It was a huge part of the preseason excitement surrounding the 2019 Ragin’ Cajuns

Sure, the Cajuns had one of the nation’s best trio of running backs in Elijah Mitchell, Trey Ragas and Raymond Calais.

But in front of them was also this seasoned offensive line with five returning starters.

Slowly, however, five slipped to four and then four dwindled to three and for the last few weeks, there’s only been two returning starters from the original list.

Somehow, though, the line has done more than just avoid disaster.

Two weeks ago, it played a big role in quite possibly the team’s best offensive performance of the season in the 48-7 road win over Coastal Carolina and then followed that with a strong second half in a 37-27 win over South Alabama.

The original group was scheduled to include: Rico Robinson at left tackle, Ken Marks at left guard, Cole Prudhomme at center, Kevin Dotson at right guard and Robert Hunt at right tackle.

First, Prudhomme went down after the spring, then Max Mitchell beat out Robinson for the starting job at left tackle right before Marks was lost for the season to a knee injury in Week 1.

Then for the last three games plus a bye week, Hunt has been out.

The solution has been Mitchell moving to right tackle and Robinson going back to his old spot at left tackle, leaving Dotson as the only stable piece at right guard.

To make matters worse, new starting center Shane Vallot left last Saturday’s game at South Alabama with an injury, before returning later in the game.

“That’s one of the things we always practice during the offseason,” Dotson said. “Coach always told us, ‘Next man up,’ so once somebody gets hurt, you have to be able to step in without any drop-off from the person that was in front of you.”

That last part isn’t preferred. It’s expected.

“We try to get keep that same mindset,” Dotson said. “If I get hurt, the next person up has to come in without a hitch ... without me having to tell you what to do, without anything hindering us playing to our full ability.”

So while Dotson would have certainly preferred his old buddy Hunt lining up beside him on the right side during UL’s November games, Mitchell’s professionalism as the new right tackle has made it work.

“It’s not too much different because Max (Mitchell) has been good since last year when he was a freshman,” Dotson said. “Him coming here was not too much of a transition. Me and (Robert Hunt) probably had a little more chemistry, but (Mitchell) does his job good. I don’t have to tell him what to do. He comes off the ball hard and does what he’s supposed to do, so I can’t ask for anything better.”

In addition to everyone in the offensive line room being prepared to fill in, a new emphasis from offensive coordinator Rob Sale prepared this unit for rocky roads.

Before the season, Sale said the line would regularly use eight or nine players, even if all the starters stayed healthy, to keep everyone fresh while preparing reserves for the possibility of injuries.

That approach has paid huge dividends. 

“I believe last year would have been a little bit harder (to overcome),” Dotson said. “This year, since we worked on it more in the offseason — more on the freshmen and sophomores we needed to build them to be able to play when the time comes for them. That’s really helped us a lot.”

Aiding the offensive line has been the tight end group. That position lost both starters during August camp and has had to ride the quartet of senior transfer Nick Ralston, two former walk-ons in Hunter Bergeron and Pearse Migl, and a converted quarterback in freshman Neal Johnson.

"All playing every game and they’re kind of a mixture of guys," UL coach Billy Napier said. "We’ve got a couple 6-foot fullbacks out there (Ralston, Migl), you’ve got a former defensive end (Bergeron) and a true freshman that’s talented but is a rookie.

“You’ve got to give (assistant coach) Michael Desormeaux some credit for having his kids ready. You lose your two starting tight ends and all of a sudden see some of that depth that he’s developed. Mike has done a tremendous job and he’s stepped up for our staff in a critical moment.”

Email Kevin Foote at kfoote@theadvocate.com.