The college football world is spilling over with intriguing stories each and every season, but none more compelling than the 2012 ULL Ragin' Cajuns.
Are they on the verge of becoming the next Boise State? Lofty expectations may be emerging in Lafayette, but the programs possess many similarities including stadiums, fan support and location. The Cajuns, some feel, have a head coach that resembles Boise State's Chris Peterson.
Under first year coach Mark Hudspeth, the Ragin' Cajuns made their only bowl appearance in the last 41 seasons and had not tasted postseason success since 1941. After a surprising 9-4 finish last fall following a 3-9 in '10, the Cajuns enjoyed an exhilarating 32-30 last second win over San Diego State in the R&L Carriers New Orleans Bowl. Now the program seems poised to make major strides on the college football map.
"We're now the hunted; we're on everybody's radar. That's where we want to be," explained Hudspeth.
Hudspeth learned how to make a silk purse out of a sow's ear frowing up in the small town of Louisville, Miss. (population 6,000). He also learned the nuances of playing and coaching the game at Class A Western Academy under the tutelage of head coach Bud Turner, a member of the Mississippi Hall of Fame, and assistant coach Robert Haring, a Georgia Hall of Fame member.
"We had a senior class of 25," the ULL head man chuckled. "My junior season I was backup to starting QB Andy Kennedy (currently head basketball coach at Ole Miss). There was a lot of tradition there."
Hudspeth admits that he was also heavily influenced by a pair of coaches with high gridiron IQ's, Steve Campbell from Gulf Coast Community College and Clifton Ealey of Central Arkansas.
The good news for the ULL faithful is that their football team is coming off a remarkable season in 2011, the better news is they return nine starters on a high octane offense. The men upfront has the coach's total confidence. "The offensive line improved a lot during spring," he analyzed. "We have four returning that played together for 13 games."
The bookend OT's are a couple of seniors, Leonardo Bates (6'5-296 from LW Higgins High) and Jason Odom (6'7-330). After an experiment with Bates moving to left guard during spring drills, he returned to left tackle. The newcomer of the bunch may have the most promising future, freshman LG Mykhael Quave (6'5-300 from Gautier, Miss.) flashes the potential to be able to play on Sundays. 6'3-324 soph. Daniel Mykhael's brother Daniel Quave (6'3-324) mans the right guard spot with veteran Andre Huval (St. Thomas More High of Lafayette) already on some preseason Rimington watch lists, the staple of consistency at center.
The best player in the Sun Belt happens to be the field general. Senior QB Blaine Gauthier (6'0-212 Lutcher H.S. twice All State) threw for 2,958 yards, completing 62.8 percent of this throws with 23 touchdowns and only six interceptions. He finished with a 153.6 QB rating. His skills exceed his on the field statistics.
"Blaine has total command of the offense," Hudspeth beamed. "He's got a knack with the deep ball with good touch. He led the conference in passing efficiency. He looks to throw first. I would like to see him run more."
Gauthier was the team's second-leading ground gainer with 486 yards (4.1 yard average) and three touchdowns.
"He makes great decisions. He knows when to hold' em and when to fold' em. Just move the chains. Nothing wrong with 2nd down," Hudspeth said of his top signal-caller.
The lefty displayed game changing talent with 355 yards and four scoring tosses touchdowns in a 36-35 win over ULM, a 329-yard performance with two touchdowns in a 37-34 victory over Florida Atlantic and a record 470 yards with three touchdowns in the New Orleans Bowl.
Behind Gauthier is another Louisiana product from Baton Rouge, Terrance Broadway, a transfer from the University of Houston, where he saw time as a true freshman (four games) in 2010.
"Terrance Broadway is the future of the program," noted Hudspeth. "I want to get him playing time. He really throws the ball; he's a leader."
Broadway was the fifth-ranked dual threat quarterback in the nation in the 2010 recruiting class.
The stable of footsoldiers for the Cajuns gives the offense a dimension of balance, led by soph. Alonzo Harris the team's leading rusher with 700 yards (4.3 yard average) and eight scores. He was selected the 2011 Sun Belt Conference freshman of the year. The Gadsden, Alabama native had 10 or less carries in five games in 2011, yet responded with 33 totes for 189 yards and a pair of scores against Middle Tennessee on Oct. 29.
"He was learning to be an everydown back," the coach continued. " The more experience he gets, the more that he will be the go to guy. He will develop. He's like an Eddie George type, good speed, effective pass protector; he can break arm tackles."
In the bullpen behind Harris are a collage of talent including speedster Montrel Carter (5'11-180) from Cecilia, La. capable of lining up in the backfield or in the slot. Former John Curtis standout RB Torrey Pierce (5'9-180) and Effrem Reed from Dutchtown (5'8, 180), who missed spring with a shoulder problem, also join the fray.
The receiving corps return six of their top seven targets from 2011, representing 183 catches and 2665 yards.
The leading threat is 6'1-185 senior, Javone Lawson ( Helen Cox H.S. Led the metro area in '08 with 71 grabs and 19 TD's), who became the 3rd player in school history with 1,000 yards receiving for a season. Lawson had 63-1092 yards and 8 touchdowns. " Lawson is one of the best receivers in the Sun Belt Conference. He made a name for himself with dynamic hands. He will catch anything." Lawson recorded five 100 yard games, including 193 yard, 9 catch exhibition against San Diego State.
Senior Harry Peoples returns with 58 grabs and 697 yards from 2011. He has been Gauthier's safety valve. "Peoples makes a lot of catches in traffic. He catches the tough ball. He's a big playmaker. Blaine has confidence in him," noted Hudspeth.
Peoples had a 12 catch, 176 yard effort against Florida Atlantic and snared 10 balls versus Western Kentucky.
Junior WR Darryl Sturgent (6'0-195) with 1,641 all purpose yards presents the element of speed as a downfield threat and return specialist. "(Sturgent) is very fast. He can turn the corner," said Hudspeth. He demonstrated great athleticism with an exciting one-handed beauty in the R&L Carriers New Orleans Bowl.
Tulane transfer Devin Figaro (6'0-195, 4.45) is now eligible in the receiver mix after sitting out last season.
The toughest player on offense to replace is Ladarius Green, one of the top receiving tight ends in the country. He was the fourth round pick of the San Diego Chargers in the 2012 NFL draft.
Green's spot will be manned by three capable replacements, Ian Thompson (6'4-234, Jr.), Jacob Maxwell (6'4-230, Jr.) and Larry Pettis (6'5-250, freshman). "They all possess good ball skills and are better (than Green) at the point of attack in the run game," Hudspeth pointed out.
The kicking chores is in capable hands with senior Brett Baer, a senior from Branden, Miss. who displayed ice water in his veins in the bowl game with a 50-yarder to win at the buzzer. "He's a weapon. He's a real hard worker. He's an NFL prospect as both a punter and place-kicker. We had three successful on side kicks last season," said the Cajuns coach.
The defense categorized as one that bends but not break will be more formidable. The unit received an influx of talent, many originating from major college football powers.
Delvin Jones (6'5-230, 4.6) arrives from Coffeyville Community College with two years of eligibilty remaining. He originally signed with Ole Miss out of high school as the 32nd ranked DE in the 2010 class. He rejected offers from USC, LSU, Tennessee, Oregon, Florida, Florida State and Alabama. He once ran a 10.7 hundred meters.
Defensive lineman Jalen Fields (6'5-280) also has two seasons remaining after a stint at Georgia Military College. He originally signed with the Georgia Bulldogs. ULL beat out a host of top flight suitors for his services.
The defense will have to replace seven starters from last year's group, but Hudspeth feels like the cupboard is far from bare.
"We think the defensive front is the strength of the defense. linebacker Justin Anderson (a 6'3-240 senior) surprised in the spring. He was thrown into the mix in the bowl and did well, but during spring a light switch went off," explained Hudspeth.
He'll battle for the MLB spot along with sophomore Jake Molbert (6'1-225 from Notre Dame of Crowley).
DE Emeka Onyenekwu, a native of New Orleans, and Cordian Hagans, a 6-foot-5, 310 pound senior LSU transfer solidify the front. Hagans was a 2008 signee from Duluth, Ga. that spurned offers from Auburn, Indiana, Michigan State, Mississipppi State, North Carolina and South Carolina. He was an offensive tackle during his time with the Tigers.
The 'Bandit' position is currently held by Dominique Tovell (6'3-240, freshman) while the 'rover' is Lemarcus Gibson (6'0-205, senior). Both bring a combination of athleticism and experience to the outside linebacking spots.
Former running Qyendarius Griffin (5'11-223 sophomore) moves over to lend a little more physicality to the MLB spot as a backup. Griffin was Mr. Football in Mississippi's Class 6A in 2010 as a star with the top ranked in the country, Panola High.
The secondary could be the feature spot for this year's defense. Despite the loss of super talent cornerback Dwight Bentley who was selected in the third round of the 2012 NFL draft by the Detroit Lions, the Cajuns might match last fall's productivity.
Melvin White (6'3-190) is the marquee name. The senior had 64 tackles, 8.5 tackles for loss and broke up nine passes last year. He already ranks high on NFL draft boards for the '13 draft.
Jemarious Moten returns as last season's leading tackler with 80 stops, 10 pass break-ups and three interceptions. He flashes the skills to play either corner or safety.
The one player that has garnered the most attention from the coaching staff is strong safety Darius Barksdale (6'0-190) a one-time four-star RB signee with Ole Miss before moving onto play at Jacksonville State.
Barksdale was Mr. Football in Mississippi in all classes in 2007. The junior transferred to ULL in January.
"He is a headhunter," declared Hudspeth about Barksdale. "He has great football savvy. You can hear his tackles. He's tough mentally."
The free safety spot belongs to senior Rodney Gillis (5'11-185).
The team boasts the obvious talent required to be successful and the fans respond with unwavering support. In fact, the Ragin' Cajuns led the nation in 2011 with the biggest spike in attendance, averaging 11,788 more fans per game than the previous season. An impressive 29,171 fans per game went through the turnstiles in '11.
Hudspeth and his staff concentrate their recruiting efforts in Louisiana. The 2012 recruiting class was the second most plentiful players from the Pelican state, ranked slightly behind LSU.
Hudspeth was linked to openings at Tulane, Southern Miss and Ole Miss following the success in his initial campaign in Lafayette. He sent out a message loud and clear by signing a five-year extension representing $850,000 per year that made him the second highest paid head coach in the Sun Belt behind Arkansas State's Gus Malzahn. He embraces the state and the Ragin' Cajun family. "By staying, I'm committed. I want to finish what we've started. This is a great community," stated Hudspeth.
Every ULL player is aware of the high expectations held by their head coach. "Our goal every year is to go to a bowl," he said. "We also want to win a bowl, win the Sun Belt and finish in the top 25. Last season we won every home game, going 6-0. We considered the New Orleans Bowl a home game."
The administration knows if you build it, they will come applies to recruiting success. "We still have a lot of work to do. We soon will unveil plans on the facility. We will be competitive with anybody in the nation. There is a lot on the horizon," Hudspeth proudly noted.
Boise State has served as the champions of college football underlings, competing and defeating the FBS elite. Hudspeth would like to duplicate the Broncos' success in Cajun country.
"Being compared says an awful lot. Chris Peterson has done a great job in a small market, smaller conference."
Hudspeth knows his Cajuns have a chance to impress fans if they win on national television. Three Sun Belt contests will air on the World Wide Leader's family of networks (Troy, North Texas and Arkansas State).
The stage is set, the curtain is set to open on the 2102 season. We'll soon discover if the 2011 campaign for the Cajuns was an aberration or a stepping stone for bigger and better days ahead.
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