New coordinator wonders if UL defense has what it takes
With a limited list of returning starters, Ron Roberts simply isn’t sure how his unit will fare this season.
He has much more inexperience than experience on his side of the ball, and many more questions than answers.
UL’s new defensive coordinator – speaking passionately and with the wisdom of a longtime head coach, like he was for all of his career the last 10 years – made that abundantly clear the day before the Ragin’ Cajuns opened their 2018 preseason camp late last week.
“I think we’re hungry,” said Roberts, a former head coach at NCAA Division II-member Delta State and – most recently – FCS-member Southeastern Louisiana. “One thing I’m impressed with more than anything is our ability of our guys wanting to learn, wanting to be good.
“That’s part of it. Defensively, if you’re gonna play the game, play it effectively, you’ve got to play with a chip on your shoulder. I think our guys have established that.”
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Yet nothing’s certain yet.
“Fall camp is gonna tell us a lot,” Roberts said.
Indeed, so many questions remain open-ended.
“Do we have the mentality yet to be a difference-maker in this (Sun Belt) conference? I don’t know,” Roberts, who is preparing for UL’s Sept. 1 opener against Grambling, said as he shook his head side to side with wonder. “You know, that’s gonna be seen in the next three weeks.
“Can we develop that mentality every time we take the field? Our ambition is to go out there and shut somebody down and do it every play on a consistent basis. Those are the things that probably our most unknown going into fall camp.”
But wait, there’s more.
“How are we going to handle things attitude-wise? How are we going to handle adversity when it first hits you in the face?” Roberts asked. “Somebody makes a play, gashes you in the run or makes a big play over the top of you on a pass – how are you going to handle those things? Are our players ready to handle it?”
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LOTS OF NEWCOMERS
The multiple questions perhaps are prompted by the multiple newcomers to Roberts’ defense.
Even all of the Cajuns’ defensive assistant coaches are new too.
“The headliner is 15 new scholarship players on defense, and three offensive players that have moved,” new UL head coach Billy Napier said.
Tight ends Carlos Rogers and Andre Landry are now defensive ends, and receiver Michael Jacquet, expected to play ways, now is primarily a cornerback, where he’s projected to start.
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“That’s 18 bodies,” Napier said.
“I think that’s the unique thing about where we’re at on defense, with a new staff. So, we’ve got lots of unknowns there.”
With standout defensive end Joe Dillon (hip surgery) injured and out for the season, the Cajuns have only a few true returning starters on defense.
Senior safety Corey Turner, the anticipated leader of the UL defense in 2018, had 10 starts as a first-year starter last season.
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Safety Koa Haynes did have five starts last year, including the last four games of 2017, the juco-transfer’s first year at NCAA FBS level.
And Jacques Boudreaux, who is in a camp battle with Ferrod Gardner for the No. 1 spot at Mike inside linebacker, opened seven of the 12 games in which he played as a true sophomore.
But none of the other healthy Cajuns on defense had more than three defensive starts last season, and only projected starting nose tackle LaDarrius Kidd actually had three – the first three of 2017, before he lost his No. 1 job to then-senior Kevon Perry.
Grad-transfer cornerback Kendall Johnson, a projected starter for the Cajuns, was a regular starter for most of two seasons at Nevada, but he left that program after having lost the job early last year.
Johnson, though, is among that group of 15 newcomers that has Roberts excited, all of his various questions about the unit notwithstanding.
Others among the newcomer group projected to start include defensive end Garrald McDowell, a grad-transfer from Ole Miss who played as a reserve for the Rebels, and Will inside linebacker Lorenzo McCaskill, a juco-transfer who originally signed with Cincinnati.
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McDowell and McCaskill both were with the Cajuns for spring drills, as was Johnson.
One who was not, but who could have impact this season, is juco-transfer outside linebacker Chauncey Manac, who began his college career as a redshirt at Georgia.
“I think we’ve got the players in place, and I think we’ve got enough talent,” Roberts said. “And now it’s just time for us to go out there and produce, and get better on a day-to-day basis.
“In the spring, we were real thin. I mean, there was a massive difference between 1s and 2s when you put them out on the field when we were going to spring practice.”
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RECRUITING HAS HELPED
Recruiting since Napier’s arrival, Roberts suggested, has helped to narrow the gap.
But there’s still work to be done and issues to be ironed out.
“We’ve added a good class,” Roberts said. “Now, they’re new, you know? But we’ve added a class of guys coming in here across the board that gives immediate depth, obviously where we needed it drastically.
“And that’s how you push the depth chart. You push the depth chart from the down up.
“You want those guys to get better, and that’s probably our biggest objective going into fall camp,” Roberts added. “We’ve got to get 2s and 3s in position to compete for jobs, so that we can be competitive on a daily basis out there.”
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