Napier a big believer in two-QB system UL used last year
He went with it last year, for a variety of reasons.
Would Billy Napier dare go that route again this year? Regularly play two quarterbacks, that is.
In 2018, he did it with then-senior starter Andre Nunez taking three series in a row and — without fail — then-sophomore Levi Lewis entering every fourth series.
As spring practice this year has unfolded, and UL’s spring-ending game Saturday fast approaches, the Ragin’ Cajuns coach hasn’t ruled out the possibility of something similar in 2019.
When he first was asked about it back in March, Napier was gung-ho on the prospect.
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“If we’ve got two, I’m gonna play two,” he said. “I mean, I believe in it.”
Napier doesn’t buy into the perceived notion that bringing in someone different at QB, even when things go well, can hurt momentum and potentially impact continuity.
He sees no problem with a different voice being heard, a somewhat different skill set being used or — as was the case last season — switching from a right-handed QB to a lefty.
In fact, Napier steadfastly defends — even promotes — the practice.
“I think you’re gonna see it more and more in college football,” he said. “And within our system, I think it’s very feasible — with how we practice, the routine that we use.
“We’ve got a year-round calendar plan for those quarterbacks. That’s the most-critical position on the team. And I like the way we go about doing it.”
With Nunez done, Lewis is the clear-cut favorite to start in 2019.
Juco-transfer Jai’ave Magalei and high school signee Clifton McDowell have been battling for the No. 2 job, and all three — along with at least one other Cajun QB — are slated to play in the spring finale.
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“I do think that if we’ve got one that’s significantly better, we would just play one,” Napier also said back in March.
“But I’m open to the idea (of two), if we can get one of these guys (UL’s current No. 2 candidates) a little more ready, and I feel like he proves himself over time.
“A lot of it,” he added, “has to do with the leadership ability of that guy. Does he have the trust of the players? Has he proven himself?”
Lewis unquestionably had believers last year.
He began the spring in a battle with Nunez and returnee Jordan Davis, but Davis left the team after the spring — Napier’s first as coach of the Cajuns — and Nunez beat him out sometime between the summer and the start of the season.
“It was a heated race between three guys, and then Jordan moved on, and then it was Andre and Levi, and both proved to be really effective,” Napier said. “Both had the respect of the team.
“And I think that’s what is most important, is you’ve got to gain the trust of the other players, so that they’re not looking at me like, ‘Why is he in there?’
“And nobody blinked last year when Levi entered the huddle,” Napier added. “He was a well-respected guy, who all he did was move our team and score, and over time proved to be a really effective player.”
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'A VERY QUICK DUDE'
There were discernible differences between Lewis and Nunez last season, and it wasn’t just the hand they threw with.
Nunez didn’t have the mobility Lewis had, but he did have a bit more experience.
But Lewis’ teammates really do respect him, not only as a person and a player, but also for his leadership and his resolve to understand nuances of the game.
“Levi is a very ‘quick’ dude. He’s like, ‘Let’s go, let’s go.’ That was one of the big things,” center Cole Prudhomme said when asked about differences between the two. “Levi, he comes in there, he doesn’t see anybody open — boom, he’s gone; vs. Andre, he’d kind of sit back, give it a little bit of time before he ran. So, that was a big thing for us.”
It required adjustments, depending on which QB was in.
When pass blocking, Prudhomme said, “You’re blocking protection, and then when your quarterback starts running, you need to go into run mode, and it’s just like (you have to catch up) on that, realizing when your quarterback is trying to leave the pocket or not.”
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When Lewis would enter a game last year, Cajun starters on offense were the beneficiary of what he picked up while watching Nunez play.
But there also was the issue of him not having a feel for the game when he entered.
“Levi, he’s on the sideline, he’s getting mental reps, no doubt,” Prudhomme said. “But it’s like (he) comes in (and you have to tell him), ‘All right, look, expect this’ — just communicate with him, and let him know this is how the game is flowing, and just catch up on things.”
With Lewis being the main man now, Prudhomme said, “I think it’s gonna help him a lot.”
Yet as the Cajuns switch from a righty to a lefty starter, there is another consideration.
“Levi’s ball (has) a different spin,” top receiver Ja’Marcus Bradley said, “so I’ve got to adjust to that really quick.”
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'FEEDBACK FROM FRIENDS'
As Napier stuck with the three-and-one switch system in 2018, eyebrows sometimes were raised.
Many wondered if he’d stick with it to the end, and he did — through the good, which there was plenty of, and the bad, which there was some of as well.
“I got a lot of feedback from friends, or whatever, last year,” Prudhomme said. “It was all, ‘Why does your coach switch ’em out every third series?’
“And I’m like, ‘Just to change it up a little bit. Plus, it’s helping Levi, because you know, Nunez is a senior, and when he’s gone you don’t want your next quarterback to be (saying), ‘Yeah, I just sat down all season; never got a snap, and I’m just fresh off the bench.’ ”
Napier did what he did in part because he wanted Lewis ready in case Nunez got hurt, which did not happen.
He did it partially because he didn’t want Nunez looking over his shoulder, and so Nunez knew that when Lewis came in it was pre-planned and not just because the senior had made a mistake.
He did it largely, it seems, because it was a move that would play well in the locker room, especially as he was trying to win over a new team.
He perhaps did it partly because he wanted to see just what Lewis, whom he did not recruit, had — knowing that would impact his own QB recruiting plans, and whether he needed to pursue someone much more experience.
And he did it in part, it would seem, because he pegged Lewis as a potential starter for the future, and wanted to get the Scotlandville Magnet High product from Baton Rouge playing time that should prove invaluable now.
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“I think Levi was a unique situation last year,” Napier said. “Tremendous credibility with our staff and players, and was right in the battle — I mean, right in the middle of the battle up until the very end.
“So, I think he was deserving of an opportunity to play.”
Which can only help going forward.
Lewis, after all, played and even started late in 2017 as a true freshman, after Davis stumbled and Nunez sustained a concussion. But he did so somewhat sparingly, especially after spraining an ankle.
“He’s got plays, and he’s got plenty of reps, under his belt,” Prudhomme said, “so when he comes in it ain’t nothing new to him.”
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'STUDENT OF THE GAME'
Before spring drills started, Lewis spent plenty of time between 7-7 UL’s Cure Bowl loss to Tulane and the Cajuns’ return to the practice field watching tape.
It’s what he loves to do.
He also spent time continuing to win over teammates now fully under his command.
“The game is, like, 90 percent mental and 10 percent physical,” Lewis said, “so I’ve been watching a lot of film and … just getting closer to my guys, just being a team leader, just trying to take over and taking the initiative on trying to be the starting quarterback and showing that aspect of my game.”
Teammates have taken notice.
“Levi, he’s a student of the game,” running back Elijah Mitchell said. “So, really, he’s just way more comfortable this year from learning everything. Levi’s gonna be something special on the field.”
“Levi is one of our leaders, man, and he’s gonna continue to push us to make us better,” running back Raymond Calais Jr. added. “I expect a lot out of him.”
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On the field, what Napier has noticed — perhaps most — is Lewis’ growth as a quarterback.
“He’s a good athlete. Can make plays with his feet. And he’s really improved as a passer,” the Cajuns coach said after UL’s first spring scrimmage, in late March. “That’s what stood out to me — not only accuracy, but decision-making. (He has) plenty of arm.”
Napier and his assistants also have been watching Magalei, who is coming off major knee surgery and did not play last season, and McDowell, who graduated from high school early to come in for the spring, vie for the backup job.
“You want competition, and injuries happen. So you need to have another guy that’s ready to go,” offensive coordinator Rob Sale said. “So you want somebody that’s always being able to push that player. Because competition makes us all better.”
But neither Magalei nor McDowell, Napier has made it clear, is ready to start just yet.
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Still, that has not dissuaded Napier from considering the two-QB system again in 2019 — if circumstances for it are right.
“At this point I don’t know that we’re ready to do that,” he said after UL scrimmaged last Saturday. “But if we get a young man ready to play that I think is capable and has our staff’s trust and his teammates’ trust I can see doing it.
“If we play today, we probably wouldn’t do it. But we don’t play for a while. And I always like to have another guy ready. Because I think in this day and age injuries are a reality. So, you’ve got to have the next guy ready — and that’s every position.”
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UL moves spring game indoors
UL’s annual spring game Saturday has been moved from Cajun Field to inside the program’s Leon Moncla Indoor Practice Facility, due to anticipated weather conditions in the area.
Kickoff is at noon.
The game is free and open to the public.
Free general admission parking is available along West Congress Street and Cajundome Boulevard, with access at gates 3, 4 and 5.
More details on the spring game will be announced Friday.
The event includes a non-perishable food drive benefiting Campus Cupboard; spectators can drop donations at entry points to the indoor facility.
-- Tim Buckley
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