Louisiana Football Preview
By Scott Brazda
New Orleans Saints
There are lots of questions permeating from Airline Drive, some of the big ones being:
Does Drew Brees have it in him to make one more run? Will the offensive line be able (1) slow down pass rushers and in turn (2) allow Brees to have an extra second or so to make a decision? Will the Saints defense be able to at least improve to the group making up the NFL’s middle-of-the-pack? Many believe three “yes” answers could be the difference between 7-9 and 10-6 for the Black and Gold.
The 37-year old Brees enters the final year of his Saints contract. Yet again, the reason for any New Orleans fan to have hope. Even with a steady stream of opposing rushers in his face, Brees still threw for over 4,800 yards and any time he lines up behind center, the potential for great things is there. It’s hoped that Brees and new tight end Coby Feener will quickly get in sync.
Pure and simple, the Saints defense has to be better in 2016 and parting with former defensive coordinator Rob Ryan should be a positive. New linebackers (Stupar, Laurinaitis, Robertson) add veteran experience, but the training camp loss of rookie defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins (broken leg) has already cast a bit of a shadow over the preseason. The good news is the first-round pick is not expected to miss the entire season.
What has to happen isn’t major – the Saints D doesn’t have to go from being one of the league’s worst to one of its best. Slowing down opposing offenses and going from permeable to semi-permeable is a realistic goal.
If Brees remains Brees and the defense simply improves to “average,” then the Saints could be part of the playoff discussion in the NFC South.
Louisiana Ragin Cajuns
Four straight New Orleans Bowl appearances had some Ragin’ Cajuns fans expecting Mark Hudspeth and Company (4-8 a year ago) to make it happen yet again in 2015.
Who will quarterback the Cajuns is once again a question. Brooks Haack has transferred, Jalen Nixon has possibly moved to running back and the reins have been turned over to sophomore Jordan Davis, who went 26 for 41 in three games in 2015. Or so we thought. Enter LSU transfer Anthony Jennings, who started 12 games for the Tigers in 2014, to make things interesting. Regardless of whether it’s Davis, Jennings or Nixon calling the signals, Hudspeth vows that he won’t have another revolving door/ alternating quarterback system.
Taking a slight edge off the quarterback decision is knowing that running back Elijah McGuire is back for his fourth and final season at UL. The 2013 Sun Belt Freshman of the Year and 2014 Player of the Year has rushed for nearly 3,200 yards, caught passes for over 1,100 yards and scored 43 touchdowns in his career. He would like nothing better than to finish things off with a return to a bowl game.
Defensively, the Cajuns coaches think they’ve got their best secondary in years. Junior DB Simeon Thomas is finally healthy and Hudspeth thinks this could be his breakout year. Add to the mix senior DB Savion Brown and the return of line backing force Otha Peters and that means optimism is high. Causing more turnovers is a must.
LSU Fighting Tigers
The national magazines are nearly universal in their prognostications: LSU (9-3 in 2015) should be a Top 10 team in 2016.
Having Heisman Trophy candidate Leonard Fournette (1.953 yards a year ago) back for another campaign would certainly give any fan base a cause for optimism, but more pieces are in place that would suggest Les Miles’ latest crew is prepped for a run at the national title.
Questions about the Tiger defense of 2015 were many (over 24 points allowed per game), but what went wrong last year seems to have been erased by the hiring of former Wisconsin defensive guru Dave Aranda. Aranda inherits both a strong secondary and line backing corps and Aranda’s ability to get the most out of his players makes many believe the defensive lapses that occurred during the midseason of last fall won’t happen again.
Offensively, Miles has more in the tank than just Fournette. Junior quarterback Brandon Harris started all 12 games last year and tossed for 2,165 yards and 13 touchdowns, and he’s got some serious targets at which to throw. Travin Dural (senior out of Breaux Bridge) and Malachi Dupree are both over 6’2, and know how to separate from defenders. Plus, the guys in the trenches are there to open big holes for Fournette and keep Harris upright.
Alabama, of course, has some Tiger fans saying, “If only ‘Bama wasn’t in our league,” but don’t overlook Ole Miss in October or Arkansas in November.
Tulane Green Wave
The Tulane Green Wave (3-9) didn’t have much to celebrate in 2015, but new Coach Willie Fritz brings renewed optimism for a fan base that has seen only one winning season in the past 13 years.
Fritz will employ a modified pistol-offense, chock-full of triple-options and spread formations. And what most probably don’t realize is that the Wave has led the nation in rushing for each of the last two years.
Defensively, there are some gems, such as defensive back Jarrod Franklin and linebacker Nico Marley, but more such players have to rise to the occasion.
LA Tech Bulldogs
Nine wins in 2014. Nine wins in 2015. Does the same hold true for 2016 in the town of Ruston?
To make that answer a “yes,” Coach Skip Holtz will have to work some magic, particularly in his search for a replacement for all-everything running back Kenneth Dixon. Quarterback Ryan Higgins, a starter as a freshman in 2013, reassumes the role of signal-caller. He will be blessed with an experienced offensive line and wide receiver Trent Taylor (99 catches in 2015).
A veteran defensive was formidable last year, but eight players from that unit are gone. The defensive line should be OK, but challenges exist in other areas.
Former McNeese State (and Jennings High School) coach Matt Viator has assumed the reins at UL-Monroe and the Warhawk faithful are hoping his success in southwest Louisiana can make the transition to northeast Louisiana.
Offensive, seven starters return, including quarterback Garrett Smith (2,000 yards in 2015) and receivers Marcus Green (63 catches) and Ajalen Holley (60 catches).
New defensive coordinator Mike Collins plans on changing his scheme to a 4-2-5, but will an experienced secondary be enough to offset a very young front four?
McNeese State Cowboys
It’s a case of life after Matt Viator in Lake Charles. The defending Southland Conference champions were 10-0 a season ago, and defensive coordinator-turned-head coach Lance Guidry would like nothing more than to stay the course.
Junior quarterback Grant Ashcraft emerged from spring drills as number one on the depth chart, but faces challenges from Joe Lissard and James Tabary.
All-conference defensive lineman Isaiah Golden is expected to lead a physical Cowboy defense at allowed only 13 points and 87 yards per game in 2015.
Nicholls State Colonels
Head coach Tim Rebowe got the Nicholls State Colonels back in the ‘W’ column in 2015, but a 3-8 record still is far from where Rebowe wants his team to be. A strong recruiting class, nearly all of them from Louisiana, is expected to have an immediate impact: The Colonels open on the road at the University of Georgia. At the same time, veteran leadership returns in the form of senior Tuskani Figaro, who is considered one of the Southland’s top dual-threat quarterbacks.
A tough start of the season-- road games at UL-Monroe and Tulane – awaits the Southern Jaguars. Head coach Dawson Odums went 6-5 in his third season and on the plus side, the Jags’ offense averaged 35 points per game. The challenge, however, was a defense that gave up nearly 33 points a contest.
Junior quarterback Austin Howard will have the weapons to put points on the board, as Randall Menard and Willie Quinn return to catch the ball. And there are few worries about the running game, as Lenard Tillery, the school’s all-time rushing leader preps for his senior year.
Southeastern Louisiana Lions
The Southeastern Louisiana Lions struggled to a 4-7 campaign last year, but coach Ron Roberts thinks SMU-transfer Darius Durall with rev up the Lions’ running game. That’s just one element needed for a team that scored only 20 points a game. Defensively, senior linebacker Tre’ Bennett (45 tackles LY) is back for another go; defensive backs Ryan Sigers and Will Hines will add to the mix.
Northwestern State Demons
Optimism is running high on the campus of Northwestern State (4-7 in 2015), with much of that based on the return of seven starters on both offense and defense. The offensive spotlight is aimed at running back De’Mard Llorens, who rushed for 820 yards and scored 11 times last year. His expected success should take the heat off the Demons’ quarterback, which might be former UL-Lafayette starter Brooks Haack. Senior safety Darius Poullard highlights a veteran secondary.
Grambling State Tigers
The Grambling State Tigers won nine games a year ago and made it to the SWAC Championship Game. That has Tigers fans wondering: What will they do for an encore? The Tigers most certainly return some offensive weapons in RB Martez Carter (preseason All-American) and WR Chad Williams, and fellow preseason All-SWAC selection Guy Stallworth will key the defense. Look for the Tigers to battle it out with Prairie View A&M and archrival Southern University for the SWAC Western Division crown.