LAFAYETTE — New Louisiana-Lafayette defensive coordinator Melvin Smith was at a momentary loss for words when asked for his first impressions of sophomore safety duo Travis Crawford and Tracy Walker.

Smith paused, searching for the best way to say what was on his mind. When he found his words, it was all love.

“I love ’em. Love ’em,” Smith said. “I think they’ve got great futures. I’m looking forward to working with them. If their attitude stays good, their work ethic, they’ll be better.”

Both Crawford and Walker have made huge strides since this time a year ago.

The Cajuns were going into the season with established veteran starters at the safety position. Seniors Trevence Patt and Sean Thomas were coming off solid years and figured to anchor the Cajuns back end.

But things quickly turned south. The Cajuns were gashed in consecutive weeks by Louisiana Tech, Ole Miss, Boise State and Georgia State, causing coach Mark Hudspeth to make a change.

Walker made his first career start against Texas State, and he immediately paid dividends. After giving up 272 yards per game in their first five games, the Cajuns held the Bobcats to just 176.

Walker was a steadying fixture in the Cajuns starting lineup after that, finishing the season with the sixth-most tackles (43) and tied for the team lead in interceptions (two) despite starting just eight games.

As he played more, he became more comfortable in the Cajuns scheme.

“I would say that I’ve learned a lot just by watching. By playing, I continued to learn, too,” Walker said. “In football, you want to continue to learn every day, because that’s the way you get better. The more you learn, the more successful you’ll be.”

Walker, at 6-foot-2 and 180 pounds, fits the prototypical safety mold. Crawford, at a generously listed 5-11 and 180 pounds, does not.

But Crawford made up for his size with a tough disposition that earned him the nickname “Hit Stick” from former defensive coordinator James Willis.

“That’s how I model my game,” Crawford said. “I might not be the biggest, but I’m not afraid of anybody.”

An injury to Sean Thomas, combined perhaps with general ineffectiveness, forced Hudspeth to burn Crawford’s redshirt midway through last season. Crawford responded by further steadying the Cajuns’ back end.

Though he figured he was ticketed for a redshirt season, Crawford made sure he paid attention in practice so he’d be ready in case his number was called.

“Those games that I didn’t play, I was still doing everything they were doing,” Crawford said. “Those games I didn’t play helped me get acclimated, so in my first game I wasn’t too nervous.”

The pair started the final six games of the season next to each other, and that experience developed necessary communication skills as they head into their sophomore seasons.

“With us playing alongside each other for so long created chemistry, and that’s what you need at the safety spot, good chemistry between the free and strong,” Crawford said.

After a solid debut campaign, both are likely going to see more on their plate this season.

Smith is a defensive backs coach by trade, and he’s been adamant that he’s hopeful he can use man coverage in his secondary this season.

A defense’s ability to play man coverage, Smith said, is dependent on all 11 players on the field, not just the defensive backs.

For the safeties in particular, man coverage puts much more stress on them than the zones the Cajuns deployed last year.

“In a Cover 1 scheme, one safety is locked on to a man while the other patrols the deep portion of the field, needing to read the play as it unfolds to move into the proper position.

“In a two-high man scheme, each safety is responsible for the deep half of the field,” he said.

That’s a lot of ground to cover for the Cajuns’ young duo, but Smith said he thinks they’re up for the challenge.

“I’ve got a plan for them to really help us this year,” he said. “They’re two good young players, they’re eager, and they love ball.”