Dynamic duo: UL's Ragas, Mitchell NFL Draft material
The proof is rooted is in the same backfield they’ve shared for a few seasons now.
Ragin’ Cajun running backs can get their shot at the NFL if they play things right, and Elijah Mitchell and Trey Ragas – slated to get going when UL opens its 2020 season Sept. 12 at No. 25 Iowa State – need look no further than the very room from which they work to be reminded of that.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers selected their teammate, running back Raymond Calais Jr., out of UL in the seventh round of this year’s NFL Draft.
And in 2017, after Mitchell had finished his 2016 senior season at Erath High and Ragas was coming off a season in which he redshirted as a freshman at UL, the Jets drafted Elijah McGuire, who played two seasons with New York and spent last year on the practice squad of the Super Bowl-winning Kansas City Chiefs.
“Me and Eli, we talk about it all the time,” Ragas, an Archbishop Shaw High product from New Orleans, said when asked about the inspiration he and Mitchell get from Calais. “That’s somebody in our own room who got drafted.
“Eli McGuire, he got drafted. It’s showing us it’s real – like we’ve got the power to reach the next level. And it’s in our hands.”
In their heads, too.
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Because make no mistake:
Ragas is not shy to admit that getting an NFL shot of their own is constantly on his and Mitchell’s minds.
“Just about every day we talk about it,” he said.
As a result, Ragas added, he and Mitchell are out to prove they can play “big-boy ball.”
When it comes to being motivated by those around him, Mitchell suggests much the same.
“We (have) something really special in the room,” he said. “With Raymond, he just really set the tone for us … being drafted. So, the sky’s the limit for us.”
But it’s not just seeing Calais get drafted that spurs him and Ragas on.
The right side of UL’s offensive line received NFL Draft calls as well this year as tackle Robert Hunt went in the second round to the Miami Dolphins and Kevin Dotson was selected in the fourth by the Pittsburgh Steelers.
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“Seeing Raymond and the rest of our guys get drafted – it’s like, ‘I want to be next,’ you know what I’m saying?” Mitchell said.
Mitchell and Ragas are bona fide prospects to follow in the footsteps of the others, Cajuns coach Billy Napier suggests.
“Both Louisiana kids, and certainly (they) have the tools to be players that can play at the next level,” he said. “I don’t think there’s any question about that. I think the (draft) grades we got back after … last year would certainly point in that direction.”
During a season in which UL went 11-3, made it to the Sun Belt Conference championship game for a second straight year and beat Miami (Ohio) of the MAC at the LendingTree Bowl in New Orleans, Mitchell ran 198 times for 1,147 yards and 16 touchdowns while Ragas had 116 carries for 820 yards and 11 TDs.
All that of out of a backfield in which Calais also ran 117 times for 953 yards and seven touchdowns.
The trio rushed for 2,920 yards and 34 yards just among themselves during a year in which UL’s offense accounted for more than 3,000 on the ground.
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“So (it’s) a huge year for them (now) to try to increase their value,” Napier said of Mitchell and Ragas, a 1-2 power punch.
“The way they play this year will have a lot to do with the value they can create for themselves.
“So, if they continue to good people, continue to be good representatives on campus and in the community, and play really well again this year, there’s no question they’re gonna get that opportunity.
“And I think it makes it real for them,” Napier added, “that Raymond had that opportunity this past year – and they’re one year away from that.”
'LET THEM MAKE PLAYS'
The next step in making themselves more NFL-attractive varies for each.
“I struggled the past couple years with blitz pickup, so that’s one thing I’ve been practicing, working on a lot, making sure I shoot my hands on the blitz pickup,” Mitchell said. “Another thing: running lower in the holes.”
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Ragas, a bowling ball who had just six receptions for 60 yards and one TD last year, said that for him it’s “try to catch the ball more from the backfield.”
He didn’t feel he accomplished everything he wanted in 2019, putting that much more on him to get it done this time around.
“So, for me,” said Ragas, who ran for 1,181 yards in 2018, “I’m taking it real seriously that I have a second chance to prove myself and show my talent.”
As UL offensive coordinator and offense line coach Rob Sale sees it, it’s all about doing a better job spring both to run free to the second level.
“As an o-line coach, we talk about covering up the line of scrimmage, covering up the linebackers, and making a secondary guy miss,” Sale said.
“I don’t want them (offensive linemen) to not make a guy miss them (the running back) in the backfield. No, no. no. That’s a reflection on us up front – us not doing the job.
“So, get them in space. Let them make plays,” Sale added. “But expectations are still the same.”
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Which is to say much more of the same.
“The expectations are no different than last year,” Sale said when asked about the dynamic duo. “They had a lot of productivity last year, and they’re coming back, so you would hope there would be the same.
“As coaches we have to do the Xs and Os part, getting them in the right spots. They’ve got to go make the plays.”
As Napier sees it, though, it goes even beyond that.
An increased level of leadership is something he thinks the two can benefit from as scouts evaluate their draft stock.
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“Those two guys are exceptional people,” Napier said.
“They’re great examples to the rest of the team about how to be selfless – how to share the load, how to share the attention, how to play well without the ball, how to be a good teammate, how to go about your business in the community (and) on campus.
“The one thing I would say (of) Trey and Eli is that (what) I’ve seen here as of late is that the leadership capacity that they do have now being the final year – that’s my challenge to them, is to be more vocal.
“They’ve always been a good example,” Napier added, “but I think they can be more vocal and they can be accountable.”
More assertive, in other words, in holding others accountable.
“I think they’ve earned the right to do that,” Napier said. “Because they have been very, very consistent with their actions in the past.”
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'THEY'RE READY TO ROLL'
The notion of UL having three running backs called to the next level in such a short span is not a far-fetched one at all.
Earlier this month Luke Easterling of USA TODAY’s Draft Wire had Ragas ranked No. 14 and Mitchell No. 17 on his early list of the draft’s top prospects at the position.
“Both running backs have two different styles that the NFL is looking for,” writes Damond Talbot, owner of NFL Draft Diamonds, a website devoted to what it calls “diamonds in the rough.”
Talbot wrote that the NFL “has turned into a two-back system” and that “you rarely have one running back carrying the load like years in the past.”
“Ragas is a big back that can help out at the goal line, while Mitchell can be the top back for teams,” Talbot added. “I expect both to be drafted in 2021, the question is when will they hear their name?”
Both are on the national preseason watch list for the Doak Walker Award, and both – joined by UL quarterback Levi Lewis – made the cut for the Senior Bowl Top 250.
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“I try not to pay attention to any lists, because it’s just a list,” Ragas said. “It’s up to me to put my name on a list.
“You know, they can say they’ve got me going to the ‘Whatever Bowl,’ or the Senior Bowl. But if I don’t do my job on the field and do what I need to do each week, I won’t be able to do it.
“So I’m just focused on what I need to be focused on,” he added, “and just play my game at the end of the day.”
What’s clear to Lewis is that the two running backs are locked in on the season to come, though, and not preoccupied with their NFL potential.
“I don’t (have) to worry about them keeping their focus,” Lewis said. “It’s senior year. Them guys, they’re ready to roll.
“I’ll just say the other teams, they’ll have a lot to worry about.”
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All that said, the task of matching – let alone exceeding – what happened last year is easier said than done.
“We have a lot to live up to, man, you know what I’m saying? We did some great things last year,” Mitchell said. “But it (doesn’t) matter how great you did last year. That’s in the past. Nobody’s talking about that anymore.
“So this year we’ve just got to reach a higher standard than we did last year.”
The key to doing that?
“Really, just working together,” Mitchell said. “Going in every day, making each other better.”
At UL, much like the NFL, the multi-back system worked for all involved a season ago, much like the 1-2 combo several years back for McGuire and Alonzo Harris, who played a half-dozen games for the Green Bay Packers in 2015.
This season, with Chris Smith expected to step into the role left vacant by Calais, Mitchell and Ragas think it can catapult them both to where they ultimately want to be.
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And Ragas, for one, doesn’t mind saying so.
He thinks working in tandem with Mitchell really does benefit both of them.
“We encourage each other to do better,” he said.
“When somebody is down, we try to encourage that person to try hard, to don’t forget who you are what you’re capable of doing.
“So, I look at Eli like a brother. We just keep pushing each other to be better,” Ragas added. “You know, our goal is to be in the NFL. … Eli, he makes it easy for me. And I think I make it easy for him.”
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