But with major changes coming to the defense this year, what does 2019 look like for Skip Holtz? Can the Bulldogs get back to the top of the division? Will they have to settle for yet another bowl game? Could it be worse?
La Tech’s 2019 season preview will come in two parts. Part I will look at the roster. Part II will examine the schedule.
Stay tuned for Part II. For now, here’s a breakdown of the offense, defense and special teams.
For the third consecutive season, J’Mar Smith is the expected starter at quarterback. After having a different starting quarterback for each of Holtz’s first five seasons, the Bulldogs have finally had a returning starter for the past two.
However, that starter has left something to be desired. Smith finished seventh in C-USA in passing touchdowns and ninth in quarterback rating in 2018. Despite the optimism of many fans going into his first season as starter in 2017, the fan base has largely grown tired of what it has seen from their passer the past two seasons.
As Smith prepares for his senior season, he’ll be doing it without former quarterbacks coach Tim Rattay for the first time. Offensive coordinator Todd Fitch will coach that position group himself in 2019. Whether that will help or hurt Smith’s play is yet to be seen.
As for the rest of the offense, Tech has a decent slate of other returning starters. Three starting linemen return in Kody Russey, Ethan Reed and Drew Kirkpatrick. Two parts of Tech’s three-man running back rotation also return in Jaqwis Dancy and Israel Tucker. Only one starting wide receiver returns, but it’s Adrian Hardy, Tech’s leading receiver in 2018.
In addition to the returning starters, Tech is also adding a few transfers. Wide receiver Malik Stanley comes with immediate eligibility from South Alabama. Another wide receiver, TCU transfer Isaiah Graham, is now eligible after sitting out 2018. Stanley has one year left, while Graham has two.
In all, Tech has an experienced offense available for 2019. However, that experience hasn’t always produced in the past. The bottom line is that this offense will flow through Smith. If he can put forward a stronger performance in 2019, this team could go somewhere. If it’s more of the same, Tech will yet again be out of the title race.
While the offense has struggled the past two seasons, the defense has held the team together.
However, that defense will look significantly different in 2019.
First, with Blake Baker’s departure to join his predecessor Manny Diaz at Miami, former UConn head coach and Notre Dame defensive coordinator Bob Diaco will be taking over.
Second, the defense only returns a handful of starters.
The good news for Tech is that star corners Amik Robertson and L’Jarius Sneed are back, along with two starting safeties in James Jackson and Darryl Lewis.
After that? Linebacker Collin Scott. That’s it. The entire starting defensive line is gone.
Tech does bring in a graduate transfer in Kevin Murphy from UConn. Edge rusher Willie Baker will also be someone Diaco will probably be relying on to at least try to replace some of the production lost from the departure of Jaylon Ferguson. But if Tech wants to compete in 2019, it’s going to take multiple players in the front seven stepping up to fill in.
If the Tech offense can’t improve from the past two years, the Tech defense can’t afford to step back in 2019. The Bulldogs need at least one side of the ball to be clicking if they plan on making it to a sixth consecutive bowl game.
Don’t forget about the third side of the ball. Starting kicker Bailey Hale returns. He went 38-39 on extra points in 2018, but only 15-22 on field goals.
Starting punter Davan Dyer is gone, although Brady Farlow does return. He redshirted 2018 after playing just two games, but did tie his career long with a 55-yard punt against North Texas. He is listed on the roster as a kicker, however, so it will be interesting to see how Tech uses him for his final two years.
Making things interesting is the arrival of freshman Jacob Barnes. Barnes is, of course, the younger brother of Tech’s all-time points leader Jonathan Barnes. He is listed on the roster as a kicker/punter, making him the only official punter on the team. Will he play in 2019, or wait his turn behind senior Hale and junior Farlow?
Lastly, starting deep snapper Reeves Blankenship is back, although he has some competition in Notre Dame transfer Kyle Conrad. Blankenship made the Conference USA All-Freshman Team in 2018, as well as All-Conference USA honorable mention. When Blankenship was snapping, Tech had no blocked kicks or punts. It doesn’t seem likely that Conrad would be able to take the starting job from someone with that resume, but fall camp will likely decide that.
Tech has some quality talent available in 2019. The question is how it will all come together. Will J’Mar Smith finally take a step forward at quarterback? Can Diaco keep the defense afloat? Tech probably just needs one of those to be true to make another bowl game, but it’s going to take all three parts of the team to make another title run.
Although that could happen, it seems more likely that only one side of the ball will be able to put it all together. That suggests a sixth bowl game is likely, but the west division will probably go to the likes of North Texas, Southern Miss or UAB. Tech does host both UNT and USM in 2019, so perhaps that bit of scheduling could help the Dawgs.
Speaking of scheduling, check back here at Underdog Dynasty soon for the second half of this season preview, which will examine Tech’s schedule and how the Bulldogs stack up against the opposition in 2019.