Louisiana Lafayette Iowa St Football

UL running back Chris Smith, shown here returning a kickoff 94 yards during last year's upset at Iowa State, is expected to play a bigger role in the Cajuns' running game this season.

Finally, the highly anticipated showdown between the UL Ragin’ Cajuns and the Texas Longhorns will occur at 3:30 p.m. Saturday at Darrell K. Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium in Austin, Texas.

The Top 25 showdown televised nationally on Fox isn’t your classic Big 12 vs. Sun Belt rent-a-win matchup.

The Cajuns are ranked No. 23 nationally after finishing No. 15 in the final Associated Press poll last season, and the Longhorns are ranked as high as No. 19 in the USA Today coaches’ poll. Texas is No. 21 in the AP poll.

“It’s definitely a load that’s going to be taken off,” UL junior right tackle Max Mitchell said. “We’ve been talking about it for three years since I’ve known about it. I have a bunch of relatives who have gone to Texas or are going to Texas. We’ve been chirping back and forth, and obviously the media’s covering it pretty heavy.”

A lot has changed since the two athletic directors agreed to the meeting almost three years ago.

For one, the Longhorns have a new coach in Steve Sarkisian.

Meanwhile, the Cajuns have rattled off 21 wins the past two seasons, trailing only Alabama, Clemson and Appalachian State for total wins in that stretch.

But the Cajuns will face a challenge before they hit the field. They are expected to be playing without starting left tackle Carlos Rubio because of a “lower-body injury,” announced Wednesday evening.

As a result, left guard Ken Marks will move to left tackle and redshirt freshman A.J. Gillie will start at left guard.

“Ken’s played tackle in the past,” UL coach Billy Napier said. “We work on these contingency plays in spring ball and in summer training camp.”

Gillie is a 6-3, 307-pound lineman from Natchitoches Central High.

“We’ve got a lot of confidence in A.J.,” Napier said. “He’s had a terrific offseason. If you had to pick a guy in training camp who had one of the better training camps, it would be him.

"The players trust him, and he’s a very, very capable player.”

That movement means one fewer seasoned performer for the Cajuns who have returning starters at every position except for running back.

The offensive line’s performance is going to be crucial in UL’s running game and in pass protection.

“You’ve got to compete on the line of scrimmage,” Napier said. “Texas happens to have a defensive line like you’d order out of catalogue. They’ve got a really special group with some very unique players inside and on the edge as well. It’s going to be a critical part of the game.”

The biggest question entering UL’s August camp was replacing Trey Ragas and Elijah Mitchell at running back.

Like Max Mitchell, UL’s backfield has been eager for this game.

“That group has been chomping at the bit,” Napier said. “They’ve been working extremely hard.”

Besides Chris Smith and Emani Bailey, true freshman Montrell Johnson from De La Salle in New Orleans earned the No. 3 spot on the depth chart.

“He’s showed he can do it,” Napier said. “He’s been very productive, not only in practice but in scrimmage settings. He’s a unique player. He’s intelligent. He’s picked it up quickly, and he’s been productive. Certainly, he’s going to get opportunities to carry the ball Saturday.

“He’s a 215-pound back and he’s got some body quickness. He’s got really good instincts and vision. He’s been tough to tackle. We’re excited about him.”

The Longhorns counter with sophomore back Bijan Robinson from Tucson, Arizona.

“I can remember when he was a freshman in high school in Arizona when we were there,” Napier said. “We actually offered him a scholarship at a pretty young age when I was at Arizona State. You could tell pretty quick that he was going to be a special player.

“I saw Sark’s comment about him. It’s great to hear that not only is he a great talent, but who he is as a person, as a teammate, to be humble, to be a relentless worker and to have character like that is awesome to see.”

Texas averaged 42.7 points per game last season, while the Cajuns’ defense allowed 22 points per game.

In the betting world, Las Vegas has the over-under at 58.

“The opener in particular and certainly with a new staff, it would be a challenge to predict what’s going to happen from a production standpoint,” Napier said when asked how likely the game would be a shootout.

On the flip side, UL’s offense should be improved with more experience at wide receiver for veteran quarterback Levi Lewis to work with, and tight end could be a bigger weapon this fall.

“Those guys are going to take on a bigger role in the passing game,” Lewis said of the tight ends.

“They’re going to do some big things for us, instead of just blocking all the time. We’re going to mix it up a lot this year with those guys in the passing game. It’s going to be able open a lot of things up. It’s going to be special.”

Texas is rated as an eight-point favorite.

“Texas is absolutely one of the blue bloods of college football,” Napier said. “What an incredible challenge and opportunity at the same time.”

In last year’s opener, the Cajuns upset another Big 12 school after winning 31-14 at Iowa State. Napier said he has not referenced that win much in preparation for Texas.

“I think we all know this is a completely different challenge," he said "We’re focused on the things that are relevant to this challenge. Nothing that happened last year in Ames, Iowa is going to help us Saturday. That’s for sure.”


Email Kevin Foote at kfoote@theadvocate.com.