St. Thomas More product Hunter Bergeron part of improbable Cajuns bunch
A graduate transfer. A true freshman. Two former walk-ons, one of them a former defensive end.
A punchline perhaps should follow.
But when it comes to the play of UL’s tight ends this year, it’s no joke.
Each member of the unlikely cast of characters has been playing a bigger-than-expected role after two would-be starters — injured Chase Rogers, who later left the team, and injured Johnny Lumpkin — were lost prior to the start of the season.
And each of them — Nick Ralston, Neal Johnson, Pearse Migl and Hunter Bergeron — has answered the call while playing regularly for 8-2 UL, which plays host to 5-5 Troy on Saturday.
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“There’s probably no position group that has been more critical, the way they’ve emerged,” coach Billy Napier said after his Ragin’ Cajuns beat South Alabama 37-27 last Saturday.
One outing earlier, each of the four caught a pass in UL’s blowout win at Coastal Carolina.
Against South Alabama, Johnson pulled in a 9-yard touchdown throw from Levi Lewis in the second quarter, one of his three receptions on the night, and one Cajun drive later Lewis found Bergeron in the back of the end zone for a 1-yard TD.
On the season, Ralston has 10 catches — four of them for touchdowns. Johnson has eight receptions including two TDs. Migl has five grabs, and Bergeron three.
The seven touchdowns are six more than the group had in 2018, when Rogers was injured most of the season and Lumpkin and then-senior Matt Barnes were UL’s primary tight ends.
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That’s a lot from a foursome that includes what amounts to UL’s Nos. 4, 5 and 6 tight ends at the start of preseason camp, even for a team that often uses a two-tight end formation.
The production now, Bergeron said, “might be just because of the lack of production we had last year, maybe … and wanting to increase our role this year.”
“It’s just great to see all of us contributing to more catches and just producing more out of our room,” said Bergeron, a product of St. Thomas More High who — like Migl — is on scholarship after starting at UL as a walk-on.
The touchdown catch by Bergeron, who began his Cajun career at defensive end and appeared in just one game last year, was his first at UL.
He called it “a great feeling,” and hopes there are more to come.
And there could be for all of UL’s tight ends, as their red zone work this season is a product of both necessity and design.
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The Cajuns, in other words, seem to have drawn up more for their tight ends, but they are often simply taking advantage of what opposing defenses allow.
“The quarterback makes his reads, and then one of us is wide open — you’ve got to get the ball there if everyone else is covered,” said Bergeron, who has one catch in each of UL's last three games.
Even when you’re as open as Bergeron and Johnson both were Saturday, Bergeron said, “it’s nerve-wracking.”
“You’ve got to make the catch,” he said.
It’s no different when heavily defended.
“Whenever you’ve got people on you,” Bergeron said, “you’ve got to make a catch in coverage with people throwing hands at you and all over you.
“You’ve just got to focus in on the ball and try to make the catch as best you can.”
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So any reception is special.
But catches in the end zone are lagniappe compared to what typically is asked of Cajun tight ends.
It’s really all about blocking in the trenches first, and for that, teammates truly are appreciative.
“I love seeing the tight ends shine, man,” running back Elijah Mitchell said after rushing for 117 yards and a TD at South Alabama.
“They work hard in practice. They block for us, so whenever they get a pass thrown to them … we love it.”
It helps that current Cajun tight ends are built for blocking.
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As Napier put it, “We’ve got a couple 6-foot fullbacks out there (Ralston and Migl, both actually listed at 6-foot-1), we’ve got a former defensive end (and) a true freshman (Johnson) that is talented but is a rookie.”
“So you’ve got to give (tight ends coach) Mike Desormeaux credit for having his crew ready to go,” the Cajuns coach said.
“The main thing I like about the group is it’s important to them. They want to be dependable, they want to be accountable. They’re the type of people you want on your team. They’re fox-hole guys.”
Bergeron is the local kid who was a member of state-title football and baseball teams at STM.
Migl, a redshirt freshman, is a Welsh High product.
Ralston arrived as a graduate transfer from Arizona State, where the former running back from Argyle High in Texas played previously in 2017 in a Napier-coordinated offense.
Johnson is a Texan too.
“Neal’s growing up,” Napier said of Johnson, who is from West Mesquite High.
“Certainly we knew exactly what we were getting with Nick Ralston. He’s been a great competitor. Tough, physical. Very intelligent, mature guy. He’s done a good job leading in that room.
“And Hunter and Pearse have very effective at times for us,” Napier added. “So, we’ve got a good group there.”
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A versatile one as well.
“We all can pretty much handle our own blocking,” Bergeron said, “and Neal (Johnson) previously has been a wide receiver and quarterback (in high school).
“He’s got skills that help running routes and catching balls, and he’s a very fine-tuned player.
“Nick (Ralston) is very strong,” Bergeron added. “He can hold his own just about anywhere on the line. That really helps out.”
What helps the most, though, is that each and all stepped up after Rogers and Lumpkin were lost.
Bergeron suggested the group felt as if had no other choice, even if the youngster Johnson, the elder statesman Ralston and the two former walk-ons amounted to an improbable bunch for contributing so much.
“Whenever everyone got hurt and one of our teammates left,” he said, “I feel like it was, ‘We’ve got to go, we’ve got to start preparing, because we’re in the starting roles now and we have a big part in our team’s success and we have to know what we’re doing and execute to a high level.’”
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