Louisiana Football Preview
● Published by Aimee Cormier
Presenting Sponsors: The Foot Clinic & Robin Ford
New Orleans Saints
After being mired in a 7-9 campaign a year ago, the Black and Gold hope that its roster turnover results in a record about face as well. More than half a dozen prominent players were shown the door including all-pro tight end Jimmy Graham and leading tackler Curtis Lofton. Plus, let’s not forget the most recent (and nastiest) breakup with defensive end Junior Galette.
But for as busy as the Saints were cutting ties with players, General Manager Mickey Loomis was also bring them in. The Saints made plays for big name free agents like running back C.J. Spiller and cornerback Brandon Browner. All-pro center Max Unger was acquired in the Graham deal with Seattle.
Regardless who comes or goes, the Saints come and go depending on Drew Brees’ production. The now 36-year-old quarterback led the league with 4,952 passing yards, but also tossed 17 interceptions.
C.J. Spiller could be a huge plus for Brees in the passing game out of the backfield. Brees will bank on Brandin Cooks and Marques Colston having full recoveries from injury and for a youngster like Brandon Coleman or Seantavius Jones to emerge.
With Graham’s departure, it now signals Josh Hill’s era. While Hill may not have the size or athletic ability of Graham, Hill was a dependable target last year catching five touchdowns.
Another help in the passing game will be the resigning of Mark Ingram. The Pro Bowler inked a new four-year, $16 million contract in the offseason after putting up career numbers (964 yards, 9 touchdowns).
The addition of Unger will help stabilize the offensive line after Ben Grubbs was let go this offseason. Tim Lelito is poised to take that left guard slot with Terron Armstead, Jahri Evans and Zach Strief manning their normal positions. First round pick Andrus Peat will be groomed to unseat Strief in the not too distant future.
This time last year, the Saints were boasting one of the top defensive units in the league with nearly everyone back from a group that ranked top five in the NFL in virtually every statistical category. In 2014, the Saints flipped that script ranking second-to-last across the board.
The defensive overhaul began with the addition of former Raiders head coach Dennis Allen as a senior defensive assistant to Rob Ryan’s staff. It continued with the additions of Browner, linebacker Dannell Ellerbe, linebacker Anthony Spencer, defensive tackle Kevin Williams and first round pick linebacker Stephone Anthony.
Former Pro Bowl DE Cameron Jordan is one of the few veteran guys back after logging just 7.5 sacks a season ago. Akiem Hicks and John Jenkins will team with Williams in the middle to round out the front line.
Former Cowboy Anthony Spencer will try to regain form after coming back from injury last year. He’ll be counted on to tandem with draft pick Hau’oli Kikaha to provide a pass rush missed last fall. David Hawthorne moves to his more natural inside linebacker position with Curtis Lofton’s departure. Newcomer Dannell Ellerbe and Parys Haralson round out the first unit.
Last year’s prized free agent Jairus Byrd will be the wild card on defense. Early in the year, Byrd looked like the All-Pro safety the Saints picked up before falling victim to a season ending injury. Keenan Lewis and Kenny Vaccaro join Browner to complete the secondary.
Last season, six of the Saints’ games were decided by a field goal or less last season. That makes the kicking job one of the big training camp questions. Dustin Hopkins and Zach Hocker are two relatively unknowns that will vie for the starting job. Thomas Morstead is back to man punting duties.
With so much unknown about this year’s group one thing is for certain: the scheduling gods are in the Saints’ favor. New Orleans has the 28th most difficult schedule this year. The NFC South is always a craps shoot. The Saints do have to open at Arizona and face Indianapolis on the road, but get the Giants, Cowboys, Lions and Jaguars at home. The Saints will be on the national stage three times this year, all inside the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
Louisiana Ragin’ Cajuns
Competing for Sun Belt Championships and winning bowl games have become something regularly expected for the Ragin’ Cajuns under Mark Hudspeth. “Coach Hud” enters his fifth year atop the helm with a new set of challenges.
In many ways a new “era” begins this year. Gone is the impressive first recruiting class of Hudspeth featuring now NFL bound players Christian Ringo (Green Bay), Justin Hamilton (Buffalo) and Alonzo Harris (Green Bay).
The Ragin’ Cajuns must also replace Terrance Broadway, the most accomplished Louisiana quarterback not named Jake Delhomme.
While Hud doesn’t plan on unveiling the starting quarterback until “minutes before” kickoff at Kentucky, I’ll save you the drama. Brooks Haack will get his shot at directing the Cajuns spread attack. The Katy, Texas native was a standout prepster throwing for 31 touchdowns his senior season. Haack was Broadway’s primary backup the last two years and looked solid in action last fall and this spring.
It may not matter who is behind center. Elijah McGuire is set to embark on what could be an All-American caliber campaign. The junior is the reigning Sun Belt Player of the Year after rushing for 1,264 yards and 14 touchdowns while splitting duty at running back. Those numbers may climb, as McGuire’s importance in the offense will ratchet up even more. True freshman Jordan Wright may be the “back in waiting” and will join Torrey Pierce and Effrem Reed as McGuire’s backups.
While a tough break last year, the injury to Jamal Robinson could be a huge boon to the passing game. The redshirt senior suffered through a number of setbacks playing in only four games and still led the team in touchdown receptions (4). Devin Scott, Jared Johnson, Al Riles and Catholic-New Iberia’s Gabe Fueslier will give the passing game a mix of speed and size. Nick Byrne is slated to be the every down tight end.
The offensive line has been a model of consistency in the Hudspeth years. Not a single starting linemen has missed a start in the four years (and bowl games) for the Ragin’ Cajuns. Three-year starter Mykhael Quave moves inside to left guard for his third different spot in as many years. Returners Donovan Williams and Octravian Anderson will man the right side while Grant Horst and Eddie Gordon will out the Cajun “Hogs.”
The “new era” theme is probably most noticeable on defense. After having just one new staff member in the first four years under Hudspeth, the Cajuns have an entirely new defensive staff in 2015. Longtime SEC assistant Melvin Smith will serve as defensive coordinator and brings two Auburn assistants with him. Former Northwestern State assistant Mike Lucas fills out the staff.
There are big shoes to fill on the defensive line with Christian Ringo and Justin Hamilton gone to the NFL. There is some experience returning, though not much. Carencro’s Jacoby Briscoe, Ladarrius Kidd, Chris Prater and Roderick Stephens will all see their role enhanced. In fact, the listed starters of Blain Winston, Sherard Johnson and Karmichael Dunbar saw little to no action last year. This position is obviously a big question heading into the season.
All-Sun Belt performer Dominique Tovell returns in what could be his breakout season. Returning starter Tre’maine Lightfoot joins him as does Arkansas transfer Otha Peters. Senior Darzil Washington is said to be having a great summer and could be a difference maker as an outside pass rusher.
The secondary is filled with youthful experience. Sophomore safeties Tracy Walker and Travis Crawford were late additions into the rotation last season and will jump into a full time starting role in 2015. They will compete for time with TJ Worthy. Simeon Thomas is a name you may want to remember. The 6-foot-3-inch cornerback missed last year due to academic issues, coach Melvin Smith has described Thomas as a prototypical SEC cornerback. Jevante Watson along with newcomers Corey Turner and Savion Brown will vie for the other corner slot.
The Cajuns will have a new placekicker and punter this season. Lafayette High alum Stevie Artigue will compete for the kicking duties as a true freshman. He’ll battle with Dylan Scheurich for the vacancy left by Hunter Stover. Aussie import Steven Coutts is tabbed as the punter.
Louisiana will look for the program’s first ever win against an SEC school to open the year. The Ragin’ Cajuns head to a newly renovated Commonwealth Stadium to tangle with Kentucky on Sept. 5. Home dates with Northwestern State and Akron as well as a road game at Louisiana Tech fill out the non-conference slate.
The Cajuns open Sun Belt play mid-October with Texas State at home followed by an ESPN2 showdown at Arkansas State. Home games with ULM, New Mexico State and Troy round out the Cajun Field schedule. UL also makes its way to Georgia State, South Alabama and Appalachian State.
LSU Fighting Tigers
It seems that it’s now become an annual storyline for LSU under Les Miles: find a quarterback, become a national contender.
That’s again the quest for Miles in his 11th season in Baton Rouge and he welcomes another loaded roster to Tiger Town.
Of course, it all starts and ends at the quarterback position. Quarterbacks Anthony Jennings and Brandon Harris will duke it out again for the starting job. Jennings started 12 games last year, but LSU was ranked dead last in the SEC in passing yards (162.2 yards per game). Sophomore Brandon Harris will try to make good on the lofty expectations, but on the Shreveport area native after making his way to Baton Rouge last season.
Even with another quarterback controversy brewing, it might not matter. Leonard Fournette is a legitimate Heisman Trophy contender after a rookie season. Fournette set a school freshman rushing record with 1,034 yards and 10 touchdowns. The 230-pound bruiser became a greater fixture in the LSU offense as the season progressed and this year will get the lion’s share of carries in 2015.
The formidable trio of fellow sophomore Darrel Williams and the freshman duo of Derrius Guice and Nick Brossette will back Fournette up. The quartet makes up arguably the top running back stable in the nation.
If LSU does fix its passing problems, there will not be an issue of who to throw it to. Breaux Bridge’s Travin Dural highlights a deep crop of options in the receiving corp. The junior enjoyed a breakout season leading the Tigers with 758 yards and 7 scores. The sophomore trio of Malachi Dupre, John Diarse and Trey Quinn give the Bayou Bengals a more than capable unit. Thanks to LSU run-first approach, massive tight end Dillon Gordon will be essentially a sixth lineman again.
The Tigers’ biggest loss on offense is All-American La’el Collins at left tackle. West Saint Mary alum Jerald Hawkins slides over to the blind side spot and will be joined by returning starters Ethan Pocic and Vadal Alexander. Westgate’s Josh Boutte is expected to fight for one of the two open spots.
It’s new beginnings, meanwhile, for the defense.
LSU had a very messy break up with long-time defensive coordinator John Chavis just after last year’s Music City Bowl appearance. Chavis jettisoned Baton Rouge for Texas A&M, no doubt giving added “juice” to a rekindled rivalry.
LSU welcomed longtime coordinator and assistant Kevin Steele. The former Baylor head coach also had coordinating stops at Alabama and Clemson. The other big defensive hire is the long anticipated addition of Ed Orgeron. Steele and Orgeron are two of the best recruiters in the nation and LSU should feel the aftershock of their arrival in the coming recruiting classes.
The defense has the benefit of several key returnees in all three levels. All-American candidate Tre’Davious White is poised to become the next great LSU defensive back. He’ll groom super freshman Kevin Toliver to take over the reigns next season. Ed Paris, Jamal Adams and Jalen Mills join White in the secondary to form another “DBU”-worthy unit.
Kendall Beckwith appears to become the next great LSU linebacker. The junior is the leading returning tackler with 77 after being inserted into the starting lineup midseason. Fellow returnee and Breaux Bridge native Lamar Louis as well as newcomer Deion Jones flank Beckwith.
The theme of returning veterans also holds true on the defensive line. The Tigers welcome back six of their top eight from a year ago including All-SEC candidates Davon Godchaux and Christian LaCouture. If Tashawn Bower and Lewis Neal have a smooth transition to starting roles, they could help sure up a classic LSU defense.
New Iberia native Colby Delahoussaye returns to man the place kicking duties. The junior struggled late last year missing three of his final four field goal attempts. Jamie Keehn returns as the LSU punter.
This year, the Tigers get thrown into the ever-rugged SEC West early. LSU heads to Starkville to face Mississippi State in week two then returns home to face SEC favorite Auburn. The non-conference slate should be a breeze with home dates against McNeese State, Eastern Michigan and Western Kentucky along with a road trip to upstate New York to tackle Syracuse.
If LSU can navigate the early SEC road map, an 8-0 Tiger team could very well head to Tuscaloosa for another classic at Alabama.
The Bayou Bengals could be anywhere from National Title contender to middling SEC West squad. Once again, it all hinges on the quarterback position.
Tulane Green Wave
Back in 2013, it seemed Curtis Johnson had found the elixir. The Green Wave returned to the postseason for the first time in 11 years. We’re welcoming back many of those players and opening up Tulane’s long awaited on-campus facility, Yulman Stadium.
Then the season happened. The Wave took a big step back with a 3-9 record and one of the worst offenses in the country. A lot of the troubles on that side of the ball were thanks in large part to a young core taking their lumps. Now, that group returns seasoned and projects to get Tulane back on its upward path.
Sophomore Tanner Lee is back behind center after having a difficult first year as a starter throwing for more interceptions, 14, than touchdowns, 12. Once again, youth may be laid to blame with most of his receivers and running back Sherman Badie all freshmen as well. Johnson believes Badie has NFL-quality talent and with four starters back on the offensive line, Badie could have a chance to make good on his coach’s claim.
Nico Marley is back to sure up a defensive unit welcoming the return of seven starters. The junior led the team with 13.5 tackles for loss a year ago. Star returnees defensive lineman Royce LaFrance and corner back Parry Nickerson flank Marley.
A big jump in 2015 may be hard to come by for Tulane in the ever-improving American Conference. The Wave doesn’t have conference favorite Cincinnati on the schedule, but have tough road trips to Navy, Memphis and Temple. The non-league slate begins with a doozy against Duke at home, but also features road trips to Georgia Tech and Army.
Louisiana Tech Bulldogs
This time last year, there was not much optimism around Ruston. What a difference one year makes.
After being tabbed as one of the low men on the Conference USA totem pole, the Bulldogs are a favorite not only in conference, but also as one of the top “Group of Five” teams in the nation.
Skip Holtz hopes he can capture lightning in a bottle twice with a senior transfer quarterback. Former Florida starter Jeff Driskel is tabbed to replace Cody Sokol. The Iowa transfer helped lead Tech to a 9-5 season, a CUSA Championship game appearance and Heart of Dallas Bowl title.
Driskel is stepping into quite the situation thanks to the return of bruising running back Kenneth Dixon. The senior is on course to break the NCAA record for career total touchdowns and rushing scores. Dixon (16,784 total yards and 28 total touchdowns) needs 23 scores this year to surpass the record 83 by Wisconsin’s Montee Ball as well as 25 rushing scores for Ball’s record of 77 rushing touchdowns.
A big reason to Louisiana Tech’s 5-win turnaround from a year ago was the Bulldogs’ ability to turn the ball over. Tech led the nation with 42 turnovers and three starters are back from a secondary that was tops in the country in interceptions with 26. Jennings native Bryson Abraham figures to move into a full-time starting role at cornerback. In all, six starters are back including preseason All-CUSA first team picks defensive lineman Vernon Butler and defensive back Xavier Woods.
The Bulldogs are tabbed to win the West Division for a second straight year, but it won’t come without challenges. Tech’s two toughest conference games will be on the road with trips to Western Kentucky and Rice scheduled.
After going to their first ever postseason bowl in 2012, it’s been difficult for ULM to recapture some of that same magic it enjoyed under Kolton Browning. The quarterback position will once again be the key for Todd Berry’s Warhawks in 2015. Senior Brayle Brown is expected to come out on top of a quarterback race this camp with Berry undertaking offensive play calling duties again. Rashon Caesar, who had 77 receptions, 872 yards and 3 touchdowns, will be the key target in the Warhawks’ spread attack.
While the ULM offense returns just five starters from the worst scoring offense in the Sun Belt last year, the defense is loaded. Nose tackle Gerrand Johnson leads the veteran group after leading ULM in tackles last season; he was the first defensive lineman to do so since 1980. Johnson is joined by fellow preseason first team All-Sun Belt selection safety Mitch Lane.
Berry joked during Sun Belt Media Days that he should be at SEC Media Days because of the constant scheduling of SEC opponents. It may not be a laughing matter in September with trips to Georgia and Alabama. ULM does get the benefit of a 13-game schedule thanks to a trip to Hawaii in late November, so the chances of a postseason bowl could be in play if the offense comes along.
McNeese State Cowboys
To say McNeese State’s 2014 campaign was a roller coaster would be quite the understatement. The Cowboys were one crazy Ameer Abdullah play away from forcing overtime with Nebraska to open the season. The Pokes ended their 6-5 season on a three game losing streak.
There’s plenty of reason to think a turnaround could happen in Matt Viator’s 10th year atop the helm. Many of the same faces are back including key playmakers on both sides of the ball.
After splitting time last year, it is Daniel Sams’ offense. The Kansas State transfer led McNeese State last year in rushing 711 yards. The senior’s speed could mean a more rush-happy attack. Ryan Ross and Derrick Milton each return after splitting time at running back.
The Cowboys also bring back their top red zone threats. Khalil Thomas will lead the receivers after leading the team a year ago with five touchdowns. David Bush, Zach Hetrick and Kent Shelby will help stabilize a unit that did see the most attrition due to graduation.
Brent Spikes will lead the defense. The defensive back not only led the team with 4 interceptions, but also was tops in tackles with 83. The secondary will feature Loreauville native Jermaine Antoine and Dominique Hill after seeing time in 2014.
The linebackers may be the strongest unit, at least from an experience standpoint. Bo Brown and Wallace Scott are back after finishing top four in team tackles. Brian Hine will lead the defensive line after tallying four sacks.
Acadiana’s Jean Breaux is back to man the punting duties. Breaux averaged more than 40 yards per punt a season ago. Alex Kjellsten is back as the placekicker.
Nicholls State Colonels
The Tim Rebowe Era has begun on the Bayou. The longtime Louisiana assistant coach was hired for his “dream job” this offseason becoming the 10th head coach in Colonel history. Rebowe is no stranger to Thibodaux after serving as an assistant at Nicholls for six seasons in the late 1990s.
Rebowe inherits a struggling Colonels program fresh off a winless 2014 season and six victories in the last four years.
There is some optimism at Nicholls State and it all centers around Michael Henry. The senior running back was named a preseason All-Southland first team pick after becoming just the third player in program history to rush for more than 1,000 yards in a single season.
Five other returnees dot the offensive lineup including former Crowley High standout quarterback Tuskani Figaro. Defense is Rebowe’s specialty and it will have to be. The Colonels gave up a Southland-worst 50 points per-game while yielding an eye-popping 538 yards per game to opponents.
It may be hard to see immediate results in 2015, but as I can personally attest, Rebowe will get Nicholls State back to the top of the Southland crust. He’s a career-long recruiter in the New Orleans area and there’s no reason he won’t be able to bring talent down to Thibodaux.
Southeastern LA Lions
Southeastern has become a perennial favorite in the Southland Conference under fourth year head coach Ron Roberts. Don’t expect that to change anytime soon. The Lions welcome back 15 starters from a core that has gone 14-1 in SLC play the last two years with a pair of conference titles to show for it.
Defense will be the star this year for this edition of the Lions. All four secondary members were named to the preseason All-Southland team including Acadiana High alum Micah Eugene, second team. Harlan Miller leads the defensive backs and is on the FCS national defensive player of the year watch list.
The offense, however, will need some retooling. Gone is Southland Conference Offensive Player of the Year Brian Bennett. The Oregon transfer led the Lions in both passing and rushing last year.
A four-man race will be the talk of August camp to try to replace Bennett. Teurlings Catholic alum D’Shaie Landor is the lone returnee in contention with junior college newcomers Justin Alo and Larry Cutbirth added to the mix. Utah transfer and Destrehan High product Donovan Isom was a late add this summer and could be the odds-on favorite to take the reigns.
Quarterback is not the only offensive position with an influx of fresh faces. Jeff Smiley is the lone receiver back, but the Lions do get the running back combination of Kody Sutton and Rasheed Harrell back in the folder. Teurlings Catholic product Dylan Bossier should compete for a starting wide receiver position.
Northwestern State Demons
Could it be a breakout year in Natchitoches? Thanks to a solid mix of returnees in an influx of talented transfers, signs point more to “yes” than “no.” Third year head coach Jay Thomas inherits 15 starters from last year’s 6-6 squad including one of the most dynamic players in the Southland Conference.
Ed Eagan is back after breaking five school records in 2014 and finished second nationally with 181 in all-purpose yards per game. The 5-10 wide receiver will be a force in the passing game and special teams.
Who throws to Eagan is another story. A quarterback race featuring an unreal six quarterbacks will begin in camp to take the place of Zach Adkins. One of the favorites is transfer Stephen Rivers. The former LSU and Vanderbilt signal caller is the younger brother of San Diego Chargers star Phillip Rivers.
In total, seven starters return on offense including All-Southland first team selection Pace Murphy. The Demons will sport a young defense in 2015 with just four starters back. What does return is a talented quartet featuring a pair of All-Conference picks in in defensive lineman Leroy Armstrong and defensive back Adam Jones.
It’s safe to say, Southern is back. The Jaguars have enjoyed a renaissance under head coach Dawson Odums now going to consecutive SWAC Championship games. There’s no reason to think a third may be in line for 2015.
A big reason for optimism on the Bluff is the return of All-SWAC running back Lenard Tillery. The Baton Rouge native rushed for 1,196 yards in 2014, becoming the first Jaguar back to ever eclipse the 1,000-yard plateau. Tillery may have trouble getting back to that mark with an inexperienced line up front. Helping matters, however, is the return of All-SWAC lineman Anthony Mosley after sitting out last season as an academic casualty.
The Jaguar backfield is loaded with reigning SWAC Freshman of the Year quarterback Austin Howard. The Jerry Rice award finalist will also have one of the most dangerous targets in the conference returning. Willie Quinn returns after a HBCU All-American campaign, as does Breaux Bridge’s Randall Menard.
Defensively, Southern is young, but key veterans sprinkled in the lineup should help the Jaguars. Linebacker Daniel Brown returns after sitting out last year with academic issues. The secondary is strong with All-SWAC returnees Dionte McDuffy and Danny Johnson. Gabe Echols leads the Jaguars defensive front.
Grambling State Tigers
If you can find a better story in all of college football than the Grambling State Tigers then you may have a debate with me. One year ago, Grambling was an absolute mess. The Tigers were coming off a 1-11 season while experiencing two in-season coaching changes, not to mention a players’ boycott of one game. What happened the season after is nothing short of remarkable.
Under first year head coach Broderick Fobbs, the Tigers went 7-1 in the SWAC finishing just behind archrival Southern in the West division race. Many of those keys pieces from last year are back and it shows. Grambling goes from doormat to the preseason pick to take the SWAC West.
A lot of that optimism is thanks to the return of quarterback Johnathan Williams. The senior led the number one passing attack in the SWAC last season and returns his two top pass catches, Chester Rogers and Chad Williams. In total, ten starters are back on offense.
On the others side of the ball, seven starters are back on defense including leading tackler Aaron Breed, 106 tackles, and All-SWAC selections DL Javonte Williams, defensive lineman Jamison Goins and line backer Henry Taylor.