The UL football team on Tuesday surpassed last year’s practice total with four spring practices sessions under their belts. The coronavirus limited the Cajuns to three a year ago, and “two of those were in T-shirts.”
As a result, UL coach Billy Napier estimated that over half the players taking part in this year spring season would be considered newcomers to UL’s spring process.
There are levels to that group as well, though. The Division I transfers are understandably a little ahead of the curve in the early going.
“I would equate it to they have a language that they speak,” Napier said. “It’s not like a child maybe learning their first language. These guys know a language and they’re translating it. And just in general from a maturity standpoint, they’ve been in college and they’ve handled the workload — the academics combined with the training and the meetings and the practice.
“They’re a little bit more physically advanced as well, so I think there’s no question those guys are a little bit further ahead than maybe the mid-year high school players.”
Napier said it’s still way too early to gauge which ones could contribute in the fall. One of those is safety Tyrone Lewis from Kansas State.
“He’s a talented player and we’re very happy to have him,” defensive coordinator Patrick Toney said. “He works extremely hard at it. He cares about football and he’s very football smart. Very competitive. He’s going to get in there and fight for a spot like everybody.”
Two major contributors on last year’s 10-1 squad have already suffered injuries so far in spring practice.
Linebacker Tyler Guidry suffered a shoulder injury requiring surgery that will take place Friday. The Baton Rouge native will be out for the rest of spring, but is expected to return during the summer.
Napier also said wide receiver Jalen Williams was injured in a recent practice and isn’t expected back until after spring break, which is scheduled for the first week in April.
Wide receiver Peter LeBlanc, still hampered by a lower-body injury he suffered in the bowl game, is modified in practice, as are safety Brandon Bishop, offensive tackle King McGowan and wide receiver Trevor Russell.
Along that line, linebacker Chauncey Manac also had postseason surgery and is expected to return during the summer.
With Guidry and Manac out and Joe Dillon not returning, the team is looking to establish depth at linebacker.
One player stepping up early on is freshman linebacker and Kansas transfer Clinton Anokwuru of Richmond, Texas.
“He is showing promise,” Napier said. “He certainly needs to become a more consistent player, but man, he’s got some unique ability. He’s a guy that I think will have a chance to impact our team.”
Napier also gave a nod to redshirt sophomore AJ Riley, who contributed 17 tackles, three stops behind the line and a sack last season.
“(Riley) played well for us last year,” Napier said. “I’m very impressed with how he responded last year when given the opportunity.”
Special teams standout Tanner Wiggins is also getting snaps at linebacker.
Especially during the spring season, the coaching staff is actually much deeper than the actual list of coaches that comprise the staff directory.
The Cajuns, for example, have a big group of fifth, sixth and seventh-year seniors on the squad capable of doing plenty of tutoring and mentoring to the newcomers during the spring installation process.
“One of the approaches that we’ll take is maybe take one of those young players that we think has ability and we’ll put him in practice setting where he’s around a bunch of veterans,” Napier said.
“So let’s just say, we’ve got a young newcomer at left guard, who maybe is a little behind, but you put him with a center and a left tackle that has some experience and really understands our system, I think that allows the guy to play a little bit faster and allows us to evaluate the player.”
The one position that can’t benefit much from that approach is quarterback.
“We have four rookies that are completely new to our system in that room," Napier said. "That’s going to be a process in itself independent of our team, and a very important one at that.”