Louisiana Tech football preview for 2016, including keys to success for the Bulldogs, best players and season prediction.
Louisiana Tech will likely regress in 2016, but how low is the floor?
The Bulldogs finally avoided the yo-yo campaigns that have plagued the program of late, winning nine games in consecutive seasons. But now the heavy lifting begins for Skip Holtz and a staff of assistants that has a very new look since the end of last season.
For the first time in more than a generation, La Tech had as many as three players drafted, QB Jeff Driskel, RB Kenneth Dixon and DT Vernon Butler. Plus, a spate of other productive players, particularly on defense, also ran out of eligibility, leaving the team with holes just about everywhere but at wide receiver. This program is about to find out if the foundation and the process are strong enough to build on the fly.
Driskel and Dixon leave enormous holes in the backfield that’ll be filled by the combination of longtime senior backup Ryan Higgins and a blend of backs Boston Scott and Jarred Craft. Higgins is the key to the success of the offense—if not the entire 2016 team—because a veteran, physical line will help Scott and Craft navigate relatively uncongested running lanes. Higgins, though, must exit the bullpen in his final year, become one of the team leaders and do his part to employ all of the skills of receivers Carlos Henderson and Trent Taylor.
While the offense has parted with quality, the D is moving forward without both quality and quantity. Eight new starters will be in the lineup when the Bulldogs open the season at Arkansas. Butler’s shoes are clearly the biggest to fill, but the entire linebacker corps and three-fourths of the secondary was wiped out as well. And although DE Jaylon Ferguson and S Xavier Woods form an outstanding foundation, the ultimate grade on this unit hinges on how quickly the new tackles, linebackers and DBs get up to speed. Defensive question marks represent one more reason why Higgins must deliver in his La Tech finale.
Holtz has a good thing going in his third head coaching gig, erasing a miserable ending to his South Florida tenure. But can he keep the momentum going with a team that has openings in so many key spots? The encouraging news is that the talent in Ruston remains on par with the rest of Conference USA, and there are no West Division teams so complete that an appearance in the league title game should be considered out of reach this fall.
What You Need to Know About the Louisiana Tech Offense
Changes galore await new coordinator Todd Fitch, who accepted this job after Tony Petersen left for the same position at East Carolina.
Fitch won’t enjoy the same luxuries as his predecessor, namely a backfield of next-level talents, QB Jeff Driskel and RB Kenneth Dixon. Instead, Fitch will look to rebuild around career backup QB Ryan Higgins and rushers Boston Scott and Jarred Craft, provided the latter’s knee injury has completely healed.
The good news on offense in Ruston is that Higgins ought to receive plenty of support from his protection and his receivers. Last season’s top two pass-catchers, Trent Taylor and Carlos Henderson, are back and Utah transfer Alfred Smith looked very good throughout the spring. In the trenches, La Tech is flush in experience.
Talented C Kirby Wixson is back in the mix after missing most of 2015 with a shoulder injury, and Texas Tech transfer OT Josh Outlaw will begin competing for a job this summer.
Biggest Key To The Offense
Building around the linemen. The Bulldogs lost a pair of players to the NFL Draft, QB Jeff Driskel and RB Kenneth Dixon. Fortunately, the 2016 O-line could be the best of the Skip Holtz. Not only do three starters return, headlined by all-star LT Darrell Brown, but senior RG Kirby Wixson is also back after missing most of last season to a shoulder injury. So deep is the La Tech front wall that honorable mention All-Conference USA performer David Mahaffey is listed as a backup to Joseph Brunson at the pivot.
What You Need to Know About the Louisiana Tech Defense
Young and fiery Blake Baker did a nice job in his first season as Skip Holtz’s coordinator. But what will the 33-year-old riser have in store for an encore now that the Bulldogs must replace eight starters, including first-round Carolina Panther pick Vernon Butler?
La Tech is littered with first-time starters, putting more pressure than ever on the two returning stars, S Xavier Woods and DE Jaylon Ferguson. Ferguson, in particular, flashes the potential to follow in Butler’s footsteps and become a high NFL pick in a few years.
Meanwhile, Louisiana Tech spent spring auditioning the next generation of regulars and backups, with mixed results. Up front, sophomore tackles Jordan Bradford and Courtney Wallace showed enough to slide veteran Aaron Brown outside to form a bookend with Ferguson.
The back seven, though, remains a work-in-progress. Senior Lloyd Grogan brings a veteran presence to the second level, much the way Beau Fitte did in 2015. And there’s cautious optimism that Ephraim Kitchen can become Tech’s version of a lockdown corner, despite being in just his second year removed from South Panola (Miss.) High School.
Biggest Key To The Defense
Brown out. Looking for a complement to superstar-in-waiting Jaylon Ferguson, the coaches have moved senior Aaron Brown outside to defensive end for the time being. The 270-pound veteran figures to be the run-stopping bookend to Ferguson, who’s a pass-rushing terror. Brown’s relocation also speaks to the staff’s confidence in sophomore tackles Jordan Bradford and Courtney Wallace, who both played very well at a position of need for the Bulldogs this season.
Louisiana Tech Will Be Far Better If …
the revamped secondary surprises this season. On the four occasions the Bulldogs lost last year, the pass defense was usually one of the primary culprits. In fact, in those four defeats, the team yielded 10 touchdown passes and 9.5 yards per attempt, while only picking off a single pass. And now, the team is being forced to replace all but S Xavier Woods. There’s going to be a lot of pressure this season on young kids, like sophomore CB Ephraim Kitchen, whose roles have been limited up to this point.
Best Offensive Player
Senior WR Trent Taylor. As one of the most polished slot receivers in the country, Taylor is the perfect gift for a new starting quarterback. He makes his supporting cast better by running good routes, rarely dropping passes and picking up yards after the catch. And Taylor will be especially valuable to the Bulldogs in a season that a journeyman, Ryan Higgins, is poised to take the controls behind center.
Best Defensive Player
Senior S Xavier Woods. Woods is a do-it-all DB, a three-year starter whose instincts allow him to contribute to both the run and the pass defense. Plus, this season the cagey veteran will also be asked to serve as a mentor and a coach between the sidelines. With Louisiana Tech set to insert three new starting defensive backs into the lineup, Woods will spend a lot of time making sure that his new secondary mates are in the right position and making the proper reads.
Key Player to a Successful Season
Senior QB Ryan Higgins. For the third year in a row, the Bulldogs will be using a senior behind center. Unfortunately, Higgins isn’t at the same caliber of last year’s QB, Jeff Driskel, over even the 2014 starter, Cody Sokol. He is, however, a veteran, with an excellent grasp of the system and the personnel. But Higgins needs to play with consistency and a greater command of the attack, because Louisiana Tech no longer has the luxury of handing the ball to Baltimore Raven draft pick Kenneth Dixon.
The Season Will Be a Success If …
the Bulldogs capture the West Division of Conference USA. Yeah, even in a year when there are wholesale changes taking place on both sides of the ball. Despite the graduations of so many key players, Tech still harbors some of the best talent in the league. Plus, the battle to represent the West in the conference championship game is essentially a two-team race, with defending champ Southern Miss sticking out as the only dangerous threat in this half of the league.
Nov. 26 at Southern Miss. With a spot in the Conference USA Championship Game resting in the balance last November, the Golden Eagles ambushed the Bulldogs in Ruston, 58-24. This fall, La Tech will travel to Hattiesburg with revenge on its mind … and the West potentially hinging on the outcome once again. That means Skip Holtz and defensive coordinator Blake Baker will have three months to prepare their rebuilt secondary for Nick Mullens and the high-powered USM passing attack.
2015 Fun Stats
– Points per game: Louisiana Tech 37.5 – Opponents 26.8
– Yards per play: Louisiana Tech 6.9 – Opponents 5.3
– Sacks: Louisiana Tech 24 – Opponents