In his first season under new UL coach Billy Napier last season, wide receiver Jalen Williams made a good first impression with four receptions for 76 yards and a touchdown in the spring game.
Unfortunately, much of the 2018 season was then spent battling a series of injuries.
“It was tough at first,” the former Westminster Christian multi-sport standout said of last season. “It was way more of a mental battle than a physical battle. I had to keep telling myself to get up and do the stuff I had to do to get myself right.
“The things weren’t too complicated, but it was being focused on doing it right and wasn’t halfway doing it to make sure I was 100 percent when I came back.”
They used to be bitter District 3-5A rivals. They still play on opposite sides of the ball.
Seven games into UL’s promising 2019 season, that dedication to details last season appears to be paying off.
It’s not so much that the 6-foot-3, 221-pound redshirt junior is lighting up the stat sheet each week with seven receptions for 77 yards on the season.
But when UL’s elite receiver Ja’Marcus Bradley was slowed by an ankle injury, Williams was right there to fill in nicely with several big targets and grabs against Appalachian State and Arkansas State.
“He’s a good special teams player,” Napier said. “He plays really well without the ball. I mean this guy is a head-hunter out there. He’s 225 pounds and he’s one of those guys that was a walk-on when we first got here that we put on scholarship.
“We’re excited about him. He spells Ja’Marcus and has stepped up and played well for us. We have no reservations about Jalen Williams. He’s out there competing and working as well as anybody on our team.”
It obviously wasn’t a question UL coach Billy Napier wanted any part of answering.
It’s not hard to sense how pleased the coaching staff is that the injury bug has been kinder to Williams this season.
“Jalen is one of those guys that was banged up last year. Every time we felt like he was coming along, he’d have a setback,” Napier explained. “He went through some things in the offseason with his injury, but he’s gotten healthy. We had a really good (treatment) protocol.
“He had a great training camp. That’s when I really started to see that this guy was going to be a quality contributor.”
For Williams, somehow surviving the injury bug was more mental than physical.
“I just took it one step at a time,” Williams said. “I compartmentalized myself. I worried about doing my rehab stuff when I had to do that, but when it came time to focus on learning the new plays and the playbook, I was 100 percent zoned in on that.”
Keeping his nose in the playbook has paid off in a major way so far this season. In fact, Williams is convinced that is what’s led to more playing time.
“Just understanding what the defense is doing has helped me to where like I can process everything I have to do way faster than I used to be able to,” Williams said. “(Before) It was like the ball was snapped and I’d still be kind of looking and trying to figure things out. Just becoming more of a student of the game has helped me in a big way.”
Of course, the other mental obstacle for Williams was overcoming the initial excitement of being part of the Cajuns’ receiving rotation.
“At first, I kind of got wound up in it, so I had to kind of slow myself down and kind of settle in,” Williams admitted. “But as soon as I got settled in, it was like (focusing) on practice. We always say, ‘Come to practice and do it like the game, so whenever the game comes, it’s easy — almost like second nature.’
“Handling practice the way we have, it just has us ready for whenever those times come.”
Mid-major teams' often-wacky schedules can be tricky when it comes to conditioning around open weeks.
That process of pinching himself is more understandable when you consider Williams’ winding road to contributing to a 5-2 UL football team.
He was drafted in the 16th round by the Boston Red Sox in 2013. After pitching for three seasons in the minor leagues, he and the Red Sox parted ways and Williams walked on to LSU as a wide receiver prior to transferring to the Cajuns before the 2017 season.
All of that uncertainty has led to the pot of gold that has been the 2019 Cajuns' campaign thus far.
“Depth and just how well we execute and how we come to practice day in and day out and just get after it and make each other better,” Williams said in explaining UL’s success so far. “We’re just having fun with it. It’s way more fun this year than it was in the past. I think that’s a big contributor.”
To Williams, even the disappointment of losing to Appalachian State on Oct. 9 hasn't derailed the Cajuns’ joy.
“I think we’ve gotten past that game, used it like a stepping stone … stepped to another level of execution, just kind of locked in even more,” Williams said. “Next time we play them, I feel like it’ll be a completely different game.
“I look at it as that loss just pushed us to another level.”
As loathe as they are to acknowledge it, UL’s football team and coaching staff are in an admirable position entering the final month of the Su…