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College Football Preview 2021: 18. Louisiana Ragin' Cajuns

Levi Lewis, Louisiana

18. Louisiana Ragin' Cajuns

With Napier back on the sideline and a veteran-laden roster, don't be surprised if the Ragin' Cajuns are an NY6 dark horse

2020 Review
Much like Sun Belt foes Arkansas State and Coastal Carolina, Louisiana went on the road and beat a Big 12 team. However, unlike Arkansas State and Coastal Carolina, they didn't beat up on a mediocre-to-terrible Kansas State or Kansas team but instead dominated possibly the best Iowa State team in program history. The early success helped carry Louisiana the rest of the way, as they went 10-1 and capped off their season by beating UTSA in the First Responder Bowl. Their lone loss came in heart-wrenching fashion to Coastal Carolina and their chance at vengeance was lost, with the Sun Belt Championship Game cancelled due to COVID issues. A second straight 10-win campaign for head coach Billy Napier naturally resulted in several big-name suitors, including South Carolina and Auburn, but the fourth-year head man instead opted to stay in Lafayette. 

2021 Outlook
Offense: Louisiana put up strong numbers across the board in 2020, ranking in the top-half of the Sun Belt in scoring offense and total offense. The core of that group returns for 2021, although the Cajuns will have to find a new feature back to emerge and lead the way on the ground.

Quarterback Levi Lewis is back for a fifth year, ensuring the Cajuns will have one of the top quarterbacks in the league. Lewis has already established himself as one of the best passers in program history, and is 24-4 as starting QB in two-plus seasons at the helm. Expect him to push longtime NFL veteran and Louisiana great Jake Delhomme to become the all-time leading passer in both yardage and touchdowns.

There's no chance Lewis would be pushed as starting quarterback unless injury or some other catastrophic issue occurs, but the staff did upgrade the QB room quite a bit this off-season. Former high four-star recruit Lance LeGendre returns to his native Louisiana after beginning his career at Maryland. He's the QB of the future in Lafayette and the type of prospect this school doesn't bring in often.

The potent 1-2 punch of Trey Ragas and Elijah Mitchell helped fuel the Louisiana offense the last few seasons, but both now depart. Mitchell is an especially tough loss as he was a big play threat on the ground (6.2 yards per carry) as well as a decent pass-catcher out of the backfield. Expect sophomore Chris Smith to get first crack at being the new No. 1 tailback. Although he was buried at No. 3 on the depth chart in 2020, he still managed 350 yards and also showed he could be an asset in the passing game. Beyond him the Cajuns are very unproven but have some interesting pieces, including former Texas A&M transfer Jacob Kibodi and freshman Emani Bailey. Bailey got ten carries a season ago but used the "free" year of eligibility due to COVID.

With basically every single receiver and tight end back, Louisiana boasts the best group in the conference. Expect the competition for snaps to be intense over the rest of the off-season and into fall camp. The trio of Jalen Williams, Peter LeBlanc and Kyren Lacy are likely to see the most targets, at least to begin the year. Williams is the veteran of the group, while LeBlanc and Lacy came on strong in 2020 and have the potential to get even better this fall. Freshman Errol Rogers Jr. should also see plenty of opportunities, another guy that played last fall but essentially used it as a free year of eligibility. At tight end, junior Johnny Lumpkin won't see a ton of targets but is reliable when he does. He's also an excellent blocker who should help spring holes for Lewis, Smith, and the rest of the ground attack.

This may be the best offensive line anywhere in Group of Five football. All five starters are back and offer proven veteran experience, with over 100 snaps between them. Not only is there experience, but there's potential NFL futures for several of these linemen, namely tackles Carlos Rubio and Max Mitchell. This staff further strengthened the unit by adding several transfers over the off-season, including Nebraska transplant Matthew Anderson.

With a veteran quarterback, plenty of proven weapons at wide out, and an extremely experienced offensive line, there's no reason this shouldn't be an elite Louisiana offense. It should be a Top 25 unit across the board, particularly if they're once again able to stay healthy throughout.

Defense: Defensive coordinator Patrick Toney didn't have an easy first season running the defense, as he was forced to take over in the midst of a global pandemic. Toney, who had previously been the team's safeties coach, still ended up doing a fine job as the Cajuns were 31st nationally in scoring defense and developed one of the country's best pass defenses.

The key for Toney and this defense will be getting more consistent play from their front seven. Although the group proved to be skilled at getting after opposing quarterbacks, the rush defense struggled at times in 2020. The good news is that both defensive tackles are back, including All-Sun Belt selection Zi'Yon Hill. At 283 pounds, Hill is light on his feet and plays more like a defensive end than tackle. Luckily, Louisiana has a prototypical nose tackle next to him in Tayland Humphrey, a 330-pound run stuffer. Next to those two is junior end Andre Jones, who had 43 tackles last season.

The linebacker corps may lose a solid defender in Joe, but every other key piece returns in this 3-3-5 look. Middle linebacker Lorenzo McCaskill led the team in tackles a season ago with 83, and he will return as the "quarterback" of this defense. Joining him is Ferrod Gardner, who finished just behind him in tackles, totaling 74. Gardner offers serious pass rushing upside and is one of the top playmakers on the entire defense. The outside linebacker spot opposite of Gardner should see an interesting position battle heading into the fall. Keep an eye on senior Chauncey Manac, who began his career all the way back in 2016 with Georgia before a quick pit stop at Garden City CC in Kansas. He flashed serious potential in a rotational role in 2020, but should be a favorite to start in '21.

It will be difficult for the Cajuns to replicate their pass defense numbers again in 2021, but not impossible. There is a bunch of experience returning here as well, including both cornerbacks and rising star Bralen Trahan at free safety. Trahan not only proved to be an effective last line of defense, racking up 48 tackles, but he picked off four passes and had nine pass deflections. The starting cornerbacks should be junior Eric Garror and sophomore Mekhi Garner, who should benefit with even more experience under their belt. Both are turnover-hungry themselves, as they finished just behind Trahan with three picks each. At nickelback, expect sophomore Kam Pedescleaux and Ja'len Johnson to split time. Pedescleaux had a huge game in the opener against Iowa State and finished the campaign with six tackles for loss.

This ball-hawking defense led the Sun Belt by picking off nearly five percent of the pass attempts against them in 2020 and ranked second in the league in turnover margin. That will be tough to do again in 2021 but they might not need the turnover help if the rush defense plays better. Either way, with so many key pieces back and more depth than past Cajun teams, it should be among the better in the Sun Belt.

Special Teams: Kenneth Almendares took over placekicker duties midseason in 2020 and played well, knocking down all five of his field goal attempts. He will once again be joined by punter Rhys Byrns, set to enter his junior season after averaging 43.5 yards per punt. The return game has a chance to be really entertaining; Chris Smith brought back two kick returns for scores in 2020, while Eric Garror brought back a punt return.

Bottom Line: After some down years in the mid-2010s near the end of the Mark Hudspeth era, Louisiana has once again risen to the top of the Sun Belt under Billy Napier. If not for Coastal Carolina's magical 2020 season, they would have easily been the story of the league and probably garnered even more New Year's Six Bowl consideration. As they prepare for 2021, they check just about every box you could possibly look for an a Group of Five contender. They have a proven winner on the sidelines, a tremendous QB, plenty of offensive weapons, and a deep and veteran-led defense. The Cajuns also have motivation, following the heartbreaking loss to Coastal last fall, and not getting another chance at them in the SBC Championship Game. Louisiana begins their season on the road against Texas, with a chance to once again pull off an upset against a Big 12 Title contender. Even if they lose, don't be surprised if they're favored in every game the rest of the way, with the lone exception possibly being the November 20th date with Liberty.

Further Breakdown
Team Projections
Projected Record: 12-1 (8-0 Sun Belt, Win Sun Belt Championship Game)
Offensive MVP: QB Levi Lewis
Defensive MVP: LB Lorenzo McCaskill
Breakout Player of the Year: LB Chauncey Manac
Impact Freshman: RB Montrell Johnson

Recruiting Breakdown
Even with all the rumors surrounding Napier and the possibility of him taking a Power Five gig, Louisiana managed to reel in a solid class, ranked among the best in the Group of Five. They brought in a pair of tailbacks that could realistically challenge for snaps right away as the program moves on from Eli Mitchell and Trey Ragas. Terrence Williams is ranked slightly higher than Montrell Johnson, but it's Johnson who comes in with more accolades, and was a former Arizona commit. Quarterback Zy McDonald, a three-star from Mississippi, won't likely see the field anytime soon but he has a frame and play style very similar to Levi Lewis. Defensive end Nijel McGriff could make an immediate impact as a Top 25 JUCO product who comes from Northwest Mississippi Community College.

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