Bennie Higgins

UL senior defensive end Bennie Higgins was limited through spring drills, but hopes to be fully healthy and ready to reach new heights on the Cajuns' defensive front this fall.

Throughout the offseason, there wasn’t any position UL football coach Billy Napier seemed more up in the air about than defensive line.

Throughout the spring season, it was the position with the most regulars sitting out with injuries and the most newcomers thrown into the fire.

It’s also the area most likely to be helped by signees who didn't arrive until June.

Consequently, as the team reports Thursday for fall practice, the progress, or lack thereof, of that defensive line could be the X-factor in the Ragin’ Cajuns' fulfilling their goal of repeating as Sun Belt West champions.

“That’s the one position that we have immediate depth issues,” Napier said. “Time will tell. I just know we have five scholarship players that are coming in. That’s an area of our team where we’re going to get bigger in a hurry.

“We’ve got legitimate Power 5 (conference) type players that are going to be rolling in here. Some will be ready to play and others will need to develop. But I think the defensive line is one position where newcomers have a chance to make the most impact.”

Similar to coach Mark Hudspeth’s first season in 2011, when freshmen Justin Hamilton and Christian Ringo were forced into action, several newcomers might have to see significant playing time this fall.

That’s always a little bit scary, said defensive line coach Rory Segrest.

“It’s a process,” Segrest said. “It takes guys a little while. It depends on the mindset of a kid. Everybody’s a little different individually, how fast they can pick up on it. That’s one of the biggest thing with a freshman when he comes in.

“Sometimes it’s not even necessarily if he has enough talent to do it — Does he know what to do and where to go, especially when the bullets start flying and the ball is snapped? A lot of guys can draw it up on the board for you, but when they have to think fast on their feet, all of a sudden it’s not so easy for them.”

Among the signees who could make immediate impacts are: Shomari Hayes, Dalvin Hutchinson, Kendall Wilkerson and Hutchinson (Kansas) CC signee Ja-Quane Nelson.

Segrest singled out Wilkerson.

“He’s one of those guys with a lot of talent,” Segrest said. “It’s just a matter of how quickly he progresses and see how fast we can get him on the field.”

Hayes got a head start on the other freshmen and “is growing up,” according to Napier in the spring.

Nelson gives the Cajuns lots of needed versatility on the line.

“He played mostly end at Hutchinson,” Segrest said. “But he’s also a guy we feel like is versatile. He’s a big guy, strong guy, probably weighing about 285 right now. If we needed to move him in, we’d feel comfortable with that as well. He’s got some length. He’s a 6-3 and a half kid, so he can do multiple things for us.”

The only good aspect of all the veteran injuries is that reserve defensive linemen got more reps than expected in the spring, which could provide more depth in the fall.

Segrest specifically mentioned the progress made by redshirt sophomore Malcolm Rollins.

Fellow sophomores Timaje Porter and Masry Mapieu also could lessen the importance of the freshman signees getting a lot of playing time.

While time will tell exactly how many newcomers on the defensive line will be needed to play critical roles, Segrest wants to see potential realized from sophomore Zi’Yon Hill at tackle and returning senior starter Bennie Higgins at end.

With Hill, it’s largely about health, reduced to six starts last season due to injuries.

“He’s quick, he’s explosive, he’s strong and he’s a lot bigger than people think,” Segrest said. “He’s a little undersized when you just look at him visually, but he’s a 285-pound guy with some strength. The quickest and agility part of it gives him an advantage on things. Hopefully, he’ll get that shoulder healthy and just continue to improve and we’ll see where it goes this year.”

If the depth improves on this unit this fall, both should also benefit from fewer snaps. Segrest is hoping to develop a rotation of “at least seven or eight guys” to achieve that goal.

“I think the biggest thing with Bennie is just making sure that he’s keeping his hands inside in the run game, striking blockers,” Segrest said. “I thought he got a little bit wide at times, kind of catching, and he’d get pushed around a little bit.

“From a technique standpoint, I think that’s the biggest thing, just keeping those hands in there, striking and being in position to get off and make more plays.”

Email Kevin Foote at kfoote@theadvocate.com.