The process of trying to replace Elijah Mitchell and Trey Ragas, two of the best running backs in UL history, begins with spring practice and Thursday’s first scrimmage was a good start.
“I thought Emani Bailey really had a good day,” coach Billy Napier said. “I saw him be decisive. The play speed was there. I thought Chris (Smith) had a good day as well. Then we had a number of players after that that took reps. We’re kind of sorting our way through those things.”
Smith is the most veteran member of the running backs and it shows.
“Chris is 200 pounds,” running backs coach Jabbar Juluke said. “He’s a big guy. He plays physical, and I think he’s tough enough to handle the load. I think he wants to handle the load. He’s embracing it. He’s looking forward to the opportunity of being the lead horse.”
Another one in that category is longtime special teams standout T.J. Wisham. Although his progress has been slowed by last season's wrist injury, Wisham has been at every practice in a noncontact black jersey.
“We know TJ Wisham,” Napier said. “We know exactly what we’d get from him.
By all accounts, former UL running back Elijah Mitchell made a lot of money at Monday’s UL Pro Day.
“One of the things I admire about T.J. is his role on the team has been pretty clear-cut and he’s embraced that. Now he’s working to earn more. I think that’s the approach we’d want every player on our team to do.”
Napier said he hopes all of his teammates are watching.
“Sometimes you may not quite like your role, but embrace that, work really hard at it and try to earn more,” he said. “That’s how we’re put together. You’ve got to earn it around here, and T.J. is a good example of that.”
Napier said he’s seeing good signs on the offensive line, even with the transition to new coaches Jeff Norris and Darnell Stapleton.
“Absolutely,” Napier said. “We have really seen some of these young players going through their first spring practice take steps forward.
“We’re working lots of players in lots of different positions, really developing that group as a whole. I think we’ll have a deep group there with a lot of players that can play winning football for us.”
Newcomer T.J. Fiailoa, a ULM transfer, is adjusting to the team.
“T.J. just got here right before spring practice started,” Napier said. “His level of conditioning, he’s not as familiar with our system, so he’s working at a pace where we’re trying to get him up to speed, not only physically but mentally.
"Certainly he has flashed at times and shown he is exactly what we thought he was. T.J.’s a long way from being able to play in a game right now, but we don’t play for a while.”
Backup QB watch
No decisions have been made in the search for the backup quarterback to Levi Lewis, but Thursday’s first scrimmage did raise a few eyebrows.
With two years of experience in the system, redshirt freshman Chandler Fields is the leader in the clubhouse, Napier said.
Among the newcomers, Fresno State transfer Ben Wooldridge caught Napier’s eye.
“He’s really made progress and picked up the system rather quickly and has showed the ability to execute the system and move the offense,” Napier said of the redshirt sophomore. “I’ve been impressed with him. I would say he’s the one in that room that really stands out. Now am I saying that he’s the leader to be the backup? No, I’m not saying that.
“I’m just saying he’s the rookie — of the four new guys that have joined the team — he’s been the most impressive so far just in terms of picking things up and his ability to move the team.”
The other newcomers includes Maryland transfer Lance Legendre, along with freshmen Zy McDonald and Hunter Herring.
Also turning heads
The first spring scrimmage is usually too early to make any positions decisions, but Napier said a few players that have impressed.
It’s been a rockier road than most expected this season for the No. 16-ranked UL Ragin’ Cajuns.
Among those are redshirt freshmen offensive linemen AJ Gillie and Nathan Thomas, as well as sophomore defensive lineman Kendall Wilkerson.
“Those are a couple of examples of guys that I really see emerging,” Napier said. “There’s some young players that we had a lot of confidence in. Then all of a sudden it’s their first spring and they’re getting bigger and maturing. It gets me excited. Those are some guys who have really impressed me so far.”
Napier also mentioned TCU transfer wide receiver John Stephens Jr.
“He’s certainly going to prove to be a factor,” Napier said of Stephens Jr. “He’s just a very unique player — 6-foot-5, 229 (pounds) … big strong, long, just kind of a matchup issue out there.
“I think the guy will also be a really good special teams player. He’s got really unique player with that type of size, ball skills and physicality. Impeccable character, the work ethic and attitude has been great.”