LAFAYETTE — Without Jamal Robinson in the fold for the rest of the season, the Louisiana-Lafayette offense hopes it can emphatically prove that the whole is always greater than the sum of its parts.
“It’s going to take a collective effort out of all those guys … to fill that void,” senior quarterback Terrance Broadway said. “We need everybody to make plays. We need everybody to step up and make blocks. We just need everybody to do their job, and I feel like those guys learned from the last experience in the two-week stretch that we went through without (Robinson).”
The Cajuns know they can’t simply throw a player out where No. 4 used to line up, pat him on the rear end and say, “Now, go be Jamal Robinson.”
It doesn’t work that way. The Cajuns have some options to fill Robinson’s shoes; they just don’t have the players who can go out and do what Robinson did.
“There’s not many Jamals out there,” coach Mark Hudspeth said. “That’s why those guys play in the National Football League. Now we’re going to have to be a little more creative. Some other guys are going to have to step up.”
There is no doubt that the Cajuns must find a way to replicate Robinson’s production. The questions that don’t yet have an answer: Who? And how?
With Sun Belt play in full swing, the Cajuns don’t have much time to figure out the answers.
If the word “luck” can be used in reference to this situation, it’s that the Cajuns have played essentially three-plus games without Robinson. They’ve had a chance to see what has worked, and they certainly saw what did not work.
Maybe they’ve already figured something out. The Cajuns enjoyed their best offensive game of the season last week in a 34-10 win at Texas State even though Robinson was on the field for just four plays.
But moving forward, teams will be armed with the knowledge that Robinson won’t be a part of the game plan. It’s up to the Cajuns to figure out ways to get their other playmakers involved and fill the giant hole created by Robinson’s injury.
The young guns
Let’s start with who will physically occupy Robinson’s spot on the field opposite senior James Butler.
In C.J. Bates, Devin Scott and Jared Johnson, the Cajuns have three sophomores who all have at least one of the qualities that made Robinson such a special player — but none of them is the complete package that Robinson was, at least not in this stage of their careers.
“There are some guys that have the speed that Jamal had. There are some guys that have the size Jamal had,” Hudspeth said. “We just don’t necessarily have guys that have everything Jamal had combined. That was sort of the difference there, and that’s why it’s going to probably have to be by committee instead of one person.”
To start, the Cajuns will likely go with Bates, who might be the closest thing to a Robinson facsimile on the roster.
Bates, a 6-foot-1 junior-college transfer from Hudspeth’s hometown of Louisville, Mississippi, is not as tall as the 6-4 Robinson, and he doesn’t have the same long strides that made Robinson such a threat in the deep game.
But when the ball is in the air, he shows a tenacity that’s familiar to those who have seen Robinson leap for a jump ball.
“He’s a very talented guy. He’s fast. He runs great routes,” Broadway said. “He’s more of a complement to James at this moment.”
When Robinson went down earlier this season, the Cajuns used a mixture of Scott and Johnson, whose skill sets starkly contrast when looked at side by side.
The Cajuns like Johnson’s 6-5 frame, but he hasn’t shown consistent ability to separate from coverage. Scott might just be the fastest player on the team and he has beaten a couple of defenders deep, but he has only caught one pass this season and has not been consistent in the other aspects of the game.
“We gave Devin his shot; I don’t know if it’s going to be Devin,” Hudspeth said. “He’s still a young guy; he’s still learning. I think he’s going to be a really good player for us … but moving forward, I don’t know.”
All three have had their chances this season, and none has separated himself as of yet. Without Robinson to count on, Hudspeth is willing to be patient.
“We’ve got to continue working people,” Hudspeth said. “We can’t give up on people. They’re still young and, boy, they’re working hard. They’re excited to have these opportunities to play. Nobody wants to see their teammate get hurt, but everybody wants to play also.”
The other options
The replacements are going to get some attention simply because they’re trying to fill a star’s shoes, but the Cajuns likely will turn elsewhere to fill the majority of Robinson’s lost production.
When Robinson went down against Texas State, the Cajuns didn’t try to force the ball to his replacements on the edge, but rather found a way to use their other offensive playmakers.
Sophomore running back Elijah McGuire was a big part of that, making a couple of nice grabs downfield, where running backs don’t normally roam.
But that’s just the thing. Don’t look for the Cajuns to go out of their way to put more on McGuire’s already-heaping plate.
“One thing you’ve got to remember: He’s a running back,” Hudspeth said. “You can put him around in different places like we do to move him around, but when you do that, it makes the learning curve awfully steep. You’ve got to be smart with him. We definitely are going to have to rely on him a little more in order to create some plays like Jamal made. But he’s got a lot on his plate; we’ve got to do a good job managing that but also give him an opportunity to make plays like we did this past week.”
When Robinson went down earlier in the season, teams were able to key on McGuire and the run game, but that might not be the case now with the strong recent play from junior slot receiver Al Riles.
Riles was held without a catch in the first half last week but hauled in three passes for 81 yards in the second half — and the Cajuns offense found its stride when he started producing.
Riles has topped 80 yards in each of the past two weeks as he’s become a larger part of the game plan, even when Robinson was a healthy participant. He was a defensive player his first two years with the program, and it took him a while to work out the finer points of being a receiver.
“Al was along with me and Jamal in the summer time working,” Broadway said. “But it takes time to get the feel for the game at that position if you’ve been away from it for several years. He’d been away from it for three years. He’s starting to get the groove back with it.”
It also wouldn’t be surprising to see the Cajuns find ways to work the tight ends and Butler into the passing game. Hudspeth has said the Cajuns need to get Butler more involved, but they haven’t quite found a way yet this season.