Louisiana-Lafayette co-defensive coordinators Melvin Smith and Charlie Harbison were still teaching and coaching well after their allotted time.
After spending nearly an hour discussing the Ragin’ Cajuns new defensive approach during Wednesday’s Louisiana High School Coaches Association’s annual convention, Smith and Harbison continued to mentor and interact until every coach left the ballroom at the Baton Rouge Crowne Plaza Hotel.
The 57-year-old Smith took questions from high school veterans to middle school novices, imparting wisdom from a 25-year coaching career that’s included stops at Southeastern Conference schools such as Ole Miss, Mississippi State and most recently Auburn.
“We’re not going to re-invent the wheel,” Smith said to the group of assembled coaches. “We’re just going to play with a different mindset. We’ve got to find a way.”
Harbison’s 20-year career has followed a similar path from two stops at Clemson to Mississippi State, Alabama, LSU and Auburn.
Smith and Harbison bring a collective 45 years of coaching experience, including previous defensive coordinator duties, to a UL-Lafayette program that’s won four consecutive New Orleans Bowl games.
“I love being with Coach Hud,” Harbison said of UL-Lafayette head coach Mark Hudspeth. “He stands for things that are right. He stands for the kids. He wants them to graduate.”
UL-Lafayette allowed 26 points per outing, ranking second in the Sun Belt, and was fifth in total defense at 405 yards.
Where the Cajuns were deficient, though, was in limiting explosive plays as opponents averaged 5.9 yards per play and were a minus-3 in turnover ratio.
“We put emphasis on takeaways,” Smith said. “We’ve got a lot of experience at taking the ball away.”
Smith and Harbison, who worked together at both Mississippi State (2007-08) and Auburn (2013-24), were part of the defensive staff at Auburn that improved the Tigers’ takeaway fortunes from two interceptions the year before their arrival to forcing 46 turnovers during their tenure, including a BCS national runner-up finish to Florida State.
Moreover, the arrival of former Southeastern Louisiana head coach Mike Lucas, who spent last season as defensive coordinator at Northwestern State, where the Demons forced 35 turnovers, and first-year defensive line coach Levorn Harbin were hailed as key additions to the defensive staff, Smith said.
“We’re going to force the issue,” Smith said. “We’re not going to be a defense that sits back. I know who I am. I want to build a brand that reflects who I am and who Coach Hud is.”
During their respective talks, Smith and Harbison were uptempo, much like some of today’s fast-paced offenses, while exuding the type passion and energy they expect to see from their defensive unit in the fall.
The Cajuns were based out of a 4-3 look during the spring and forced two turnovers, but Smith said he plans to utilize multiple fronts, rely his team’s speed to pursue the ball and ask his secondary to play predominantly man coverage.
“It’s all about the ball — getting turnovers,” Harbison said. “Once they get it, they’ve got it.”