Louisiana made yet another season-ending trip to the New Orleans Bowl despite having an offense that ranked near the bottom of the FBS in both yards and points per game. If the Ragin’ Cajuns want to get back to contending in the Sun Belt under head coach Mark Hudspeth like they did from 2011-14, it will need more production from the quarterback position and a backfield committee to fill the shoes of the program’s all-time leading rusher. The defense also has room to improve and has a solid foundation to build around up front and on the back end. Louisiana probably won’t challenge the top teams in the Sun Belt, but going back to the Big Easy to finish the campaign isn’t out of the question.
Previewing Louisiana Football’s Offense for 2017
All of last year’s headliners on offense must be replaced, which for a team that finished 109th in scoring isn’t necessarily a negative. At quarterback, that means the stage is set — finally — for junior Jordan Davis, the favorite to start last summer before he was upstaged by graduate transfer Anthony Jennings, a former starter at LSU. Jennings went wire-to-wire as QB1, but he never transcended his reputation as a shaky passer and finished with more interceptions (13) than touchdowns (11). That’s not exactly a tough act for Davis to follow.
The same can’t be said at running back, where outgoing senior Elijah McGuire amassed one of the most prolific careers in school history. But the top contenders there — Darius Hoggins, Jordan Wright and Raymond Calais — all had their moments last year in relief, and they’ll have the benefit of running behind a line that returns four full-time starters.
The leading receiver, Al Riles, is gone, but holdovers Keenan Barnes, Ja’Marcus Bradley, and Michael Jacquet are poised to make strides entering their third year in the program — unless, of course, they’re surpassed by Calif Gossett, a lanky, 6'5" redshirt freshman who began to flash some of his potential in the spring. If nothing else, Gossett’s size should be an asset in the red zone, where ULL converted only a little over half of last year’s trips into touchdowns.
Previewing Louisiana Football’s Defense for 2017
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The defense didn’t do anything especially well in 2016, but it wasn’t bad in any respect, either, and there’s more than enough veteran talent on hand to offset the loss of leading tacklers Tra’maine Lightfoot and Otha Peters at linebacker.
The good news starts with three returning starters on the defensive line, most notably Joe Dillon, who’s already entrenched at Bandit end after racking up 13.5 tackles for a loss as a redshirt freshman. Inside, senior Taboris Lee has logged 26 consecutive starts at tackle.
The back end is in reliable hands, too, with seniors Tracy Walker and Travis Crawford back for their third and final go-round as the starting safeties. Other than linebacker, the big question is at corner, where one starter (Savion Brown) has graduated and another, senior Simeon Thomas, will be suspended at least two games due to academics. Thomas also lost all of the 2014 and ’15 seasons to academics before returning to play in every game last year, and given that track record, his long-term status is hard to predict. Just in case, sophomore Damar’ren Mitchell spent most of his spring at cornerback after manning the nickel role as a true freshman.
Previewing Louisiana Football’s Specialists for 2017
Kicker Stevie Artigue, a hometown product, improved dramatically as a sophomore, connecting on 19-of-24 field goal attempts with a long of 49 yards. The punting duties are less certain: Last year’s starter, Steven Coutts, apparently doesn’t plan to return to the team from his native Australia. Instead, the Cajuns will turn to Harry McCollum, a graduate transfer with three years as a starter under his belt at Georgetown.
Louisiana ended its sixth season under coach Mark Hudspeth where it realistically hopes to end every season, with a December trip to the New Orleans Bowl. Still, in most respects the 2016 team more closely resembled the outfit that went 4–8 in 2015 than the ones that finished 9–4 in each of Hudspeth’s first four years, and it left no discernible identity or momentum to carry over into 2017. The defense should be solid again, but barring a revelatory turn from Davis or sophomore Dion Ray at quarterback, the outlook is for more of the same.
National Ranking: 110
Sun Belt Prediction: 6
(Mark Hudspeth photo courtesy of Getty Images)