Football: It's all about trust for a once-divided UL football team
Tim Buckley, The Advertiser, June 30, 2018
Trust the process.
Trust the new coach, his new staff and the new systems being implemented.
Trust, maybe mostly importantly, each other.
As the UL football team prepares for its first season under head coach Billy Napier, starting with a Sept. 1 home opener against Grambling, it’s all about trust.
And apparently that’s something that was sorely lacking last year, which for the Ragin’ Cajuns ended at 5-7 with seventh-season coach Mark Hudspeth being fired.
It all starts, Napier suggested back in the spring, with trusting him.
“I told them in the first team meeting I don’t expect them to trust me right away. I don’t think anybody would,” said Napier, a former Clemson and Arizona State offensive coordinator who was hired in December and now is in his first summer of offseason workouts with a team under his total command.
“I told them, ‘You just give me time; I’ll earn your trust and respect.’ And I think you do that by you be fair, you be consistent, you show them that you’ve got a genuine and sincere appreciation for how they work — and they know you want what’s best for them in the long run.”
It’s not just about believing in the new guy, however.
As starting defensive end Zi’Yon Hills tells it, there wasn’t always a ton of trust between and among Cajun players themselves last season.
At times, that reality reared its ugly head at practices held behind closed doors.
“Offense and defense was a competitive thing,” Hill, a product of Catholic High in New Iberia, said in the spring. “We were going at each other’s throat every day, like hard, talking smack, everything.”
This is not necessarily a good thing, especially for a team whose coach was trying to save his job.
Yet, that may not be the worst of it.
Even on the same unit, Cajun teammates didn’t trust themselves.
This can be a really bad thing.
And perhaps — when peeling back the onion, slowly but surely — it gets to the root of why that aforementioned job indeed was not saved, even beyond the on-field record, which included three straight losing seasons after four straight winning ones, and some off-the-field issues over the last few years including recently concluded recruiting-related NCAA sanctions, one particularly controversial locker room incident and subsequent reaction to it, and some high-profile player arrests last year.
But with Napier on board now, Hill — for one — senses that changing.
This is a good thing for the Cajuns, whose first season under a new regime doesn’t open easily with both Mississippi State and Alabama — in addition to a Sun Belt Conference opener against Coastal Carolina — on the calendar in September.
“The thing that will make us better is playing as a team and trusting each other,” Hill said shortly before UL’s spring game.
“We have a lot of people on defense that don’t really trust each other.
“But it’s (come) a long way since last season,” he added then. “We’re starting to develop that trust and that belief in ‘If I don’t make the play, then I know my teammate behind me is gonna make the play.’”
To mend cracks that may have reached chasm and crevasse proportion for a program that once prided itself on a ‘hold the rope’ mentality, Napier has quite an undertaking.
He started the process shortly his arrival by demanding that Cajun players get to know all of their teammates better — not just their name, but also their hometown, high school and background, no matter which side of the line they work.
He also changed the way offense and defense went at it in spring ball, and how they’ll do the same when preseason camp opens in early August.
“Coach Napier, he developed it to where … we’re gonna practice, but he (doesn’t) want any words being said between each other,” Hill said. “We’re still a team at the end of the day, but we’re gonna be competitive also.”
As spring drills unfolded, Napier sensed a start to real change.
“There’s lots of growth relative to the chemistry between the offense and the defense, the togetherness in the locker room,” the Cajuns coach said one day in April.
“You know, there’s a certain level of unity that’s required, in my opinion, to have a really good football team.
“When I asked questions to players coming into the door,” Napier added, “they told me that’s where we needed to make progress — and there was a little bit of ‘division.’ So, I think we’ve tried to fix that.”
But it’s no quick fix, so Napier made the importance of it known early in the spring.
“I think the big thing for all of us to understand is that it’s really gonna be about the intangibles for this group,” he said one day in March, after the Cajuns finished just their second practice of the spring in pads.
“I mean, we’ve got to make a commitment to self-discipline. We’ve got to make a commitment to being a student of the game.
“And certainly,” he added then, “we need to improve in the loyalty, the togetherness, the unity and chemistry that’s required to be a really good football team.”
In time, Napier suggested, the execution will come — starting, he hopes, early in September.
He just doesn’t want anyone killing the team from the inside out before it does.
“Nobody wants to be a traitor,” Napier said.
That certainly is not a good thing either, which is why Napier wants — even insists — for everyone to buy in.
Trust him on that.