Ragin' Cajuns running back Wisham toiled to win respect
Even for someone accustomed to hard work, having to sit out last season at UL was no easy chore for Ragin’ Cajuns running back T.J. Wisham.
But he performed every day anyway, toiling for the greater cause and trusting there would be nights like last Saturday, when — despite not even being one of the Cajuns’ top three running backs — he ran 10 times for a team-high 103 yards in a 77-6 win over Texas Southern.
It was the second straight win for 2-1 UL, which plays its final non-conference game of the season Saturday at Ohio of the MAC.
“Last year, it was tough,” said Wisham, a product of the Episcopal School of Baton Rouge who transferred to UL after spending one year at the United States Military Academy.
“It was every day looking at myself in the mirror and telling myself to put my best foot forward. Some days definitely were tougher than others. But I always tried to keep the end goal in mind, and the end goal every week is to be 1-0.”
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During his requisite season sitting out because of the transfer, Wisham played on UL’s scout team.
“I knew last year my role on the team was (to) give the best look, on special teams, to the defense,” he said. “And when our defense performed well, I took pride in that.”
As a true freshman at Army, Wisham saw the field, playing a bit on special teams and carrying the ball twice.
He ran once for 12 yards in a season-opening win over Fordham. He played at Ohio State. And he ran once for a couple yards against UTEP.
It was a taste of all Wisham wanted.
Academy life, however, was not.
Sure, there was much to be gained from it.
“The lifestyle of being in the military, you have a standard,” Wisham said. “You have a schedule. You have a uniform.
“That mindset of doing everything you do to put your best foot forward, be there on time and do the right thing is something that I always will try to do.”
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Still, Wisham — also offered by Navy, Air Force and a few Louisiana schools coming out of high school — knew deep down he needed to move on.
“I decided that the military route wasn’t the one I wanted to take,” he said.
So as Wisham started to look around, he considered a few programs located — like Army — in the Northeast, and various Louisiana schools too.
In the end he opted to walk on at UL, which also offered him a preferred walk-on opportunity before he went to Army.
Picking the Cajuns, however, meant joining a backfield he knew would feature standouts Trey Ragas, Elijah Mitchell and Raymond Calais Jr. first.
It was, he acknowledged, cause for pause.
But Wisham knew fellow reserve running back Ashton Johnson, a Woodlawn High product, from their days in Baton Rouge. Ditto for Cajuns quarterback Levi Lewis, who played at Scotlandville Magnet High.
And once he got to know Ragas, Mitchell and Calais, Wisham said, “I didn’t have any second thoughts.”
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“Our running backs room is a family,” Wisham said. “We’re brothers. … We mesh just great together.”
That’s why Saturday’s runaway win over Texas Southern, one in which subs played early and often, proved so satisfying for the Cajuns’ running backs room.
“It was really exciting to get out there with a lot of guys who practice hard, just like I do every day, (and) don’t always get the chance to play,” Wisham said.
“Going out there with some of the o-linemen who usually don’t play, some of the receivers who don’t play a lot, being in the backfield with (backup quarterback) Jaiave (Magalei) and the other guys — that was exciting.”
It showed in the production.
Mitchell ran seven times for 73 yards and two touchdowns, Calais five times for 44 yards and two TDs and Ragas five times for 81 yards and 1 TD.
Chris Smith had another five carries for 50 yards, including a 24-yard touchdown. Ashton Johnson rushed six times for 68 yards and a TD.
And Michael Orphey Jr. — a scout team running back this season, along with freshman Brendan Hoorman — had a 16-yard touchdown on his first run of the night.
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Then there was Wisham, whose 100-plus-yard game was a surprise even to him.
“I didn’t know until I got in the locker room and one of the guys came up to me at my locker and was like, ‘T.J., you got 100 yards,’” Wisham said. “I was like, ‘Oh, wow.’ I was just excited six of our running backs scored touchdowns.”
One for all, all for one.
“(Running backs) Coach (Jabar) Juluke, he patted us on the back (Sunday), saying how proud he was of us not being selfish, how we support each other,” Wisham said.
With so much talent in the room, that’s the only way things can work.
“I’ve told you guys a number of times that if we had to play our fourth, fifth and sixth running backs one week this year we’d be just fine,” UL head coach Billy Napier. “I think you got a little bit of a taste of that Saturday.”
Cajun running backs, though, share slices of the pie every in practice.
“That just shows how competitive we are as a group,” Wisham said of the depth the Cajuns flashed against the SWAC’s Tigers.
“We’re a family that supports each other, but during the week we work and we go at it — and then we pat each other on the back after the end of the play and tell each other ‘great job.’”
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Chief among those leading the working bees is Wisham, a district offensive MVP and All-Metro running back who also won a relay team state sprint championship and was a state-meet powerlifting participant at Episcopal.
Calais, in fact, once called Wishman the strongest, pound for pound, among all of UL’s running backs.
Napier dubbed him “one of the more respected players on our team among his peers and certainly among our staff.”
“He was ineligible because of the transfer,” the Cajuns coach said, “but just came to work every day.
“Tremendous attitude. … You can see that in the future he’ll have an opportunity to impact the game as a running back.”
For now, though, Wisham mostly helps on special teams, playing on all four core units.
He bides his time, learning from those around him while he does.
From Smith and Orphey, both of whom he’s quite tight with, he sees how they utilize their speed.
From Johnson, a former roommate he considers “a big brother,” he’s reminded that hard work pays.
And from the big three — Ragas, Mitchell and Calais — he witnesses the importance of preparation.
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“The way they run the ball at practice — that’s the exact same way they run the ball in a game,” Wisham said. ‘There’s no speed being lost, there’s no physicality being lost, at practice. It’s game-day reps every day.”
Those behind them, Wisham included, strive for the same.
They do so, he suggested, without worrying about who is up next behind Ragas, Mitchell and Calais.
“We don’t even really think about it,” Wisham said. “We all get reps at practice. Coach Juluke just calls us out and we go at it. We’ll make a run, come to the sideline and ask the other guys what you see.
“All six of the main running backs just try to feed off each other and help each other out rep by rep.”
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