Cajuns preseason camp preview: Five keys to a successful season, players to watch and more _lowres

Advocate staff photo by SCOTT THRELKELD -- Fans celebrate the Louisiana-Lafayette Ragin Cajuns 16-3 win over the Nevada Wolf Pack during the R + L Carriers New Orleans Bowl Saturday, Dec. 20, 2014, at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. The win was the Ragin Cajuns' fourth straight New Orleans Bowl win.

FIVE KEYS TO A SUCCESSFUL 2015 SEASON

1. The Cajuns must get off to a better start in nonconference play.

Last season, the Cajuns’ dreams of kicking down the doors of the college football establishment went up in smoke by Week 2. They were overconfident and subsequently trounced at home by Louisiana Tech, allowing doubt to creep in and setting the stage for an ugly 1-3 start. They were able to rally for their fourth straight 9-4 season, but they needed to go 7-1 in conference play to get there.

That can’t happen in 2015. If the Cajuns want to continue to move forward, they’ll need to do better in nonconference play. This year’s rematch against Louisiana Tech should provide a solid barometer for where the team is.

2. The new defensive coaching staff must establish a ball-hawking mentality.

Want to know one reason why the Cajuns struggled so badly out of the gate last season? It took 10 quarters for them to force their first turnover, and they entered conference play with a minus-9 turnover margin.

If there’s one thing coaches Melvin Smith, Charlie Harbison and Mike Lucas have shown, it’s that their defenses force turnovers. Auburn had 22 interceptions last season with Smith and Harbison coaching defensive backs, and Lucas’ Northwestern State defense forced 30 turnovers last year. Added defensive playmaking could go a long way for the Cajuns.

3. The new quarterback must be as good as Terrance Broadway — or better.

It’s no small thing being tabbed as the guy to replace the school’s all-time leader in total yards and passing efficiency, and perhaps it’s unfair to expect him to compete at a similar or better level. But for as historically good as Broadway was, the Cajuns can’t see a drop-off at the position and expect to be successful.

The biggest area of improvement needs to come in the passing game. A run-heavy offense and an injured Jamal Robinson did not help, but the Cajuns finished last season 100th nationally in passing yards per game, and their 6.7 yards per attempt ranked 81st. That needs to improve.

4. Elijah McGuire must prove he’s capable of handling the load — and staying healthy.

McGuire was one of the nation’s most explosive players in the offense the Cajuns operated in the past few years, averaging 8.9 yards per touch as a dual-threat option out of the backfield.

But much more is going to be asked of McGuire this year as the unquestioned featured player on offense. He averaged 12.9 touches, combining carries and receptions, per game over the first two years of his career, and that number is likely going to approach the 20 range in 2015. He’s absolutely critical to the Cajuns’ success, and they’re hoping the added workload does not become too much of a burden.

5. The third phase — namely, the freshman specialists — must grow up in a hurry.

Don’t minimize the importance of what the Cajuns are being forced to do this season with their kicker and punter. They’re replacing the school’s all-time leader in punting average and a kicker who was successful on 81.8 percent of his attempts with a pair of freshmen.

While the Cajuns didn’t play in many close games last season — only one was decided by less than a touchdown — they aren’t guaranteed to be so lucky this year. Field goals and field position play a big role in deciding a game, and the Cajuns need their youngsters to come through.

POSITION BATTLES TO WATCH

Quarterback: Hudspeth will wait until the season opener to reveal his choice to replace Terrance Broadway, but he said the battle among Brooks Haack, Jalen Nixon and Jordan Davis will rage through preseason practice.

Left tackle: Mykhael Quave’s move to left guard this spring opened a window for a competition between Grant Horst and D’Aquin Withrow for this spot. Withrow spent last year as the No. 2 option, but Horst is currently leading.

Cornerback: Simeon Thomas has all but locked down one starting job. Jeryl Brazil, Jevante Watson, Troy McCollum and a host of freshmen and junior-college transfers will vie for the job opposite him. Brazil looks like the early front-runner.

No. 2 running back: Elijah McGuire will get the lion’s share of the carries, but the Cajuns need a reliable secondary option. Veterans Torrey Pierce and Effrem Reed will battle Darius Hoggins, Montrel Carter and freshman Jordan Wright.

WHAT THE CAJUNS ARE LOOKING FORWARD TO

A quarterback decision: Ever since Terrance Broadway played his final down, the conversation has shifted to who his replacement will be. Coach Mark Hudspeth will field endless questions about it again, but he said he won’t let anyone know the winner until the opener Sept. 5.

A healthy No. 4: Jamal Robinson proved last season that, when healthy, he’s a force to be reckoned with. He should be ready to go after multiple injuries derailed his 2014 season, which should open up the offense.

Eli the exploder: Could this be the year Elijah McGuire is fully unleashed? He won’t have to split carries with Alonzo Harris anymore, meaning he should be in line for an even bigger season than the one that made him the 2014 Sun Belt Player of the Year.

Sophomore slump-busters: The Cajuns lost a deep senior class, but they bring back a number of impactful freshmen. Tracy Walker, Travis Crawford, Taboris Lee and Gabe Fuselier are all looking to make a big jump in 2015.

THREE NEWCOMERS TO WATCH

CB Jeryl Brazil: The former LSU athlete comes to the Cajuns looking to bolster a secondary that gave up some big plays last season, and the coaches could also find his blazing speed helpful in the return game.

DE Mario Osborne: Though defensive line is one of the hardest places to break in as a true freshman, Osborne’s chiseled physique is ready for the college game, and the Cajuns are replacing two starters on the line.

TE Carlos Robinson: When Matt Barnes was lost for the season during summer workouts, it opened a window for Robinson to contribute right away. The former prep wideout could provide a receiving threat at the position.

KEY DATES

WEDNESDAY: Report date, Media Day

THURSDAY: First day of practice

AUG. 12: First scrimmage

Sept. 5: Season opener at Kentucky

DEPTH CHART

OFFENSE

Wide receiver (X)

4 Jamal Robinson 6-4 205 Sr.

18 Devin Scott 5-11 182 Jr.

Wide receiver (H)

2 Al Riles 5-10 215 Jr.

13 Gabe Fusilier 5-11 195 So.

Left tackle

72 Grant Horst 6-5 281 So.

65 Jesse Freeman 6-4 311 RFr.

Left guard

70 Mykhael Quave 6-5 294 Sr.

64 Nick Dugger 6-5 300 RFr.

Center

79 Eddie Gordon 6-1 320 Jr.

72 Grant Horst -or- 6-5 281 So.

64 Nick Dugger 6-5 300 RFr.

Right guard

77 Donovan Williams 6-3 312 Sr.

76 Adrian Goodacre 6-4 305 RFr.

Right tackle

68 Octravian Anderson 6-4 295 Jr.

60 D’Aquin Withrow 6-6 304 So.

Tight end (Y)

81 Nick Byrne 6-3 228 Jr.

88 Evan Tatford 6-5 242 Sr.

Wide receiver (Z)

7 Jared Johnson 6-5 215 Jr.

18 Devin Scott 5-11 182 Jr.

Quarterback

9 Brooks Haack -or- 6-1 219 Jr.

6 Jalen Nixon -or- 6-2 226 Jr.

3 Jordan Davis 6-3 205 RFr.

Running back

15 Elijah McGuire 5-11 208 Jr.

25 Torrey Pierce 5-9 171 Sr.

Defense

Defensive end

96 Blain Winston 6-4 300 Sr.

57 Chris Prater 6-5 258 Sr.

Nose tackle

97 Sherard Johnson 6-8 374 So.

90 Jacoby Briscoe 6-3 325 Jr.

Defensive tackle

55 Karmichael Dunbar 6-2 317 Jr.

98 Ladarrius Kidd 6-3 300 RFr.

Buck

44 Kevin Fouquier 6-4 235 Jr.

39 Darzil Washington 6-3 243 Sr.

Outside linebacker

7 Otha Peters 6-2 228 Jr.

29 Tyren Alexander 6-0 210 Sr.

Middle linebacker

4 Tre’maine Lightfoot 6-0 230 So.

30 T.J. Posey 6-0 242 So.

Outside linebacker

52 Dominique Tovell 6-2 248 Jr.

27 T.J. Worthy 6-2 203 Sr.

Left cornerback

8 Simeon Thomas 6-3 197 So.

19 Troy McCollum 6-0 177 Jr.

Free safety

23 Tracey Walker 6-2 198 So.

20 Dominick Jones 5-11 189 Jr.

Strong safety

16 Travis Crawford 5-11 193 So.

31 Corey Turner 6-1 198 RFr.

Right cornerback

11 Jevante Watson 5-10 175 Jr.

10 Christian Goodlett 6-0 185 Jr.

Special teams

Kicker/kickoff specialist

47 Dylan Scheuirch 5-8 197 RFr.

83 Carlos Alvarez 5-9 195 Sr.

Punter

37 Steven Coutts 6-4 200 Fr.

83 Carlos Alvarez 5-9 195 Sr.

Kick returner

13 Gabe Fusilier 5-11 195 So.

23 Darius Hoffins 5-7 176 So.

Punt returner

15 Elijah McGuire -or- 5-11 208 Jr.

25 Torrey Pierce 5-9 171 Sr.