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TGS 2012 COLLEGE FOOTBALL PREVIEW...LOUISIANA TECH BULLDOGS
by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor


Last March, at the Western Athletic Conference Basketball Tournament in Las Vegas, we became engaged in conversation with Louisiana Tech AD Bruce Van De Velde about the future of Bulldog athletics. More specifically, which escape route Tech was planning to take from the quickly-crumbling WAC.

When asking Van De Velde if a move was pending and if the Sun Belt could be in the Bulldogs’ future, the AD had a quick response. “Yes, and probably no,” said Van De Velde. “We're absolutely considering a move, but probably not to the Sun Belt. If we make a switch, it would more likely be into Conference USA.”

Within two months, Van De Velde proved prophetic, as La Tech indeed enlisted in the spring with Conference USA, with full membership beginning in the 2013-14 school year.

And the Bulldogs bring some interesting football history with them into CUSA next season. Tech has produced three NFL Hall-of-Famers, the most famous being QB Terry Bradshaw (right), who before winning all of those Super Bowl rings was the first choice in the 1970 NFL Draft by the Steelers. Along with Bradshaw, DE Fred Dean and OT Willie Roaf are other Bulldogs immortalized in Canton.

Tech’s gridiron pedigree includes some decorated teams, including lower-level powerhouses under legendary coach Joe Aillet (after whom the school’s stadium is named) and later under Maxie Lambright, whose best sides included those with Bradshaw in the late ’60s and old College Division national championship sides in 1972 & ‘73. Tech moved for keeps into the top level of compettiion, in what was then refeered to as the Division I-A ranks, in 1988.

Over the past thirty years, the Bulldogs have mostly held their own as members of the Southland, Big West, and WAC, with Tech also experiencing a pair of stints as an independent entry, sandwiched in between those conference affiliations.

Although the Bulldog program had remained about as loyal to the WAC as it could be, Tech has always had other options. While the Belt would have always welcomed the Bulldogs, it was never Tech’s first choice. And with CUSA reorganizing itself, the Bulldogs suddenly had a chance to make their first choice work.

Van De Velde certainly knows of the economic benefits to a more-favorable regional alliance. Although CUSA covers a wide geographic swath from the mid-South to the mid-Atlantic, it is still more preferable for Tech than was the WAC, a far-flung alliance of schools almost wholly in the Mountain and Pacific (and, until this year, Hawaiian) time zones. Travel costs figure to drop significantly with easy road trips to places such as Tulsa, Hattiesburg (Southern Miss), New Orleans (Tulane), Birmingham (UAB), and others within reasonable driving distance. In turn, those schools are likely to provide some road support when their teams trek to Ruston. As it stands now, not many backers of WAC entries such as San Jose State or Idaho will travel to watch their favorite team at the Bulldogs’ Joe Aillet Stadium.

We dare you to check out the flight connections and find an easy way to get from Moscow, Idaho to Ruston!

Moreover, the move to CUSA will prove a nice revenue bump for Van De Velde’s program that was receiving less than $2 million per year in conference TV payouts from the WAC. Immediately, that number will almost double in CUSA, with promises of even greater riches on the horizon as a new league-wide TV deal (perhaps in conjunction with the Mountain West) is currently being negotiated that should annually add several million more dollars to Tech’s coffers.

Finally, let’s not forget to mention the positives associated with recruiting, as targeted preps are no longer having to deal with rumors of the Bulldogs’ awkward travel arrangements within the WAC and the conference’s eventual demise. Convincing a regional recruit on trips to the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex (home base of another new CUSA addition, Denton-based North Texas), Houston, and New Orleans is a bit easier than extolling the virtues of travel to Moscow, Fresno, or Logan, Utah, which even Tony Robbins would probably find a difficult sale to make.

That recruiting benefit figures to be much-appreciated by third-year football HC Sonny Dykes (left), the 2011 WAC Coach of the Year and under whom the Bulldog program appeared to turn the corner last season. After losing four of its first five, La Tech caught fire in the second half of the campaign, winning its last seven games to waltz away with the WAC title and an invitation to San Diego’s Poinsettia Bowl, where the Bulldogs played heavily-favored TCU on mostly-equal terms before the Frogs squeezed out an exciting 31-24 win.

In retrospect, there was evidence of a turnaround in the early non-conference slate a year ago when Tech played bowl-bound Southern Miss, Houston, and Mississippi State all down to the wire, losing those three games by a mere nine points combined. Against UH, the Bulldogs let the Cougars off the hook after building a 27-point lead; against MSU, Tech took the game into overtime at Starkville before succumbing.

Dykes, son of the former and very popular Texas Tech mentor Spike Dykes, has also become quite a hot commodity in the coaching ranks. Sonny, a devotee of high-powered aerial assaults dating to his days on Mike Leach’s staff at Texas Tech, is regarded as a definite up-and-comer in the college head coaching ranks, and some were surprised that Dykes stuck around Ruston after last season’s breakthrough. Many regional insiders thought that Dykes was a sure-bet to take the Houston job after Kevin Sumlin moved to Texas A&M after Sonny was also being regarded as an early favorite for the opening at Kansas.

But just before the Poinsettia Bowl date vs. TCU, Van De Velde and school prexy Dr. Daniel Reneau convinced Dykes to sign an extension at Ruston through the 2017 season. “I am excited about the future of our program,” said Dykes, although many in the region would be surprised if Sonny sees out the duration of his amended deal. Likely to be in high demand if the Bulldogs keep winning, expect several higher-profile suitors to be knocking on Dykes’ door in the near future. With a couple of nearby SEC jobs (read Tennessee and Kentucky) perhaps looking to make changes soon, many regional observers at least expect Dykes to be in a position to again say “no” as he did to Houston last December. Stay tuned for further developments.

Moreover, Dykes’ entire staff stayed in place during the offseason, a rarity in WAC coaching circles.

In the meantime, Dykes remains at Tech, and prospects for a successful defense of the WAC crown look good, especially with annual contenders Nevada, Fresno State, and Hawaii having already bailed out of the league to the Mountain West before the 2012 campaign commences.

Although the Dykes offense is high-tech, it was a surprisingly robust Bulldog “D” that was just as responsible for last fall’s uprising. The challenge for veteran d.c. Tommy Spangler (a holdover from Derek Dooley’s Tech staff) will be to replace more than half of that stop unit’s starting lineup that ranked in top half of most NCAA defensive stats (again, a rarity for a WAC entry) and was also opportunistic, forcing 31 opponent giveaways and contributing to a valuable +11 TO margin (and 13th-rank in the country in that overlooked but oh-so-important category).

To further illustrate the challenge at hand, Spangler must replace 372 tackles, including 44 for loss and 18 sacks, plus six picks from the 2011 platoon.

Maintaining the solid rush defense of last season (ranked 29th nationally at 129 ypg) might be a chore minus last year’s dynamic yet graduated LB tandem of Adrien Cole (spending this summer in the NFL Bears’ camp) and Jay Dudley, who combined for a whopping 230 tackles a year ago. But a pair of established run-stuffing returning starters, jr. DTs Volkswagen-sized, 6'2, 340-lb. Justin Ellis and Shakeil Lucas, plus 6'1, 300-lb. Jon’al White, present quite an obstacle in the defensive middle.

According to Dykes, a 295-lb. true frosh, DE Vernon Butler, who received interest from several SEC schools, might be the hidden gem of the recent recruiting class and could bypass a redshirt year by forcing his way into the lineup.

Meanwhile, the replacements for LBs Cole and Dudley, jr. Rufus Porter and sr. Solomon Randle, bring loads of athleticism, but less experience, to the mix.

The likely strength of Spangler’s 4-2-5 alignment appears to be in the secondary, especially at the safety spots with the heavy-hitting senior pair of Chaz Boyd (left, in the 41-21 win at Fresno State last November; Boyd missed spring work due to shoulder problems, but should be 100% when camp reconvenes in August) and Jamel Johnson returning from last year’s lineup. There are concerns on the corners, however, after Tech was lit up for 249 ypg via the aerial route in 2011, ranking a lowly 91st in pass defense. A nearby product, quicksilver RS frosh Brice Abraham (via Jennings, LA), is likely to man one of the CB spots opposite sr. Dave Clark, but it is an undersized pair, each weighing in at 190 lbs. or less (Abraham only 175), which might cause some problems in run support.

Added depth could also be provided by true frosh Lloyd Grogan, a prep LB but a ball-hawk who might be better suited to safety duty at the college level. Sources also say to keep an eye on another true frosh, CB Kentrell Brice, who could threaten to break into the defensive lineup and is also likely to be a weapon on special teams after blocking an astounding eight field goals (!) as a high school senior. How did Virginia Tech HC Frank Beamer let this kid slip through the cracks?

A bit more, however, will be expected from the Dykes offense, which returns seven starters from last fall’s efficient strike force that scored slightly better than 30 ppg. The attack was short on fireworks despite its pass-happy scheme, although regional sources are expecting added flash-and-dash this autumn. Dykes’ offensive coordinator, Tony Franklin, is another respected spread devotee with experience at varied ports of call, including Kentucky (working under Hal Mumme), Troy, Auburn and Middle Tennessee.

Again pulling the trigger in the Dykes/Franklin Air Raid will be sr. Colby Cameron (right), who lost his starting role to then-frosh Nick Isham during the first month of the 2011 campaign before reclaiming his position with the first string and fueling the Bulldogs’ late-season charge.

Isham, by the way, was so discouraged at losing the job to Cameron that he decided to transfer in the offseason, eventually landing at Arizona. The new backup, soph Zach Griffith, merely completed 38 of 44 passes in the spring game, easing concerns should Cameron go down.

Indeed, the lights finally came on at midseason for Cameron, who at last seemed to be able to grasp the nuances of the Dykes spread. Cameron was also efficient, tossing only 3 picks compared to 13 TD passes while accumulating nearly 240 passing yards per game.

Those numbers figure to improve this fall with four returning starters on the OL, a functional infantry diversion, and what is likely the WAC’s top pass receiving corps.

Four starters are back along the offensive front, including a pair of mammoth 6'6, 300-+ lb. bookend senior tackles, Oscar Johnson (who tips the scales at 350!) and Jordan Mills (“only” 315 lbs.) who not only admirably protect the edges of the pocket but also do a good job of keeping out the sunlight. Last year’s leading rusher Lennon Creer has graduated, but soph RB Hunter Lee, a Dallas-Fort Worth area product (Flower Mound) started four games and gained 650 YR a year ago as a frosh walk-on.

What gives hope for the sort of wide-open Air Raid that many envisioned Dykes importing to Tech comes in the form of a squadron of fleet wideouts paced by senior Quinton Patton (left, nabbing a TD pass at Fresno State last November), who caught 79 passes worth over 1200 yards and 11 TDs a year ago. Fellow WRs such as Myles White, Jacari Jackson, and Andrew Guillot could all be members of the track relay team and present plenty of downfield passing possibilities for Cameron.

A newcomer at WR to watch is another speedburner, juco addition Jon Greenwalt, who exploded in the spring game for 161 yards worth of catches.

Finally, Dykes has another secret weapon in sr. P Ryan Allen, last year’s Ray Guy Award winner with a hard-to-believe 46.1 yards per punt. Allen isn’t just booming his punts through the end zone, either; a nation’s best 39 of his kicks landed inside of the 20-yard-line, with a staggering 22 of those falling within the opponents’ 10-yard-line.

Still, improving upon last year’s eight wins might not be easy with another tough non-conference slate. Although Texas A&M visits Ruston on August 30, trips to a trio of last year's bowl qualifiers (Houston, Illinois, and Virginia) are on deck before September completes.

It also figures to be hard to improve upon last year’s stellar 11-2 pointspread mark, which was the nation’s best. The Bulldogs covered their last eight, and ten of their last eleven games, as well as all eight of their contests away from Joe Aillet Stadium as Dykes emerged as the favorite coach of many Las Vegas sports book patrons in 2011!

Summary...Coach Sonny Dykes seems to know what he’s doing and has La Tech on an unmistakable upward trajectory, and the pieces are in place for another winning season in Ruston. The Bulldogs might even provide better viewing if the “O” opens up further this fall (as the fireworks of the spring game suggested) with sr. QB Colby Cameron now fully established as “the man” to pilot the spread. Meanwhile, WAC sources believe the defense, surprisingly good last season, shouldn’t regress much (if any) despite the losses of some key components. Tough non-conference assignments aside, dates vs. what’s left of the WAC appear very manageable. So much so, if fact, that it would be a surprise if the Bulldogs don’t successfully defend their conference crown and head to another bowl (likely Boise's Famous Idaho Potato Bowl, the only contractually-guaranteed WAC postseason assignment in 2012), before making the move to CUSA next year. Now, how long can we expect Dykes to remain in Ruston?


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