- Andrea Adelson, ESPN Staff Writer
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He is in his first season as a head coach. His team is young. Not particularly deep, either.
Does that sound like a recipe for success?
Louisiana-Lafayette coach Mark Hudspeth laughed when asked that very question. His team has bucked convention at 6-1, setting the record for best start in Sun Belt history as it prepares to play Western Kentucky on Saturday. Hudspeth took over a team that went 3-9 last season and a program that many said could never win.
“Our team has bought into the work ethic I wanted to bring into our program,” Hudspeth said in a recent phone interview. “I feel we’ve outworked everybody in the country to prepare our team physically and mentally.
“It sometimes takes a while for the guys to buy in, but our guys bought in to what we were doing early and that allowed us to get more quality work done. We’ve done a lot of work in nine months.”
Hudspeth was hired last December after serving as passing game coordinator/receivers coach under Dan Mullen at Mississippi State. He spent seven seasons as head coach at Division II North Alabama, going to the playoffs five times.
Though he had applied for other head-coaching jobs on the FBS level, nobody showed much interest. Until ULL.
“This place is a gold mine just sitting here and hasn’t had the right person to come in here and light the fuse,” Hudspeth said. “Hopefully we may have done that. A lot of people now see some of the success we’re having and see the hard work is paying off and are now ready to jump on board even more financially to take it to a new level. We want to take it to a new level, not just keep up with the Joneses. We want to be the Joneses.”
Hudspeth points to the rich recruiting and economic region ULL is in, along with a bustling town and support for the team. With one home game remaining, the Ragin' Cajuns are on pace to set the school record for average home attendance and break the current mark of 25,224 set in 1977.
Success leads to support, of course, and Hudspeth could not be prouder of his team. When he came in, he made absolutely sure he embraced his returning players and made them feel they were just as much a part of his efforts as the players he was bringing in.
“I told the seniors, ‘I’m not trying to rebuild and push you aside,’” Hudspeth said. “We want to win now, and do everything we can to win now.”
But he also opened every single position for competition.
The Cajuns had starting quarterback Chris Masson coming back, but Blaine Gautier has won the job and been extremely efficient and productive, throwing for 1,054 yards, 10 touchdowns and one interception, while adding 225 yards rushing and a score. When Gautier got hurt against Troy, Masson filled in and led the team with an impressive win.
Hudspeth has had to rely on some new players as well. Five true freshmen are starting, and both running backs are first-year players. Receiver Harry Peoples and safety Jemarlous Moten have been impact starters as junior college transfers.
“If we didn’t hit home runs with them, that would have left holes on both sides of the ball,” Hudspeth said.
ULL already has wins over Sun Belt preseason favorites FIU and Troy, and is in control of the conference race. If the Ragin' Cajuns hang on, they will clinch the first Sun Belt title in school history. They already have become bowl eligible.
But that is not something that concerns Hudspeth. He has not even mentioned it once to his team.
“I don’t want the secretaries, the coaches, the players, the managers or the trainers coming up for air to look and see where we’re at,” Hudspeth said. “We’re going to put our head down and keep swimming as hard as we can.”