LAFAYETTE — A group that struggled in its season-opening victory will face a bigger challenge this week, but Louisiana-Lafayette football coach Mark Hudspeth said there are many reasons to believe the Ragin’ Cajuns defense will improve.
Several players who were limited or missed the 51-48 win over Southeastern Louisiana are expected to return Saturday when the Cajuns visit Tulsa’s high-flying Golden Hurricane for a 3 p.m. matchup.
“We have to improve defensively, and we did improve,” Hudspeth said Tuesday at his weekly news luncheon. “We got better in the second half. We went back and played more base defense. It was a big game plan thing in the first half, whether or not it didn’t work or guys weren’t fitting it right. ... We came back and did what we had done throughout camp, and we were much more effective.”
It also helped that senior safety Tracy Walker returned following halftime Saturday, with the score tied at 35. Walker was not available in the first half after a targeting penalty in December’s New Orleans Bowl loss to Southern Miss carried over to the opener. In the second half, the Georgia product had nine solo tackles and broke up two passes.
“Our safeties got more involved when Tracy got back out there,” Hudspeth said. “We looked like a different defensive football team in the second half with him out there. It’s all about getting our best personnel back out there.”
UL-Lafayette is expected to have fellow senior safety Travis Crawford (leg) and redshirt freshman linebacker Tanner Holmes (shoulder) back after both were hurt early Saturday. Senior defensive end Jarvis Jeffries (leg) saw limited action, and senior safety Denarius Howard (hamstring) and freshman end Zi’Yon Hill (offseason knee surgery) did not play but have been cleared for Saturday.
Linebacker Justin Middleton, a junior-college transfer who signed just before the start of the fall semester, is also expected to see more action after playing sparingly.
Hudspeth said he’ll be glad to have all hands on deck against a Golden Hurricane squad that ranked fourth nationally in total offense last season. Tulsa also had defensive issues in its opener, falling to then-No. 10 Oklahoma State 59-24, but it ran 98 plays and racked up 432 yards — down from the 527.0 the Golden Hurricane averaged last year.
“You don’t want to get in a track meet with these guys,” Hudspeth said. “But with these guys, you’ll have to score points. They scored 40 points, I think, 10 times last year. They’re going to test your conditioning and try to stress you, and they had a tough opponent to open with, so you know they’re going to want to come back in a big way.”
Given some nagging injuries throughout the roster, newcomers saw extensive action in the opener.
Eighteen players made their Cajuns debut, including four true freshmen: defensive end Andre Jones, running back Elijah Mitchell, tight end Chase Rogers and defensive back Bralen Trahan. Trahan, a product of Acadiana High, had an interception; former Erath standout Mitchell had 56 rushing yards and a touchdown.
“We played two true freshmen defensively most of the night. To be honest, they did a good job,” Hudspeth said. “Considering it was their first game, first day on the job, that’s going to help them down the road, being put in the fire like that.”
Also, junior-college transfer Koa Haynes started at the Rover spot in his college debut in place of Walker.
To nobody's surprise, Cajuns sophomore Raymond Calais was named Sun Belt Conference special teams player of the week Monday.
Calais returned kickoffs 97 and 100 yards for touchdowns, both in the first quarter, against the Lions. He finished with 229 yards on four returns before the Lions sky-kicked to the Cajuns’ “up” returners the rest of the night.
Calais, a product of Cecilia, became the 19th player in Football Bowl Subdivision history to return two kickoffs for touchdowns in a game. His 100-yard return tied Darryl Surgent at Kansas State in 2013 and Jeryl Brazil against Texas State in 2015 for the longest in school history.
Redshirt freshman running back Trey Ragas started and had 61 rushing yards and a 54-yard touchdown before leaving the game in the second quarter with an apparent hand injury. Hudspeth said his status won’t be known until later in the week. … Hudspeth had praise for walk-on Tommy Whitted of Orlando, Florida, who had two tackles and assisted on another despite playing only on kickoff coverage. “That’s just effort alone,” Hudspeth said. “He made two incredible plays, just on sheer determination and effort. I’ve already penciled him for some more playing time somewhere.” … Saturday’s game will be UL-Lafayette’s first with Tulsa since 1992. The Cajuns hold a 5-4 all-time lead, with Tulsa winning the past two games.