Once you get past the regular rah-rah of college football’s National Signing Day, and past the boasts that every school in America signed its best recruiting class in history, two things stood out concerning UL’s football program:
(1) The Ragin’ Cajuns aren’t resting on the laurels they earned during their best season in modern-day history and their New Orleans Bowl win in their first-ever Division I postseason appearance; and (2) Coach Mark Hudsepth and his staff were serious about concentrating their recruiting efforts locally and within the confines of Louisiana.
As far as (1), Wednesday’s National Signing Day didn’t begin at 8 a.m. when the fax machine began spitting out National Letters of Intent from the 21 prospects that signed with the Cajuns (signees couldn’t send in their letters until 8 a.m. Wednesday).
It began, instead, at 5:45 a.m., when Hudspeth and the staff welcomed the returnees to the Cajun squad – and a small group of first-timers – to off-season workouts. It was an eye-opener, and not just because of the early hour.
In essence, Hudspeth told his squad that just matching up to last year’s surprising nine-win season wasn’t the goal for 2012. The intensity that was the hallmark of Hudspeth’s first year was apparently still there, and was in mid-season form.
“We won nine,” Hudspeth said, “and we’ve gotta find a way to win more. We got on the grass early with our guys and got started. You always like a little bit of change, but we’re not getting away from the foundation that we’ve started building.”
While the 60-odd returnees and six players who enrolled at mid-term – a group that includes early Comeaux High graduate Kevin Fouquier – were recovering from the first off-season workout, the Cajun staff was watching that foundation build with every whirr of the fax machine Wednesday morning. By mid-afternoon, UL had 21 names to add to the sextet of January enrollees to make up what recruiting coordinator Reed Stringer said was a step up from last year’s first class of the still-new staff.
“We had to sign a better class this year to get to where we want to get,” Stringer said, “and this one’s better than last year. You don’t ever like to say it to your kids, but you always look for players that are better than what you already have. I said at this time last year that we had to have a better class next year, and we’ve done that.”
That’s saying something, considering that four first-time freshmen wound up starting for the Cajuns last year, including Sun Belt Freshman of the Year Alonzo Harris, and nine true freshmen played in UL’s 32-30 win over San Diego State in the New Orleans Bowl.
This year’s class fulfilled a promise Hudspeth made to localize UL’s recruiting base, after last year’s last-minute signing class – UL didn’t have a full coaching staff until just over a month before National Signing Date – had more out-of-state prospects than Louisiana-breds.
Of the 20 prep signees in UL’s recruiting haul, 13 of them hail from Louisiana high schools. That is the state’s second-highest figure among Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) schools, trailing by one the 14 state signees that inked with LSU on Wednesday. It tops Tulane’s 11 Louisiana prep prospects and is more than the state signees of UL Monroe (seven) and Louisiana Tech (only four) combined.
“We signed a bunch of Mississippi kids last year by necessity,” Stringer said. “This year, we said we were going to hit Louisiana harder than it’s ever been hit here. We made a conscientious effort to be in all the high schools here. Can we sign all of them? Absolutely not, but we can certainly work our local and state kids hard.”
“We answered a lot of questions at each position, and we did it going the high school route,” Hudspeth said. “We signed the second-most players in the state in Division I, and we hope that sends a strong message to the high school coaches in the state.
“One of the reasons I took this job was that there is so much good high school football in this state. A lot of schools in other parts of the country have to go strictly out-of-state, and we didn’t have to do that.”
Part of the in-state number success came from several prominent signees in north Louisiana, an area that had been a black hole for UL signees for several years. On Wednesday, UL signed offensive guard Joseph Brunson of Ruston High, tight end Jared Johnson of Minden and two players from Monroe – offensive lineman Zach Tarver of Ouachita Christian and defensive lineman Blain Winston of Richwood. All four had offers from other FBS schools.
“We sent [assistant coach] Marquase Lovings to north Louisiana and he hit a home run,” Hudsepth said. “He worked it really well, and our success and winning the bowl game got them even more exposed to us.”
The Cajuns’ success also extended to the Acadiana area, with five of the 13 in-state signees coming from the Lafayette/New Iberia area. In addition to Fouquier, who played quarterback, linebacker and several other positions for the Spartans, UL also signed quarterback standouts D’Shaie Landor of Teurlings Catholic and Jalen Nixon of Carencro, highly-recruited linebacker Tyren Alexander of Breaux Bridge and wide out LaMarcus Allen of New Iberia Senior High.
“Some of those guys came and saw us a lot at Cajun Field last year,” Hudspeth said of his team’s 5-0 home-field record. “They saw 30,000 people in there, something they hadn’t seen before, and they wanted to be a part of that. The bowl game was the icing on the cake.”
Some of those players may see action in 2012, but Hudspeth would like to redshirt the entire freshman class after being forced to play many first-time freshmen last season. Others in the signee class – seven players from junior colleges or four-year transfers – will have to make an immediate impact if the goal of surpassing 2011’s accomplishments is a realistic one.
That group includes safety Darius Barksdale, a former Ole Miss signee and former “Mr. Football” in Mississippi; 6-foot-5 linebacker Delvin Jones of Miami, also a former Ole Miss player who had his pick of scholarship offers from top-20 programs two years ago; 280-pound defensive lineman Jalen Fields of Dalton, Ga., one of the southeast’s top prospects in 2010 before going to Georgia Military College; and Ole Miss transfer wide receiver T. J. Worthy.
“You recruit guys like that to be a starter right now,” Hudspeth said. “They’re talented enough to play for us immediately, and they’re going to have to.”