cajuns must make further improvement in order to take home the Sun Belt.
The defensive line, which lost three starters to graduation, uses two interior lineman, one on the nose, a traditional end and a hybrid end-linebacker. In addition, while the Cajuns returned a player with starting experience in the latter spot in junior Justin Anderson, he was tried out at linebacker during the spring. So, in essence, U.L. is completely rebuilding up front.
And defensive coordinator Greg Stewart, along with defensive line coach Tim Edwards, are hoping to land some immediate help from two JUCO transfers, Delvin Jones and Jalen Fields – both originally signed with SEC schools but failed to qualify. If both are eligible come September, it’s easy to see Jones replacing Anderson at the bandit position – that hybrid – or even filling a more traditional end role, though U.L. would be wise to place him in a spot that puts his speed and athleticism to best use. Fields, on the other hand, could be a major presence along the interior of the line.
In my mind, Louisiana’s best front four would put Jones at bandit, where he could be put in space; Fields inside at tackle; senior Cordian Hagans (18 tackles), a former L.S.U. transfer, at nose tackle, replacing Derreck Dean; and senior Emeka Onyenekwu at end. Depth along the interior would come from junior Brandon McCray and sophomore Justin Hamilton – who I think could be a future all-conference pick – and, on the outside, from redshirt freshman Dominique Trowell, among others. While this group remains in flux, there is a chance that the Cajuns’ front starts three players with SEC credentials.
The secondary has the potential to be very good despite losing a pair of starters – including a high draft pick in cornerback Dwight Bentley. One option at Louisiana’s disposal is moving senior Jemarious Moten (80 tackles, 3 interceptions) out to cornerback from safety, where he spent last season. Whether U.L. feels comfortable making that move – and it wouldn’t be because Moten isn’t gifted enough to make the transition – depends on the play of two new safeties, senior Rodney Gillis and former JUCO transfer Darius Barksdale. Gillis would step in at free safety after playing primarily on special teams last fall; Barksdale, who signed with Mississippi coming out of high school, would take over at strong safety.
Hudspeth and the staff have raved about Barksdale, who was one of the Southeast’s premier recruits, at running back, as a high school senior. There’s no doubt that U.L. would be in great shape if he and Gillis can hold down the fort at safety – if not improve upon the production the Cajuns got from the position last fall. Doing so would allow U.L. to team Moten and senior Melvin White (64 tackles, 2 interceptions) at cornerback. That pairing might end up being the Sun Belt’s best.
I made Brett Baer my kicker on my all-American ballot, so it’s pretty clear that I think the world of the senior. Baer wasn’t just automatic in 2011; he was also clutch, helping U.L. net four wins by single digits – twice hitting the game-winning field goal as time expired, against Florida Atlantic and San Diego State. Baer also handles punting duties for the Cajuns, though he’s far stronger as a kicker. U.L. should be even better on coverage in 2012, thanks to some incoming talent, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see Surgent step up his production in the return game. He was strong on punt returns a season ago.
Position battle(s) to watch
Linebackers The Cajuns lost Lance Kelley, last year’s leading tackler, and Devon Lewis-Buchanan, who fit nicely into the team’s rover position as a senior. Most likely, Anderson moves into Kelley’s spot at middle linebacker. He’s a better fit there, at 240 pounds, than at rover – the latter needs a lanker linebacker who can bring pressure off the edge while also running with tight ends and running backs coming out of the backfield. Anderson will be joined in the middle by sophomore Jake Molbert (65 tackles, 5.0 for loss), who came off the bench in September but played a key role as an eight-game starter the rest of the way. U.L. will count on Molbert to replace much of Kelley’s lost production.
I also wonder if Griffin can move into the rotation at middle linebacker. There’s no questioning his physical gifts; in addition, the Cajuns wouldn’t move a big-time recruit like Griffin out of the backfield if they didn’t think he could make a difference on the defensive side of the ball. For now, Griffin should be considered one of the leading reserves in the middle. Now back at 100 percent after suffering a leg injury late last season, senior Le’Marcus Gibson (45 tackles) will move from the bandit to the rover position. He was too undersized for bandit: Gibson, who weighs somewhere between 200 and 215 pounds, is a much better fit at rover.
Game(s) to watch
The Cajuns do get Arkansas State, Western Kentucky and Florida International at home – the sort of advantage that can’t be overestimated. And outside of Oklahoma State and Florida, there isn’t a team on this schedule that U.L. can’t beat. The key will be avoiding any trap games, because there are a few. One is Troy, which hosts the Cajuns on Sept. 8; this team can’t get caught looking ahead to Oklahoma State or the Golden Panthers. A second is North Texas, which will try to keep Louisiana’s offense off the field with a strong running game. All in all, U.L. has four clear wins and another three very winnable games. The year’s success comes down to how the Cajuns fare in the three home games against the rest of the Sun Belt’s upper crust.
Season breakdown & prediction
In a nutshell The entire season will be decided by the defense’s ability to slide in seven new starters, most of whom do not have significant F.B.S. experience. However, several of the projected new starters step into the rotation with significant hype: Jones, Field, Hagans and Barksdale have SEC credentials, as noted, and the athletic ability to match. If this defense improves – and it’s a distinct possibility – I don’t think that there’s a better team in the Sun Belt. However, when you look at F.I.U., the Cajuns’ prime competitor for the S.B.C. crown, you see a more complete team; you see a team that isn’t banking on a few question marks, even those with the sort of talent not often seen in this league. The best thing about U.L. is that the offense is good enough to lead it back into bowl play even if the defense suffers a letdown. This is, without any question, the best offense in the Sun Belt – and clearly the best offense in school history. The combination of Gautier and Broadway is superb. Harris is a back to watch if he gets more than 200 carries. The offensive line is no worse than the third-best in the conference. Even without Green, the receiver corps is the deepest in the league. Overall, this offense could rank among the top 25 in the nation in several statistical categories. So you see a team a team that’s certainly strong but not yet quite complete. While I think that F.I.U. will win the Sun Belt, Louisiana is going to make this one of the tightest non-B.C.S. conference races in the country.
Dream season U.L. loses only twice all season, to Florida and Oklahoma State. No Sun Belt team sniffs the Ragin’ Cajuns: F.I.U. comes close, losing by a touchdown in Lafayette, but every other win comes by 10 or more points.
Nightmare season The offense is good, just not quite as good as imagined. But the bigger issue is a porous defense that can’t stop anyone, sending the Cajuns from 9-4 to 4-8 and home from bowl play.
In case you were wondering
Where do Louisiana-Lafayette fans congregate? Ragin Pagin is the premier fan-run place for Louisiana sports chatter, football or otherwise. For recruiting coverage, take a trip to Cajun Red Zone — as always, that sounds delicious. You can also check out The Daily Advertiser for coverage of all university sports.
Louisiana-Lafayette’s all-name nominee LB Tre’maine Lightfoot.
Through 62 teams 238,523.
Who is No. 62? While tomorrow’s program snapped a painful five-game losing streak against its heated rival last fall, it has beaten this rival on the road only once since 1974.
Tags: Alonzo Harris, Blaine Gautier, Brett Baer, Cordian Hagans, Darius Barksdale, Darryl Surgent, Delvin Jones, Greg Stewart, Harry Peoples, Jake Molbert, Jalen Fields, James Butler, Jaron Odom, Javone Lawson, Jemarious Moten, Justin Anderson, La'Marcus Gibson, Leonardo Bates, Louisiana-Lafayette, Mark Hudpseth, Melvin White, Qyendarius Griffin, Sun Belt, Terrance Broadway
Leave a Comment