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Five Storylines: Spring Practice 2019

Louisiana Tech finished the 2018 season at 8-5 overall. Skip Holtz’s squad finished the season with a 31-14 victory over Hawaii in the Hawaii Bowl. The attention has now shifted towards the 2019 season, and the Bulldogs will open spring practice Friday afternoon. Let’s take a look at a key storyline that we’ll be watching throughout the next month leading up to the April 13th spring game.

How open is the competition at quarterback?

For every 300+ yard and two touchdown performance that J’Mar Smith has had over his 27 career starts, it feels as if though Smith has had two or three rough performances that have followed.

The rough performances are what lead to Skip Holtz saying prior to La Tech’s 31-14 win over Hawaii in the Hawaii Bowl, “When you watch him do it out here on the practice field, I have confidence in J’Mar. It’s not so much doing it in practice, it’s the consistency on gameday.” Smith responded well to Holtz’s challenge by piling up 306 total yards and two touchdowns.

However, this spring will be different. No longer is Tim Rattay in charge of the Bulldog quarterbacks as he has moved on to the Washington Redskins. Offensive coordinator Todd Fitch will now coach the quarterbacks. The competition is certain to be more wide open than it has been the previous two seasons. Westin Elliot, Aaron Allen, and early enrollee, Jakson Thomson, will be Smith’s competition.

How open will that competition be? That remains to be seen, and perhaps it’s up to Smith.

Areas that Smith will be looking to improve on are throws that were made 20+ yards down the field where he completed only 32% of throws and throws outside the numbers to the right side where he completed only 48% of his throws. To go more in depth, Smith was pressured the fourth most times of any quarterback in the country. When pressured, Smith completed only 41% of his throws. When kept clean, Smith completed 63% of his throws for 2,061 yards along with nine touchdowns and only three interceptions. This proves that Smith can be good when things go as planned, but the senior must get better when plays break down.

How Smith handles the pressure of Elliott, Allen, and Thomson this spring will go a long way in determining whether or not he can be unseated as the Tech starting quarterback this fall.

Will the offensive line play improve?

It’s no secret that Louisiana Tech had its share of struggles along the offensive line in 2018.

The unit allowed 33 sacks (89th nationally) and only paved the way for 130 yards per game (111th nationally) on the ground. Outside of Jaqwis Dancy (5.4 YPC), Bulldog ball carriers only averaged 3.4 yards per carry. The pass blocking left a lot to be desired as well as the Bulldogs ranked 121st nationally in pass blocking efficiency.

Robert McFarland’s unit will be looking for improvement this spring.

O’Shea Dugas and Michael Rodriguez have departed the program due to graduation, leaving holes at both tackle spots. Drew Kirkpatrick, Kody Russey, and Ethan Reed all return along the interior of the offensive line to give the unit a solid core. DeVante Lovett, Gewhite Stallworth, and Willie Allen will get the first cracks at earning the tackle jobs this spring.

Other options along the offensive line this spring include Joshua Mote, Taylor Fondal, Carter Habich, Christian Henderson, Biron Rossell, Noah Pitre, and Abraham Deflin.

Better offensive line play will go a long way in the Tech offense improving its production.

What will Bob Diaco’s defense look like?

The success that Bob Diaco has had throughout his career as a defensive coordinator is impressive. In fact, Diaco was named the top assistant coach in college football in 2012 when he won the Broyles Award.

Diaco will be implementing a new 3-4 scheme which is not a look Bulldog fans are familiar with.

When Diaco’s system is clicking on all cylinders, it is very good. It is a scheme that I would not classify as “bend-but-don’t-break” as many have described it to be. I think the more appropriate term to use would be “extremely disciplined”. Diaco describes his defensive scheme as a “no crease” scheme, one that limits big plays. While the Tech defense was solid overall in 2018, Skip Holtz expressed concern about the number of big plays allowed and ranking 121st nationally in red zone defense. Diaco will be tasked with getting these issues fixed.

While the 3-4 look will be the base defense, there will still be plenty of four-man fronts.

Diaco is known as one of the great teachers in college football who always has his guys in the right spot to make plays.

When asked if he enjoyed playing for the fiery defensive coordinator, one of Diaco’s former players told, “Hell yeah, he’ll get the most out of his players and brings more juice than any coach I’ve ever seen.”

While most of spring will be spent teaching and installing the scheme, Diaco has no shortage of talent on the defensive side with the likes of L’Jarius Sneed, Darryl Lewis, Amik Robertson, Collin Scott, Connor Taylor, and Willie Baker all returning in 2019.

Who will emerge along the defensive line?

No longer will the Louisiana Tech defense be able to rely on Jaylon Ferguson to make a play late in a game to give the Bulldogs a win. In fact, in addition to Ferguson moving on, Rick Petri’s defensive line will also lose Jordan Bradford, Immanuel Turner, Keonatye Garner, Matthew Ydarraga, and La’Dante Davenport.

The production lost in total is 185 tackles, 43 tackles for loss, and 23.5 sacks. It will certainly be a tall task to replace those six, especially Ferguson.

The obvious name to watch is Willie Baker. The rising junior collected four sacks in Tech’s Hawaii Bowl victory and looks poised to breakout in 2019.

Outside of Baker, there will be plenty of unfamiliar faces competing for playing time.

Milton Williams, Courtney Wallace, Ka’Derrion Mason, Tristan Allen, and Eric Kendzior all have at least played in a reserve role in recent years. Steven Shaw and D.J. Jackson were signed in the 2018 recruiting class and will be looking to shine in their first spring on campus.

The reps for the inexperienced players along the defensive line will be invaluable.

Rick Petri has a long history of developing quality defensive linemen having coached Warren Sapp, John Abraham, Kenard Lange, Kenny Holmes, and Vernon Butler. All five of those guys were first round NFL draft picks, and Jaylon Ferguson will be looking to add his name to that list in 2019. With that said, Petri will have to do one of the better jobs of his coaching career after losing so much talent.

What will be done to take the ‘next step’ on the field?

Louisiana Tech is 15-11 over the previous two seasons combined. There have been nice wins against the likes of SMU, North Texas, FAU, and Hawaii, but there have also been bad losses against the likes of Southern Miss, UAB, and Western Kentucky.

Playing up and down to competition has been a constant for the program in both 2017 and 2018.

This offseason Skip Holtz has brought in four new coaches to try to inject some enthusiasm into the program. Bob Diaco, Brock Hays, Dennis Smith, and Kenny Guiton will bring a tremendous amount of passion and energy to the program.

How will the players respond? Who will emerge as leaders for 2019? These are all things we will keep an eye on throughout the next month as the Bulldogs go through spring practice.

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