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Football: Former walk-on is no walk-over

Antwyne Zanders got an early indication of his value to this year’s UL football team, and got challenged at the same time.

Zanders, a walk-on who worked his way into the Cajuns’ linebacker rotation last season, was summoned to head coach Rickey Bustle’s office prior to the spring semester.

"He called me in and told me I needed to step up," Zanders said. "He said that the team needed me this year, and that I had to be ready. We had new coaches coming in, and I had to be a guy they could count on."

Oh, and he also told Zanders he was added to the scholarship rolls.

That was a reward for his efforts and accomplishments in his first college season, when the Kentwood native and Jewel Sumner High product came from nowhere to rank fifth on the squad in tackles and tackles for losses.

But it wasn’t a motivation. Zanders needs more motivation like most people need more body fat.

"He’s got a great motor," said UL defensive coordinator and linebacker coach Kevin Fouquier. "It’s all about effort and heart with Antwyne. He has a passion for the game."

That’s not hard to pick out when the Cajuns play. Number 41 is everywhere, and not just because he’s playing in a Will linebacker slot that requires versatility. He’s on three special teams, most notably on the kickoff coverage unit where his only job is wedge-buster – making himself a six-foot, 212-pound human sacrifice to four or five interlocked, usually-larger blockers.

"He just blows up the wedge, demolishes it," Fouquier said.

Hard to do? Not in his eyes.

"That’s the easiest thing I do," Zanders said. "I only have one thing to do there, and that’s hit right in the middle. Either you get them or they’re going to get you."

Zanders is also on the punt and kickoff return teams, in addition to playing as many snaps as anyone else on the Cajun defensive unit. He has a team-high 57 tackles (36 solos, 21 assists) in eight games along with four stops for losses, one sack and two fumble recoveries heading into UL’s 3 p.m. game on Saturday at Tennessee.

"We expected all that from him," Fouquier said. "He plays hard, and he wants badly to be a better player. He works hard in the weight room, works hard in the classroom."

That work ethic became obvious to the Cajun staff last year, when he zoomed up the depth chart in preseason drills and ended up playing in all 12 games. He was slotted into a Mike linebacker role, meaning he had to make defensive calls despite his lack of experience.

His 43 tackles last season included a sack at LSU in his first college game and nine tackles in his second game at Texas A&M. He won the "Top Gun" award as the team’s top defensive newcomer, and less than two months later was in Bustle’s office.

"He put me on the spot, and I took the challenge," Zanders said. "I live for challenges like that. Ever since I was in kids football, it’s been in me to go hard. I just love the game."

He loved it enough to learn a new position in UL’s new defensive scheme. The Will linebacker duties include rushing the quarterback and dropping into coverage depending on the defensive call.

"We bring him a lot," Fouquier said. "At Will, he has to do a lot of everything. It fits his abilities."

"There’s a lot of blitzing," Zanders said. "It takes a lot out of you when you’re doing that along with all the special teams. To be honest, I like the Mike better, but they want me to play Will and that’s where I need to play right now."

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