LAFAYETTE — Almost exactly three months ago, the Louisiana-Lafayette football team was wrapping up a forgettable 4-8 season with a loss to Troy.
The Ragin’ Cajuns will take their first official steps as a team to bury that season and get back on the path that had them win nine games in four consecutive seasons. That task should be made a little easier since so much has changed in those three months.
The Cajuns open spring practice Tuesday afternoon, and while guaranteeing a rebound is wholly premature, things at least promise to be much different this time around than in previous springs under Mark Hudspeth.
Gone are offensive coordinator Jay Johnson (Minnesota) and quarterback Brooks Haack (Northwestern State). Likely to be gone is an offensive system that didn’t grow with the Cajuns roster.
Absent, at least this week, will be star running back Elijah McGuire, who will be with the men’s basketball team at the Sun Belt Conference tournament.
Missing will be a wide receivers coach, a job supposed to be filled by John Simon before Arizona State swooped in and swiped him from the Cajuns before he could coach a single practice.
Also gone — and it’s too early to know whether this is good or bad — is the sense of stability that four straight winning seasons brought to the program. Maybe that stability grew into complacency last season and hurt the team more than it helped. Maybe a lack of stability will lead to some growing pains this year as a young team finds its confidence for the first time.
Whatever the case, this spring brings more freshness — and more uncertainty — than perhaps any since Hudspeth’s first with the team in 2011.
With that in mind, here are the five most pressing questions for the team as it prepares to enter an important couple of weeks:
1. Who is the quarterback?
The Cajuns never found a suitable answer for this question last year, and it haunted them all the way up to the season finale against Troy. That can’t happen again, which means we should have an answer before the spring is over.
Last spring, the Cajuns concluded spring drills with what Hudspeth called a three-way tie for the starting quarterback job. That carried over to preseason drills and the season, with Hudspeth going through the first few weeks waiting until the game’s opening snap to reveal who his starter was.
That should change this time. Though Hudspeth has made it clear he will hold a competition between sophomore Jordan Davis and redshirt freshman Chris Weaver, that isn’t likely to linger into the fall.
And who’s going to win between those two? It would be hard to imagine a scenario in which Davis, who was impressive in limited work last year, does not win the job — even if Hudspeth really likes what Weaver has to offer.
2. How different might the offense look?
It might look very different, indeed — but we might not get a full grasp of it this spring. Hudspeth said at the end of the season that his personnel no longer fit the system he was running, and he wanted to revamp what his team was doing offensively to take advantage of his best players.
That should be made much easier by Johnson’s departure. Former wide receivers coach Jorge Munoz is the new lead assistant on offense, and he and Hudspeth should be able to collaborate on a vision for what they think would work with the pieces they have in place.
Early indications are that the Cajuns want to pick up the tempo and spread the field to take advantage of their athletes at receiver and running back.
3. Who are the old faces in new places?
There weren’t any early enrollees in this year’s signing class, but that doesn’t mean there won’t be some new players to watch out for, specifically on defense.
Tracy Walker, who started 18 games in two years at safety, is moving to linebacker to bring some speed to a unit that lacked it in 2015. Savion Brown earned all-conference honors at cornerback but will spend the spring at safety.
It’ll be interesting to see how those moves play out. Walker reportedly has hit the gym hard this offseason to bulk up for his new position and, with a bevy of defensive backs in the 2016 signing class, Brown could offer stability that wasn’t always there at safety last season.
4. Who is ready to break out?
If the passing game plays a bigger role in the offense next season, a couple of the Cajuns’ second-year receivers could be in line for a big year.
Hudspeth is high on that group, but the one to watch out for could be sophomore Keenan Barnes, who saw a lot of action as a freshman but didn’t get many targets with Jamal Robinson serving as the primary option.
Barnes is big and fast and, with Robinson having exhausted his eligibility, he could be the next man up as the Cajuns’ top downfield threat.
Redshirt freshman receiver Ja’Marcus Bradley also impressed coaches throughout his first year. He could develop into a nice option with a solid spring.
5. Who will take the handoffs?
Since three running backs from last year’s team graduated, McGuire is playing basketball and newly converted running back Jalen Nixon will miss the first few weeks of spring drills with an injury, Darius Hoggins and Jordan Wright have a great opportunity to make an impression.
Hoggins has carried the ball 12 times for 97 career yards, and Wright redshirted last season after a record-setting career at Pearl (Mississippi) High School.
They will be the top options for the Cajuns until McGuire and Nixon get back. And with a couple of exciting running backs — freshmen Trey Ragas and Raymond Calais — set to join the team in the fall, the first few weeks will be important for those two.