LAFAYETTE — Through UL-Lafayette’s first six games in a new defensive system, the Ragin’ Cajuns have periodically found that when opposing quarterbacks use foot speed to prolong a play, the test they face turns into an open-field exam.
Akron quarterback Thomas Woodson turned scramble situations into a 14-yard rushing touchdown and a 72-yard scoring pass in a 35-14 win over the Cajuns on Sept. 26. Louisiana Tech senior Jeff Driskel had a 19-yard sprint and a 72-yard touchdown pass in a Tech win.
Finally, Arkansas State’s Fredi Knighten escaped the pocket often enough to register 72 yards on 14 carries in a 37-27 win Oct. 20.
Corralling quarterbacks is a challenge the Cajuns can break down into two parts, coach Mark Hudspeth said: tackling in a confined area or tackling in open space.
“Tackling in a confined area can be taught,” Hudspeth said. “Wrapping up and running your feet. Tackling in open space ... that’s recruiting a lot of times. Sometimes, that is your God-given quickness and your ability to change direction. You can’t improve open-space tackling as much as you can improve confined-area tackling.”
In space, players must estimate on the fly and put themselves on the right track to take down an opponent.
“We have to do a better job of taking better angles when we are in the open field and put ourselves in better positions to make open-field tackles,” Hudspeth said. “If you come flying up at a bad angle, a player like Knighten will stick his foot in the ground and cut.”
Sophomore safety Tracy Walker leads the Cajuns (2-4, 1-1 Sun Belt) in total tackles with 48. His formula for open-field tackling can be boiled down to one sentence.
“When I come up on those situations,” he said, “it’s get the guy down and live to the next play.”
That urgency is one aspect of trying to make stops in the secondary.
“When a defensive lineman misses a tackle or misses a gap, you get 5 yards,” Hudspeth said. “When a safety misses his tackle, you get 50 (yards). That is the difference. We are working hard on tackling. That is one of the issues we continue to work on.”
Junior linebacker Otha Peters has seen some benefit from facing senior quarterbacks such as Driskel and Knighten during the season’s first half. Peters is tied with fellow linebacker Dominique Tovell for second on the squad with 27 stops.
“It’s always harder to play against a quarterback that can run well, but that has made us a better defense,” Peters said.
With the ULM Warhawks bringing redshirt freshman quarterback Garrett Smith to Cajun Field on Saturday, the Cajuns hope they won’t see the types of plays made by the likes of Driskel and Knighten.
“We have played against experienced quarterbacks — playing against younger ones — you want to disguise coverages,” Peters said.
Regardless of the packages or formations in place for a specific contest, Walker said the next six games are a big part of the Cajuns’ final grade on defense.
“We caught on fast to the (defensive) scheme and it is to our liking,” Walker said. “This next six determines the team we are.”