LAFAYETTE — When quarterback Jalen Nixon struggled as Arkansas State built a huge lead in the first half Tuesday, Louisiana-Lafayette coach Mark Hudspeth admitted to hearing a nagging voice in his head telling him to make a change.
“Those thoughts are always in your mind, but then you remember back,” Hudspeth said.
Back, in this case, refers to earlier this season, when the Ragin’ Cajuns were mired in a weekly game in which Hudspeth would not commit to a starter.
Though obviously some of it stemmed from neither Nixon nor Brooks Haack separating themselves, it was at least partially to give his team an advantage in the week of preparation, forcing the opposition to prepare for two players instead of one. But it had an adverse affect where it carried over into games.
Haack started the first three games, but Hudspeth was quick to pull the trigger on removing him from two of those games when he didn’t get the offense going. Nixon was injured and did not participate in the other.
While Nixon generated some yards and points in those games, most notably when he rallied the team against Kentucky in the season opener, the Cajuns spent more than a month trying to find their identity on offense as they vacillated between the pass-oriented Haack and the dual-threat Nixon.
That’s why, even as Nixon was scuffling, completing just two of his first 17 pass attempts — including one that was intercepted and returned for a touchdown to give Arkansas State a 27-0 lead — Hudspeth stayed with him. Hudspeth remembered back to the way things were at the beginning of the season.
“We want to try to grow Jalen. We want him to grow as a quarterback and to get some more experience,” Hudspeth said. “Just ripping him right out, the way we did Brooks, would not help him progress. We probably did that to Brooks a little too soon — probably was not fair to him. But since we made this decision, we felt it was in his best interest moving forward to let him play through it.”
As poor as his start to the game was, Nixon responded by leading the Cajuns on a 27-3 run to close it, and he wound up becoming the first Cajuns quarterback since Brian Mitchell to throw and rush for 200 yards in a game.
Without the context of how the game unfolded, that statistic jumps from the page. Even with the context of the game, it showed what Nixon is capable of when things are going right.
But the context is important: Nixon put up most of those yards while trying to rally the Cajuns out of a hole he played a large part in helping to dig.
What Hudspeth and his staff are banking on is that Nixon spending more time on the field will allow them to better understand how to use those explosive skills that were evident at times against Arkansas State.
“He showed that he’s got a lot of ability, a lot of skills,” Hudspeth said. “We’re just trying to harness those skills, and he just needs experience.”
A big part of the equation for Hudspeth and the Cajuns is eliminating mistakes. Through five games, Nixon has thrown four interceptions. Two of them were returned for scores, and another came last week in the end zone to defuse a rally. Haack also has struggled with interceptions, throwing four in four games.
Hudspeth does not necessarily want Nixon to play with caution, but he also said he needs to make better decisions.
“You want him to have confidence, and you don’t want him to keep from making plays because he’s worried about making a bad play,” he said. “That comes with experience. That comes with being ... an inexperienced quarterback. He’s only going to get better, which we’ve seen that. But we’ve had some inopportune times for turnovers. Hopefully we can continue to work to minimize those things.”
Again, this brings Hudspeth to ask himself some familiar questions: Do I pull Nixon for making mistakes and plunge the team back into that time when nobody knew who the quarterback was? Or do I let him use those mistakes as a lesson?
For now, and for the foreseeable future, it appears Nixon is going to be given time to figure everything out.