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UL defensive lineman Ja'Quane Nelson, shown here signing the shirt of young fan Brantley Frederick, left, on fan day in August, has now emerged as a critical piece of the Cajuns' defensive front.

With the injury to redshirt sophomore defensive tackle Zi’Yon Hill, the emerging depth on UL’s defensive line is going to be as important as ever.

The new leader of that group is 6-foot-3, 283-pound redshirt sophomore Ja’Quane Nelson.

Nelson has recorded three tackles in each of the last two games and has caught the eye of coach Billy Napier.

"(At Coastal Carolina on Nov. 7), he took a huge step forward,” Napier said. “I thought he played his best ball. His knowledge is improving. Fundamentally, he’s improving. Then just overall as a person, he’s got to improve maturity, dependability, accountability, self-discipline, consistency in performance. He’s getting there.”

Nelson was perhaps a hair behind the veterans entering August camp because he didn’t arrive on campus until June 1 from Hutchinson Community College.

“He’s not a finished product … but he’s very capable — size, athletic ability,” Napier said. “I think he’s got a bright future. He’s got two more years after this season. We’re excited about Ja’Quane. He’s certainly shown improvement. Coach (Rory) Segrest has done a good job with him. We need him to emerge and step up and be the type of play he was at times last Thursday.”

Injury report

Neither offensive tackle Robert Hunt nor cornerback Michael Jacquet made the trip to Mobile to face South Alabama on Saturday due to injuries.

During the game, defensive tackle Zi’Yon Hill suffered a shoulder injury.

On Monday, Napier said Hill wouldn’t likely play, and Jacquet would most likely be back.

“Right now we don’t anticipate having Zi’Yon for the game,” Napier said. “He would be doubtful. (It's) a similar injury to maybe what he had last year. … But it’ll be one that’s going to take some time, and we won’t know, it’s going to be a couple of days to get an idea of where he’s at, how stable is it, those types of things.

“It’s unfortunate and we’re certainly going to miss Zi’Yon, but it’s going to be a terrific opportunity for some of these defensive linemen that we’ve been grooming and working with and coaching and developing throughout the year, and the team needs them.”

Hunt, meanwhile, remains an unknown day-to-day.

“Robert has made lots of good progress,” Napier said. “We left him at home Saturday and he had a good day’s work. He’s up and moving and running and those types of things. We anticipate knowing pretty soon kind of where he’s at, whether or not he’ll be available this week is kind of day to day.

Also expected to return is linebacker Kris Moncrief, who sat out the second half of the South Alabama game after being flagged for targeting.

Garner on scene

With no more than four games left on the season, the UL coaching staff has decided which reserves could get playing time the rest of the way.

One of them is sophomore cornerback Mekhi Garner, who made his presence known in a big way in Saturday's game with three tackles and a forced fumble.

“We’ve been developing his role on special teams throughout the year and trying to get him equipped to do that, and he’s improved as a corner,” Napier said. “I think he’s getting more and more comfortable with what we’re trying to do. This is a young man, he’s 6-1 and three-quarters, almost 200 pounds and a really good skill set.

"He’s super long (and) can run with you. … He’s a tough, physical competitor. He’s got a smile on his face and a great attitude and approach, one of the better practice players that we have.”

Simply put, he was just a victim of the roster numbers game prior to Saturday’s game at South Alabama.

“If you look at our team, we had Kamar (Greenhouse) and Mike (Jacquet) and Eric (Garror) and AJ (Washington), certainly (Daijuane) Dorsey has even played at times for us,” Napier said. “So we had five corners there. We saw this kid’s a four for three players so he does have that redshirt in his back pocket.

"If he’d had three for three, probably would already have been playing, but being a four for three player we felt like it would be good for him to redshirt and still play the guy.”

Overlooked punter?

If you look at the top 50 punters in the nation among the NCAA statistical leaders, you won’t see UL’s sophomore punter Rhys Byrns.

It’s not that Byrns doesn’t deserve to be. Apparently, it’s that UL’s offense is just too good.

Because of how explosive UL’s offense has been this season, Byrns has only punted 28 times in 10 games. Only eight teams have punted fewer times than the Cajuns.

For the season, Byrns is averaging 44 yards per punt, with 12 booted inside the 20 and five punts over 50 yards. Only nine of his punts have been returned this season.

Oklahoma and Alabama have only punted 23 times, Air Force and Washington State are next with only 26, followed by Utah and Hawaii with 27 and then UL at 28.

Washington State’s Oscar Draguicevich, like Byrns, would be listed among the nation’s best if he had enough attempts. Draguicevich is averaging 44.2 yards with 12 inside the 20 and seven over 50 yards.

Email Kevin Foote at kfoote@theadvocate.com.