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UL linebacker Joe Dillon (3) putting pressure on opposing quarterbacks may be the No. 1 factor that could lead to a better turnover ratio for the Ragin' Cajuns this fall.

Like most coaches, there's no denying UL coach Billy Napier fully grasps the significance of winning the turnover battle.

Barring outright mismatches, it’s the single most determining factor in deciding the winner of a football game.

The question is, what really does it take to be good at it?

“We put a premium on it,” Napier said during a news conference last week. “So far, I like what I’m seeing. I think it’s something that’s got to become who you are. It’s how you go about your business. It’s how you practice. You talk about it, you take action each day, you quality-control it. It’s a way of life.”

His players have certainly gotten the message.

“It’s going to take working on it during practice,” safety Bralen Trahan said. “Like coach Napier said, ‘Practice makes permanent.’ So if we work on it during practice, we’ll be fine with it during the games. It’s going to come in the game. We’re going to get more turnovers.”

They understand how crucial it is.

“Getting the ball out and forcing turnovers is what’s going to separate our defense from every other defense,” cornerback Kamar Greenhouse said. “It’s working on it in practice, stripping the ball and making an attempt on every play.”

All of those statements are sincere, make total sense and are easy to believe.

But is there really any correlation between preaching it and seeing it actually happen on the field?

In Napier’s first season at the helm, his team did about what the Ragin’ Cajuns always do in this all-important category. Once again, UL struggled its way to a minus-2 in the turnover ratio for the season.

In the past 15 seasons, the Cajuns have never done better than plus-3 in turnovers. (The 9-4 team in 2013 pulled it off and coach Rickey Bustle’s 6-6 club in 2009 did so as well.)

In those 15 years, UL was even once and on the short end nine times with the worst being minus-9 during the 4-8 season in 2015.

Ironically, the last time the Cajuns did better than plus-3 in turnovers was a plus-5 during a 4-8 campaign in 2003.

Understand that just last season in the Sun Belt, four teams did better than plus-3. Georgia Southern was an incredible plus-22, Troy was plus-10, Appalachian State was plus 6 and Arkansas State was plus-4.

Again, none of UL’s past 15 teams were able to pull that feat off.

Dominating the turnover battle makes winning so much easier.

Basically, the Cajuns — much like the New Orleans Saints — typically are forced to do things the hard way.

Something tells me coach Mark Hudspeth’s staff emphasized turnovers, but never with great success, despite four 9-4 seasons.

In 2009, new Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams showed film of mountain lions eating antelope prior to the season. The Saints promptly forced 39 turnovers and won the Super Bowl with a plus-11 for the season.

The very next year, the takeaways dropped to 25 and New Orleans was a minus-6.

So is it about being overly adamant about it in practice? Something tells me more than one UL coaching staff tried that approach over the past 15 years.

Is it really just pure luck? If so, it’s hard to explain why that good fortune never shines on the Cajuns.

What are the realistic chances this year? If Joe Dillon and Chauncey Manac can apply more pressure upfront, then perhaps 2019 can be the year UL ride the turnover margin to a big season … maybe even steal a few memorable victories.

After all, don't forget it was forcing eight turnovers that produced the 29-22 upset of Texas A&M in 1996.

“A big part of it is playing physical,” UL defensive coordinator Ron Roberts said. “You’ve got to take shots at it. That’s the whole lot. Pass-wise you’ve got to put pressure, so you can get some errant throws, so you can catch them. If you’re not putting pressure on the quarterback, it’s hard to get interceptions. If he’s staying in the pocket and throwing the ball on time, he’s not throwing it to you.”

Not since 2013 has a UL defense averaged an interception a game.

“Our players know the value of the ball,” Napier said. “And you know, we attack the ball. We own the ball. One of the things we say is a part of our formula for winning.”

For longtime UL fans, that would be a very welcomed change of pace.


Email Kevin Foote at kfoote@theadvocate.com.