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Ragin' Cajuns Highlight Day 2 of Sun Belt Media Days

Louisiana is the defending SBC champions | Picked to Finish 1st in SBC West
Cajuns Sun Belt Media Day.jpg
Posted at 11:33 PM, Jul 27, 2022
and last updated 2022-07-28 00:40:39-04

NEW ORLEANS — Tuesday’s opening day of the Sun Belt Conference’s annual Football Media Days emphasized the strength of the league’s newly-expanded East Division.

On Wednesday, the Sun Belt’s West Division coaches said, in effect, hold on a minute. The West is going to be no cakewalk, and the league’s 2021 champion came out of a West Division that itself added two teams—one new member in Southern Miss and one reshuffle with Troy moving to the West.

“I know this, from top to bottom, it’s as competitive a conference as there is, regardless of West or East,” said Arkansas State head coach Butch Jones. “When you look at the four additions to this conference and you look at what they’ve been able to accomplish and look at their brands, it’s impressive. On our side, what makes it exciting is everyone has a chance to end the season as divisional champion.”

The league’s seven West Division head coaches and student-athletes were in the spotlight Wednesday on the event’s second and final day, after the East had the floor on Tuesday.

Louisiana, the defending conference champion after downing App State in last year’s title game, enters the season on an FBS-leading 13-game winning streak that came at the end of a record-setting 13-1 season. However, seven of those wins came by single-digit margins, five of them were by five-or-fewer points and four of them were decided on one team’s final possession.

“It’s an expectation and a confidence that our guys know that they’re going to win,” said first-year Louisiana head coach Michael Desormeaux. “One of our themes this year is the difference is in the details, and I truly believe that. Those details have made the difference for us in a lot of these close games.”

The Ragin’ Cajuns are the consensus pick to win the West once again, but with six of the West’s seven head coaches either in their first or second year with their programs, it’s by no means a given that Louisiana will be in the title game for the fifth-straight time.

“You’ve got a lot of high-quality coaches that are elevating their programs, pushing the envelope to get better every day,” said first-year Troy head coach Jon Sumrall. “The Sun Belt West is going to continue to rise and become more competitive. There’s a lot of talk about the East teams that have had a lot of success, but I have a great deal of respect for every coach and every program on our side. It’s going to be a really competitive year on our side.”

“The competition in the West is very strong,” said Texas State head coach Jake Spavital, the veteran of the West in his fourth season. “The Sun Belt’s a very fun league to be a part of. If we’re up 21 or down 21, it’s always going to come down to a one-possession game. You’re going to look back at the end of the year and the divisions are going to be pretty even and the rankings are going to be different than what a lot of people expect.”

“Our conference certainly got better this year with the addition of the four new schools,” Desormeaux said, referring to the addition of James Madison, Marshall and Old Dominion along with Southern Miss. “I’m really excited about the rivalries that it creates, and the regional matchups that go back a long time before there even was a Sun Belt.”

Commissioner Keith Gill talked about the new regional rivalries during his State of the Conference address on Tuesday. On Wednesday, it was Sun Belt coordinator of football officials John McDaid’s turn to open the festivities, and he provided an in-depth statistical analysis of college football, specifically in the Sun Belt, as it relates to officiating and overall game issues.

That included the Sun Belt once again ranking as the league with the fewest penalties per game among all non-autonomy leagues and the second-fewest among all FBS conferences. The national average in the 2022 season was 14.4 fouls per game, but Sun Belt teams had only 13.1 fouls per game. The league was the lowest among all 10 conferences last year.

“That’s eye-opening,” said McDaid, who also coordinates officials in a symposium that includes the SEC and the Southern Conferences. “Our number of fouls per game has been relatively flat nationally for the past six years (the average per game was 14.5 in 2020), and the Sun Belt has been well below that average each of the past two years.”

Replay stoppages, an area that draws the ire of many fans, were down nationally to 2.2 per game in 2021, compared to 2.5 in 2020—a decrease of almost 12 percent. Sun Belt stoppages were above the national average with 2.4 per game, but the average stoppage time in Sun Belt replays was only 57 seconds compared to the national average of 1:25 – that also down from 1:28 from 2002.

McDaid pointed out the major difference between college football and its NFL counterpart when it came to the number of plays run per game, an area where college ranks well ahead of the pro ranks.

“The fastest NFL team last year would have ranked 74th in the FBS in plays per game,” he said, citing the FBS average of 180.3 offensive plays per game. That number has also been relatively flat for the past several years, with the Sun Belt slightly lower during the past season with a 175.8 plays-per-game average.

McDaid also had an extensive video and slide package to highlight a major rule change this year, one that might not be obvious to casual fans but one that he said would have a huge impact. The change involves blocking below the waist, and new regulations this year that make it much more restrictive on those blocks. All blocks below the waist will have to come from linemen who started within five yards of the ball and must be done within that box, and regulations now ban tight ends and several other positions from doing any below-the-waist blocking as part of a safety concern.

“This is a major change from last year,” he said. “This will affect how offensive football is coached and how offensive football needs to be executed on the field from previous years.”

There is also one minor change in the targeting rule involving off-field enforcement. Confirmed targeting calls only happened 0.2 times per game across the FBS last year, an average of one in every five games (the Sun Belt was above that average with just over 0.3 per game).

This year, for confirmed targeting in second halves of games that mandate disqualification for the first half of the next game, conferences can now ask for a video review by national officials coordinator Steve Shaw—who served in that role for the Sun Belt for several years. If that national review agrees that targeting did not occur, the conference can remove the carryover of the first-half disqualification for the next game.

“Canadian, you are …”
Texas State junior offensive guard Kyle Hergel is one of only a handful of Canadian products playing FBS football in the United States. But the Toronto, Ontario, native said that those numbers are growing.

“It’s starting to open up a little bit more north of the border,” Hergel said. “It’s an honor to be up here representing my country along with Texas State. I think a lot of it has to do with guys that are Canadians who are playing in the NFL now, they’ve kind of opened up the doors for the next generation that’s following. I just hope to be one of those guys.”

A total of 29 Canadian products are currently on NFL active rosters, an average of about one per NFL team. Twelve of those are from Hergel’s native Ontario, including two from his Toronto hometown – New England Patriots wide receiver N’Keal Harry and Indianapolis Colts fullback Nikola Kalinic.

The transfer from North Dakota has already made an impact in one season and was named to the Preseason All-Sun Belt Second Team.

“I’m trying to give back to the community that gave me so much and gave me my opportunity to move to the States side and play football at the highest level,” Hergel said. “It just takes the right staff and the right understanding that we can play ball. Me continuing to try to do what I’m doing and playing well is going to help more Canadian kids and their recruitment process for sure.”

Fourth-year Texas State head coach Jake Spavital is one believer.

“Guys like Kyle are the epitome of what we’re trying to do and what we’re trying to change at Texas State,” Spavital said. “He’s got an extremely good work ethic. He has absolutely been a great addition to our program.”

“Who’s the new Levi …”
Louisiana’s Ragin’ Cajuns have won all four of the Sun Belt West Division titles since the inauguration of divisional play and are favored to make it five in a row. But to do that, Louisiana will have to fill the large shoes of three-year starting quarterback Levi Lewis, who led the Cajuns to a three-year 33-5 record and a season-ending ranking in the AP Top 20 each of the last two seasons.

“What Levi’s done for our football team the past two years is nothing short of phenomenal,” said head coach Michael Desormeaux. “When you start breaking records of guys like Jake Delhomme, that says quite a bit.”

“The theme for us this year is opportunity. We’ve recruited really well and we’ve signed good players, and the quarterback room is certainly no exception. There’s a lot of really talented kids in there, a bunch of guys in the future that are going to be really good players.”

The two most likely candidates are redshirt sophomore Chandler Fields and Fresno State transfer Ben Wooldridge.

“The leadership qualities are there, the work ethic is there, and they’re both really talented,” said Desormeaux, himself a record-setting quarterback at Louisiana. “There’s nothing wrong with competition. At any position, if you’ve got more competition it makes you better. We’ll find ways to get them the reps that they need, but I feel really good about those guys. Whoever wins this job they’re going to allow us to go out there and be what we want to be.”

“Grand-dad Terry …”
ULM head coach Terry Bowden lost his father, the long-time and legendary Florida State head coach Bobby Bowden, last year. But he didn’t lose the impact the elder Bowden made on college football, and Terry said he sees himself becoming more like his father as far as coaching style.

“I used to make fun because my dad for so many years, he was the grandfatherly guy,” Bowden said. “To us he wasn’t the fatherly coach, he was the grandfatherly coach that we remember.

“At times, I’m becoming the grandfatherly coach. I think my players do know how much I love them, because I want them to be successful beyond my time here. My time is not going to be forever … I’m 66 years old and I’m going to coach until they don’t want me to coach anymore.”

“You look at any player on our team, any staff member on the team, he puts his all into this program, and the players see that,” said graduate student wide receiver Boogie Knight. “He loves his players, he’s a personable person and a players’ coach. You want to have that type of connection with your coach and your staff, and you’re going to play better when it’s someone that you trust and you want to play for.”

“Coming to ULM and being able to be coached by Coach Bowden really helped out,” said graduate student linebacker Zack Woodard “He’s a true players’ coach. A lot of people say they are, but he’s a true players’ coach. Everything he does for ULM is aimed at us.”

“Superback may be back …”
Southern Miss had to make a radical step late in the 2021 season when first-year head coach Will Hall used the “Super Back” concept after an eight-game losing streak and a lack of consistency at quarterback.

“Desperate times called for desperate measures,” Hall said. “Last year the last two games we didn’t play a quarterback. We snapped it to a running back and we rotated them in.” Several skill position players were the recipients of those direct snaps.

The change worked. The Golden Eagles took a surprise 35-19 win at Louisiana Tech and beat FIU 37-17 in its home season finale, finishing a year in which Southern Miss had only 62 scholarship players active.

“We got a lot of attention,” Hall said, “but we really did it because we were so thin with the roster, to the point that it was almost unhealthy to play a whole college football game with that reduced amount of players.

“What we did was we milked it down to one second (on the play clock) and reduced the whole football game by probably about 40 snaps. That’s 40 snaps a game that we didn’t have to have our young men out on the field, which gave our kids a chance. We were getting into the second half of a lot of games and we were in it, and we just got tired. We didn’t have enough bodies.”

The Eagles, one of the four new members in the Sun Belt this season and the only newcomer in the West Division, won’t be as short at quarterback this year

“We don’t want to have to do that again,” Hall said. “We will use the Super Back offense each week and it’ll be part of what we do. But we’d like to get back to being quarterback driven. Southern Miss is known for quarterbacks, we’ve had great quarterbacks go to the NFL, and we want to get back to that.”

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