UMass opponent preview: Louisiana Tech trying to plug holes left by graduation

  • Louisiana Tech head coach Skip Holtz, surrounded by his team players, holds the Hawaii Bowl championship trophy after a Hawaii Bowl NCAA college football game against Hawaii, Saturday, Dec. 22, 2018, in Honolulu. Louisiana Tech beat Hawaii 31-14. (AP Photo/Eugene Tanner) Eugene Tanner—AP

  • Louisiana Tech head coach Skip Holtz, left, talks to quarterback J'Mar Smith (8) during a timeout in the first half of the Hawaii Bowl NCAA college football game against Hawaii, Saturday, Dec. 22, 2018, in Honolulu. (AP Photo/Eugene Tanner) Eugene Tanner—AP

Staff Writer
Published: 7/22/2019 7:53:45 PM

The first step in solving any problem is identifying the actual issue.

In that respect, Skip Holtz is well on his way to trying to find the solutions to the problems facing his Louisiana Tech team. He headed into spring practice this year knowing that there were more holes on both sides of the ball than he’d prefer.

It’s the struggle of any college football coach when they watch another class of seniors graduate and head off into the real world: who is going to replace those players on the field?

Holtz should have all the solutions in place by the time UMass visits Ruston, Louisiana, on Oct. 12, but in the meantime, the seventh-year coach is still left with trying to figure out what the 2019 version of the Bulldogs, who won the Hawaii Bowl last season, will look like.

OFFENSE: One of the few places Holtz doesn’t have to worry is at quarterback with two-year starter J’Mar Smith returning for his final year of eligibility.

However, in some ways, Smith regressed last year in his second season at the helm. Although he threw for 200 more yards on 52 more attempts in 2018, he tossed one fewer touchdown and twice as many interceptions than the year before. He also didn’t really improve on his accuracy, moving from 56 percent in 2017 to 57 percent last year.

Although it is clearly Smith’s job entering the season, Holtz said he hopes new quarterbacks coach Todd Fitch will allow Smith to become the steady quarterback the Bulldogs need.

“J’Mar’s grown up on stage, he hasn’t had the opportunity to grow up behind the curtain,” Holtz said. “He’s played for two years, he’s got a lot of game experience, he definitely feels very comfortable out there, the moment isn’t too big for him. But J’Mar has some things he’s got to improve on. He’s got to become more consistent with what’s he’s doing as a quarterback, and hopefully with Coach Fitch, we can get a little more consistency out of J’Mar in his game.”

The Bulldogs return their top two running backs from last season in Jaqwis Dancy and Israel Tucker. The duo combined for 1,044 yards rushing and 12 touchdowns on 219 carries.

Smith will also have the luxury of returning starters at the outside receiver positions. including leading target Adrian Hardy, who caught 75 passes for 1,145 yards and six scores a year ago. However, Louisiana Tech must replace its inside receivers, a group Holtz said he’ll be watching intently during training camp to fill out that depth chart.

Louisiana Tech will also need to find some solutions at offensive tackle with three seniors leaving that group that earned a majority of the snaps over the past few seasons. The Bulldogs return the three interior starters, but are relying on a group of veterans who have bided their time to control that position group.

DEFENSE: Holtz hired Bob Diaco to run his defense this year, and the former Connecticut coach has a pretty clean slate with which to work.

The Bulldogs lose most of their production from the defensive line as well as a key contributor in the secondary. Holtz said the spring was a good chance for Diaco and his defensive staff to survey the talent on the roster and devise the correct scheme to maximize their talents.

“There’s a going to be a different perspective with the guy that’s calling the defense,” Holtz said. “When you look at defenses today ... it’s more predicated on the personnel that we have coming back. One of the things (we did) this spring (was) just trying to get a view for Coach Diaco and the defensive coaches, what do we have coming back and what can we do. It’s not as much make the players fit our system, it’s making our system fit the players.”

The good news for the Bulldogs is that their secondary returns most of its best players from a year ago. Cornerback Amik Robertson stood out with four interceptions and 12 passes defended, both marks led the team. Opposite Robertson, L’Jarius Sneed had three picks and broke up eight passes to create a strong duo on the outside.

Louisiana Tech also returns its top two tacklers from last season in linebacker Collin Scott (87 tackles) and safety James Jackson (74).

However, the Bulldogs need to find solutions on the defensive line to allow the experienced defenders behind them to make an impact. Only two of the returning defensive linemen from last season’s depth chart played in all 13 games. That includes Ka’Derrion Mason, who started two games last season at defensive tackle and only made 16 total tackles.

The most promising prospect is defensive end Willie Baker, who finished second on the team last season with seven sacks and 11½ tackles for loss among his 33 stops. He’ll be asked to play a much larger role than he did last year, and Holtz said he’s optimistic Baker will be able to fill that role well as a junior.

“Willie Baker is very talented as he showed when he had the opportunity to play (last year),” Holtz said. “Now, how’s he going to play as a starter when he has to play every down? We know he was productive playing 20-30 plays a game when he was coming off the bench as that sixth man on the defensive side. I think Willie is making those transitions, he’s gaining knowledge, getting better and working on it every day with what we’re trying to do.”

Josh Walfish can be reached at jwalfish@gazettenet.com. Follow him on Twitter @JoshWalfishDHG. Get UMass coverage delivered in your Facebook news feed at www.facebook.com/GazetteUMassCoverage.



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