Upon learning UL’s opponent for Saturday’s 2:30 p.m. First Responder Bowl in Dallas on ABC, the first thought for many around the Ragin’ Cajuns program was that’s where defensive coordinator Patrick Toney came to Cajun Country from a few years ago.
Unfortunately, we won't really know his feelings about how cool this bowl matchup is for him.
The way college football works these days, assistant coaches are off limits to the media.
Oh, maybe a Zoom call once or twice in a year, but no availability that allows you to dig deep into a coach's psyche.
Throughout the season, however, we’re given glimpses of Toney’s value to UL’s program by those around him. Statements from coach Billy Napier and his players allow us to know Toney a little more than say UTSA’s current defensive coordinator Tyrone Nix or safeties coach Jess Loepp.
One personality trait seems to be aggressiveness.
As if the UL Ragin’ Cajuns didn’t have enough of a chip on their shoulders, the All-Sun Belt team — notably light on Cajuns players — was rele…
Safety Bralen Trahan hinted at it when he said, “We talk about it every week, ‘Get turnovers, get turnovers, you’re going to turn over the game.’”
But linebacker Ferrod Gardner peeled back another layer to that general philosophy by detailing the mindset behind Toney’s heavy emphasis on that goal.
“Coach Toney always preaches to us takeaways,” he said. “It’s not turnovers. They’re called takeaways because we’re taking the ball away. That’s something we work on, on defense.”
Perhaps that’s why Toney opened some eyes early in his career at Sam Houston State when he led helped that Bearkats’ defense force 24 turnovers, including 17 interceptions.
Another part of Toney’s approach is being relentless and always reaching for new heights.
“In the last game, we had three interceptions,” Gardner said earlier this season, “but we didn’t have any forced fumbles. So I’m going to take it upon myself this game to try and get that done.”
Perhaps that’s why the Southeastern Lions’ secondary ranked No. 1 nationally in the FCS in pass efficiency defense, second in interceptions and fifth in red zone defense in 2013-14.
On a different note, Napier revealed earlier this season he can tell how nervous Toney is by how many empty cans of soda are on his desk during long film study sessions.
So aggressive, relentlessness and perhaps a bit obsessive.
Like most coaches, Toney has his unique saying and motivational tactics to get his players to perform.
The UL Ragin’ Cajuns will be heading to the 10th bowl in school history to face Texas-San Antonio in the SERVPRO First Responder Bowl in Dalla…
Junior cornerback Eric Garror revealed earlier this season, Toney is big on “junction points” — isolated situations during the course of a game where one of his defenders is essentially put in a one-on-one situation and must win that battle for the good of the team overall.
“We take that to heart and we do great with that,” Garror said. “We do drills in practice to get better at that and we just go into the game and execute.”
Perhaps that’s why Toney helped UTSA’s Roadrunners reach the first bowl in program’s history in 2016 while his safeties combined for 282 yards, 15.5 stops for losses and 20 pass break-ups.
No catchy slogan, however, works over the long haul without displaying consistent leadership.
Junior Ja’len Johnson gave us a glimpse into Toney’s leadership qualities last month.
“It starts from the safety spot, we’ve got to hold everybody accountable,” Johnson said of Toney’s actual position group. “We’re doing a really good job with that this year.”
Perhaps that’s why the Cajuns defense allowed just 21.8 points a game with 15 interceptions in 10 games.
Linebacker Joe Dillon has been around this program since 2015 and has played under multiple defensive coordinators during that time. He knows what UL has in its 30-year-old first-year coordinator.
“You just have to know Toney,” Dillon said. “He’s one of those guys that you would like to play for. You would want to go out on the frontlines for him, because he would do the same for you. The last DC was like that as well. Toney, he’s more of a relatable type of person in a way.”
Perhaps that's why first-year starter at linebacker Lorenzo McCaskill is one of the nation's leaders with 72 tackles in 10 games.
Perhaps we shouldn’t have been caught off guard so badly.
Under Toney’s leadership, new players on the scene like sophomore cornerback Mekhi Garner have begun to realize their potential.
“I controlled my opportunity,” Garner said of his breakthrough season with 24 tackles, three interceptions and seven pass breakups. “That’s all it was. I’m still trying to get better, though. At the end of the (Appalachian State) game, it wasn’t my best game. I just need to watch film and do what I can do to be better for my team.”
Veteran players have benefited as well. Fifth-year senior Cameron Solomon has shined both as a starter when called upon as well as in a safety rotation.
“I feel like our whole defense can play,” Solomon said. “Even the freshmen we brought in. We’ve got an outstanding defense and offense to be honest. All of us can play, so when one person goes down, it’s really no worries. We know the next man will do his job, because all of us can play.”
From the outside looking in, Toney doesn’t appear to be a guy looking for the easy way out. Perhaps that’s why the defense has maintained focus despite the coronavirus pandemic shutting down operation just one week after Toney was named as UL’s new defensive architect after Ron Roberts left for Baylor.
It’s why the defense bailed out the offense's slow starts for much of the season.
“As a defense, really as a whole team, we uplift each other,” Solomon said. “So like the offense comes out and they don’t get the job they want, we just like to talk to each other and be like, ‘It’s OK. We’re going to come out and do this for y’all. Keep your heads up.’
“We’re going to get a three-and-out and y’all get the ball back and go score.”
So when Toney walks on the field at Gerald J. Ford Stadium on Saturday, there will be members of both programs that know him better than many of us do.
Most of his talking, though, will be done by UL’s defense on the field.