From the Bird’s Nest: A Mid-season Review of the Cajuns
Well, so much for that four-win prediction........
Louisiana's Ragin' Cajuns have certainly surpassed my expectations for this 2011 season. And, while fans are talking about heights that this program has rarely, if ever, achieved, I'm going to take this opportunity to look back, not forward.
We're now halfway through the season. Other than the hypothesis that I'm not very bright (which could absolutely be true), it's time to look at the reasons why the Cajuns are 5-1 at the midway point of the season. Here's my breakdown, position by position.
QUARTERBACK--The Cajuns returned three veteran quarterbacks and I thought this would be a good position for the Cajuns. However, after the first three games, I wasn't so sure. Blaine Gautier wasn't sharp in the season opener (although he had plenty of dropped passes), Chris Masson didn't look like the same quarterback I had been watching for two years in wins over Kent State and Nicholls State. But Gautier took over and this has really turned out to be a position of strength for Louisiana. And, Masson stood tall last week in the win over Troy. The quarterbacks haven't made many mistakes, especially the last three weeks. If this continues, this will continue to be a tough team to beat.
RUNNING BACK--It took a few weeks for the coaching staff to make a definitive decision on the rotation and it appears they've made the right choice. Freshmen Alonzo Harris and Qyen Griffen have proven to be tough commodities and the future is bright here. Yet, the Cajuns really haven't done what I would term a great job in running the football thus far. There's plenty of room for these guys to get better. I still see some freshmen mistakes from time to time. But they run hard and as long as they continue to value possession of the football, they'll be fine the rest of the season. In fact, I expect them to improve.
OFFENSIVE LINE---To be frank, this was the area that I was really worried about. The Cajuns went into the season with only three linemen with any appreciable experience. They had virtually no depth. And, this was a crew that allowed way too many quarterback sacks a year ago. If you can't run the football and can't protect the quarterback, you can't win. But this guys have gotten better each week. They are keeping the Cajuns quarterbacks upright after allowing five sacks in the season opener. And, the Cajuns are running the ball much better than they did a year ago. These guys aren't great. But the coaching staff is getting the most out of them. They deserve a lot of credit for the improvement of the offense. But they have to stay healthy. There still is very little, if any, depth here. Injuries to this group are something that the Cajuns might not be able to overcome.
WIDE RECEIVER--I wasn't sold on these guys early. I knew there was talent, but I saw way too many drops in the first couple of games. But Javone Lawson and Darryl Surgent have blossomed into solid receivers who run good routes, can catch the ball and can beat secondaries in one-on-one situations. Harry Peoples has performed when called upon as a slot man. I'd like to see Jamal Robinson contribute more this season. He's good, but he has a lot to learn.
TIGHT END--Ladarius Green hasn't been able to put up the numbers he did a year ago, but he's a weapon even if he isn't getting the football. Ian Thompson has really, really improved and freshman Larry Pettis is going to be a good one. I like all three of these guys. A lot.
DEFENSIVE LINE---I'm sayin' right now. Derrick Dean may not be an All-Conference player because he doesn't put up big numbers. But there's no better interior lineman in the Sun Belt. Troy coach Larry Blakeney was asked if the crowd contributed to his teams false starts last week. He said, "No, but their nose guard did." Dean anchors a deep and talented defensive line that is thriving in the new 3-4 allignment. Bernard Smith, Cordian Hagans and Tyrell Gaddies are making big plays. But Dean is the glue of the bunch.
LINEBACKER--A much better group than I anticipated, considering the Cajuns are only playing one guy who was a linebacker last year. Lance Kelley is playing at an all-conference level (and reaping the benefits of Dean's play up front), Jake Molbert has earned the other inside spot and has played very well. LaMarcus Gibson and Devon Lewis-Buchanan have been very steady and at times, very, very good. Along with the offensive line, this group has been the biggest surprise for me.
SECONDARY--Keep your rosaries handy. These guys have been very, very good. They can cover in space, they've played well in run-support and they'll hit you in the mouth. But they really only go five deep. Those five can play, however and as long as they stay healthy, they'll continue to wreak havoc on the opposition. Five interception returns for touchdowns are what has everyone's attention. But if that's all you concentrate on, you're missing the other contributions Bentley, Moten, White, Stokes and Gerami are making.
SPECIAL TEAMS--At the midway point of the season, there's no doubt in my mind that this team's most valuable player wears number 40. Brett Baer has performed at an all-conference level as both the placekicker and the punter. His uncanny ability to pin teams deep with his punting has really helped the offense. And, despite the first two misses of his career, there's no one in the league you'd rather have lining up to kick a field goal. He leads the league in scoring and he's been the most consistent player on this football team. He doesn't allow punts to be returned, either. Surgent has been solid in the return game. And, kickoff coverage has improved the last two weeks. Fans too often forget about the kicking game. With this team, it might be the most important part.
INTANGIBLES--Much has been made of the Cajuns' off-season conditioning program and with good reason. The Cajuns haven't dominated in the fourth quarter, but they've been good enough to rally when necessary and good enough to hold off the opposition's final push. Coach Rusty Whitt is a serious contributor to this team. His sometime unorthodox ways have been well received by this team, who have bought into his way of doing things.
Motivation is a big part of what this coaching staff does and they've done it very, very well. Mark Hudspeth and his staff have done what they've needed to do each week to get this team ready. And, give the players credit, as well. Coaches can talk and motivate til they're blue in the face, but at the end of the day, the players have to have enough self-discipline to get themselves prepared. All have excelled in this regard.
Now, having said all that, the reality is, this isn't the most talented team in the league. They haven't done it with smoke and mirrors....they've done it by playing solid football. This is a team that has valued possession of the football, built a defense with a takeaway mentality and has paid attention to detail. There isn't a big margin of error, here. For the success to continue, the Cajuns can't get away from that formula. They've been fortunate that they've avoided significant injuries on the season, especially at positions where depth is a serious issue. That must continue as well.
They've been better than I could have ever imagined. But if they're going to continue to win, they have to get even better in their execution.
Because now they're the team everyone wants to beat.