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Louisiana’s Unsung Heroes

By Jim Johnson
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Louisiana would not be where they are, celebrating and about to prepare for a rematch with the Mountaineers in the inaugural Sun Belt Championship, without their unsung heroes.

Everyone knows that Trey Ragas is a stud. Andre Nunez is quietly having one of the more efficient campaigns among the league quarterbacks. Bennie Higgins and Chauncey Manac, even after missing a three game stretch that included the loss to App State, are having seasons for the books.

However, Louisiana would not be where they are, celebrating and about to prepare for a rematch with the Mountaineers in the inaugural Sun Belt Championship, without their unsung heroes.

Mesmerizingly steady as Ragas may be, and boy is he ever, his productivity is at least in part a credit to his offensive line.

The front five of Ken Marks, Rico Robinson, Cole Prudhomme, Kevin Dotson, and Robert Hunt have remarkably now started all twelve regular season games. That continuity, coupled with the fact that latter three are among, if not, the best at their respective positions in the entire conference, has seen the Ragin Cajuns rank in the the top 20 in the country in standard down line yards per carry, the top 35 in passing down line yards per carry, 32nd in percentage of stops allowed at or behind the line of scrimmage, entering the ULM game, and 28th in percentage of carries that gained at least five yards.

At center, Prudhomme is arguably as integral a part of the offense as any other piece on Billy Napier’s squad. Cerebral as they come, his protection calls as a result of intensive film work have been paramount to the success that this group has enjoyed. To his right, nearly 700 pounds of brute force are comprised by the duo of Dotson and Hunt. Hunt, since transitioning from the other guard spot in 2017, has thrived alongside Dotson. There may not be a more physically imposing twosome in the league. The pair have gelled much to the benefit of the run game behind them, and there probably aren’t but even a handful of Power Five defensive linemen that match up favorably against that one-two punch.

The pass protection does still leave a little something to be desired, but it has simultaneously improved leaps and bounds from where it was in 2017. Still in the bottom half of allowed sack rate, the group has been markedly better on blitz downs. Ragas is a superstar and Nunez has been pleasant surprise, but there’s no telling where either would be without the guys up front.

The run blocking, in concert with Ragas, is almost certainly the best aspect of this team right now. However, a close second is the oft-forgotten, monumentally important third facet of the game: special teams.

Even after missing a 50-yarder today, Kyle Pfau has been lights out on the season, second in the Sun Belt in field goal percentage entering the game, and just outside the top 25, nationally. He was also 20th in field goal value per kick. In other words, as compared to the average college kicker, based on distance, his attempts were netting a solid .42 more points than expected.

Superficially, punter Rhys Burns’ numbers don’t appear quite as good, ranking 9th in the Sun Belt in yards per punt. At a closer look, though, 40% of his tries have been downed inside the 20-yard line and Louisiana is actually about average when it comes to punting efficiency. He’s a big reason their defense ranks in the top 20 in average starting field position.

At 54th in kick return success rate and 45th in punt return success rate, the only real weak link in Louisiana’s special teams is kickoffs. Altogether, the unit sits at 28th in combined S&P+ in this third facet of the game.

This is not at all meant to diminish the contributions of Louisiana’s stars. The relationship between the offensive line and all those skill players is mutually beneficial, and solid special teams only matters so much if the other units aren’t reaping its benefits.

That said, as Louisiana gets ready to take on App State for the Sun Belt title, don’t forget the unsung heroes that helped get them there.

Jim Johnson - Editor of Southern Pigskin, Producer of "Three & Out", and host of "Explosive Recruiting" on the Southern Pigskin Radio Network. E-mail: Twitter: @JimJohnsonSP