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Football: Expectations for the Louisiana Ragin’ Cajuns defense are high, here’s how UL plans to exce

Tim Buckley, The Advertiser, March 17, 2021

Much like the Ragin’ Cajuns offense, UL’s defense is stacked with returning starters in 2021.

At 22 points per game, the Cajuns were 31st stingiest among all FBS programs as they went 10-1 in 2020. Their 16 interceptions in 11 games were tied for second-most in the Sun Belt Conference and matched UL’s most since 2009.

Still, the Cajuns seek improvement. So when spring practice opened Tuesday, the focus was more on what can be done better than who’s doing it.

Some things to know about the defense for UL, whose spring game is April 22:

Promoted:Billy Napier names two assistants co-coordinators for Ragin’ Cajuns offense

Don’t break up the Cajuns’ band

Each UL defensive starter from the First Responders Bowl win over Texas-San Antonio returns.

That includes inside linebackers Lorenzo McCaskill and Ferrod Gardner, the team’s top two tacklers, and safety Bralen Trahan, whose four interceptions were tied for third-most in the Sun Belt.

The only usual starter not back is outside linebacker Joe Dillon, but Dillon shared time with returning Chauncey Manac — and Manac was just as productive in 2020 as Dillon, who finished his injury-hampered, six-year Cajun career just shy of becoming UL’s career sacks leader.

So expectations are high, and that’s why Napier and the Cajuns are finetuning this spring.

“We’re back to square one here,” Napier said. “But … the players, the veterans, that we do have coming back, that’s a big part here.”

“I feel like it’s about taking the things that we did last year and doing them a little bit better, you know?” starting defensive lineman Zi’Yon Hill added. “Because I feel like we ran a lot of good stuff last year. … But we didn’t run it 100 percent like we could.”

LOOKING AHEAD:2021 UL football schedule includes no game against Coastal Carolina

Work in UL newcomers

Even with all they have coming back, the Cajuns have some newcomers who may be able to contribute right away.

Safety Tyrone Lewis Jr., a transfer from Kansas State, is in for spring practice, as is outside linebacker Clinton Anokwuru, who spent his freshman season at Kansas.

Nijel McGriff, a transfer from Northwest Mississippi Community College, won’t make it until after spring drills are done, but he could bolster a defensive line returning regular starters Hill, Tayland Humphrey and Andre Jones.

RELATED:Cajuns make Nijel McGriff late addition to 2021 football signing class

Turnovers key for the Cajuns

UL forced two or more turnovers in 10 games last season – and won all 10.

That’s why Napier wants to be spend part of the spring figuring out how to produce even more, especially when it comes to forced fumbles.

The Cajuns recovered seven fumbles last season, but no one forced more than safety Percy Butler’s two and no one recovered more than the two Butler and Hill each had.

“We want to improve in our ability to take the ball away,” Napier said. “We say ‘attack the ball,’ and I think that’s a big part of what we do. It’s the most important statistic relative to winning.”

Patrick Toney welcomes new help

The Cajuns have three new assistant coaches on defense: former South Florida assistant Wes Neighbors (safeties), ex-Louisiana Tech assistant Jeff Burris (cornerbacks) and former North Texas assistants Galen Scott (inside linebackers).

Defensive coordinator Patrick Toney also moved from coaching safeties to outside linebackers.

So some of this spring also will be about simply getting know each other.

“We’ve got a lot of players who’ve played a lot of snaps around here, but … a lot of transition there,” Napier said. “So I think I’d like to see that staff get up to speed in terms of how we operate, how we do things.”

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