LAFAYETTE — An academically ineligible Simeon Thomas had to sit and watch last season as the Cajuns secondary was torched in a handful of games.
This offseason, the 6-foot-3 corner made it a priority from Day 1 to come in and be the guy to help turn things around.
“That was my plan since last season ended,” Thomas said. “I knew we had a talented group of guys coming in, but I made it my business to come in and be ready, and take coaching.”
Consider it a new start for Thomas — and for that matter, the rest of the Cajuns defensive backfield, which — in personnel and likely scheme — will take on a different look for the 2015 season.
Gone are starters Corey Trim and Trevence Patt on the outside, as well as defensive backs coach Tim Rebowe and defensive coordinator James Willis, who both left in the offseason to pursue positions with Nicholls State and the New Orleans Saints, respectively.
But change isn’t necessarily a bad thing, especially when taking a look at the Cajuns pass defense numbers from a year ago.
The Cajuns pass defense finished last in the Sun Belt Conference in passing yards allowed with 3,427, allowing opposing quarterbacks to throw for more than 250 yards in seven of their 13 games.
Turnovers were also scarce for the Cajuns secondary, which only picked off seven passes a year ago, which tied them for 107th nationally.
There were things to build on, though. Freshman safeties Travis Crawford and Tracy Walker played strong in the season’s final month, and the Cajuns limited a solid Nevada passing attack to just 124 yards in their New Orleans Bowl win.
But this offseason, coach Mark Hudspeth made shoring up his secondary a priority.
He started by hiring former Auburn coach Melvin Smith to coach the secondary, which he will still do after rising to the defensive coordinator position after Willis’ departure.
Smith’s secondary at Auburn last year, while giving up some big numbers yardage-wise, finished fifth in the country with 22 interceptions.
Smith has also insinuated that his team won’t be playing many soft coverages this season.
“I don’t like to bend, and I don’t like to break,” Smith said. “I hate space. We’re going to be close. … I’m a man guy, you cut me open and I’m a man guy.”
With his coach in the fold, Hudspeth also targeted big cornerbacks in his recruiting class, and got most of what he was after.
Despite missing out on top prize Treston DeCoud, who spurned the Cajuns to sign with Oregon State, the Cajuns 2015 signing class included four defensive backs, with JUCO transfer Christian Goodlett and freshmen Kamar Greenhouse and Terik Miller standing 5-foot-11 or taller.
They will be added to a mix that includes Jevante Watson and Troy McCollum, who both flashed ability last season when thrown into the mix.
“I like the attitude of our (defensive backs),” Smith said. “They seem to be hungry.”
The Cajuns could also add former LSU athlete Jeryl Brazil to the mix. Brazil signed with the Cajuns as a track athlete, but will be given the opportunity to make the team this fall.
But the centerpiece at this time appears to be Thomas, who has been running with the first team so far this spring and making an impression on his coaches.
“I love Simeon,” Smith said. “Last time I had a corner like him, he won the (Thorpe Award, given to the nation’s top cornerback). He fires me up just looking at him.”
Smith was referring to Johnathan Banks, the 6-foot-2 Tampa Bay Buccaneers corner whom Smith coached at Mississippi State.
Thomas has taken the praise in stride.
“Coach Smith made me grade myself really hard,” Thomas said. “He made me come out here and push it every day. He told me I was something special, so I ran with it. I’m just looking to get better every day.”