Louisiana-Lafayette’s new dining arrangement ‘first class’

The drudgery of training camp goes away for Louisiana-Lafayette’s football team three times a day.

That’s when the Ragin’ Cajuns take advantage of the biggest preseason format change in any of coach Mark Hudspeth’s four fall camps. And it doesn’t take long to get there.

Three times a day, for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, the UL-Lafayette team makes the 50-yard walk from its athletic complex to a large white air-conditioned tent that covers one of the parking lots at the Moore Field baseball facility.

It’s what’s inside the tent that has the Cajuns raving.

“It feels like we’re at a five-star restaurant,” said Cecilia junior defensive back Montrel Carter. “It’s a really good setup. It shows a little more that our hard work is paying off.”

“It’s definitely first-class,” Lafayette tight end Evan Tatford said. “It’s unbelievable. We love it.”

In past preseason camps, the squad would drive or shuttle-bus back to the main campus for meals in one of the school’s cafeterias. This year, the Sodexo food service that handles all UL-Lafayette on-campus dining facilities is providing nearly 500 meals a day to the team, less than a long touchdown pass away from Cajun field and the facility the Cajuns use for locker rooms, weight sessions, meetings and practice.

“Just like we ask our football team to step up their game, we asked Sodexo to step up their game,” said director of football operations Troy Wingerter.

“They have come through in a big, big way.”

The meals are the talk of the team through the first week of fall camp. There has been a noticeable hurry-up at the end of this week’s morning sessions, with players knowing that an impressive spread is waiting for lunch. It gets even better in the evenings.

“Tons of different selections for us,” Tatford said, “three different kinds of meats every day, different carbs, different pastas, different vegetables, a salad bar out there. It’s all really good, high-quality food.”

Senior wide receiver and Luling native James Butler was caught off guard by the new setup, but he’s not complaining. He didn’t mince words when comparing previous years’ offerings.

“Actually, before it was so bad in my first four camps, I actually brought some food with me,” he said Thursday. “I was expecting it to be the same. I didn’t know we were going to have better food, better protein, all the chicken and pasta. They made a complete turnaround. It’s delicious, and everyone’s rushing there because you can’t wait to eat it.”

Redshirt freshman Sherard Johnson of Lake Forest, Florida, had his first taste of camp last year, and was shocked at this year’s dining change.

“Everybody is always looking forward to eating there,” Johnson said. “Last year I’d give it a two or a three, but this year it’s an eight or a nine.”

Recent NCAA rules changes now allow virtually unlimited meals for student-athletes, many of whom under the old standards were forced to rush or miss meals because of practice, meeting and travel obligations. The convenience of fall-camp meals only steps away is a godsend, Cajuns coach Mark Hudspeth said.

“Our training table’s right here at our facility now and that makes a big difference,” Hudspeth said. “It cuts down on travel time, for those guys having to bus back and walk to the cafeteria. They’ve done a great job with this.”

“For a student-athlete, the most valuable thing you have as a player is your time,” said Wingerter, who was an All-Louisiana pick and a member of UL-Lafayette’s all-time football team as an offensive lineman from 1987-91. “This gives you a normalcy that you wouldn’t have if you were having to go somewhere else for meals.”

Players move directly from breakfast to meetings and morning practice preparations, and lunch follows the morning workouts. The biggest meal of the day comes in the evening, which has followed meetings and walk-throughs during the first week when the NCAA mandates only one practice per day.

As afternoon sessions pick up over the weekend and into the final two weeks of camp, the evening meal will follow the late practice. A different beef, chicken or fish selection is available each day, and electrolyte drinks are plentiful.

No cooking is done on-site, with Sodexo catering from one of its regular cafeteria locations. But Wingerter said Sodexo has done more than change locations and upgrade its quantities and qualities.

“(Sodexo) sent a nutritionist in here that was in charge of their training-table line across the country,” he said. “We sat in with them and listened, and we made some significant changes in what we were offering. We re-tooled our menus to do what we needed to do to improve the nutrition we’re giving our guys.”

“Last year in the cafeteria back on campus, it was still good,” Tatford said, “but it wasn’t up to the quality that it is right now.”

“This is a blessing,” Butler said. “You don’t have to worry about being hungry out here for practice. This is a lot more like what the NFL does. It’s great to see it in my last year here. It’s definitely big-time.”