There’s a competition at quarterback for the University of Louisiana at Lafayette’s football team, and that alone is noteworthy. The most surprising thing may be that the individuals involved apparently know how to handle that competition.
Between offensive coordinator Jay Johnson and the two acknowledged leaders at the position, juniors Brooks Haack and Jalen Nixon, there’s a camaraderie as the Ragin’ Cajuns enter preseason drills Thursday.
“The way our guys have gone about it, starting back last January, it’s been a very competitive spirit, but it’s been a good spirit,” Johnson said Wednesday at the Cajuns’ annual media day. “I don’t think that not having an established No. 1 has held us back in any capacity. In a sense, it’s helped us grow a little bit.”
Haack, the Katy, Texas, product who was Terrance Broadway’s backup last year, and Nixon, the hometowner from Carencro who saw some action in 2013, will go into camp dividing reps and deflecting questions about who’s going to start the Sept. 5 opener at Kentucky.
Cajun coach Mark Hudspeth has said that both will work with the first and second offenses for the first two weeks of drills, and said he’ll also eye the progress of redshirt freshman Jordan Davis after his solid spring workouts.
Hudspeth also said that practice performance will determine how snaps are divided for closed scrimmages on Aug. 12 and 18. But that won’t be the only determining factor in answering the biggest question of preseason camp.
“They get evaluated on everything they do,” Johnson said. “I might be making a decision when we’re throwing routes against air, because there’s only one ball and only one guy can be in there at a time. But they’re going to be evaluated on how they sit in a meeting, how they address their team, how they handle the huddle, how they handle the players.”
It’s the first time since Hudspeth took over the program that experience under center has been a question. Between Blaine Gautier and Broadway, they own three of four R+L Carriers New Orleans Bowl MVP awards. They also engineered offenses that totaled 21,888 yards in four straight nine-win seasons.
“Being in the same room with Terrance and Blaine when they were the guys, getting knowledge from them, that’s been amazing,” said Haack, who completed 20 of 23 passes for 179 yards and two scores last season. “Being able to get those little pieces from different people is awesome, and I’m glad I’ve been able to do that.”
For their part, Nixon and Haack are both staying above the public fray.
“Me and Brooks are brothers,” Nixon said. “We go eat together, we talk and text each other all the time. We understand it’s a business and a competition thing, and we grind when we’re on the field. But we help each other out. We want to see each other succeed.
“Coach Hud knows what’s best for the team, and whatever decision he makes, we’ll support him 100 percent. I’m behind Brooks, and he’s behind me.”
Haack, whose older sister, Matte, was a Cajuns softball standout in 2012-13, had a solid summer of preparation for what he hopes will be his starting opportunity.
“Not counting the time we had to be there, I was up there at least four hours a day,” he said. “I only had one online class, so it wasn’t too difficult, and I was always up there, in the film room all the time. I watched old film, I watched NFL films of Peyton Manning and Drew Brees ... I probably watched the whole Saints’ season and most of the Broncos’, taking every little thing from the guys that are great and seeing what I can do to add it to my game.”
Nixon was suspended from the team for the first half of the 2014 season for an unspecified violation of team rules, six months after he spelled an injured Broadway and led a key drive in the 2013 New Orleans Bowl win over Tulane. Nixon, who accounted for 29 touchdowns as a senior in leading Carencro High to the Class 5A title game, said those issues are in the past.
“I approached the spring as gaining my teammates’ and coaches’ trust,” he said. “I’ve cleaned that up and got my life together after a few things set me back, but those things really molded me into who I am right now. This is my hometown school, and that drives me to keep excelling and do better and better each year so people will recognize that we have a great program.”
The belief that Haack is the “thrower” and Nixon is the “runner” is a huge oversimplification, but Johnson said the possibility exists for multiple packages to emphasize each players’ strengths.
“If we find that can help us be better and help us be harder to defend, we’ll definitely explore that,” he said. “That’s hard sometimes when you get in a groove and then all of a sudden, boom, another guy comes in. It’s definitely something we’d consider, but we’d be very precise about how we went about it.”