How Louisiana Ragin' Cajuns running back Chris Smith is preparing to be 'the guy'

Tim Buckley
Lafayette Daily Advertiser

It is Chris Smith’s turn.

After playing in the shadow of Elijah Mitchell and Trey Ragas, the UL running back steps into a feature role in 2021.

“He’s proven himself to be a world-class kick returner,” said T.J. Wisham, another Ragin’ Cajuns running back. “But now it’s time for him to prove himself as a world class running back.

“We all have complete confidence in him. Chris has elite elusiveness, athleticism, cutting ability, and his vision is off the charts.”

Smith, entering his fourth year at UL out of Nanih Waiya in Louisville, Mississippi, averaged 10.4 yards and had four touchdowns on 32 carries in 2019, when he played behind Mitchell, Ragas and Raymond Calais Jr.

He rushed for 350 yards last season, averaging 5.6 yards on 62 carries as UL’s No. 3 back.

With Mitchell and Ragas in NFL camps, Smith’s rushing attempts and rushing yardage should soar.

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Mitchell had 141 carries over 10 games last season. Ragas had 131 over 11 games. All indications point toward Smith getting at least that many touches this year.

“Chris is 200 pounds. He’s a big guy. He plays physical,” running backs coach Jabbar Juluke said of Smith, listed at 5-foot-9 and 194 pounds.

“He’s tough enough to handle the load. I think he wants to handle the load. He’s embracing it. He’s looking forward to the opportunity to be the lead horse and make sure that people understand that he’s a good football player in his own right.”

'Dynamic player'

Expectations also suggest Smith could one day join the list of UL running backs making it to the NFL, a group that since 2015 has included Alonzo Harris, Elijah McGuire and Calais.

This season, though, is the focus now.

UL coach Billy Napier intends for Smith to remain the primary kick returner.

Chris Smith, expected to be UL's No. 1 running back in 2021, gets instruction from coach Billy Napier as the Ragin' Cajuns practice earlier this month at Cajun Field.

In 2020, he had a 95-yard touchdown at Iowa State, a 100-yard TD at UAB and an average of 26.8 yards – 20th-best nationally – on 23 returns.

“Chris is a dynamic player, man,” Napier said. “He is one of the elite return guys in the entire country.

“When he gets the ball, they’re 25 yards away from him. I like those scenarios.”

Napier also mostly likes how Smith looked in preseason practices.

“In the first scrimmage he had a couple uncharacteristic plays where he put the ball on the ground,” Napier said, “but outside of that he’s had a terrific camp.”

Smith added mass

The big question is whether Smith can continue to flash breakaway speed while taking much more of a pounding as top running back.

“There’s a workload difference between being the third guy in the rotation and actually being up there in the mix to be the first guy to run out with the first team,” Napier said.

“The big thing for him is he’s added some lean mass. (He’s) learning how to manage that workload. … He’s a smart, mature kid. He’s a great teammate. He’s one of our best, just talking about putting it all together.”

Teammates are confident Smith is up to the task.

Smith, too.

“He’s going to take his game to the next level and evolve, not just being a speedster but being that guy that can go first, second and third down,” offensive guard Ken Marks said.

“It’s probably going to be a lot more carries, and just being more involved in the game,” Smith added. “But I’ve been prepared for it. Eli (Mitchell) and Trey (Ragas) helped me out a lot.”

Chris Smith runs during UL's upset win at Iowa State last season. Smith is expected to step into the Ragin' Cajuns' No. 1 running back role in 2021.

'More on me'

With Mitchell and Ragas gone, UL’s running backs rotation takes a hit on pure talent.

But Smith has some advantages.

UL will continue its multi-man rotation, with Wisham, Emani Bailey and perhaps a freshmanMontrell Johnson Jr. and Terrence Williams have shown well in scrimmages — mixed in.

Starting quarterback Levi Lewis returns, and the Cajuns’ starting offensive line remains intact.

“There’s going to be a lot more on me,” Smith said, “but I think the team is going to be prepared.

“We’ve got the O-line back, we’ve got some good receivers out there.”

Smith, however, knows it starts with him if he’s going to live up to his predecessors' standards.

“I’m really just focusing a lot more in, knowing … I’ve got to be the guy,” he said.

“So I’m really just locking in more on my playbook, more watching film and just getting prepared for what I’ve got to handle.”