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Football: UL’s defensive coordinator leaving for position with Saints

Tim Buckley, The Advertiser, February 11, 2015


One week to the day after National Signing Day, UL lost the last remaining defensive coaching staff member from the start of its 2014 season.

Defensive coordinator/inside linebackers coach James Willis has left the program for a position with the New Orleans Saints, the Saints first announced and the Ragin’ Cajuns later confirmed Wednesday.

Willis’ new title with the Saints is defensive assistant/linebackers.

The hire was among several coaching staff additions announced by the NFL team on Wednesday, and Cajuns head coach Mark Hudspeth suggested he did not expect it until he received a recent phone call.

"Sean (Saints head coach Sean Payton) called me last week to let me know he wanted to meet with James," Hudspeth said by phone on Wednesday, "and at that point I felt like it probably would happen.

"I knew they would be impressed with him, and I knew if they met with him it would more than likely go in that direction."

Hudspeth said he hoped to have a successor named sometime next week, and that both Melvin Smith and Mike Lucas – two new Cajun assistant coaches – both are candidates.

The 42-year-old Willis, a former Auburn and Alabama assistant coach and ex-Texas Tech defensive coordinator, was UL’s defensive coordinator for two seasons.

He was not currently under contract with the school and no buyout is involved, a UL spokesman said.

Willis – also a former NFL player himself for seven seasons, with Green Bay, Philadelphia and Seattle from 1993-99 – did not immediately respond to a request for comment on his decision to leave.

Hudspeth also hopes to have a new defensive line coach hired within the next week.

Smith – mostly recently Auburn’s cornerbacks coach, and a longtime Mississippi State defensive backs coach in two different stints – was hired last month as UL’s secondary coach and co-defensive coordinator.

Lucas – most recently Northwestern State’s defensive coordinator, and the former head coach at Southeastern Louisiana – also was hired last month, as outside linebackers coach.

Removing the "co" designation and naming Smith defensive coordinator "is a possibility," Hudspeth said. But promoting Lucas is another, the Cajun coach added.

Smith was named "co-defensive coordinator" even though Willis retained his DC title. He’s been a college assistant, mostly at SEC schools, since 1992, but hasn’t been a coordinator since holding the post at Delta State in 1991.

Lucas also was defensive coordinator at Southeastern Louisiana for two years prior to becoming the Lions’ head coach in 2007, was a longtime defensive coordinator at FCS Sam Houston State and was defensive coordinator at NCAA Division II Eastern New Mexico in the mid-1980s.

Willis nearly left UL after last season to become linebackers coach at Florida State, but he had a change of heart after the news was announced and stayed instead.

This time no such waffling is expected.

"I’m excited for James and his opportunity," Hudspeth said in a statement regarding Willis, who made $150,000 in 2013 and $165,000 last season.

"Obviously, as a player in the National Football League, he has to be excited to have the opportunity to go back and coach at the highest level. We appreciate the work that James did here at UL and wish him and his family the best in the future.

"You know you have good people on your staff," Hudspeth added, "when other universities hire your coaches to be head coaches and the NFL comes calling for your coaches as well."

Willis’ move now means UL will have an entirely new defensive staff compared to the start of last season.

Secondary coach Tim Rebowe left after the season to become head coach at Nicholls State, and was replaced by Smith, who has worked as an assistant at Ole Miss, Alabama and Texas A&M in addition to Mississippi State and Auburn.

Lucas replaced interim outside linebackers coach Matt Wallerstedt, who left UL after the 2014 season to become defensive coordinator at North Carolina-Charlotte.

Wallerstedt was a replacement for David Saunders, who resigned during the season for undisclosed personal reasons.

The Cajuns also have been searching for a successor to defensive line coach Tim Edwards, who was let go after the 2014 season.

With Edwards still not replaced, Hudspeth now is left to hire two new defensive assistants – and name a coordinator – with less than three weeks to go before the start of spring practice.

"I think I’m gonna have this all put together," Hudspeth said, "no later than the middle of next week."

The prior staff shakeups, Hudspeth suggested when asked, is not the reason Willis decided to leave.

"Definitely this had to do with Sean (Payton) coming in and offering a job," he said, "and obviously when you go to the National Football League you step up in your tax bracket too.

"So," Hudspeth added, "I think this is a great opportunity for him."