Football: With Allen down, UL receiver depth turns to freshmen
Tim Buckley, The Advertiser, August 25, 2020
A position group already hit hard took another blow when UL held its first scrimmage of the month Saturday.
But fortunately for the Ragin’ Cajuns it’s a room that evidently has plenty of good depth, including a trio of freshmen – Kyren Lacy, Dontae Fleming and Errol Jr. – making quite an impression in advance of UL’s scheduled Sept. 12 opener at No. 25 Iowa State.
Receiver Cassius Allen “looks like he has a pretty significant knee injury,” Cajuns coach Billy Napier said a Zoom conference Monday – the first the he’s spoken with media members since the scrimmage.
“He had a good day going (Saturday),” Napier said. “He had a couple nice plays early in the scrimmage before he got injured.
“He also was a critical factor on special teams. I think he was a starter on two different units there. So that will be a significant loss here, and certainly those other guys are going to need to rise to the occasion.”
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Napier suggested Monday that it was too early to tell if the injury was season-ending, but Allen – a redshirt sophomore from Pelham High in Georgia – tweeted “until next time” on Sunday and fellow Cajun receivers tweeted words of encouragement.
Allen, a transfer from Northeast Oklahoma A&M who had six catches for 79 yards and one touchdown in his first season as a Cajun, is the third UL receiver to sustain a major injury this offseason.
The day before preseason camp opened this month, Napier said Jamal Bell, UL’s second-leading receiver last season with 34 catches for 445 yards and one TD, was going to go undergo knee surgery to repair a posterior cruciate ligament (PCL) injury, and that Calif Gossett, who had 15 grabs for 178 yards in 2019, was out with a torn Achilles tendon.
Another receiver, freshman walk-on Reginald Johnson, sustained a hamstring injury early in camp and since then – according to Napier – left the team with plans to transfer to a junior college.
And yet another highly hyped young receiver – Brandon Legendre, who redshirted as a freshman last season – left the team in the offseason.
UL also lost both of its other top-three receivers from last year – Ja’Marcus Bradley (60 receptions, 906 yards, 10 TDs), currently an undrafted free agent with the NFL’s Cleveland Browns, and Jarrod “Bam” Jackson (25, 405).
But the Cajuns do return Nos. 4 and 5 from their 2019 receiving leaders list, Peter LeBlanc (28, 344, 4 TDs) and Jalen Williams (21, 279, 1).
LeBlanc and Williams seemed solidified as rotation regulars for the season to come, but it is what is happening behind them that has Napier especially intrigued.
“Peter (LeBlanc) is one of our better receivers,” the Cajuns coach said last week.
“I’m not worried about Pete so much as I’m worried about developing some quality depth behind (him) and Jalen (Williams).
“We’ve been very impressed with some of the young players,” Napier added. “Dontae Fleming in particular has been impressive so far, just with his maturity, his ability to retain information, to get better, to eliminate mistakes.”
'THEY'RE REAL DEAL'
Fleming – a product of East St. John High, the same school that produced Jackson – has played to rave reviews since reporting to UL earlier this year, as have Lacy, who is from Thibodaux High, and Lafayette Christian Academy product Rogers.
“They’re real deal,” Cajuns starting cornerback Eric Garror said Monday. “Kyren Lacy and Dontae, and Errol – it’s real. They’re competitive, and it’s real. Hard to guard them, for real. They’re really nice.”
Levi Lewis, UL’s senior starting quarterback, seemed especially high on Lacy heading into the start of camp.
“Kyren, he’s just that young guy. Energetic. Eager to learn,” Lewis said. “Can go up and get it. Can climb the ladder. Can take the contact.
“I’m just looking forward to … seeing what he can do with pads on, and how he’s gonna compete and how he’s gonna react. What’s his attention to details? Just the little things that are gonna make him better as an athlete.”
UL offensive coordinator Rob Sale called Lacy, Fleming and Rogers “freshmen that can play.”
“They’ve got the size and speed, and that’s what we need,” he said. “We feel like we hit on all those guys.
“We needed some receivers to come in and be able to play and produce, and you can see the little bit we’ve had them … that they can play.”
The way Lewis sees it, he has a handful of candidates to replace Bradley – and it starts with Williams, a Westminster Christian product who previously redshirted as a walk-on at LSU.
“As of right now I would say JWill, Jalen Williams,” Lewis said. “He’s playing our backside, our X.”
But rather than one primary go-to guy, Lewis also said that “in this offense we kind of spread the ball all over.”
And there really are plenty of candidates, even with Bell, Gossett and now Allen all out.
“There’s tons of competition in the receivers room,” Napier said.
“A lot of those guys, they flash a lot, right? They make some plays they get you really excited. It’s gonna be a lot about, ‘Can they do it on a consistent basis? Do they have the discipline to take care of themselves, get a good night’s rest, eat and drink the right things? Do they have the mental energy to show up each day in the meeting, in the walk-through, throughout a practice and workload that maybe they’re not used to.
“But overall that group has given us a spark here,” Napier added Monday, “and could make us dangerous if they continue to progress the way I think they can.”
'SPECIAL TEAMS VALUE'
Beyond the freshmen, a long list including Brian Smith Jr., Golden Eke, Trevor Russell and Devon Pauley is scrapping for practice reps and – ultimately – playing time.
Eke and Russell both are newcomers too.
Russell is a junior college transfer who spent time as a walk-on redshirt when at Arizona State when Napier was offensive coordinator there.
Eke is a transfer from Oklahoma who was on the track-and-field team, but not the football team, there.
“We’ve been pleased with Golden’s progress,” Napier said a couple weeks ago.
“He’s kind of hit the ground running and I do think, if he continues to work hard and can earn a role on special teams, he’s a guy that can contribute this year.”
Former walk-on Pauley appeared in 11 games, mostly as special teams, as a redshirt freshman last season.
The now-injured Allen had been competing with for backup time at the X receiver position behind Williams with Lacy and Smith, a juco transfer – and a Barbe High product like Pauley – who had seven catches for 74 yards while playing in seven games with one start last year.
“Brian is in what I would (call) ‘the unproven second group of receivers that we have on our team,’ ” Napier said.
“That’s one of the areas of our team we’re working through who’s going to be that third through six, seven, eight on the roster, and what is their role going to be as a receiver, but also what is their role on special teams.
“If you’re not one of those top one or two receivers,” Napier added, “you better be a heck of a special teams player across the board. … The last 15 (travel-roster) spots are always made when it comes to special teams value.”