In about 2013, there were few college football coaches I was higher on than Mark Hudspeth. The now-former UL Lafayette head coach was in the middle of an unprecedented run in the heart of Acadiana.
In the nearly four decades before Hudspeth’s arrival, UL had never been to a bowl. The Cajuns had only once won more than seven games since Augie Tammariello had pulled off the feat out of the Southland Conference in 1976. This was a school with fan support and minimal energy.
The charismatic Hudspeth surged with recruiting and quick-change culture building.
- His Ragin’ Cajuns lived up to their nickname; they played with attitude and anger.
- He landed a key transfer in former Houston quarterback Terrence Broadway and built around him.
- He sent a bunch of speedy 240-pound defensive ends and 225-pound outside linebackers hurtling into backfields, as blockers were occupied by 300-pound interior linemen. (The Cajuns passed the eyeball test, in other words.)
- He established a physical presence on both sides of the ball, landed a few diamonds in the rough — running back Elijah McGuire being the most noteworthy — and turned the players he inherited from predecessor Rickey Bustle into something far more impressive.
UL won nine games in each of Hudspeth’s first four seasons, winning four New Orleans Bowls in the process.
Hard jobs remain hard, however. If you are a school with lesser resources, you will almost always have lesser resources. You will always require fewer recruiting misses and/or tactical innovation. If you slip at all, for whatever reason, you will stumble.
When Broadway graduated, quarterbacks like Brooks Haack, Anthony Jennings, and Jordan Davis couldn’t meet the same standard. When McGuire left, there was no bell-cow successor. And as the NCAA began sniffing around the program a bit, recruiting got even harder.
After signing the top-ranked class in the Sun Belt in both 2013 and 2015, per the 247Sports Composite, the Cajuns slipped to ninth in 2017. And after averaging an S&P+ ranking of 81.3 from 2011-14 (they peaked at 55th in 2014), Hudspeth could engineer only a 109th average while finishing with a losing record in each of his final three seasons.
Hudspeth didn’t forget how to coach. It’s just that a job like this never gets much easier. And because of that slippage, Hud is now an assistant coach at Mississippi State again. It’s Billy Napier’s turn to lead the Cajuns back to the promised land (a.k.a. New Orleans’ Superdome).
A 38-year former Furman quarterback — he threw for a combined 4,247 yards in leading the Paladins to the FCS playoffs in 2001 and 2002 — Napier’s coaching DNA is awfully impressive.
He was Dabo Swinney’s first offensive coordinator at Clemson in 2009-10, and by 2013 he found himself coaching receivers on Nick Saban’s Alabama staff. He left Tuscaloosa for Arizona State in 2017, taking over as coordinator and improving the Sun Devils from 56th to 35th in Off. S&P+.
Napier has never coached in Louisiana but knows the South as a whole pretty well. His hire made a lot of sense. (In fact, it would have made a lot of sense if Arizona State had hired him instead of Herm Edwards.)
But the task remains a difficult one. The Sun Belt’s two Louisiana schools drag well behind the rest of the conference from a revenue standpoint, even though the Cajuns routinely draw attendance over the SBC average. Hudspeth’s success allowed for some facilities upgrades, but Napier faces a tall task.
He inherits an awfully experienced squad, though; the Ragin’ Cajuns are scheduled to return the sixth-most offensive production in FBS. Sophomore running back Trey Ragas did a decent McGuire impression at times, the interior offensive line has loads of experience, and the receiving corps returns virtually everyone, and he’ll have a few different quarterbacks, with varying levels of experience, from which to choose.
Hudspeth’s program provided one of my favorite college football moments in recent history — Brett Baer’s game-winning 50-yarder in the 2011 New Orleans Bowl — and I’m betting he could do pretty well with a fresh start. But now it’s Napier’s turn in Lafayette, and his pedigree suggests he’s got a decent chance.
Napier brought in a familiar (to him) face to run his offense. Rob Sale was an offensive analyst with Napier at Alabama at the turn of the decade, and after stints as offensive line coach at McNeese State, Georgia, and ULM, he joined Napier in Tempe last fall. Sale’s only ASU offensive line improved from 112th to 66th in Adjusted Line Yards and from 116th to 76th in opportunity rate (the percentage of carries gaining at least five yards).
One would assume that Napier and Sale will attempt something similar to what they had at ASU, so here’s general footprint for the 2017 Sun Devil offense:
- 43rd in Adj. Pace and 22nd in percentage of solo tackles forced. ASU was running a spread-out offense that operated at a fast tempo.
- 50th in standard downs run rate, 34th in passing downs run rate. ASU quarterback Manny Wilkins was a reasonable run threat (98 non-sack carries for 525 yards), and backs Demario Richard and Kalen Ballage combined to rush 27 times per game at an average of 4.8 yards per carry. They didn’t produce a lot of big plays, but they were efficient enough to open up passing lanes for Wilkins, who completed 63 percent of his passes. ASU also ranked 22nd with 14 completions of 40-plus yards; they had decent play-action potential.
- Touches distribution: Adding together rushes and targets as intended touches, we see that this was basically a six-man attack: Richard (212 intended touches), Ballage (189), Wilkins (98), and receivers N’Keal Harry (132), Kyle Williams (97), and Jalen Harvey (53). Harry and Williams had 22 rushes, and Ballage and Richard had 46 targets, so there was an element of figuring out who your play-makers are and getting them the ball in a lot of different ways.
Who are UL’s play-makers in 2018? You have to start with Ragas. The 227-pound former three-star recruit had some impressive moments as a redshirt freshman, rushing 11 times for 130 yards in a shootout loss to Tulsa, 14 times for 93 yards at Texas A&M, and 23 times for 132 yards in a late-season upset of NMSU. He caught nine of 10 passes on the year, too. He could potentially carry a heavy load.
SMU transfer Ryheem Malone was impressive out of the slot, too. His 57 percent receiving success rate was easily the highest on the team, and he showed some late-season burst, catching 15 balls for 279 yards and two scores in the final three games of the year.
Junior wideout Ja’Marcus Bradley is a decent downfield threat, 6’3 senior Keenan Barnes is a solid possession option, and Earnest Patterson, like Malone a slot receiver and return man, could thrive given the ball in space.
Hudspeth didn’t leave the cupboard bare at the skill positions, but the line certainly left something to be desired. UL ranked 99th in Adj. Sack Rate and 102nd in stuff rate last year, and while the interior will be manned by seasoned trio of juniors (all-conference guard Kevin Dotson, guard Robert Hunt, and center Cole Prudhomme), the tackle positions are raw and unknown. No matter what your plans are, they can fall apart pretty quickly if you can’t protect your QB.
Who’s that QB going to be? Jordan Davis saw the most action in 2017, but two other QBs (senior Andre Nunez and sophomore Levi Lewis) each ended up attempting more than 50 passes, too. Nunez showed major efficiency potential in the middle of the season when Davis was injured, but Davis is the best runner of the bunch. There should be an interesting QB battle this spring, and who wins might depend on the identity Napier and Sale hope to create (or who can “win the team over”).
Despite uncertainty at QB and a shaky line, UL finished 47th in Off. S&P+ in 2017. It clearly wasn’t the problem. This imploding radar chart pretty clearly shows where the Cajuns went wrong:
The Cajuns’ defense was good at almost literally nothing. They were average when it came to big-play prevention, but they were easily the leakiest, most inefficient defense in the Sun Belt.
At first glance, you can’t really blame inexperience or injury. Twelve of the Cajuns’ top 15 tacklers were either juniors or seniors, and while there were certainly injuries here and there, only one — that of safety Travis Crawford — was particularly damaging.
Napier’s first coordinator choice, Karl Scott, left after a month to become Alabama’s defensive backs coach, so Napier turned to Ron Roberts, former Southeastern Louisiana head coach. Roberts’ 2017 defense combined solid run support (3.7 yards per carry and just 145.4 yards per game) with some risk-taking in the secondary. SLU defenders intercepted 12 passes and broke up 46 more, personally forcing 58 of opponents’ 168 incompletions.
We’ll see if Roberts has the pieces in the back. Crawford’s return, along with that of seniors Corey Turner and Koa Haynes and junior Damar’ren Mitchell, gives the Cajuns plenty of seasoned options at safety. Turner’s six tackles for loss suggest a nice, physical presence near the line of scrimmage.
UL is starting over at corner, however. Last year’s top two are gone, and if some combination of junior Kamar Greenhouse, senior Lorenzo Cryer, and Nevada grad transfer Kendall Johnson don’t solidify the unit, Roberts might have to turn his gaze toward a freshman or two to get it done.
The front seven has been thinned out by attrition, but there’s potential. End Joe Dillon has been a solid contributor for a couple of years, and senior linebackers Justin Middleton and Tommy Whitted spent a lot of time at or behind the line of scrimmage.
Mid-three-star JUCO transfer Chauncey Manac could provide athleticism in the linebacking corps as well, and, as always seemed to be the case under Hudspeth, Roberts has a nice selection of enormous tackles (317-pound LaDarrius Kidd, 304-pound Tra’Vontae Booker).
The punting game was a plus for UL last season in both directions. Sam Geraci’s punts were mostly unreturnable, and Ryheem Malone and Earnest Patterson combined to average 12.3 yards per punt return.
Geraci’s gone, however, and the rest of the unit was explosive but inconsistent. Steveie Artique’s got a decent leg for kickoffs and field goals, but it’s all over the place — he was 3-for-5 on field goals longer than 40 yards but managed to miss six PATs — and while Raymond Calais took two kickoffs back for touchdowns, he was mostly inefficient otherwise.
2018 Schedule & Projection Factors
|2017 S&P+ Rk
|at Mississippi State
|New Mexico State
|at Appalachian State
|at Texas State
|2017 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin*
|-1 / 2.7
|2017 TO Luck/Game
|Returning Production (Off. / Def.)
|70% (90%, 51%)
|2017 Second-order wins (difference)
In a conference not known for top-to-bottom defensive prowess, UL may have had the worst D of all. It was bad enough to drag down a top-50 offense, and it makes the Cajuns difficult to evaluate in 2018.
Barring some first-year reset or toxic QB controversy, the offense could — should — be very good once more. It returns almost everyone, after all.
But how much can the defense improve in one year, even with an ultra-experienced secondary?
The schedule could help. The Cajuns’ home slate is Grambling State, NMSU, Arkansas State, Coastal Carolina, Georgia State, and South Alabama. They could be favored in as many as five of those games, which would require minimal road success to get back to a bowl.
Like Hudspeth seven years ago, Napier inherits a roster that isn’t that far away from success.