Receiver Peter LeBlanc has lots to draw from in second year as a Cajun
With the quiet by-example leadership of Ja’Marcus Bradley lost, the Ragin’ Cajuns needed someone in the UL receivers room to fill the role.
Cue Peter LeBlanc.
He is just a true sophomore, but after stepping in unexpectedly early during his 2019 freshman season for a team that went 11-3 last year the product of Catholic High in New Iberia already has on-the-field credibility.
Now, with the Cajuns preparing to open 2020 with Saturday’s visit to No. 25 Iowa State, it’s time to use it.
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UL offensive coordinator Rob Sale said that with the Bradley gone – the undrafted free agent was waived Saturday by the Cleveland Browns, but signed Sunday to their practice squad – “it’s important to fill the productivity” left behind by the Cajuns’ top 2019 receiver.
But it’s not just about filling a stat sheet, something LeBlanc certainly can help with as one of just two returning experienced and healthy receivers – along with redshirt senior Jalen Williams – on the Cajun roster.
There’s more to it than that.
“Peter LeBlanc,” Sale said, “can help with the leadership of it.
“You know, Ja’Marcus wasn’t the most vocal guy. But the way he went about his work is what you want young cats to see – and you hope that’s what Peter is able to take on.
“I know he’s only a sophomore,” Sale added, “but he’s a leader in that room and he understands the big picture.”
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LeBlanc, who had 28 catches for 344 yards while starting eight of 14 games last year, is both willing and seemingly able to take on the charge.
It’s a much-needed responsibility, too, for a team that could have to rely heavily on one or more of its freshmen pass-catchers this year.
In addition to losing Bradley and 2019-senior Bam Jackson, the Cajuns already have lost four receivers to significant offseason injuries: Jamal Bell (posterior cruciate knee surgery), Cassius Allen (knee surgery), Calif Gossett (torn Achilles tendon) and Brian Smith Jr. (broken hip).
That means also sorts of opportunity for youngsters like Dontae Fleming, Kyren Lacy and Errol Rogers Jr. – all true freshmen to whom LeBlanc is willing to lending a helping hand.
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“Anything they need,” he said shortly after preseason camp opened last month, “I’ll tell them what they need to hear.”
But what makes LeBlanc, who is still learning a lot himself, confident he has something to offer?
“Because I’ve been through it,” he said.
'NOT EXPECTING TO PLAY'
It was Aug. 31, 2019, when UL found itself facing Mississippi State in a season-opening, ESPNU-televised game at the Superdome in New Orleans.
LeBlanc was quite familiar with the cavernous stadium, having helped Catholic High to an LHSAA Division III state championship there with its win over Notre Dame High when he was a junior in 2017.
But LeBlanc wasn’t exactly planning on playing a big part during this particular trip to the Superdome.
Then he did, seeing the field a lot and making his first two catches as a Cajun in his college debut. Two weeks later, he had his first career touchdown reception – a 53-yarder in a rout of Texas Southern at Cajun Field. And before the season was done, he had eight games with at least two grabs.
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So how ready was he, really, for those early snaps?
“I was definitely a little bit surprised. I was not expecting to play,” LeBlanc said. “But Calif (Gossett) and Jamal (Bell) both kind of had a little limp in their knees first game, so I got an opportunity and I took it and ran.”
He did, but the jump to the next level from smaller-program high school ball did not necessarily come seamlessly.
“The first couple games,” LeBlanc said, “everything happened really fast – a lot faster than I was expecting.”
Catholic High ran a Wing-T offense.
LeBlanc lined up at slotback most of his career there, largely because he was needed there and what the Panthers did with him worked.
When he got to UL, especially coming from a smaller program, there was lots of nuance to figure out playing wideout.
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He was at the weak-wide X receiver spot, Bradley’s featured position, upon his initial summertime arrival at UL.
“Then come the first game they switched me to Z,” LeBlanc said.
The biggest challenge at the X, he said, is “just beating press coverage into the boundary.”
“There’s less room to work with, for sure; that and knowing how to get there and block and everything,” LeBlanc said. “It just happens a little bit quicker over there at X.”
With his speed better suited to the strong side as a freshman, and his weight not yet up to all the banging that goes on at the X, LeBlanc wound up spending the rest of the 2019 season at the Z.
“Peter can play both,” UL head coach Billy Napier said in August, “depending on the grouping.
“Once you get it from a conceptual standpoint,” added Napier, feels LeBlanc could step in at either spot if need be, “it’s just a matter of learning how to line up and learning how to process it.”
But it did take some time to figure it all out.
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Fortunately for the Cajuns, LeBlanc was a quick study too – even if he was a smidge shaky at first.
“When I came in I was a little bit nervous. I’m not gonna lie,” LeBlanc said back in the spring. “But I think after the first couple weeks I realized, ‘I think I can do this.’
“But it definitely was different coming here. A lot faster. Things were just happening way faster at a 2A high school.”
With time, however, LeBlanc said he has come to realize he just needs to let plays “slow down” and “get a better understanding of coverages and the way the safeties and cornerbacks are moving.”
'WE EXPECT BIG THINGS'
That’s the sort of wisdom LeBlanc can pass along now. Cajun coaches want him to do that just that.
But they anticipate he will contribute his fair share of catches too, and they got a flash of just what he is capable of during UL’s Sun Belt Conference championship game at Appalachian State last December.
One week after pulling in three passes for 30 yards and a touchdown in a late-November win over in-state league rival UL Monroe, LeBlanc had three receptions for 118 yards and two TDs in the title game against the Mountaineers.
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He followed that up with one last catch in UL’s LendingTree Bowl win in Mobile over Miami (Ohio) of the MAC.
“Peter, we expect big things for him (this season),” Sale said. “He’ll be able to play faster.”
But just how many catches he has isn’t LeBlanc’s sole focus.
Remember, he’s – according to Sale – the “big-picture” guy.
So bring in three highly hyped freshmen right behind him?
Recruit two more receivers like recent Cajun commits Martavious “NyNy” Davis and Robert Williams?
Add two transfers like former Oklahoma track-and-field athlete Golden Eke and ex-Arizona State redshirt walk-on Trevor Russell?
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LeBlanc is a team player.
Sure, there’s more he wants to do.
“Hopefully I can contribute in the deep ball a little more this year,” LeBlanc said. “I would like to definitely kind of take that role, but we’ll just see how it turns out.”
Deep down, though, he knows it takes many more than one.
“I think it’s good bringing in more receivers,” LeBlanc said when asked about the freshmen. “The more talent the better.
“But I’m just doing whatever I can do to improve the team. It doesn’t matter if I’m playing or not. As long as I’m giving it my all, I think we’ll be fine.”
Which is an approach similar to the one taken by Bradley, who finished his senior season with 60 catches for 906 yards and 10 touchdowns.
What did LeBlanc learn the most from Bradley that he can now pass along himself?
It wasn’t so much how to snag a throw, or work the X. Rather, it was all about work ethic.
“The dude never stopped, and he was a great example for me to watch,” LeBlanc said. “I mean, every day he was putting in that extra effort and extra work.”
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