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Football: Taking time to appreciate Cajuns quarterback Nunez

Tim Buckley, The Advertiser, October 15, 2018

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It’s easy to overlook what he does, especially with the ground game UL has relied on so heavily in 2018.

But, before his days with the Ragin’ Cajuns have come and gone, maybe it’s high time to start appreciating senior quarterback Andre Nunez.

Especially now.

The California kid merely went 19-of-25 for 315 yards and five touchdowns with no interceptions in UL’s 66-38 Homecoming win over New Mexico State on Saturday night at Cajun Field.

Related: Records fall, points pile up in Cajuns win over NMSU

His 315 yards were a personal Cajun career-high.

His 19-of-25 pushed his completion percentage on the year to .663 at 65-of-98, which ranks 25th in the nation at the halfway point of the season.

That’s not far off Terrance Broadway’s 2012 single-season school record of 65.4 percent.

And that doesn’t happen by accident.

Moreover, his five TD throws tied the 1996 school record set by Cajun great and ex-NFL quarterback Jake Delhomme.

Some naysaying UL fans might not want to see Nunez’s name right up there with a legend like Delhomme’s.

That’s silly.

And it’s there now, which is all the more reason to admire what he’s doing despite not necessarily having a hall of fame or pro career in the making.

More: Breakdown of the New Mexico State win

Yet it seems so much of what Nunez does is not just taken for granted; all too often, it’s sniffed at by some.

Not by Billy Napier, though.

The first-year Cajuns head coach and play-caller didn’t recruit Nunez, but the former college QB – perhaps as much as anyone – appreciates what the Sierra Canyon (Calif.) High product has done.

“I think Andre is a product of great preparation, a great offseason,” said Napier, who played at Furman.

By his own admission, don’t forget, Nunez hasn’t always been the best film-room guy since he set foot on UL’s campus following juco stops at both Glendale Community College in his native California and later Iowa Western Community College.

Yet …

“From Day 1 he’s been one of the hardest workers on our football team,” Napier said after Saturday’s win.

“He had a tremendous offseason physically. But, in general, he knows how to be a student of the game. He prepared well this week. He practiced really well.”

Column: Forget explaining the score — simply relish the execution

When UL’s offense is at its best, like it was against NMSU, it operates like a video game.

Napier handed Nunez the remote, and – realizing how many skill players he inherited from the former staff of the fired Mark Hudspeth – told him all he had to do was push the right buttons.

Nunez did just that against the Aggies, and that’s why Saturday – when UL (3-3) enjoyed a school-record 37 first downs and a school-record 759 yards of total offense – seemed so magical.

Four Cajuns caught touchdown passes from Nunez, with Jarrod “Bam” Jackson taking in two and Ja’Marcus Bradley, Ryheem Malone and running back Trey Ragas one each.

Nunez and the Cajuns exploited the edges on New Mexico State’s defense, evidenced by the swing pass to Ragas that created a score, and shoved it up the gut too.

Elijah Mitchell ran 12 time for 107 yards and three touchdowns, marking the seventh time in six games this season a Cajun running back has finished with 100 or more yards.

Ragas, who has four of those 100-plus-yard games, finished with 94 yards and could easily have surpassed 100 again if Napier hadn’t pulled him to get Ashton Johnson and Jordan Wright some late-game carries.

Jackson had four catches.

Earnest Patterson was credited with three for 114 yards with a 79-yard touchdown on a double-reverse that started as a pass play run by backup quarterback Levi Lewis.

Malone and Ragas also had three catches each, and Ja’Marcus Bradley had one from Nunez that went for 50 yards, 15 in the air, for UL’s first TD.

More: Napier wants UL to open better, and it starts … now

“A lot of players played well around (Nunez),” Napier said.

“You know, typically at quarterback you’re dependent on a lot of people. So, I think his teammates played well around him, and he’s been a very capable guy.

“I told you guys that from the beginning,” Napier added. “I think he’s pretty talented and can do well going forward.”

All that said, even Napier slipped at one point in his postgame remarks.

“And the quarterback did what he was supposed to do,” he said.

No, Coach.

On this night, Nunez did more than he was supposed to. He wasn’t just a facilitator.

And Napier knows that. Most Cajun fans who saw it should too.

Yet some are so quick to knock Nunez, saying he hands the ball off too much instead of carrying it more himself on read-options, making things too predictable at times.

But with top-three running back picks like Ragas, Mitchell (who also had a 191-yard at Texas State) and Raymond Calais Jr. (who ran for 108 against Coastal Carolina), it’s frankly hard to blame him for that.

Especially after the concussion he sustained at Arkansas State that essentially ended his 2017 season shortly after he had claimed the starting job.

Related: After ‘difficult’ end to 2017, Cajun QB Nunez starts fresh

More: Cajuns’ Mitchell was promised ‘it’s going to be there’

Some say he can’t consistently throw the deep ball – perhaps that’s so, relatively speaking – and whine when he underthrows an open target.

But Nunez makes short and sometimes intermediate completions with zip and precision.

After Saturday’s 76 percent, in fact, he’s had three games this season with a completion percent better than 72, including 86.4 in a season-opening win  over Grambling; one at 60, against No. 1 Alabama; and none lower than 50.

And against the Aggies, four of his five scoring passes went for 22 yards or more – including one dropped on the money to Jackson in the end zone.

All that helped put Nunez’s name right up there next to that of Delhomme, who’s as classy as they come in Cajun country.

More: Cajuns QB Nunez named starter for UL’s opener against Grambling

This is not to say Nunez plays in the same class as Delhomme did. That was rarefied air, even below sea level.

Yet Delhomme’s name isn’t the only one Nunez’s now is high beside.

Only 33 other times has a Cajun quarterback thrown for 300 or more yards in a game, but just 12 UL QBs accounted for those first 33:

* Eric Rekieta, with a record 473 against UL Monroe in 2003;

* Broadway, six times;

* Delhomme and Blaine Gautier, five times each;

* Jerry Babb and Jon Van Cleave, four times each;

* Chris Masson, three times; and

* Brad McGuire, Dwight Prudhomme, Brian Mitchell, Jordan Davis and Roy Henry, once each.

Now Nunez makes it 13 and 34.

So, deal with it. Embrace it. Appreciate it.

Nunez does.

“It’s a good feeling,” he said of tying Delhomme’s record.

“But, you know, in the bigger picture, it’s not just me. It’s the guys on the o-line. It’s my wideouts.”

A guy who spreads the wealth.

Now that’s worth appreciating. As is he, before it’s too late.

More: Cajuns QB Nunez ‘a pretty cool cucumber’