He is from Louisville, but you won’t find many mint juleps or fancy derby hats in the small town of Louisville, Mississippi, the home of Chris Smith. Smith, of course, is the budding redshirt junior running back at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette (“UL”). He earned first team All American honors as a kick returner last season while third on the running back depth chart behind NFL potentials Elijah Mitchell and Trey Ragas. Fans likely recall Smith streaking down the sideline for a touchdown in an early upset win against Iowa State.
UL was the only FBS offer for the versatile Smith coming out of Class 1A Nanih Waiya Attendance Center, even though he was Mississippi’s Mr. Football as a junior in 2016 for the 1A classification; it’s an honor he shared with a running back named Cam Akers, who won the state’s award for Class 6A.
Classifications within the Mississippi High School Activities Association (“MHSAA”) are based on school population. Class 1A is the lowest classification in the MHSAA and features schools with less than 200 students. Just for example, Class 1A includes the Mississippi School for the Deaf and Blind. On the other hand, Class 6A power house Oak Grove, which has over 1500 students, once featured Brett Farve as its offensive coordinator. Suffice it to say that in high school, Chris Smith was a big fish in a small pond.
Smith was a three sport athlete at Nanih Waiya. He guided the Warriors to the Class 1A state football championship game as a senior. He was selected for the 2017 Mississippi/Alabama Allstar game which featured more highly touted national recruits like Justyn Ross, Seth Williams, and Kenneth Gainwell. In addition to football, Smith also competed in track and field and he was the school’s starting left fielder for the 2017 and 2018 state champions.
Nicknamed “Lightning”, Smith would have to wait his turn to storm for the Ragin’ Cajuns. In his freshman season in 2018, UL ran for over 3,000 yards behind the trio of Mitchell, Ragas, and eventual 2020 LA Rams draft pick Raymond Calais. Smith saw a mini-breakthrough in 2019, even with the 2018 trio still intact. As the fourth man on the depth chart, Smith ran for 334 yards on only 32 carries, averaging over 10 yards per touch. He displayed breakaway speed with long touchdown runs against Troy (80), Coastal Carolina (52), and Texas State (24). He added a 36 yard scamper against Liberty.
By the time the fall rolled around in 2020, the world had changed. The country was reeling from the global pandemic. Sports had been largely on pause since the NBA suspended its season after Utah Jazz Center Rudy Gobert became American sports’ patient zero. The Big East basketball tournament was suspended at halftime of the St. John’s and Creighton game. The NCAA basketball tournament was canceled. The MLB attempted a truncated summer season that was bungled by COVID outbreaks. A few college teams canceled their 2020 college football seasons. The PAC 12 and Big Ten “delayed” the start of their seasons, which appeared to be a prelude to canceling. By the time fall 2020 arrived, many doubted whether there would be a college football season at all.
But the southern collegiate conferences, including the Sun Belt, pressed on. UL started its season on the road against Brock Purdy, Breece Hall and the 23rd ranked Iowa State Cyclones. It was the first full weekend of college football and UL was an 11 point underdog. Quarantining fans thirsting for college football watched as Louisiana took down a ranked opponent for only the second time in the program’s history. With fewer games on the schedule due to fewer conferences playing, more eyes were on Smith and the upset minded Rajin’ Cajuns. A stagnated Rajin’ Cajuns offense was buoyed by Smith, who returned a kick for a 95 yard touchdown in the second quarter to tie the game.
Smith electrified in his reserve running back role again and on special teams in 2020. He averaged 26.8 per kick return and included a second touchdown later in the season against UAB. He was fourth in the NCAA in kickoff return yardage. He added 350 yards on the ground, averaging 5.6 yards per carry and he led UL’s running backs in receptions with 16. His best performance came with Elijah Mitchell sitting out due to COVID protocols. Against a stingy Coastal Carolina defense, Smith put up 99 yards on just 7 carries.
UL coaches made a point of getting Smith the ball early in his career, even with NFL backs in front of him for his first three seasons. Now, both Ragas and Mitchell have made the jump to the next level, leaving the versatile and efficient Smith as the leading candidate to carry the load for UL in the 2021 season.
Louisiana returns at least 8 starters on offense, including 4 of 5 offensive linemen and redshirt senior QB Levi Lewis, who is returning under the rule permitting players to retain a season of eligibility due to the global pandemic.
The Rajin’ Cajuns have averaged over 3,000 yards rushing for the last three seasons. Smith figures to be at the center of that rushing attack in 2021.
Watch out for Lighting.