LOUISIANA RAGIN’ CAJUNS

COACH: Billy Napier, 7-7, second season at Louisiana

2018 RECORD: 7-7, 5-3 Sun Belt

POSTSEASON: lost to Tulane 41-24 in the Cure Bowl

» A LOOK BACK

Napier and his staff made a strong first impression with the Ragin’ Cajuns by getting Louisiana to the Sun Belt Conference championship game after most preseason projections had it finishing near the bottom of the standings.

The offense flourished with a three-headed running attack featuring Trey Ragas, Elijah Mitchell and Raymond Calais. The three combined to rush for more than 3,500 yards and 33 touchdowns, and they made it easy for Andre Nunez to have clean pockets to find his receivers down the field. UL ranked 22nd in the nation in rushing offense and 44th in total offense.

But for all the yards and points the offense put up, the defense was unable to stop teams, especially on the ground. UL ranked 112th in the nation in rushing defense (219 yards per game), and the inability to slow down the run allowed opponents to score more than 34 points per outing.

That inconsistency caught up to UL in the Sun Belt title game in a loss to Appalachian State, and again in the Cure Bowl as Tulane carved up the Ragin’ Cajuns.

» LOOKING AHEAD

Nunez graduated, but all three running backs and all five offensive linemen return to give UL a formidable running attack that should anchor the offense in the season’s early weeks against Mississippi State (in New Orleans) and Liberty. The training camp will serve as an opportunity to find Nunez’s replacement at quarterback. Levi Lewis played sporadically last season to get needed game reps (37 of 59 passing, 585 yards, 7 TDs, 2 INTs), so he ideally has the upperhand in the quarterback battle. But Jai’ave Magalei, a junior college signee, joined the program in time for spring practices, and three-star recruit Chandler Fields will be given opportunities in camp to break onto the two-deep.

The defense, which was a weakness last season, returns seven starters. Linebacker Joe Dillon didn’t play last season because of a hip injury, and he’s expected to be one of the three starting linebackers. Dillon was a freshman All-American in 2016, but he hasn’t been able to stay healthy in the two years that have followed.

That unit could be busy, yet again, if the defensive line fails to generate a push up front. Ends Bennie Higgins and Zi’Yon Hill return, and there are a trio of massive interior linemen who are expected to get playing time (Tra’Vontae Booker, Timaje Porter and Masry Mapieu). The defense’s success rests with how much production those up front can deliver on a weekly basis.

» WHO’S BACK?

• SKILL PLAYERS

RB Trey Ragas (207 carries, 1,181 yards, 5.7 average, 8 TD; 25 catches, 229 yards, 9.16 average, 2 TD)

RB Elijah Mitchell (146 carries, 985 yards, 6.7 average, 13 TD)

RB Raymond Calais (81 carries, 754 yards, 9.3 average, 7 TD)

WR Ja’Marcus Bradley (40 catches, 608 yards, 15.2 average, 10 TD)

WR Jarrod Jackson (19 catches, 325 yards, 17.1 average, 4 TD)

• OFFENSIVE LINEMEN

LT Robert Hunt

LG Ken Marks

C Cole Prudhomme

RG Kevin Dotson

RT Rico Robinson

• DEFENSIVE LEADERS

LB Jacques Boudreaux (93 tackles, 5.5 TFL, 2.0 sacks, 3 PBU, 2 QBH)

DE Bennie Higgins (58 tackles, 7.0 TFL, 4.0 sacks, 2 PBU, 2 QBH)

LB Ferrod Gardner (50 tackles, 1.0 TFL, 2 PBU, 2 QBH)

LB Chauncey Manac (47 tackles, 8.0 TFL, 4.0 sacks, 1 PBU, 5 QBH, 1 FF)

• SPECIAL TEAMS

P Rhys Byrns (53 punts, 40.1 average, 68 long, 1 TB, 23 FC, 21 I20, 6 50+, 1 blocked)

» WHO’S GONE?

• SKILL PLAYERS

QB Andre Nunez (182-287 passing, 2,272 yards, 20 TD, 12 INT)

WR Rhyeem Malone (44 catches, 525 yards, 11.93 average, 4 TD)

• OFFENSIVE LINEMEN

None

• DEFENSIVE LEADERS

S Corey Turner (79 tackles, 3.0 TFL, 1.0 sacks, 1 INT)

LB Justin Middleton (67 tackles, 4.0 TFL, 1.0 sacks, 2 PBU, 1 FR, 1 FF)

DE Garrald McDowell (50 tackles, 4.0 TFL, 0.5 sacks, 1 PBU, 4 QBH)

• SPECIAL TEAMS

K Kyle Pfau (15-18 FG, 52 long, 0 blocked; 54-55 PAT)

» WHOM TO FOLLOW

Tim Buckley, Lafayette Daily Advertiser: @TDARaginCajuns

Kevin Foote, Baton Rouge Advocate: @FooteNote

Louisiana Football: @RaginCajunsFB

» SCHEDULE

Aug. 31: vs. Mississippi State in New Orleans, noon

Sept. 7: Liberty, 7:30 p.m.

Sept. 14: Texas Southern, 7:30 p.m.

Sept. 21: at Ohio, TBD

Sept. 28: at Georgia Southern, TBD

Oct. 9: Appalachian State, 8 p.m.

Oct. 17: at Arkansas State, 7:30 p.m.

Nov. 2: Texas State, TBD

Nov. 7: at Coastal Carolina, 7:30 p.m.

Nov. 16: at South Alabama, TBD

Nov. 23: Troy, TBD

Nov. 30: Louisiana Monroe, TBD

» THE SERIES (home team in CAPS)

First meeting

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Damien Sordelett covers Liberty University athletics and local golf for The News & Advance. Reach him at (434) 385-5550.

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