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TGS 2012 COLLEGE FOOTBALL PREVIEW...LOUISIANA RAGIN' CAJUNS
by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor


What might be the odds that Louisiana HC Mark Hudspeth is still on the job in Lafayette at this time next year?

We’ll price it at even money.

That’s because coaches in demand from the Sun Belt rarely stay within the conference (unless, that is, you’re Larry Blakeney at Troy, and the home stadium names its field after you). The latest example was Hugh Freeze, who won the Belt title last year in his first go-around at Arkansas State before being plucked by Ole Miss to succeed Houston Nutt.

See what happens when you’re a winning coach in the Sun Belt? Your next job might be in the SEC.

As it might for Hudspeth.

Of course, there was a lot of similar chatter last December when Hudspeth’s name was being mentioned for a variety of jobs after leading the Ragin’ Cajuns to a breakthrough 9-4 campaign that included a thrilling 32-30 win over San Diego State in the raucous New Orleans Bowl. Ole Miss was among several openings (along with Tulane and Southern Miss) in which Hudspeth was on a short list of candidates. As it was, prematurely so, at Mississippi State, where for a while it seemed as if HC Dan Mullen was about to bolt the premises, perhaps for Penn State.

That Starkville connection figures to be mentioned whenever Hudspeth’s name comes up in the near future. Remember, Hudspeth arrived at Louisiana from Mississippi State, where he had been Mullen’s wide receiver coach. And, since many SEC sources believe it is only a matter of time before Mullen moves into the really high-rent district of college football, Hudspeth will be regarded as the natural successor to Mullen until further notice.

Credit Hudspeth, however, for nixing any of that talk last December when re-affirming his commitment to the Ragin’ Cajuns. Like many in the region, Hudspeth probably figured that Mullen might be involved in some self-promotion regarding his possibilities at Penn State or elsewhere, instead looking to wrangle an even sweeter deal for himself at Mississippi State. Continuing chatter about Hudspeth making a move was becoming a distraction, so he put down his foot and stopped the rumor mill by himself.

Duly impressed, Louisiana rewarded Hudsepth with a serious salary bump in the offseason, more than doubling his annual compensation from $350K to $750K, which can buy a lot of crawfish. If nothing else, that will make Hudspeth think twice before jumping at the next opportunity that might come his way.

Still, even the sweetened Louisiana contract pales in comparison to the sort of deal Hudspeth could negotiate at a bigger locale. And with Hudspeth’s credentials getting further burnished in Lafayette after a highly-successful earlier run in the lower divisions at North Alabama, he figures to be in demand at plenty of locales other than Mississippi State. Other plum SEC jobs (perhaps at Arkansas and/or Tennessee, or maybe even Kentucky) could be opening soon, and another big year with the Ragin’ Cajuns could make Hudspeth a familiar name in coaching searches outside the region as well.

Indeed, if Hudspeth were a stock, and we were brokerage house analysts, we’d affix a “buy” recommendation ASAP.

Chances look good for Hudspeth to gain more notice this fall with an offense that returns nine starters from a strike force that scored a hefty 32.2 ppg in 2010. Including in that mix is savvy sr. southpaw QB Blaine Gautier (right), whose name more sounds like a chef in a fancy French restaurant in New Orleans but whose game reminds more of a dual-threat QB along the lines of former Washington Husky and longtime NFL QB Mark Brunell.

After seeing limited work during his first two seasons, spread pilot Gautier grabbed a hold of the starting QB job and never let go last fall, keeping mistakes to a minimum (only 6 picks) while exhibiting a playmaking bent that resulted in almost 3000 YP and 23 TD tosses, not to mention another 486 rush yards.

The QB of the future, Houston transfer Terrance Broadway, is eligible after sitting out last season and will serve as Gautier's caddy before likely having the stage to himself next fall.

Best of all, most of Gautier’s key supporting weaponry also returns, led by soph RB Alonzo Harris (left), who was the Belt’s Newcomer of the Year as a frosh in 2011 when rushing for 700 yards. Redshirt frosh Montrel Carter gained nearly 2400 all-purpose yards as a high school senior and impressed enough in spring to likely see the field on frequent occasions this fall. Four starters also return along a veteran OL led by sr. LT Leonardo Bates, although depth issues are a concern up front heading into fall camp.

With the exception of TE Ladarius Green (a 4th-round draft choice of the San Diego Chargers), all of Gautier’s top receiving threats are also back in the fold, including his top three wideouts featuring sr. Javone Lawson (63 catches for 1092 yards in 2011) plus reliable possession receiver Harry Peoples (right, vs. Florida Atlantic last October; 58 catches LY) and deep-ball threat Darryl Surgent, who gained 18.5 yards per reception with 6 TDs last fall. Northwestern State transfer Bradley Brown was a force for the Demons in Southland Conference play and will also contend for playing time.

The offense figures to be just as potent this fall as it was a year ago. The defense? We’re not sure.

Only four starters, including none on the defensive line, return from last season’s "D" that was rarely overrun but still allowed 30 points or more on eight different occasions. Among those departed were most of what passed for playmakers on last year’s Ragin’ Cajun stop unit, including productive DE Bernard Smith (among the Belt leaders with 6 ½ sacks and 13 tackles for loss), leading tackler LB Lance Kelley, and versatile rover Devon Lewis-Buchanan, who was also in double figures in tackles for loss (10 ½).

In all, four of the top five tacklers from 2011 have graduated.

Despite the departure of key contributors and several starters, many defensive returnees saw significant action last season. Moreover, a slew of transfers will be eligible in the fall who could make an immediate impact on d.c. Greg Stewart’s platoon that works out of a 3-3-5 base alignment.

Defensive end Jalen Fields, a 6'5, 280-lb. destroyer, will be one of those newcomers who will be hard to keep off of the field. Fields originally signed with Georgia before ending up in prep school at Georgia Military Academy the past two years. He could have an immediate impact in fall. Linebacker Delvin Jones was a four-star recruit out of high school who originally committed to Tennessee before signing with Ole Miss, eventually landing at Coffeyville (Kan.) JC after being dismissed in Oxford. Safety Darius “Tig” Barksdale was another four-star prep once rated as the No. 3 safety in the high school ranks by Scout.com. who originally signed with Ole Miss, only to eventually transfer to Jacksonville State because of legal problems.

All figure to help upgrade the stop unit, perhaps dramatically so, in the fall, teaming with holdovers such as productive corners Melvin White and Jemarlous Moten (left, in bowl action vs. San Diego State) and rover back Le’Marcus Gibson, all seniors and returning starters.

Finally, let’s not forget heroic PK Brett Baer, a Lou Groza Award candidate who took time off from his Fox News duties (don’t worry, we’re only kidding...and the FNC version actually spells it “Bret Baier”) who was a near-automatic 18 of 20 on FG attempts last fall and belted the dramatic game-winning 50-yarder at the final gun to beat San Diego State in the bowl game, not to mention making further contributions as an effective punter.

No word, however, if Shepard Smith or Bill O’Reilly will be moonlighting with the Ragin’ Cajuns this fall.

Spread-wise, keep in mind Hudspeth's solid 9-4 mark vs. the points a year ago, which continued a positive trend that began midway in Ricky Bustle's final season in charge in 2010 (the Ragin' Cajuns are now 13-5 vs. the line their last 18 on the board). Moreover, note Louisiana's perfect 8-0 spread mark as an udnerdog last fall (now 9-0 as the "short" since late 2010!).

Summary...Give Louisiana credit for realizing the prize it has in Hudspeth and doing its best to keep him in the fold in Lafayette for the long haul. We suspect that might be difficult if Hudspeth continues to post hard-to-ignore results such as last season, and more of the same could be on tap this fall with practically all of the offense (including smooth-operating southpaw spread QB Blaine Gautier) back in tow and several transfers on defense giving hints in spring that they could be difference-makers. Aside from payday trips to Oklahoma State (which also hosted the Ragin’ Cajuns last year, when Louisiana was somewhat respectable in a 61-34 defeat) and Florida, Louisiana could be favored in every other game this fall. A Sun Belt title and another bowl trip are hardly out of the question for the Ragin’ Cajuns and their supporters, who are best advised to enjoy the presence of HC Hudspeth while they can.


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