On our first spring road trip of 2012, we took in the spectacle surrounding Louisiana's Ragin' Cajuns -- the only team we have ever seen provide fried frogs' legs to visiting reporters.
LAFAYETTE, La. -- We consider ourselves proud professional polytheists when it comes to America's most beautiful game. We have favorite teams in every conference and favorite coaches whose success we'll cheer no matter what podunk schools they land at. But we have to confess we're developing a particular fondness for Louisiana's Ragin' Cajuns, who use hot peppers as punctuation and harbor a fanbase that seems to have a higher portable-smoker-per-capita ratio than any we've ever encountered.
It also doesn't hurt that they're poised to be quite good at actual football.
Mark Hudspeth, who hopped from a highly successful run as head coach of North Alabama to coach receivers and coordinate the passing offense at Mississippi State in 2009, arrived at Louisiana in 2011. In Year 1 he took the Cajuns, fresh off a 3-9 season, to a 9-4 campaign that included the biggest NCAA leap in year-over-year attendance growth and a victory in the school's first-ever I-A bowl game. Now all he's got to do is equal or better that feat, in a blossoming Sun Belt conference where his isn't the only team boasting new-found competitive know-how.
The Cajuns' 2012 schedule is daunting, though not impossible. The three teams that figure to present the stingiest in-conference competition (Arkansas State, Florida International and Western Kentucky) must come to Lafayette. The fact that the 2011 Cajuns were undefeated at home does not go unmentioned by many when discussing next year's slate. Their two money games, at Oklahoma State and Florida, come with the potential to catch power programs in transition napping. Almost to a man, players and coaches are quick to point out that the Cowboys lose 17 starters from last season's Fiesta Bowl-winning squad and that the Cajuns scored the second-most points of any 'Pokes opponent last season.
Coach Hudspeth won't bow to hubris long enough to say whether the program is in its best-ever shape. He's only been here a year and a half, after all. But the attendance records, W-L column and bowl victory speak louder than any boast he could make. All 32 NFL teams turned out for the Cajuns' pro day last week to see players like hotshot 6-foot-6 tight end Ladarius Green. Hudspeth tells us that, at least, is a first.
The loss of Green leaves the highest-profile hole to fill on a team returning nine starters on offense, and for Hudspeth, there's no duplicating Green's TE/WR hybrid prowess. "You're not gonna replace that guy," Hudspeth said. "We'll have somebody take his spot, but they won't replace him. But that's not to say we don't have other talent at the tight ends." Sophomores Jacob Maxwell and Ian Thompson got starting nods in the spring game.
As far as actual wideouts go, this Cajuns squad may boast the strongest unit in the Sun Belt. Javone Lawson caught three touchdowns for the White team in Saturday's spring game, including two from backup quarterback Terrance Broadway and a 50-yarder from fellow receiver and All-Name favorite Harry Peoples, who tied Green for the team lead in receptions and receiving yards last season.
Does the name "Terrance Broadway" tickle your memories? He was the luckless freshman Houston tossed in against UCLA, with no time to smile, after the Cougars lost both Case Keenum and Cotton Turner in rapid succession less than a month into the 2010 season. Broadway transferred back to his home state of Louisiana in January 2011, ran the Cajuns' scout team last season, and will be the source of a manufactured talk-radio quarterback controversy if he keeps playing like he did this weekend.
Hudspeth has his heading, however, and for the moment doesn't intend to take the wheel from 2011 starter Blaine Gautier. "It's not a quarterback controversy," Hudspeth said. "Blaine's our starter. But we definitely want to get Terrance some snaps. He'll play some this year."
Gautier's performance in the spring game was lackluster (13-for-25, one touchdown), but in Hudspeth's opinion, uncharacteristic. "I didn't think Blaine was as sharp as he would've liked to be," Hudspeth said. "I think when it gets down to it in a game situation, he's gonna make those plays." Gautier himself chalked it up to offseason rust and comfort zone issues, and it's safe to say he's got a more than capable backup in Broadway, who clearly absorbed much in his year on the bench, transitioning to a new offense. Did we mention Broadway will have two full seasons of eligibility remaining after 2012? "We really feel like we're set at quarterback for the next three years," Hudspeth said.
Broadway, for his part, seems perfectly content with his role at present (those three looming years of eligibility have to help), and credits his poise to that frying-pan experience at Houston. He finished Saturday 10-of-18 for 184 yards and two touchdowns, and with one interception to Gautier's three. He's saying all the right things, and then some: "I'm willing to do whatever I have to do to help the team. Whatever Coach tells me to do. I gotta go out and play receiver, I'll play receiver. Regardless of whether he's starting or I'm starting, we both made each other better this year. I really feel good about Blaine this year, and I'm really proud of him for what he did last year." Ready your finest surname puns for 2013, then.
On the ground, the Cajuns will once again place their trust in rising sophomore Alonzo Harris, who cracked the national top 100 in rushing yards as a true freshman and who's being badgered away from even a hint of sophomore complacency by the presence of Montrel Carter. Even a Sun Belt Freshman Player of the Year must compete to re-earn his starting spot under Hudspeth, though Harris is doing it well. "He's having a solid spring," said Hudspeth. "He's competing. And Montrel Carter is right on his heels."
The two will be running behind a line that accomplished an improbable feat in 2011, when all five starters played every offensive snap. Team officials say that's a huge testament to the Cajuns' strength and conditioning program, with perhaps a soupçon of divine providence. Only one player from that storied unit, guard Kyle Plouhar, must be replaced; juco transfer Terry Johnson and freshman Mykhael Quave currently have large, lumbery legs up in that race.
Defensively, much less is certain. Leading tackler Lance Kelley and starting corner Dwight Bentley will be missed early and often, and position battles remain open at outside linebacker and safety following the spring game. Despite its youth, Hudspeth believes the defensive line may outpace last year's unit, and it'll be augmented when juco linebacker Delvin Jones and Jalen Fields join the team in May. Jones is one of three former Ole Miss Rebels to turn up in Lafayette this season, alongside receiver-turned-safety TJ Worthy and journeyman safety Tig Barksdale, who's already nailed down a starting safety spot.
Jersey number to watch in 2012: 22. Coaches and players alike unanimously point to cornerback Melvin White as the next emotional leader of this Cajuns team. The fifth-year veteran relishes his heightened role in the absence of past contributors, but declines to run his mouth overmuch on the subject, even crediting teammates with jokes attributed to him. For his part, he has every confidence the reworked defense will gel in time for September: "There's only one way, and that's the Cajun way."
The spring game wound down with a bang, with the Red team executing a perfect onside kick with under two minutes to play. The trickeration wasn't planned, but with the losing team doomed to run every staircase in the stadium at 6 a.m. Monday, the coaches were willing to flip a little further in the playbook. "You get your money's worth at Cajun Field," said Hudspeth.
"With our games, you might want to stick around."