(Part 1 of a 14-part Conference USA preview series)
Louisiana Tech has closed out the past three seasons with bowl victories, including last year's 48-45 Armed Forces Bowl triumph over Navy. For the streak to continue, the Bulldogs will need contributions from a host of new faces, particularly at the skill positions.
Four first-team All-Conference USA performers are missing from the offense alone, including quarterback Ryan Higgins and left tackle Darrell Brown.
Tech (9-5, 6-2) ranked second nationally behind C-USA champion Western Kentucky in scoring with 44.3 points per game. Coach Skip Holtz's Bulldogs also finished second in the nation in passing offense (363.4 yards per game), 94th in rushing (151.4 ypg), ninth in total offense (514.7 ypg) and seventh in third down conversions (50.9 percent).
For the fourth straight season, Tech has a new starting quarterback. Sophomore J'Mar Smith completed 30-of-43 passes for 412 yards, two touchdowns and one interception while appearing in seven games and starting one (Arkansas).
Senior running back Jarred Craft is the team's top returning rusher (191 carries, 1,074 yards, 9 TDs) and receiver (42 receptions, 340 yards, 4 TDs). Fellow senior Boston Scott (70-515-6) averaged 7.4 yards per carry as a backup.
Tech must replace the most prolific receiving duo in school history. Carlos Henderson (3rd round/Denver Broncos) and Trent Taylor (5th round/San Francisco 49ers) are now in NFL training camps after setting an NCAA single-season record by two players from the same school with 3,338 yards.
Sophomore Alfred Smith (16 receptions, 232 yards, 1 TD) is the top holdover. A pair of newcomers, junior Teddy Veal and redshirt freshman Adrian Hardy could provide immediate help. Veal was Tulane's (48-644-5) leading receiver in 2015, while Hardy originally signed with Oklahoma.
Junior left guard O'Shea Dugas, a 6-5, 329-pounder, returns up front along with sophomore right guard Ethan Reed and senior right tackle Joshua Outlaw.
Tech is looking for significant improvement from a defense which ranked 97th in the nation in points allowed (33.6 ppg) and 116th against the pass (274.7 ypg).
Junior end Jaylon Ferguson (49 tackles, 16 tackles for loss, school record 14.5 sacks, 4 forced fumbles), a first-team All-C-USA honoree, is the undisputed leader of the unit.
Also back on the front four are senior end Deldrick Canty (29 tackles, 5.5 TFL, 2 sacks) and junior tackle Jordan Bradford (28 tackles, 4.5 TFL, 2.5 sacks), with junior Cedrick Johnson (20 tackles, 3.5 TFL, 2 sacks) taking over at the other tackle.
Russell Farris (75 tackles, 7 TFL, 2.5 sacks) is the only holdover at linebacker, though senior DaMarion King (70 tackles, 1.5 TFL, 1 sack) and junior Brandon Durman (44 tackles, 3.5 TFL, 2 sacks) both bring significant experience. Pearl River (Miss.) Community College transfer Randy Hogan had an impressive spring.
Graduation claimed three starters in the secondary, including first-team All-C-USA safety Xavier Woods (6th round/Dallas Cowboys), who intercepted a league-leading five passes.
Senior safety Secdrick Cooper (73 tackles, 6.5 TFL, 1.5 sack) goes into the season as the lone veteran of the group. Junior Darryl Lewis (19 tackles, 1.5 TFL, 1.5 sacks) is listed as the starter at the opposite safety position, with junior Ronald Lewis (17 tackles, 1 INT) and sophomore L'Jarius Sneed (17 tackles, 1 INT) manning the corners.
Tech has one of the best placekickers in the country in senior Jonathan Barnes, who was good on 22-of-27 field goals with a long of 54, and 77-of-78 PATs.
Davan Dyer, a freshman from Australia, is the new punter.
The loss of Henderson, a first-team All-C-USA kick returner, and Taylor leaves a massive void in the return game.
2017 LA TECH SCHEDULE
DATE OPPONENT TIME
Sept. 2 Northwestern State 6 p.m.
Sept. 9 Mississippi State 6:30 p.m.
Sept. 16 at WKU* 6 p.m.
Sept. 23 at South Carolina 6 p.m.
Sept. 30 South Alabama* 6 p.m.
Oct. 7 at UAB* TBA
Oct. 21 Southern Miss* 6 p.m.
Oct. 28 at Rice* 2:30 p.m.
Nov. 4 North Texas* (HC) 2:30 p.m.
Nov. 11 Florida Atlantic* 2:30 p.m.
Nov. 18 at UTEP* 2 p.m.
Nov. 25 UTSA* TBA