How Emani Bailey developed into a running back to watch for the Louisiana Ragin' Cajuns

Tim Buckley
Lafayette Daily Advertiser

Shortly after UL finished its spring game, coach Billy Napier was asked if Emani Bailey had earned a spot in the 2021 running backs rotation.

Napier emphatically indicated there’s little doubt.

“You can see that acceleration and that burst – and his toughness,” Napier said. “He’s a physical dude.

“He’s very patient, and very decisive, and when he pulls the trigger he hits it in there. … He’s got some big-play ability. … There’s no question Emani has had a great spring and is in position to capitalize.”

Simply having a shot at joining top returnee Chris Smith in a backfield losing San Francisco 49ers sixth-round draft pick Elijah Mitchell and Las Vegas Raiders undrafted free agent signee Trey Ragas is quite an accomplishment for a freshman who’s gained a healthy respect for college football since arriving at UL.

“Especially coming out of high school … I had doubts,” Bailey said.

Motivation:How fatherhood drives 2021 NFL Draft prospects Mitchell, Ragas

Related:How the Cajuns plan to replace two running backs lost to NFL pursuit

Could he read defenses? Could he block and catch the ball like Ragin’ Cajun backs must? Could he take the pounding, and deliver one, too?

“What I learned is the game is much different – much faster, stronger,” the 5-foot-8, 201-pound Bailey said. “You’ve got to come with a different mentality. You’ve got to have that ‘next play’ mentality; don’t get frustrated when the game is played at different speeds and strength.”

Trey Ragas, Elijah Mitchell helped

Bailey’s wakeup call came when he met Tayland Humphrey, UL’s 6-5, 333-pound starting nose tackle.

“Big Sauce, he’s probably one of the biggest d-lineman I’ve ever seen in my life,” Bailey said. “Just trying to run through him, or anybody else on the d-line, it’s a different mindset you’ve got to come with.”

Bailey rushed for 51 touchdowns and 4,000-plus yards at Denton Ryan, where he shared carries with his cousin, Texas A&M Commerce running back Ke’Ori Hicks. Putting up similar college numbers, though, won’t come nearly as easily as when Ryan reached three straight state playoff semifinal games.

Rehab:How Cajuns running back T.J. Wisham is recovering from wrist injury, surgeries

Newcomer:Meet new UL transfer Jacob Kibodi, former Texas A&M running back

To develop the mentality needed now, Bailey leaned on Mitchell and Ragas.

By season’s end he had plenty of scout team experience, 60 yards on 10 carries over five games, including a 25-yard run against Georgia Southern and a good feel what it takes to thrive on the FBS level.

Ragin' Cajuns freshman running back Emani Bailey picks up some yards during a Sept. 26, 2020, win over Georgia Southern at Cajun Field.

He also learned how to perhaps make himself NFL ready, too.

“Eli and Trey, shadowing them, learning from them, they’ve given me what I need for the future,” Bailey said.

“Seeing them … and knowing what to expect was very helpful, because now I know how to prepare for that.”

Ragas’ voice was especially impactful.

“He would tell us every day to keep working, keep grinding, and stay focused,” Bailey said. “Because it’s hard. It’s always going to be hard.”

Looking ahead:Cajuns reschedule postponed football game against Missouri Tigers

More:Cajuns add another Power 5 opponent, Michigan State, to football schedule

Bailey ready for bigger role

After a season of listening and learning, Bailey feels ready to test his low-to-the-ground style in something beyond scout team work and late game carries.

“Playing against the 1s pretty much every day,” Bailey said, “it helps me expect what’s going to come on game day and how fast and how strong it’s going to be.”

Cajuns coaches and teammates grew convinced during the spring that Bailey is equipped to handle the load.

“He’s developed from last year. He’s learned the playbook a little bit more,” Smith said. “He’s running harder. He’s gotten a little bit faster.”

“He’s certainly in position to be able to take advantage of the departure of two really good running backs,” Napier added, “and he’s doing a really good job of preparing for that opportunity.”