One of the biggest factors in UL-Lafayette’s four straight 9-4 seasons and bowl game wins from 2011-14 was the consistent play of the offensive front, a unit that had the same five starters every game in three of those four years and led the way to two of the four top offensive seasons in Ragin’ Cajun history.
This year’s Cajun front has begun to show glimpses of similar production, after entering the season as a big question mark on offense.
“Those guys are just on the same page now,” said Cajun coach Billy Napier, whose offense will face a stiff challenge Saturday on the road against a defense-minded Troy team. “They’re communicating well, and I think we’ve done some things as a staff to really help them, to let them play to their strengths and what they do well.”
The Cajuns’ offensive success in recent games is well documented. In late September, UL-Lafayette became the first team to rush for 200 yards against Alabama since the 2014 Sugar Bowl against Ohio State. The Cajuns followed that by rolling up 28 first-half points in a 42-27 road win at Texas State, and then got untracked in a school-record 759-yard outing in beating New Mexico State 66-38.
One week ago, UL-Lafayette had 228 rush yards and 319 pass yards on only 58 offensive plays — an average of over 9.4 yards per play — in a 47-43 win over Arkansas State that gave them a share of the Sun Belt Conference West Division lead.
It’s not by coincidence that the unit of center Cole Prudhomme, guards Ken Marks and Kevin Dotson and tackles Robert Hunt and Rico Robinson have show improvement in that time, Napier said.
“We’ve had consistent play, in particular the center,” Napier said after the A-State game. “Cole’s gotten better, Ken has been a guy who was a question mark but has really been consistent and provided stability, and Rico just played his best game at left tackle.”
The Cajuns knew they were solid on the right side with the 336-pound Hunt and the 303-pound Dotson, whose father Kelcy was a standout Cajun linebacker in 1995-96. The other positions were not set in stone even after UL-Lafayette’s 49-17 opening win over Grambling and the immediately-following open date.
But that all-junior group has impressed Napier and, especially, offensive coordinator Rob Sale and assistant D. J. Looney, who both work with the front wall.
“This is my first year starting, so I had a lot to prove,” said Marks, a two-year backup from Beaumont, Texas. “I think I’m improved technique-wise. Coach Sale puts a big emphasis on technique, so over the spring, over the summer, we all went through that. It’s a lot of little things that we’re doing now.”
All five have started all eight games, and gone is the expectation that the Cajuns would base their offense behind Dotson and preseason all-conference selection Hunt.
“The two on the right side are really good players,” Napier said. “I think they’re all-conference type players and guys that will play football for a while after here. But Ken actually graded the best this past week, and that’s a tribute to him and how hard he’s working.”
“You come off a win and you have momentum,” Marks said. “It boosts your confidence, but you still have to go into the next game thinking it’s an even slate. Nobody’s better, nobody’s worse because of what happened last week. We know Troy’s good defensively, but if we go play like we played against Arkansas State, it’ll be a great game for us.”
Senior wide receiver Keenan Barnes remains sidelined with knee scar-tissue issues. Barnes, UL-Lafayette’s second-leading receiver over the last two years, has missed the past four games and is a candidate to take advantage of the NCAA’s new redshirt rule since he played only in the first four games.
Freshman starting cornerback Eric Garror, who has two of the Cajuns’ four interceptions this year, is also out with a knee injury and flex linebacker Chauncey Manac is still doubtful with a shoulder injury after seeing some action against Arkansas State. Special teams performers Tommy Whitted and Lenard Callaway, both with concussions, are out for Saturday.
The four teams leading the Sun Belt’s two divisions all face each other this weekend. In addition to UL-Lafayette traveling to face East co-leader Troy, West co-leader UL-Monroe (2-2) hosts East co-leader Georgia Southern (4-0). Each Sun Belt team has four regular-season games remaining, and the teams winning each division meet in the inaugural Sun Belt title game Dec. 1 at the home site of the team with the best overall record.
After Saturday’s game, the Cajuns won’t leave the state for the rest of the regular season. UL-Lafayette hosts Georgia State and South Alabama in back-to-back home games before a season-finale trip to ULM. Those three teams are a combined 8-16 overall and 4-8 in league play.
“I look at those standings every week,” Marks said. “The Sun Belt’s just crazy this year. We still have four games left and we can easily drop to the bottom if we don’t come out and play our best game.”
Running back Elijah Mitchell’s 121 receiving yards against A-State last Saturday was the first 100-yard receiving game for a back since another Elijah, current New York Jets regular Elijah McGuire, had 134 receiving yards against Arkansas State in 2015. His career-high 121 yards on a career-high six catches were the third-most for a running back in school history … Due to Sun Belt scheduling, UL-Lafayette and Troy have not squared off since 2015 when the Trojans won 41-14 in Lafayette. Before that, the Cajuns had won four in a row in the series including a 42-23 win in 2014 in their last trip to Troy … The Trojans have won 11 of their last 12 league games and are 18-4 overall in their last 22 games. Their 27 wins over the last three seasons are tied for 10th nationally.