The preseason college football magazines haven’t been very kind to the Ragin’ Cajuns, and the Sun Belt Conference preseason polls weren’t any more positive. But new UL Lafayette coach Mark Hudspeth expected that.
And rather than ignore the Cajuns’ bottom-feeder rankings, Hudspeth plans to use that to his advantage.
“Our guys are ready to prove to the nay-sayers that we have a good football team,” Hudspeth says. “I hope they’ve got a chip on their shoulder going into this season.”
If the Cajuns pay attention to the pundits, that chip could be redwood-sized. Coming off a 3-9 season in which UL lost seven in a row before a season-ending road win at UL Monroe, the league coaches picked the Cajuns eighth of nine teams. The magazines universally have UL in the bottom two, and the respected ones put out by Phil Steele and Blue Ribbon each have the Cajuns last in the league. At least one prominent magazine — The Sporting News — lists the Cajuns not only last in the Sun Belt but last (120th out of 120) in its rankings of all Division I teams.
“Don’t think we won’t remember where we were voted,” Hudspeth says. “We plan to remind people of that this year.”
“It’s not so much bothering us as it is motivation,” says senior tight end Ladarius Green. “We talk about it in the locker room. We know we want to prove them wrong. I haven’t seen our team work this hard in a while, but we know we have to focus even harder.”
Hudspeth’s not worried about Green, but the Cajuns’ 12 opponents this year will be. The Pensacola product led the nation’s tight ends in yardage (794) and touchdowns (seven) last year while making a couple of All-America teams, and he’s the first-team tight end on the Bleacher Report All-America squad entering this fall. The accolades seemingly pile up daily, but Green hasn’t been keeping track.
“My mom will call and tell me, or one of my teammates will call and make fun of me and tease me about it,” he says. “They keep me pretty level-headed. But now I have something to prove, and prove I deserve all of that.”
Green will be a marked man in an offense that struggled with consistency last year. UL had fewer than 100 rushing yards in eight of their 12 games and ranked seventh in the nine-team Sun Belt in scoring and eighth in rushing. Hudspeth plans on those numbers being better, and Green will also be a part of that.
“He’s a 6-foot-6 guy with incredible hands and speed,” Hudspeth says, “but he’s also very physical. The first time we lined him up in the spring and he drove the defensive lineman back, I really took a ‘wow’ standpoint. You don’t see many people as tall as he is with that kind of athleticism.
“He can help us both attached to the line of scrimmage and when we un-attach him. We just have to get him involved even more.”
Unfortunately for the Cajuns, no other position outside of tight end is as solid, especially on the other side of the ball. UL gave up almost 400 yards per game last year and over 37 points on average, last in the Sun Belt. Athlon Sports’ college football magazine quoted an unnamed Sun Belt assistant coach saying, “The defense last year was atrocious — and that’s being polite.”
That unit will have a different look, with the former 4-3 formation morphing into a hybrid that will stretch from a 3-4 into an eight-man front. That should help improve a front line anchored by senior tackle Derrick Dean and senior end Bernard Smith, who has been highly touted for years and may finally live up to that reputation after a solid spring.
The Cajun secondary allowed opposing quarterbacks to complete 62.7 percent of their passes last year, but veteran Dwight “Bill” Bentley and an impressive newcomer group are expected to improve those numbers.
“The secondary is going to be a strength for us, no question,” Hudspeth says. “We still have a lot of unanswered questions defensively, like at inside linebacker, and we’ve got to avoid injuries. That (2010’s rash of injuries) was a big part of what happened last year, but we’re going into fall camp fully healthy and the trainers have said this is the first time that’s happened in a while.”
Staying healthy may be even more important in a depth-challenged offensive front. Three starters — guard Kyle Plouhar and tackles Leonardo Bates and massive (6-7, 350) Jaron Odom — return from a unit that allowed 39 sacks last year. Returning quarterback starter Chris Masson was on the end of most of those, but he’s still managed 370 completions for 4,248 yards and 21 scores over the past two seasons. Despite those numbers, Hudspeth says he may not name a starter from a group that also includes Blaine Gautier and Brad McGuire until minutes before the Sept. 3 kickoff at Oklahoma State.
The running back slots are also unclaimed. True freshman Aaron Spikes led the 2010 Cajuns in rushing but actually had more receiving yards (398) than rush yards (339) last season. The Cajuns were among the nation’s top rushing teams from 2005-08, ranking in the top 12 nationally each of those years, but the switch to the spread offense negated those numbers and UL barely averaged triple digits (100.6) in rushing last year.
“We still have some work to do at running back,” Hudsepth says, “but we’re going to have a much improved offensive line. They’re going to surprise some people.”
And they always have Green to rely on, even as a decoy.
“You’re always excited to get the ball,” admits Green, already the most prolific tight end in school history. “But I’m OK if we can be successful running the ball, or if I have to be a decoy in the passing game.”
“People are going to focus on him, double on him and get over the top on him, so that opens up the rest of our offense,” Hudspeth says. “We’re going to need that, and the good thing is that Ladarius is unselfish. He would rather be a small part of something big than a big part of something small.”