For the third straight season, the UL football program has had to handle rumors about coach Billy Napier heading elsewhere to fill coaching vacancies.
Recent reports have Napier on the top of the Florida Gators’ list to replace recently fired coach Dan Mullen.
As the No. 23-ranked Ragin’ Cajuns prepare for Saturday’s 3 p.m. regular-season finale against UL-Monroe at Cajun Field, Napier had one short reply to questions about his interest in the Florida position.
“No decisions made yet,” he said.
He’s hardly looked like a player whose had doubts about his ability or felt uncomfortable.
Napier said his players and coaches are handling the rumors as well as normal.
“No, we haven’t had any issues with it,” he said. “I think we probably had one of the best practices we’ve had this season (Wednesday). It just comes with the territory. We’ve been around it in the past.
"If you’re doing something … players are getting recognized, coaches are being recognized. Heck, we’ve got a Broyles Award finalist (Patrick Toney), offensive line made Joe Moore semifinalist for the third year in a row, players are getting all-star invites.
“We’ve got lots of great things happening within the program and it just comes with success. It’s a direct reflection of the team’s effort.”
Napier said the early signing period has treated UL’s program well during his tenure in Lafayette, but he said the timing in the middle of December complicates the situation.
“There’s no question the early signing period is affecting the administrations’ decisions,” he said. “It’s happening sooner. Everybody’s trying to get in position for their next move. Obviously, you have a very tight window there at the end to try to patch it up.
“I do think it’s certainly affected college football in a negative way. I wish we all could just play our seasons, do the best job we can do for our team without any distractions, and then move forward.”
As for the 2021 Cajuns, Napier isn’t concerned about a lack of focus.
“This is the time of the year where we should be completely focused on what’s next, and I think we are,” he said.
When Napier shook hands with ULM’s new braintrust during the offseason, no formal introductions were necessary. He’s known coach Terry Bowden and offensive coordinator Rich Rodriguez for a long time.
Napier coached five seasons under Bowden’s brother Tommy at Clemson.
For the past two seasons, it’s almost become a weekly part of the postgame news conference for the UL Ragin’ Cajuns.
“That was in Florida State’s heyday, so I’m very familiar with the Bowden family,” Napier said. “So much respect for not only their success on the field and their ability to sustain programs, but also the level of integrity in which they operate. I think they’ve got a sincere care for people and have gone about it the right way.
“Tommy Bowden gave me an opportunity at a very young age. I wouldn’t be here today without that opportunity.”
Prior to Napier’s arrival at Clemson, Rodriguez called plays for Tommy Bowden at Tulane from 1997-98 and then at Clemson from 1999-00.
Napier later crossed paths with Rodriguez in the Pac-12 with Napier at Arizona State and Rodriguez the head coach at Arizona.
“I’ve got a ton of respect for Rich-Rod,” Napier said. “When you think about his offenses at Clemson and you talk about ... what he was able to accomplish at West Virginia. At Arizona, I thought he overachieved. His team played tough, his units play tough.
“(This year at ULM) they’ve done a nice job of being creative, certainly playing with a combination of different quarterbacks throughout the year.”
Five UL players recently have accepted invitations to attend postseason All-Star games.
Leading the way is junior right tackle Max Mitchell, who is invited to the Senior Bowl on Feb. 5 in Mobile, Alabama.
“It’s crazy,” Mitchell said. “It’s almost surreal to me that I actually was able to accomplish this goal. From being a little kid and seeing guys do it and kind of knowing what it was all about, and seeing my teammates get there … still kind of reaching for that goal and not sure I was going to get there, actually coming to me, definitely a dream come true.”
UL junior safety Percy Butler and senior defensive tackle Tayland Humphrey were invited to attend the East-West Shrine Bowl to be held Feb. 3 in Las Vegas.
Senior linebacker Ferrod Gardner and senior defensive end Chauncey Manac are headed to the NFLPA Collegiate Bowl on Jan. 29 in Pasadena, California.
Two of the three previous matchups against ULM were decided by field goals on the final drive of the game.
If that happens Saturday, it might not be a good sign for the Cajuns. ULM kicker Calum Sutherland has made 15 of 20 tries this season, including 6 of 8 in the 40s and 2 of 4 of 50 or longer.
UL kicker Nate Snyder has nailed 29 of 31 extra points, but missed four of seven field goal tries.
“Overall, the ball’s not in the middle of the field most of the time,” Napier said about the difference between extra points and short field goals. “Most of the field goals you kick are on the hash.
“We have done some changes fundamentally that have helped. We do feel like he’s improved as a kickoff guy. He’s a great kid. He’s working really hard and nobody wants to do it more for his team than him.”