LAFAYETTE — Louisiana-Lafayette coach Mark Hudspeth could tell early he found himself a player in true freshman defensive back Travis Crawford.
Crawford impressed during the Cajuns’ fall camp, drawing praise from Hudspeth at several points. But he wasn’t quite ready for the lights yet.
“He was young, hadn’t gotten a lot of live reps,” Hudspeth said. “The more reps he got with the ones and the twos, the better he got. He just showed that he could do it.”
Notice how the tone changed toward the end of that quote. Crawford’s time has arrived.
With a little less than half the season remaining, Crawford has supplanted senior Sean Thomas as the starter at free safety. Hudspeth said the decision to start Crawford was based on performance, not injury.
The move comes just weeks after Crawford, a New Orleans native who prepped at Holy Cross, saw his first collegiate action against Georgia State.
“He’s really progressed well the last couple of weeks,” Hudspeth said. “We’re pretty excited about him.”
Like several players in the Cajuns defensive backfield, the 5-foot-11, 185-pound Crawford doesn’t have prototypical safety size. Hudspeth acknowledged that he’s not the biggest player, but said Crawford is big enough.
While Crawford may lack in size, one wouldn’t know it from the way he tackles.
Crawford’s ability to deliver a big hit led to an interesting nickname from his teammates — or, rather, it’s led to one of his two interesting nicknames.
“They call him hit stick,” Hudspeth said. “That’s his nickname. Well, he’s got two. They call him biscuit and hit stick.”
“Hit stick” is a reference to the “Madden” series of NFL video games, in which a player can toggle one of the joysticks on the controller to direct the player they’re controlling to go for a monster hit on a ball carrier.
“This is a kid that can really run and will strike you — he’s one of the biggest hitters on the team,” Hudspeth said.
With senior Trevence Patt working his way back from an ankle injury that’s kept him out of the lineup for two straight weeks, the Cajuns will likely start a pair of inexperienced players at safety in Crawford and redshirt freshman Tracy Walker.
“Right now, unless something changes in the next three days, both Walker and Crawford are going to start,” Hudspeth said.
It’s a shift in the way the Cajuns have normally operated. For now, they’re going with athleticism over experience — especially since both of their experienced safeties are dealing with nagging injuries.
“That’s a lot of youth, but a lot of athletic ability,” Hudspeth said. “A lot of speed back there and two healthy bodies. They both have demonstrated the ability to make plays, especially Tracy. We like the way they’ve been playing, they’ve earned the opportunity.
“Not saying that Sean or Patt won’t play — they could play early in the rotation. But as of (Wednesday’s) practice, that’s where we’re at.”
Walker has totaled five tackles in each of the past two weeks while starting in place of the injured Patt, and he made what might’ve been a game-saving tackle on fourth down late in the Cajuns 34-31 win against Georgia State.
The 5-foot-10, 170-pound Thomas, a fellow New Orleanian who played at St. Augustine, had started 19 of the past 20 games for the Cajuns before losing his spot to Crawford.
Thomas has one of the Cajuns’ three interceptions this season, and his 35 tackles rank third on the team.
Crawford is one of four true freshmen to earn consistent playing time this season, joining receiver Gabe Fuselier, linebacker T.J. Posey and defensive lineman Taboris Lee.
But where those three have seen their playing time and impact wane as the season has gone on, Crawford has worked his way into the rotation. He made six tackles in his collegiate debut against Georgia State, and has proven himself capable to Hudspeth over the past several weeks.
“He is very physical, and boy, he’s really into the game,” Hudspeth said. “A very smart kid. He’s going to be a heck of a player for us for quite a while.”