Football: New system has Cajuns averaging 40-plus points per game
Tim Buckley, The Advertsier, Oct. 1, 2017
When he was hired early this year, new UL offensive coordinator Will Hall promised he’d build around the talent he inherited and employ a system friendly to the skill set of his quarterbacks.
Hall also vowed that under his watch the Ragin’ Cajuns would score.
Often, one can only presume.
Four games into the 2017 season, with the 1-3 Cajuns visiting Idaho on Saturday coming off a 56-50 double-overtime loss to UL Monroe followed by a much-needed bye week, Hall’s offense is delivering.
UL, it’s apparent, is quite capable of producing something head coach Mark Hudspeth suggests it cannot afford to be without — especially with the Cajuns’ defense struggling like it has been so far this year.
“We’ve got the ability to score points,” Hudspeth said.
At 41.0, the Cajuns led the Sun Belt Conference in points per game heading into this weekend’s action.
That’s 17.4 more than a season ago.
UL also is averaging 448.0 yards per game, well up from 357.2 in 2016.
It’s all because of an offense redesigned around its top playmakers, which in this case means its receivers and — in a somewhat unanticipated twist — two running backs doing their fair share.“Whoever the playmakers are,” Hall said upon his arrival, “if you’re going to be a good coach, you’ve got to make sure they are the integral part and the focal point.
“Players are the ones that ultimately make it happen.”
The system, though, facilitates that.
And without it, it doesn’t matter how many offensive weapons the Cajuns may have.
“You can have all the tools in the world,” junior receiver Keenan Barnes said, “but if you don’t know how to use them, then there’s no point.”
'HE LIKES TO THROW IT AROUND'
Hall’s offense — no-huddle, run out of the spread — is a matchup-based scheme designed to exploit mismatches and beat passing-game coverages, balanced by a ground game that keeps defenses honest.
Quarterbacks Jordan Davis and, in his one game this season, Andre Nunez have mixed things up with lots of quick darts, seam-route throws and even some crossing patterns.
There are fewer 50-50 balls than in the past, but still some long shots on occasion to loosen the defense.
Hall isn’t afraid to pull out trick plays, either, including one that worked when Davis threw to running back Darius Hoggins before receiving a pass back from Hoggins.
The Cajuns have utilized a trips formation. They’ve used, somewhat often, a four-receiver grouping. And they even opened with an empty backfield in their Sept. 16 loss at Texas A&M.
Whatever works, whatever it takes to move the chains.
“I think Will has done a really good job of getting the ball to some playmakers, really opening up some things and creating some shot plays down the field,” Hudspeth said of Hall after the Tulsa game — a 66-42 Cajuns loss — in which Davis threw for 309 yards and two touchdowns while also running for 60 yards and two TDs.
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That’s precisely what Hudspeth expected from Hall, his own former QB at North Alabama.
Although his schemes have varied, suiting the needs of individual offenses and teams he’s coached, one commonality for Hall has been the base from which it’s been derived.
“He’s always been a spread,” Hudspeth said of Hall, who held head coaching jobs at NCAA Division II programs West Alabama and West Georgia in addition to being offensive coordinator at West Alabama and two smaller programs.
“Every spread is different, so when you say the word ‘spread’ it’s very generic. But he’s always been a no-huddle spread football team that’s thrown the ball exceptionally well, and been very effective running the ball.”
At West Georgia, where he was head coach from 2014-16, Hall did most of his own play-calling and “ran a lot of power read and different types of option out of the gun,” according to his father, Bobby Hall, a longtime Mississippi high school coach.
But when West Georgia had a taller-than-usual quarterback in 2016, it adapted and went more from under center than it would have otherwise.
“He likes to throw it around a lot, too,” Bobby Hall said when his son made the move to UL, “especially if he’s got the people that can throw it and catch it.”
THE HANDS TEAM
Hall has just that at UL.
The Cajuns went into the season hyping four receivers in particular — Keenan Barnes, Ja’Marcus Bradley, Michael Jacquet and Ryheem Malone — and how each can benefit from the new system.
“Those four guys, to me, can be as good as anybody in this league,” Hudspeth said before the season began.
As it turns out, three of the four — Barnes, Jacquet and slot receiver Malone — have at least 15 total catches through four games so far.
Bradley has only nine, but that’s mostly because defenses have frequently taken him away — freeing up others.
With Malone (shoulder) hurting against ULM, meanwhile, reserve receiver Jarrod Jackson had seven catches for 113 yards and a touchdown in that one game alone.
Jacquet also had seven catches against the Warhawks.
At Tulsa, two Cajuns receivers — Barnes and Malone — each had more than 100 receiving yards.
Barnes, as somewhat expected, has emerged as UL’s top receiver with 25 catches in all for 329 yards and one touchdown, including three for 70 yards in a season-opening win over Southeastern Louisiana, six for 102 yards and the one TD at Tulsa and 12 for 118 yards at Texas A&M.
He had a Sun Belt high-tying six touchdown receptions last season.
Whoever has the most catches and/or yardage each outing this year, though, isn’t necessarily pre-planned, the Cajuns contend.
Rather, the fact so many are involved reflects how the system is designed to take what it is given.
“He (Hall) wants to try to get all the guys involved early in the game, to sort of get them into the game a little bit,” Hudspeth said.
But much after that depends on how a defense is playing the Cajuns.
“You know, we don’t determine who gets the ball,” Hudspeth said. “The defense and the coverage determines that.”
When it wasn’t Barnes so much against ULM, it was Jackson and Jacquet.
“It’s really just … what we’re trying to do to the defense — what kind of disadvantage we’re trying to put them in,” Barnes said.
“We don’t go into a week game-planning just one receiver,” Davis added, “because all of our receivers are valuable assets to me and this team and they all do a great job … giving me a chance to get them the ball and make plays.”
In Hall’s system, it’s important for the quarterback to run through his progressions each pass play.
If it’s one guy who is more open than the rest on any given day, so be it.
“I don’t have to put it in my mind, ‘Let me get him the ball, or him the ball,’” Davis said.
“Within the offense, it will naturally go to who’s going to get the ball on that play. Coach Hall has a specific way that we do things progression-wise. If you’re not there, then we go to the next guy.
“It will all circle around, and people will get the ball,” he added. “But if you’re hot, you’re hot.”
If anyone gets selfish, however, the system could collapse.
“All four of those guys pull for one another,” Hudspeth said in the preseason with reference to Barnes, Bradley, Jacquet and Malone.
“There’s not a selfish bone in their body. They all want the ball, obviously, but they’re good teammates.”
Early in preseason camp, Davis jokingly was asked if anyone had started lobbying for throws yet.
None had, and Davis’ response perhaps shed some light on why the system is working like it has been.
“Those guys know that they’re all really good athletes,” he said then.
“And I know everybody has the same mentality of, ‘We want to be successful as an offense, and just move the ball down the field and score points.’
“Whether that’s JaMarcus, whether that’s Keenan — whoever it is that’s making those plays,” Davis added, “I know the other three or four guys are all excited for him.”
‘THROW ... TO THE TIGHT END’
With ex-offensive lineman Raynard Ford more of a blocker and Chase Rogers more of a receiver, the Cajuns also have at times used double-tight end sets this season.
UL seemingly has lined up Rogers here, there and everywhere, both attached and unattached.
The Cajuns even have thrown to their tight ends a few times this season, with Rogers — a true freshman who had 216 receptions for 3,729 yards and 44 touchdowns at his Mississippi high school, where current LSU freshman quarterback Myles Brennan was the QB — pulling in three passes for 26 yards including a long of 22 against ULM.
In this system, though, don’t expect the tight ends to be targeted regularly, Hudspeth suggests.
“You don’t just line up and say, ‘Hey, we’re gonna call a pass to the tight end,’” he said earlier this season. “You don’t do that. But they’re in the concept. They’re in the route.
“So … if they’re open, and you get to their progression, then they’re gonna get the football. But you don’t just line up and say, ‘I’m gonna trow the ball to the tight end.’
“I hear that a lot: ‘Coach, throw the ball to the tight end,’” Hudspeth added. “Well, yeah. It’s not quite that easy.”
“They’re in the progression, and hopefully we can get them the ball,” Hudspeth said, “because we really feel like Chase Rogers is a guy that can really help us at the tight end position catching the ball.
“And then Raynard Ford is a big guy; if he can get his hands on the ball, he’ll be hard to bring down.”
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ALL ABOUT BALANCE
Cajun running backs aren’t just tasked with protection in the passing part of Hall’s system.
All four of UL’s top running backs have at least one catch this season, and one of them — Jordan Wright, who has only nine carries on the season — has four grabs for 35 yards and a touchdown at Texas A&M.
But it’s what the Cajuns have done on the ground that’s helped allow UL’s air attack to be as open and productive as it has been.
Starting running back Trey Ragas is averaging 93.8 yards per game and 8.2 yards per carry, and he has four touchdown runs on 46 carries.
Backup running back Elijah Mitchell is averaging 60.8 yards per game and 6.6 yards per carry. He also has four TDs runs, including two while gaining 107 yards on 13 carries against ULM.
Combined, that’s created all sorts of balance for a Cajun club that has run 153 times this season and passed 144.
Also vital has been the running of Davis, who with 32 carries — third-most behind only Ragas and Mitchell — has 107 yards through four games.
It’s another example of being flexible with suiting the system, especially at quarterback.
Over the years, wherever he’s been, Hall has had all kinds.
“We’ve had tall guys; we’ve had short guys,” he said. “We’ve had dual-threats; we’ve had pocket guys. We’ve had really cerebral guys.
“Quarterback is a unique position from the standpoint of ‘it’s about production; it’s about not turning the ball over; it’s about leading your team to the end zone.’ ”
IT IS 'WILL'S SYSTEM'
Hall, who has been calling Cajun games from the sideline, has brought all sorts of change to UL’s offense beyond improved point production.
His boundary receiver, Barnes, the "X," and his field receiver, Bradley, the "Y," change sides, unlike last year.
Runs are more than mere inside-zone.
Teaching techniques have been different, and so is terminology, which even Hudspeth had to learn anew.
But perhaps the biggest change is how much command Hudspeth’s coordinator has over the offense.
In prior seasons, whether under ex-UL offensive coordinator Jay Johnson from 2011-15 or Jorge Munoz in 2016, Hudspeth has always had, some years more so than less, much more input.
A former offensive coordinator himself at Delta State and for one season at Navy, he’s also always been an offensive-minded head coach.
Hudspeth has veto power, and makes major decisions, but for the most part Hall calls the plays.
“This is Will’s system,” Hudspeth said.
It has been from the get-go, with Hall — who actually grew up the son of a coach who favored the triple-option — first teaching it to UL coaches so they could then teach it to Cajun player.
That — making sure the system is understood — is one key to making it all work. So, too, is matching the scheme and personnel.
“That’s the key,” said Bobby Hall, Will’s father, the high school coach back in Mississippi.
“You know, it doesn’t really matter how much we know as a coach. It’s how much we can teach them to be able to do.”
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