In many ways, Percy Butler’s freshman season with the UL Ragin’ Cajuns was like a lot of kids who grew up in small towns.

There was plenty of promise, but also plenty of obstacles to success and even more opportunities to lose focus.

Shortly before the start of August camp last summer, first-year coach Billy Napier and his staff discovered the Plaquemine High product had suffered a shoulder injury.

That slowed his progress tremendously.

“Last year, he was really thin and underdeveloped because of the injury,” Napier said. “He had to basically modify everything he did to get him through the season, like lifting. He came in a little slight, thin, underdeveloped. Because of his injury, he wasn’t able to make the progress.”

The injury also hurt Butler’s approach psychologically as well.

“The injury really set me back mentally,” Butler said. “I had gotten a little unfocused. I had to refocus up and really get in the playbook and learn the defense, so I just got a couple snaps toward the end of the season.”

This past Saturday in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, however, all of those early obstacles were behind the 6-0, 190-pound safety.

Listed as a backup to redshirt sophomore Bralen Trahan, Butler actually played on the game’s first play from scrimmage to earn his first career start and walked off the field as the defense’s leading tackler with eight total tackles, including seven solos.

Napier wasn’t surprised by Butler’s performance.

“I think Percy is a great competitor,” he said. “He’s even better than practice on a game day. He turns it up a notch. He’s a tough, physical, fast guy.”

It was obviously difficult for Butler to full express how significant a moment in his life Saturday’s stellar effort was.

Sure, he had played a small role, primarily on special teams, last season. But now he was a huge part of UL’s defense against an SEC opponent.

The promising signee from Plaquemine had made it.

“It means a lot,” Butler said. “When you come from a small city where I’m from, like everybody wants to get out of there. This right here is big to us. Everybody wants to play college football.”

He knows that many promising prospects never make it as far as Butler now has.

“It’s really hard to stay focused out there,” Butler said of life in his hometown. “There’s a lot of bad things going on and a lot of good things going on, and it’s easy to get in trouble out there.

“You’ve got to really have that tunnel-vision. You can’t let anybody get in the way of your path. You’ve got to stay focused and stay on your path.”

Butler is quick to compliment UL’s coaches for giving him direction on the field and in the film room, but his father gets the credit for keeping him focused on the finish line.

“My daddy, he kept me on track,” Butler revealed. “If I didn’t have my daddy, I don’t know where I would have been.”

The Superdome experience was also special to Butler for another reason as well.

“I always wanted to play in the Superdome,” he said. “We never made it to the state championship in high school. Every kid in Louisiana dreams of playing in the Superdome for a state championship.”

Butler had indeed made it through the frustrating roller coaster of his freshman season. He knew his potential, and his coaches were pretty convinced as well.

But Butler couldn’t play all-out in practice to prepare.

“It was more non-contact reps last year, not hitting,” he explained.

“I would have a black jersey the whole week through practice, so I could use my shoulder in the game and not bang it up in practice.”

He finished with nine tackles all of last season. But after undergoing the surgery on Dec. 17 and going to school in the film room after the new year, Butler was ready for spring football.

“When we came back after the December break, I was getting a lot of meetings in with coach (safeties coach Patrick) Toney,” Butler said. “He was really going over the defense and coaching me up, getting me right. So in the spring, I really ready to go full throttle.”

Yes, Butler is still playing on special teams units. Napier said he easily could have been the Special Teams Player of the Week in addition to being the team’s Defensive Player of the Week in the 38-28 loss to Mississippi State.

“He’s always been a good player and a great competitor on game day,” Napier said. “That’s what I respect the most about him.”

And Butler knows he can’t afford to lose focus after his big debut.

“The depth keeps all of us fresh, so whoever’s hot, that’s who coach is going to play,” Butler said of UL’s deep secondary. “Whoever’s making the most plays, that’s who coach is going to keep in the game.

“Everybody is behind each other and everybody wants each other to excel.”

He’s also ecstatic the Cajuns stay in the state this week, taking on Liberty in UL’s home opener at Cajun Field.

“That’s big right there,” he said. “Since I had a good game, a lot of people form home are going to come to the game, come see me and watch me ball.”

Email Kevin Foote at kfoote@theadvocate.com.