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1. Grown-ass men
"As we looked at the Sun Belt and what we have to compete with on a year-in, year-out basis," [Dennis] Franchione said. "We looked at UL-Lafayette and said, 'OK, guys, when you go out to recruit, if they can play in that, that’s what we’re looking for.'"
When I was preparing Monday's Texas State preview, I came across this Signing Day quote from TXST head coach Franchione. To rephrase: When we go out to recruit, we want guys who look like that.
In 2011, Mark Hudspeth took over a UL-Lafayette program that had never been to a bowl game and hadn't finished better than 6-5 since 1993. Rickey Bustle had just spent nearly a decade oscillating between 6-6 and 3-9, but couldn't ever get the Ragin' Cajuns over the hump. Check out the tone of my Cajuns preview in 2011:
Hudspeth appears to be an absolutely tremendous hire for Ragin' University. He went 44-8 in his last four years at North Alabama, and he seemed to play a pretty strong role in Mississippi State's recent offensive improvement. He has extreme familiarity with the region and success in a number of different offensive roles. But here's where I ask the same question I asked of ULM: what exactly is the ceiling here even if Hudspeth -- an enthusiastic dude, for what it's worth -- is the best coach in Ragin' Cajun history? [...]
For much of Bustle's tenure, UL-L was a league-average Sun Belt team, but they slipped the last couple of seasons. The Ragin' Cajuns have the second-worst recruiting average in the country, and they only return 10 starters. [...] The winner of the quarterbacks derby should be a good one, though, and with a weapon like [Ladarius] Green and a great offensive mind like Hudspeth, one has to assume the offense will improve. But improving in this case just means recovering the team's status as an average Sun Belt team. In other words, 2011 will likely be a baby steps year for Hudspeth and UL-L.
Or improvement could mean jumping from 3-9 to 9-4, then remaining in nine-win territory for two more years.
What Hudspeth has done in Lafayette -- in making the most of what he inherited, then building the deepest, most athletic program in the Sun Belt in a short amount of time -- has been staggering. That he's still in Lafayette for a fourth season is a pleasant surprise as well.
2. An encore
It's not supposed to work this way. When a mid-major returns a star quarterback (Terrance Broadway), skill position difference-makers (Alonzo Harris, Darryl Surgent, Jamal Robinson), an experienced offensive line, and a host of defensive play-makers (tackles Justin Hamilton, linebacker Justin Anderson, etc.), it's supposed to be a one-time-only thing. You're not supposed to get a do-over if things don't quite work out as intended.
I proclaimed that 2013 would be the "Year of the Ragin' Cajun," that the Cajuns would win the conference, that they would potentially take down either Arkansas or Kansas State early in the year, and that they had a legitimate shot at an 11-1 record and a finish in the polls.
Some of those things happened, others didn't. The Cajuns played lackluster ball against UA and KSU and lost Broadway to injury late in the year. A midseason win over Arkansas State indeed gave them an eventual conference title, but without Broadway, they suffered late losses to ULM and South Alabama and needed a New Orleans Bowl victory to get back to nine wins.
This is usually where the coach gets hired away by a major-conference program, the quarterback graduates, and the defensive difference-makers leave. Instead, almost everybody is back for another go-round. Broadway is a senior, the skill position depth is even better, the line is even more experienced, and a relatively disappointing defense returns almost its entire two-deep.
UL-Lafayette is bigger, stronger, faster, and more experienced this time around. And the schedule is easier.
2013 Schedule & Results
|Record: 9-4 | Adj. Record: 6-7 | Final F/+ Rk: 86|
|Date||Opponent||Opp. F/+ Rk||Score||W-L||Adj. Score||Adj. W-L||5-gm Adj. Avg.|
|31-Aug||at Arkansas||87||14-34||L||19.3 - 42.7||L|
|7-Sep||at Kansas State||24||27-48||L||25.9 - 32.7||L|
|14-Sep||Nicholls State||N/A||70-7||W||44.9 - 27.3||W|
|21-Sep||at Akron||108||35-30||W||30.6 - 37.6||L|
|5-Oct||Texas State||107||48-24||W||45.0 - 20.6||W||1.0|
|15-Oct||at Western Kentucky||77||37-20||W||33.2 - 30.8||W||6.1|
|22-Oct||at Arkansas State||90||23-7||W||27.5 - 14.7||W||10.1|
|2-Nov||New Mexico State||122||49-35||W||35.8 - 30.6||W||7.6|
|7-Nov||Troy||105||41-36||W||33.4 - 25.8||W||10.5|
|16-Nov||at Georgia State||121||35-21||W||38.0 - 40.3||L||5.2|
|30-Nov||UL-Monroe||109||28-31||L||34.1 - 38.7||L||3.8|
|7-Dec||at South Alabama||68||8-30||L||9.1 - 23.8||L||-1.7|
|21-Dec||vs. Tulane||70||24-21||W||26.2 - 41.1||L||-5.7|
|Points Per Game||33.8||34||26.5||63|
|Adj. Points Per Game||31.0||48||31.3||96|
3. A false start and a flailing finish
That a 9-4 season felt disappointing is impressive in and of itself, but the start and finish to 2013 certainly left something to be desired.
Adj. Points Per Game (first 2 games): Opponent 37.7, UL-L 22.6 (minus-15.1)
Adj. Points Per Game (next 8 games): UL-L 36.1, Opponent 28.5 (plus-7.6)
Adj. Points Per Game (last 3 games): Opponent 34.5, UL-L 23.1 (minus-11.4)
Broadway suffered a broken wrist during the ULM game, and backup Brooks Haack fell victim to a South Alabama team playing dynamite ball in the season finale; Broadway was considered a longshot to play against Tulane in the bowl, but he somehow did so. He was far from great against an awesome Tulane secondary -- 12-for-19 for 143 yards, two picks, and four sacks -- but he gave the Cajuns an early jolt of life, and it ended up being just enough. They scored on two of their first three drives, then leaned on turnovers to take the 24-21 win.
Still, the sketchy early performances and the banged-up finish put a lower ceiling on 2013 than I originally anticipated.
|FIVE FACTORS -- OFFENSE|
|Raw Category||Rk||Opp. Adj. Category||Rk|
|EFFICIENCY||Succ. Rt.||46.5%||27||Succ. Rt. +||102.5||49|
|FIELD POSITION||Def. Avg. FP||28.7||46||Def. FP+||99.4||66|
|FINISHING DRIVES||Pts. Per Trip in 40||4.9||12||Redzone S&P+||112.1||23|
|Q1 Rk||21||1st Down Rk||45|
|Q2 Rk||64||2nd Down Rk||74|
|Q3 Rk||92||3rd Down Rk||63|
4. The big plays dissipated
Big plays were a strength for the Cajuns in 2012, and with so many pieces back it was easy to assume that would be the case again last fall.
For whatever reason, it wasn't. While Broadway's per-completion yardage remained above 14 yards, and the ground game remained efficient, the big rushing plays were harder to find. Opponents were more prepared to hem in Broadway -- after averaging 7.3 highlight yards per opportunity in 2012, he averaged only 3.7 in 2013 (Johnny Manziel saw the same thing happen at Texas A&M, which is why I assume defensive preparation was a big cause); plus, Alonzo Harris' explosiveness shrank from 6.2 highlight yards per opportunity to 3.7.
UL-Lafayette leaned on the run more in 2013, and perhaps predictability was an issue. The line was still good enough to create running lanes, but defenses swarmed a bit better. That made the emergence of freshman Elijah McGuire vital to the Cajuns' conference title hopes. In their five conference wins and the ULM loss, McGuire rushed 58 times for 547 yards (9.4 per carry) and four scores. Harris still carried a majority of the load, but McGuire was a fantastic change of pace. He played the role that Melvin Gordon played for Wisconsin in 2012 before Gordon broke out alongside James White in 2013.
I would expect the same development this year. Harris might be a little more effective with fewer carries, and McGuire will probably get a chance to be a No. 1a back of sorts. He earned it.
Note: players in bold below are 2014 returnees. Players in italics are questionable with injury/suspension.
|Terrance Broadway||6'2, 211||Sr.||4 stars (5.8)||166||266||2419||19||12||62.4%||22||7.6%||7.9|
|Brooks Haack||6'1, 215||So.||3 stars (5.6)||21||35||224||1||1||60.0%||4||10.3%||4.9|
|Jordan Davis||6'4, 163||Fr.||2 stars (5.3)|
|Alonzo Harris||RB||6'1, 216||Sr.||3 stars (5.6)||199||942||14||4.7||3.7||38.2%|
|Terrance Broadway||QB||6'2, 211||Sr.||4 stars (5.8)||109||591||8||5.4||3.7||51.4%|
|Elijah McGuire||RB||5'11, 185||So.||3 stars (5.7)||103||853||8||8.3||8.6||49.5%|
|Torrey Pierce||RB||5'9, 170||Jr.||NR||40||188||2||4.7||2.9||42.5%|
|Montrel Carter||RB||5'10, 188||Jr.||2 stars (5.4)||17||103||1||6.1||4.0||52.9%|
|Marcus Jackson||RB||5'11, 201||Jr.||2 stars (5.2)||15||52||0||3.5||1.8||20.0%|
|Effrem Reed||RB||5'8, 193||Jr.||2 stars (5.4)||11||57||0||5.2||2.3||54.5%|
|Brooks Haack||QB||6'1, 215||So.||3 stars (5.6)||10||32||0||3.2||1.3||30.0%|
|Jalen Nixon||RB||6'2, 218||So.||NR||9||34||0||3.8||1.9||44.4%|
5. If you've got it, flaunt it
The Cajuns were mostly balanced in 2012, running and passing around the national averages. But in 2013, they trended heavily toward the run. They rushed more than two-thirds of the time on standard downs and 40 percent of the time on passing downs. Sure, Broadway is good at finding a lane and turning a planned pass into a run. But that's only part of it.
Hudspeth and Jay Johnson realized they had a bounty at the running back position and used it. And every back who carried the ball last year -- even exciting reserves like Montrel Carter and Torrey Pierce -- is scheduled to return in the fall. For that matter, so do four starting linemen who have combined for 91 career starts. More carries for McGuire (or a return to form by Harris) could mean more team explosiveness and a top-50 run game once again.
|Jamal Robinson||WR-X||6'4, 205||Sr.||3 stars (5.5)||88||54||862||61.4%||29.4%||61.7%||9.8||192||9.6||127.5|
|James Butler||WR-Z||6'3, 205||Sr.||2 stars (5.2)||40||26||363||65.0%||13.4%||50.0%||9.1||50||9.4||53.7|
|Elijah McGuire||RB||5'11, 185||So.||3 stars (5.7)||24||22||384||91.7%||8.0%||77.3%||16.0||158||15.1||56.8|
|Effrem Reed||RB||5'8, 193||Jr.||2 stars (5.4)||14||10||100||71.4%||4.7%||33.3%||7.1||-15||9.0||14.8|
|Jared Johnson||WR-Z||6'5, 215||So.||2 stars (5.2)||8||6||65||75.0%||2.7%||33.3%||8.1||-2||3.4||9.6|
|Devin Scott||WR-H||5'11, 180||So.||2 stars (5.4)||3||1||37||33.3%||1.0%||0.0%||12.3||19||16.4||5.5|
|Nick Byrne||TE||6'3, 221||So.||3 stars (5.5)||1||1||4||100.0%||0.3%||N/A||4.0||-6||0.0||0.6|
|Scott Austin||WR||6'4, 180||RSFr.||3 stars (5.5)|
|Darius Hoggins||WR||5'7, 165||RSFr.||2 stars (5.4)|
|Dylan Bossler||WR||6'2, 185||Jr.||3 stars (5.5)|
|C.J. Bates||WR||6'1, 200||Jr.||2 stars (5.4)|
|Antoinne Adkins||WR||5'9, 180||Jr.||2 stars (5.4)|
|Anthony Jones||TE||6'6, 225||Fr.||2 stars (5.4)|
6. New toys for Broadway
On a per-pass basis, UL-Lafayette was just fine in the passing game. Broadway averaged about 8.0 yards per pass attempt (more before his injured effort against Tulane), and the big duo of Jamal Robinson and James Butler combined to average 9.6 yards per target over about 10 targets per game. While Darryl Surgent is gone, Robinson and Butler return, and they could conceivably be one of the conference's best one-two punches.
It appears Hudspeth thought they needed some help, however; he signed three junior college transfers, including three-star Dylan Bossier to supplement the ranks. If nothing else, this should help with 2015, when Broadway, Robinson, and Butler are all gone.
|Andre Huval||C||40||1st All-SBC|
|Daniel Quave||RG||6'3, 324||Sr.||2 stars (5.2)||39||2nd All-SBC|
|Mykhael Quave||LT||6'5, 295||Jr.||2 stars (5.4)||26|
|Terry Johnson||LG||6'2, 275||Sr.||2 stars (5.2)||13|
|Octravian Anderson||RT||6'4, 277||Jr.||2 stars (5.4)||13|
|Jarad Martin||LT||6'5, 310||Sr.||2 stars (5.2)||0|
|Zach Tarver||LG||6'4, 267||So.||2 stars (5.2)||0|
|Greg Siener||RT||6'4, 280||Jr.||2 stars (5.4)||0|
|Jeremy Sparks||OL||6'5, 288||So.||3 stars (5.5)||0|
|FIVE FACTORS -- DEFENSE|
|Raw Category||Rk||Opp. Adj. Category||Rk|
|EFFICIENCY||Succ. Rt.||44.8%||94||Succ. Rt. +||84.9||111|
|FIELD POSITION||Off. Avg. FP||31.1||46||Def. FP+||97.5||88|
|FINISHING DRIVES||Pts. Per Trip in 40||3.8||28||Redzone S&P+||99.9||59|
|Q1 Rk||95||1st Down Rk||114|
|Q2 Rk||124||2nd Down Rk||89|
|Q3 Rk||77||3rd Down Rk||98|
|Rivals||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|Dominique Tovell||DE||6'2, 248||Jr.||2 stars (5.2)||13||52.5||7.7%||11.5||2.0||0||2||2||0|
|Justin Hamilton||NT||6'2, 295||Sr.||3 stars (5.5)||13||30.5||4.4%||9.0||4.0||0||0||1||0|
|Marquis White||NT||6'5, 315||Jr.||2 stars (5.2)||9||15.0||2.2%||4.5||2.0||0||0||0||0|
|Christian Ringo||DE||6'1, 288||Sr.||2 stars (5.3)||9||14.0||2.0%||2.0||1.0||0||2||0||0|
|Marvin Martin||NT||6'3, 286||Sr.||2 stars (5.2)||7||11.5||1.7%||4.5||3.0||0||0||2||0|
|Chris Prater||DT||6'5, 246||Jr.||2 stars (5.4)||10||9.5||1.4%||3.5||1.5||0||0||0||0|
|Jake Molbert||DE||6'1, 217||Sr.||2 stars (5.3)||7||9.0||1.3%||1.5||0.5||0||0||0||0|
|Remaine Douglas||DE||6'3, 280||So.||2 stars (5.2)||5||5.5||0.8%||1.5||1.5||0||0||0||1|
|Blain Winston||DE||6'4, 261||So.||2 stars (5.2)|
|Darzil Washington||DE||6'3, 230||Jr.||2 stars (5.4)|
|Ken Edwards||DE||6'6, 250||Fr.||2 stars (5.4)|
7. A banged-up line was a strength
As a whole, the Cajun defense was disappointing in 2013. After a decent No. 78 finish in Def. F/+ in 2012, they dropped to 98th in 2013. The pass defense was destined to struggle a bit after the loss of two good pass rushers and both starting corners, and it certainly did. But the run defense regressed, too, which was rather unexpected.
Most of said regression against the run seemed to happen thanks to dropoff in consistency. The line still made plays, ranking 28th in Stuff Rate (negative plays in the backfield); end Dominique Tovell made 9.5 non-sack tackles for loss as as a sophomore, while tackle Justin Hamilton added five, and linebacker Trae Johnson added 5.5. But if opposing runners got out of the backfield, they tended to find some friendly running lanes.
Of course, one figures consistency will indeed be a problem when you can't keep the same guys on the field. Only two linemen and two linebackers played in all 13 games, and quite a few key contributors missed at least four to five games. Using my go-to "injuries hurt in the present tense but help in the future tense" cliché, I can say that the future tense might look pretty good here. Basically every lineman returns, as does every linebacker besides starting mike Justin Anderson. Junior college transfer Darzil Washington (a former Texas A&M signee) and three-star freshman T.J. Posey could demand some playing time as well.
Experience and athleticism won't be an issue this fall. Talent and execution? We'll see.
|Rivals||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|Al Riles||SAM||5'10, 209||So.||NR||13||33.0||4.8%||3.5||0.0||1||1||1||0|
|Chris Hill||SAM||5'11, 188||Jr.||2 stars (5.3)||11||32.0||4.7%||3.5||2.0||0||0||0||0|
|Trae Johnson||WILL||6'1, 232||Sr.||2 stars (5.4)||8||27.5||4.0%||5.5||0.0||0||0||0||0|
|Darius Barksdale||WILL||6'0, 205||Sr.||4 stars (5.9)||8||21.5||3.1%||2.5||1.0||2||2||0||0|
|Tyren Alexander||WILL||6'0, 202||Jr.||3 stars (5.6)||9||18.5||2.7%||5.5||1.0||0||0||0||0|
|Boris Anyama||SAM||6'3, 221||Sr.||2 stars (5.2)||8||15.5||2.3%||3.0||0.0||0||1||0||0|
|Zach Bourque||LB||6'0, 180||Sr.||NR||8||8.5||1.2%||0.0||0.0||0||0||0||0|
|Kevin Fouquier||LB||6'4, 232||So.||2 stars (5.4)||3||5.5||0.8%||0.0||0.0||0||0||0||0|
|Christian Sager||MIKE||6'0, 222||Sr.||NR||3||3.0||0.4%||0.0||0.0||0||0||0||0|
|T.J. Posey||LB||6'0, 235||Fr.||3 stars (5.6)|
|Rivals||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|Sean Thomas||FS||5'10, 170||Sr.||2 stars (5.2)||12||53.5||7.8%||0.5||0||3||3||2||0|
|T.J. Worthy||SS||6'2, 195||Jr.||3 stars (5.6)||13||49.5||7.2%||4||0||2||0||0||0|
|Trevence Patt||CB||6'0, 178||Sr.||2 stars (5.2)||13||49.0||7.1%||1.5||0||1||12||1||0|
|Corey Trim||CB||5'11, 180||Sr.||2 stars (5.3)||13||39.5||5.8%||2.5||0||2||3||0||0|
|Simeon Thomas||CB||6'3, 180||So.||3 stars (5.5)||3||8.0||1.2%||0||0||0||2||0||0|
|Cedrick Tillman||CB||5'9, 180||Sr.||2 stars (5.4)||7||5.0||0.7%||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|Zachary DeGrange||SS||5'10, 186||Jr.||NR||3||3.5||0.5%||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|Dominick Jones||CB||5'11, 174||So.||2 stars (5.2)||4||2.5||0.4%||0||0||1||0||0||0|
|Jevante Watson||CB||5'10, 175||Jr.||3 stars (5.6)|
|Troy McCollum||DB||6'0, 170||RSFr.||3 stars (5.6)|
|Tracey Walker||S||6'2, 180||RSFr.||2 stars (5.4)|
|Malik Williams||DB||6'3, 190||Fr.||2 stars (5.4)|
8. Athleticism and conservatism
The Cajuns defense was a confusing one in 2013; it almost seemed as if the players were aggressive and the tactics were conservative. The Cajuns were a mainstay in the backfield against the run but generated little to no pass rush on passing downs; in fact, their pass rush on standard downs (when you have to guard against the run) was actually better than on passing downs. But despite this bend-don't-break idea of pass rush, the Cajuns both made a lot of plays on the ball and gave up a lot of big plays in the air.
An improved pass rush would help the Cajuns' secondary immensely, but as with the rest of the defense, experience will be a strength. After some turnover last year, there is almost none in 2014 -- the top five corners return (including Trevence Patt, with his 13 passes defensed), as do both starting safeties. Tory McCollum, one of the stars of the 2013 recruiting class, could work his way into the rotation, but regardless, this unit should make some plays. We'll just see how many it allows.
|Daniel Cadona||6'4, 218||Sr.||53||41.7||6||17||17||64.2%|
|Hunter Stover||6'1, 208||Sr.||77||60.8||26||2||33.8%|
|Stephen Brauchle||6'1, 211||Jr.||52-54||8-11||72.7%||0-2||0.0%|
|Hunter Stover||6'1, 208||Sr.||2-2||1-1||100.0%||0-0||N/A|
|Montrel Carter||KR||5'10, 188||Jr.||6||13.0||0|
|Special Teams F/+||51|
|Field Goal Efficiency||109|
|Punt Return Efficiency||60|
|Kick Return Efficiency||9|
|Opponents' Field Goal Efficiency||82|
9. Daryl Surgent was awesome
UL-Lafayette was a field goal kicker short of a truly strong special teams unit last year, but while experience should help in that regard, the Cajuns have to replace one of the nation's best return men in Daryl Surgent. A quality offense and a defense with some play-makers up front should mean that the Cajuns are pretty good in the field position battle, but weaknesses in the return game could limit that a lot.
2014 Schedule & Projection Factors
|13-Sep||at Ole Miss||26|
|20-Sep||at Boise State||18|
|TBD||at New Mexico State||124|
|TBD||at Texas State||114|
|Five-Year F/+ Rk||-11.1% (89)|
|Two-Year Recruiting Rk||90|
|TO Margin/Adj. TO Margin*||1 / -0.4|
|Approx. Ret. Starters (Off. / Def.)||18 (8, 10)|
10. The schedule is manageable
Hudspeth's Cajuns once again face a pair of daunting non-conference road games. Ole Miss should be better than either Arkansas or Kansas State were last year, and while Boise State could be beatable, that's still a tough trip and a tough turf. But even if they go 2-2 in non-conference play again, the conference schedule sets up perfectly for another SBC title run.
Both Arkansas State and South Alabama come to Lafayette, and the Cajuns don't play a single conference road game against a team projected better than 111th. (I do expect ULM to be better than 112th, but the Cajuns should still be the better team.) An 8-0 run is at least conceivable, as is the possibility that the Cajuns could break through the nine-win ceiling.
Things start over after this year. Broadway and a lot of play-makers are seniors, and this might be the year that a major-conference team finally comes calling for Hudspeth (if he's interested). Another 8-4 regular season would feel disappointing. But while last year gives me slight pause, I will go ahead and say that this team should be the class of the conference, an easy favorite with a good schedule and the athleticism for which other conference mates yearn. Maybe we'll see the Year of the Ragin' Cajun after all.