LAFAYETTE - Ask first-year University of Louisiana at Lafayette coach Mark Hudspeth to explain why the program he inherited hasn’t enjoyed much success in three decades, and he admits there is no quick answer.
“I haven’t quite figured that out as to why (ULL) hasn’t gotten over the hump,” says Hudspeth, who was hired in December after serving two years as the Mississippi State wide receivers coach.
In the eight months since coming to Lafayette, Hudspeth said it’s almost enigmatic to him why ULL hasn’t been to a bowl game since 1970.
What makes the answer so perplexing are the aspects about ULL’s football situation that Hudspeth finds favorable.
“Some of the things I’ve seen so far is we have a community (in Lafayette) that supports the university, a student body of 19,000, good facilities, a hard-working football team and we’re located on (Interstate-10), which is one of the hottest football recruiting areas in the country,” Hudspeth says.
Changing the landscape at ULL to the one he created at North Alabama (66-21, in seven years as head coach), is already under way with aggressive offseason workouts and an initial recruiting class Hudspeth says could play a key role this season.
Despite that enthusiasm, the Cajuns begin 2011 humbly.
After last year’s 3-9 finish and the subsequent firing of head coach Rickey Bustle, the Cajuns are picked to finish eighth in the nine-team Sun Belt Conference.
Hudspeth says he understands the tepid perception of his team, but there’s another side to being selected so low.
“Preseason polls are usually based on last year,” Hudspeth says. “Do I like that for motivation? Certainly. I think the players will probably use that to work twice as hard all year to prove that wrong.”
Hudspeth says he has worked his players hard since January, building an atmosphere of competitiveness and individual responsibility.
“I’m a firm believer that battles are won before they begin, and in every drill and workout, we’ve tried to develop the thinking there is a winner and loser for everything,” he says.
Offensively, Hudspeth has a unit that last year ranked seventh among conference teams in scoring offense, eighth in rushing offense and red zone efficiency and third in passing offense.
What gives Hudspeth optimism is the return of 6-foot-6 senior tight end Ladarius Green, a Mackey Award watch list nominee for a second straight year; three quarterbacks; four starting linemen; and a group of young and talented wide receivers.
Hudspeth considers Green a solid NFL prospect. Although he missed three games in 2010 because of injuries, Green finished third in the SBC in receptions and yards (71 for 701, six touchdowns).
The Cajuns plan to use Green in various ways this season, both as an outside receiver and attached to the line of scrimmage, Hudspeth says.
Senior Chris Masson returns for a third year as the projected quarterback starter, but Hudspeth said the Cajuns have other talent at the position in junior Blaine Gautier and senior Brad McGuire, who is also listed as a fullback.
“All three are talented, and the team has confidence in all of them. Some are more athletic than the other guy, some throw better. All three are very dependable and all three can lead the team,” Hudspeth says.
Masson was injured for three games last year but still threw for 1,842 yards and 11 touchdowns. Gautier started several times in Masson’s absence, passing for 550. Gautier was also the team’s second-leading rusher, with 280 yards.
ULL’s rushing attack averaged barely 100 yards per game in 2010, but Hudspeth says he likes sophomore returnee Aaron Spikes (339 yards). The Cajuns also recruited four high school running backs Hudspeth says might contribute and lure the offense into rushing more.
Spikes was also the second-leading receiver (23 for 398 yards).
Outside receivers Andrew Joseph, Javon Lawson, James Butler and Daryl Sturgent had a cumulative 41 receptions last year.
Offensive line starters back are tackles Lenardo Bates, Jarom Odom, guard Kyle Plouhar and center Andre Huval.
“I think we have a good nucleus on the offensive line and I thought we made progress there in the spring,” Hudspeth says.
Defensively, the Cajuns allowed 38 points per game in 2010 - the worst in the SBC - in addition to placing eighth in pass defense. ULL was second in overall rushing defense.
Those numbers haven’t prevented Hudspeth from thinking ULL’s defense, especially the secondary, could be the Cajuns’ strength.
The secondary that includes cornerback Dwight Bentley and safeties Lionel Stokes (3 interceptions) and Le’Marcus Gibson improved as last year’s progressed.
Stokes and Bentley also had a combined 117 tackles.
The defensive line includes seven players (Bernard Smith, Emeka Onyenekwu, Tyrell Gaddies, Derek Dean, Chris Tucker, Jason Anderson and Nate Douglas) who started at times in 2010.
Hudspeth also rates his line backing corps (all starters last year) as a strength.
Outside linebackers Devon Lewis-Buchanan was second in team tackles (63). The other projected returning starters at linebacker are Richard Brooks in the middle and Lance Kelley on the weak side.
After reviewing last season, Hudspeth says the defensive problems came during the second half, when they were heavily outscored.
“That’s where they struggled,” Hudspeth says. “It’s not always the scheme; sometimes it’s the players who are not playing their responsibilities.
“This year we will be better conditioned than anyone else, so that doesn’t happen.”
Place-kicking will belong to senior Brett Baer, who made all seven of his 2010 attempts.
Hudspeth said Baer will also probably punt, something which he does not favor.
“It’s not the ideal situation, but (Baer) came here as a really good punter and worked hard at making himself a really good kicker,” Hudspeth says.