UL's Calais: 'Wants to be known for more than just speed'
He was a state-champion track standout in addition to the school’s career rushing leader at Cecilia High.
As a true freshman in 2016, in UL’s season-opener against Boise State that year and his debut as a Ragin’ Cajun, he averaged 25.0 yards on three kickoff returns.
Further flashing his fancy for flight, he returned not one but two kickoffs – one for 97 yards to open the game, and another for 100 yards – as a sophomore in UL’s 2017 opener against Southeastern Louisiana.
But as he’s matured into what his now his senior season at UL, running back Raymond Calais Jr.’s desire has been to prove there is much more to his game than door-to-door dash.
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“He wants (to be) known for more than just speed,” said starting offensive guard Kevin Dotson, a teammate throughout Calais’ Cajun career.
Really, he does.
“This season I came in wita different mentality,” Calais said. “Really, I’ve been more of an inside runner than an outside runner this season. I take that with pride.”
Dotson said he sees “the growth” in Calais, and he’s not alone.
Second-year UL coach Billy Napier, whose 5-2 Cajuns play host to 2-5 Texas State for homecoming on Saturday, knew a lot about Calais’ reputation.
But it wasn’t until Napier really got to know him, then witnessed the transition from Year 1 to Year 2 under his command, did it become clear that there is much more to Calais than the blur that blows by.
Napier, in fact, boasts about the now bigger, stronger pro prospect’s “improvement as a player since the day we got here” back in December of 2017.
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“He’s one of the players that we’re probably most proud of,” Napier said. “Kind of an unheralded guy coming in. Some thought he was a receiver. He really had just production as a kick returner.”
'WAY MORE DYNAMIC'
Calais is a key leg of UL’s running backs triangle, one that – along with Trey Ragas and Elijah Mitchell – had the Cajuns ranked third in rushing yards per game nationally at the start of the week.
He started the season on the Senior Bowl watch list, making him a prime candidate to play in the annual postseason game for NFL prospects.
And he’s coming off one of his best games as a Cajun, having gained 144 yards – including an 80-yard touchdown run and a 38-yard TD run – on just eight carries in UL’s last outing, a 37-20 win at Arkansas State.
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It was his second 100-plus-yard game of the season, along with 111 on eight rushes in a September win over Liberty.
The growth, however, started even before Napier and his staff – including running backs coach Jabbar Juluke – arrived at UL.
“He’s been getting better ever since he got here,” Dotson said.
“He’s really became way more dynamic. He used to be just known as a scatback – just a type of person we’re gonna do outside zone, and (he’s) just a guy you’ve got to try to catch.
“Now we see him running inside zone a lot. He can break tackles,” Dotson said. “I don’t think people are noticing that – how much he really can break tackles, he can make people miss.”
Yet the more Calais runs, the more heads turn.
As a true freshman, he gained just 117 yards and had one touchdown while carrying the ball only 23 times over nine games – a year cut short by a late-season injury.
As a sophomore, when he finished 166th in the country in total kickoff return yards and 33rd in yards per return, then-freshmen Ragas and Mitchell got the bulk of work and Calais ran the ball only 15 times for 88 yards and one TD.
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Last season, as a junior, his number of touchdown runs were up to seven, his count of carries was up to 81 and his total yardage soared to 714, 10th-best in the Sun Belt Conference even with his two teammates having more, and his average of yards per carry wound up a whopping 9.3.
It wasn’t long before Napier noticed the progress from the Calais he saw on tape during his first two seasons and the one he was watching in person.
“You think about last year in particular, midseason or so; it was drastically different,” the Cajuns coach said. “Every time we gave him opportunity, that’s when he kind of emerged.”
When that aforementioned chance to shine presented itself during a wild 47-43 win over Arkansas State in late October, Calais responded with 121 yards and a touchdown to help the Cajuns eventually win the Sun Belt West Division championship.
Two weeks later, in a win over Georgia State, he ran for a career-high 186 yards and three TDs.
Yet when the carries have been few and far between, with many of more of them going to Ragas and Mitchell, Calais has been nothing but a supportive teammate, contributing regularly on special teams and arguably sacrificing more than anyone to make running back trio work.
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This season, Calais has 49 carries for 480 yards and four TDs through seven games. He’s on pace, if UL returns to the Sun Belt title game and has a second straight 14-game season, for a career high number of carries. Yet he still has 22 fewer carries than Ragas and less than half as many as Mitchell’s team-high 103.
Not once this year has Calais had double-digit carries in a game.
“He’s always been that kind of guy,” Napier said of the selflessness, “and you always see his contributions whether he’s a gunner or a kickoff return guy.”
'WE KNEW HIS HISTORY
After what he saw what Calais was capable of last season, and knowing how he ran in high school, Napier incorporated more opportunity for him into the UL offense this season.
But to be sure he could handle the pounding, the Cajuns had to get him to believe he could bulk up without giving up any of the speed for which he’s best-known.
He was, after all, someone who won Louisiana Class 4A 100-meter and 200-meter state titles in high school, anchored two Cecilia state-championship relay teams and won multiple state track athlete of the year honors, including one from Gatorade.
Calais added the strength and weight nonetheless, trusting it would pay off in the long run and not slow him down.
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“We knew his history as a high school player and how effective he was as an inside runner in high school,” Napier said. “So we stayed the course. He bought in. The guy’s probably gained 10, 12 pounds. He’s much more physical.”
But that’s not all.
“He’s much more consistent and disciplined with his eyes and his footwork,” Napier said. “You get the guy to the second level, and he’s a home run threat.
“He impacts the game in lots of ways, and certainly he’s improved his stock as a guy who has a future in this game.”
As improvement goes, Calais senses the same – and that’s what could help him get a shot at the next level.
“I think the most I have improved on is being more of a patient runner, more of an inside runner,” he said. “(Also) just learning the game, as far as learning defenses and learning what my offensive linemen have to do.”
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Calais additionally feels he is more of “complete” running back, from blocking to catching the ball.
Anyone who doubts that, Napier suggested, need not wait for one of his rare carries in a game.
The Cajuns coach sees it every day during the season.
“I think it’s his strength, durability, physicality, and then decisiveness in play speed as a runner, the footwork, eye discipline, and then committing to what he sees,” Napier said of all the ways Calais has improved.
“The way he practices is reflected in the game. If you come watch us practice you’re going to see that same play speed, that same intensity, that same urgency, and I think all that hard work is paying off for him.”
Then there’s all that goes unseen by many.
“I have all these individual meetings twice a year,” Napier said, “and he’s one of the more impressive young men every time he comes in there.
“He’s got a plan. He’s goal-oriented. He’s making the most of his time. He’s made drastic improvements since we’ve been here, and I think he’ll only continue to get better.”
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