LAFAYETTE — Senior linebacker Dominique Tovell couldn’t wipe the smile off his face.
His face was lit up the entire time he discussed the Louisiana-Lafayette linebacker group, and why not? Like coach Mark Hudspeth, Tovell is entering his fifth year with the Cajuns football program, and this current crop of linebackers offers plenty to smile about — maybe more than any group he’s been a part of before.
The group includes Tovell, an all-Sun Belt Conference pick each of the past two years, Otha Peters, an Arkansas transfer who made the Southeastern Conference all-freshman team a year ago, and promising players Tre’Maine Lightfoot and Darzil Washington, both of whom closed last season on a strong note.
“It’s been really exciting, everybody brings something different to the table,” Tovell said. “It’s not one guy who’s going to shine the brightest every day. Everybody’s pushing each other every single day.
“I might come out and make four plays and that energizes Otha, Otha comes out and makes the next five plays, Lightfoot goes out and makes plays.”
The linebacker group, as a whole, has consistently been the target of Hudspeth’s praise throughout preseason practice.
What’s stood out to Hudspeth has been the combination of a physical, punishing style with the athleticism to cover ground quickly.
“Those guys can run and hit,” Hudspeth said.
At the center of it all is Lightfoot, a 230-pound Patterson native who didn’t make his first career start until November of last season.
Lightfoot was inactive for the first six games of the season while serving a suspension for violation of team rules, but he started the final six games and played well with 27 tackles in those final six games.
“He is just a guy who has a knack for the ball,” Hudspeth said. “He’s a natural football player and he’s very instinctive. He’s got a keen sense for the game and can make the calls easy.”
This year has been an entirely different experience for Lightfoot, who said the added experience of being around the team for an entire offseason has made him more comfortable on the field.
That comfort level is necessary in Lightfoot’s trade as the Mike linebacker, who is responsible for relaying the calls to the rest of the defense.
Lightfoot made calls last season, and he welcomes the responsibility.
“It’s easy man, that isn’t a problem,” Lightfoot said. “I enjoy making calls. I enjoy being a leader of the defense and letting everybody know that I’ve got their back when it comes time to play.”
Peters might be the most anticipated arrival on the defensive side of the ball. The Covington native played well in his debut season at Arkansas, playing his way into the starting lineup for the final three games of the 2012 season.
But he lost his job in 2013 after breaking his arm, and spent last season on the Cajuns practice squad after transferring in August last year. That’s where he proved to Hudspeth that he could be a difference-maker.
“We couldn’t block him,” Hudspeth said.
But it’s not just the top four that has the Cajuns smiling. The guys behind them have played well, too.
T.J. Posey played often as a true freshman and has improved going into his sophomore year, as have Tyren Alexander and Trey Granier. This isn’t even mentioning Kevin Fouquier, who may split reps with Washington at the Cajuns’ Buck linebacker spot.
“In general, playing any type of football, you don’t have that much depth with guys that can rotate and play at that same level,” Tovell said. “Just to have those guys behind us, with everybody rotating and keeping fresh, it’s a really unique thing and I think we’ve got a good thing going right now.”
Deep and talented. It’s a luxury the Cajuns’ linebackers are enjoying currently, even as the team goes through two-a-day practices in the Louisiana heat.
“It’s a good time,” said a still smiling Tovell. “Everybody shows positive energy, everybody is always laughing and smiling and trying to make plays, and that’s what football is all about.”