How former ULM starter T.J. Fiailoa can help rival Louisiana Ragin' Cajuns football

Tim Buckley
Lafayette Daily Advertiser

The Ragin’ Cajuns needed to address some depth issues on their offensive line and did so in a big way on National Signing Day.

The Cajuns as expected introduced Matthew Anderson, who redshirted at Nebraska in 2020 as a walk-on transfer, and signed George Jackson, a former Florida commitment.

And they added former UL Monroe starter T.J. Fiailoa, an unexpected transfer expected to bolster a group of returning starting tackles Max Mitchell and Carlos Rubio, starting guards O’Cyrus Torrence and Ken Marks and starting center Shane Vallot.

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In mid-January, a month after Fiailoa entered the transfer portal, 247Sports called him “arguably the top FBS offensive lineman on the market in what’s become a really shallow pool.”

“You get a very experienced player,” coach Billy Napier said of Fiailoa, who began starting for UL’s Sun Belt Conference rival as a redshirt freshman in 2017.

“The guy has been a very productive player for them. We’re very familiar with him, obviously, because he’s in our league.”

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Many Ragin' Cajun connections

That’s hardly Fiailoa’s only connection to the Cajuns, though.

When he signed in 2016, Matt Viator was in his first year as ULM’s coach. Rob Sale was the Warhawks’ offensive line coach. Tim Leger was their recruiting coordinator, LaMar Morgan their defensive backs coach.

Sale, UL’s offensive coordinator and offensive line coach the last three seasons, is leaving to become offensive line coach of the New York Giants. But Leger is now the Cajuns’ recruiting coordinator and receivers coach, Morgan is cornerbacks coach and Viator – fired by ULM after going 0-10 – has joined UL as a quality control analyst.

“T.J. was recruited by a lot of the staff members we have,” Napier said when asked how much Viator had a hand in luring Fiailoa.

“So I think certainly for him this is a little bit of a homecoming because of the people he’ll have relationships with.”

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T.J. Fiailoa impacts bigger picture

More importantly for UL, Fiailoa brings immediate help for a unit needing reinforcements.

Guard David Hudson, who made his first career start Nov. 28 in a 70-20 win at ULM, remains. So do Tyler Brown, who played behind Marks at left guard and was used with increasing frequency late in the  season, and Luke Junkunc, UL’s backup center.

But Zach Robertson, an Arizona State graduate transfer who started at left tackle early in the season but lost his starting role to Rubio after dealing with a foot injury, exits.

Tackle Spencer Gardner, who began as Robertson’s backup but wasn’t playing later in the year, no longer is on the roster.

Ex-starting center Cole Prudhomme, who missed all of 2019 following knee surgery and was limited by injury as a sixth-year senior, also isn’t returning.

Anderson, a tackle who opted out of playing for Nebraska in its COVID-19 abbreviated season, arrived on campus in January. But after taking a year off it’s unknown if the Leesville High product can contribute immediately.

Jackson, meanwhile, is highly hyped but still just a freshman.

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Called “a good get” by Napier, Jackson is an early enrollee and is expected to take part in spring practice.

He had shoulder surgery while at IMG Academy in 2019 to repair an injury originally sustained while playing the prior year for Stephenson High in Stone Mountain, Georgia. But after watching his senior season film from his return to Stephenson closely, the Cajuns aren’t concerned.

“We feel good about that,” Napier said, adding that unspecified “unique circumstances around his situation” allowed UL to nab Jackson over several Power 5 programs.

But Jackson, who said he also considered Florida State and Georgia Tech at the end, still is unproven at the college level.

Fiailoa, by contrast, is a known commodity, which is why the Cajuns were so stoked they could pluck him from the portal.

A third team All-Sun Belt pick after starting all 12 games and allowing only 1.5 sacks on 373 passing plays in 2018, the 6-foot-4, 302-pounder from MacArthur High in Lawton, Oklahoma, was limited to four games before a season-ending leg injury in 2019.

But he was a second team All-Sun Belt preseason pick in 2020  when he started every game at guard for ULM.

“Certainly a huge get,” Napier said Wednesday.

“(Fiailoa) adds to the returning production that we have in the offensive line room and really gives us some versatility.

“We’re excited that he’ll be here in a couple days and we can kind of start to get him up to speed with our way of doing things,” Napier added. “But no question that we’re excited about T.J. and what he’ll bring to our football team.”

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