Editor’s note: This is the eighth story in a 10-part series looking at the storylines to watch as the Louisiana-Lafayette football team approaches its Wednesday report date for preseason practice.
LAFAYETTE — As phenomenal as Louisiana-Lafayette junior tailback Elijah McGuire was in his first two seasons, take a moment to imagine what could’ve been.
McGuire became the second player in Ragin’ Cajuns history to top 2,000 rushing yards in his first two seasons when he followed up his 863-yard debut campaign with 1,264 yards last season. And he did all of that with a grand total of 269 carries, a figure that 15 running backs topped last year alone.
So take a second and imagine a season a situation where McGuire sees a significant bump in usage — say 17 to 18 carries a game, instead of the 12 to 13 he received last season in a timeshare with Alonzo Harris.
Excuse me: Can you stop salivating for a moment and focus?
That’s the new reality facing the Cajuns, who are now able to deploy McGuire at will without having to worry about keeping Harris happy.
While Harris’ bruising style will be missed by coaches and McGuire alike, getting the ball in the hands of one of college football’s most explosive backs on a more frequent basis can only be a plus — with one caveat.
The gaudy statistics aside, McGuire has yet to show he can handle the rigors of being leaned on as the top option in the Cajuns attack.
It’s not unfair to question how the additional workload — combined with not having Harris around to soften up the defense, and a potential shift in philosophy with a new quarterback — could affect McGuire’s performance on the field.
He has done it in spurts. When Harris didn’t suit up for last season’s New Mexico State game, McGuire carried the load, racking up 136 yards on 26 carries.
It was one of four games when McGuire received 20 or more touches, three of which came in consecutive weeks. In those three games, McGuire totaled 74 touches for 612 yards and seven touchdowns.
The increase in touches resulted in the best three-game stretch of McGuire’s short career, which would support the idea that such an increase on a season-long basis would vault him to a new level of stardom this season.
But McGuire’s numbers also seem to suggest he may have started to feel fatigue as his usage rate went up, with two of his worst statistical performances coming on the heels of that three-game stretch.
After torching Arkansas State for 266 total yards and four touchdowns on 20 touches, McGuire’s per-touch average dipped steadily. He averaged a healthy 7.6 yards per touch the following week against South Alabama, then averaged 5.2 the following week against New Mexico State.
Perhaps deciding he had been overworked, coach Mark Hudspeth limited McGuire’s carries to 13 and nine over the next two weeks, and McGuire’s yards-per-carry average those two weeks were two of his three worst all season at 3.7 and 4.0. The explosive plays that McGuire so routinely makes dried up, with his lone 20-plus-yard play coming on a 39-yard reception.
It’s worth noting that those opponents, Louisiana-Monroe and Appalachian State, were two of the Sun Belt Conference’s better rushing defenses, but McGuire’s the type of talent that usually transcends a solid run defense.
Perhaps McGuire, with an added year of experience and work with the strength and conditioning staff, will be ready to shoulder more of the load on a consistent basis.
But it’s more likely that Hudspeth and offensive coordinator Jay Johnson are going to have to strike a balance between feeding McGuire the ball as often as they want and making sure he stays fresh enough to affect the game the way he did his first two seasons.