Elijah McGuire admitted he still gets nervous when his eyes track a ball tumbling end-over-end through the air as large men sprint unseen downfield to clobber him.
It’s understandable, but McGuire insists it’s temporary. Once he has it nailed down, he’s excited by the possibilities presented by returning punts.
“I never did it before, so this is my first feel of it,” McGuire said. “I’m going to get some more practice at it, then just try to make something happen.”
That’s the point of it all, isn’t it? McGuire has a knack for making things happen.
Explosive players thrive in explosive situations, and the way UL-Lafayette coach Mark Hudspeth sees it, McGuire is 205 pounds of dynamite with a quick fuse.
The Ragin’ Cajuns plan on taking advantage of their dynamic sophomore running back’s big-play ability by using him in the punt return game this season, an area where Hudspeth says McGuire “has a chance to be a game-changer.”
McGuire burst onto the scene as a true freshman, averaging better than eight yards per carry and 17 yards per reception as the Cajuns’ best home-run threat, leaving coaches thinking about the best ways to get the ball in his hands more this season.
“If an explosive player of his ability can flip the field position, it could change the whole game sometimes,” said offensive coordinator Jay Johnson. “More opportunities for guys of his talent and ability are a good thing.”
The decision to put the former Vandebilt Catholic star back on punt return was considered with a risk/reward analysis.
The reward: McGuire’s power, speed and elusiveness give him the chance to turn the tide of the game in one play.
The risk: By running McGuire out there on a return team, Hudspeth is creating a larger opportunity for one of his most important players to get injured.
The response: The Cajuns’ Corvette will look much better on the road than in a garage, especially when three years of data suggests that road isn’t as dangerous as some may think.
“Punt returners don’t seem to get injured as much,” Hudspeth said. “All that seems to be overrated. I don’t know if we’ve had a guy in three years ever get injured on our return teams.”
Being involved in the return game wouldn’t have even been up for consideration if McGuire didn’t put in some offseason work at the dinner table, though.
Hudspeth said McGuire’s added 30 pounds to his frame since last season, transforming from a kid “with toothpicks hanging out of his armholes” into a full-bodied football player.
But at what cost to his trademark explosiveness? Won’t an additional 30 pounds take away some of what made McGuire special last season?
If there is a drop off in athleticism, Hudspeth hasn’t seen it and McGuire hasn’t felt it. In fact, the opposite feels true for McGuire, who gave a politely incredulous look when asked if he still had the same burst that he did a year ago.
“Actually I feel like I got faster, faster than I was last year,” McGuire said. “That’s a good feeling.”
Senior offensive guard Terry Johnson was similarly convinced that the same old athleticism was still there.
“He can still do backflips,” Terry Johnson said.
If he’s able to keep the speed and elusiveness that made him so dangerous, the added weight should also help him stay on the field. The hits McGuire took last season added up to the point where he was not as effective in the closing weeks.
“Taking the pounding last year when not weighing that much was kind of hard for me,” McGuire said. “This year I’m going to be able to take that pounding, bounce off tackles and make people miss.”
For a team that is planning to utilize McGuire’s talents in multiple ways, that is good news.