Louisiana Tech put up some gaudy numbers on defense under Manny Diaz. The Bulldogs finished 38th in scoring defense (24.7) nationally, 34th in total defense (362.5 yards per game), and first in turnovers forced with 42.
Mississippi State hired away Diaz and Skip Holtz was suddenly looking for his third coordinator in his third year in Ruston. In steps Blake Baker, who coached under Diaz at both Texas and Louisiana Tech. No one knows Diaz's system like Baker and it was important to Holtz that his players not have to go through a total scheme change for the fourth year in a row.
Aside from creating turnovers, the next most important aspect of the Tech defense is simply getting off the field. The Bulldogs ranked 26th in the country in sacks per game (2.71) and 17th in 3rd down defense, holding opponents to just 34.7% on third down.
It starts up front and Baker has some key cogs returning on the defensive line. Seniors Vernon Butler (6-3 309) and Vontarrius Dora (6-4 253) return to lead the team in the trenches. Dora missed four games last season and still finished with 29 tackles and 4 sacks. Butler had 56 tackles, including 13.5 for loss, from his defensive tackle position.
Deldric Canty (6-2 250) had three sacks as a true freshman and will likely hold down the defensive end spot opposite of Dora. Inside, Tech has the option of going big with Malcolm Pichon (6-3 336) or with quickness in 6-1 270-pound Aaron Brown.
Tech is lacking in depth on the defensive line and at linebacker, meaning a few redshirt freshmen and even a true freshman might end up in the two deep. At linebacker, Nick Thomason, CJ Cleveland, and Beau Fitte all have starting experience; although none were the fulltime starters a year ago. Like Canty, Russell Farris saw time as a true freshman last season and will be in the two deep.
Tech's experience on defense comes from the secondary. Baker coached safeties last season, but he will coach linebackers in his new role in 2015. Safeties Xavier Woods and Kentrell Brice were the top two tacklers on the team in 2014 and both return to lead the loaded secondary. Lloyd Grogan and Secdrick Cooper are both hard hitting, 200+ pound safeties that played big roles last year. One of them could make the move to linebacker in order for Baker to get his best players on the field.
At cornerback, Baker returns two seniors in Bryson Abraham and Adarius Barnes, who combined for 85 tackles and 7 interceptions last season. The Bulldogs lost Levander Liggins and Colby Brown to graduation. Roland Dunn, Jr. got some experience as a true freshman and will compete for a spot on the depth chart.
The fact that true freshmen like Dunn, Canty, Farris, and Cooper saw action in 2014 will pay dividends this season. Tech should have enough depth and experience to have another strong year. Despite losing Terrell Pinson, Levander Liggins, Houston Bates, and Tony Johnson; the Bulldogs have plenty of star players to get the job done.
A bigger test might be in 2016 when seniors Abraham, Brice, Barnes, Butler, Dora, Thomason, and Fitte all graduate. Holtz signed a defense heavy class this month and the young guys will be counted on to play early and often going forward.