Much expected from Hill and Higgins, key pieces to UL's defensive line

Tim Buckley
Lafayette Daily Advertiser

Both missed spring drills while spending the offseason recovering from surgeries.

But when UL opens its 2019 season Saturday morning against Mississippi State at the Superdome in New Orleans, Zi’Yon Hill and Bennie Higgins — key pieces on the Ragin’ Cajuns’ defensive line — both will be present and must be accounted for.

Perhaps no one knows that better than Cajuns d-line coach Rory Segrest, an assistant with SEC and NFL experience who has been instrumental in the growth of both Cajuns.

“He shows us all the little things, and stuff we need to know,” Higgins said of Segrest, a defensive line and specialists coach at Arkansas from 2014-16. “He taught me a lot of things I didn’t know coming in.”

The same goes for Hill, a product of Catholic High in New Iberia who had Cajun coaches raving about him shortly after head coach Billy Napier was hired following the conclusion of the 2017 season and Segrest joined the staff shortly afterward.

More:Cajuns confident offensive line can carry them to greater heights

“I hate to speculate on a guy, but, at the same time, Zi’Yon is a talented young man,” Segrest said when asked last spring about the ceiling for Hill. “He’s quick, explosive. He’s strong. He’s a lot bigger than guys think.

“He’s a little undersized when you just look at him visually, but he’s a 285-pound guy with some strength.

“The quickness and the agility part of it,” Segrest added, “really gives him an advantage on things.”

Now a third-year sophomore, Hill started in all 10 of the games he played for 7-7 UL last season.

Despite battling a nagging injury to his now-repaired shoulder that had his availability status uncertain on practically a week-to-week basis in 2018, he finished with 47 total tackles as a redshirt freshman.

That includes nine tackles in a November win over Georgia State that sparked a three-game UL victory streak, helping the Cajuns to win the Sun Belt Conference’s West Division and vaulting them into both the SBC championship game at Appalachian State and the Cure Bowl in Orlando against Tulane.

More:UL's Zi'Yon Hill stays positive, humble after battling injuries

Beyond the numbers, though, it’s how Hill carries himself when fully healthy that perhaps impresses Napier most.

Shortly after preseason camp opened earlier this month, the Cajuns coach marveled over Hill’s “motor and effort” and how he practices with “attitude.”

On a d-line in which depth could be something of an issue this year, even with last season’s Jack linebacker Chauncey Manac moving and playing more defensive end, that’s critical for the Cajuns.

“I’ve seen him 30 yards down the field, chasing the ball on a consistent basis,” Napier said.

“The guy was a high school running back, and he looks like that. He’s very loose-hipped, very disruptive,” Napier added. “We’ve got some things in store for him to try to create 1-on-1s from him.”

More:Cajuns' Manac working hard to improve behind the line

Plenty is expected as well from Higgins, a senior who had 7.5 tackles for loss including 4.5 sacks — second-most among all Cajuns in both categories — while starting in all 14 games last season.

A product of Greenwood High in Mississippi who transferred to UL after one season at Mississippi Delta Community College, Higgins also finished with 58 total tackles including 40 assists — fourth-most for UL, and tops among defensive linemen.

That includes seven tackles each in a key three-game, late-season stretch that included wins over South Alabama and UL Monroe.

“I think the biggest thing with Bennie (going forward) is just making sure he’s keeping his hands inside in the run game, striking blockers,” Segrest said of Higgins, who underwent wrist surgery after last season. “I thought he got a little bit wide at times, kind of catching, and he’d get pushed around a little bit.

“From a technique standpoint, I think that’s the biggest area right there.”

More:2019 Cajuns football: Position breakdown

When he first joined the Cajuns, Segrest noticed right away Higgins’ attention to detail and commitment to improvement.

“He was probably a guy that came in and watched more film than anybody else we had,” Segrest said. “He studied. It was important to him.

“Just that extra time and effort that he put in to making himself who he was last year — I was really pleased with his work ethic and his improvement as the season went along.”

For that, Higgins — whose apartment burned early in camp, prompting an NCAA-approved GoFundMe fundraising effort — credits motivation spurred by Segrest and the resume he brought to UL.

More:UL's Higgins leaning on team, community in aftermath of fire

In addition to time spent as a d-line assistant Arkansas, Samford and Southeast Missouri State, the former Alabama student assistant and Auburn graduate assistant spent five years from 2007-10 on the staff of the NFL’s Philadelphia Eagles — including three as special teams coordinator and the last two as defensive line coach.

“He showed me how to break down film,” Higgins said of Segrest, a Waycross, Georgia, native who played on Alabama’s 1992 national-championship team and turned to coaching after his career was cut short by injury. “He’d sit down and show us: ‘This is how to do it.’

“He’d show us NFL guys doing the same things we’re doing now, and showed: ‘This is how you’ll be successful; this is how you sit down and study yourself.’ It played a big role on my game.”

More:Breaking down the Sun Belt Conference: Must-see games, players to watch