LAFAYETTE – James Willis, the Ragin’ Cajuns defensive coordinator for each of the last two seasons, has accepted a position as a defensive assistant and linebackers coach on the New Orleans Saints staff.
Willis, who nearly accepted a similar position with Florida State last offseason, played seven seasons as a linebacker in the NFL before beginning his coaching career. This is his first professional coaching job.
“I’m excited for James and his opportunity,” said coach Mark Hudspeth in a statement released by the school. “Obviously, as a player in the National Football League, he has to be excited to have the opportunity to go back and coach at the highest level. We appreciate the work that James did here at UL and wish him and his family the best in the future.
“You know you have good people on your staff when other universities hire your coaches to be head coaches and the NFL comes calling for your coaches as well.”
With spring football slated to begin March 3, Hudspeth is aiming to move quickly to fill out the remainder of his defensive staff. In addition to the now vacant defensive coordinator position, the Cajuns are also searching for a defensive line coach.
“I feel like I know what I’m going to do,” Hudspeth said. “I think I’m going to have this all put together no later than middle of next week.”
Willis’ move to the NFL came as a bit of a surprise to Hudspeth, but he saw the writing on the wall last week when Saints coach Sean Payton called seeking permission to speak with Willis.
“At that point I felt it would probably happen,” Hudspeth said. “I knew he would be impressed with him and I knew if they met with him that they would more than likely go in that direction.
“Honestly, when you go to the National Football League you get a step up in your tax bracket, too. I think it was a good opportunity for him.”
In two seasons under Willis, the Cajuns defense allowed 26 and 26.5 points per game. The Cajuns were ranked second in the Sun Belt Conference in scoring defense last season, their best finish in Hudspeth’s tenure.
The Cajuns staff, once a model of consistency, has undergone major upheaval lately.
Before the 2014 season started, Willis was the only coach who wasn’t a member of Hudspeth’s original staff. With Willis now out of the picture, the Cajuns will not have a single defensive assistant that was with the team last season.
In total, five defensive assistants have left in the last four months. Willis and Tim Rebowe (head coach, Nicholls State) left for other jobs, Tim Edwards and Matt Wallerstedt were not retained after 2014, and David Saunders resigned in early November.
This offseason, the Cajuns added Mike Lucas to coach linebackers and Melvin Smith to coach defensive backs. In addition to coaching defensive backs, Smith is also listed as a co-defensive coordinator.
Both will be considered for the open defensive coordinator position.
Hudspeth said he will hire two more defensive coaches regardless of whether Smith or Lucas inherits the defensive coordinator job.
Between them, Lucas and Smith have nearly 60 years of coaching experience at the college level.
“We’ve got an exceptional amount of defensive experience in that room already just with two defensive assistants,” Hudspeth said. “I’d definitely think by the end of the day that our staff will be the strongest staff that we’ve ever had here.”