While often overlooked and underscouted, the Sun Belt Conference tends to always produce a program loaded with next-level ability. This year, it’s the Louisiana-Lafayette Ragin’ Cajuns, who have perhaps the best group of running backs in college football. The diverse skill sets dispersed among this supremely talented trio complement one another flawlessly, and have been pivotal to the program’s continued dominance in the Sun Belt Conference. This piece profiles the talented Ragin’ Cajun running back stable, and takes a glance at these Louisiana-Lafayette NFL Draft prospects.
The lone senior of this decorated trio, Calais serves as the lightning to Ragas and Mitchell’s thunder, if you will. A four-year contributor, Calais saw his workload increase throughout his collegiate career, culminating in a prolific senior season.
Appearing in nine games as a freshman, Calais rushed for 117 yards and one touchdown on 23 carries as a change of pace option out of the backfield. Where he really shined, however, was as a kick returner, where he averaged 21.7 yards on 15 opportunities. He finished third on the team in all-purpose yards.
Though he didn’t earn as many opportunities on offense as the previous season — he carried the ball just 15 times for 88 yards in 2017 — the 5-foot-9, 185-pound dynamo established himself as one of college football’s top return specialists in his sophomore campaign. In 12 games, Calais managed to conclude his second season tied for fifth in the NCAA in return touchdowns (2) and 16th in kickoff return yards (715).
Finally earning a prominent role in the backfield going into fall camp, the ascending junior burst onto the scene, totaling 754 rushing yards and seven touchdowns on 81 carries. His breakout game came against Georgia State, where he rushed for three touchdowns, one of them going for a Louisiana-Lafayette record of 92 yards. The diminutive ball-carrier earned All-Sun Belt Honorable Mention recognition for his efforts.
Saving his best for last, Calais rushed for a career-best 867 yards and six touchdowns on 112 carries in 13 games this season while adding eight receptions for 69 yards and a touchdown through the air. He also returned 17 kicks for 500 yards, including a season-long 60-yarder.
Earlier this month, Calais accepted an invitation to play in the NFLPA Collegiate Bowl.
NFL Outlook: Calais is a classic case of a player who steadily improved throughout his collegiate run — and is beginning to hit his stride. Though his slight build might suggest limited usage at the next level, Calais has arguably proven to be more effective with a larger workload, as evidenced by his breakout senior season.
Over his four-year tenure in Lafayette, the Breaux Bridge, La. native has demonstrated some of the special qualities that often lead to hearing your name called on draft weekend. A big play waiting to happen, Calais only needs a small crease to run to daylight. His elusiveness and superior vision in the open field border on elite, and can be attributed to his effectiveness as a kick returner.
At the next level, the Louisiana-Lafayette NFL Draft prospect will likely stick as a third-down running back and return specialist. A team like the New Orleans Saints or the Philadelphia Eagles, teams renowned for implementing speciality players on offense, would find creative ways to use an all-purpose weapon like Calais — who has a proven track record of impacting games with limited touches.
Calais may have been the Ragin’ Cajuns’ all-purpose weapon, but Mitchell is the most well-rounded of this talented group. Though it’s likely he returns for his senior season, he is Sunday-ready.
Despite arriving at Louisiana-Lafayette as a largely overlooked two-star recruit, Elijah Mitchell instantly factored into the backfield rotation as a freshman, carrying the ball 42 times for 257 and four touchdowns, before a left foot injury limited him to five games.
Following months of tedious rehabbing, Mitchell returned to form as an ascending sophomore, carrying the ball 146 times for 985 yards and 13 touchdowns. The 5-foot-11, 217-pounder also added 20 receptions for 349 yards and three touchdowns for good measure. His 16 combined touchdowns led the team, and his total yards from scrimmage (1,334) were second-best. The dual-threat running back did enough to garner national attention, earning 2018 second-team All-Sun Belt Conference honors for his breakout performance.
After nearly eclipsing the 1,000-yard barrier as a sophomore, Mitchell would clear that milestone in 2019. On 187 carries, the dynamic dual-threat rushed for 1,092 yards and 15 touchdowns, while hauling in ten passes for 70 yards and a touchdown. The Erath, La. native ran for over 100 yards five times, with four multi-touchdown outings.
NFL Outlook: It’s looking more and more like Mitchell will return to Lafayette for his final season, further boosting his soaring draft stock. With a unique blend of power and finesse, plenty of speed, and effective pass-catching skills, Mitchell should be a hot commodity as a Louisiana-Lafayette NFL Draft prospect around this time next season.
Armed with the power to run between the tackles, the athleticism to turn the corner, and an innate ability to withstand contact, Mitchell projects as a three-down runner at the next level. While health will undoubtedly play a factor, there will be fewer mouths to feed in the backfield in 2020, with the departure of Calais. A 1,400-yard season suddenly doesn’t seem out of the realm of possibility.
The Ragin’ Cajuns’ resident power back, Trey Ragas has put together a stellar career in his own right. Only a junior, the 5-foot-10, 218-pound bruiser is likely to return to school, splitting the backfield with Mitchell in 2020.
The most highly-heralded of the formidable Ragin’ Cajun running back trio, the three-star Ragas experienced an immediate setback upon arriving at Lafayette, sustaining an injury that prompted a medical redshirt designation.
Ragas appeared in 11 games the following season (9 starts), and his 813 rushing yards and nine touchdowns paced the Ragin’ Cajuns in 2017. He eclipsed the 100-yard mark twice during his redshirt freshman campaign, against Tulsa (130) and New Mexico State (132). He earned third-team All-Sun Belt honors.
While Ragas offered a glimpse of his talents in his first year of action, he took the Sun Belt Conference by storm in 2018. Playing in all 14 contests, Ragas rushed for 1,181 yards and eight touchdowns on 207 attempts and added 25 receptions for 229 yards and two touchdowns. He finished the season with the third-highest rushing total in the conference, and his name would once again grace the third-team All-Sun Belt Conference list.
In 2019, however, Ragas would take a backseat to Mitchell and Calais in the running back hierarchy. In 12 games, the punishing runner amassed 796 yards rushing on 109 attempts. Despite being known as a downhill battering ram, Ragas showed he too had some juice, scampering for a 75-yard score against Liberty and a 45-yard effort against Troy.
NFL Outlook: Look, I’m just going to come right out and say it: Ragas and Mitchell will form the most potent 1-2 punch in college football in 2020. Their unique skill sets complement each other perfectly. Don’t be surprised if both players clear the 1,000-yard rushing mark.
Ragas will provide tremendous value as a Louisiana-Lafayette NFL Draft prospect in 2021, as he has fairly low mileage for a player of his skillset, coupled with tantalizing upside. While many will peg him as an early-down runner as a rookie, he actually has more receptions to his name over his career than both Mitchell and Calais.
Ragas has the potential to become a three-down runner at the next level but will be most effective as part of a committee. Primarily known as a north-south slasher, Ragas offers surprising wiggle and burst for a player his size, and his contact balance often results in defenders dropping like bowling pins. He is also an underrated pass protector, a facet of the game that many young players struggle with at the NFL level.