2021 NFL Draft prospect Elijah Mitchell at Senior Bowl, but Ragin' Cajuns hoped he'd stay
What did the victory mean, McCaskill was asked during a Zoom interview, about where the program is headed and what’s being built at UL?
“Usually I don’t like to look ahead,” McCaskill said, laughing as he glanced at someone who was nearby but off screen, “but I, mean, it’s special.
“You know, hopefully we get some guys to come back next year. I don’t want to say any names or anything, but …”
Dynamic duo:UL's Ragas, Mitchell NFL Draft material
As it turns out, several key Cajuns who could have moved on will instead stay for 2021 – quarterback Levi Lewis, receiver Jalen Williams, offensive guard Ken Marks, nose tackle Tayland Humphrey, inside linebacker Ferrod Gardner and outside linebacker Chauncey Manac.
But Mitchell – who’s been in Mobile, Alabama, this week preparing to play in the Senior Bowl on Saturday (1:30 p.m., NFL Network) – and Ragas both declared for the 2021 NFL Draft.
Mitchell has some big fans
Ragas took his first big step toward turning pro by interviewing last week with NFL scouts and front office personnel as an invitee to the East-West Shrine Bowl, which was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
But the Senior Bowl will be played, and it’s there that Mitchell will get one more chance to show what those in the Sun Belt Conference and oppoments have known for some time: The Erath High product sure can run.
“I love tough, gritty, hard-nosed football players,” Iowa State coach Matt Campbell said before his Cyclones opened the 2020 season with an upset loss to the Cajuns, “and to me, that’s what you get with Mitchell.”
Mitchell wound up running eight times for 46 yards at Iowa State. One week later, he ran 16 times for 164 yards and two touchdowns, including the game-winner, at Georgia State.
He finished the season with 878 yards and eight touchdowns on 141 carries over 10 games, down from a career-high 1,147 yards and 16 touchdowns in 198 attempts over 14 games in 2019.
“He’s got the size, feet, power and catching skills to be an every-down back at the next level,” Senior Bowl executive director Jim Nagy, who worked for four teams during his 18 years as an NFL scout, tweeted about Mitchell after the Georgia State game.
Mitchell, Ragas among UL's career leaders
Mitchell finished his four-year UL career, which was limited by injury to five games as a freshman in 2017, with 3,267 rushing yards, 41 touchdown runs and five touchdown catches.
The 2020 All-Sun Belt pick ran 19 times for 127 yards and one score in the First Responder Bowl, leaving him sixth on UL’s all-time rushing leaders list behind Tyrell Fenroy (4,646), Kansas City Chiefs practice player Elijah McGuire (4,312), Ragas (3,474), 14-season NFL veteran Brian Mitchell (3,335) and Alonzo Harris (3,330).
Mitchell also finished No. 5 on the Cajuns career rushing touchdowns leader list behind Fenroy (48), Mitchell (47), Harris (44) and McGuire (42).
The production will be missed by many inside the Cajuns’ program, especially McCaskill, who was UL’s leading tackler last season.
“That’s my guy, man. … That’s who makes me better,” McCaskill said after the bowl game. “We go at it in practice.”
NFL Draft talk is exciting for Erath product
Mitchell made his decision to go pro official Jan. 10, about two weeks after the bowl game that ended with McCaskill and others lobbying for him to stay.
It did not come as a great surprise, especially with Mitchell projected by various NFL draft websites to go anywhere from the third-sixth round.
Yet Mitchell knew after the bowl that leaving behind the Cajuns, a 10-win team that finished ranked No. 16 in the final Amway Coaches Poll and No. 15 in the Associated Press Top 25 ranking, would not be easy.
“That means a lot,” Mitchell said of McCaskill’s efforts to get him to stay. “That just means he respects me. He likes the way I play. … It means the world to me, and I respect him.”
Even as he said that, though, Mitchell seemed tantalized by the possibilities that now await him.
“It’s very exciting, man, just to be put in this position, even just to have the NFL to talk about and stuff,” he said then. “It means a lot to me.”