Editor’s note: This is the first in a 10-part series looking at the storylines to watch as the Louisiana-Lafayette football team approaches its Aug. 5report date for preseason practice.
LAFAYETTE — For a chunk of last season, the Louisiana-Lafayette secondary was arguably the team’s weakest link.
Flash forward to today, and there’s a chance the Ragin’ Cajuns’ defensive backfield might be the strongest unit on a revamped defense.
But first, understand how poorly that unit performed early last season.
Louisiana Tech quarterback Cody Sokol exposed the weakness in Week 2 when he completed 21 of 27 passes for 277 yards and a pair of scores in the first three quarters of the Bulldogs’ blowout win.
A week later, Ole Miss quarterback Bo Wallace nearly topped the 300-yard mark in the first half, connecting on his first 14 passes as Ole Miss clobbered the Cajuns 56-15. Boise State’s Grant Hedrick one-upped Wallace the next week, completing his first 15 passes against the Cajuns.
Outside of a couple of anomalous performances later in the season, the Cajuns recovered nicely after that thanks to a few savvy changes to the starting lineup by the coaching staff and an improved pass-rushing presence from the front seven.
But much has changed on defense going into this season. Both starting corners are gone, and an entirely new assistant staff has taken the reins, led by co-defensive coordinators Melvin Smith and Charlie Harbison.
While Harbison will work with linebackers with the Cajuns, both worked with defensive backs at Auburn last season. While the Tigers gave up plenty of yards through the air, they made up for that by intercepting 22 passes — good for fifth among Football Bowl Subdivision schools.
Smith will spend the majority of his time working with the Cajuns’ defensive backs, and he liked what he saw from a couple of players during spring practice.
Simeon Thomas, who was suspended for the entire 2014 season, impressed Smith with his length and athleticism. The 6-foot-3 Thomas gives the Cajuns an impressive physical specimen on one side of the defense.
The other side is open for competition, but the Cajuns have plenty of options.
The popular pick going into preseason practice is Jeryl Brazil, the former LSU football player and current Cajuns track athlete. Brazil may be fastest player on the team, but he is coming off an injury that forced him to essentially miss the entire 2014 season at East Mississippi Community College and has played in only two games in two seasons of college football.
If Brazil is unable to secure the job, the Cajuns like what they have behind him, with juniors Jevante Watson and Troy McCollum joined by newcomers Savion Brown, Christian Goodlett, Kamar Greenhouse and Ja’Marcus Bradley.
There’s not much doubt at safety. The Cajuns return sophomores Tracy Walker and Travis Crawford, who acquitted themselves well when thrust into a starting role midway through last season.
Despite his relatively small frame, Crawford quickly established himself as one of the surest tacklers on the team. Walker showed a knack for making plays with two interceptions, three pass breakups and a forced fumble in eight starts.
The pair started alongside each other the last six games of the year, and in that time the Cajuns allowed 353.5 yards per game — nearly 100 fewer than they allowed in the first seven.
With an added year for the youngsters and a new coaching staff watching over them, the Cajuns’ secondary could set the defensive tone in 2015.