No. 33: Louisiana Tech
By Paul Myerberg // Aug 3, 2012
Boise State was gone, so somebody had to step into the void. Nevada was the preseason favorite, which made some sense, though not a tremendous amount. The Wolf Pack may have topped the Broncos in 2010, but last year’s team stepped to the plate with a fraction of the star power. If not Nevada, then Hawaii; the Warriors, winners of 10 games two seasons ago, were feeling the love. If not either of that pair, then Fresno State — if not now for the Bulldogs, then never. Louisiana Tech? The dark horse’s dark horse: the ignored, dismissed and overlooked conference champ. After filling a Boise-sized hole a season ago, the Bulldogs now turn their sites on yet another major accomplishment: like the Broncos before them, the Bulldogs want to go B.C.S. busting.
14 (8 offense, 6 defense)
Last year’s ranking
- Aug. 30
- Sept. 8
- Sept. 15
- Sept. 22
- Sept. 29
- Oct. 6
- Oct. 20
- Oct. 27
at New Mexico St.
- Nov. 3
- Nov. 10
at Texas St.
- Nov. 17
- Nov. 24
at San Jose St.
Last year’s prediction
Yeah, Tech’s going to score points. Forget about the new quarterback, the few new linemen, the new receivers: this offense will be better just because of last year’s experience running this spread attack. That’s very good news for the Bulldogs. Now, what’s the ceiling for wins? This schedule is not going to allow Tech to win eight games; the non-conference schedule is nasty, and the Bulldogs have the poor fortune to get two of the WAC’s best, Nevada and Fresno State, on the road. But the baseline for success is six wins, and the team is definitely good enough to get there. What about seven? It’s definitely doable. But eight? That’ll take an upset. Either way, Tech’s heading back to bowl play.
In a nutshell Every preseason milestone was reached: bowl play, WAC title, national relevance. I think you can stamp the season as a success. But the year wasn’t perfect, not when the Bulldogs threw away three opportunities for marquee non-conference wins in September. Considering that the program is about to take a step up into Conference USA — and that this year’s WAC is unanimously viewed as the country’s weakest league — it will be vital going forward that Dykes and the Bulldogs win big games in September and early October. Last fall, these narrow setbacks were part of the growing process.
High point A 24-20 win over Nevada on Nov. 19, which effectively clinched the WAC. It wouldn’t become official for another Saturday, however, but don’t worry: Tech, its eyes on the prize, took New Mexico State behind the woodshed in a 44-0 laugher. The victory over Nevada provided the difference between facing T.C.U. in the Poinsettia Bowl or heading west to the Hawaii Bowl on Christmas Eve, and I don’t need to tell you how vital that was for the program.
Low point Would you rather get your heart broken or your doors blown off? Hawaii controlled the first half of its 44-26 win before sealing the deal with three successive scores in the third quarter. Southern Mississippi notched three late field goals in its 19-17 win. Mississippi State needed overtime. Houston trailed by 28 points in the third quarter. My vote goes for Houston.
Tidbit Every head coach that has served multiple seasons during Louisiana Tech’s modern era has won at least eight games in one of his first three seasons with the program – every coach but one, rather. Eddie McLane (1934-38) did so in 1935; Maxie Lambright (1967-78) did so in both 1968 and 1969; Billy Brewer (1980-82) in 1982; A.L. Williams (1983-86) in 1984 and 1985; Joe Peace (1988-95) in 1990; Gary Crowton (1996-98) in 1997; Jack Bicknell (1999-2006) in 1999; Derek Dooley (2007-9) in 2008; and Sonny Dykes last fall. The one exception? Joe Aillet, who won so many games in Ruston that they named a stadium after him, didn’t win at least eight games in a season until 1955, 15 years after he was hired.
Tidbit (road wins edition) Tech’s win over Nevada on Nov. 19 was the program’s fifth straight on the road, joining victories over Mississippi, Fresno State, Utah State and Idaho. This marked the Bulldogs’ longest road winning streak in over 35 years: Tech won 11 straight games away from home from 1973-75, a streak that was snapped by a 41-28 loss at Ball State to open the 1976 season.
Tidbit (sacks edition) Here’s Louisiana Tech’s magic number: three. The Bulldogs are 9-1 under Dykes when notching that many sacks in a game, with the lone blemish coming in last season’s loss to Hawaii. Tech combined for 22.0 sacks during its seven-game winning streak to end last year’s regular season. Tech’s record under Dykes when making one or fewer sacks, however, is 1-6 – so get after the quarterback.
Tidbit (B.C.S. competition edition) Louisiana Tech is 4-28 since the start of the 2000 season against B.C.S. conference competition, including a 1-2 mark in such games under Dykes. The program’s four wins: Oklahoma State at home in 2002, Michigan State on the road in 2003, Mississippi State at home in 2008 and Mississippi last fall.
Former players in the N.F.L.
9 DE Matt Broha, S Terry Carter (Pittsburgh), LB Adrien Cole (Chicago), RB Lennon Creer (Washington), WR Phillip Livas (Baltimore), QB Luke McCown (New Orleans), K Josh Scobee (Jacksonville), DT D’Anthony Smith (Jacksonville), CB Tramon Williams (Green Bay).
Arbitrary top five list
Tech’s rivals upon move to Conference USA
1. Southern Mississippi.
4. East Carolina.
5. North Texas.
Sonny Dykes (Texas Tech ’90), 13-12 after two seasons with the Bulldogs. The spread offense specialist was tabbed for his first head coach opportunity after a half-decade as a B.C.S. conference offensive coordinator, first at his alma mater before spending 2007-9 at Arizona. The majority of his assistant experience came in Lubbock, where he was first hired as the receivers coach in 2000 after a single season at Kentucky. Dykes served as in that capacity for five years before being named co-offensive coordinator for the 2005 and 2006 seasons. While then-Texas Tech coach Mike Leach remained an important figure when it came to philosophy and in-game play calling, Dykes was responsible for a large portion of the offensive game planning while continuing to coach the Tech receivers. Of course, his experience under Leach helped form his offensive mindset, both in terms of his spread philosophy and the tempo with which his offense gets into and out of the huddle, preventing the opposition from rapidly alternating its personnel to match the offensive alignment. It was at Arizona that Dykes was given his first opportunity to run an offense on his own, as well as his first shot as a quarterbacks coach. His three-year stint with the Wildcats was a successful one: his first pupil, Willie Tuitama, set numerous program records, and his offense continued to flourish with a new quarterback under center in 2009, when Arizona came a game within landing its first Rose Bowl birth in program history. Despite this success — and Tech’s consistent play from 2000-6 — Dykes remains somewhat unknown on the coaching ranks; he was overshadowed at Texas Tech by Leach and at Arizona by both Mike and, to a lesser degree, Mark Stoops. Don’t look for this under-the-radar life to last much longer: Dykes is moving fast, like his offense, and Louisiana Tech should appreciate every day he spends with the program – and enjoy the ride.
Players to watch
Don’t get comfortable. That’s a valuable lesson for Tech’s quarterbacks to learn, even if more than one – merely since Dykes was hired – has discovered this fact the hard way. The quarterback who starts in September might be holding a clipboard in October; the quarterback left for dead during fall camp might be revived midway through the season, just when the Bulldogs need a spark. It’s probably best for each one of Tech’s quarterbacks, whether they’re atop the depth chart or barely listed on the roster, to keep this one fact in mind: don’t get comfortable. Dykes’ sometimes trigger-happy approach to quarterback play is one thing he took from his experience under Mike Leach, it seems.
Having said that, this is Colby Cameron’s job. It his job because he earned it, grabbing the opportunity to move back into the starting lineup late last October and playing wonderfully over the team’s five-game winning streak to end the regular season. Cameron, a senior, replaced Nick Isham for good against San Jose State on Oct. 29; over the next five games, Cameron completed 92 of 177 attempts for 1,347 yards and 11 touchdowns against a pair of interceptions. Yeah, Cameron’s earned the job.
But he’ll need to continue delivering a high rate, especially when Tech needs him most: over the four non-conference games in September. One fact that detracts from Cameron’s six-game audition in the starting lineup was the fact that he didn’t play well against Mississippi and T.C.U., the two non-WAC teams on the schedule. Against that pair, Cameron was 34 of 70 for 444 yards and as many interceptions as touchdowns. Obviously, he’ll need to be more accurate throwing the football to help Louisiana Tech score enough points to beat Texas A&M, Houston, Illinois and Virginia.
Nevertheless, Cameron’s job is far more secure than Nick Isham’s was heading into last season – a would-be sophomore, Isham transferred during the spring. What Cameron brings to this offense is greater big-play ability: Tech averaged an additional two yards per pass attempt with Cameron in the lineup when compared to Isham. The Bulldogs’ added explosiveness, combined with Cameron’s accuracy, does make him the team’s best option. If Dykes does get itchy for a change, however, he can turn to either JUCO transfer Zach Griffith or one of two new arrivals, freshman Ryan Higgins and sophomore Andy McAlindon. Tech landed Scotty Young, a transfer from Texas Tech, but he won’t be eligible until 2013.
The Bulldogs lost Lennon Creer, the former Tennessee transfer who helped provide some great balance to Dykes’ pass-first system. But after making an auspicious debut in 2010, injuries slowed down Creer’s attempts at a second straight 1,000-yard season last fall. The silver lining: Creer’s injuries gave valuable snaps to sophomore Hunter Lee (650 yards), who earned all but one of his 135 carries after September. Lee delivered in a big way for this offense, putting together three 100-yard games and notching 64 very tough yards in the narrow Poinsettia Bowl loss.
Lee’s the top back in 2012, and he’s every bit a 20-carry back at that – he earned at least that many carries four times last fall. Tech will still need some help in the running game, however. One name to watch is senior Ray Holley (144 yards), who served as Creer’s top reserve before suffering a season-ending injury four games into last season. What the Bulldogs could use is a change-of-pace back, so keep an eye on true freshmen Tevin King and Kenneth Dixon. The latter was the top running back to come out of Arkansas during last year’s recruiting cycle. The Bulldogs won’t have would-be senior Lyle Fitte, who will take a redshirt this fall due to some lingering issues stemming from last season’s A.C.L. injury.
Meet the wide receivers – well, meet one in particular. His name is Quinton Patton, he’s a senior, a former JUCO transfer, the team’s leading receiver and an all-American candidate heading into September. What Patton did last fall, his first on campus, set the tone for the entire offense: despite being new to the F.B.S., Patton led the team with 78 receptions for 1,202 yards and 11 scores, giving Dykes the lead target he’s been searching for since arriving in Ruston prior to the 2010 season. Patton’s going to put up enormous numbers this fall, not merely because the Bulldogs will get sturdy quarterback play but also because he’s a year more experienced in this system – there will be no learning curve in 2012, merely big weekend after big weekend. Patton should make 90-plus receptions and be in the mix for some national recognition.
What you like about Tech’s receiver corps is that Dykes seems to have found concrete roles for the top group. Patton’s the go-to guy, the receiver most likely to be at the center of Cameron’s attention on key downs. Senior Myles White (31 catches for 414 yards), who started his career at Michigan State, is a big-play threat at inside receiver. David Gru (26 for 339), a former walk-on, is a steady-handed receiver who has a great rapport with his quarterback. Another senior, Richie Casey (19 for 213), is another reliable option inside. Junior Jacarri Jackson will see a bigger role at outside receiver, what with Taulib Ikharo gone; if he’s healthy, you can say the same of Andrew Guillot (12 for 118). Then there are the wild cards: D.J. Banks, a former Tulane transfer, is eligible for action after sitting out last season, and the Bulldogs also add lanky JUCO transfer Jon Greenwalt.
After all that – the senior starter at quarterback, the new backfield, the terrific depth and talent at receiver – we come to the offensive line, which is the most experienced unit on this entire roster. You’d see improvement up front even if Tech was breaking in five new starters; now in its third year in the Air Raid, this line is ready to take a big step forward. It’s even better than that: Tech returns four starters, all seniors, as has already identified the line’s fifth starter. The lone significant change finds former JUCO transfer Oscar Johnson, a sun-blocking, lineman-smothering senior, moving from right guard out to left tackle. He’ll be replaced at right guard by junior Matthew Shepperd, last year’s backup on the left side.
The rest is status quo: Kevin Saia at left guard, Stephen Warner at center and Jordan Mills at right tackle. Saia and Werner are all-conference locks. Neither is depth an issue, even if the second group didn’t see a significant amount of playing time last fall. The biggest question mark – no pun intended – is Johnson at left tackle. He was a road-grating right guard, but I wonder if Johnson has the foot speed and agility to handle quicker rushers coming off the edge. If he can’t, unfortunately, Tech’s passing game could take a huge hit.
The Bulldogs lost a pair of starting ends who combined for 16.0 sacks a season ago, but don’t worry: this defensive line will be fine. While Matt Broha and Christian Lacey were extremely successful at bringing pressure on passing downs, that they were able to find open lanes was due in large part to the Bulldogs’ terrific three-tackle rotation along the interior. These three linemen didn’t merely occupy blockers – though they did that very well – but also gave a nice push, disrupting running plays at the point of attack and forcing offensive lines to pay attention on clear passing downs. Even with the changing cast at end, Tech’s pass rush will continue to make life difficult for WAC quarterbacks.
The Bulldogs even return two ends who played very well in secondary roles last fall. One, junior I.K. Enemkpali (33 tackles, 7.5 for loss), was a surprise contributor; he was suspended in August for a violation of team rules, putting his season in doubt, but Enemkpali was reinstated to play in 12 games as Tech’s top reserve end. He’ll be joined in the starting lineup by junior Kendrick James (19 tackles), unless redshirt freshman Vontarrius Dora carries his strong spring over to fall camp and moves to the top of the depth chart. At worst, Dora – who would have played last season if not for a shoulder injury – will team with sophomore Andre Taylor to give this defense four options at the position.
While Taylor could also move inside, where he’ll eventually end up, it’s going to be hard for the sophomore to crack into the rotation at tackle. That’s because the Bulldogs are locked in with a trio of experienced, proven and productive interior linemen. When Tech wants to go big, it’ll run out senior Jon’al White (29 tackles, 3.5 sacks) and junior Justin Ellis (29 tackles, 3.5 for loss), the latter a reigning second-team all-WAC pick. This 640-pound duo can simply engulf a team’s running game, as more than one conference opponent discovered a season ago. When the Bulldogs want to add some burst, they can drop one of the two out of the lineup and bring in junior Shakeil Lucas (30 tackles), a quicker down lineman.
It’s a really nice group, if they can again remain healthy. And it’s clear that Tech is looking for bigger tackles to help against the run, judging by the program’s recent recruiting efforts – two redshirt freshmen, Malcolm Pichon and Tyler Porter, weigh more than 300 pounds apiece. Look for these tackles to help out this defense in any number of ways, from rubbernecking the run game, keeping the Bulldogs’ linebackers clean to helping free up Enemkpali and James to wreak havoc on passing downs.
You can only imagine what sort of step forward this defense could take if it could stop the pass. This is the Bulldogs’ major issue: 91st nationally in yards allowed per game, this secondary can’t continue to rely on turnovers – Tech intercepted 21 passes, tied for third-most in the country – to get stops. While the cast largely remains the same, the Bulldogs really need greater consistency both at cornerback and at safety to beat teams like A&M and Houston.
Senior Dave Clark (33 tackles, 3 interceptions) returns on one side at cornerback, but Tech is still looking for his running mate. One option would be to move senior Javaontay Crowe (36 tackles) out from nickel back, but he’s too useful in that role to be moved outside – an experienced nickel back can be useful as a starting cornerback in this defense. With Crowe staying put, look for the Bulldogs to continue leaning towards redshirt freshman Brice Abraham, though true freshman Adairius Barnes arrives with high expectations and some SEC pedigree; he swapped his commitment from Mississippi State to the Bulldogs on national signing day.
The Bulldogs should land sturdier play at safety. This defense goes three deep at the position, with all three top options seniors: Chad Boyd (76 tackles, 3 interceptions), Jamel Johnson (88 tackles, 2 interceptions) and Quinn Giles (34 tackles, 4 interceptions). One issue with this group is that Boyd and Johnson are clearly at their best when lending support against the run, not defending the pass – those interception totals notwithstanding. But added experience typically yields increased comfort, so look for both to be a bit more reliable over the middle of the field. While Giles isn’t a starter, his ability to flex between both safety spots – and even cornerback, if needed – makes him one of the more valuable pieces on this entire defense.
Tech’s issue is that the left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing. In other words, the Bulldogs aren’t always on the same page: sometimes the team stops the run but gives up yards in bunches against the pass; sometimes, though less often, it’s vice versa. The hope is that the added experience playing under defensive coordinator Tommy Spangler finds this defense simply playing with more consistency. The Bulldogs need to find their medium, the place where it doesn’t need to commit added weapons to slow down an offense’s running game or passing attack, depending on the opponent’s strength that given Saturday.
A punt Ryan Allen unleashed last November just came down in Joe Aillet Stadium, and yes, like most of the others, it fell inside the 20. There’s legs, big legs, rocket legs and then there’s Allen’s leg, which uncorked 83 punts a distance of 3,828 yards – an average of 46.1 yards per punt – while putting 39 punts inside the opponents 20-yard line. Few punters, whether in college of the N.F.L., can match Allen’s ability to put distance on a kick while also having the touch and feel to control field position. He was an all-American and the Ray Guy Award winner a year ago; there’s no reason why Allen can’t do it again.
Tech’s return game takes on a different feel without Fitte in the lineup, though sophomore Levander Liggins did a nice job picking up the slack when Fitte was sidelined due to injury. Getting a healthy Guillot, who averaged 12.0 yards per punt return, would mean a great deal to Tech’s special teams. Unfortunately, while Tech does a nice job covering kickoffs the team’s coverage on punt returns needs some work.
Position battle(s) to watch
Linebackers Yeah, Broha and Lacey were outstanding – but as noted, I’m confident in Tech’s ability to mount a nice pass rush from its front four with the end quartet of James, Enemkpali, Dora and Taylor. A bigger issue is the Bulldogs’ potential decline in production at linebacker, where the defense must replace starters Adrien Cole and Jay Dudley. This pair, the only starting linebackers in Tech’s 4-2-5 base set, combined for 230 tackles (21.0 for loss) a season ago – Cole and Dudley finished one-two on the team in tackles, with Cole capping his career as a three-time all-WAC pick.
But Tech’s new linebackers share one crucial positive with their teammates at end: those huge, block-occupying, buffet-devouring interior linemen. While the Bulldogs are going to struggle matching the lost pair’s penchant for a big play, tackles like Ellis and White draw enough attention to help keep linebackers clean; clean linebackers are productive linebackers, whether the Bulldogs are returning a first-team all-conference selection or breaking in a pair of new starters.
Rufus Porter (21 tackles), a junior, will get the nod at outside linebacker. That’s where he spent last season, backing up Dudley, and Porter had a fairly productive year after contributing mainly on special teams as a redshirt freshman. One thing to love about Porter is his speed: his built like a safety, which only increases Tech’s overall speed along the back seven. While the Bulldogs return a very seasoned option at middle linebacker in senior Solomon Randle (19 tackles), a six-game starter as a sophomore, don’t be surprised if Tech looks to add even more speed on the second level with senior Chip Hester, a former JUCO transfer. At the very least, Hester, who is more agile than Randle, could move into the lineup in coverage situations.
Game(s) to watch
Make no mistake: Tech’s season will be defined by whether or not it wins the WAC, not by how it fares in September – because those wins won’t mean much if the Bulldogs get leapfrogged by Utah State or San Jose State. The Bulldogs get that pair over the final two games of the regular season, meaning that the conference title should remain very much undecided until at least mid-November. But Tech is circling those early games, and for good reason: A&M, Houston, Virginia and Illinois give the program a huge chance at making some national noise, and that’s what this specific team is aiming for. If I had to guess, the season opener against the Aggies will be the most-attended game in school history – or it should be, at least. If you’re a Tech fan worth your salt, get in line and grab a ticket. The other three major non-conference games come on the road.
Season breakdown & prediction
In a nutshell Embrace the challenge. Yes, Louisiana Tech is going to steamroll its way through WAC play, but this team could do more: Tech could break into a B.C.S. bowl, should it find a way to beat four major opponents in September. It’s going to be hard, though you could certainly see the Bulldogs beating Texas A&M, Houston, Virginia and Illinois. The Aggies come to Louisiana in their first game under Kevin Sumlin – which is a recipe for disaster, even though A&M’s overall talent and speed will be very tough for the Bulldogs to handle. One year after nearly upending the Cougars, the Bulldogs take on a Houston team breaking in a new head coach and a new quarterback. Both the Cavaliers and Illini have the size advantage, but both have issues on offense; potentially, Tech could simply outscore both teams.
This is a dream scenario, and try as I might, I can’t see Louisiana Tech landing a 4-0 mark against these strong teams. While very good – and only getting better, mind you – Tech is no Boise State; this is a dangerous team with double-digit win potential, but the Bulldogs are going to lose at least two of those four games – remember that three come on the road. So what is Louisiana Tech heading into September? Five things: the best team in the WAC, and this without question; one of three or four non-B.C.S. conference teams with a legitimate shot at breaking into the national conversation; a potent offensive team that will continue to explode in its third year running Dykes’ system; an experienced team that won’t rattle easily; and, quite simply, a team, led by this staff, potentially entering into one of the most productive periods in program history.
The good vibes surrounding Tech are grounded in fact, not mindless optimism, but there are issues. One is a secondary that can’t rely on turnovers to get stops. Another is a new-look linebacker corps. A third is a backfield with some promise, albeit one that is another injury-plagued season from failing to give this offense the balance it needs to be successful. Finally, Cameron needs to begin this season in the same way he ended last season: slinging the ball around to his receivers, Patton most of all, and avoiding any painful turnovers.
The absolute baseline is seven wins. This would entail an 1-4 mark during conference play and an ugly loss against a WAC opponent, and I can’t see that happening. The realistic guess is at least eight wins and likely nine, with a perfect mark during conference action and a win or two against the big names in September. But keep your eye on this team: Louisiana Tech will be in a B.C.S. bowl if it knocks off A&M, Houston, Virginia and Illinois. Even if it doesn’t, this is the class of the WAC and a 10-win contender.
Dream season Perfection. Tech beats Texas A&M by a field goal, Houston by 14 points, Virginia by a touchdown and romps past Illinois in a laugher. No one in the WAC puts up a fight, helping Louisiana Tech earn an automatic B.C.S. bid.
Nightmare season The Bulldogs go 1-4 in September and lose two games in the WAC, falling to 6-6 and failing to earn a bowl bid as the league’s third-place team.
In case you were wondering
Where do Louisiana Tech fans congregate? Just go to Bulldog Barks & Bytes and stay there, as it doesn’t get any better for Louisiana Tech fans. Bleed Tech Blue has significantly less chatter, though the site does give in-depth coverage of Louisiana Tech recruiting. A third option is Talking Tech, a blog run by Patrick Walsh, the university’s Associate Media Relations Director. Patrick is also worth a follow on Twitter.
Louisiana Tech’s all-name nominee LB Kevin Kisseberth.
Through 92 teams 367,784.
Who is No. 32? Tomorrow’s program scored more points last season than it did over a four-year span that capped the career of the head coach with the most wins in school history.
Tags: Chad Boyd, Chip Hester, Colby Cameron, Conference USA, D.J. Banks, David Gru, Hunter Lee, I.K. Enemkpali, Jamel Johnson, Javontay Crowe, Jon'al White, Justin Ellis, Kendrick James, Kevin Saia, Louisiana Tech, Lyle Fitte, Myles White, Oscar Johnson, Quinn Gaines, Quinton Patton, Ray Holley, Rufus Porter, Ryan Allen, Solomon Randle, Sonny Dykes, Stephen Warner, WAC
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