LAFAYETTE — Think about this: Yesterday was the last Saturday you’ll have to go without football for 14 weeks.
Camps have been closed, game plans have been installed, and less than a week from now, you’ll be reading about actual football games in this publication. With that in mind, let’s take the opportunity to make 10 predictions regarding the University of Louisiana at Lafayette football team.
1. Brooks Haack will start at quarterback, but all three will play.
Lo! The Great Mystery of Cajuns Camp will finally reach a conclusion in a week’s time! Coach Mark Hudspeth has mentally arrived at a starter for the season opener against Kentucky, and if I were a betting man, I’d put money on that man being Brooks Haack.
Haack’s big arm fits well with the Cajuns offensive personnel, and a downfield element could provide the space to allow a certain star running back to explode for a big year.
But Hudspeth has always leaned on the read-option attack, meaning there will be packages for Jalen Nixon.
Redshirt freshman Jordan Davis will also get an opportunity to show the coaches what he can do in a meaningful game. That all being said, this is Haack’s show.
2. Elijah McGuire will repeat as Sun Belt Player of the Year.
As much as the Cajuns loved Alonzo Harris, the prospect of turning around and handing the ball at will to their stud running back should have them feeling giddy.
If McGuire touches the ball as frequently as I’m expecting — right around 20 times a game including punt returns — it’s a distinct possibility that he could top 2,000 all-purpose yards this season. That would be a first in Cajuns history and should be enough to earn him repeat honors as the league’s top player.
3. The offense will be better than ever — if it stays healthy.
In McGuire and Jamal Robinson, the Cajuns have legitimate stars at running back and wide receiver.
Receivers Gabe Fuselier and Al Riles both showed flashes last year in their first seasons playing receiver at the college level.
The offensive line, though shuffled around in the offseason, brings back three starters and two that competed for a starting gig last season.
What the Cajuns don’t have is proven depth behind those players, and they cannot afford a significant injury.
4. The next wave of playmakers will announce its presence.
Freshman wide receivers Keenan Barnes and Gary Haynes have drawn rave reviews for their playmaking ability in preseason practice.
They’re contrasting in style. Barnes looks like a young Robinson, a long-striding deep threat, while Haynes is a jitterbug who can leave defenders grasping at nothing but air in the open field. Both will contribute right away.
5. Youthful inconsistency will rule early, but the Cajuns will close the season strong.
It’s going to take some time for all the new starters — five on offense, six on defense — to get a feel for how to play together, and that will result in some bumps in the road early.
While this Cajuns team is relatively inexperienced, it also could very well be the most talented one Hudspeth has had at his disposal.
It’ll take them a couple of weeks, but they’ll figure it out.
6. The defense will pitch a shutout.
The Cajuns haven’t held an opposing team off the scoreboard since the season opener in 2012 (a 40-0 win against Lamar), and the last shutout before that came a decade earlier.
Though last year’s defense (26 points per game) shouldn’t inspire a lot of confidence, this isn’t last year’s defense. An all-new coaching staff, an improved secondary, and an excellent linebacker corps should be enough to make up for the lack of a playmaker on the defensive line.
7. Darzil Washington will become a star.
It’s been somewhat of a quiet camp for the Cajuns senior linebacker, but don’t let that fool you. He came on strong at the end of last season. And after enjoying a full offseason in the Cajuns strength and conditioning program, he’s primed to become a terror to offensive tackles hoping to protect their quarterback.
Look for Washington to approach double-digit sacks this season.
8. The kicking game will cost the Cajuns at least once.
True freshman kicker Stevie Artigue has a lot of potential — guys that can drill 60-yard field goals don’t come around often — but the fact that he’s competing for a job with Carlos Alvarez is a cause for concern.
Though Hudspeth has only had positive things to say about the position, Artigue should’ve won this job by now, and the fact that he hasn’t makes me wonder if the Cajuns will be sweating out the end of tight ballgames.
9. Week 11 will determine the SBC champion.
Appalachian State vanquished the Cajuns’ hopes of earning a share of the league title last year at Cajun Field. Could the Cajuns get a chance at returning the favor this season?
Defending champ Georgia Southern will be in the hunt again, but the league race will come down to this game in Boone, North Carolina, on the season’s penultimate week.
10. The Cajuns will finish no worse than 7-5 in the regular season — and the ceiling is much higher.
I’m going out on a limb here and predicting a lot of success for a team full of players who, for the most part, haven’t proven themselves on a college football field.
This could wind up being Hudspeth’s most difficult coaching challenge during his tenure with the Cajuns, or it could be his easiest, there’s just a wide range of possibilities with this team.
But one thing I’ve learned is not to bet against talent, and the Cajuns have plenty of that.
UL-Lafayette at Kentucky
When: 6 p.m. Saturday
Where: Commonwealth Stadium, Lexington, Ky.
Radio: KPEL-AM, 1420