Sure, football coaches like talking about their players.
But in the college game, players come and go. Some transfer, and others unfortunately get injured.
What coaches really trust in, however, is the “process” they demand from their players and coaches.
A year ago, rookie UL coach Billy Napier was never fully comfortable in that process.
So far in Year 2, Napier and his fans are beginning to see the dividends.
All signs point toward Liberty coach Hugh Freeze making the trip to Lafayette for Saturday’s 6:30 p.m. non-conference football game with the U…
Last Saturday, it helped UL remain competitive despite numerous obstacles throughout the offensive depth chart, and Napier is hoping it can help produce the first win of the season when his Cajuns take on the Liberty Flames at 6:30 p.m. Saturday in the home opener at Cajun Field.
“It goes back to the process and how we practice,” Napier said.
The most obvious illustration of that point is the tight end position. The Cajuns entered the summer with Johnny Lumpkin and Chase Rogers as the top two tight ends.
Lumpkin is out for the season awaiting shoulder surgery, and Rogers has left the university with another foot injury. What was left on the depth chart at tight end was four unknowns.
Yet somehow that position wasn’t a liability at all during a 38-28 loss to Mississippi State.
“If we don’t two-spot during training camp and execute our plan, those guys aren’t ready to play, but they had a bank of reps that we put in there going back all the way to the offseason program, spring practice, this summer, installs, the OTA’s that we do and the training camp,” Napier said. “Those are some guys that I really have a lot of respect for because they stepped up when their teammates needed them, and it’s going to be fun to watch those guys as their role increases as the season goes.”
In one way, the group — graduate transfer Nick Ralston, true freshman Neal Johnson and walk-ons Hunter Bergeron and Pearse Migl — had no choice but to accept the huge challenge.
The coaching staff was hoping for a better results, but then reality set up.
“We just kind of looked at each other,” Bergeron said, “and were like, ‘We’re all we’ve got right now. This is our tight end room. We need to step up for the team.’ Our position can not be slacking. We’re a vital part to the offense. We’ve got to maintain our blocks and run our routes to precision.”
Of course, purposing to make the correct block as a walk-on against a Southeastern Conference defensive end is one thing; actually executing that block is another.
“Come off the ball, that’s the main thing about it,” Bergeron said. “You can’t give them any little advantage over you when you’re playing those big SEC defensive players. You just have to come off the rock and maintain your blocks and use your technique that you’ve been taught.”
So you can imagine how good it felt when Ralston caught an 11-yard touchdown pass last Saturday.
“It was big,” Bergeron said. “It was nice to see the tight end get the ball in the end zone. We were all pumped for Nick.”
Performing the assigned task last week was an even bigger achievement for Bergeron, considering he was a defensive end when he arrived from St. Thomas More two years ago.
Napier’s staff converted him to tight end last year.
“I thought that was probably the best chance for me to play, so I look at it as a positive,” Bergeron said. “So I was like, ‘I’m going to go over there and do my best and try to get on the field.’ ”
Johnson, meanwhile, is a scholarship tight end signee forced into more playing time, but with higher hopes as a receiver.
“Neal’s a former high school quarterback, played receiver as a junior in high school,” Napier said. “He’s transitioned really well. I’ve been impressed with how easily he picks it up. He can really run. He’s becoming more and more effective as a blocker.”
Napier said his staff isn’t shocked by Bergeron answering the bell.
In many ways, Percy Butler’s freshman season with the UL Ragin’ Cajuns was like a lot of kids who grew up in small towns.
“Then a guy like Hunter Bergeron, we’ve always felt like, ‘You know this guy’s going to play for us one day,’ ” Napier said. “He’s really risen to the occasion. He had a good training camp. Before he had that ankle injury, he was doing really well. He was just in a room where there were some guys in front of him.
“I’m confident in him. We believe in him. He certainly great practices and played well in the game. He was physical, he was tough and played with great effort.”
Making the transition more impressive is the complexity of the tight end position.
“It can be (complicated) a lot at times, trying to remember who you have and all the motions you have in the game and all the different outcomes you can have with different coverages of what you’re running,” Bergeron said. “You just have to study film. That’s one of the biggest things that I try to do to try to have those little advantages over people.”
But keeping the offense afloat to the tune of 27 first downs and 431 yards last week went farther than just solving the tight end puzzle.
The offensive line lost a center in the preseason and then left guard Ken Marks for the season in the second quarter.
Once again, the process delivered.
There were many stages in Troy Wingerter’s life where he could never have imagined filling the role he currently holds for the UL Ragin’ Cajuns.
“We ended up using some of our contingency plans in the game, we always talk about if this guy gets hurt what do we do,” Napier said.
That includes using senior tackle Rico Robinson, moving sophomore Max Mitchell between guard and tackle and leaning on true freshman guard O’Cyrus Torrence.
The receiving corps was also an issue. Senior Jarrod Jackson didn’t play last week with an illness and Calif Gossett went down during the game and is listed as questionable for the Liberty game.
“Championship teams show significant improvement from Week 1 to Week 2; we’ll have an opportunity to do that this week,” Napier said.
While many mistakes were made last week, the one aspect of the 0-1 start definitely not in Napier’s master plan was the five turnovers.
“That was very uncharacteristic of our team,” Napier said. “I think the way we want to play football. Some of those plays are fluke plays that hopefully we won’t ever see again.
“It’s part of our formula. We own the ball, we attack the ball. Our defense did improve in that area and certainly we’ve got to pair that with better discipline on offense and better decision-making on offense.”