ACA.ulgardner3.092019

UL senior inside linebacker Ferrod Gardner (7) has been the leader of the Cajuns' linebacker group that has performed well so far this fall.

After two close calls to open Sun Belt Conference play with an overtime road win and another one on the last play of the game, the UL Ragin’ Cajuns needed a bit of a breather.

For the next two Saturdays, there won’t be a need for any nail-biting for UL fans.

The short break essentially serves two purposes.

For one, it could help the Cajuns get healthier — both injury and coronavirus-wise.

Secondly, it gives a little more preparation time for the game of the year, when the Cajuns travel to meet their Sun Belt nemesis Appalachian State at 6:30 p.m. next Wednesday on ESPN.

For the rest of us, it’s an opportunity to assess what we’ve witnessed so far out of coach Billy Napier’s club during the program’s first 3-0 start since 1988.

Listen to any of Napier’s interviews over the past three weeks, and it’s no secret he’s not yet satisfied with his team’s level of play. But he loves its intangibles.

It’s easy to see Napier’s point. The production by most of the units hasn’t yet met up with preseason expectations.

With that said, there are good reasons for some of those struggles, so let’s survey the depth chart.

Quarterback

Senior quarterback Levi Lewis has had his share of challenges, including three new starters on the offensive line and a ton of new faces on the receiving corps.

On paper, Lewis is 52-of-90 passing for 723 yards with four touchdowns and three interceptions. Lewis only threw four interceptions all of last season, and only three after his first pass of the season.

The biggest knock so far on Lewis is throwing interceptions in the two minutes before halftime at Georgia State and against Georgia Southern.

But he also kept his composure and led the offense each time it was necessary in the 20-18 comeback win Saturday.

Lewis is 14-3 over the past two seasons, and that’s really all a quarterback needs to worry about.

GRADE: B-minus

Running backs

No unit had more hype than this one coming into the season.

The statistics may not show it, but there’s no reason to feel any less about any of Elijah Mitchell, Trey Ragas or Chris Smith. Like any good trio, each one has had their moment over the first three games.

Mitchell rushed for 164 yards and scored the game-winning touchdown in Week 2 but was not available last week.

That meant Ragas had to carry the load, and he did that, rushing for 52 yards and a score and catching four passes for 54 yards.

Meanwhile, Smith had the 95-yard kickoff return at Iowa State and caught a touchdown pass in Atlanta, before leaving last week’s game with an ankle injury.

Has the running game been dominant? Nope. But it’s hard to blame the backs for that just yet.

GRADE: B

Wide receivers

Grading this group is probably unfair after just three games. Don’t forget that Calif Gossett, Jamal Bell, Cassius Allen and Brian Smith were supposed to play key roles, and none of them made it to the season opener.

That placed a lot of pressure on all the well-regarded newcomers.

True freshman Dontae Fleming earned a starting spot in camp but has battled injuries. Sophomore Peter LeBlanc has emerged as the bell cow, with senior Jalen Williams being a consistent threat.

Kyren Lacy, Errol Rogers and Devon Pauley all have had their moments.

But Napier repeatedly harping on “precision” is an indication the rookies aren’t there just yet.

Don’t be surprised, though, if this grade is considerably higher by Thanksgiving.

GRADE: C

Offensive line

August was all about praising the offensive line. The talk was that it was going to somehow be better than last year’s unit, which powered a rushing attack that finished fourth nationally in rushing touchdowns, third in yards per carry, seventh in yards rushing and fifth in fewest sacks allowed.

So far, it hasn’t worked out that way. Lewis hasn’t been under siege, but he doesn’t look comfortable. The running game has been spotty, and there have been too many penalties.

Plenty of time for improvement, and the personnel is there to do so.

GRADE: C

Tight end

There was hope the position could produce more receptions this season, but that’s not likely. Johnny Lumpkin’s return is slow after missing last season, and Neal Johnson hasn’t been in Napier’s plans for off-the-field reasons.

He has three grabs for 23 yards, and Hunter Bergeron one for eight. Blocking is fine, but the receptions will be few.

GRADE: C

Defensive line

The addition of Tayland Humphrey has been as advertised. Zi’Yon Hill is back and has 13 tackles. Andre Jones continues to be athletic and apply pressure.

Health has been an issue at time with this group, but Napier suggested there was more depth, and it’s showing. It just needs to stay healthy.

GRADE: B

Linebacker

This unit has also been hit hard by health issues — particularly on the edge — but the inside guys have been great. Lorenzo McCaskill leads the nation with 36 tackles, and Ferrod Gardner was the national defensive player of the week in the opener.

If Joe Dillon, Kris Moncrief and Chauncey Manac can return and play to their potential, this might end up being the best unit on the team.

GRADE: A

Secondary

The cornerback play has been good, and that’s with AJ Washington missing the past two games. Mekhi Garner has stepped up big time, especially with the game-changing interception that turned the tide at Georgia State.

Bralen Trahan is off to a good start with 17 tackles, two pass breakups and an interception. There’s no questioning how good safety Percy Butler is defensively and in the kicking game. Kam Pedescleaux also has made plays.

GRADE: A-minus

Special teams

No, it hasn’t been perfect. Four field goals have been missed, but you could argue the two scoring returns won the game at Iowa State, and Nate Snyder’s field goal won the third game. Hard to argue with special teams largely accounting for two wins in three games.

GRADE: A


Email Kevin Foote at kfoote@theadvocate.com.