Jan 6, 2020; Mobile, Alabama, USA; Louisiana-Lafayette Ragin Cajuns quarterback Levi Lewis (1) rolls out to pass against the Miami (Oh) Redhawks during the first quarter at Ladd-Peebles Stadium. Mandatory Credit: John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports
Iowa State football will return to the field on Saturday and it comes with a test unlike most season openers.
The Louisiana Ragin’ Cajuns are coming to town for a contest that will be nationally televised on ESPN at 11 a.m. Billy Napier’s team is coming off an 11-3 season regarded as the best in program history and picked to win the Sun Belt in 2020.
Those projections are due in large part to a handful of key pieces returning from one of the most productive offenses in the country a season ago, which finished sixth nationally in rushing, eighth in total offense and 10th in scoring.
Here are five things to know about the explosive Ragin’ Cajuns offense:
The QB is no stranger to ISU
Senior quarterback Levi Lewis was on Iowa State’s radar long before the Ragin’ Cajuns became a late addition to the Cyclones’ 2020 schedule. In fact, Matt Campbell’s program was one of three to offer Lewis a scholarship during a standout career at Scotlandville Magnet in Baton Rouge, La. in the 2017 recruiting cycle.
“I was so enamored when I watched him in high school,” Campbell said on Tuesday. “He played on a really good football team that won games. What you’re seeing now in his elite escapability and this elite ability in terms of his arm strength to make plays down the field. We’ve talked about this because you see it in the Big 12, but you see really talented quarterbacks that have the ability to stretch the defense because of their mobility. When their mobility and arm strength come together, then you put in poise and vision down the field, really great things can happen. Levi possesses all those traits.”
The 2019 campaign was a breakout one for Lewis as he completed 243 of his 378 pass attempts for 3,050 yards and 26 touchdowns with just four interceptions. The yards and touchdowns marks were both school records at Louisiana.
Lewis was one of only two quarterbacks in college football to throw for more than 3,000 yards, 25-plus touchdowns and less than five interceptions. The other?
Heisman Trophy runner-up Justin Fields from Ohio State.
There is little doubt Lewis will be one of the top quarterbacks in the Group of 5 this season, especially considering the other pieces in the offense.
“You’re talking about a young man that they’ve done a great job of tailoring an offense around him for him to be really successful,” Campbell said. “Poses a great threat. A guy that I’ve got the utmost respect for. Just really impressed with everything that I’ve seen from him.”
A two-headed monster at tailback
While Lewis’ success through the air is certainly noteworthy, the rushing attack is where Napier’s squad really hangs its hat.
Tailbacks Elijah Mitchell and Trey Ragas have more combined career rushing yards (5,203) and touchdowns (61) than any active duo in the country. They are the only two running backs in the country who share a backfield and have record 1,100+ rushing yards in separate seasons.
Mitchell is the team’s primary back and was one of only 12 players in college football to record more than 1,100 yards and 15 touchdowns last season. Meanwhile, Ragas enters his senior season fifth nationally in career rushing yards by active players.
Both players are on the Doak Walker Award watch list, making them perhaps the best rushing tandem in the country.
“That’s the thing that makes this offense so potent when you have a really dynamic running game,” Campbell said. “A great sense of physicality around you. Then you bring in the mobility of the quarterback to run slash throw, it’s a really dangerous combination. This group certainly has all of those tools at its disposal.”
Talent and experience up front
Despite losing two players taken within the first four rounds of the 2020 NFL Draft, the Ragin’ Cajuns return an offense line that certainly is not lacking experience. All five of the program’s projected starters up front have at least one season as a starter under their belts with sophomore guard O’Cyrus Torrence leading the way after a freshman All-American season in 2019.
Max Mitchell started started all 14 games for the team last season at right tackle and earned preseason second-team All-Sun Belt honors last month while his cohort on the opposite side, Ken Marks, returns to the lineup after missing all of the 2019 season due to injury with 16 career starts in his career.
“No. 1, elite size, that part is really impressive. No. 2, the physicality and the way they come off the football,” Campbell said. “When you watch that video from a year ago, the consistency is what really good offensive lines do. It’s one game or two games, it’s a consistency over time. Every game they play from the beginning of the season to the conference championship to their bowl game, you watch the film and its the offensive line that jumps off. A lot of credit to what they do, but a lot of credit to the young men that are doing it on the video tape and a lot of those guys are coming back. It’s really impressive.”
Shoes to fill at receiver
Two-time All-Sun Belt selection Ja’Marcus Bradley has moved on, but a pair of productive pass catchers return with opportunities to step up in 2020.
Peter LaBlanc started eight games for the Ragin’ Cajuns last season as a freshman, catching 28 passes for 344 yards and four touchdowns. He is expected to play a larger role in the offense during his second season in the lineup.
The same can be said about senior wide receiver Jamal Bell, who made 34 receptions for 445 yards and one score last season.
Filling in the roles around them could fall to freshmen due to reported injuries in the receivers room with the Louisiana game notes singling out Kyren Lacy, Dontae Fleming and Errol Rodgers, Jr. as players likely to step into big roles.
Complimentary in nature
As a whole, what sticks out about the Louisiana offense is the way in which the entire scheme is complimentary to the individual pieces. They are able to use unique ways to highlight each of their players’ talents and mix it into a group that has been wildly successful.
There is no doubt this will be a stiff opening test for an Iowa State defense expected to be among the best units in the Big 12 in 2020. How well they’re able to contain this dynamic offense, especially the rushing attack, will go a long ways towards deciding who comes out on top Saturday afternoon at Jack Trice Stadium.
“It’s a great challenge for us,” Campbell said during Monday’s Big 12 teleconference. “It’s certainly a great challenge for our defense. They’re really well coached and they do a great job putting themselves in great positions to be successful.”