LAFAYETTE – When Ben Wooldridge suffered an ACL injury in a practice late last season, a lot of different things happened.
The Louisiana Ragin Cajuns had to play the final three games of the season without Wooldridge, losing to Florida State on the road before beating Texas State and falling to Houston in the Independence Bowl.
Louisiana scrambled to change the gameplan in those final games, but the communication and continuity suffered without Wooldridge in the lineup.
Also, his future looked bleak. Even with modern technology, ACL injuries are very hard to overcome, and with Wooldridge having already graduated, maybe he felt it was time to walk away.
That was not the case.
Nine months later, Wooldridge is fully healthy and ready to pick up where he left off for Michael Desormeaux and the Cajuns’ offense.
“I think for us with Ben, the big thing is just gonna be that make sure that his mental health is in line with his physical health,” head coach Michael Desormeaux said at Sun Belt Media Days in New Orleans. “We know physically, he’s good to go, which is a testament to him and how hard he’s worked as well as our training staff and the physical therapists that worked with him. But now we just got to make sure that mentally he’s good to go.
“I think Ben has mastered this offense through sweat equity. He’s up there every morning at 7 am watching film and he’s deep diving into it, asking questions and he wants to know every in and out about it. So he’s earned that respect from his teammates and he’s earned the knowledge that he has through sweat equity.”
However, this offseason felt different for Wooldridge.
“It’s been completely different,” Wooldridge said. “Experiencing the injury is something that I’ve never had to experience before. So Dealing with that, trying to find ways back and to connect with the team, and be with the team while I’m not on the field with the team.”
Wooldridge said that he, like many players who suffer ACL injuries, went through an emotional cycle following surgery.
“As you kind of go through the process after surgery, you’re kind of down in the dumps,” Wooldridge said. “It’s pain and tons of emotions. So I think the biggest thing was trying to find ways to stay positive. I had set goals with our trainers and coaches of dates or benchmarks that we wanted to hit in order to reach the ultimate goal (of getting back on the field).”
A major proponent of Wooldridge’s recovery was the love and support of his family. His mother Sheri, father Mark, and brothers Andy and Jacob were there every step of the way during the grueling process.
“My mom comes to every game,” Wooldridge said. “She’s going to find a way to be there and she’s my biggest supporter. I play football for a couple of reasons: I love the game. But I also play football for my mom and my oldest brother who had been some of the biggest influences in my life. Right. I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for them. My family is a huge supporter of what I do and part of why I do it.”
“My mom’s not one to sulk in my feelings and allow me to be down,” Woolridge said in an interview last week. “So just her kind of pushing me and honestly, it’s like tough love, right? It’s when I’m down. She’s not going to feel sorry for me, as bad as that may sound, but I know that and I know that’s who she is, and I love her to death for it. I wouldn’t be able to do what I’m doing without her.”
Before suffering his injury, Wooldridge was one of the top quarterbacks in the Sun Belt, getting named Sun Belt Player of the Week for his five touchdown passes in a win over Arkansas State. The week before that was the critical 23-13 win over Marshall on the road where Wooldridge consistently made plays for the Cajuns and helped lead them in a very tough environment.
That ability to lead his team through adversity is largely due to the work ethic that he possesses.
“I think the one thing that jumps out about being number one is he’s obsessed with being a really good player,” Tim Leger, Louisiana Offensive Coordinator, said at Media Day on August 1. “Ben is the closest thing that we have to a professional football player on our roster. The way he eats, the way he sleeps, the way he works, the way he watches film, everything that he does is literally what an NFL quarterback would do. His day is scripted to the minute. People naturally gravitate to that type of work ethic and leadership.”
Wooldridge had 1,661 yards passing, 15 touchdowns, and only five interceptions before going down and had become the clear-cut leader of the Louisiana offense.
He said that his injury helped him become an even better leader heading into his senior season.
“100%,” Wooldridge said about his growth from a leadership stance. “I think it helped me connect with my teammates in more ways than I kind of knew before. Getting to actually watching and paying attention tohow they go to work, what the coaches say to them, and maybe how I can make my words mean something to them in a different way.”
Louisiana is headed into 2023 with three very capable quarterbacks in that room including Wooldridge with Chandler Fields and Zeon Chriss. Sometimes, tight competition can lead to some friction in a quarterback room. Wooldridge said they all have great relationships with one another.
“I think it’s good relationship,” Wooldridge said. “We joke around a lot. And during this camp, I think we’ve grown in our relationship together. When we’re in the meeting room, the atmosphere is good. Like, we joke, we laugh, we talk to each other. But I think that’s just with football in general.”
“When you step on the field, you’re there to compete. You’re there to help the team in any way you can. I think we all have that mindset. And we’ve kind of attacked this camp with that mindset.”
Heading into 2023, there’s no longer a question of who the starting quarterback will be when Louisiana takes the field on September 2nd against Northwestern State.
Ben Wooldridge has earned the right to lead the Cajuns offense.