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Billy Napier, the newly named head coach of the University of Louisiana at Lafayette football team, participates in a press conference Monday, December 18, 2017, at the Cajundome in Lafayette, La.

This week’s announcement of UL-Lafayette’s 2018 schedule made a large Ragin’ Cajuns contingent of fans and supporters start thinking about the oncoming football season.

Billy Napier and his team are way ahead of them.

The Cajuns’ new coach is well into the second phase of his off-season program, and the third phase is only one week away when the squad officially opens spring practice March 13.

“We did give the guys, both the players and the staff, a couple of days off at Mardi Gras,” said Napier, who took over the program in mid-December. “They needed a little bit of a break, and the staff needed some time to get their families situated. We’ve been going at it pretty hard.”

The returning squad and a handful of newcomers went through four weeks of work with the strength and conditioning staff of Mark Hocke. Since Mardi Gras, the team has been pushing through what Napier calls the “identity” phase of the off-season.

“It’s pretty much a four-week process to prepare for spring practice,” Napier said. “We do position meetings, we work with the players in the afternoon in the indoor facility and transition into the spring. We’re introducing our offense, our defense, our special teams to our players in a meeting setting as a staff.

“We’re going to do that transition every year no matter what, but certainly in year one you want to draw the line in the sand and establish the expectations.”

The expectations start becoming reality next week with the start of spring drills, but those expecting a full-fledged spring game on April 21 to close out spring practice might not get their wish. UL-Lafayette has begun using the term “Spring Finale” rather than spring game.

“To be honest, we’re not going to be able to practice the way we want to practice in the spring because of our roster issues and depth issues in general,” Napier said. “As we get through the first half of spring ball and as we get closer to that game, I’ll have a better feel in terms of what we’ll be able to do that day.

“In the future, the intentions are to split the squad, play a game, let those guys compete and make it something that the fans enjoy. But this year, even if we don’t end up playing an entire game, it’ll be very enjoyable for our fans. We’re going to push the envelope a little, start early with tailgating, have other athletic events on campus that day and let that party go the rest of the night.”

The Cajuns will split spring practice with eight workouts before Easter break, and seven more after Easter. After that, they’ll take aim on a schedule that kicks off Sept. 1 against Grambling in the annual Herbert Heymann Classic.

That will be the first of six home games — one more than last year — and for the first time since the 2011 season, UL-Lafayette will play all of its games on Saturday. The Cajuns had played one of the Sun Belt Conference’s two mid-week national-television games in each of the past five seasons, but that limited Saturday games and created situations like last season when UL-Lafayette went from mid-September until early November without a Saturday home game.

“We’ve been working on our opponents, and we had a feel for who we were playing,” Napier said, “but I was excited we got all Saturday games. That gives our fans the best-case scenario in terms of attendance and involvement. We want to make this a very difficult place to play; that’s the type environment we want to create, and Saturdays are how you do that.”

The other home games include Sun Belt affairs with Coastal Carolina, Arkansas State, Georgia State and South Alabama and a non-conference game with former Sun Belt member New Mexico State for Oct. 13 homecoming. The road slate includes Mississippi State on Sept. 15 and a Sept. 29 trip to national champion Alabama — where Napier coached for five years under Nick Saban.

Napier said he took one bit of advice from Saban immediately after he got the job in Lafayette.

“The most important thing we’ve done was put together a quality staff,” he said. “I was looking through notes from 2011 when I was at Alabama, and coach Saban told us that you guys are going to figure this out one day, but the hardest thing you do as a head coach is hire people. I understand that even more now, because you’re trusting that person with these young men and to do the job for you. I didn’t know all these guys before I hired them, so that interview process was pretty tedious, but we’ve got a good team.”