The top 10 Louisiana Tech football players you need to know for the 2016 season.
WR Trent Taylor, Sr.
Taylor had a single offer coming out of high school. That’s all he needed to prove his critics wrong. His stature, just 5-8 and 180 pounds, scared off everyone but then-Bulldog coach Sonny Dykes. And Skip Holtz’s staff has been reaping the benefits ever since. Taylor is one of the country’s premier slot receivers, quick in an out of cuts, sure-handed, competitive and very smart. He upped the ante in 2015 with 99 receptions for 1,282 yards and nine touchdowns to earn First Team All-Conference USA honors.
S Xavier Woods, Sr.
Bad news? Three starting defensive backs are gone. The good? Last year’s top DB is back to anchor the rebuilt unit. Woods is a fourth-year starter and a two-time First Team All-Conference USA selection. In other words, an SEC-caliber talent playing in a smaller league. The jewel of the 2013 recruiting class is a ball-hawk, making three picks in 2015 to run his career total to 12. Woods also had 7.5 stops for loss in 2015, testament to the breadth of his playmaking ability.
DE Jaylon Ferguson, Soph.
In Ferguson, the Bulldogs harbor one of Conference USA’s rising defensive stars. He exploded into a Freshman All-American by leading the team in tackles for loss (15), sacks (six) and hurries (eight). Ferguson is quick around the edge, with the active hands to fight through traffic. But at 6-5 and close to 260 pounds, he’s not the typical Group of Five pass rusher who’s sized like a linebacker and relies exclusively on his speed.
WR Carlos Henderson, Jr.
When explosive plays are needed, Tech looks to get the ball in the hands of Henderson. He’s the Bulldogs’ most dangerous all-around playmaker, both on offense and special teams. Over two seasons, the 5-11, 194-pound burner is averaging more than 20 yards per reception, turning 36 grabs into 774 yards and five scores in 2015. Henderson will also be used on handoffs and kickoffs, or anyplace that his elusiveness can be accentuated in space.
OT Darrell Brown, Sr.
Brown’s continued improvement in Ruston resulted in a spot on last year’s All-Conference USA Second Team. While there’s still room for improvement, especially on passing downs, he shook off a rocky start to 2015 to close as one of the league’s most effective tackles. With another step forward, Brown could get NFL looks if he’s capable of shifting inside to guard.
PK Jonathan Barnes, Jr.
If the offense stumbles without Jeff Driskel and Kenneth Dixon, Barnes will be there to clean up stalled drives. He’s one of the country’s most accurate kickers, earning a spot as a Groza Award semifinalist. Barnes nailed 22-of-26 field goals to also be named to the All-Conference USA Second Team. However, he can really help the La Tech defense by improving the distance of his kickoffs.
QB Ryan Higgins, Sr.
At long last, Higgins’ time has come to lead the Bulldog offense. He’s waited patiently behind transfers Cody Sokol and Jeff Driskel, learning the system and his role within it. And based on his performance during the spring, the competitive Higgins is not about to get beaten out again. His most extensive action in Ruston came as a rookie in 2013, when he completed 166-of-281 passes for 1,715 yards, six touchdowns and 13 interceptions.
DE Aaron Brown, Sr.
Now more than ever, the Bulldogs will be looking for Brown to apply pressure from the defensive line. With star Vernon Butler off to the NFL, Brown must step up and support the tackles. At only 6-1 and 270 pounds, he can be a bit of a liability against the run, but his quickness and get-off led to 26 tackles and 4.5 stops for minus yards.
OG O’Shea Dugas, Soph.
The 6-5, 330-pound Dugas is literally going to be a huge part of the future in Ruston. In his first season out of Northside (La.) High School, he started all but the opener at left guard to lay a great foundation for 2016 and beyond. A former high school wrestler who uses his hands and feet well, he excelled in pass protection, but now needs to become a more assertive road-grader.
OG David Mahaffey, Sr.
Mahaffey flashed his versatility in 2015, earning him honorable mention All-Conference USA recognition. He began the season at left guard, but a shoulder injury to Kirby Wixson, who is back, forced him to play the final dozen games at center. Back at his natural position, the 6-4, 307-pound former JUCO transfer is set to build on a breakthrough junior season.