LAFAYETTE — The first year for Louisiana-Lafayette’s all-new defensive coaching staff didn’t go so hot.
The Ragin’ Cajuns yielded 31.8 points per game, their worst mark since 2010, and allowed opposing offenses to average 5.96 yards per play, their worst showing since 2009.
They were susceptible to big plays, many of which came through the air against man-to-man coverage. They tackled poorly, and only three teams in the country forced fewer turnovers.
But coach Mark Hudspeth said he doesn’t necessarily see a problem with his team’s scheme under defensive coordinator Melvin Smith.
“I like what we’re doing defensively,” Hudspeth said. “I thought we made improvements this year considering that we had to play musical chairs with the entire defensive personnel. We’ve got corners playing nickel, safeties playing corner, corners playing safety. I just thought with the hand they were dealt, they did an adequate job of playing pretty solid defense.”
The 2015 defense was never really at full strength to start, and it progressively became a makeshift unit.
The team learned a few weeks before the opener that it would not be able to use Simeon Thomas, who had been penciled in as a starting cornerback, because he was not academically eligible.
Thomas was the first of many Cajuns defensive backs to learn he would miss time. Over the course of 12 games, the Cajuns used nine starting combinations in the secondary, and not a single player went the course of the season starting every game.
Whether through injury or ineffectiveness, what’s even more remarkable is how they got there. Savion Brown (10 starts), Troy McCollum (eight), Travis Crawford (eight) and Tracy Walker (10) had more starts than any other Cajuns defensive backs this season, but they didn’t start together until Week 11.
That, Hudspeth hopes, won’t be an issue next season.
The Cajuns, presumably, finally will have Thomas at their disposal after two straight years lost to academic issues. Brown established himself as a solid player, earning second team All-Sun Belt honors. McCollum led the league in passes broken up with 11. Hudspeth thinks the unit will be a strong part of his defense.
It’s a little less clear at safety. The Cajuns are mulling a position switch for Walker to Sam linebacker — a position the Cajuns used almost interchangeably with the nickel back this season — where they feel his speed and size combination would be more useful.
The Cajuns likely will pursue a couple of junior-college players to plug into the lineup at safety immediately.
At linebacker, the Cajuns have a couple of playmaking holes to fill, including those left by first-team All-SBC player Dominique Tovell and pass-rusher Darzil Washington.
The coaching staff is high on Joe Dillon and Alonzo Brown, both of whom redshirted this season. Dillon is built similarly to Washington and could step in immediately at the Buck position vacated by Washington.
Brown missed most of the year, but Hudspeth said the coaches were thinking he would crack the lineup before the injury.
Also returning are middle linebackers Otha Peters (68 tackles), T.J. Posey (23), Tre’maine Lightfoot (31) and Trey Granier (27). Peters came on strong toward the end of the season, both on the field and as a leader.
The defensive line might be the biggest area of concern, both from a production and personnel standpoint. Much of the rotation is coming back, but nobody was especially effective. Only seven of the Cajuns’ 22 sacks and roughly a quarter of the team’s tackles for loss were turned in by the defensive line.
Recruiting coordinator Reid Stringer said before the season that defensive line was going to be a priority for the 2016 class.
Hudspeth hopes that combining another year in Smith’s scheme with a healthier roster and an infusion of talent at weaker spots will lead to greater success on defense next season.