LAFAYETTE - The University of Louisiana at Lafayette football team carried the weight of last year’s four home game losses every step of the way during their offseason workouts.
As more than a tepid reminder, each ULL player ran every step of 31,000-seat Cajun Field four times weighted down with 70 pounds of sandbags tied to their backs, emphasizing a team priority in 2011.
“We called them ?protect our house runs,’ ULL linebacker Brandon Nash said Wednesday during the Cajuns’ annual football media day activities held at the university’s on-campus Alumni House.
Nash, who played at Baton Rouge’s Redemptorist High, and center Andre Huval are sophomores who should figure prominently in the Cajuns’ plans this season.
Both said the frequent ascending and descending of their home stadium stairs was devised by first-year ULL coach Mark Hudspeth and implemented by strength coach Rusty Whitt.
Huval, who played at Lafayette’s St. Thomas More, said the runs with weights and portions of the blocking sleds used by the Cajuns’ offensive linemen were designed to build team unity as well as increase conditioning.
“On some days we were broken down into groups of four players. We would push the sled about 400 yards and then disassemble it and have one player carry the sand bags, while the others carried parts of the sled that weighed 45 pounds each around the stadium.
“Then after that, the players would have to figure out how to reassemble the sled. Everyone took turns with the weights and the sleds. It showed us some group problem-solving techniques,” Huval said.
Nash said the players now understand winning ULL’s home games is more than just a slogan.
“It was to remind us that (Cajun Field) is our house and we’ve got to defend it. We didn’t like doing it too much at first, but it was something that had to be done. It’s our home and we can’t lose there,” Nash said.
Hudspeth said he wanted a better-conditioned team that portrayed a tougher identity, with Whitt the perfect guy to unveil the rigorous conditioning plan.
Whitt, a U.S. Army Special Forces veteran deployed to Iraq for six years, brought a military-style intensity to the offseason, with an overall goal of increasing physical toughness, Hudspeth said.
“(Whitt) took a group of guys who were not very strong or physical and made them tough. Through the course of the last several months, he has really molded those guys,” Hudspeth said. “I know that (Whitt) was placed in some very adverse situations, and I think he used those experiences to change our players mentalities.
“At some time, our guys are going to be slapped with adversities. And from what they went through in the offseason, they’ve seen how some of those situations can be resolved,” Hudspeth said.
To help recall what they went though during the offseason, Hudspeth said the Cajuns will use Army camouflage backpacks to store their belongings for road games.
Since the season began, Nash and Huval are learning new systems on opposite sides of the ball.
Nash said the Cajuns are playing more of a 3-4 base defense under Greg Stewart, who last year was the Jacksonville State defensive coordinator.
“It’s an easier system to learn,” said Nash, who will play at either the weak side or in the middle.
“Brandon is smart. He’s right on a play every time. He’s going to get some opportunity to play this season, and we’re expecting a lot from him,” Stewart said.
Huval played center for the first time this spring. Last season he lettered as a freshman, playing right guard on an offensive line that he said performed poorly.
With the position change comes increased responsibilities, Huval said.
“In this offense, a lot of the calls come through the center. Our centers direct the whole offensive line,” Huval said.
Offensive coordinator Jay Johnson said Huval is doing a good job at making the transition.
“He’s an intelligent player who knows football and who can communicate that to the other players. Andre is the guy who has to get all five guys (on the line of scrimmage) on the same page,” Johnson said.
Several players modeled new game uniforms the Cajuns will wear this season.
Hudspeth said the uniform changes give ULL five different game combinations, as the white and red jerseys will be worn above white, red or black pants.
He credited team equipment managers Lyle and Lenny Williams with creating the initial designs for the uniforms. The final design plan was made by representatives of a sports apparel company, Hudspeth said.
A surprise splash
Hudspeth said he planned to treat the players to Wednesday’s off-day with surprises and fun. Hudspeth said Whitt disguised a proposed late afternoon conditioning drill that was actually filled with swimming and eating snow cones.
“The players will report in shorts and T-shirts and (Whitt) will pretend it’s a workout by having them run through the indoor practice facility to Bourgeois Hall. That’s where the team will find they have the pool there to themselves along with a snow cone machine. These guys have had seven grueling days of practices, and it’s time for them to rest,” Hudspeth said.
Hudspeth said the players were also allowed to sleep until 9 a.m. Wednesday.
The media teased Hudspeth on Wednesday about his two favorite phrases so far as ULL’s coach. One is “laser-like intensity” and the other is “bringing the juice.”
Hudspeth said he has a “juice machine” (boom box that plays CDs) going full blast in the locker room and during practices to create more enthusiasm.