The term ‘sophomore slump’ isn’t in Mark Hudspeth’s vocabulary as he enters his second season as the Ragin’ Cajuns’ head coach.
By Dan McDonald
August 15, 2012
The attitude hasn’t changed that much. UL football coach Mark Hudspeth’s incessant optimism has been in place in the Ragin’ Cajun program for over a year now.
Expectations? They’re through the roof, compared to 12 months ago.
After all, if a team can come from virtually nowhere to earning a spot — and winning — in the New Orleans Bowl in only one year, what can the Cajuns do in year two?
Get better in a lot of areas, gain a lot more respect nationally and develop a tradition of winning, Hudspeth hopes. But more than anything, he and the Cajuns would like a Sun Belt Conference championship trophy.
Despite the unexpected success of 2011, a year that featured nine wins and a 32-30 victory over favored San Diego State in the R+L Carriers New Orleans Bowl, it’s an almost forgotten fact that UL didn’t win the league title. Didn’t finish second, either.
“That will always be one of our goals,” Hudspeth says of winning the Sun Belt. “That’s not going to be easy. This conference is more even than any in the country. Just about every team can get on a run and either win it or finish in the top three.”
That’s what happened to the Cajuns last year. Picked eighth by the league coaches in the 2011 poll, UL won six in a row early in the season including four conference wins. But the Cajuns also lost three of their last five in the regular season, and only a last-minute miracle win over UL Monroe made them attractive enough to bowl officials to secure their New Orleans trip.
The season, and the bowl win, earned some measure of respect. UL was universally ranked in triple digits in last year’s national magazine preseason listings of all 120 FCS schools. This year, out of 124 such teams, the Cajuns are at least in double digits, with Athlon’s No. 76 ranking among the highest.
“We’re still in the 80s and 90s there,” Hudspeth says. “We’re still not getting the respect we want to get, and we need that to enhance our recruiting nationally. Winning and winning consistently is what we have to do to get that.”
“Last year, we were way under the radar,” quarterback Blaine Gautier said at the league press day. “This year the bar’s set pretty high.”
"So far we're unbeaten at home, and that's our goal again. We want to make Cajun Field the toughest place in America to play. When you have 28, 29 thousand fans in there, in the sun belt, that's pretty strong."
—UL Head coach Mark Hudspeth
It’s high in part because of Gautier, who personified the 2011 season. Opening the year as an afterthought at quarterback, the now-senior from Lutcher ended up as Louisiana’s Offensive Player of the Year after setting school records for passing yards, touchdowns and total offense. In the bowl game, he threw for a bowl-record 470 yards and three scores.
“He wasn’t our starter at the start of the year,” Hudspeth says, “and it took a while for our offense to get in synch. Now he’s a proven quarterback who’s led his team to a bowl win, so he’s got to feel confident.”
UL has eight other offensive starters returning, including running back and Sun Belt Freshman of the Year Alonzo Harris, four offensive line starters and receivers who combined to catch just under 200 passes for 2,600 yards.
“We can come out of the chute with a lot more potential,” Hudspeth says of his offense.
“We know we can throw the ball,” Gautier says, “and the guys up front will make sure we run it better this year.”
Defense is another story. Last year’s team success and the seven interception returns for touchdowns (a national record until Southern Miss got its eighth in a bowl game) masked the fact that the Cajuns allowed 30 points per game last season and an average of 35 in the last four games. Also, seven defensive starters have to be replaced, but Hudspeth takes solace in that nine of the 11 top reserves will be available.
“I like a lot of the guys we have coming in there,” he says. “We may be less experienced but more talented.”
The return of bowl-game hero Brett Baer, whose 50-yard field goal may have been the most exciting final play of the entire bowl season, and dynamic return specialist Daryl Surgent give UL the early leg up on special teams heading into the Sept. 1 opener against Lamar at Cajun Field.
Hudspeth still hasn’t tasted defeat at home entering his second season, and the Lamar game shouldn’t be as much a test as the Sept. 29 home league opener against preseason Sun Belt favorite FIU.
“So far we’re unbeaten at home, and that’s our goal again,” Hudspeth says. “We want to make Cajun Field the toughest place in America to play. When you have 28, 29 thousand fans in there, in the Sun Belt, that’s pretty strong.”
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