LAFAYETTE — Four straight 9-4 seasons, four straight New Orleans Bowl wins.
Louisiana-Lafayette certainly isn’t lacking for consistency.
But as positive as that consistency has been, changes — both in personnel and coaching — swept through the Ragin’ Cajuns program this offseason.
“We’ve made some changes, and I hope they’re going to pay off for us,” coach Mark Hudspeth said. “You know, there’s a saying that if you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always gotten. Yeah, we’ve won four straight bowl games. Yeah, we’ve won nine games four years in a row. But we’re always trying to improve.
“We’ve got many areas we need to improve upon, and we hope we’ve taken some necessary steps to get to that.”
If the Cajuns are going to break their recent mold — for better or for worse — the change will hinge on some new faces.
Who’s it going to be: Brooks Haack, Jalen Nixon or Jordan Davis at quarterback?
“I just know this: I’ve got three talented quarterbacks who I think all can do the job,” Hudspeth said. “I’ve just got to find the guy that can do it in front of 60,000 people.”
The answer to that question, which Hudspeth insists won’t be known until kickoff of the opener Sept. 5 at Kentucky, will largely affect how the offense operates.
Haack, considered by many to have the best shot at winning the job after he performed admirably in relief of Terrance Broadway last season, brings a downfield element to the passing game but is not as mobile as previous Cajuns quarterbacks.
Davis, a redshirt freshman, has a tantalizing combination of passing and running ability, but he has never appeared in a college game.
Nixon is powerfully built and already has proved he can run the read option the Cajuns have used so well in recent seasons, but he leaves the most to be desired from a passing standpoint.
All three bring a different element to the game. All three come with question marks.
And that, to a degree, encapsulates the entire offense for the Cajuns this season.
The two stars, Elijah McGuire and Jamal Robinson, are as close as the Cajuns have to a sure thing, but both enter 2015 with something to prove.
Robinson, a game-breaker at wide receiver, is coming off a season-ending injury and must show Cajuns coaches and NFL scouts he can remain healthy. McGuire will be the focal point of the offense, but the running back must prove he’s capable of producing at a high level when fielding touches at a higher rate.
The offensive line, one of the steadiest groups on the team in the past few seasons, is breaking in two new starters and shifting two more to new positions, meaning right tackle Octravian Anderson is the only player lining up where he did a year ago.
On paper, the offense looks as if it could be in line to at least continue the standard Hudspeth’s teams have set in recent years, but it still has to prove itself.
“We’re going to be new, and we’re going to be different,” offensive coordinator Jay Johnson said. “But we’re going to be an exciting new and different.”
On the whole, the 2014 Cajuns defense didn’t turn in great numbers, finishing the year ranked outside the top 50 nationally in scoring defense (57th), total defense (74th) and takeovers (94th). But when looking at how the defense trended through the course of the season, the unit’s improvement becomes evident.
Of course, considering how bad the defense was in the early portion of the season, there was nowhere to go but up.
The Cajuns were gashed for 503 yards and 42 points per game in a four-game stretch after the season opener, their lone win coming against lowly Georgia State.
They made changes, and over the rest of the season the Cajuns dropped those averages to 373 yards and 20 points, including a dominant performance against Nevada in the New Orleans Bowl.
Even with that improvement, the Cajuns underwent sweeping changes this offseason.
Defensive coordinator James Willis and secondary coach Tim Rebowe both left for opportunities elsewhere, and the Cajuns did not renew the contracts of defensive line coach Tim Edwards and linebackers coach Matt Wallerstedt.
In their place are four entirely new coaches in co-defensive coordinators Melvin Smith and Charlie Harbison, defensive line coach Levorn Harbin and linebackers coach Mike Lucas.
With the exception of Harbin, who is in his first season as a Division I assistant, that group brings a load of experience to the coaching staff. That part is known. What is unknown, at least until the season opener, is what sort of scheme they will implement.
“The first thing we have to do is identify what our guys can do, then come up with the best way for them to do that,” Smith said. “We’re not changing our scheme — just tweaking our scheme. The first thing we do is identify our best players, then fit them in a scheme that fits them.”
It’s a solid bet the Cajuns will continue to bring a linebacker to the line of scrimmage to serve as a pass-rushing end, as that was one of the schematic changes that brought about the defense’s improvement last year.
That man figures to be Darzil Washington. As a junior, Washington didn’t get started with the Cajuns until the season was a few weeks old because of an academic clearance issue, and his body wasn’t in playing shape until the end of the year.
But by then, he was one of the Cajuns’ best pass rushers, notching 3.5 sacks in the last four games. Coaches are expecting big things out of him this season.
“His body is totally changed. He’s worked out intensely since January,” Hudspeth said. “He’s a different animal right now than he was last year, and I think he has an opportunity to be a guy who can get pressure on the quarterback.”
The defensive line will sorely miss the contributions of Christian Ringo and Justin Hamilton, a formidable duo that consistently plugged rushing lanes and dragged down ball carriers behind the line of scrimmage.
The group replacing them is young and relatively inexperienced, but while the individual star power isn’t there yet, the group feels its strength comes as a unit.
At linebacker, the Cajuns might be lining up their most talented starting four of Hudspeth’s tenure. Fifth-year senior Dominique Tovell is as steady as they come, and he should be joined by Tre’maine Lightfoot — who was solid after being inserted into the starting lineup midway through the season — and Arkansas transfer Otha Peters.
The secondary could be the most improved unit on the team if the players perform at the level their coaches think they’re capable of. After being held out all of last year, Simeon Thomas has locked down one cornerback spot, reminding Smith of a former pupil, Thorpe Award winner Johnthan Banks, in the process.
Young safeties Travis Crawford and Tracy Walker figure to make a big jump after performing well as freshmen.
All that remains for the Cajuns is to figure out how all the new pieces fit in the puzzle.