LAFAYETTE — Ask Louisiana-Lafayette star running back Elijah McGuire how he thinks his junior season is going to play out, and he can’t give you a straight answer.
There’s an element of the unknown going into this year. McGuire was as explosive as they come in his first two seasons, averaging nearly 9 yards every time he touched the ball on his way to Sun Belt freshman of the year honors in 2013 and player of the year honors last season.
But he did that while splitting carries with Alonzo Harris, the perfect gut-punch complement to McGuire’s gashing style, so there’s a bit of uncertainty when it comes to what 2015 will bring.
“I can’t tell you exactly what this year will bring, because I don’t know,” McGuire said. “But I’m looking forward to going out there to play my heart out.”
The first order of business is finding the right way to use McGuire’s talent without wearing him out.
Offensive coordinator Jay Johnson said he already had discussions with running backs coach Marquase Lovings about finding the perfect workload to maintain their star back’s electric nature.
“I know what he can do, but you also need to be on that cusp,” Johnson said. “He needs to be sharp. We need to manage that, and … that will be something we address as we go through camp — getting him enough, but putting him in situations to hopefully help him sharpen his blade without jeopardizing anything.”
Last season, McGuire carried the ball 166 times and caught a team-high 45 passes, averaging 16.2 touches per game — a nearly 60 percent increase in his average from a year before, when he carried the ball 103 times and caught 22 passes.
With the increased workload, his average yards per touch dipped slightly, from 10 yards per touch in 2013 to 8.2 a year ago, but he was still often the most explosive player on the field.
But there also were times when he strained under an increased workload. With Harris out for the New Mexico State game last season, McGuire carried the ball 26 times and added a catch out of the backfield for a career-high 27 touches.
It was the third straight game he received 20-plus touches, and while he performed at a high level in those games, his effectiveness waned over the ensuing two weeks, when he totaled just 84 yards on 24 carries.
“I was tired,” McGuire admitted. “I was more sore, because that was a lot of pounding. We had ’Zo for that, but ’Zo got injured and was limited to his reps. I had no problem stepping up and taking his slack, but I was tired. I talked to Coach Lovings and said I wasn’t used to that.”
But without Harris this season, McGuire has taken steps to prepare his body for an increased pounding.
He played at 195 pounds last season and has since bulked up to 210 — a weight he carries with just 7 percent body fat.
McGuire sat out during spring drills while recovering from offseason shoulder surgery, and he said he spent practice time working out with strength and conditioning coach Rusty Whitt.
It wasn’t pleasant, McGuire said, but it could help when he’s asked to shoulder more of the offensive burden.
Of course, the Cajuns aren’t planning on having McGuire carry the entire load. Coach Mark Hudspeth said he’ll use seniors Effrem Reed, Torrey Pierce and Montrel Carter in a by-committee approach to spell McGuire.
“We’ll have to block a little bit more precise, because last year Alonzo could break an arm tackle; he could run through a defender and push the pile,” Hudspeth said. “These guys, where they might not push the pile, Torrey Pierce can slip through the pile. He’s got his own advantages, too.”
It’ll be a different look for the Cajuns running backs this season, but the one constant remains McGuire and his special ability. The Cajuns just need to figure out the best way to use it.
McGuire’s betting on that ability.
“I know I’ve accomplished a lot,” he said, “but there’s always room for improvement.”