Advocate staff photo by BRAD BOWIE -- Louisiana-Lafayette defensive coordinator James Willis

Before he discussed his defensive unit at Ragin’ Cajuns media day, defensive coordinator James Willis made something very clear.

“It’s an exciting time to be a Cajun,” Willis said. “A very exciting time.”

Indeed it is, even if it almost wasn’t for Willis.

He nearly accepted a job on the Florida State staff as a linebackers coach this offseason. In fact, he at one point made up his mind to pack up his bags and head east, letting his players and UL-Lafayette coach Mark Hudspeth know that he was leaving.

“I was kind of confused,” senior safety Sean Thomas said of the night Willis said he’d be leaving after just one season in Lafayette. “But knowing that he was moving on, hopefully to better his life, you live with it.”

Who could blame him? The Seminoles are the reigning national champions, and though he’d be giving up a coordinator position at a rising program, he could justify that by joining one of the nation’s elite squads.

It was a no-brainer. He had to take it. But even as he told his players about his decision, some of the more intuitive ones could see the battle raging inside.

The easy decision wasn’t that easy.

“As he sat there, you could tell on his face when they told us he was leaving, he was kind of battling between things,” said senior linebacker Jake Molbert.

Willis spent the night thinking about it. When he woke up, his mind had changed. Cue the celebration from the players he’d be coordinating.

“I was like, ‘Let’s get this started, man! Let’s get this party going!’ ” Thomas said.

The big thing is that now, with Willis coming back for a second season, the players don’t have to learn another defensive scheme. Early in last season, while they were still learning the ins and outs of Willis’ defense, the Cajuns defenders struggled. The UL-Lafayette defense allowed 82 points and nearly 1,000 yards from scrimmage in season-opening losses to Arkansas and Kansas State.

But as the season went on, the players got more familiar with how Willis wanted them to play, and Willis got more familiar with his players. The result was a defense that finished the season ranked third in the Sun Belt Conference in total defense, a five-spot jump from the year before Willis took over.

“It’s the second year in the system, and it’s starting to show off,” Willis said. “You look at our kids now, as far as the off-season and the time they put in the film room … the growth within the defense is starting to show up.”

By staying put, Willis was able to configure the defense to his exact specifications, and the players were able to learn it intimately. Both Molbert and Thomas said they have a much better grasp of the defense this year compared to last. That’s because their teacher made a tough decision, but also a decision he felt was right.

So here Willis was, dressed in a black Ragin’ Cajuns polo joking with reporters about how he was still so amped from the first practice of the season that he might jump over the podium and demonstrate a proper form tackle. The operative word in that sentence was here, referring to Louisiana, not there, referring to Florida State.

“It’s all about what’s right,” Willis said. “Things just felt right to be here. It’s a good time to be a Cajun, I’m very excited about a lot of good things going on and also to see it through.

“This is a great place to be. We have a promising future in front of us. I want to be a part of something special, and right now we can be legendary.”