If Louisiana-Lafayette gets out of the gate slowly, no one associated with the Ragin' Cajuns will panic. Not after the team regrouped from last year's 0-7 beginning by winning four of its last five to finish second in the Sun Belt Conference.
However, a similar start in 2004 won't bode well for an upper-division finish, much less a run at the title.
OffenseLast season, Louisiana-Lafayette generated two-thirds of its offense through the air. This year, the Ragin' Cajuns will try to strike a better balance, and they have just the man to lead such a charge in sophomore quarterback Jerry Babb. Babb has the athletic ability to keep a defense guessing. In leading UL Lafayette to four wins in its final five games, he completed 63 percent of his passes, averaged 46 yards rushing and accounted for 10 touchdowns. He lost his top receiver in first team All-Sun Belt selection Fred Stamps, but has two superbly talented threats returning in Bill Sampy and Kemmie Lewis.
While not particularly prolific, the Cajuns do have depth in the backfield, where Chester Johnson (421 yards) is the top returnee. However, he missed spring practice with a shoulder injury.
Three vacancies need to be filled up front, but several experienced players are ready to go, including seniors Ronnie Harvey (center) and Bryan Lloyd (right guard). Greg Hodges (left guard) returns after being granted a medical redshirt due to a season-ending injury in 2003. The line's premier talent is left tackle Brandon Cox, who started 12 games last year as a true freshman.
DefenseUL Lafayette will switch from a multiple eight-man front to a more conservative 4-3 alignment to help prevent big plays and to compensate for a decimated front. It's not entirely fair to say the line is a make-or-break unit, but prospects for a breakout season hinge greatly on its development. Travis Bass and Eugene Kwarteng appeared in all 12 games and will man the ends. Ken Haynes started three games and will anchor the interior. He'll be joined by veteran Justin Taylor, who missed last season with an injury, and Marshall Delesdernier, a former starter on the O-line who switched sides in the spring.
The Cajuns look to be 3-deep at each linebacking slot, but Stanley Smith, the team's most experienced player, is the only returning starter. He has the middle covered with Tyler Norman and redshirt freshman Mark Risher to either side.
The secondary could be one of the Belt's best with all four starters back in the fold. Strong safety C.C. Brown, a second-team all-conference pick in '03, had 67 tackles, one less than team leader David Prater, who returns at free safety. Terryl Fenton and Jerrell Carter are returning starters at cornerback, although Carter was listed behind Michael Adams after spring drills.
SpecialistsKicker Sean Comiskey, who coach Rickey Bustle said, "works harder than any other kicker I've been around," is back after being named first team All-Sun Belt. He's only missed two field goal attempts inside the 40 during his career. David Schexnayder and Mike Mayeaux are the leading candidates to replace punter Grant Autrey.
Final AnalysisIt is critical for Bustle's third Ragin' Cajun team to shore up its weaknesses early, specifically along a decimated defensive front. To that end, a newly installed 4-3 defensive alignment should be helpful. A proven passer and respectable rushers make for a balanced offense.