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Bringing the Trophy to Ruston: Holtz, Smith, and Cooper Talk Conference USA Title for 2017

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With most sources in the world of college football picking Louisiana Tech to represent the Conference USA West at the championship this coming season, the pressure is on for the Bulldogs to bring home the trophy.

CUSA Championship - Louisiana Tech v Western Kentucky
Skip Holtz - 2016 Conference USA Championship Game
Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images

Entering his fifth year as head coach at Louisiana Tech, Skip Holtz has brought a winning tradition to Louisiana Tech with 19 wins out of 24 conference games, three consecutive bowl titles, and two Conference USA West titles. While the Bulldogs have had great success with their winning record in Conference USA, fans and players want a regular season where Tech can finish strong. In 2014, the Bulldogs lost the championship game to Marshall by only three points. The following year the Bulldogs were on track to make another championship appearance when their plans were derailed by a loss to Southern Miss. Last season, with a championship berth in hand, the Golden Eagles again stunned Tech to take the home field advantage away from the Bulldogs where they would lose a thrilling championship game 58-44 to the Hilltoppers. With three consecutive seasons of being close, the goal for the 2017 season is clear: bring the C-USA championship trophy to Ruston.

“My main goal for this season is to help this team bring the conference championship because, you know, I’ve been there the last three years and just getting so far and just not completing the mission, it just hurts so bad, I just want that so bad,” says Secdrick Cooper, starting safety for the Bulldogs. At the Conference USA Media Days on Wednesday, Cooper, along with Skip Holtz and starting quarterback J’Mar Smith highlighted what each thought needed to be done in order to declare Louisiana Tech the 2017 C-USA champions.

Offense

Louisiana Tech v Arkanss
J’Mar Smith Throws a Pass vs. Arkansas
Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

There’s no denying that Skip Holtz has had major success as a head coach during his time with the Bulldogs, but with two star receivers gone and a brand new starting quarterback, the question is, how will he keep the ball rolling?

“I think it’s about setting a standard. Obviously there’s a lot of athletes in the state of Louisiana and we’ve been very fortunate in the recruiting, but we’ve got some great players,” Holtz said.

Holtz continued to talk about his confidence in J’Mar as well as the returning talent. Jared Craft will be returning for his senior year at running back after having a 1,000+ yard season in 2016, all-conference offensive lineman O’Shea Dugas and plenty of talent in the receivers he has confidence in.

With any success in a football program, one of the keys to success is to constantly tweak one’s strategy as to not run stale and become predictable, and that success in past years at Louisiana Tech has relied heavily on the offense. Holtz specified “I think you have to be multiple when you look at offenses today, but I think the key to it all is how do you highlight your strengths and hide your weaknesses as a football coach.” With the confidence that Holtz has in his rookies as well as his returners, this should be a year where the Bulldogs won’t have many weaknesses to hide.

Louisiana Tech seems to have a lot of confidence in quarterback J’Mar Smith who comes from a naturally athletic family with a father that played for the Alabama Crimson Tide as well as in the NFL for the Saints, Patriots and Chiefs. Smith had the opportunity to start as quarterback against Arkansas in the 2016 season opener, completing 19 of 31 passes for 212 yards against an SEC defense in his very first college football game. The Bulldogs know how J’Mar Smith can perform with star receiving studs like Trent Taylor and Carlos Henderson, but with those two top-ten receivers gone, the question for J’Mar is how he plans to keep the same momentum going with the new starting receivers.

“We [the receiver corps] throw almost 3-4 days a week just trying to get the connection with the guys, see who runs different routes…we just go out there, run hard, throw the different routes and how ever long it takes, that’s how long we’ll be out there,” Smith responded. Smith says he also knows when to run the ball if necessary too. “Whenever the opportunity comes, I’ll try to do the best I can and makes plays on my feet. I always keep my eyes downfield and not take off immediately.” If J’Mar and his receivers start clicking at fall camp and throughout the season, C-USA defenses will have their hands full with a dangerous air-raid offense that has been seen in years past.

Defense

NCAA Football: C-USA Championship-Louisiana Tech at Western Kentucky
Secdrick Cooper Goes Up Against WKU RB Anthony Whales
Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports

There’s no nice way to say it: after finishing 2016 ranked 116th in the country in pass defense, Louisiana Tech’s defense was bad. With a defense that has failed to perform as well as the rest of the conference, it’s hard to imagine the Bulldogs’ defense going anywhere but up.

“From a pride standpoint, yes it bothers me, but I know we can get it better, you know, it’s going to come with time, dedication, working, and studying more film, and just being more dedicated to our craft,” Cooper said in regards to having a poor pass defense. “Defensively, we have to improve, you know, we have a couple of new faces so we have to improve on getting them experience and getting them to be better players.” With five starters returning on the defense, it looks like the better-seasoned defense will be much improved from the 2016 season. Jaylon Ferguson returns to bring some much-needed talent on defense, finishing 2016 with 14.5 sacks. Ferguson has not only been named 2017 All-Conference Preseason, but has been placed on the Chuck Bednarik Award and Bronko Nagurski Trophy watchlists.

“We’ve got to improve on pass defense,” Holtz said in regards to improving the defensive game. “I think having guys like Secdrick Cooper come back is definitely going to help, but then there’s going to be some new faces on that defense, there’s going to be some new faces at linebacker and some new faces at the corner positions, so I’m excited to see what this football team can do, especially on the defensive side of the ball, because we certainly have some areas to improve.”

Special Teams

Jonathan Barnes will be returning as the kicker for the Bulldogs, making 22 of 26 field goal attempts in 2016 as well as the game-winning kick to bring Louisiana Tech to a 48-45 win over #25 Navy at the Armed Forces Bowl. Tech will be breaking in a new punter as well as a new deep snapper, leaving some potential for some good punting numbers for the 2017 season.

Louisiana Tech will open their season against Northwestern State on September 2nd.