The Louisiana Tech Bulldogs enter their second year in Conference USA, and will look to rebound from a tough go at things in their first year that saw them finish with a 4-8 mark.
While this contest will be the league opener for UTEP, La Tech will have already traveled to North Texas, and will have faced both Oklahoma and Auburn on the road by the time the Miners arrive.
It will be interesting to see what this team looks like in 2014. Not just because of personnel, but it will be their second year under Skip Holtz, who did a complete 180 with the team following the (short) Sonny Dykes era.
Starting under center, the Bulldogs return sophomore Ryan Higgins, who split time in 2013, but also have transfer Cody Sokol (Iowa) who looked to take over the starting job following a solid spring
Higgins completed 59% of his passes in 2013 for 1,715 yards, but did have some issues protecting the football as he had 13 interceptions to just 6 touchdowns. Sokol didn't see any action with the Hawkeyes, but was first team all conference and all region, and second team all american as a juco sohomore.
One big issue for those quarterbacks though, will be the lack of proven weapons returning on the outside. The Bulldogs lost 4 of their top 6 wideouts from a year ago, and while they do return their leading receiver Sterling Griffin (33 catches, 357 yards), not much is known after that.
A handful of newcomers though, including LSU transfer Paul Turner and juco transfer Sanford Seay could provide an immediate boost to that unit.
Perhaps the biggest strength on the offense is in the backfield. The Bulldogs return their top 5 rushers from a year, including junior Kenneth Dixon who rushed for 917 yards on 151 carries (6.1 ypc). Tevin King, who held a 5.8 ypc average a year ago, is also back, but was banged up in spring ball. If he can get healthy, he'll be one to look out for as well.
Up front, the Bulldogs are greatly unproven. Only two starters, senior left guard Tre Carter and senior right tackle Mitchell Bell, return from a year ago, and while a third senior with experience returns, no other lineman enters the 2014 season with a single start under their belt.
In fact, no lineman comes in with even 10 total starts in their career. Carter leads the way with 9 career starts, Bell has 8, and right tackle Jens Danielson has 7.
Its much the same story in the trenches on the other side of the ball, as the defensive line loses four of their top five from 2013. Unlike the O-line though, this unit does have some experience coming back with 4 seniors and 3 juniors in line to get time.
In the middle, the Bulldogs return all but one backer from the 2013 roster. That one did happen to be their leading tackler, but with much of the defensive production spread out across all three units, it shouldn't be too hard to find replacements.
Look for the some of that slack to be picked up by guys like senior Mitch Villemez and junior Beau Fitte. And, with plenty of depth behind them, this unit should no issue transitioning from a 4-2-5 to a base 4-3 in new coordinator Manny Diaz' first year.
The secondary looks to be another area of strength for the defense as the entire group remains intact. In fact, seven players with more than 10 games' experience return in 2014, and with one less spot in the secondary in the new scheme, that makes for a deep group.
Considering the La Tech pass defense was ranked 31st in the nation in 2013, this should certainly be the strength of the entire unit heading into 2014. And, with Diaz calling the shots, expect this unit to have a far reaching impact, even into the offensive backfield.
The special teams for the Bulldogs will also remain in tact, with both punter Logan McPherson and kicker Kyle Fischer back on the squad in 2014. La Tech will have to find some new weapons in the return game, but shouldn't be hard to match or better the numbers of a year ago.
All in all, this could be a true rebound year for La Tech. Offensively, some questions remain throughout, but if Sokol pans out as many hope, this team should see great improvement from that of a year ago.
Defensively, Manny Diaz has been around the block, and then around again. He's coached at Florida State, North Carolina State, Mississippi State, and even was the DC at Texas for a year. Albeit, for one long (short) year.
The defense could carry this team far in a league like C-USA, but staying healthy, especially early on will be a huge question for this team. Early matchups at Oklahoma and Auburn could be a death sentence, but if they can stay healthy through that, C-USA will have its hands full, and so will UTEP come October 4th.
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