Column: UL's Willis shouldn't worry about feelings

Tim Buckley
The Daily Advertiser
Former UL defensive coordinator James Willis has been brought back as a 'defensive analyst' for the Ragin' Cajuns.

If there is one thing Mark Hudspeth cannot be accused of, it’s an aversion to change.

Especially on defense.

Now in his seventh season as head coach of the Ragin’ Cajuns, Hudspeth has made his fair share of alterations on that side of the ball.

Scheme changes.

Personnel changes.

Coordinator changes.

He’s now on his fourth defensive coordinator in seven seasons, in fact, with the first and third of them — Greg Stewart and Melvin Smith — having been fired.

The latest change?

Hudspeth has brought in his second defensive coordinator, James Willis, as a “analyst” working with the Cajun defense and his fourth coordinator, Mike Lucas.

More:Willis will consult

Willis is tasked with consultation on scheme, evaluation of how Cajun defensive personnel is being used and assistance with identifying the tendencies of opponent offenses.

He has his own small office, as do all of the Cajuns’ full-time assistants, and he of course has been allocated a standard-issue computer.

But he’s working, according to Hudspeth, on a volunteer basis, unpaid and without compensation for lodging or even transportation to and from his New Orleans-area home.

“He’s another set of eyes in the room, giving us ideas, things he’s done that can help us evaluate what we’re doing, maybe even how we can do it better,” said Hudspeth, whose 1-3 Cajuns visit Idaho on Saturday.

Willis is aboard for the rest of the season, and Hudspeth expects his influence and impact on the ailing defense will be incremental.

“We’re not overhauling our scheme, that’s for sure, in one week,” the Cajuns coach said.

“We’re just trying to make what we’re doing better. We’re trying to be more efficient. We’re trying to make sure we’ve got our players doing what they can do, and we’re trying to get our guys to play awfully hard with great fundamentals and great effort.

“That’s what James brings,” Hudspeth added. “I mean, he’s a high-energy guy and intense guy.”

And now he has a voice, again, at UL.

More:Familiar face to weigh in on Cajuns defense

Willis returns after having been let go earlier this year from his post as an assistant helping to coach linebackers with the New Orleans Saints, the same NFL job he left UL for following the 2014 season.

“In the meeting rooms,” Hudspeth said, “he’s an aggressive coach. And he sees some things we can do better. That’s why I brought him in here.

“I said, ‘Listen, I didn’t bring you in just to sit here. If you see something, let me know. That’s why you’re here. Don’t worry about hurting peoples’ feelings. We’re not about that, because our feelings can’t be hurt any worse.'”

The Cajuns currently are allowing 53.8 points per game, worst in the country.

They’re preaching relentless effort partly beacause it’s requisite and partly because that at least can help camouflage mistakes.

And UL’s defense, make no mistake, has made plenty of those through four games to date.

“There are some things we’re doing well,” Hudspeth said. “But there are so many things … we’re not doing well enough and (not) doing it consistently enough.

“We might have one really good play that had great fundamentals, that had great effort, great technique and we were getting the right gaps. And you have another play where maybe we didn’t see that.

“It’s been sort of up-and-down, very inconsistent,” he added. “Our inconsistencies are showing, and that’s why we hadn’t been successful as a group.”

Tim Buckley column:Ragin' Cajuns defense in need of another fix

So, although not allowed by NCAA rule to work directly with players, Willis is toiling to improve everything from angles taken on tackles to how the Cajuns are setting the edge.

Available because he’s no longer with the Saints, he’s attending practices, observing drills and suggesting fixes.

He’s helping to break down film, and he’ll travel with the team to Idaho so — like in all of UL’s games the rest of this year — he can offer advice while working from the coaches’ booth in the press box.

Most of the changes Willis recommends, Hudspeth suggested, will not be noticeable to the untrained eye.

But some, he said, are “considerably different”

“It’s about throwing stuff against the wall, seeing if it sticks,” Hudspeth said of Willis’ presence. “It’s about ideas. It’s about maybe throwing out technique ideas, then also personnel ideas.”

Hudspeth called Willis, a former NFL linebacker who also had a stint as defensive coordinator at Texas Tech and stints as linebackers coach at Alabama and his alma mater Auburn, “a veteran coach that was real successful when he was here.”

Related:UL adds Liberty to list of future football opponents

Even during his tenure, though, a "consultant" was brought in.

The October 2014 addition of Matt Wallerstedt was yet another hopeful-defensive-improvement move by Hudspeth, an offensive-minded head coach who seems frequently to find himself trying to cure a defense that’s successful for some stretches and not-so-successful for others.

From Dominique Tovell in days gone by to Joe Dillon, Tracy Walker and Corey Turner in the present, the Cajuns haven’t shied from moving players from position to position to find the right fit.

They’ve played zone; they’ve played man; they’ve played three down and four.

And they’ve switched coordinators.

A lot.

Related:Dillon moves again in ailing Cajuns defense

To truly appreciate just how much change the Cajun defense has endured, let’s review:

UL’s first defensive coordinator under Hudspeth, Greg Stewart, was not retained after two seasons. He’s now the DC at Central Arkansas, an FCS program that is 3-1 this season.

In mid-October of Stewart’s second season, 2012, UL allowed North Texas 524 yards of total offense in a 30-22 loss to the Mean Green.

Hudspeth was critical afterward, saying “our staff made some poor adjustments.”

One outing later, Arkansas State beat UL 50-27 as the Red Wolves rolled up 526 yards of total offense.

“I didn’t think we particularly put our guys in great positions to be successful,” Hudspeth said after that loss, adding, “I thought we made some poor adjustments after, to me, I over and over expressed that we had to do a better job setting the edge.”

It was then that Hudspeth started spending more time with the defense, ultimately having its base changed to a 4-3 from Stewart’s preferred 3-4.

At the time, in fact, Hudspeth vowed that, “I’m gonna personally make those adjustments.”

UL went on to finish 9-4 and win the New Orleans Bowl for a second straight season, and Willis was hired to replace Stewart.

James Willis was UL's defensive coordinator from 2013-14.

Willis almost left after one season for an assistant’s job at Florida State. In fact, his departure was publicly announced. But, perhaps because things didn’t pan out with the Seminoles, Willis abruptly returned to UL.

Then, early in his second season, 2014, the Cajuns endured an early stretch in which they lost to Louisiana Tech 48-20, Ole Miss 56-15 and Boise State 34-9.

That’s around the time Wallerstedt, another former Texas Tech defensive coordinator, was brought in.

He arrived first as a consultant, then took over as outside linebackers coach when David Saunders was shown the door due to NCAA recruiting violations.

Whatever changes Wallerstedt suggested, one Cajun player indicated at the time, were more subtle than overt.

Willis, in other words, still had a heavy hand.

Yet, even after the Cajuns rallied to win six in a row, after a fourth straight 9-4 season and after a fourth straight New Orleans Bowl win, Willis left again — this time for real.

Wallerstedt exited, too, to become defensive coordinator at currently 0-5 Charlotte — a job he still holds.

Kevin Foote column:Concerns abound, but relish 2-2 start

To replace Willis, Hudspeth hired Smith — his former position coach at Delta State.

The longtime defensive backs coach at multiple SEC schools had never before coordinated an FBS defense, but he arrived with a complicated multiple-look system that may have been too much for the Cajuns to handle.

UL struggled in his first season, going 4-8 in 2015, and after just the first game of Smith’s second season, last year’s 45-10 loss to Boise State, Hudspeth shockingly fired his ex-coach.

Smith is now linebackers coach and co-defensive coordinator at an FCS program, 1-4 Lamar.

Lucas, former head coach at FCS Southeastern Louisiana and a former DC at multiple sub-FBS programs, succeeded Smith.

He did so first on an interim basis, then — after scrapping Smith’s system, slowly introducing his own and improving noticeably week-to-week — had the interim tag removed shortly before 6-7 UL’s 2016 New Orleans Bowl loss to Southern Mississippi.

More:UL fires d-coordinator Smith early in second season

By the end of that year, the Cajuns were rather stellar against the run.

But even with a full spring and 2017 preseason camp to fully and properly install all of Lucas’ schemes, including a revamped pass defense, UL is struggling big-time again.

The Cajuns allowed 514 yards of total offense their season-opener, a 51-48 win over Southeastern Louisiana. In their second outing, they permitted Tulsa 667 yards in a 66-42 loss. In their most-recent outing, a 56-50 double-overtime home loss to UL Monroe, they yielded 593.

Factor in a 45-21 loss at Texas A&M in which 480 yards were allowed, and they’re giving up 563.5 per game — third-worst nationally.

So now Willis is back to "consult."

How Lucas feels about it is uncertain, as Hudspeth isn’t allowing any of his assistant coaches, including coordinators, to be interviewed by the media this season.

But according to the Cajuns head coach, his current coordinator was “was fine with the move” and “obviously welcomed it.”

“Anytime you’re struggling, you welcome somebody you feel like can help you, who can make your group better,” Hudspeth said when asked about Lucas. “That’s what it’s all about.

“Nobody feels like they have all the answers, and people that think they have all the answers … most of the times don’t.

“So it’s all about a group effort,” Hudspeth added, “and I think they’re working good as a group and are very open to James’ (Willis’) suggestions and ideas.”

If there’s one thing Hudspeth does not want to change, then, that may be it.

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