Napier on UL QBs: 'It's about who can win the team over'
Sitting a few weeks back in his sparsely decorated office, the one formerly occupied by Mark Hudspeth, new UL football coach Billy Napier made it abundantly clear.
“We won’t be acquiring a quarterback in this recruiting class,” Napier said then.
With the NCAA’s National Signing Day right around the corner on Wednesday, nothing indicates Napier’s sentiments on the subject have changed since he addressed a wide range of subjects during an interview with The Daily Advertiser.
One reason, it seems, boils down to a numbers games for a program that — like all the rest at the NCAA’s FBS level — is permitted up to 85 total scholarships in any given year.
And the Ragin’ Cajuns roster already is chock-full of QBs.
“We’ve got six young men on scholarship; that’s probably too many, most people would tell you, relative to your 85,” Napier said.
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Another reason Napier doesn’t intend to sign a quarterback Wednesday is he seemingly feels UL’s starter for 2018 — and maybe even beyond — is among the half-dozen already in-house.
Related:Who is on the Ragin' Cajuns' recruiting commitment list?
Whether Napier still feels that way after the Cajuns’ April 21 spring game remains to be seen.
But for now that’s the approach he’s evidently taking into upcoming spring practice.
“We’re gonna coach the guys we’ve got,” he said while addressing the QB issue. “In my opinion, we’ve got players that can play winning football for us.
“I think we’ve got an opportunity to have a great competition. Really, our approach in general is going to be to give everybody a clean slate.”
Resumes do matter somewhat.
But what anyone’s done previously, Napier suggested, won’t be nearly as important as what they can do going forward.
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“Obviously … from an organization standpoint we’re gonna start at a fair place relative to what they’ve accomplished in the past,” he said, “but at the same time we’re not gonna make any preliminary decisions.
“We’re gonna let these young men compete, let them prove themselves. And obviously there’s not a lot of talking that needs to be done from their perspective.
“It’s gonna be more about showing us they can get the job done,” Napier added, “and not necessarily about telling us.”
Each current Cajun QB is a good bit different than the next.
Davis, from Klein Oak High in the Houston area of Texas, will be a fifth-year senior next season.
He was heir apparent to the starting job in 2016, but rather than give him the job coming out of spring drills that year former Cajuns coach Hudspeth signed ex-LSU starter Anthony Jennings as a summertime graduate transfer.
Davis did win the No. 1 tag last year, and put up especially impressive numbers — 21-of-32 for 309 yards and two touchdowns, 14 carries for 60 yards and two more TDs — in UL’s second game of 2017, a 66-42 loss at Tulsa.
He threw for 197 yards and two TDs in the Cajuns’ ensuing game, a 45-21 loss at Texas A&M, but hurt a knee in that one and didn’t seem the same, physically or confidence-wise, afterward.
UL QB Davis on knee:'I've just got to be more confident'
With Davis still hobbling and struggling, Nunez — a Californian who transferred in from Iowa Western Community College — came off the bench and went 22-of-37 for 287 yards and two touchdowns while also rushing for a TD the next week against UL Monroe.
Nunez threw both touchdown passes in the final three minutes and 34 seconds of regulation to force overtime, but ULM ultimately prevailed 56-50.
Juco-transfer Nunez came off the bench again in a 21-16 win at Idaho, going 18-of-24 for 213 yards and one touchdown, and earned his first start against Texas State, a 24-7 win in which he went 17-of-27 for 232 and one TD.
Nunez started again at Arkansas State, but sustained a concussion in the blowout loss and didn’t play again.
With Nunez out and just five games left in the season, Hudspeth made an eyebrow-raising decision: He took the redshirt off of true freshman Lewis, precisely what about two weeks earlier he said he wouldn’t do, and started him for a Nov. 4 win at South Alabama.
The purported reason for burning Lewis’ redshirt so late in what at that point was a 3-4 season with just five games remaining was to give the Cajuns’ likely quarterback of the future an early taste of what was to come.
Lewis also said he’d graduate from UL in four years, so you may as well play him now.
Hudspeth might also have felt it was his best chance for getting UL bowl-eligible for the sixth time in seven seasons and, as some suspect, saving his job.
But Lewis sprained an ankle in his second start, a 50-22 loss at Ole Miss, and Davis then went the distance in a 47-34 win over New Mexico State, throwing for 203 yards and two touchdowns with another 71 yards and one TD on the ground.
At the time, the Cajuns said Davis got the call on about 20 minutes’ notice — supposedly after Lewis told Hudspeth following pregame warmups that, with the ankle not fully healthy, he didn’t want to hurt the team.
Since then, however, indications suggest the plan all along may have been for Davis to start.
More:QB Davis gets the start for UL on 20 minutes' notice
Either way, Lewis made his third start against Georgia Southern — but was replaced by Davis early in the second quarter, down 17-7 at the time in an eventual 34-24 loss to then then 1-9 Eagles.
Had UL won that game, it would have become bowl-eligible.
Instead, it virtually solidified in Cajun athletic director Bryan Maggard’s mind the decision that Hudspeth had to go.
UL again could have been become bowl-eligible by winning a season-ending game at Appalachian State.
So with a potential bowl bid on the line, Hudspeth opted for experience and started Davis.
He ran for 78 yards, but threw for just 105 (9-of-15) and one touchdown while getting picked twice in a 63-14 loss.
One day later, Hudspeth was fired.
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Davis finished the season 122-of-215 for 1,386 yards with 10 touchdowns but eight interceptions in 10 games including seven starts.
He also ran 71 times for 347 yards and five TDs, and had a 56.74 completion percentage with a 118.80 quarterback rating.
Nunez appeared in just four games with two starts, going 61-of-99 for 783 yards with four TDs and just two interceptions — a 61.62 completion percentage with an impressive 137.35 QB rating.
Lewis was 28-of-54 — just a 51.85 completion percentage — for 377 yards with two TDs and one interceptions and a 119.01 rating in his four games including three starts.
Nunez had only three net yards rushing on 35 attempts, while Lewis had 175 on 37 — each with one TD.
Ray had four touchdown runs on just 16 carries in his Wildcat role, but attempted only one pass all season.
All of which leaves Napier with plenty to ponder heading toward the spring, when he’ll try to determine which of his QBs best fits the bill for the style he likes.
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“You want a passer,” the former Arizona State and Clemson offensive coordinator said when asked what he’s preferred previously.
“You want a guy that can effectively pass the ball and distribute the ball. In a perfect world, you’ve got a passer that’s got some athletic ability (so) you can extend the play.”
But wait, there’s more.
“Obviously I’m not a big design-quarterback-run guy,” said Napier, who’ll call plays and coach UL’s quarterbacks.
“You know, it’s one thing to be running a play where there’s a potential pull for the quarterback to run the ball; it’s another thing to really make the guy a pure rusher,” he added. “There is a certain durability factor that comes into account there.”
Napier certainly will have options with varying skill sets.
Arceneaux, limited to mop-up duty in a couple games as a redshirt freshman last season, doesn’t appear to be a starter candidate.
Ditto for fourth-year junior-to-be Ray, who’s known more for his legs than his arm and never was considered by Hudspeth to be anything more than a Wildcat QB used in short-yardage situations.
Related:Former Cajuns offensive coordinator Jorge Munoz hired by LSU as offensive analyst
Harrison, however, could be the wildcard in the bunch.
Redshirt as a freshman last season, the 6-foot-3, 188-pounder was billed as a pro-style quarterback by 247Sports.com coming out of Memorial High in Port Arthur, Texas, where his father is the head coach.
The jury’s still out, meanwhile, on the 5-11, 185-pound Lewis, an elusive dual-threat type from Scotlandville Magnet in Baton Rouge.
But after his debut start Hudspeth and teammates lauded him for the way he practices, playing well beyond his years and his poise on the field.
Cajuns true freshman QB Lewis:'He's not a freshman'
Although the ankle injury prevented him from assembling a big body of work, it also seems like he's quite capable keeping a broken-down play alive.
At a listed 6-3 and 205, Nunez is more slight-of-build than the 6-3, 217-Davis.
But he’s the more accurate passer of the two, and as Hudspeth said before his first start he’s “a pretty cool cucumber.”
Hudspeth on Cajuns QB Nunez:'A pretty cool cucumber'
Then there’s Davis, whom many figured would be etched in as UL’s starter in 2016, 2017 and 2018 as well.
He has a strong arm, but the aim has been problematic at times.
He also has more prototypical size than the rest, and when the knee is healthy he’s a more physical runner than Nunez.
Experience is on Davis’ side too, as he has more at the FBS level — the overwhelming majority of it coming in 2017 — than any Cajun quarterback.
When asked if perceived experience or perceived long-term potential would be valued more in 2018, however, Napier didn’t bite.
But he did offer some intriguing insight, and a warning — even with UL’s Sept. 1 opener against Grambling now less than seven months away — to not expect a final call anytime soon.2
“For me it’s about which individual player can win the team over; you know, which individual player can take care of the football, make good decisions and put our offense in the best position to score points, and do that efficiently, manage the game,” Napier said from Hudspeth’s old hot seat.
“I think we’ve got plenty of time,” the Cajuns coach added. “It will be a long time before we make that decision.”