UL Lafayette Ragin Cajuns 2016 Preview and Prediction

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#107 UL Lafayette Ragin' Cajuns

NATIONAL FORECAST

#107

Sun Belt PREDICTION

#5

HEAD COACH: Mark Hudspeth, 36-16 (4 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Jorge Munoz | DEF. COORDINATOR: Charlie Harbison, Melvin Smith

Last season marked the first time in head coach Mark Hudspeth's five-year tenure that UL Lafayette did not win nine games or play in the New Orleans Bowl. The Ragin' Cajuns will look to rebound from a 4-8 showing by leaning on its experience (14 returning starters) and the unexpected return of their best player.

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Previewing UL Lafayette’s Offense for 2016
 

Last year’s starting quarterback, Brooks Haack, transferred to Northwestern State for his final year of eligibility, and the top backup, senior Jalen Nixon, converted to running back in the spring. That left sophomore Jordan Davis, who showed enough in roughly five quarters of action to close the season to claim the title of de facto starter entering 2016. At 6'3", 205 pounds, Davis boasts the kind of size and athleticism that was sorely missing last year with Haack largely confined to the pocket. 

The offense will continue to revolve around versatile running back Elijah McGuire, who enters his senior campaign as the only active FBS player with at least 3,000 yards rushing and 1,000 receiving. His productivity suffered a bit in 2015 — his yards-per-touch average fell from an eye-popping 8.9 over his first two seasons to 5.6 as a junior — partly due to his increased workload. But that was reflective of the offense as a whole, which saw its scoring average in conference games plummet even more dramatically, down by more than a touchdown per game. And the departure of All-Sun Belt receiver Jamal Robinson doesn’t bode well for reversing that trend. Either the Cajuns need more big plays from veteran targets Al Riles and Gabe Fuselier, or someone from a group of touted second-year wideouts will be counted on to emerge ahead of schedule.

Related: Athlon's 2016 College Football Rankings: No. 1 to 128

Previewing UL Lafayette’s Defense for 2016

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The defense struggled in every respect in its first season under coordinator Melvin Smith, yielding at least 400 yards in all eight losses and at least 32 points in all but one. Not surprisingly, then, even with seven returning starters, the overriding theme in 2016 is discovering new blood.

The leading returning tackler, junior Tracy Walker, moved from safety to linebacker in the spring; all-conference cornerback Savion Brown shifted to safety; and the incoming recruiting class targeted junior college defenders with a chance to contribute right away at defensive end (Jarvis Jeffries), defensive tackle (Trevara Miller, Kevon Perry), cornerback (Artez Williams) and safety (Denarius Howard). The secondary also expects to welcome back a familiar face, Simeon Thomas, who filled Brown’s starting role in the spring after missing all of 2014 and ’15 due to academics.

Regardless of the personnel, one of Smith’s top priorities in the fall will be finding a way to generate more turnovers. The Ragin’ Cajuns managed just 11 takeaways last year, fewest in the Sun Belt. The most direct route to improving that number is improving the pass rush, a mandate that will fall largely to Jeffries or promising sophomore Mario Osborne.

Previewing UL Lafayette’s Specialists for 2016


Kicker Stevie Artigue was hit-or-miss as a true freshman, and despite flashes of impressive leg strength, the misses added up: Altogether, Artigue connected on just eight field goals, fewest of any regular Sun Belt kicker, and was just 6-of-13 beyond 30 yards. Fellow freshman Steven Coutts, a native Australian, fared somewhat better on punts, allowing returns on just 15 of his 59 attempts.

Final Analysis


Last year’s 4–8 finish was the first wobble under Mark Hudspeth, whose first four years on the job resulted in identical 9–4 records capped by four consecutive victories in the New Orleans Bowl. The stumble is not nearly enough to affect Hudspeth’s job security — prior to his arrival the Ragin’ Cajuns had never played in any bowl — and in the short term, McGuire’s decision to pass on the NFL Draft gives him a recognizable cornerstone around which to rebuild. The Cajuns also dodged a potential bowl ban this winter stemming from NCAA violations in which Hudspeth wasn’t implicated. If Davis scratches his potential in his first year as the starting quarterback, ULL has a chance of returning to its familiar place among the Sun Belt frontrunners.