His head coach and position coach both insist Raymond Calais has become a much better inside runner than in past years.
That may be true, and UL-Lafayette’s rushing numbers bear that out. But when the former state high school sprint champion sees an opening outside the tackle box, natural instincts kick in.
Calais, a junior fro Cecilia High, shyly said after his team’s 36-22 win over Georgia State last week that he didn’t ever remember being truly caught from behind. That’s normally a good thing for the Ragin’ Cajuns.
Calais had two touchdown bursts Saturday when plays were designed to follow inside blocks, taking one of those a school-record 92 yards. He finished with a career-high 186 yards and three touchdowns in a win that kept the Cajuns in prime position for postseason play.
“He’s always been a very explosive player, even last year as a returner,” first-year coach Billy Napier said. “I think the guy’s made tremendous progress as an inside runner, his vision, his instincts. His home run ability’s always been there, but he’s a guy who’s made the most of his opportunities and earned those touches.”
Calais’ 92-yard burst late in the first quarter gave UL-Lafayette a 7-0 lead it would never relinquish, but his 26-yard burst on a very similar play — inside paths were congested, and he headed outside to open territory — may have been more important. At that point, Georgia State had cut its deficit to 16-14 and had momentum after a lengthy third-quarter scoring march.
But Calais ended an ensuing 75-yard march with his second score, and he added the Cajuns’ third touchdown in a seven-minute span with a more-typical 5-yard burst off tackle.
His 92-yard run around the left side — one in which he outran two defenders who appeared to have an angle on him — broke Reggie Dupre’s 47-year-old record when he went 90 yards against Southeastern Louisiana in 1971.
“It’s very humbling to me, but I can’t harp on that,” said Calais, who would be leading the nation in yards per carry (9.7) if his 66 season carries were enough to qualify. “I just want us to get these next couple of wins so we can play for the Sun Belt championship.”
Calais, the former state Class 4A offensive MVP and leading rusher in Cecilia High history, had his workload increase Saturday with team rushing leader Trey Ragas slowed and eventually sidelined when he aggravated a lower leg injury.
Ragas entered last weekend second in the Sun Belt in rushing (now with 872 yards and eight scores), but he hobbled to the sideline on the next-to-last play before halftime after a 13-yard reception.
Running backs coach Jabbar Juluke quickly turned to Calais and second-leading rusher Elijah Mitchell, who missed the previous week’s loss at Troy with a neck injury.
“As soon as Trey went down, (Juluke) just told me and Elijah to pick it up,” said Calais, who was named the Sun Belt’s Offensive Player of the Week after turning in the league’s second-highest yardage total this year. “So I was just trying to play for my brother.”
Mitchell added 136 yards and another score to UL-Lafayette’s season-high 355-yard rushing total. Even with those numbers, the two only totaled 32 carries, and Calais’ 13 carries were his season high.
“Raymond is a great representation of our team,” Napier said. “There were times when he’d go in the locker room and have three or four touches, and not a whisper out of the guy when he wasn’t getting the touches. He really is a selfless guy. He’s a flyer on the punt team, impacts the game every week on special teams, really a good team player.”
Even if Ragas, who is expected to return for Saturday’s home finale against South Alabama, hadn’t been hobbled, Napier said that his staff’s pregame plans were to utilize the former state 100-meter dash champion.
“We talked about it Saturday morning at staff meeting,” Napier said, “that we’ve got to make a conscious effort to make sure he gets his touches and has those chances. He’s continued to come to work, and he’s earned it. He’s more physical, he’s gained weight, bigger, stronger.
“But he’s got elite speed.”
The numbers also bear that out. He had a 72-yard scoring run two weeks ago in a 47-43 in over Arkansas State that put UL-Lafayette in control of its Sun Belt West Division destiny, and that came after a 61-yard touchdown burst against Coastal Carolina.
Calais also had a 54-yard kickoff return and a 45-yard reception this year. He leads the Cajuns and is second in the Sun Belt in all-purpose running (1,271 yards).
“Some nights when I’d have two or three carries, I’d just go back to work the next day,” Calais said. “Coach Juluke would always tell us just to be ready. So I practice how I play. We practice tough; we practice physical.”
Napier added: “He’s earned it, man. He’s worked. He’s been patient, but we know he has opportunities to affect the game every week.”