Ragin' Cajuns pick up a habit for changing games with special plays
Coach Billy Napier calls his special teams players ‘game-changers.’
They lived up to their billing in UL’s 24-20 win over UAB last Friday in Birmingham, and it was hardly the first time.
Ragin’ Cajuns running back Chris Smith took a kickoff 95 yards for a touchdown and cornerback Eric Garror returned a punt 83 yards for a TD in UL’s season-opening win at Iowa State. The Cajuns later beat Georgia Southern at Cajun Field behind Nate Snyder’s 53-yard field goal as time expired.
This time Smith had a 100-yard kickoff return TD late in the first half at Legion Field and Rhys Byrns punted 74 yards to the 6 with about a minute left before Bralen Trahan’s interception sealed it.
Napier, whose Cajuns visit Texas State on Saturday (7 p.m., ESPNU), said Byrns’ punt “completely flipped the field” and Smith’s return with UL down 13-3 provided “a pulse going into halftime.”
“When he returned it,” Trahan said, “we were just like, ‘Yeah, we’ve got to keep that momentum going.’ ”
“What you’ve got right now … is an unbelievable culture for special teams,” added Napier, who credited first-year coordinator Robbie Discher.
But what else made big plays pop?
Skilled specialists surrounded by perfectly positioned teammates helped. Don’t discount good decision-making, either.
'That one felt good'
On Byrns’ boot, several things fell into place.
It started with something besides the rugby-style kick the Aussie usually employs.
Napier wouldn’t reveal what prompted the pocket punt from Byrns, a preseason All-Sun Belt pick who can roll left or right when going rugby-style.
But Byrns said he was “completely confident” after hitting good spirals during pregame work. He also hinted UAB’s tackles were lining up outside, saying that “forced us in as well.”
Beyond rushing alignment?
“The protection was firm,” Napier said, “not only on the front line but in the shield … and Rhys hit an absolute bomb.”
“It’s a good feeling,” blocker Tanner Wiggins said of his part, “especially when it’s clutch-time like that, game’s on the line, and you really need a big play.”
Byrns said the ball came off his foot “really well.”
“That one felt good,” he said. “It was good to get onto one.”
'Do what you always do'
Smith’s return worked because of beautiful blocking too.
“We changed up how we double-teamed,” Napier said. “We actually jump-doubled the front-line guy (UAB’s Larry Wooden).”
“(Discher) told me to hit it – just come out running full speed,” Smith added, “and we were gonna pop it.”
Sure enough, Smith did.
Which explains why even with just 34 seconds left before halftime, Napier – surprised UAB didn’t squib the ball – wasn’t concerned about burning a few on the kickoff.
“I told (Discher), ‘Hey, let’s bring it now. It’s the best play we’ve got with 30-something seconds left,’ ” he said.
“If I can give Chris Smith a running start, that’s as good an offensive play as I can draw up.”
Smith was on board.
“We knew all week they were gonna kick it to me,” he said, “because they had faith in their cover teams.
“So (Cajun coaches) said, ‘Do what you always do. Take advantage if they kick it to you.’ ”
'That's my job'
Smith became just the third Cajun in the last decade to return at least two same-season kicks for a touchdown, joining Raymond Calais Jr., now a Los Angeles Rams rookie running back, and receiver Darryl Surgent, who played on practice squads of the Kansas City Chiefs and the CFL’s Toronto Argonauts.
The Cajuns have had just seven total the last 10 years.
Smith’s was the longest for a TD by a Cajun since Calais had a 100-yarder and a 97-yarder in a 2017 Cajun Field game against Southeastern Louisiana.
Smith, now tied with Baylor’s Trestan Ebner for most kickoff returns for a TD this season, remembers Calais’ feat well.
“That was my senior year in high school,” he said with a grin. “I was at that game.”
Now it’s the fleet feet of Smith, who had four returns for 160 yards Friday, inspiring others to smile.
“The guys did a really good of executing,” Napier said, “and, you know, when you get Chris loose, man, nobody’s gonna get him on the ground.”
For Smith, UL’s No. 3 running back behind older NFL prospects Elijah Mitchell and Trey Ragas, it was all in a night’s work.
“I wouldn’t really call it ‘pressure,’ because that’s my job. And it’s mainly my job, because I’m third running back,” he said. “So I’ve got to go out there and perform on special teams. … I know I’m not gonna get a ton of carries.”
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'A good feeling'
In front of Smith on kickoffs are teammates like Wiggins, who took out his man to Smith’s right side on Friday while Mitchell made his in front miss, Trevor Russell took his out to Smith’s left and La’Kamion Franklin worked back to take out not one but two Blazers.
Smith did the rest, shaking UAB kicker Coby Neenan with a simple cut to the left.
“Chris does a great job – Chris, Eli, Trey, they all do a great job behind me,” Wiggins said.
“It’s a good time blocking for them for sure, because you know if you get that one block they can definitely make something shake, every single one of them. … It’s a good little experience whenever you finally get your block, you get a kick-out and you look down the field and (Smith’s) racing toward the end zone.”
It’s game-changing indeed and perhaps even season-altering for the 4-1 Cajuns.
“It’s a good feeling knowing … you’re really a game-changer on the field … especially with big plays that could happen,” Wiggins said.
“They’ve got a few of us that, really, our emphasis is really on special teams. … Every time you go on the field, there’s something you could really change the game on.”