LAFAYETTE — It’ll be painful to endure, but the film room in the Louisiana-Lafayette football offices will be busy streaming the many failures in a rough season.
The problems were numerous for the 4-8 Cajuns, but the sharp offensive decline might’ve been the hardest part to stomach for a team that built its winning tradition by lighting up the scoreboard.
The tape will tell the symptoms that led to the obvious diagnosis: 2015 marked a five-year low for coach Mark Hudspeth and his staff in scoring offense (26.4 points per game) and total offense (380.4 yards per game). The hope is that, by studying what went wrong, the coaches can devise a cure that works with the talent on their current roster.
Priority No. 1 for the Cajuns offensively, outside of establishing some continuity at quarterback, is to find a way to get running back Elijah McGuire back on track — provided he returns for his senior season.
Hudspeth said earlier this week that McGuire will “test the waters” to see whether he should declare for the draft a year early. His possible departure would leave a gaping hole in the Cajuns’ running back corps which is also losing seniors Effrem Reed, Torrey Pierce and Montrel Carter.
For now, the Cajuns are operating under the assumption that McGuire will return, and hopefully, return to form.
McGuire didn’t have a bad season when looking at his numbers over the course of the year. He eclipsed 1,000 yards on the ground and double-digit rushing touchdowns for the second straight year.
But too often McGuire was eliminated from the game plan by defenses that sold out to stop him. He was held to 75 or fewer rushing yards in all but one of the Cajuns final seven games.
Much of the offseason will be devoted toward finding ways to open up the field for McGuire again. Some of that focus will likely be directed on the Cajuns’ scheme — where it failed this year and where it can be improved. Some will be directed at personnel.
The Cajuns are currently carrying three running backs on their roster, with McGuire being joined by Darrius Hoggins and freshman Jordan Wright. One other current player could be added to those ranks in quarterback Jalen Nixon.
Hudspeth said earlier this season that he would consider moving Nixon to running back in the offseason. Nixon racked up 406 rushing yards and five touchdowns in his junior campaign, and showed just how effective he can be on the ground in a loss to Arkansas State when he picked up 201 rushing yards.
With a full offseason under his belt at a new position, Nixon could prove to be the missing component from the Cajuns 2015 season. His 226-pound frame is the closest facsimile on the Cajuns roster to Alonzo Harris, who totaled 3,330 rushing yards and 44 rushing touchdowns in his career as the thunder to McGuire’s lightning.
That punch was missing in the ground game this season, allowing opponents to suffocate McGuire’s playmaking ability by loading the line of scrimmage with defenders.
The improvement in the running game will also depend on the Cajuns’ ability to put together a capable offensive line.
Returning starters Eddie Gordon, Grant Horst and D’Aquin Withrow will likely have starting jobs nailed down going into 2016, but the interior spots could provide some of the more interesting position battles once spring football arrives.
Adrian Goodacre and Jesse Freeman were thrown to the fire this season when injuries continued to wreak havoc on the Cajuns offensive line, and Hudspeth was complimentary of how they performed given the circumstances. But the Cajuns most recent recruiting crop of offensive linemen could push for playing time.
Hudspeth said both Robert Hunt and Kevin Dotson will battle for starting positions on the interior in the spring after showing glimpses of their potential while on the developmental team this fall. Ken Marks and Cole Prudhomme, another couple of redshirt freshmen, will battle behind Gordon at center.
Though they’re losing their best receiver in Jamal Robinson, the wideouts may be the deepest returning position group.
Al Riles, Gabe Fuselier, Devin Scott, Gary Haynes and Keenan Barnes all played extensively in 2015, and to their ranks the Cajuns will add a healthy Jared Johnson to go along with freshmen Ja’Marcus Bradley, Michael Jacquet and Jarrod Jackson, as well as Mississippi State transfer Shelby Christie. All of those players, at some point, earned Hudspeth’s praise this season.
The pieces are in place for the Cajuns to rebound offensively. The trick is now for them to figure out how to get all those pieces to work.