Cajuns cornerback Garner was ready for the task at hand

Tim Buckley
Lafayette Daily Advertiser

For Mekhi Garner, the task was rather rudimentary.

Start at cornerback, like he did in now-No. 25 UL’s 34-31 last Saturday at Georgia State, and come up big?

It was meant to be.

“Honestly, I just did my job,” Garner said in a Zoom call afterward. “I stepped up to the plate.”

Almost quite literally.

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Ragin' Cajuns cornerback Mekhi Garner (20) intercepts a Quad Brown pass intended for receiver Sam Pinckney during UL's 31-31 overtime win over Georgia State last Saturday in Atlanta.

At Center Park Stadium, the 1996 Olympics venue known as Turner Field when it served as home of baseball’s Atlanta Braves from 1997 through 2016, Garner swung for the fences and delivered a game-altering blast of sorts.

His interception of a Quad Brown overthrow with just more than three minutes to go in the first half of the ESPN2-televised game came with nationally ranked UL down 14-0 at the time, and it led directly to an 18-yard touchdown pass from Levi Lewis to Chris Smith a minute-and-a-half later that prevented Georgia State from building an insurmountable lead before the break.

“I caught the pick,” Garner said, “and it sparked that fire in the offense knowing that ‘We’re still in the game.’ ”


Garner – a redshirt sophomore from Poteet High in Mesquite, Texas, who spent one year at Navarro College before coming to UL in 2019 – got the start because usual starter A.J. Washington was among at least nine Cajuns who missed the game due to coronavirus (COVID-19) issues.

UL head coach Billy Napier was confident Garner would be just fine from the get-go, saying beforehand that he was “a guy that wants to be loyal and he wants to be dependable for his teammates.”

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He came through, too, as did Trey Amos, a true freshman from Catholic High in New Iberia who also got some extra snaps because Washington was out.

Afterward, Napier, his Cajuns also still ranked No. 19 in AP Top 25, commended both for their ability “to step up for the team.”

He counted them among a group of backups and reserves who answered the bell with several teammates either out or limited due to illness, injury and/or COVID-19 quarantine.

Malcolm Rollins. Ja’Quane Nelson. Andre “A.J.” Riley. Tyler Guidry. Chauncey Manac. Garner and Amos too.

All were among those getting more-than-usual time and responding well as Washington was absent, true freshman reserve defensive lineman Sonny Hazard also due not travel due to coronavirus issues, starting Jack linebacker Joe Dillon was out with an undisclosed illness and starting defensive Zi’Yon Hill was playing for the first time this year following offseason shoulder surgery.

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Napier would not disclose if any or all of the Cajuns who did not travel last week due to COVID-19 issues, Washington among them, would be available when 2-0 UL faces 1-0 Georgia Southern in its home Saturday morning, a game that also will be televised by ESPN2.

But with coronavirus issues perhaps likely to cost the Cajuns more man games as the 2020 season progresses, Napier expects more opportunities for backups like Garner and the others to be tested.

“We’re gonna need some of these second-tier players to really step up,” the Cajuns coach said after Saturday’s win, “given the nature of the season.”


Garner’s ability to climb the ladder when called upon came largely because he simply was ready to handle the chore when asked.

Napier said beforehand that Garner was “chomping at the bit for the opportunity to play more and have a bigger role.”

He got it last Saturday, opening opposite of the corner spot occupied by usual starter Eric Garror and backup Jayrin Wilson, and was able to roll with the flow in part because he often could sense what was coming.

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“I watched film,” said Garner, who preserved his redshirt while appearing just four games for UL a season ago.

“I put time into this,” he added, “and this is what happens when you do your thing.”

The payoff came not only with the pick, but also a three-tackle shown as Brown and the Panthers threw his way time and time again.

It all was much-needed too, as UL’s struggled to put points on the board before halftime adjustments were made, Lewis got the air show going to open up the Cajun ground game and Elijah Mitchell finally ran for 164 yards and two touchdowns including a 12-yard TD rush to win it in OT.

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“Offense, we (weren’t) starting off as fast as we usually do, like we should,” Garner said. “But it didn’t matter. Defense just kept going out there every time knowing that ‘When we get this stop, offense is gonna put it in the end zone …

“From the front seven to the back end,” Garner said, “we all stepped up and handled our business – even when the game didn’t seem like it was going our way.”

They, in other words, just completed their assignments, never worrying, as Garner suggested, about how many points UL was down – 14, on two occasions, as it happened – or how much ground there was to make up.

“The scoreboard doesn’t matter to us, honestly,” Garner said.

“Defense-wise, we just step up and play our part and do our job, and that’s all we’ve got to do, and whatever comes after that comes after that.”

Whatever’s meant to be, in other words, really is what’s meant to be.

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Mitchell was named the Sun Belt  Conference’s Offensive Player of the Week on Monday and UL punter Rhys Byrns was named the conference’s Special Teams Player of the Week. … Mitchell also was named the Senior Bowl’s offensive Senior of the Week. … Napier also offered no new injury updates Monday.

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