Team preview: Louisiana-Lafayette
Blue Ribbon Yearbook previews the 2006 college football season, exclusively on Insider.
It was a scene Ricky Bustle won't soon forget.
It was Friday, Sept. 2, 2005. The Ragin' Cajuns were preparing to open the season the next day against the Texas Longhorns. The coach's manual will tell you that no team in the country should have a hard time getting up for a game against Vince Young and the eventual national champions.
But, as Bustle soon learned, the coach's manual is written on paper, and life isn't lived on paper.
As the team was gathering for Friday night meetings to make some final preparations for the game, many players lingered out in the hallway. They were sending text messages to brothers, aunts, grandmothers and friends.
Think of the text messages as latter-day messages in bottles, cast out into the murky waters that blanketed New Orleans, addressed to loved ones not heard from since Hurricane Katrina slammed into the Gulf Coast and buried much of their hometown in a watery grave.
"They were trying to find out where they were," Bustle said, with a sense of disbelief still clouding his voice. "There's nothing in the coach's manual for that."
With 20 players on the roster from New Orleans, clearly many minds were elsewhere when Texas delivered Louisiana-Lafayette a 60-3 thrashing the next day. The losing didn't end with Texas, as the Ragin' Cajuns dropped five of their first six games. Bustle said he wasn't sure how to handle the situation. How do you come down hard on kids for losing football games as images of people stranded on their rooftops flicker across the television screen?
By the time Tuesday, Oct. 16, rolled around, the Ragin' Cajuns were 1-5, 0-2 in conference play. They were still smarting from a loss on Saturday in which the Ragin' Cajuns blew a 15-point lead before allowing Arkansas State to go 44 yards in the last 44 seconds to set up the game-winning field goal.
Much more important, the players had located every missing family member, and many of them had come to stay in Lafayette. However, the Ragin' Cajuns still seemed lost in a daze as they went through their paces in preparation for a game against Middle Tennessee.
Unable to take it any longer, Bustle blew his whistle and sat everyone down on the practice field.
The time had come to talk about it.
Bustle stomped through the eggshells he had been walking on and laid it on the line. He told his players he was tired of walking around with a knot in his stomach. He told them it was time to start playing some football. With that, he spun around and pointed at the Cajun Dome.
"There are thousands of people in the Cajun Dome who don't know where their next meal is coming from," Bustle said. "We may be 1-5, but we're the lucky ones. We're together."
Bustle had flipped the switch, and his team got down to business. It started that Saturday with a 13-10 come-from-behind win at Middle Tennessee. It continued with an emotional overtime win on homecoming against Troy.
The Ragin' Cajuns came from behind again on the road to claim a 31-28 win over North Texas before closing out the season with an easy 28-7 win over Florida International and a 54-21 blowout of rival Louisiana-Monroe.
The five-game winning streak tied them atop the conference standings, but it meant much more than any championship to those around the program. In the wake of a disaster like Katrina, sports can seem meaningless, but at the same time, sports can mean everything. With each win, excitement grew around the town of Lafayette, giving the storm-weary residents a three-hour escape each Saturday.
"We had every reason to throw in the towel, but we didn't do that," Bustle said. "And the excitement, that's a feeling we haven't had around here for a while."
During the spring, Bustle noticed a swagger within his team, a new attitude that can only come when a group of people has faced great adversity together and overcome it.
While no one knows what the 2006 season will bring, Bustle knows his program is stronger now than it's ever been. He's just hoping the players can ride the momentum gained in 2005. As far as that coach's manual, well, he seemed to do just fine without it.
In a conference where depth at quarterback is almost unheard of, the Ragin' Cajuns appear to have just that going into this season. Jerry Babb (6-3, 218) is back for his senior year and is without a doubt the starter, but injuries in 2005 allowed his backup, sophomore Michael Desormeaux (6-1, 195) to get four starts and some valuable experience.
When Babb came back from his injury, he wasted little time reclaiming his job. Babb was 22-of-31 passing and averaged 6.7 yards per carry to close out the season. It was just more of the same for Babb, who has established himself as the most accurate passer in school history and has also proven to be a dangerous runner.
Babb has completed 58.1 percent of his passes and rushed for 1,130 yards in his career, racking up 21 passing touchdowns and 13 more on the ground.
When Babb went down last year, Desormeaux stepped up, taking control of the Sun Belt's top offense without missing a beat. The freshman completed 53 percent of his passes for 597 yards and added 487 yards and three touchdowns on the ground. Desormeaux will likely spend one more season as Babb's understudy before stepping in to take over the job.
While pure emotion was the fuel during the five-game winning streak that ended the 2005 season, Tyrell Fenroy (5-10, 195) was the engine.
Fenroy broke out as a freshman last year, becoming the first running back in school history to rush for more than 1,000 yards. He did much of his damage over the final four games, gaining 569 yards on 96 carries with 10 touchdowns. Fenroy finished the year with 1,053 yards and 12 touchdowns on 179 carries. The sophomore now hopes to build on those numbers, but he will have company in the backfield.
Five other backs combined for 179 carries in 2005, matching Fenroy's number of carries. The group combined for 787 yards and 12 touchdowns, and three of the five will be back to provide depth in the backfield.
Depth and experience are not a luxury at fullback, however. It appears sophomore Chancellor Roberson (6-1, 240) holds the upper hand over signee Matt Desormeaux (6-1, 210) heading into the fall.
Roberson rarely saw the field during his freshman campaign. Desormeaux is the younger brother of Michael, the backup quarterback, and will have a good chance to play immediately. Given the lack of experience at fullback, don't be surprised if Bustle opts to go with two running backs while Roberson and Desormeaux learn the system.
Let's see here ... there's plenty of experience and depth at quarterback, ditto at running back, so where is the weakness on offense? It could be the wide-out position.
Bill Sampy is on his way to Philadelphia after signing a free-agent contract with the Eagles and Kevin Robbins will likely miss the 2006 season because of academics, leaving the Ragin' Cajuns without their top two receivers from a year ago.
What remains is a talented but inexperienced group. The athleticism is there, but the players will have to prove they can make big plays. Derrick Smith (6-1, 180) and Corey Fredrick (6-0, 195) are the only two returning receivers who had double-digits receptions a year ago.
Smith, a sophomore, made 22 catches for 250 yards and two touchdowns as a freshman. While he was a reliable target last year, it remains to be seen how he adjusts to being the feature receiver.
Like Robbins, Fredrick sat out of spring drills to focus on his academics. The odds are good that the senior will join the team in the fall, adding more stability to the position. Fredrick hauled in 21 receptions for 293 yards last year and would help take some of the heat off of Smith. Jason Chery (5-11, 180) had a solid spring in Fredrick's absence.
The sophomore had only seven catches as a freshman, but he showed the ability to make big plays during spring practice. Chery led all receivers with three receptions in the spring game, one of which was a 34-yard touchdown.
Junior Jordan Jackson (6-6, 220) will provide some depth at the position. Jackson's size makes him a large target, but that has yet to translate into receptions. Jackson made only one catch while appearing in eight games last year, but the departures at the position may give him a shot at more playing time.
The tight end position didn't figure prominently in the Ragin' Cajuns' passing game in 2005. Kevin Belton (6-4, 230) appeared in all 11 games and managed just two receptions. Belton, a senior, seems to have quite a battle on his hands with Erik Jones (6-4, 235). Jones, a sophomore, had a solid spring.
Redshirt freshman Matt Ulm (6-4, 245) will provide depth at the position.
Fenroy may have gotten the ink for becoming the first back in school history to surpass the 1,000-yard mark, but it was the O-line that opened the holes. The big guys up front also provided plenty of protection for Babb and Desormeaux. The unit surrendered only nine sacks all of last year, fourth in the nation.
While having fleet-footed quarterbacks also had a lot to do with the low sack total, there is no question the line was a big reason the Ragin' Cajuns were able to lead the conference in total offense in 2005.
The unit returns three starters from last season, anchored by senior Brandon Cox (6-7, 330). Cox was a first-team all-conference selection in 2005 and is expected to maintain his high level of play in 2006. He will once again start at right tackle, where his combination of size and speed will make him a tough assignment for opposing defenses.
Jesse Newman (6-4, 305) will be the starter at left tackle once again. Newman, a junior, also found his way onto the all-conference team last season and figures to anchor the left side of the line. The guard positions will be filled by a pair of guys who split time last year. Tim Falter (6-4, 310) and Will Chance (6-3, 295) did a solid job in 2005, but both will need to show the ability to play every game this year. Falter, a sophomore, will start on the left side while Chance, a junior, will line up on the right side.
The man in the middle will be junior college transfer Junior Ramos (6-3, 295). Ramos is making the move to center to fill the void left by Greg Hodges, an unquestioned leader on the team. While the starting unit looks just as solid as last year's group, everyone up front needs to stay healthy; there is little experience backing them up.
Of the 15 reserves on the roster, only Zach Leger (6-4, 290), Lanier Coleman (6-3, 315), Ryan Gilles (6-4, 290) and Tremaine Lewis (6-0, 285) have seen any playing time, and it doesn't amount to much. The quartet has been on the field a combined 142 snaps, leaving a huge question mark if any of the starters are out for an extended period of time.
This year marks the first time in Bustle's tenure at Louisiana-Lafayette that he has to replace a starting kicker. Sean Comiskey started out as a walk-on when he arrived, but he finished his career in 2005 as the school's all-time leading scorer among kickers. Comiskey was the only player to attempt a field goal or and extra point since Bustle's arrival.
Looking to replace him will be Drew Edmiston (6-4, 195) and Tyler Albrecht (6-0, 170). Edminston, a sophomore, has the edge over Albrecht, a freshman, going into the fall, but with neither player having any game experience at the college level, the job seems wide open.
During the first six games of the season, it seemed like the Ragin' Cajuns couldn't stop anybody. Louisiana-Lafayette allowed 35 points per game during the 1-5 start. But while the offense got much of the credit when the Ragin' Cajuns ran the table and won the last five games of the year, it was the defense that sparked the turnaround.
When the front four started getting to the quarterback, the wins started rolling in.
"We finally opened up the playbook and got after the quarterback," Bustle said. "I thought we played better defensively after that."
It started at Middle Tennessee, where the defense collected nine sacks, propelling the Ragin' Cajuns to a 13-10 win. The nine sacks matched the total Louisiana-Lafayette had in the entire 2004 season, and the defense didn't stop there. The Ragin' Cajuns allowed an average of only 18.8 points over the final five games, all victories.
The front four will need to keep the heat on opposing quarterbacks again this year, and the unit will need to improve against the run. Luckily, there is plenty of experience coming back.
Anthony Hills (6-4, 240) and Rodney Hardeway (6-3, 230) will start at the ends. Hills was an all-conference selection in 2005 thanks to his 19 tackles and four sacks. The senior was able to get into the backfield and make plays on a regular basis last year, and he'll need to do the same this season after the departure of Eugene Kwarteng.
Kwarteng had 43 tackles from his end position in 2005, leaving some slack for Hills to pick up.
Hardeway will take Kwarteng's place in the starting lineup. The junior had 18 tackles and three sacks as a backup in 2005 and figures to improve on those numbers as a starter.
A trio of seniors, Marshall Delesdernier (6-0, 276), Travis Ferguson (6-2, 295) and Joe Bradley (6-3, 265), have plenty of experience between them at the tackle positions. Marshall Delesdernier Delesdernier seems to have the inside track on one of the starting jobs while junior college transfer Korey Raymond (6-4, 290) has the advantage over Ferguson for the other starting position going into the fall. Marshall Delesdernier Raymond is one of two JUCO transfers -- defensive end Greg Hathorn (6-3, 245) is the other -- brought in to provide depth up front.
While the defensive line came on in a big way at the end of last season, the linebackers were solid from start to finish, and that trend should continue this year.
Mark Risher (6-1, 230) and Brent Burkhalter (6-0, 230) were the team's second- and third-leading tacklers respectively, in 2005, and both are back in the starting lineup this year. Risher ended the year with a team-best 59 tackles, five of them for loss. The junior also forced a pair of fumbles and recovered another, and he proved his durability by starting every game last year.
Burkhalter made a splash as a redshirt freshman, collecting 53 tackles and four sacks. He became the first freshman at Louisiana-Lafayette to make more than 50 tackles since Charles Tillman had 82 in 1999. Although he left the final game of the year with a wrist injury, Buckhalter figures to be a force to be reckoned with again this season.
Tre' Green (5-11, 215) will start at the third linebacker slot. Green started all 11 games in 2004 but only started two all of last year. The senior will replace Tyler Norman, last year's leading tackler, in the starting lineup, but he will have his share of competition.
Wes Simon (6-1, 200), a senior, was the opening day starter last year, but a concussion sidelined him after three games.
Mack Fair (5-11, 225) and Derek Morel (5-10, 210), both seniors, will also compete for the job. No matter who wins the starting job, there is sure to be plenty of talented, experienced depth at the position.
Six Ragin' Cajun defensive backs have found their way into the NFL the last five years, but Bustle and his staff just keep on reloading. The list of alumni in recent years is impressive. Ike Turner won a Super Bowl with Pittsburgh in January, Charles Tillman went to the playoffs with Chicago, Antwain Spann did the same in New England and C.C. Brown plays in Houston.
Perhaps other Ragin' Cajuns are destined to join them in the pros.
Louisiana-Lafayette returns all but one starter in the defensive backfield, along with plenty of players who have seen significant action. "It is definitely a strength for us," Bustle said. "We have a lot of guys back who have been in the battle, guys who were starters last year."
Michael Adams (5-8, 170) and Kyle Ward (6-2, 188) are the returning starters at the corners. Adams' main claim to fame last season came when he picked off Vince Young in the first game of the season, but he was solid all year long. The senior added another interception and recovered a fumble in 2005.
Adams also makes an impact on special teams. He blocked a pair of kicks last season to increase his career total to five. Ward, a junior, appeared in 10 games last season and started five of the final six. He moonlights on the track team in the off-season, and he put his speed on display during the final game of the season.
Ward grabbed an interception and returned it 53 yards to record the Ragin' Cajuns' only defensive score of the season. Senior Jarrett Jones (5-10, 190) and juniors Torres Kingsby (5-11, 190) and Jemarcus Smith (5-10, 180) have all seen action. Jones will take the field in nickel situations, while Smith and Kingby figure to provide depth.
Johnny Felders (5-11, 190) split time at strong safety last year, but the job is his this year. The senior has been an iron man for Louisiana-Lafayette, never missing a game in his career. Felders recorded 51 tackles, an interception and a fumble recovery in 2005.
Lamar Morgan (6-2, 210), who split time with Felders at strong safety last year, moves over to replace the departed Terryl Fenton at free safety. Morgan started five times and did a solid job last year, and the junior expects to improve his numbers now that he's the everyday starter.
Derik Keyes (5-9, 190) was a letterman in the secondary last year and will provide some experienced depth.
Punting has not been a strong suit for the Ragin' Cajuns in recent years, but Bustle said he feels OK about senior Brit Framel (6-1, 185) and junior David Schexnayder (6-3, 235) going into the fall.
It's the battle of the former starters, as Framel handled the punting duties last season and Schexnayder was the starter in 2004. Bustle hopes the competition will lead to improvement at a position where the Ragin' Cajuns ranked 111th nationally with a 31.7 yards-per-punt average in 2005.
When you have a head coach who spent seven years as an assistant at Virginia Tech, it stands to reason special teams will be a high priority. The Ragin' Cajuns have blocked 23 kicks the last four seasons, with five of them resulting in points. Michael Adams will once again field punts this season. Adams returned seven punts for 66 yards in 2005, good enough for a 9.4 yards-per-return average.
Adams helped raise the Ragin' Cajuns' punt return average from last in the Sun Belt Conference in 2004 to second last year. Derrick Smith and Jason Chery will handle kick returns. Louisiana-Lafayette was seventh in the conference in kick return yardage in 2005, and the speedy combo of Smith and Chery is a good start in addressing the situation.
Bustle is pleased with the resolve his team showed in 2005 and is expecting great things again in 2006. It has been said winning cures a lot of ills, and Bustle said he saw evidence of that during spring drills.
"They had to change their whole attitude," he said. "They had to change a lot of things, and they've done that. We saw it this spring."
After taking over the program in 2001, Bustle is finally coaching a team made up exclusively of players he and his staff recruited. The team certainly has Bustle's fingerprints all over it.
The quarterbacks have cannons for arms and can really motor when they take off and run. If that description conjures images of someone named Mike Vick, it's no coincidence. Bustle coached Vick as an assistant at Virginia Tech.
The Hokie influence also carries over to special teams. Frank Beamer's careful attention to special teams is well documented, and it has obviously worn off on Bustle. The Ragin' Cajuns have blocked 23 kicks the last four years, including a pair against North Texas last year that helped secure a victory.
The five-game winning streak and last year's share of a conference championship signal that Louisiana-Lafayette is a program heading in the right direction. Provided the lines can stay healthy and somebody steps up at receiver, it will be hard to keep Louisiana-Lafayette from winning the Sun Belt.
Working to the Ragin' Cajun's advantage is that Arkansas State and Louisiana-Monroe, the two other teams tied atop the standings in 2005, will have to come to Lafayette to play. Of course, anything can happen on any given Saturday in the Sun Belt, but look for the Ragin' Cajuns to win the league as long as they stay healthy.
For the most comprehensive previews available on all 119 Division I teams, order the "Bible" of college football, the 2006 Blue Ribbon College Football Yearbook, at www.blueribbonyearbook.com or call 1-866-805-BALL (2255).