During Monday’s weekly press conference, UL coach Billy Napier was asked a routine question about last year’s encounter with this week’s opponent.

He paused and gave a slight chuckle.

“Man, that feels like a long time ago,” said Napier, who Sun Belt West-leading Ragin’ Cajuns (6-2, 3-1) travel to meet Coastal Carolina at 6:30 p.m. Thursday on ESPNU. The Cajuns lost to the Chanticleers 30-28 last year at Cajun Field.

Indeed, it does.

To Napier, his staff, his team and his fans, the progress the program has made since that first Sun Belt game of the Napier era has clouded the baby steps prior to that Sept. 22 game last fall.

“You know, we were very — that was very early in our tenure,” Napier said. “Heck, I’m not sure we quite knew who we were at that point, if that makes sense. We were figuring it out.”

Since that game, which Coastal led 23-7 before a second-half UL comeback that fell short, the Cajuns have gone 12-7, compared to 6-10 for the Chanticleers.

Andre Nunez was 7-of-14 passing for 133 yards and a touchdown in that game. UL’s leading receiver Keenan Barnes with four catches for 46 yards, while Raymond Calais and Trey Ragas both rushed for more than 100 yards.

Coastal won every battle, from first downs to rushing to passing to time of possession.

Napier said he remembers strength and conditioning coach Mark Hocke telling him at the time the loss was actually what the Cajuns needed.

At the time, the first-year coach wasn’t buying that. But looking back, it may have been true.

“I think it challenged us a little bit from a character standpoint,” Napier said. “I think it galvanized us a little bit, because we found out a little bit about who we were, and I thought some of our players really stepped up at that point in time. But there’s been a lot of work done since that day, by a lot of people, players, staff, administration, we’re a little bit different ball squad than we were back then.”

Senior left tackle Rico Robinson remembers the positive impact the Coastal loss had on the stretch drive last season.

“It really fueled our fire, because we knew we really could have won the game,” Robinson said. “We felt like we let the game slip out of our hands. We weren’t mentally into it until it was too late. So we felt like we needed to lock in. I think that’s what helped our push last season.

“That’s what we built on over the course of these few months this season. I felt like it really gave us a sharper mindset to attack every day — full speed and attack every day from beginning to the end, because you never know.”

The Cajuns haven’t been the same since that game. Sure, they’ve lost league games, but three were to Appalachian State and UL competed well in every one.

Likewise, the Chanticleers (4-4, 1-3) have a very different look in 2019, including a new head coach in Jamey Chadwell.

“They have a new defensive coordinator, that would be the main difference in their team,” Napier said. “Offensively, a different group of players and they’ve got a little bit of an identity in terms of what they do, different quarterback, but the offensive staff is intact and coach Chadwell’s an offensive guy.

“But he brought in a new defensive coordinator and they’re completely different conceptually on defense. Personnel-wise, yes, you can pull those clips and watch those clips, but conceptually completely different than the past.”

Coastal is coming off a thrilling 36-35 homecoming win over Troy, converting a two-point try with 30 seconds left for the win.

The Chanticleers have been a middle-of-the-pack team offensively throughout the season, currently No. 6 in rushing and No. 6 in passing in the league.

“I think that Coastal Carolina is one of the more unique teams that we play,” Napier said. “They’ve got some explosive playmakers on offense, some speed, some long speed, some short area quickness, run after catch. They’re unique in their two-back option concepts that they run. That requires different planning, some of their core runs that they have are unique, no other team in the league runs them.”

Defensively, Coastal is No. 2 in the league in passing defense and in overall defense. Against the run, though, the Chanticleers are No. 5 so far.

“And then defensively I think their personnel’s really good, in particular their front seven, they’ve got two veteran corners that are savvy and have instincts,” Napier said. “Their defensive front is one of the best in the league in my opinion, in particular the nose guard and the field end I think are all-conference type of players. They’ve got, schematically and personnel wise, they’ve got lots of things that can create issues for you.”

Email Kevin Foote at kfoote@theadvocate.com.