LAFAYETTE — James Willis may not yet know the names of each player on the University of Louisiana defense he coaches, but he’s witnessing one thing he didn’t anticipate after three practices.
“What I’m seeing so far is they (the players) are giving more than I expected, which is a good thing. You may know who big or how fast a player is, but now, I get to see that each day and up close.
“The (defensive) culture was already here. The effort is something that has really made a difference,” said Willis, who was introduced as ULL’s new defensive coordinator Feb. 7.
Willis is restructuring a defense that began Monday’s first day of spring practice seeking new starters at six positions.
Since the Cajuns committed to playing a 4-3 base defense for the 2013 season, Willis is also in charge of teaching his young defense how to communicate with a new system of terminology.
While the players are handling the learning curve, Willis has one of his own.
During a post-practice interview on Saturday, Willis struggled at times to remember a couple of names of the Cajuns’ secondary, which is one area targeted for major reconstruction.
Before coming to Lafayette, Willis was a defensive coordinator at Alabama and Texas Tech.
He also served as a defensive assistant at Auburn.
One player Willis is trying to improve this season is senior linebacker Justin Anderson.
Anderson is moving to an inside linebacker in the 4-3 scheme, but Willis said he’s expecting improvement from the senior who has lettered three seasons at ULL.
“He (Anderson) looks real good, but he can give me more. I don’t think (Anderson) understands how good he can be right now. I’m going to push him and get more out of it. (Anderson) is one that I am really targeting right now,” Willis said.
With such defensive inexperience, especially at linebacker and in the secondary, Wills said he has a pre-practice admonition for each player before they reach the field.
“The depth chart from Monday until (Saturday) has really changed a lot. It looks a lot different each day, so I tell the player to look at the chart before practice, because it’s probably changed,” Willis said.
Anderson said Willis’ defensive packages are more complex than the ones last season.
“Now you’re reading the route. Whatever your guy does off the line of scrimmage, you’re reading off that. Last year seems like it was more straight cover two, cover three and zone no matter what.
“So far it looks great for us. Everyone is out there having fun at practice and getting better every day,” Anderson said.
Before spring drills began, Willis discussed the need to develop some leadership from his defensive players, but he said the Cajuns are still searching for that person.
“As far as defensive leaders, it’s too early to say. Leadership is developed by consistency, someone who shows up every down on every day. We have guys who have that potential.
“We haven’t found that one guy yet who can do that,” Willis said.
Anderson said there are many players auditioning for that role.
“As far as being a vocal leader, there is no one person who is really standing out. There are a few people doing that,” Anderson said.
There’s a reason for the depth-chart flux, Anderson said.
“I think that’s because (Willis) is just trying to give everybody the same number of (repetitions) instead of having the ones going against the No. 1 offense. It seems fair to me,” Anderson said.
Willis’ style is something that has been a positive, Anderson said.
“He hasn’t been in the in your face, yelling at you type. (Willis) is more about letting you play, and if you mess up, he’s about coaching you up and fixing it. Then you do it right the next play,” Anderson said.
After Saturday’s three-hour workout in full equipment, ULL coach Mark Hudspeth complimented his team for its enthusiasm during the first week of the spring.
“Usually you have some of the energy and enthusiasm that we’ve had the first couple of days, but this is more than we have ever had. The kids are competing, I think, extremely hard.
“So now the key for that is making sure this same kind of energy lasts for the next three and a half weeks,” Hudspeth said.
Hudspeth said the quarterback who wins the backup role to starter Terrance Broadway won’t realistically begin until the end of the initial spring scrimmage next Saturday.
So far the Cajuns have alternated equal snaps among redshirt freshmen Brooks Haack, D’Shaie Landor and Jalen Nixon.
“When things are not live and you’re just running plays, you can look pretty good, Hudspeth said.
“Against those live bullets, it changes everything,” he said.
Nixon played some on punt coverage during Saturday’s workout and lined up behind Broadway at running back when the Cajuns ended the practice with a goal line series.
“(Nixon) is a big, strong runner and a very physical guy. We’re going to see if he can help us there and get him on the field somewhere,” Hudspeth said.
The coaches ended the day with a goal-line stand, where the defense was matched against the offense from the 1-yard line.
Hudspeth said the series went into overtime after the defense stopped the offense twice after allowing touchdown runs by junior Alonzo Harris.
“It was unbelievable the way the players got into that. The defense was down 2-0, and then they rallied to send it into the overtime. Alonzo scored at the end, though,” Hudspeth said.
Several coaches from Indiana State, and Louisiana and Mississippi high schools have visited the ULL coaching staff during the past week, Hudspeth said.
Among the high school coaches who watched Saturday were those from West Feliciana, Jesuit-New Orleans and Clinton, Miss., Hudspeth said.
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