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Football: Bowl-appearance season leaves Cajuns hoping for more + game photo gallery vs. Tulane

Tim Buckley, The Advertiser, Dec. 16, 2018

Click here for game photo gallery.

ORLANDO — Above all else after a week of wild rides and some business mixed with pleasure, a 41-24 loss to Tulane in the Cure Bowl on Saturday left UL with hope.

Hope for building on what was accomplished in Billy Napier’s first season as head coach of the Ragin’ Cajuns, a tally that includes seven victories, a Sun Belt Conference West Division title, a spot in the Sun Belt’s inaugural championship game — which ended with a loss at Appalachian State — and a bowl appearance as well.

Hope, too, that an influx of young talent, especially on one particular side of the ball, should help a defense that struggled early and rallied late, both throughout the season and against the Green Wave as well.

And hope that an offense that in large part will return intact, a few notable exceptions notwithstanding, can use what happened this year as a steppingstone.

More: UL responded to Napier's challenge, but ran out of time

“I think that we’re going to go into this offseason with some expectations now,” Napier said.

Napier acknowledges his team — down 24-7 at one point — wasn’t ready to play against Tulane. But it rallied to make it a three-point game in the second half, showing some fight just like it did, in particular, in losses earlier this season to Sun Belt Conference-powers Appalachian State and Troy.

“We’ve earned some credibility in terms of the intangibles we play with,” Napier said. 

The tangibles too.

UL returns its entire starting offensive line from a 7-7 season, plus its top backup: right-side standouts Kevin Dotson and Robert Hunt; center Cole Prudhomme; left guard Ken Marks; and left tackle Rico Robinson, who played ahead of, but shared time with, true freshman Max Mitchell.

Its trio of exceptional running backs — Trey Ragas, Elijah Mitchell and Raymond Calais Jr. — all will be back too, as will highly regarded receivers Ja’Marcus Bradley and Bam Jackson, among others.

Starting quarterback Andre Nunez is done, as are receiver Ryheem Malone and tight end Matt Barnes.

But that’s about it for notable losses on offense.

Foote column: Gritty effort gives UL a shot into fourth quarter

“I’m so thankful for these coaches

Napier acknowledges his team — down 24-7 at one point — wasn’t ready to play against Tulane. But it rallied to make it a three-point game in the second half, showing some fight just like it did, in particular, in losses earlier this season to Sun Belt Conference-powers Appalachian State and Troy.

“We’ve earned some credibility in terms of the intangibles we play with,” Napier said. 

The tangibles too.

UL returns its entire starting offensive line from a 7-7 season, plus its top backup: right-side standouts Kevin Dotson and Robert Hunt; center Cole Prudhomme; left guard Ken Marks; and left tackle Rico Robinson, who played ahead of, but shared time with, true freshman Max Mitchell.

Its trio of exceptional running backs — Trey Ragas, Elijah Mitchell and Raymond Calais Jr. — all will be back too, as will highly regarded receivers Ja’Marcus Bradley and Bam Jackson, among others.

Starting quarterback Andre Nunez is done, as are receiver Ryheem Malone and tight end Matt Barnes.

But that’s about it for notable losses on offense.

Foote column: Gritty effort gives UL a shot into fourth quarter

“I’m so thankful for these coaches and those young kids in that locker room right there,” Barnes said, looking at UL’s room as Tulane players could be heard celebrating in its own not far away.

“Because they’ve done so much for me, and I hope I’ve done a lot for them, because this program is going to the next level,” Barnes added. “You’ll hear a lot about the Ragin’ Cajuns for a long time coming, because of this coaching staff and these players.”

Barnes’ blocking will be missed, but the Cajuns should be fine at tight end with Johnny Lumpkin back, if Chase Rogers can stay healthy for the whole season and if ex-Texas redshirt Peyton Aucoin is well after spending this year rehabbing his knee.

More: After six years, Cajun Barnes ready to spread his wings

Malone wasn’t utilized quite as much this year as the SMU-transfer was earlier in his Cajun career, and UL presumably will get back wideout Keenan Barnes after his would-be senior season was cut short by a lingering knee injury.

Nunez’s backup, Levi Lewis, could face a challenge, but undoubtedly will vie for the starting job after playing out what amounted to an apprenticeship for the sophomore this year.

UL’s biggest loss on special teams will be Oklahoma graduate-transfer kicker Kyle Pfau, but Stevie Artigue — out this season following knee surgery — may stick around to contend for the starting job he once owned, and quite-capable Aussie punter Rhys Byrns remains after a solid true-freshman.

More: Pfau relishes chance to kick for Cajuns

On the other side, LaDarrius Kidd and Ole Miss grad-transfer Garrald McDowell will be missed on the line.

But Zi’Yon Hill should be good to go following planned offseason shoulder surgery, Bennie Higgins will be back and both Masry Mapieu and Timaje Porter gained valuable experience up front as true-freshman reserves this season.

Starting Will linebacker Justin Middleton is finished, but starting Mike linebacker Jacques Boudreaux — UL’s top tackler throughout the season — returns.

More: Middleton's emergence key to UL's late-season surge

A few other key pieces on defense, including outside linebacker/standup defensive end Chauncey Manac, also returns, as do cornerbacks Michael Jacquet III and Eric Garror, who played a bunch as a true-freshman blueshirt.

All played on a unit that, like the Incredible Hulk Coaster ridden by Cajun players as they enjoyed some free time at Universal Studios on Thursday, had some harrowing ups and downs.

It also had resolve.

“I feel like as a defense … we never really gave up,” Malbrue said. “I guarantee you the whole season we always had the fight.”

But the Cajuns didn’t always have the requisite personnel to hang on defense.

If Napier has his way, UL’s future will include some upgrades and improved depth — especially in the secondary.

Nevada grad-transfer Kendall Johnson Jr. exits, but Kamar Greenhouse gained some valuable experience as well in a reserve role.

The biggest loss on the back end by far is safety Corey Turner, whose voiced emerged as one of leadership in his senior season.

More: UL's Turner overcame at a place that no longer exists

But fellow starting safety Deuce Wallace, who developed into a team leader despite starting his career as a walk-on, returns, and Bralan Trahan, who made his presence in the Cure Bowl known, could play a key role in 2019.

Trahan’s case is a curious one reflective of why a pending influx of young talent is cause for the Cajuns to feel good about the future of their defense.

The Acadiana High product got a good taste of things as a true freshman last season.

Then little was heard from him until Saturday, when he merely returned an interception 63 yards from the goal line to set up a field goal late in the first half, forced a fumble and stuck Green Wave quarterback Justin McMillan with a pop, like the Incredible Hulk ride, turned plenty of heads.

Napier explains:

“One of the reasons we’ve made improvement on defense is because those young players have made improvement,” he said. “Bralen is a guy who was injured in the offseason program, had shoulder surgery. He didn’t get 100 percent healthy until training camp.

“He’s been a work in progress. We played him in four games this season. Still able to redshirt him (thanks to a new NCAA rule.) … So he’s a guy that has a bright future in front of him.

“You could see he’s very instinctive,” Napier added. “He practiced really well (last) week, and I think that’s a lesson for all of our players: You practice well, you typically would play very well.”

Or at least that’s the hope.

Related: Breakdown of the Cure Bowl



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