Leaders sprout on ULL’s defensive line

LAFAYETTE — Justin Hamilton finds his comfort zone maneuvering amid challenging physical conditions, whether it’s fighting off a double team from offensive linemen or roping calves in the violent world of a Mississippi rodeo.

Louisiana-Lafayette’s 295-pound nose tackle enjoys the contact that comes from operating along the front line of the Cajuns defense.

“It’s always physical in there,” he said. “You are getting hit on every play, and you can’t beat the adrenaline rush that you get off that.”

And then there’s riding a trained horse accelerating from the chute and trying to rope, tackle and tie up a 1,000-pound calf. Rodeo’s a family affair; Hamilton, a native of Natchez, said his father, brothers and a sister learned team roping, calf roping and barrel racing at an early age.

“We all learned it from my dad, (Michael),” he said. “We’d practice and get our skills in the backyard and then go our there to a rodeo and do it. Our family has always had horses. We have six right now that we use (for events).

“We train the horses for a certain event, and it’s like teaching a guy about playing the D-line. The horse has to learn how to read the situation and everything that goes with it.”

Likewise, the Cajuns defensive front has added responsibilities: It has solidified a young unit experimenting with personnel at linebacker and in the secondary. Hamilton said the linemen accepted that role.

“There really wasn’t what you would call a lot of pressure because we knew that we lost a lot of coverage guys and we were having some new ones that were coming in,” he said. “One thing that has helped us (on the defensive line) is we have so many players there that we can roll guys in and out with no problem.”

Defensive coordinator James Willis said the line’s experience was the difference.

“I would say the coaches did put pressure on them,” he said. “The defensive line makes up the rock, the anchor of the defense. Going into the spring, we put that on them.”

In the Cajuns’ 3-4 alignment, Hamilton is flanked by end Christian Ringo and tackle Brandon McCray. The stand-up end has been Dominique Tovell, a sophomore who had eight tackles in ULL’s previous game against Akron.

Hamilton feels his backup (Marvin Martin) and the other linemen in a rotation that includes sophomore Marquise White and Blain Winston create a formidable group.

“When I think of (Ringo), it’s speed and power,” he said. “Brandon McCray, he’s dominant, and Blain Winston has the same qualities.”

Willis said the players on the line are basically interchangeable, adding another layer of dependability.

“Every one of the D-line can play the position of the man next to him,” he said. “We put them where we need them according to the matchups.”

Willis, whose previous college coaching experience came at Texas Tech, said he has learned to appreciate the skill and competitive spirit of his rodeo performer on the line.

“If you’re from Texas, you know about the rodeo,” Willis said. “I have a picture (of Hamilton) on one of his horses. The rodeo is where you are going to find the real men. What they experience here in football is nothing compared to that.”