UL opens preseason camp with 'chip on our shoulder'

Tim Buckley
The Daily Advertiser

When the UL football team opens preseason camp Friday, it will do so with the end of last season in mind.

Good and bad.

Memory of it hangs in the Ragin’ Cajuns’ indoor practice facility, in the form of a banner celebrating UL’s 2019 Sun Belt Conference West Division championship.

What hurts, however, is what does not also hang there: A Sun Belt title banner.

“To me,” second-year Cajuns strength and conditioning coach Mark Hocke said Thursday, “that’s a reminder that we didn’t finish the way we wanted to finish, and we didn’t accomplish everything that we were after last year.”

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With preseason camp opening Friday, Ragin' Cajuns coach Billy Napier talks during Thursday's Media Day at UL.

As the Cajuns reported for camp and held their annual Media Day on Thursday, all in advance of their Aug. 31 opener against Mississippi State at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans, that point was abundantly clear.

UL made it to the inaugural Sun Belt championship game, but fell 30-19 early last December at Appalachian State.

The Cajuns also took a trip two weeks later to the Cure Bowl in Orlando, but there they lost 41-24 to Tulane, finishing head coach Billy Napier’s first season in charge at 7-7.

So much accomplished.

Yet, it was not nearly enough, in most Cajun minds, to celebrate.

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“The ending of last year crushed us. … This year, we are putting our best foot forward and play with that chip on our shoulder,” senior running back Raymond Calais Jr. said.

“We wanted to win both of ’em, but we came away empty-handed,” senior linebacker Jacques Boudreaux added, “and I think that’s something that’s gonna sit with this team, and I think it’s gonna push us forward in this camp and in this long season we have ahead of us.”

With preseason camp opening Friday, Ragin' Cajuns coach Billy Napier talks during Thursday's Media Day at UL.

Based on 2018 preseason expectations, getting to the title game amounted to overachievement for UL.

But simply making it there ultimately proved insufficient.

“We (weren’t) satisfied off that,” cornerback Kamar Greenhouse said, “because we wanted to win the conference championship.

“We use it as fuel. We know we can get there, so why not do it? So this offseason, we’ve been harping about working hard, not complaining and embracing the grind. Because it works.”

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Outside linebacker/standup defensive end Joe Dillon missed all last season while rehabbing from major hip surgery.

Even he is impacted by what happened in 2018, though.

“Falling short from the championship — that makes you want it even more,” Dillon said.

“Just getting that far off the first year, that makes you want to come back even more and say, ‘Hey, we want it all, not just a piece of it. … We want to win the whole thing, together.’”

The loss to Appalachian State — UL’s second in two meetings during the year — really did sting the Cajuns.

It’s partly because they never have beaten the Mountaineers.

But it’s also because it cost them the league title.

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“It’s motivating us a lot right now,” safety Bralen Trahan said. “That’s all we want to do, is just get to that championship again.

“Hopefully it’s App State again. … If it is, we’re definitely gonna finish it. The whole summer, it was about finishing — finishing the fourth quarter.”

UL was within four points of Appalachian State heading into the final quarter of the title game, but was outscored 10-3 after that.

“Being a pretty close game toward the end of that fourth quarter, I think it creates a certain type of hunger,” Hocke said. “And if you’re a competitor, you want another chance at that.

“Obviously we can’t get a second chance at last year. But I think we have that opportunity in front of us with what we do this year.”

As much as the championship-game loss hurt, however, Napier seemed satisfied with UL’s effort against the Mountaineers.

What he didn’t like at all was the showing against Tulane.

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“It’s definitely not how we wanted to end our season,” Greenhouse said.

For that, Napier has accepted responsibility for less-than-ideal preparation during the hectic two weeks between the two games.

“I don’t think Coach Napier should take that burden on himself, because ultimately we’re players,” Boudreaux said. “We play the game. I think there’s a lot of things everybody would want to do differently in that game …

“We think about that, because a lot of players on this team, we thought we were gonna have a bowl ring on our fingers by now, and most of us don’t.”

UL has been to two bowls in the last three years, also losing to Southern Mississippi State in the 2016 New Orleans Bowl.

But it has not won a bowl since beating Nevada in New Orleans in 2014.

“We want that,” Boudreaux said. “We want a bowl championship ring, and I think that’s the ultimate goal, is to win a bowl game this year.”

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Between the title-game loss and the bowl loss, they are feelings the Cajuns really do want to shake in 2019.

“Going in there (to the championship game), it was a great experience,” Boudreaux said. “But, at the end of the day, we came up short, and that’s something that didn’t sit well with us.

“It’s gonna push us forward, to know that we don’t want to feel like that again … that we just want go out the right way, and win a championship.”

It’s with that in mind that UL defensive coordinator Ron Roberts hopes the Cajuns can turn the page.

He prefers looking forward, not behind, and is not alone in that regard.

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“We’re obviously very disappointed with how the bowl game went, the championship game went, how we finished the season,” Roberts said. “But this is a new year. … Every season is a new season. It’s a new team.”

“Where we stand today is with a tremendous amount of belief, conviction and confidence in this team’s ability to play at a high level,” Hocke added, “and I think if you ask them they have high expectations of what they want to accomplish as well.”

If they are met, perhaps another banner will hang in the practice facility — and not just a division one.

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