UL running backs contribute variety of talents to Cajuns backfield
Two of them, juniors Trey Ragas and Elijah Mitchell, are on the national watch list for the Doak Walker Award, presented annually to college football’s top running back.
The third, Raymond Calais Jr., recently was named to the watch list for the Senior Bowl, which regularly features a long list of NFL Draft prospects.
Suffice it to say that when UL plays host to Mississippi State on Saturday morning at the Superdome in New Orleans, there will be plenty of talent to see rushing out of the Ragin’ Cajun backfield.
Combined, the trio produced nearly 3,000 yards on the ground a season ago — 1,181 from Ragas, 985 by Mitchell and 754 for Calais. They also ran for 28 total touchdowns — Mitchell’s 13, Ragas’ eight and Calais’ seven.
Perhaps even more impressive: There's not a single fumble among the three in 2018.
That’s a lot of numbers, and accomplishment, from an offense with only one ball to go around.
For UL head coach and play-caller Billy Napier, however, there can’t be enough quality running backs at his disposal.
“In our system, we’re gonna play multiple backs. I think that’s proving to be a trend,” Napier said before 7-7 UL’s Cure Bowl game against Tulane that ended the Cajuns’ 2018 season. “It’s a position where the injury rate is high. You need quality depth there.”
With so only so many touches in a game, however, filling the hunger needs seemingly inherent with what the Cajuns call their “three-headed monster” is no small task.
Tasked with helping to manage the feeding schedule is Jabbar Juluke, a former Texas Tech, LSU and Louisiana Tech running backs coach now in his second season at UL.
He joined the Cajuns following the conclusion of the 2017 season, shortly after former Alabama receivers coach and Clemson offensive coordinator Napier was hired away from his offensive coordinator post at Arizona State.
“The very first question I asked the room when I walked in there was, ‘How can you impact the team without the ball in your hands?’” Juluke said. “I told them, ‘Don’t answer me now. Think about it.’
“And I explained to them the bigger impact is not carrying the football. It’s being the best student you can possibly be. (It’s) being the best teammate you can possibly be. That’s being great in the community, being a positive role model for other individuals.
“When you can live for others, and you can be unselfish,” Juluke added, “it’s gonna help you to become a better person in life.”
Calais, Mitchell and Ragas — each of them recruited by UL’s prior coaching staff — all bought in right away.
“They’re living unselfishly,” Juluke said a few months ago.
“They’re the epitome of it, and I cannot applaud them enough — because the three of those guys can easily be a starter on any team in the country. I don’t care what conference it’s in. Because they’re that talented.”
They’re close, too.
When Ragas and Calais lived together last season, Juluke said, Mitchell “always” was at their place.
“So these guys are always rooting for one another, and they’re their biggest fans — as well as their biggest critics,” Juke said. “And competition breeds the best in people.
“So they better make sure they’re taking advantage of the opportunities when they come, because those other two guys, they’re foaming at the mouth to get an opportunity to go out and do some special things.”
A bulldozer, a speedster and balance
The tool box each carries is decidedly different.
“We all bring a different skill set,” Calais said.
Ragas, out of Archbishop Shaw High in the New Orleans area, is the bulldozer, someone who’d rather run over a would-be tackler than make him miss.
“Just because it gives me the chance to finally give the blow instead of receive the blow,” he said.
Cecilia High-product Calais, also UL’s standout kickoff return man, is the speedster, and that’s how injured Cajuns center Cole Prudhomme knows which of the backs is running behind him.
“I’ll pull around, and I get my linebacker, and I’m driving him, and I look,” Prudhomme said back in the spring, “and I just see a car go ‘Vroommm,’ and it’s Raymond Calais, and he’s going for another 20 yards.”
Erath High-product Mitchell is a combo sort, with some of the speed, some of the power and a penchant — thanks to an arsenal of moves — for making defenders miss.
He’s the balance between Ragas and Calais, and doesn’t mind at all sharing the load.
“Being with Raymond and Trey is awesome,” Mitchell said.
“They both can do special things, so, really, whoever is in there, you never know what can happen.”
'A selfless group'
Considering what each brings to the table, it’s no wonder Napier has built his offense around the three.
He’s happy to shuffle each in and out as needed, riding the hot hand, and — given the option — would have it no other way.
Yet, Napier also knows it works only because none of them lets ego get in the way.
“It’s a selfless group,” he said. “The group gets along well. They’re a great team; very much a ‘team-like’ approach.
“They’re all unique. Trey, obviously, is a big, physical guy who is tremendous after contact. Elijah is a guy who is elusive, catches the ball, has finishing speed. And then Raymond, obviously, is a sprinter. He has world-class speed.
“The biggest compliment I can give those guys,” Napier added, “is the fact they’re great teammates. They play well without the ball.”
Just as Juluke asked when he first met the three.
“Coach Juluke has done a great job balancing that,” Napier said.
“Sometimes when you get those skills players, maybe a position group, where you have too many, it can be a little bit of a challenge. And he’s done a good job, and those guys have done a good job in that regard.”
Which is not to say the job is done, though.
UL has depth behind Calais, Mitchell and Ragas in Chris Smith, former walk-on Ashton Johnson and former walk-on TJ Wisham, who began his college career at Army.
So when the Cajuns put together their 2019 signing class, no scholarship running backs were among the group.
But that does not mean they are taking anything for granted in the backfield this season.
“We don’t accept being comfortable,” Juluke said on National Signing Day earlier this year.
“I’m very proud of what we were able to accomplish as a group last year, but we want to build on that and we want to become even better than what we were.”
That starts Saturday against Mississippi State, the beginning of a non-conference stretch that also includes a trip to Ohio of the MAC squeezed between home game against independent Liberty and FCS-member Texas Southern.
“People want to pat you on the back and tell you how well you’ve done,” Juluke said, “but I want those guys to keep evolving.
“I want that room to continue to be involved in the culture and atmosphere that we have in there, to cheer for one another and get stronger and stronger so we can put anyone in there and be able to have the success we’ve had.”