LAFAYETTE — Before the season started, University of Louisiana at Lafayette coach Mark Hudspeth looked at what he had returning along the defensive line and publicly said he was a little worried about the lack of a big-time playmaker.
Gone were Christian Ringo and Justin Hamilton, who took 29.5 tackles for loss (36 percent of the Cajuns 2014 team total) and 15.5 sacks (48 percent) with them after graduation, and Hudspeth didn’t see that type of player on his new defensive line.
But that didn’t mean the Cajuns couldn’t devise a way to make those big plays happen.
“We’ve been way more aggressive this year than we have been,” Hudspeth said.
Two games into the 2015 season, the Cajuns are the Sun Belt Conference leaders in tackles for loss (17) and sacks (7), and they rank among the top 20 schools nationally in both categories. Both those figures are well ahead of the pace the Cajuns were at last season.
It’s been a collective effort, with nine players making a stop in the opposing backfield and five players recording a sack. And those big plays have been coming from just about everywhere but the defensive line.
The Cajuns defensive line has recorded three tackles for loss and two sacks, and the rest have come from the linebacker corps and blitzing defensive backs.
The pressure has been all about simple math.
“We’re bringing a lot more people,” Hudspeth said. “The old saying goes, when you rush five people, the defense only has to win one out of five. The offense has to win five out of five to be successful.
“When you bring a lot more people, the chances of somebody getting home increases. You bring three? Two of them are getting double-teamed. You bring four? One of them is getting double-teamed. You bring five? That’s five single blocks.”
That’s the easy way to it, but defensive coordinator Melvin Smith wants to be able to bring pressure with the least amount of people possible, as the Cajuns did last week against Northwestern State when they tallied a sack on third down with a three-man rush.
Smith said the Cajuns goal is to bring pressure from all different points of the field, and that’s been obvious early. The Cajuns have brought safeties, linebackers and corners from the edges and up the gut, which wasn’t always the case a year ago — and the coaches are still getting a feel for the players at their disposal.
“We are totally different defensively than we were last year,” Smith said. “I’m finding out that we’ve got some parts. I know a lot more about our defense right now than I did when I first started, and I’m really encouraged by it.”
But there’s a reason coaches don’t blitz on every play, and that was evident in the first game of the season.
The Cajuns came out hyper aggressive against Kentucky, sending five or more players on the rush on half of the Wildcats’ 16 first-quarter plays.
Some good came out of that aggression — including a sack from nickel back Zach Degrange — but more often, Kentucky exploited it by identifying the single coverage in the secondary.
The Wildcats hit on three huge plays in the first quarter against a Cajuns blitz, including the first two touchdowns of the game: a 75-yard run and a 37-yard pass.
“Even in the run game, when you’ve got a lot of people to stop the run, now you’ve got a lot of pressure on your secondary, and you’ve got to pick and choose your times to do that,” Hudspeth said.
The Cajuns dialed back their blitzes in the second half, opting to send four rushers on 21 of the Wildcats’ 32 second-half plays, and they were much more effective.
The threat of a blitz was still present on many of those plays, but the Cajuns often backed out of them, using the threat of a blitz to disguise their true look.
“When you can trick the offense and show a different look right before the snap, it throws the offense off,” senior linebacker Dominique Tovell said. “It gives them guys a hard time. I think we gave the offense a lot of trouble these last two weeks disguising.”
The pressure still came, though. Almost all of the Cajuns eight tackles for loss came in the second half against Kentucky.
“I thought we did things a little bit better as the game progressed,” Smith said. “We really didn’t change how we were calling the game — we call the game based on where the ball is throughout the field.
“We’re a pressure team.”