Louisiana Tech had one of Conference USA’s best seasons in 2019, based on a balanced attack that featured power and a quick-strike ability. If not for a two-game slide that included player suspensions, the Bulldogs likely would have won Conference USA’s West Division.
While coach Skip Holtz still has plenty of talent in Ruston, there are some definite needs if the Bulldogs want to again reach the 10-win plateau. Most notably, Louisiana Tech has to find a quarterback after the graduation of J’Mar Smith.
Smith threw for 2,977 yards and 18 touchdowns with only five interceptions last season and spread the ball around well with four receivers having 40 catches or more. His replacement likely will be either Aaron Allen or Westin Elliott, each of whom saw action in six games last season. Allen got the starting nod when Smith got suspended prior to the Marshall game. He went 19 of 32 for 159 yards against the Thundering Herd in a 31-10 loss.
The receiving corps — which has featured plenty of talent for Holtz in recent years — returns its nucleus, led by Cee Jay Powell, Adrian Hardy and Griffin Hebert.
While the passing attack seeks a new leader, the backfield has no such issues with talented rusher Justin Henderson returning to the mix after a 2019 season in which he rushed for 1,062 yards and 15 touchdowns. Henderson’s continued success will be contingent on an offensive line that lost three starters but returns two key cogs in center Kody Russey and tackle Willie Allen.
On the defensive side, the Bulldogs face large personnel losses at each level from a defense that allowed under 22 points per game last season.
At linebacker, Ezekiel Barnett (59 tackles, four sacks) and Willie Baker (51 tackles, 10 for loss) will be key in aiding the Bulldogs through a tough learning curve. Defensive end Milton Williams leads the three-man front, but there will be plenty of pressure on him to improve already solid numbers from 2019 (59 tackles, 9 for loss, 51/2 sacks) if the Bulldogs are to see success in the pass rush. There isn’t much experience surrounding Williams, though, which means that getting pressure could be a problem.
That’s especially bad, considering the Bulldogs are now without stellar cornerback Amik Robertson, who is now in the NFL, and experienced safety L’Jarius Sneed on the back end. The pressure will be on Bee Jay Williamson to improve on his limited production from 2019 while being a veteran in the defensive backfield despite not having a wealth of experience.
Depth is an overall issue for the defense, one that could be heightened due to the lack of a spring football period in 2020. The early portion of the season doesn’t bode well for a team lacking experience, with three of the first four games on the road, including the Conference USA opener at Southern Miss in Week 2.
With so many question marks surrounding his team, if Holtz gets another 10-win season, his days in Ruston will be over because someone will call him up to take a major conference job. Should Louisiana Tech end up weathering the early storm in the schedule, the back end has some opportunities for wins that could lead to a bowl appearance and winning record.
Having a defense that must rebuild and a quarterback with little experience is not exactly a winning recipe, though, so expectations should be tempered for 2020.