LAFAYETTE — One of the last unsettled starting positions on the Louisiana-Lafayette football team has been like one of those professional wrestling battle royales where five men enter and only one may leave.
Cornerbacks Jevante Watson, Troy McCollum, Jeryl Brazil, Savion Brown and Christian Goodlett have all spent the summer trying to prove to themselves and the coaches watching them that they deserve the starting spot opposite junior Simeon Thomas.
“It’s tough,” said Watson, the only one among them with Division I starting experience. “You’ve got to ball every day, because every day there’s someone right behind you just as good as you.”
But this hasn’t been one of those grudge matches where a participant willingly grabs the metal folding chair someone tosses in the ring. There’s a sense among them that the real opponent hasn’t arrived yet.
“It’s a competition, but we all want each other to do well at the same time,” Brown said. “It’s not like we’re competing against each other, we’re competing to make each other better so when we get on the field nobody will be able to stop any one of us.”
That’s music to coach Mark Hudspeth’s ears, because too often last season it was the Cajuns secondary that wasn’t able to stop the opposition.
The Cajuns allowed 270 or more passing yards in seven of their 13 games last season, a dubious figure that topped the Sun Belt Conference. They finished the season ranked outside the top 100 nationally in yards per game allowed (108th), yards per attempt (T106th), interceptions (T107th) and opponent passer rating (108th).
In addition to the facelift his defensive coaching staff underwent his offseason, Hudspeth aggressively targeted cornerbacks who would be physically ready to challenge returners Watson and McCollum for a job right away. Brazil, Brown and Goodlett were all plucked from the junior college ranks.
Brown said there’s a big difference between junior college and Division I football, but the difference isn’t necessarily what one might expect. The speed of the game hasn’t been hard to adapt to, Brown said, but the demands on him as a player from defensive backs coach and co-defensive coordinator Melvin Smith have been.
“It’s the hardest I’ve ever been coached in my life,” Brown said. “He’s on me every day. He wants me on my ‘Ps’ and ‘Qs’ all the time.”
Brazil certainly hasn’t had difficulty with the speed of the game, either. Hudspeth called the former LSU player “one of the fastest players in college football.” Considering his speed and his pedigree, when he joined the roster this summer, he looked like a safe bet to lock down a starter’s job.
But the challenge for Brazil is he just hasn’t been on a football field much lately. He suffered a season-ending injury in his first game at East Mississippi Community College and some youthful immaturity that got him kicked off the roster at LSU.
Since graduating from Loranger High School in 2013, Brazil has only appeared in two college football games.
But that rust has been, for the most part, shaken off. His legal issues from his tough freshman year are behind him and he was able to gain confidence in his injured knee by running for the Cajuns track team this spring.
“I felt comfortable,” Brazil said. “I feel like track got my mind right and my body right, just to make sure I was able to run to my full potential. Now that I’m back out here it all feels like I’m at home again.”
Goodlett might be on the outside looking in after a minor injury sidelined him for a couple days last week, but Hudspeth isn’t counting him out. Watson and McCollum both look improved after up-and-down seasons a year ago, but both must show an ability to play consistent football.
The five players competing for one starting spot have all been solid during preseason practice, but none has yet stepped up to take the job. This competition could very well spill over into the regular season.
“Sometimes, until you get into a game and see how guys react with live bullets flying around, that’s when you can really tell,” Hudspeth said. “I can see us playing at least four, maybe five corners in the game.
“They’ve all worked hard, they all can run and they all know what to do. We just need to see who can make some plays in game situations.”