NEW ORLEANS - The Louisiana-Lafayette football program and first-year coach Mark Hudspeth have a lot in common. Hudspeth was hired to rejuvenate the Ragin’ Cajuns program, and in the process, he has an opportunity to revive his head coaching career.
Hudspeth, who had a successful seven-year run as the head coach at North Alabama, is returning to head coaching after a two-year stint as an assistant at Mississippi State. He’s taking over a program that hasn’t had a winning season in the past five.
Speaking during Day 2 of the Sun Belt Media Days on Tuesday, Hudspeth said he hadn’t figured out why ULL hasn’t had more success.
“I see a great community that really supports the program,” Hudspeth said. “I see a great university with nearly 19,000 students that are very proud of the university - the colors are everywhere. I see great facilities and a hard-working football team. I see we’re located on I-10, one of the hottest recruiting areas of the country. Everything is in place to have a winning program. We’re fixing to put this all together.”
There’s reason to believe Hudspeth is the guy to put it all together. While he was head coach at North Alabama from 2002-08, his teams compiled a record of 66-21, captured two Gulf States Conference championships and made five playoff appearances.
He was passing game coordinator and wide receivers coach at Mississippi State the past two seasons. The Bulldogs finished 8-4 last season and played in the Gator Bowl.
“Any time you become an assistant coach after being a head coach for a while, you learn new ideas,” Hudspeth said. “You see how others do things. Just like players learn, coaches learn and you choose the ideas that work best. You get revitalized with new ideas.
“At Mississippi State the success we had with the team didn’t have as much to do with Xs and Os as it did with player development. When you put players in positions to be successful, I’m a firm believer that good things will happen.”
Hudspeth said he started trying to change the culture and attitude of the Cajuns shortly after he was hired.
“Battles are generally won before they’re fought,” Hudspeth said. “In football, a lot of battles are won by how you work in the spring and early morning work in the summer. The final phase comes in fall camp as we get ready to start the season. We already have changed the mind-set and our players are confident, tough and hungry.”
ULL begins practice Aug. 3 and opens the season Sept. 3 at Oklahoma State.
“The first thing is our expectations are extremely high,” Hudspeth said. “They’re high in the classroom and in study hall. You need to be at every workout, you need to arrive on time and work to your potential every day. Just like there are consequences for not executing on Saturday, there are consequences to everything. Every day, in every drill we make everything a competition. Since January, we’ve been learning how to compete and we’ve developed a very tough mind-set. Our players will come to camp with a chip on their shoulder.”
Hudspeth said he and the team are excited to prove “the naysayers” wrong. ULL was picked to finish eighth among the nine Sun Belt teams in the preseason coaches poll. The Cajuns’ lone representative on the preseason all-conference team was senior tight end Ladarius Green, whose name is on a bunch of watch lists.
“We’re looking to start with a bang,” Green said. “We’ve worked hard in the summer and everybody has gotten better. We’re expecting to have fun this year. The biggest change has been the intensity. I haven’t seen us work this hard in a while. Everybody is focused on the same goals.”
Hudspeth said he knew he was inheriting a special player in Green when he arrived, but his expectations were surpassed during spring practice.
“You know he has incredible hands because it’s easy to see him catch passes,” Hudspeth said. “But the first time we ran the ball I saw him knock a lineman back and it was like, wow, he not only catches the ball, he can help us at line of scrimmage. We’re going to keep him on the field, move him around, find ways to get him the ball.
“He’s smart enough to learn the system well and he’s very humble and a hard worker. What’s impressive is he’d rather be a small part of something big than be a big part of something small. That’s true of the whole team.”