After a less than stellar start to his career, 2016 has given Ryan Higgins something few people get: a second chance. He has taken full advantage of it.
Ryan Higgins was recruited to Louisiana Tech by former head coach Sonny Dykes. He red shirted in 2012 as the Bulldogs had one of their best seasons ever. The 2012 Dawgs, who were the reigning WAC champions at the time, knocked off two power 5 teams (Illinois and Virginia) and were a 2-pt conversion away from completing a monstrous comeback and forcing overtime against Texas A&M. They found themselves spending a combined five weeks in the AP Top 25 (peaking for 2 weeks at #19) after previously having been ranked only 1 week in school history (#25 in 1999).
Things changed as Ryan Higgins took off the red shirt. Sonny Dykes left to take the head job at California. Recently fired USF head coach Skip Holtz was coming to Ruston. With the era of WAC football over, La Tech became part of the wave of conference realignment as they joined C-USA following the departures of Houston, SMU, Memphis, and UCF. Plenty of star players left, such as QB Colby Cameron and WR Quinton Patton. A rebuilding year was in the works, and Ryan Higgins was about to find himself smack in the middle of it.
The red shirt freshman took over for Texas Tech transfer Scotty Young in the second half of the Tulane game (week 3) and played most of the season, although Young played some later in the season. The inconsistency at quarterback was part of Tech’s 4-8 2013 season. Ryan Higgins threw 166/281 (59.1%) for 6 touchdowns and 13 interceptions. After 8-win and 9-win seasons, there was plenty of frustration to go around.
In 2014, graduate transfer Cody Sokol came in from Iowa and Higgins found himself relegated to backup status as Sokol (260/448, 30 touchdowns, 13 interceptions) led the Bulldogs to a 9-5 season with a West Division title (they fell by 3 to Marshall in the C-USA Championship Game) and the team’s first bowl victory since 2008. The 35-18 win against Illinois in the Heart of Dallas Bowl marked the program’s first ever bowl win over a power 5 team.
In 2015, it was a similar story as Jeff Driskel came in from Florida and led the Bulldogs to a 9-4 season and took the Dawgs to a bowl game for the second straight year for only the second time in history. Their win over Arkansas State in the New Orleans Bowl marked the first time La Tech had won bowl games in back-to-back years.
Over that two year span, Higgins saw limited action as a back-up. He threw 6/10 in 2014, as well as 15/25 in 2015 with 1 touchdown and 3 interceptions.
As 2016 rolled around, all signs pointed to Ryan Higgins returning to the starting role. Skip Holtz had graduated quarterbacks contact him about transferring in the same manner that Sokol and Driskel had, but this time, Holtz turned them away. He must have had faith in Higgins, which made him about the only person who did.
Right before the season started, Ryan Higgins’ story hit a new low as he was arrested for a DUI. As a result, red shirt freshman J’Mar Smith started in the season opener against Arkansas. The Bulldogs came close, but fell just short of a signature upset as Smith threw 19/31 for 212 yards with 1 interception and 1 rushing touchdown.
All the critics of Ryan Higgins (myself chief among them) had their answer to save what looked to be another 2013-ish rebuilding season. Skip Holtz had said that although Higgins would not start against Arkansas that he could come in at some point. The fact that he never entered led me to think that J’Mar Smith would take the starting job from the interception machine we thought Higgins to be.
Ryan Higgins was named week 2 starter and Bulldog fans were incredulous. How could Skip Holtz say “Ryan gives us the best chance to win games” when his career record was 7 TDs to 16 interceptions?
But that’s what happened. Ryan Higgins started the home opener against South Carolina State. The game was delayed 4 hours due to lightning, so the game didn’t even kick until 10 pm. The first half was basically what we all expected. Higgins threw for two touchdowns, but there was a fumbled exchange with a running back and he threw two interceptions. One was a tip drill, so that’s easy to overlook. But the other was in the end zone right before halftime. There was no reason to throw that pass when he was already on the sideline; he could have run forward and gotten out of bounds after a gain and stopped the clock.
At this point, the loyal students that had waited out the uncertainty of the delay had had enough and I’ll never forget that moment. We (I’m ashamed to say I participated) began chanting “We want J’Mar!” I’ll never forget seeing Xavier Woods wave his hands in our direction, apparently telling us to stop as he took the field so SCST could take a knee to end the half. Tech was leading, but only 19-10 against an FCS school that had been shut out by UCF the week before. That was probably the lowest moment of the season thus far.
At the start of every drive, we looked to see what quarterback took the field. As the second half began, #14 was still the one coming out. As the game progressed and the victory was in hand, J’Mar Smith finally came in for a drive or two, and later Price Wilson stepped in.
As the game started to wind down, someone showed me Ryan Higgins’ stats: 409 yards, 4 touchdowns. I later realized that despite four first half turnovers, we had none in the second. Then came the Texas Tech game. 20/32 for 311 yards and 3 touchdowns. No interceptions. Middle Tennessee? 36/59, 504 yards, 3 touchdowns. No interceptions. Was this even the same player? I couldn’t believe it, but I was starting to see the light.
Home game number two against UTEP. A casual fan or two still thought Smith should be playing. But a benefit to having this opportunity to write about La Tech was that I had seen the numbers. I never would have thought it before the season, but I found myself defending him. At one point I looked right at a critical friend and pointed to Higgins as he ran the ball himself into the end zone.
Since that lackluster first half against South Carolina State, Higgins has only thrown one interception in the 6.5 games since, and that was a 50/50 deep ball. Through the FIU game, Higgins has thrown 190/270 (68.1%) for 2622 yards, 24 touchdowns and three interceptions. He is 3rd in the nation for passing yards, 5th for touchdowns and 5th in QBR with a 173.3. To cap it all off, he became a mid-season addition to the Manning Award watch list.
So what happened? What changed? There could be many reasons that Higgins suddenly improved. I think you have to give some credit to Tim Rattay. Rattay played quarterback for Louisiana Tech in the late 90’s, where he set numerous records and finished in the top 10 of the voting for the 1998 Heisman. In 2013, Skip Holtz brought him on as the wide receivers coach. Prior to this season, Holtz moved him to the quarterbacks coach. Maybe Rattay’s coaching is the reason.
Maybe it was the DUI. Perhaps he was humbled by that and realized he needed to work harder. The answer could be any combination of things. But one thing is for sure: this is not freshman Ryan, or even sophomore or junior Ryan. This is senior Ryan, and he’s silenced his critics (including me) and proven himself as one of the best quarterbacks in C-USA, if not the nation.
Bravo to Skip Holtz. It would have been easy to succumb to the pleads of so many and put J’Mar Smith as the starter, but he knew what he had in Higgins. He knew that fans hadn’t yet seen what he was capable of. He made the tough decision, and boy has it paid off. J’Mar Smith did well, and Bulldog fans should rest easy knowing that after Higgins leaves, there will be a quality quarterback to lead Tech for several years. But 2016 is Higgins’ year.
And one more thing. Bravo to Ryan for sticking it out. These days, so many players transfer as soon as they realize they aren’t starting. No disrespect to them; you have to make tough choices and do what you think is best for you and your future. It would have been so easy for Ryan to do so. After all, he was recruited by Dykes, but Dykes left before he had a chance to play. Another coach comes in and plays him some, but allows transfers to take the job from him. This was a classic set up for a transfer. But Higgins didn’t do that. He patiently sat behind the transfers and waited his turn. Before I saw him play this year, I had wished he would leave. Now, I can’t imagine having anyone else as our starting quarterback. Ryan Higgins has finally achieved his potential, and Tech’s remaining opponents better look out.