UL coach Napier adapts: 'I'm gonna be better at my job'

Tim Buckley
The Daily Advertiser

In the days, weeks and months leading up to his second summer as coach of the Ragin’ Cajuns, Billy Napier had plenty of time to reflect on the first fall.

The ups.

The downs.

The in-betweens.

So for Napier and UL, much of the focus in the 2019 offseason has been on improvement after going 7-7 with a Sun Belt Conference West Division championship, an appearance in the inaugural Sun Belt title game and a trip to Orlando to play Tulane in the Cure Bowl.

“I’m gonna be better at my job,” said Napier, who on Monday will represent UL at his second Sun Belt Media Day in New Orleans.

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Billy Napier, heading into his second season as head football coach at UL, talks to his team after its spring game in April.

Napier, speaking on the subject at various times throughout the offseason, said he thought he “got better” as his first season as a head coach on any level unfolded.

That’s the case from play-calling to in-game decision-making to delegating authority.

“That was all new to me,” Napier said.

“I think anytime you’re a rookie at your position … you get a little better as time goes.

“I’m no different,” he added, “than a player or another member our staff — constantly quality controlling things, constantly looking at ways I can do my job better to try to help our football team.”

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For Napier, that especially means boring down on ways to make his club better late in the year.

UL closed the 2018 regular season with successive wins over Georgia State, South Alabama and — with a ticket to the SBC title game at stake — UL Monroe.

But the Cajuns finished with losses at Appalachian State in the championship game and to Tulane in the Cure Bowl.

“I was pleased with how we ended the regular season,” Napier said. “There’s no question that we started to compete at a little bit higher level. We learned how to prepare; we learned how to practice.

“We learned how to do the extra, learned how to compete and respond within a game. And I felt like we had our football team ready to play when went to App and played on the road for the conference championship game, and I was proud of the way we played within (that) game.

“Now, did we do everything perfect? Did we do enough to win? No, we didn’t,” he added. “But we were ready to play. We played with physicality; we played with great effort. We had urgency. We were intense.”

The Cajuns lost 30-19, though, to a Mountaineers that went on to beat Middle Tennessee 45-13 in the New Orleans Bowl.

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“We competed hard within the game — and they were a pretty good football team,” Napier said. “And that was pretty evident, with the way they dominated (their) bowl game.”

UL, meanwhile, was the one getting dominated during its sixth bowl appearance in eight years.

A 41-24 loss to the Green Wave in Orlando seemed to especially irritate Napier as he looked back about three months later.

“I was not pleased with how we played in the bowl game,” Napier said.

“I’ve spent lots of time researching that two-week turnaround (between the conference championship and the bowl), realizing that if we play well this year that’s something that could happen again.”

With practices, recruiting responsibilities with the NCAA’s December early signing period fast-approaching and final exams upcoming too, it seemed as if there was too much to do and not nearly enough time to do it for staff, coaches and student-athletes.

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“We weren’t quite in that state of mind maybe we were those last couple weeks (of November),” Napier said. “There’s no excuses. It is what it is. That’s my job.

“When our football team doesn’t play well, I take that personal and I’m gonna develop a better plan next time and have ’em ready to play.”

The consequence of that?

“We went back and looked at how we practiced (before the bowl), what things we could have done different in a quality control standpoint,” UL offensive coordinator and o-line coach Rob Sale said.

“We had a couple practices we didn’t practice as well when it came to execution, and it affected us. We just weren’t crisp.”

So the Cajuns took a hard look at when and how they practiced, including how much time they spent with starters on offense and defense working against each other and how much time they spent on actual opponent preparation.

As a result, Sale said with hope, “We’ll be better off next year.”

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Napier sure hopes so too.

But the bowl-prep approach isn’t the only reason he thinks UL will be.

For starters, after devoting much of his first few months as coach of the Cajuns getting to know personnel — mostly players he hadn’t recruited and signed himself — Napier spent most of his second spring working on ways to make the players under his command better at their craft.

He’s seeking — demanding, really — more consistency, dependability and accountability.

“We’ve put a huge emphasis on player development,” Napier said back in March, “and I think we’re starting to see the dividends of that.”

Furthermore, Napier feels he’ll be better at what he does — especially after the former Arizona State offensive coordinator, Alabama receivers coach, Colorado State quarterback coach and Clemson offensive coordinator took his first stroll through the Sun Belt.

“That’s where I struggled at this point last year,” he said, “was ‘What is our ability level relative to the league?’ I didn’t quite understand that.”

Now he knows.

That’s the case even with new head coaches in 2019 at Appalachian State, Troy, Texas State and Coastal Carolina, and even with new starting quarterbacks at multiple Sun Belt programs including Arkansas State and South Alabama.

“We proved last year that we had enough parts to be dangerous at times,” Napier said, “(and) if we performed with some consistency and played well together in all three phases, we could be a pretty good squad.”

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