How the Louisiana Ragin' Cajuns plan to replace two NFL Draft prospect running backs

Tim Buckley
Lafayette Daily Advertiser

With NFL Draft prospects Elijah Mitchell and Trey Ragas both going pro, there’s newfound opportunity for carries out of the Ragin’ Cajuns backfield in 2021.

Which running backs, in addition to speedy Chris Smith, gets those chances may be the biggest question the Cajuns must answer between now and their Sept. 4 season opener at Texas.

“A big part of what we need to figure out here is how we’re gonna replace those guys … and how to put that puzzle together to be successful,” said coach Billy Napier, whose Cajuns began spring practice Tuesday.

Ragas, invited to the East-West Shrine Bowl that wasn’t played due to COVID-19, finished third on the Cajuns career rushing leaders list and sixth among all-time rushing touchdown leaders. Mitchell, who played in the Senior Bowl, left UL sixth in rushing and fifth in career rushing TDs. Together, they ran for 6,800-plus yards and 79 touchdowns. They also had 272 combined carries over 11 games last season – 141 for Mitchell, 131 for Ragas.

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That leaves a lot of touches to be had in 2021.

Smith had 62 carries for 350 yards last season. Barring the unforeseen, he’s bound to get more. But the All-Sun Belt Conference kick returner won’t carry the load singlehandedly.

“I do think we’ll continue to be kind of running back by committee,” Napier said.

It’s a philosophy thing.

“We have a lot of confidence in Chris, and really the whole group,” Napier said. “But they’ve got to go do it, right? Now’s the time.”

The Cajuns’ candidates

Other committee candidates the Cajuns seem high on include Emani Bailey, a compact Texan from Ryan High in Denton who had limited opportunity (10 carries, 60 yards) last season.

T.J. Wisham ran the ball a couple times while playing three games for Army as a freshman in 2017. Mostly a special teams standout since transferring, Wisham – from Episcopal School of Baton Rouge – had 15 carries for 133 yards in 2019 but none before sustaining a season-ending wrist injury four games into 2020.

Emani Bailey runs the ball as The Louisiana Ragin Cajuns take down Georgia Southern 20-18 at Cajun Field. Saturday, Sept. 26, 2020.

Those two have early competition from transfer Jacob Kibodi, a 6-foot-2, 220-pounder from Baton Rouge’s Christian Life Academy who had a career-high 31 carries for 123 yards and a touchdown in five games for Texas A&M in 2019.

As a true freshman in 2017, Kibodi had 11 carries for 121 yards and a touchdown in five games – with 101 of those yards and the TD coming in a win over the Cajuns.  

Napier called Kibodi a “tall, rangy back” with “a knack for running routes.”

“He can run the route tree like a receiver,” Napier said, “so he is a unique player in that regard.”

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Former Texas A&M running back Jacob Kibodi (23), now with the Ragin' Cajuns, runs for some of his 101 yards during a 2017 Aggies win over UL in College Station, Texas.

Don’t discount UL signees

The Cajuns went into the NCAA’s early signing period in December uncertain if Mitchell and Ragas would leave, but knew for sure by National Signing Day in early February.

That’s when Kibodi signed. But even before then, the Cajuns started restocking.

“There’s always a position or two where you feel like, as a coach and a staff, that maybe, ‘Hey, this is the position where a young player can significantly contribute to the team,’ ” Napier said.

“Last year it was receiver. This year it’s running back. Certainly with the departure of Eli and Trey, (there’s) a lot of production walking out the door.

“We do have a lot of confidence in the players that are here,” he added, “but I do think we needed to add some pieces.”     

So while none are in for spring practice, UL’s freshman high school signees – Carencro’s Kendrell Williams, Many’s Terrence Williams, ex-Arizona commit Montrell Johnson of De La Salle High in New Orleans and Dre’lyn Washington of Hemphill (Texas) High – will be in the mix too.

Napier isn’t sure yet if Terrence Williams, signed as an “athlete,” will stay at running back.

“Terrence certainly can run the ball, but he also has been very productive as a linebacker,” Napier said. “We think he fits in both areas, and we’ll kind of evaluate that.”

But Napier seems certain about Washington and Kendrell Williams.

“Dre’s a 215-pound guy that ran a 10.8 100 meters last year right before COVID broke,” he said.

“He’s kind of a Wing-T, fullback type of guy. But I think the verified speed, the production – we’re excited about him.”

Williams, who received a late offer from Iowa, also is a standout Carencro wrestler.

“He played with an injury (last year). Had a turf toe. Wasn’t a hundred percent,” Napier said. “But the guy was a great teammate and battled through that.”

The battling, then, will continue far beyond UL’s April 22 spring game.  

“That’s going to be a really competitive situation there,” Napier said, “to determine who plays, who gets in the rotation, who gets the carries.”

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