Mark Hudspeth's first four seasons asLouisiana's head coach yielded identical 9-4 records and four consecutive wins in the New Orleans Bowl, which stands as the best run in school history. But it also raised expectations that he was unable to meet the past three years, each of which ended with a losing record. New coach Billy Napier hopes to reverse the trend.
Previewing Louisiana Football's Offense for 2018
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Quarterback was a revolving door for Louisiana in 2017. The nominal starter, Jordan Davis, went down at midseason with a knee injury. His backup, junior college transfer Andre Nunez, lasted two weeks before his season was cut short by a concussion. In November, coaches pulled the redshirt off true freshman Levi Lewis, who was subsequently limited by a sprained ankle and ended the year on a time share with a less-than-100-percent Davis. Collectively, the Cajuns finished in the bottom half of the Sun Belt in pass efficiency for the fourth year in a row, and Hudspeth was fired.
Davis decided to transfer following spring practice, leaving Lewis and Nunez as the frontrunners going into fall practice. With both QBs back in good health and no true incumbent, new coach Billy Napier declared a "clean slate" in the spring and is in no hurry to resolve the question. But regardless of who emerges behind center, the rest of the offense returns largely intact: Virtually everyone who touched the ball in 2017 is back, including the leading rusher (Trey Ragas) and all six regulars at wide receiver.
However the line shakes out, all five starters up front will likely be redshirt juniors or seniors who've been playing together for several years. They'll also tip the scales on average at close to 310 pounds per man.
Previewing Louisiana Football's Defense for 2018
The defense was an outright disaster, yielding 40 points and just shy of 500 yards per game -- and it was the primary reason Hudspeth and his staff were shown the door. So the fact that most of the starting lineup from that unit has also moved on is not necessarily a negative.
The most familiar face for Cajuns fans is junior Joe Dillon, who looked like a rising star in 2016 but saw his productivity dip last year as he shuffled between defensive end and a more conventional linebacker role. This year he's expected to be back on the edge full-time, where he's most comfortable.
The Cajuns need immediate help from two graduate transfers -- defensive tackle Garrald McDowell from Ole Miss and cornerback Kendall Johnson from Nevada. A Louisiana native, Johnson started 26 games for the Wolf Pack before returning to his home state.
Previewing Louisiana Football's Specialists for 2018
Placekicker Stevie Artigue flashed a big leg in 2017, connecting on a pair of 50-yard field goals, but was less reliable from shorter distances (10-of-14). With more consistency, he has all-conference potential. However, Artigue suffered an injury in offseason workouts, putting his status for 2018 in question. Also expected to challenge for all-conference honors is return man Raymond Calais, who took two kickoffs to the house in a season-opening win over Southeastern Louisiana but failed to break another big gainer the rest of the year.
The mandate for Napier, a 38-year-old offensive guru with stints at Clemson, Alabama and Arizona State, is to get the Cajuns back in the black and keep them there. That will take time, especially given that he inherited a roster with far fewer than the 85 scholarships players allowed by the NCAA. The incoming recruiting class has just 15 players, including three junior college signees with limited eligibility. Even with a relatively veteran lineup, Napier's debut has the makings of a classic rebuilding year. If the end result exceeds last year's 5-7 mark, that will be a promising first step.