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Football: UL's Napier preps for 'highly regarded' Mississippi State

Tim Buckley, The Advertiser, Sept. 11, 2018

Two SEC opponents in three weeks. Two nationally ranked opponents in three weeks. Two terrifically tough road tests in three weeks, with a Sun Belt Conference opener against Coastal Carolina squeezed in between.

That’s what the rest of September looks like for coach Billy Napier’s Ragin’ Cajuns, who opened their 2018 season on Sept. 1 with a 49-17 win over Grambling — then were dealt an early Week 2 bye.

The challenging schedule is just fine for Napier, whose Cajuns visit No. 16 Mississippi State on Saturday night and — two weeks later — No. 1 Alabama on Sept. 29.

“I know our players are excited about competing against the best,” Napier said, “and that’s what this opportunity presents.”

RELATED: Video shows UL's Napier lots to clean up in bye week

It starts with the Bulldogs, who have opened 2-0 after rolling over FCS Southland Conference-member Stephen F. Austin 63-7 in their opener are coming off a 31-10 win last Saturday at Kansas State.

“Most people think this is probably the best Mississippi State team they’ve had in the last eight or 10 years,” Napier said, “so this is a highly regarded group.”

Mississippi State is led offensively by dual-threat quarterback Nick Fitzgerald, who rushed for 159 yards against Kansas State to pass Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott as MSU’s career leader in QB rushing yards with 2,645 and now is 302 shy of Tim Tebow’s SEC record in that same statistical category.

Defensively, Napier had plenty of praise Monday for the front seven on a Bulldog defense that features nose tackle Jeffrey Simmons and defensive end Montez Sweat – both NFL-caliber talent.

“This front seven is not only talented, but deep,” Napier said. “They play a number of different players, and there’s not much of a dropoff.

“Certainly NFL people think highly of lots of these guys. You know, they’re massive inside and they’ve got a lot of length on the edge, and I think their ’backers are playing really well.”

MORE: For UL tight end Barnes, 'whatever happens happens'

Mississippi State’s defense is now being coordinated by former Tennessee, Penn State and Vanderbilt defensive coordinator Bob Shoop under first-year head coach Joe Moorhead, Penn State’s former offensive coordinator.

“He (Shoop) has got them playing aggressive and fast,” Napier said, “and I think he simplified things for them, and they look like they’re playing at a high level so far this year.”

Highly regarded, indeed.

“It’s gonna present a number of challenges,” Napier said. “But, in all reality, we’ve got to focus on our preparation no matter what the opponent.”

The same can be said for UL’s upcoming trip to Alabama, where Napier was receivers coach from 2013-16.

So just what will it take the Cajuns to do what they could not during the seven-season run of Napier’s predecessor, Mark Hudspeth?

Beat, that is, an SEC opponent.

More: Ex-UL coach Hudspeth happy to have fingerprints 'all over' Cajuns

“All of the concrete numbers that, basically, people say winning football is about – that’s what it’s gonna be about,” Napier said.

“It’s gonna be about turnover margin, explosive plays, rushing the ball, stopping the run, scoring touchdowns in the red area, playing disciplined football relative to the penalties, eliminating mental errors and playing with great effort.”

Many of the same things, in other words, that UL could not come out ahead on in its two SEC non-conference games last season, at Texas A&M in September and at Ole Miss in November.

But at least the Cajuns have that to draw on, Napier suggested.

“Well,” he said, “the good thing about this team we have this year is they played on the road against two SEC opponents last year — and they had experienced some success.

“The first half of Texas A&M last year, they went into the lockerroom (up 21-14 at halftime).

“That’s one of the positives about this situation, is we have a group of players that experienced that,” Napier added. “So they’ve kind of been in these battles before and know what to expect.”

Yet the Cajuns, Napier also suggested, also must be careful to not get caught up in the whole SEC thing.

“Who you play and where you play is not really as much of a factor as everybody wants you to think it is,” he said.

“So we’ve got to control our preparation. We’ve got to show up and compete, play to our standard, and we’ll see what the score is when the game’s over.”

MORE: UL's Turner overcame at a place that no longer exists

LAGNIAPPE

Injury updates: Napier said backup Will linebacker Lorenzo McCaskill (ankle) remains “day-to-day,” freshman reserve defensive lineman Sammy Ochoa (hip) is “making progress” and reserve tight end Peyton Aucoin (knee) still is “not quite himself.” … The Cajuns sustained no new major injuries in their bye week, according to Napier. … With No. 3 tight end Alex Allen (torn ACL) out for the season, reserve running back Ashton Johnson — a former walk-on awarded a scholarship last spring — worked at H-back in practice last week. But Johnson will “still be playing running back,” Napier said. Johnson has played both positions since spring practice. … The Sun Belt on Monday announced that UL’s Sept. 22 home game against Coastal Carolina will start at 6 p.m. and will be streamed online by ESPN�. … Coastal had its game this week against FCS-member Campbell, originally scheduled for Saturday at home, moved up to Wednesday night and relocated to Buies Creek, N.C., in response to the impending arrival of Hurricane Florence. … Five days after being claimed by Seattle off waivers from Cleveland, ex-Cajuns cornerback Simeon Thomas — selected by the Browns in the sixth round of this year’s NFL Draft — was released by the Seahawks late last week.

RELATED: Cajuns 2018 football schedule