For the first time since the start of fall practice, Louisiana-Lafayette football coach Hark Hudspeth spoke at length publicly Monday about the program’s lingering NCAA sanctions.
Mostly, Hudspeth expressed relief during his weekly news conference that the sanctions involving former assistant coach David Saunders, which had hovered over the program for four years were coming to an end. The penalty period for contact and scholarship reductions, probation and limits on midyear signees and early admissions ends Friday.
“All the NCAA penalties are finally over, so that won’t be a hindrance like it has been for the last three years,” Hudspeth said. “Now we get all our scholarships back, all our initials back, we’ll be able to sign midyear for the first time in three years. It’s been tough sledding. These were the things we were handed, and that’s what we had to live with.”
The Cajuns travel to face Sun Belt Conference foe Appalachian State at 1:30 p.m. Saturday in a regular-season finale that carries significance for both. But the last half of Monday’s media briefing was aimed more at the long-range future of the program than Saturday’s task at hand — one that Hudspeth admits is a tall one.
“When the NCAA penalizes you, they don’t do it to make your program go from nine wins to 12 wins,” Hudspeth said. “There’s a reason. They try to put you in your place, put you in a corner for a few years. Now they’re finally going to let us out of the corner, and so now we can get back to the level we established our first four years here.”
The Cajuns were hit with Level I violations two years ago, but at the lowest level within NCAA penalty structures, after self-imposing the vacating of the 2011 season, reducing recruiting activities for two years and scholarships over three seasons. The NCAA added vacating some games from the 2012-14 seasons when ineligible student-athletes competed, a fine and an additional year of recruiting restrictions.
Saunders, who was also an assistant at Ole Miss and at the center of NCAA investigations there, was hit with more severe penalties and is out of collegiate coaching.
“That’s part of the reason I’m so proud of these guys,” Hudspeth said of this year’s team. “They’ve had to navigate through some tough waters and they’ve done it and held their head high. We dug ourselves out of the hole and got back to 5-5, we’re still 4-3 in the conference and we have a chance to still get bowl eligible against a very good team on the road.”
UL-Lafayette (5-6) put itself in a must-win situation this Saturday with last weekend’s 34-24 home loss to Georgia Southern. The Cajuns need a win in Saturday’s game to reach the six-win benchmark for bowl participation and likely claim either the Sun Belt’s fifth bowl tie-in or an at-large spot.
Appalachian State (7-4, 6-1) is already bowl-bound, and the Mountaineers will be gunning for a Sun Belt title. Troy and Arkansas State, both 6-1, meet in Jonesboro, Arkansas on Saturday in a de facto title game (the Sun Belt’s championship game begins next year), but Appalachian State would share the crown with a victory.
Appalachian State was a heavy favorite to win this year’s league title, but a league loss at UL-Monroe and non-conference losses to Wake Forest and struggling UMass put a damper on a season in which may expected the Mountaineers to make a run at the “group of five” conference’s New Year’s Day bowl spot.
Hudspeth said that his staff would evaluate the quarterback position and hoped to make a decision on a starter before resumption of practice Tuesday. True freshman Levi Lewis was ineffective in Saturday’s first three series and was replaced by Jordan Davis, the starter entering the season.
Davis threw for 225 yards and two touchdowns in the final three quarters but was picked off twice, the last one spoiling the Cajuns’ final drive.
“Give Jordan credit, I thought he did some really nice things, came in and played well, so we have to make that decision this week,” Hudspeth said.
“More or less, it’ll be who we think will give us the best chance to win the game and move the football, because they (Appalachian State) are really good defensively.”
The three starters who missed the Georgia Southern game and two others who left that game early are all expected to be available for Saturday.
Hudspeth said wide receivers Keenan Barnes (knee) and Michael Jacquet (ankle) and linebacker T. J. Posey (shoulder) have been cleared to return. Free safety Corey Turner and linebacker Justin Middleton should also be at full speed for the regular-season finale.
“Getting two of our top receivers back will be a big plus,” he said. “We’ll have both Posey and Middleton back, and that will definitely help. Anytime you lose a couple of guys like that on defense it hurts.”
Hudspeth said the difficulty of his team’s task Saturday isn’t limited to on the field.
“There’s not an easy way to even get to AppState,” he said. “It’s not only the flight, but you’ve got a pretty tough bus ride, you have to stay about an hour from campus. That makes it a pretty challenging trip.”
Weather could also be a factor. Temperatures will hit the freezing mark Friday night, and there is a chance of snow flurries overnight before Saturday’s game.