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UL defensive lineman Zi'Yon Hill, shown here during spring practice, is healthy again and ready to make a big impact on the Cajuns' defensive line this fall. 

The defensive line was the biggest question mark on UL’s roster exiting the spring season, largely because of injuries.

As his Ragin’ Cajuns exited camp Wednesday, coach Billy Napier described the progress he’s seen in that unit over the summer.

“We know that Zi’Yon (Hill) and Bennie (Higgins) are back healthy,” Napier said. “That certainly gives you a shot in the arm. Masry Mapieu has had a good offseason. He’s bigger, faster, stronger.”

Hill (shoulder) and Higgins (wrist) both sat out the spring but have impressed in the summer.

Redshirt sophomore Andre Jones also opened some eyes in August drills.

“Andre Jones has made significant progress,” Napier said. “He plays with a motor. He’s a lot better than he’s been in the past.”

Hutchinson Community College transfer Ja’Quane Nelson also appears ready to compete for playing time.

“We’ve got a group of starters and then who is going to get more snaps relative to the second and third groups,” Napier said. “It’s a group that we’re going to need to develop, not only fundamentally but just awareness, football techniques, formation recognition, backfield recognition.

“We’re going to have an ongoing process the whole year.”

Offensive line depth

When former Eunice High senior center Cole Prudhomme went down with a knee injury, ex-Comeaux Spartan Shane Vallot picked up the slack.

Another former Acadiana area high school standout in redshirt sophomore Spencer Gardner of Opelousas Catholic figures to pay dividends in several spots on the line this fall.

Not only is the 6-5, 277-pound Gardner a backup option at center but also at other spots on the line. He’ll join freshman O’Cyrus Torrence, sophomore Max Mitchell, freshman Jax Harrington and redshirt freshman Luke Junkunc as reserve options on the line.

“We’ve got enough quality depth there, and we’re going to play and have some rotations with the front,” Napier said. “A lot of it is going to be based on how they practice. They’ve got to prove that they’re dependable, accountable and ready to go not only to their staff, but to their teammates.”

Substitution strategy

In a perfect world, the ‘next man up’ philosophy is what Napier and his staff could use as injuries surface this fall.

But when the roster is still shy of the 85-player scholarship limit and the reserve unit isn’t complete, sometimes you have to get more creative.

“You’d like to go one-for-one,” Napier said. “In general, you don’t necessarily like those scenarios where you’re making others spots weaker. A lot of it comes down to preparing. You start installing a plan and you’ve got a certain amount of repetitions.”

For example, if Vallot goes down at center, do the coaches move a guard like Ken Marks to center and in effect alter two spots, or have a reserve center replace Vallot?

“Sometimes you may have a third tackle, who is a swing tackle,” Napier said. “But in a perfect world, we’d have somebody ready to be the backup center and will take the two-reps all week.”

Defense motivated

Some have said it’s motivational. A few have dismissed it as the past.

In sophomore linebacker Kris Moncrief’s mind, the frustration of the defense’s poor performance in UL's 41-24 Cure Bowl loss to Tulane hasn’t died down.

“We had a chip on our shoulder since the last game we played against Tulane,” Moncrief said. “We talk about it just about every day. We’re ready to get back out there. We’re ready to play. We used it as motivation. We had to go harder.”

UL senior linebacker Boudreaux planning to go out in style for the Cajuns

Ironically, the Cajuns' first chance to rebound will be in the Green Wave's home of New Orleans. Tulane even used to play in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, where UL meets Mississippi State at 11 a.m. next Saturday.

“I think about it every day,” Moncrief said. “Most of us have never been (in the Dome). It’s crazy. It’s a blessing to be able to open up over there. We’re more confident than ever that we can win.”

Email Kevin Foote at kfoote@theadvocate.com.