The all-new defensive staff at Louisiana-Lafayette has kept its battle plan a closely guarded secret since before spring drills.
Those who know Melvin Smith know what to expect when the Ragin’ Cajuns put this year’s defense on the field.
“I want to play man defense. ... I really want to play man,” UL-Lafayette’s first-year defensive coordinator said. “That’s what I like, and everybody that knows me knows that. But if we don’t have the pieces to play man coverage, we won’t do that.”
What the Cajuns will do, if the 26-year college coaching veteran has his way, is be in attack mode much more than UL-Lafayette defenses of the not-too-distant past.
“We’re not going to be complicated, and we’re going to be fast,” said Smith, who joined his longtime friend, Cajuns head coach Mark Hudspeth, after two years at Auburn. “We’re going to be simple, we’re going to be smart and we’re going to be physical. I can assure you that.”
Players already saw that attitude during spring drills, and nothing changed Thursday morning when the veterans hit the field for the first time in preseason camp.
“It’s a challenge for us,” said senior outside linebacker T.J. Worthy, who like Smith was in the Southeastern Conference, at Ole Miss, before coming to the Cajuns. “These coaches are a lot more fired up. If you’re doing the wrong thing, they’re not going to let you keep doing the wrong thing or keep letting you play. If you don’t do your job, you’re not going to play.”
That alone says that the next four weeks — and more — will be full of changes for Smith’s co-coordinator Charlie Harbison, linebackers coach Mike Lucas and line coach Levorn Harbin.
All except Lucas — a former Southeastern head coach, who was Northwestern State’s coordinator last year — served two years at Auburn before coming en masse to Acadiana this season. While there, they were part of a program that reached the BCS title game and engineered the second-biggest turnaround in college football history.
“I think we’ll know what we have after we play two or three games,” Smith said. “Who we play from week to week dictates what we need to be and what we can be. The task at hand right now is trying to see what our kids can do, but we have some good pieces.”
Those pieces came together only occasionally last season. Even though UL-Lafayette went 9-4 for the fourth straight year, finished second in the Sun Belt Conference and shut down high-powered Nevada 16-3 in the New Orleans Bowl, the defensive numbers were less than impressive for much of the year.
The Cajuns led the Sun Belt in rush defense, giving up 142.2 yards per game, but ranked 92nd nationally in total defense and were 105th and 106th in pass defense.
“We were solid against the run,” Hudspeth said. “We struggled sometimes in the throwing game. But I couldn’t be more excited about this defensive staff. I think it’s the best top to bottom that we’ve had in five years. They bring a lot of experience, and I’m excited about the direction they’re taking. We’ll be much-improved there. We’ll be tougher; we’ll get more pressure on the quarterback and we’ll be more balanced.”
That emphasis on quarterback pressure has been music to the ears of Buck linebacker Darzil Washington, who had five sacks last season from a defensive end slot. The West St. John graduate dropped 35 pounds in the offseason.
“Pass-rushing is natural to me,” Washington said. “Putting pressure on the quarterback is something I have fun doing and that I love to do. Without that weight, I feel better as a player and I’ve got more movement ... as long as the coaches have me in that position, I think I can make a lot of things happen.”
Washington could rush from a linebacker slot or be in a rush end role. Like many of the Cajuns this season, defensive roles will change regularly, even week to week. Smith said his scheme will be a work in progress but also “player-friendly.”
“One of my teachers told me that one of the worst things you can do as a coach is put your playbook on the field and leave your players on the sideline,” he said. “You identify your best players, and then try to fit them into a scheme that fits them. This defense is going to be about the players, not about the coaches ... we don’t cross the white chalk.”
Smith’s career has spanned stops at five different SEC schools (Ole Miss, Alabama, Texas A&M, Auburn and Mississippi State twice), but this year marks his first as a Division I coordinator. He was a coordinator in his first college job at Delta State in 1990-91. In those two years, he had a safety and part-time quarterback named Mark Hudspeth on his depth chart.
“Before, I’ve always had to worry about what someone else was going to serve, and then hope it tastes good,” Smith said. “Now, coach Hud’s given me the chance to go to the grocery store, get the groceries, and I get the chance to fix the groceries and serve them like I want to.”