A little less than a week from now, Louisiana-Lafayette will embark on what it hopes will be an historic 2014 season.
If the Cajuns are to come anywhere close to achieving their goals, it’ll likely be done on the backs of a core group of players who were part of coach Mark Hudspeth’s inaugural recruiting class.
“They laid the foundation for this program,” Hudspeth said.
But finding and signing those foundation-layers? That’s a pretty crazy story in its own right. Hudspeth was hired on Dec. 10, 2010, leaving he and his staff a little more than seven weeks to build the foundation of their program.
“It was a commando raid,” said assistant head coach and recruiting coordinator Reed Stringer.
Hudspeth could see the challenge ahead of him, so the first staff member he selected was his recruiting ace. Before he even received a job offer, Hudspeth gauged Stringer’s interest in coming to Lafayette from Clemson, where he was wrapping up his first year on Clemson’s staff.
Stringer had built a close relationship with Hudspeth — first as an offensive lineman at Delta State where Hudspeth was the offensive coordinator and then at Mississippi State, where he and Hudspeth were on the same staff — and decided to join Hudspeth if he took the job. Named one of the Southeastern Conference’s 10 best recruiters by Rivals.com in 2009, Stringer’s recruiting acumen was already well-documented, but the 2011 class would be a challenge.
Stringer, Hudspeth and the holdovers from Rickey Bustle’s staff assembled a list of recruiting targets before Hudspeth’s signing was announced publicly. Hudspeth and Stringer relied on their Mississippi connections to fill the board with potential recruits while holdovers Tim Rebowe, Jorge Munoz and Troy Wingerter provided insight on Louisiana recruits. Making matters more challenging was that the staff had a week until the dead period arrived, where they couldn’t contact recruits.
“We met from 6 a.m. to midnight (the day Hudspeth’s hiring was announced),” Stringer said. “Just recruiting, on the phone, watching film, calling, talking, yea, nay. We had 150 names and we had to cut that to 40 or 50 because there was no way to recruit that many guys at one time.”
The staff wore out their shoe leather traveling to recruits’ homes and making their best pitch about a program they had just learned about. But there were more challenges than simply finding players.
There was life, too.
Stringer’s wife was 38 weeks pregnant when he came down to Lafayette to start working his sometimes 18-hour days. He made it back to Mississippi to witness the birth of his child, but made sure to get some work in along the way.
“While we were in the hospital after the baby was born, I went on the road to a couple high schools in Starkville (Mississippi) and actually signed Chris Prater doing that,” Stringer said.
The small things, like setting up utilities, changing the address and finding a school for the kids fell to Hudspeth’s wife Tyla while Hudpseth recruited.
“If it wasn’t for our wives, we would have no chance at succeeding because we’d have so many other things we have to do,” Hudspeth said. “You can’t imagine everything they do to enable us to do a good job.”
And a good job is what they did. During the dead period, they spent hours and hours assembling a game plan, which they aggressively executed when they were once again able to contact recruits. The results were impressive.
Members of that 2011 class include Alonzo Harris and Jamal Robinson, who could both make a large dent in the Ragin’ Cajuns record books this season, starting offensive tackles Mykhael Quave and Octravian Anderson, starting defensive linemen Christian Ringo and Justin Hamilton, linebacker Dominique Tovell and free safety Sean Thomas.
Not included in that class, at least officially, is quarterback Terrance Broadway, who became the first player to commit to play for Hudspeth and his staff when he announced his transfer from the University of Houston on Christmas Eve in 2010.
“That’s the biggest piece,” Stringer said. “The No. 1 guy you have to recruit every year is a quarterback. For us to be a new program, starting our own program kind of from scratch, to have that guy was truly a blessing and it allowed us to recruit other kids, to say, ‘Here’s your future quarterback coming down the road.’”
Broadway was important, but Hudspeth and Stringer’s Mississippi connections might’ve been the most important cog when assembling the 2011 class in record time. Of the 28 signees, 15 came from Mississippi, including Tovell, Quave, Hamilton and Ringo.
“Coming here to see everybody, everybody was from Mississippi, it made it really easy to commit here to play football because it felt like home,” Tovell said. All the guys from back home coming in and trying to get together to do something great.”
Now, as the majority of the class prepares to leave its final mark on the program, Hudspeth is proud that he was able to deliver on a promise that four years ago might’ve sounded like a stretch.
The Cajuns will likely play in front of a record crowd against Southern next Saturday after an offseason expansion increased Cajun Field’s capacity. Construction will soon begin on a sparkling new home for the football team. They’ll be gunning for their fourth bowl championship in as many years. The beginnings of all these things can be traced to those seven weeks of long hours and a promise kept.
“They’ve been here, they’ve stuck through some tough times as far as getting here that first year before we won any games, having the facilities we had,” Hudspeth said. “They trusted us to stay the course. I’m just very proud that I was able to keep my word that if they stayed and worked hard, they’d be champions.”