LAFAYETTE — Even during a global pandemic, the heart of Cajun country lately has been besieged with out-of-state visitors hailing from places like Nebraska, Kansas and even as far east as Maryland.
Even with the typical Mardi Gras festivities being scrapped due to COVID-protocols, folks are still pouring into the area known for boiled crawfish, Zydeco and all-around revelry.
Yet, these people are not arriving for Louisiana’s version of Carnival or to even eat a few pounds of mudbugs, they are coming to Lafayette to play for Billy Napier and the Ragin’ Cajuns football team.
More than a few people scoffed at Napier’s approach of building a culture that focused on winning but doing so the right way. The program’s preferred social media hashtag has been #cULture.
Napier’s approach, and the culture he has cultivated in a short period of time, is paying dividends.
In three years, Napier has transformed the University of Louisiana football program into a nationally-ranked program that is competing yearly for Sun Belt Conference championships, and has won at least 10 games in back-to-back seasons for the first time in program history.
Not to mention, Napier himself has been targeted/interviewed for vacancies in the mighty Southeastern Conference.
The program’s ascension is showing up more and more in the Ragin’ Cajuns recruiting cycles. For three straight seasons, Napier has signed either the top-ranked or second-ranked class in the SBC.
Yes, the Ragin’ Cajuns are doing a great job of signing players from their own backyard and from inside the state, something the previous staff didn’t always do. The Ragin’ Cajuns are also now signing players as transfers from Power 5 programs outside of Louisiana.
This year’s class features five Power 5 transfers coming home to play for the Ragin’ Cajuns, including running back Jacob Kibodi (Texas A&M-Incarnate Word), quarterback Lance Legendre (University of Maryland), wide receiver John Stephens Jr. (TCU), safety Tyrone Lewis Jr. (Kansas State), and offensive lineman Matthew Anderson (Nebraska).
That comes after a year in which the Ragin’ Cajuns picked up a trio of Power 5 transfers in tight end Glenn Beal (Texas A&M), offensive lineman and four-star prospect Zach Robertson (Arizona State) and kicker Nathan Snyder (Indiana).
In this era of the NCAA Transfer Portal, it is not uncommon to have players wrap up their careers playing for teams outside of the Power 5 structure.
The main point is that these players are choosing to come and play in Lafayette.
Yes, the Ragin’ Cajuns are still recruiting players who are coveted by fellow regional Group of Five and FCS programs such as Louisiana Tech, South Alabama, UL Monroe, Lamar, Arkansas State and Northwestern State.
The program is also now signing prospects who have scholarship offers to play at the Power 5 level but are choosing to come here instead.
For the 2020 class, there was Kyren Lacy who had an offer from the Miami Hurricanes, and Caleb Anderson who had an offer from the Utah Utes — both ended up choosing the #cULture.
This most recent class, the De La Salle duo of running back Montrell Johnson and pass rusher Ja’Marian Peterson both had offers from Arizona and Colorado of the Pac-12. KC Ossai out of Texas, meanwhile, had an offer from Arizona, while Carencro running back Kendrell Williams received an offer from Iowa of the Big 10 but still chose UL.
Then there was George Jackson.
The 6-foot-4, 325-pound prospect from Georgia had offers from Auburn, Tennessee, Arkansas and had been committed to Florida. Instead of playing for a team that played in the Southeastern Conference Championship Game a few months ago, Jackson packed his bags for an extended vacation in Lafayette.
Five years ago, the Ragin’ Cajuns were not flipping heralded out-of-state prospects from Power 5 schools to come play for them.
The Ragin’ Cajuns have become a destination for high school prospects and transfers alike. Even without Mardi Gras, Lafayette and its football program can proudly state “laisse le bon temps rouler.”
RAYMOND PARTSCH III is a longtime sportswriter and radio broadcaster.