Johnson: Time for Ragin’ Cajuns to take the next step is now

This is the year.

The UL-Lafayette football program is at the doorstep of accomplishing something monumental. The rapid and sustained success under coach Mark Hudspeth has seemingly awoken a beast that was snoozing in the swamp with a pocketful of untapped resources.

Suddenly, stadiums are being retrofitted, athletic complexes are springing up around campus to rival major college programs and a fan base’s energy is palpable.

You know what I mean, because you feel it, too. It’s progress. But progress leads to a hunger for more, and the next step is so agonizingly close that you can taste it in your gumbo.

But there’s a catch: time.

This isn’t the NFL, where you can lay the foundation for a successful program with a corps of players who stay in place for a decade. Talent is constantly recycling at the collegiate level, and a load of the talent on the roster is about to cycle itself out of the college game.

If the Ragin’ Cajuns want to reach a higher echelon, to be considered the next TCU, Boise State — or the first UL-Lafayette — it needs to happen now, as in this year.

If not? This golden opportunity might pass by faster than a streaking Elijah McGuire.

The Ragin’ Cajuns boast one of the more impressive returning arsenals in college football. Fourteen starters return from last year’s squad, 13 of the projected 22 starters are seniors and seven were named to the preseason All-Sun Belt first team.

None of the aforementioned players are more important than Terrance Broadway.

The Cajuns’ progress as a program is tied to Broadway — specifically to a healthy Broadway. Though backup quarterback Brooks Haack has made strides this offseason, the Cajuns were not even close to being the same team a year ago when Haack took over after Broadway went down with a broken right arm. As offensive coordinator Jay Johnson said, “he’s the heartbeat.”

When he’s healthy, there are few who can match his combination of physical gifts and knowledge on the field. Broadway is a multi-dimensional threat who can hurt you from the air, the ground and the film room.

With a healthy Broadway at the wheel, the Cajuns have a shot at running the table in conference play, pulling off an upset at Boise State, maybe even sneaking away with a win against a talented Ole Miss squad in Oxford.

Accomplish two of those three feats?

That’s Progress with a capital P, baby.

That’s why this year is so important. The Cajuns have proven that a little winning can go a long way in this town. Three straight nine-win seasons have had a huge impact on donations to the program, which have in turn impacted the program’s ability to sustain this run of success.

So what will one hugely successful year do?

There’s a reason why the old adage tells you to strike while the iron is hot. It allows you to shape the outcome in a way that suits your desires. There may never be another opportunity like the one currently in front of these Ragin’ Cajuns, and they can shape the direction of their program by accomplishing the goals they’ve set for themselves this season.

And that’s the main thing to take away from this. What can really launch the Cajuns into the stratosphere is possible this season.

It’s right there, within reach. But if the Cajuns don’t capitalize on it now, who knows how long the window will remain open?

By putting together the kind of season of which they’re capable, the Ragin’ Cajuns would be setting themselves up nicely for the long haul. If they don’t? The chances of making the huge jump next year are much slimmer while trying to replace the massive amount of graduated talent.

And if they finish with another nine-win season and a bowl win? There’s nothing wrong with that, but if the players and coaches were being honest with you, odds are they’d tell you that finish would be a disappointment. This year is about progress and what the current players can do to set the program up for the long haul.

If the Cajuns want to prove they belong, they better do it in a hurry. The clock is ticking.

There is no time like the present and, presently, the Cajuns are a damn strong football team.