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UL offensive tackle Robert Hunt (50) watches as junior running back Elijah Mitchell (15) marches into the end zone for a touchdown during the Cajuns' 38-28 loss to Mississippi State on Saturday in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

During spring football, the talk was about UL returning five senior starters on the offensive line.

Heading into the season, one publication ranked the Cajuns' line No. 15 in the nation.

That was after it was revealed this summer senior enter Cole Prudhomme had suffered a knee injury and will miss at least the first half of the season.

When Saturday’s opener began, sophomore Max Mitchell started at left tackle instead of senior Rico Robinson to reduce that number of returning starters to three.

Then in the second quarter Saturday, left guard Ken Marks went down with a recurring knee injury. So for the rest of that game, and potentially this weekend's home opener, suddenly only two returning seniors remain standing on the line.

Despite the attrition, however, the offense stayed productive against Mississippi State to the tune of 27 first downs and 431 total yards.

If you listen to senior right guard Kevin Dotson, no one was given much of a choice.

“We pretty much already had the mentality that if somebody goes down, the next person is going to have to step up,” Dotson said. “I told them as soon as they got in that there can’t be a drop in our play. It can’t be because Ken’s out now we’re getting beat on the left side, and I think they stepped up to the challenge.”

UL primarily utilized two contingency plans. The first one was to move Mitchell over to left guard and put Robinson back at left tackle. Later in the game, Mitchell returned to tackle and promising freshman O’Cyrus Torrence came in at guard.

“Part of that was that Ken (Marks) got hurt earlier in training camp so we had to kind of work our way through that,” UL coach Billy Napier said. “We did later slide O’Cyrus Torrence over there to left where he had worked extensively during training camp and he did a nice job and played 34 plays in the game.

“Both of those young men will probably play that position, but certainly O’Cyrus will make that permanent move over until we find out exactly where Ken’s at.”

The expertise displayed by the young linemen didn’t shock the Cajuns.

“I’m really just impressed in their composure,” Dotson said. “When they got in the game, it was not a ‘Oh, what am I supposed to do? What am I supposed to do?’ It was an ‘Alright, I got it.’ And they’re making calls and doing what they were supposed to do.

“So we don’t have to slow down the play for them so they can learn, because they knew it already.”

In other words, they did not play or prepare like underclassmen.

“I think we’ve got some really capable freshmen and young people,” Dotson said. “They’re pretty sound when it comes to the playbook. We just tell them veteran-type things like something they’re messing up on, the head-ducking type things and hand placement, stuff like that.”

On top of Mitchell and Torrence, Prudhomme’s replacement at center is redshirt sophomore in Shane Vallot of Comeaux High.

“Shane didn’t show (nerves) any at all,” Dotson said. “He commanded everything on the field. He knew what to do and when to do it. I felt like we were a well-oiled machine at that point. We didn’t have any type of drop-off.

“Shane stepped in and we never had a drop in play. He’s a hard worker. He stays extra, like a lot extra. He comes when we’re not up there, he comes talk to coaches to make sure to keep that intensity up.”

But Mitchell and Vallot are in their second and third seasons of college ball, while this is Torrence’s first.

“He's real,” Dotson said of the 6-foot-5, 342-pound Torrence. “I’ve never seen him get too high or too low. He stays at the same intensity at all times. He’s a strong, big, physical guy. He’s faster than most people think he is. He can play at any level. He could have played in any conference. He just keeps his composure at all times. He makes sure he knows what he’s doing before the play starts.

“He does extra, so he knew what was going to happen once he got in.”

Also adding to the offensive line’s efficiency is the buy-in of an injured player like Prudhomme functioning as an extra assistant coach on the sidelines.

“Pretty much,” Dotson said of Prudhomme’s new role. “He just stepped into that role of being a mentor to tell you what you’re doing wrong. He tries to tell you on the field right now, so you don’t have to wait until tomorrow to see what happened.

“He tells if you ‘Mike’ the wrong linebacker or did something wrong right here or if you need to get your head up and look at this linebacker because it looks like he’s coming. It really helps us every day.”

Email Kevin Foote at kfoote@theadvocate.com.