LAFAYETTE — Two FBS programs in the country have won nine or more games including a bowl game in each of the past four seasons: Oregon and (surprise) Louisiana-Lafayette.
Only Boise State, Northern Illinois, Cincinnati and Utah State among “group of five” conference members have topped the Ragin’ Cajuns’ 36-win total over what has been the most successful stretch in program history.
“Many wouldn’t have thought this would happen, not four back-to-back like we’ve been doing,” senior linebacker T.J. Worthy said. “But I knew Coach Hud was going to change the program.
“I knew what type of guy he was, that he’d have good coaches around. My faith was in him to get the program better.”
Worthy had followed coach Mark Hudspeth to Cajun country in the spring of 2011, transferring from Ole Miss mostly on that faith. Since then, after one winning season in 15 years, UL-Lafayette has gone 9-4 and claimed a New Orleans Bowl trophy every year.
The Cajuns will also move into their new 100,000-square-foot Athletic Performance Center the same week that they open the 2015 season at Kentucky. That follows on the heels of last year’s Cajun Field expansion to 41,426, the first part of a project that includes a complete stadium renovation in the near future.
“We think we’ve laid a great foundation,” Hudspeth said. “Now, where do we go from there? How do we get better? How do we improve? We think the foundation is there to do even more in the process of being a championship program.”
If UL-Lafayette can continue that success in the coming season, the accomplishment may be even more impressive. Hudspeth and his staff have more holes to fill entering 2015 than in any year since the turnaround 2011 campaign — including the school’s all-time total offense leader, its third-leading career rusher, two defensive linemen who went to NFL camps, both cornerbacks and both specialists.
Only 11 of 24 full-time starters return this season, so it says something about respect that the Sun Belt Conference coaches still picked the Cajuns second in the preseason poll, only two points out of the top spot.
“We ended up on a great note last year, but that has nothing to do with how we do this year,” senior offensive guard and three-year starter Mykhael Quave said. “We’re leaving last year in last year. We don’t have that team anymore. We’re a different team now. Players that we had in spots that are gone; we’re filling in those gaps.”
Some of those gaps remain big question marks heading into the opener, including the search for a starting quarterback. An offense that has rumbled for nearly 22,000 yards in four years will be without experience under center for the first time under Hudspeth, and if he knows whether Brooks Haack, Jalen Nixon or redshirt freshman Jordan Davis will open up in that role, he’s not saying.
“They’ve all tried to prepare like a starting quarterback, and that’s what we expect of them,” Hudspeth said. “Our offense is set up to tailor toward any of those guys. They all fit in what we’re doing offensively. I know we would like to have a decision sooner than later.”
Haack was the backup to graduated Terrance Broadway last year. The junior from Katy, Texas, completed 20 of 23 passes for a couple of scores, and all of that action wasn’t in mop-up duty.
Nixon, a junior and a prep standout at nearby Carencro, spelled Broadway in a memorable 2013 New Orleans Bowl stint.
Davis is the likely No. 3 man, but he turned heads several times in spring drills.
“They all need reps,” Hudspeth said. “They’ve got to make the most of every repetition.”
Whoever lands the job will have the Sun Belt’s biggest security blanket a few steps behind him.
Junior Elijah McGuire is the returning Player of the Year and Offensive Player of the Year in the league after rushing for 1,264 yards and 14 scores and ranking third nationally in yards per carry (7.6). He did that while splitting time and carries with the graduated Alonzo Harris, who amassed 3,330 yards and 44 TDs in his career.
McGuire had 22 plays of more than 20 yards and seven of more than 40 last season, a couple of those coming in a 265-yard, four-TD effort in a nationally televised win over Arkansas State.
“What can you say about him?” Hudspeth said. “He still does things that amaze us.”
“You mess up, and he still makes you look good,” Quave said.
The new quarterback will also enjoy having senior Jamal Robinson back. A leg injury limited the rangy, 6-foot-4 Robinson to four games last year, but he still led the team in scoring catches (four) after a 54-catch, 862-yard junior season in 2013. Robinson received an NCAA hardship waiver to return this year.
The Cajuns have seven of their top eight receivers back but will have to replace three starting linemen, including the tight end.
Roller-coaster performances on defense last season brought about a completely new four-man coaching staff, three of whom — co-coordinators Melvin Smith and Charlie Harbison and line coach Levorn Harbin — were on the national runner-up staff at Auburn two seasons ago. The defensive quartet also includes former Southeastern Louisiana head coach Mike Lucas.
“We’re excited about the direction of our defense,” Hudspeth said. “We’ll be tougher, and we’re going to get more pressure on the quarterback.”
The Cajuns lost twin titans Christian Ringo and Justin Hamilton off the front wall and five of their top six linebackers as well as their two cornerbacks.
They return linebacker Dominique Tovell, the team’s second-leading tackler (71) last year, and Worthy joins last year’s freshman starters Tracy Walker and Travis Crawford in what should be an improved secondary.
Two first-time kickers will take the field Sept. 5 at Kentucky, with Australian Steven Coutts replacing countryman Daniel Cadona at punter and freshmen Dylan Scheurich and Lafayette High product Stevie Artigue handling place-kicking duties.
Hudspeth compared this year’s retooling task to his first year in 2011, when one magazine ranked the Cajuns 120th out of 120 FBS teams.
“Expectations are different,” he said. “We didn’t handle the expectations very well last year, but I think we’ve got a little bit of a chip on our shoulder this year. That’s added a different element to our offseason and our preparation.
“It’s good to have that chip, that little bit of edge back.”