LAFAYETTE — Coach Mark Hudspeth was watching intently as the Louisiana-Lafayette football team ended its April 7 practice with a drill the team had yet to perform during sessions open to the media.
It was a one-on-one drill. Hudspeth laid out the scenario: the clock is running out, the team needs a touchdown to win. The instructions were simple: Receivers, beat your man. Cornerbacks, don’t get beat.
The entire team was lined up on the sideline, hooting and hollering and ramping up the pressure. That’s what Hudspeth wanted.
What Hudspeth didn’t let the participants in on was the purpose behind running the drill: He was looking for a playmaker, someone who could take over a game in crucial situations. The Cajuns had that guy last year in Jamal Robinson.
This year? It’s still up in the air. The drill ended decidedly in the favor of the defensive backs. The Cajuns are still looking for that playmaker.
“We’re just trying to put those receivers in positions to see who can make a play at the end of the game, the last play, who can go up and win the 50/50 ball,” Hudspeth said after the April 7 practice. “We saw a couple of them do some nice things, but still, we’re waiting on that one guy who develops into a go-to guy.
“Right now, we’re still looking for him.”
Redshirt freshman Ja’Marcus Bradley was one of the young receivers who couldn’t shake his man in that drill. He’s still learning the finer points of playing receiver after being recruited as an athlete.
One thing he is intimately familiar with though? Making plays.
Bradley was virtually unstoppable as a run-first quarterback at Choctaw County High School in Mississippi. He rushed for 2,606 yards and 47 touchdowns in his senior season and added 1,437 yards passing and nine scores for good measure.
He ran for at least 200 yards in every game of his senior season, including a performance in a 76-48 win (that’s a football score) his senior year that is starting to take on some mythical aspects. Reports immediately after that game against Union High said he ran for more than 300 yards with seven touchdowns. Somehow in between he’s been credited with an extra 200 yards and three touchdowns.
Either way, he came to the Cajuns with an impressive playmaking résumé. Now he intends to carry it over to this level.
“Jamal being gone; that’s a big spot to replace,” Bradley said. “He was a great player. … I’ve just got to work harder and come in and make a bigger impact than he did. For me, I don’t try to be like other people. I try to be better than the greats, and to me he was a great.”
Hard work has played a large part in getting Bradley to the point where he could even be considered being a part of the group aiming to replace Robinson.
When he first arrived on campus, the Cajuns were looking at him as a defensive back, but Bradley quickly asked to be switched to receiver.
“I didn’t like it,” Bradley said. “I like the ball in my hands. I like to make plays.”
The only problem was that he hadn’t played wide receiver since his sophomore year of high school. He had to learn how to play the position at the Division I level, requiring him to redshirt last season.
Bradley said that year off was important for him, because the transition to playing receiver wasn’t easy. He had to put in some hours.
“On the college level, you’ve got to have a lot of twitch, and I didn’t have it,” Bradley said. “That year off, I just worked and worked, and I feel good now.”
The Cajuns saw this coming, of course. In the week of practice leading up to the 2015 season finale, knowing that his team would not be playing in the postseason, Hudspeth cut the older players early for a couple practices to get the scout team some extra attention.
In one of those practices, while Hudspeth was giving a post-practice interview, Bradley made a fantastic over-the-shoulder catch down the sideline. Hudspeth said then that he thought the Cajuns had found something special in Bradley.
“He’s made a great transition (to wide receiver),” Hudspeth said after a recent practice. “The kid is an incredible athlete. He’s got big hands. He’s got one of the best work ethics on the team.”
It’s certainly no lock that Bradley will play a significant role this season. Receiver is one of the deepest positions on the Cajuns roster, at least in theory. Including Bradley, there are at least seven players who are expected to get significant playing time at the outside receiver position this fall.
Bradley’s planned path to getting the ball in his hands this season is to work harder than anybody else on the team in the course of the summer.
Then, the next time he finds himself in a one-on-one situation? Beat his man.
“All of us can be that guy,” Bradley said. “We’ve just got to have that play to separate who’s going to be that man.”