LAFAYETTE — The past two years have been the most successful stretch in Louisiana-Lafayette football history.
But for this year’s Ragin’ Cajuns, that only means there’s a different kind of pressure ... and that’s something coach Mark Hudspeth began drilling into his charges within hours of December’s New Orleans Bowl victory against East Carolina.
“If anything, he’s even more intense than he was when he got here,” said senior center Andre Huval, who has ignited every meaningful offensive play over two years and 18 wins. “But we still have a lot of goals that we haven’t reached. We know how close we were to reaching those goals last year.”
A couple of midseason Sun Belt Conference losses derailed hopes for the Cajuns’ first outright league title — ULL shared a three-way crown in 2005 — but the squad regrouped to win five of its last six on the way to its second straight 9-4 season.
That late streak included a last-minute 27-20 loss to SEC power Florida that ULL led by a touchdown with two minutes left, as well as the 43-34 bowl victory that made the Cajuns one of only seven teams in the country with back-to-back nine-win seasons and bowl victories.
The conference title remains a target, as does Hudspeth’s goal of finishing the season in the Top 25.
“If you look at some of the season-ending polls, we’re not far from that,” said Hudspeth, who heads into his third season with his smallest senior class but likely his deepest and most balanced squad. “Our expectations have changed, and the expectations around Lafayette have changed. Now we’re not going out to try to win a few games. ... Our fans want us to win every game now, but so do our kids. They get really mad when they don’t win now, and I love that attitude.
“We know there’s pressure on us, but I put more pressure on myself every year.”
That pressure spiked during the preseason when ULL was named the co-favorite by the Sun Belt coaches to win the league title along with rival Louisiana-Monroe. That pick marked the first time the Cajuns had been a preseason favorite in a Division I league since the NCAA’s reorganization in 1981.
ULL was tabbed to take the league title by two preseason magazines and, if the Cajuns reach that goal, they’ll do it despite an unfriendly schedule: only five home games, only two home games before November, road openers against Arkansas and Kansas State and three weekday games.
“It’s the hardest schedule I’ve ever been a part of,” Hudspeth said.
Fortunately for the Cajuns, they’ll have an experienced squad to battle those schedule headaches, especially on offense.
Most of the cogs in an offensive attack that set school records each of the past two seasons return and, even in the four spots where starters don’t return, there are experienced hands available.
That group is led by junior quarterback Terrance Broadway, a product of Baton Rouge’s Capitol High who took over as the starter four games into last year when senior Blaine Gautier went down with a leg injury. Broadway ended up as the Sun Belt’s leader in total offense and passing and also ranked fourth in rushing in conference games, setting school records for offense (3,611) and completion percentage (65.4) along with rushing for 769 yards and nine scores.
“This is the first time he’s getting a call to start a season,” Hudspeth said. “There’s no question his best football is still ahead of him.”
Running back Alonzo Harris has rushed for 1,581 yards and 17 scores in two years — and he’s still only a junior. Sophomores Torrey Pierce and Effrem Reed combined for more than 700 rush yards, and Montrel Carter is back after suffering a season-ending anterior cruciate ligament injury in the 2012 opener.
The offensive front also returns three starters in Huval — a Rimington Trophy candidate — and standout brothers Daniel and Mykhael Quave, and all three tight ends are back. The only question mark is at wide receiver, where Javone Lawson and Harry Peoples combined for 256 catches, 3,621 yards and 21 scores in careers that ended in December.
The defensive unit also has seven returning starters, but that unit was porous for much of last season, and new coordinator James Willis has reconvened a four-man front. Juniors Justin Hamilton, Christian Ringo and Brandon McCray are back up front, and middle linebacker Justin Anderson returns after leading the team in tackles last year.
The secondary ranked last in the Sun Belt against the pass last year despite having two cornerbacks who wound up signing NFL free-agent contracts.
The Cajuns also must revamp the kicking game with the departure of Brett Baer, the state’s most prolific two-way kicker in more than a decade. ULL went to Australia to find punter Daniel Cadona, and newcomer Stephen Brauchle is the front-runner on kicks.
“We know it’s not going to be easy,” Hudspeth said. “We had four bowl teams in the Sun Belt last year, and every one of them is still in the league. The teams that left weren’t in bowl games, so that tells you something about how good this league is going to be.”
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