March 22, 2011
An absurdly premature assessment of the 2011 Ragin' Cajuns.
• Previously On… Longtime coach Rickey Bustle finally lost a nine-year struggle to keep his head above water at one of the more thankless jobs in the country, going under amid a 3-9 flop. Two of those wins came by a single, climactic point: First, North Texas' comeback bid fell short in October when the Mean Green failed on a two-point conversion to win with seconds to play; next, rival Louisiana-Monroe's standard extra point to tie was blocked as the clock wound down in the season finale, preserving the Cajun win.
In between, Lafayette dropped seven straight by an average of 17 points per game, and Bustle got the boot immediately following the triumph over Monroe. Once you've lost to Western Kentucky by 33 points, at home, the pink slip pretty much issues itself.
• The Big Change. On paper, Mark Hudspeth is one of the best head-coaching hires of the offseason, a proven winner as head coach at North Alabama (the Lions were 66-21 with two undefeated regular seasons and four Division II playoff bids under Hudspeth from 2002-08) and as a position coach on Dan Mullen's energetic, overachieving staff at Mississippi State the last two years. Save one season as offensive coordinator at Navy, Hudspeth's entire career has been spent in Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana and Mississippi. With an SEC interlude under his belt, the Lafayette gig was the next rung on the ladder, and even if it's just a stepping stone, the enduring affection of the locals can be had with a bid to, say, the GoDaddy.com Bowl.
|The Least You Should Know About...|
|•• In 2010|
|3-9 (3-5 Sun Belt); Outscored 204-111 at home (1-4).|
|•• Past Five Years|
|2006-10: 24-36 (18-19 Sun Belt); 1-11 vs. teams from "Big Six" conferences.|
|•• Five-Year Recruiting Rankings*|
|2007-11: N/A (No classes in nation's top 50).|
|•• Best Player|
|When he signed with ULL in 2008, Ladarius Green was listed as a nondescript, 6-foot-3, 185-pound wide receiver. Now a 6-6, 230-pound tight end, Green would be a mismatch over the middle in any conference; in the Sun Belt, he's been practically a one-man show the last two years. Green's production in 2010 dwarfed the contributions of any other Cajun receiver, and not by virtue of a bunch of five-yard hitch routes: He finished the season as the SBC leader in yards per catch, catches for first downs and catches covering at least 25 yards, establishing him as the league's most effective deep threat and arguably its most coveted pro prospect.|
|•• Best Year Ever|
|The Cajuns have never been to a I-A/FCS bowl game, but only because there happened to be half as many available slots in 1993 as there are today. Southwest Louisiana, as it was then know, took eight of its last nine games that season behind freshman quarterback Jake Delhomme, losing only to eventual SEC champ Florida down the stretch. Unfortunately, the 0-2 start included an opening day loss to Big West rival Utah State, a blemish that would cost the Cajuns the league's automatic bid to the Las Vegas Bowl when they finished tied with USU for the Big West championship.|
|•• Best Case|
|Viable effort on the ground complements one of the Sun Belt's top two or three passing attacks; secondary improves from "engulfed in flames" to "mediocre." 7-5, GoDaddy.com Bowl; first bowl game in school history, accompanied by high optimism (and maybe a job offer or two) for Mark Hudspeth.|
|•• Worst Case|
|Stagnant running game and porous pass protection continue to plague the offense; opposing quarterbacks continue to view the ULL secondary as target practice. 3-9, return of pervasive stagnation that's hung over the program for most of its existence. Honestly, though, it doesn't really matter what happens, because it's south Louisiana, and they're still going to have a damn good time regardless:|
|* Based on Rivals' national rankings (top 50 only)|
• Big Men On Campus. Hudspeth has also spent his entire career on the offensive side of the ball, and can look forward to a basically functional passing game — probably the only aspect of the 2010 team, in fact, that managed to qualify as functional. (Though not quite functional enough, of course, to overcome the Sun Belt's most generous scoring defense.) Across the board, it happens to be the only aspect that returns essentially intact, as well.
Even by SBC standards, quarterback Chris Masson is nothing special in terms of foot speed, arm strength or accuracy (especially in terms of accuracy), but he does have plenty of options: Besides obvious headliner Ladarius Green, with whom Masson connected about twice as often as any other receiver last year, six other Cajuns brought in double-digit receptions last year for at least 200 yards and 10 touchdowns between them. The best of that lot is Javone Lawson, who was off to a fine start last year before a broken collarbone cut his sophomore campaign short at midseason and probably represents the best chance at emerging as a reliable compliment to Green.
It would also help if the nonexistent running game picked up some slack. But the most intriguing candidate in the backfield is incoming freshman Qyendarius Griffin, an oddly un-hyped prospect despite his prototypical size (5-10, 210 pounds), ridiculous stats (2,670 yards, 39 touchdowns) and headliner status on the No. 1 high school team in America, Mississippi juggernaut South Panola, whose regular blowouts limited his opportunities with the ball. Somehow, Griffin was relegated to borderline two-star/three-star status and was the only member of Rivals' High School All-America Team who didn't wind up at a "Big Six" school (the vast majority landed at traditional recruiting powers), which only seems possible if he's considered a time bomb academically. If he qualifies — apparently a big if, though I find zero indication one way or the other — none of the incumbent backs have done anything to keep him off the field.
• Open Casting. The biggest obstacle to both the passing and running games was up front, with the offensive line, whose persistent struggles are reflected in the Cajuns' pathetic yards-per-carry average (2.97, making them one of nine teams nationally that couldn't make it to 3.0) and red carpet rolled out for opposing pass rushers en route to ULL quarterbacks. Between them, Masson and more athletic backup Blaine Gautier were sacked a whopping 39 times, including seven takedowns apiece by Middle Tennessee State and Florida International and six by Ohio U.
Surprisingly, that came from a relatively grizzled group: Tackle Jonathan Decoster and center Ian Burks were both four-year starters, and the other tackle, Colin Wichard, was a fifth-year senior. Needless to say, their departures aren't being met with much hand-wringing: With friends like that on security, who needs enemies?
• Overly optimistic spring narrative. Hudspeth has the track record and the ingredients in the passing game to field a fairly explosive offense that, if it limits turnovers, gives the Cajuns a chance to at least compete in every Sun Belt game, a significant step after being blown out in three of their five conference losses in '10. It doesn't hurt, either, that they're only scheduled to play sacrificial lambs to bigger schools on two occasions, at Oklahoma State to open the season and at Arizona to close, instead of the usual three or four. In between, there are ten consecutive games Lafayette has a plausible opportunity to win.
• The Big Question. Will the secondary materialize in physical form? The abstract concept of "pass defense" only existed in hypothetical form for most of the season, leaving ULL languishing at eighth in the conference in yards per game allowed through the air and dead last in efficiency D. The Cajuns were also dead last in the conference in overall scoring defense, despite finishing second against the run. Most of the key faces in the back four are the same — seniors Lionel Stokes, Dwight Bentley and Lance Kelley, sophomore Cooper Gerami — but if the performance is the same, it's hard to see even a vastly improved offense having a chance to push the record above .500.