Mississippi St La Lafayette Football

UL's Kamar Greenhouse, right, shown here bringing down Mississippi State wide receiver Osirus Mitchell (5) along with teammate Terik Miller (38) is a big part of the Cajuns' depth upgrade this season.

Perhaps the biggest reason to believe the UL Ragin’ Cajuns would be improved in their second season under coach Billy Napier is a deeper, more talented depth chart.

No, the Cajuns didn’t win Saturday, but the upgraded depth was more than obvious.

A total of 65 players saw the field in some role in a competitive game against an Southeastern Conference West opponent.

The increase in depth was huge on the defensive side. Despite being behind the eight ball in time of possession in the first half, the defense had enough left to at least force a field goal in the game’s final minute.

“That’s one of the good things about this team, is it’s going to remain competitive going forward in lots of positions, and that’s the way you want it as a coach,” Napier said.

“We played 16 players in the game that it was their first ever game for the Cajuns. So 16 rookies playing, a lot of young players that stepped up and played well in the game, and we got great leadership from a group of veterans.”

Indeed, Napier’s explanation for waiting so late to release the initial depth chart was also apparent. Several players who got a start Saturday in effect were platoon players with a teammate at their position.

“I think those guys, there were several players on our team that played 50-50 … and we started them based off of how they practiced leading up to the game,” Napier said. “We’re going to reevaluate that, now you have a little bit of a history as a competitor in a game, some of them maybe didn’t declare themselves.

“A guy might go 60-40 or 70-30 because he played so well in the game. But there’s also guys that maybe it was a scratch, maybe there were players who played better that were the second guy to go in.”

The improvement in preparation in year two was also revealed.

“We had some very valuable lessons about, if you’re a backup you don’t ever know when your day is coming, we had several scenarios in this game where a second guy who maybe wasn’t expecting to play, he’s out there in the right and all of a sudden his play count goes from eight to 12 plays to 50,” Napier explained. “I think making the most of your opportunities throughout the week and being prepared is key. Championship teams show significant improvement from Week 1 to Week 2, (and) we’ll have an opportunity to do that this week.”

Rushing defense woes

A year ago, UL’s rushing defense was eighth in the Sun Belt, giving up 219.1 yards per game on the ground.

In Saturday’s 38-28 loss to Mississippi State, the Cajuns allowed 261 rushing yards.

Bad sign or just a good rushing offense?

“Their running back (Mississippi State's Kylin Hill with 197 yards) … is the real guy. He’s an elite player, I have a lot of respect for him as a player, but outside of that we just need to do our job in all three phases.”

There were also defensive mistakes as well.

“There were some gap integrity issues,” Napier said. “We were gapped out a couple of times, maybe guys moving a gap and didn’t quite get to where he’s supposed to. That’s kind of what I’m saying about when we need 11 out of 11, when we’re short a guy and we go 10 for 11 and there’s a crease, or there’s a missed communication in coverage, whatever the case may be.

“That’s a big physical offensive line, that tight end’s a tough competitive guy and certainly I thin that back’s going to play for a while. It’s always a little bit of both I would say, but certainly a lot of technical things that we can fix.”

With that said, Napier is convinced UL’s run defense is better.

“But we are much improved, I’ll say that,” he added.

Unique arrangements

It will likely be the most unique coaches booth or suite in the history of Cajun Field.

Liberty’s head coach Hugh Freeze had surgery in mid-August to address a life-threatening situation when a staph infection entered his bloodstream.

In last week’s 24-0 home loss to No. 22 Syracuse, Freeze was able to coach from a hospital bed moved into the coach’s booth.

Specific details weren’t revealed about UL’s plan to accommodate Freeze’s unusual circumstances.

“I think our administration is handling all that, but certainly we want to do everything we can do to help coach Freeze,” Napier said of the former Ole Miss coach. “It’s a unique scenario for him. If any of us were in that situation and had an obligation to a group of people, we would want to do everything we could do for them.

“I know I would, and I certainly respect him navigating this as he overcomes what is a tough deal. Our thoughts and prayers are with coach Freeze.”

Beware of Flames

As for Freeze’s Flames, the program will bring a 3-0 record against Sun Belt Conference foes.

That includes a 2014 overtime 55-48 win over Appalachian State the same year the Mountaineers dismantled UL 35-16 in Lafayette, a 41-33 win over Georgia State in 2015 the same year UL edged the Panthers 23-21 in Atlanta and then stunned Troy 22-16 last year three weeks before Troy beat UL 26-16 in Alabama.

“Liberty’s got a handful of players that are explosive, really good skill on offense. The quarterback’s a proven passer who spread it around last year and threw for all kinds of yards,” Napier said. “They’ve got some disruptive defensive players, they have some edge players that are unique that can create some issues for you. They’re big at inside backer and physical, really big in the interior D-line. (I'm) impressed with the athletic ability of the back-end guys and certainly some new players that they’ve added to the roster.” 

Email Kevin Foote at kfoote@theadvocate.com.