It’s right there in the coaching cliché book: Defense wins championships.
Someone ripped those pages out of UL’s football notebooks last year, since the Ragin’ Cajuns won a Sun Belt Conference West Division title with a defense coach Billy Napier admits was operating with smoke and mirrors.
“We’d come off the (practice) field sometimes thinking we were going to be great on offense, and in reality it wasn’t very clean,” the Cajuns' second-year coach said. “This year, the offense has had to make legitimate plays; they’ve got to earn a play now. We’ve had to throw an accurate ball, and guys have had to be in the right spots.
“We’re so much more a cohesive unit on defense in our communication level, our alignments, everything. Our pressure package is much more difficult to prepare for; our front uglies are affecting the quarterback more; we’re covering better. I’m excited with what I’ve seen from a talent standpoint.”
The Cajuns defense was short-handed on talent and depth last year, and it showed more often than UL’s staff would have wanted. The surprise West title was tempered by a 30-19 road loss at Appalachian State in the first Sun Belt championship game — and two weeks later, in Orlando, Florida, the Cajuns were manhandled by Tulane 41-24 in the Cure Bowl to finish 7-7.
The Green Wave scored easy touchdowns on its first three possessions, converted six of seven third downs in the first half and finished with 40½ minutes of possession time in a performance that left a bad taste in the Cajuns’ collective mouths.
“We had kids that were freshmen and redshirts and just weren’t ready to go,” defensive coordinator Ron Roberts said. “Now I really believe we’ve got some alpha dogs that have taken control of those rooms. We took leaps and bounds in spring ball, another jump this summer in getting our depth up, and I don’t think we’ve missed a beat in fall camp.”
“The comfort level has skyrocketed going into Year 2,” said safety Deuce Wallace, one of eight full-time returning defensive starters. “Year 1, we were always learning during the season. Now we’ve done this 14 times; I think I can do this in my sleep, that’s how comfortable it feels.”
Napier, who turned 40 this summer, might not be saying it in as many words, but he’s hoping the UL defense has the type of breakthrough the offensive unit had last season.
“Don’t kid yourself; we’ve got work to do," he said. "If we were ready to play today, they wouldn’t need coaches right now. I’m always living on the edge of my seat this time of year. But the things we need to clean up are the things most football teams need to clean up. I see an awful lot of fundamental improvement.”
UL surpassed expectations last year on the backs of a running game that looked easy at times. The three-headed backfield monster of Trey Ragas, Elijah Mitchell and Raymond Calais teamed for 2,920 yards rushing and made UL the nation’s only team with three running backs ranking in the nation’s top 100 rushers. Ragas rushed for 1,181 yards, Mitchell recorded 16 total touchdowns and Calais had three scoring runs of 60 or more yards.
Those numbers were built behind an all-junior offensive front of tackles Robert Hunt and Rico Robinson, guards Kevin Dotson and Ken Marks and center Cole Prudhomme, each of whom started every game.
All eight of those backs and linemen return, even though Prudhomme underwent ACL surgery in the spring and could be lost for the season. Offensive coordinator Rob Sale also harped on the increased depth at both positions.
“The hard part is that we’ve got four or five guys that can definitely do it in the backfield, and we need to get them on the field and put them in good positions,” Sale said. “Fortunately, they have no egos — they get seven or eight touches and then it’s the next guy up. That keeps tread on the tires. We’re definitely going to play more guys in the offensive line because we have eight or nine that can play, and that’s a good problem to have.”
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Ja’Marcus Bradley (10 touchdowns) and Jarrod “Bam” Jackson provide playmakers at the receiver slots, and the Cajuns are loaded enough at tight end where the position becomes relevant with the maturation of Johnny Lumpkin and the return from injury of Chase Rogers.
That leaves the main offensive question under center — exactly where it was 12 months ago. Senior Andre Nunez stepped up with a solid season (2,272 yards, 20 touchdowns, 63.4 completion percentage) but has since graduated, and 2018 backup Levi Lewis is the heir apparent.
The former Scotlandville standout had flashes of brilliance with seven TD passes and showed his ability to create on the fly while playing in every fourth series last year. However, Cajuns coaches have encouraged the junior to do more with less and not try to always make something out of nothing.
“You do that and it can hurt you a lot of times,” Lewis said. “You want to do that if you’re in a groove, but I know I need to stick to what the coaches have planned. Most of the time they put us in a good situation and we just have to execute.”
Napier added: “He’s always been a good athlete with a lot of arm talent, and he’s always been one of our most respected players. I’ve had the opportunity to observe him for four or five more months now, and just the way he attacked this offseason, he’s progressed so much, processing quicker and that’s helped him make better decisions.”
Lewis will get some pressure from junior college transfer Jai’ave Magalei along with prep signee and early enroller Clifton McDowell, but it should be Lewis taking the snaps. Those snaps will likely come from third-year sophomore Shane Vallot, who saw brief action in three games last year but has surprised Cajuns coaches after stepping in for the injured Prudhomme — who still has a redshirt year available.
Defensively, the Cajuns are solid at linebacker with steady leading tackler Jacques Boudreaux (93 tackles) joining the much-improved Ferrod Gardner and Chauncey Manac.
The most talked-about linebacker, though, is converted end, former Freshman All-American and 2016 Sun Belt Freshman of the Year Joe Dillon, who returns after a year’s absence with major hip surgery. And the junior has something to prove since he’s never made a tackle or fought off a block for the current staff.
“Ever since they got here, and I knew I wasn’t playing, that was my one thought,” Dillon said. “I was going to make sure when I got back, I was going to show them what I’m actually capable of. They’d heard about what I can do, they’ve probably seen it on film, but I want to show them in person, myself.”
Down linemen Zi’Yon Hill and Bennie Higgins both had offseason surgeries but should be ready for the Aug. 31 season opener against Mississippi State in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Wallace heads an experienced secondary that also includes much-improved Terik Miller at safety and converted wideout Michael Jacquet and playmaker Eric Garror at corner.
The biggest improvement on defense may be in numbers, with a lot of newcomers expected to see significant playing time.
“We’ve added some quality guys that can help us immediately,” Roberts said. “We’ve got more depth at a lot of positions, plus the guys we have back are bigger, faster, stronger and their knowledge is better. Last year we maybe had 15 guys that could compete, now we have maybe 30 that are physically ready.”
The Cajun specialists will again be solid. Former All-Sun Belt kicker Stevie Artigue returns after missing 2018 with a torn ACL, following a 29-of-38 field goal mark over the previous two seasons. Napier calls second-year punter Rhys Byrns “a weapon” after the Australian averaged 40.1 yards per punt in his first season. Calais, Garror and the highly anticipated debut of scatback Chris Smith combine to provide big-play possibilities in the return game.
Will it all be enough to improve on the accomplishments of last season, which came as a surprise to most onlookers?
“You have to remember we still have 86 players going into their first or second year on this team,” Napier said. “That’s close to 70 percent. We’re going to play this year with 10 walk-ons that are now on scholarship again, so there are still a lot of unknowns and lots of room for improvement. We’ll be a work in progress and we’ve got a whole laundry list of things we have to improve on, but I like where we are.”
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