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Finally, it's Chris Smith's turn to continue Louisiana's running backs NFL pipeline

Louisiana running back Chris Smith enters his fourth year with the Ragin' Cajuns but his first as a starter. He spent the past few seasons playing behind Elijah Mitchell and Trey Ragas, both of whom now are NFL rookies.

LAFAYETTE, La. — It is Chris Smith’s turn.

After playing in the shadow of Elijah Mitchell and Trey Ragas, the Louisiana running back steps into a feature role in 2021.

“He’s proven himself to be a world-class kick returner,” said T.J. Wisham, another Ragin’ Cajuns running back. “But now it’s time for him to prove himself as a world-class running back.

“We all have complete confidence in him. Chris has elite elusiveness, athleticism, cutting ability, and his vision is off the charts.”

Smith, entering his fourth year at Louisiana, averaged 10.4 yards and had four touchdowns on 32 carries in 2019, when he played behind Mitchell, Ragas and Raymond Calais Jr.

He rushed for 350 yards last season, averaging 5.6 yards on 62 carries as the team's No. 3 back behind Mitchell and Ragas.

With those two now in the NFL — Mitchell a sixth-round draft pick of the San Francisco 49ers and the undrafted Ragas on the Las Vegas Raiders' practice squad — Smith’s rushing attempts and yardage should soar.

Mitchell had 141 carries over 10 games last season. Ragas had 131 over 11 games. All indications point toward Smith getting at least that many touches this year.

“Chris is 200 pounds. He’s a big guy. He plays physical,” running backs coach Jabbar Juluke said of Smith, who is listed at 5 feet 9 and 194 pounds.

“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 to be the lead horse and make sure that people understand that he’s a good football player in his own right.”

Expectations also suggest Smith could one day join the list of Ragin' Cajuns running backs making it to the NFL, a group that since 2015 has included Alonzo Harris, Elijah McGuire and Calais.

This season, though, is the focus now.

Head coach Billy Napier intends for Smith to remain the primary kick returner.

In 2020, he had a 95-yard touchdown at Iowa State, a 100-yard touchdown at UAB and an average of 26.8 yards, which was 20th-best nationally, on 23 returns.

“Chris is a dynamic player, man,” Napier said. “He is one of the elite return guys in the entire country. When he gets the ball, they’re 25 yards away from him. I like those scenarios.”

Napier also mostly liked how Smith looked in preseason practices.

“In the first scrimmage he had a couple uncharacteristic plays where he put the ball on the ground,” Napier said, “but outside of that, he’s had a terrific camp.”

The big question is whether Smith can continue to flash breakaway speed while taking much more of a pounding as the top running back.

“There’s a workload difference between being the third guy in the rotation and actually being up there in the mix to be the first guy to run out with the first team,” Napier said.

“The big thing for him is he’s added some lean mass. (He’s) learning how to manage that workload. … He’s a smart, mature kid. He’s a great teammate. He’s one of our best, just talking about putting it all together.”

Teammates are confident Smith is up to the task.

Smith, too.

“He’s going to take his game to the next level and evolve, not just being a speedster but being that guy that can go first, second and third down,” guard Ken Marks said.

“It’s probably going to be a lot more carries, and just being more involved in the game,” Smith added. “But I’ve been prepared for it. Eli (Mitchell) and Trey (Ragas) helped me out a lot.”

With Mitchell and Ragas gone, the running back rotation takes a hit on pure talent.

But Smith has some advantages.

Louisiana will continue its multiman rotation, with Wisham, Emani Bailey and perhaps a freshman — Montrell Johnson Jr. and Terrence Williams have shown well in scrimmages — mixed in. Starting quarterback Levi Lewis returns, and the Cajuns’ starting offensive line remains intact.

“There’s going to be a lot more on me,” Smith said, “but I think the team is going to be prepared.

“We’ve got the O-line back; we’ve got some good receivers out there.”

Smith, however, knows it starts with him if he’s going to live up to his predecessors' standards.

“I’m really just focusing a lot more in, knowing … I’ve got to be the guy,” he said.

“So I’m really just locking in more on my playbook, more watching film and just getting prepared for what I’ve got to handle.”