It’s not that he’s shying away from the burden that was placed on his shoulders last season, but UL senior defensive end Bennie Higgins unleashed a huge smile when asked how much improved depth has aided his performance this season.

“It’s been kind of great,” Higgins said.

A year ago in coach Billy Napier’s first season, depth on the defensive side was lacking. Consequently, mainstay players, like Higgins, had to play more than the coaching staff wanted.

The difference so far this season is obvious.

“Oh, there’s no question,” said Napier, whose Ragin’ Cajuns (2-1) play at 1 p.m. Saturday against Ohio University. “When that play-count gets above 40 or 50, for a big guy that’s a lot; especially with the things that go with playing defense — the pursuit, chasing the ball. We’ve gotten more and more players that are ready to play there.”

The depth allows regulars like Higgins to go harder while they’re in the game.

“We still have guys who are growing, but it’s been kind of great being able to trust somebody behind me to come in and still do a good job,” the 6-foot, 276-pound Higgins said. “I know for sure now that when I get in, I can give my all for like three or four snaps. Then coach (Rory) Segrest can sub me out and still have a good backup to come in.”

Higgins said he never intentionally slowed himself last season, but fatigue was a factor at times.

“I never paced myself,” he said. “You’ve got to prepare yourself at practice — just all out, just constantly going and going. Just preparing yourself for the worst.

“At the beginning of the season, I didn’t know I was going to take as many snaps as I was. I started seeing guys getting banged up and I started realizing that it’s going to be impossible for me getting out of the game, so I started preparing myself for it.”

Even with the depth this year, Higgins still is practices for playing many snaps.

“I’m preparing myself for it this season, but I know for sure I’ve got guys who are going to come in and help out,” he said.

Higgins is not the only benefactor of more defensive line depth. Through the first three games, eight defensive linemen have recorded at least one tackle, and that doesn’t include sophomore Timaje Porter, who has played in all three games.

“I do think those guys have benefited from playing fewer snaps total,” Napier said. “They’re fresher. It certainly helps in practice, too, because you’re able to roll in. You’re working on developing young players.

“I don’t think there’s any question as a group that we’ve made progress, but we need to continue to get better on the defensive line.”

Much of the upgraded depth is provided by younger performers, such as freshmen Dalvin Hutchinson and Kendall Wilkerson and redshirt sophomore Ja’Quane Nelson.

“At practice, I see a lot of guys stepping up and growing,” Higgins said. “Kendall (Wilkerson) is doing really good. He’s my two right now. He’s still young, but I feel like he’s going to come in and do his job. Masry (Mapieu) is stepping up more from last year. Dalvin (Hutchinson) is a great player. He’s a youngster that’s going to go get it.

“We finally got Sammy (Ochoa) back. He’s looking real good. Timaje (Porter) has always been a great player, but there’s certainly packages we can’t put him in. I feel like us as a defense, each one of us is getting better.”

There are facets of the defense that must still improve, but growth in several areas is apparent to Higgins.

“I feel like we’re doing a good job of getting to the ball,” he said. “We’ve decreased a lot of loafing from last season to this season. There’s still a lot of things we need to get better at, things like striking blockers and getting off to make more plays.

“But I feel like we’re doing a good job of keeping quarterbacks in the pocket. Last year, we didn’t do a good job with that. This year, we’re making it our main focus.”

Beginning Saturday in Athens, Ohio, Napier hopes there’s a better combination of activity and productivity.

“We need more players that can play consistent, dependable, accountable plays in that room,” Napier said. “We’re playing some guys now, but that doesn’t mean they’re grading out well. That’s the thing: Can you go play assignment-sound, with a winning technique rate, without loafing and be one of 11?

“We play team defense here. You’re a piece of the puzzle that sticks together and works together. The issue that we’ve had on defense this year, a lot of times it’s when we’re 10-for-11 or 9-for-11.”

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