LAFAYETTE — When Louisiana-Lafayette’s football team reports for its fifth preseason practice under coach Mark Hudspeth on Wednesday, a lot of questions will be dangling over the squad.
Who will take the pressure off running back Elijah McGuire? Can the offensive line round into form for a fifth straight year? Is Jamal Robinson healthy and ready to lead the receivers? How will the defense mesh with a new staff? Who will provide the pass rush with Christian Ringo and Justin Hamilton gone? Can anyone step in at cornerback? Will two freshman kickers be solid?
“It’s an exciting time, no doubt,” Hudspeth said as he prepared to welcome in 105 players. “We know we have a lot of work in front of us, but we’ve laid a solid foundation over the last four years. Now, the question is: ‘Where do we go from there, (and) how do we get better?’ ”
The answer to that lies in great part to the overriding question of preseason practice: Who will be under center when the Cajuns visit Kentucky on Sept. 5?
Will it be junior Brooks Haack, who was Terrance Broadway’s backup each of the past two seasons? Or will it be junior Jalen Nixon, who provides a true running threat? Or, maybe, does redshirt freshman Jordan Davis have a shot at the role?
Hudspeth doesn’t know the answer. Even if he was sure going into Thursday’s first on-field workout, he’s not saying.
“Don’t even ask me,” Hudspeth said at Sun Belt Conference Media Day. “When you find out, it’ll be the same time (Kentucky coach) Mark Stoops finds out — when we run out on the field for the first play of the game.”
Haack threw 23 passes last year, completing 20. Nixon played more at the position two years ago, including a notable drive in the New Orleans Bowl win over Tulane when he completed both of his passes and rushed for 29 yards. Davis showed flashes when the staff took a look in spring drills.
“We’ve got three candidates, and we like all three,” Hudspeth said. “They’re different, but they’re all very talented.”
It’s the first time since Hudspeth took over the program that he doesn’t have either an established quarterback or a wealth of experience, and that has been no small factor in four straight 9-4 seasons and New Orleans Bowl victories.
Blaine Gautier and Chris Masson were veterans in 2011 when the program had only its second winning season since 1995. Gautier returned for 2012 as a senior, but a midseason injury pushed Terrance Broadway to the forefront, and Broadway was the starter virtually all of the past two seasons.
Those two shared three New Orleans Bowl MVP honors in that time while leading UL-Lafayette to four of its six-best offensive seasons. The past three seasons rank first, third and second on the all-time offensive yardage list.
“Terrance is not here,” Hudspeth said. “But whoever winds up as our starter, we have all the confidence in the world that he’ll be very effective and make us very solid offensively.”
“The quarterback, that’ll take care of itself,” said senior Mykhael Quave, who has started 39 straight games on the offensive line and slides inside from left tackle to his original left guard slot this season. “We had a lot of success last year and the last few years, but we’ve left last year. We don’t have that team anymore; we’re a different team. The quarterback, the front line, everywhere — we’re filling in those gaps and moving on.”
The Cajuns have only 11 of 24 full-time starters returning, but UL-Lafayette’s brethren in the Sun Belt apparently believe in their ability to fill those gaps. The squad had only one first-team pick out of the 26 players named to the coaches’ preseason All-Sun Belt team — running back McGuire as Offensive Player of the Year — but the Cajuns were still only two poll points from being the coaches’ preseason favorite.
Defending champion Georgia Southern, which UL-Lafayette didn’t face last year and won’t again this year, received 110 points and six first-place votes. The Cajuns were second with 108 points and three first-place votes; Arkansas State was third at 96 points.
“We just want to win the first game,” Hudspeth said. “Kentucky’s all we’re worried about right now. Last year, everyone was talking about maybe going undefeated, and we got way ahead of ourselves. We’re not going to let that happen this year.”