Two of his prized commitments flipped at the last minute to Southeastern Conference schools in their home state, but new University of Louisiana at Lafayette football coach Billy Napier was still happy with a Wednesday signing class that came in right on his predicted number.
The Ragin’ Cajuns, who did not sign any players in the NCAA’s new December early signing period after their late coaching changeover, signed 16 players to national letters of intent on Wednesday’s first day of the “traditional” signing period.
“We landed here 52 days ago and started this process,” said Napier, who was hired Dec. 15 to replace the fired Mark Hudspeth. “We zeroed in on our six-hour radius and looked at what’s left out there and evaluated them by position and area. We answered a lot of critical needs for us, but at the same time, some of those that got away, you’d love to have them.”
The ones that got away were the Mississippi duo of defensive back Tylan Knight of Pearl and offensive lineman Kameron Jones of Starkville. Both flipped on earlier commitments to the Cajuns to stay at home and sign with SEC schools, Knight going with Ole Miss and Jones announcing Wednesday afternoon at his high school that he was headed to Mississippi State.
The 5-foot-7, 170-pound Knight posted “Hotty Toddy!” on his Twitter account just before 11:30 a.m. Wednesday. He had given UL-Lafayette a commitment on Jan. 23, after leading Pearl to a 16-0 record and a Mississippi state title. He was the co-MVP in the Mississippi-Alabama All-Star game.
The 6-5, 298 Jones had committed to UL-Lafayette in January, but visited MSU this weekend and reportedly received an offer from the Bulldogs on signing day. He joins cousin Kobe Jones in a Bulldogs program where Hudspeth is now serving as tight ends coach. Jones may not be a qualifier and is expected to blueshirt.
Even after his school announcement Wednesday, Jones still had a Ragin’ Cajuns graphic with “Committed” written across it before that was replaced by video of him donning a Mississippi State helmet.
“I woke up the last two days knowing we were going toe to toe with SEC West teams,” said Napier, a former assistant at Alabama. “I’m used to that, but with a different logo. I hate to say it, but I hope we’re in this situation a lot, going up against that level of school. Recruiting is a season in itself, and it’s competitive. It’s as cut-throat a competition as there is in athletics.”
Napier chose to focus on his 16 signees, which was by design two short of the Cajuns’ 18 available scholarships.
“We’re not done,” he said. “There’s lots of strategies to use the two initials that are left over. My philosophy from the beginning was to keep a couple in our back pocket.”
The 16 include five non-prep signees expected to make an immediate impact. Defensive back and former St. Thomas More standout Kendall Johnson Jr. (Nevada) and Covington defensive lineman Garrald McDowell (Ole Miss) are both graduate transfers, and the Cajuns signed three junior college players: linebackers Chauncey Manac of Garden City and Lorenzo McKaskill of Holmes and tight end Johnny Lumpkin of Hutchinson.
Napier said the total of 11 true prep signees was lower than hoped, but he cited his staff’s short recruiting season and the availability of three junior college players with extended eligibility as reasons for that.
“We want to build our team with high school players,” he said, “but the JC players filled some critical needs for us. All three of those guys have three years left, and that was a big part of that. Lorenzo and Johnny are already here so they’re really three-and-a-half year guys. That’s huge for us.”
Linebackers (five), offensive linemen (three) and defensive backs (three) make up the bulk of UL-Lafayette’s signee class, one that included only two “skill” positions and no quarterbacks.
“One thing we did early was assess our current roster, the makeup, the scholarship situation and the talent level at each position, and where we need to go to fix some things,” Napier said. “Not necessarily a quick fix, but things we need to be competitive next year. We had positions we needed to go and get, and we did that.
“We’ve got six quarterbacks on scholarship, which is more than you’d like to have. But with the needs and what we had, it’s better for us to coach the guys we have there. I certainly think we have quarterbacks that can play winning football here.”
Johnson and McDowell are part of six Louisiana players in the class, joining cornerback Percy Butler and linebacker Andre “A.J.” Riley of Plaquemine, linebacker Jordan Cordova of Kinder and offensive lineman Max Mitchell of Monroe-Neville. Lumpkin and Louisville, Miss., running back Chris Smith, a Mississippi “Mr. Football” selection, were the only skill position signees, and the Cajuns also added their third Australian punter since 2013 in freshman Rhys Burns of Melbourne.