RUSTON, La. — The Louisiana Tech Bulldogs have their cultural Airraid bona fides intact, with Sonny Dykes at the helm, a trusty Red Bull mini-fridge installed in his office and Tony Franklin ensconced as offensive coordinator. They run their camp drills at warp speed, where top receiver Quinton Patton counts hauling in 50-60 passes as a bit of a slow practice. But run the numbers on the 2011 WAC champions and you’ll find a team that generated most of its offensive production from a pair of running backs and spent an inordinate amount of time getting bailed out by its defense.
The makeup of his offense doesn’t frustrate Franklin — or at least it hasn’t since the Bulldogs turned a 1-4 start last season into an 8-4 regular season finish, conference title and trip to the Poinsettia Bowl. ”We had more injuries to skill players last year than anywhere I’ve ever been,” Franklin said, noting the Bulldogs were pressed into sending their No. 2 quarterback out as a receiver against TCU in San Diego. “We ran out.” He estimates the Bulldogs have run the ball 60 percent of the time during his two-year tenure. ”My deal is, I just wanna win. If that means running it more, we run it more. If it’s throwing it more, we throw it more.”
Dykes also credits an increased reliance on the ground attack for the late-season success, but this spring in Ruston coach after coach pointed to off-field factors and team leaders digging in their heels when explaining the remarkable skid-to-streak turnaround. ”We’re sitting here at 1-4,” Dykes recalled. “We lost our first conference game, and all we talked about was ‘Hey, let’s try to win one game this week.’ It really took pressure off our players. Honestly, the way to deal with a problem like that sometimes is to just not talk about it. Get better as a football team, and the problem will take care of itself.”
Franklin, for his part, is no stranger to the growing pains that come with installing an unfamiliar offense, especially one that likes to operate at top speeds. ”Somewhere along the way they finally get it, but you’ll never know when the light’s gonna come on.” For the 2011 Bulldogs, Franklin said, that moment came during the fourth quarter of a mid-November game against Nevada, with each team carrying just one conference loss. “We ran the same. Exact. Stuff. We changed nothing. But in the fourth quarter, [Nevada] got tired, and on the final drive of the game, they couldn’t get lined up. So you’re always waiting for that. You hope you’ll hit that in the first quarter.”
“You can think too much as a coach,” said running backs coach Pierre Ingram. ”I tell them, up to the line of scrimmage, I’m gonna coach you. On technique, on fundamentals and where you’re supposed to hit and where the play is designed to go, but once you pass that line of scrimmage, it’s what your mom and dad gave you.”
To hear linebacker and WAC Defensive Player of the Year Adrien Cole talk during that time, said receivers coach Rob Likens, “You’d think we were undefeated. Whatever we had to do to win that Saturday, that’s what we were gonna do.”
The Bulldogs can ill afford that kind of September malaise in 2012.”That decision has to be made earlier this year,” said Likens. Key defensive losses, including Cole (whom every coach touts as irreplaceable) and two-year all-conference end Matt Broha will make those saving stops harder to come by early on. “Once we get our skill guys back,” said Franklin, “I think we’re gonna get where we can fly.” Fly they’ll have to, and quickly: The Bulldogs will host Texas A&M in Shreveport and travel to Houston and Virginia before the end of September, with a break in the middle for a home stand against Rice and a trip to Illinois, before settling into the creamy middle of a WAC schedule that should present few hiccups.
Ameliorating factors lurking here: Three of those first five teams are operating under new head coaches. Houston only beat Tech by a point last year, and that was with Case Keenum at the wheel. Illinois is rebuilding. But from the moment of kickoff in Shreveport that first Thursday night, Tech will have five short weeks to make a case to flighty pollsters before its resume becomes crowded with victories against the likes of Idaho and Texas State. For a team viewing a conference championship as its expectations floor, the nonconference schedule will determine the rankings trajectory more than anything.
If that trajectory stalls and Tech needs a player to drag the team kicking and screaming out of an emotional hole, teammates and coaches point to Patton as the one to do it. “I’m not real big into all the chatter, because most of the time a lot of it’s phony,” said Franklin. “And with him, I finally found out it was never phony, that the other players liked it, because he plays up to his mouth, which is hard to do. When you run your mouth as much as he does, it’s hard to play to that ability, but he does, and I think the other guys respond to him.”
Continuity will be the biggest gun on the Bulldogs’ belt during that September run. Though the defense took a hit, the offense retains a high number of key contributors, and Ray Guy award-winning punter Ryan Allen is back for his senior season. Tech’s coaching staff is experiencing a remarkable shakeup-free stretch, with every position coach and coordinator entering his third consecutive season with the team. It makes a vital difference, Dykes believes, in the lobster pot of Louisiana football recruiting for the same kids to see the same faces in the same polo shirts every year. More immediately, however, it eliminates adjustment periods for returning players in camp.
Every program needs its gym rats, but conditioning is of particular importance to a team counting on speed to wear out big opponents. “The endurance aspect of it is vital for us,” said defensive coordinator Tommy Spangler, whose unit must make up in clock time for an offense that doesn’t want to burn too many minutes on the field. “Especially up front, you’d better have some depth.” Strength and conditioning coach Damon Harrington, at this point in the year, is just focused on “getting them in good enough shape to where they can survive practice” on 100-degree day after day. An alum in his second stint with the Bulldogs, this one dating back to 2006, Harrington has had to completely rework the S&C program to adapt to Dykes’ and Franklin’s desired tempo. ”They talked about how fast practice was gonna be, but I didn’t understand until we actually did it, and we really had to revamp everything we did to revolve around running,” Harrington said.
“When we started here,” said defensive line coach Stan Eggen, “there were probably six, seven positions where you’d have to make plays in the open field. Now there have to be nine guys comfortable in open space. Maybe 11. If you can’t run, there’s no place for you.”
The three R’s (reps, reps and reps) of Airraid practices are drilled into players to unlock a fourth R: rotation. Eggen, whose line returns both tackles, plans to play eight defensive linemen per game if he can, for as long as he can, and credits the offense’s speed in practice with helping him build depth. “Starter” is something of a misnomer in Ruston as a result. ”Four guys are gonna run out to start the game, and they take a little bit of pride in that, obviously, but if you have the talent, you might play 10-15 snaps per game,” Eggen said. Rather than the fourth quarter of a game, Eggen points to the fourth quarter of the season when asked where this really shows results. “Games 8-12? No one’s fresh at that time. But you’re fresher.” There’s room for all comers in the backfield as well, with a scrum of seniors returning at defensive back. Despite the challenges of replacing Cole and Broha, Dykes believes the Bulldogs will be “better than people think” on defense.
Will the offense, then, take big enough strides to avoid necessitating any more defensive rescue missions? Eggen’s offensive counterpart, Petey Perot, returns a combined total of 93 career starts on the O-line, and Franklin would like to rotate eight linemen in and out there as well. The one constant will be center Stephen Warner, a former walk-on from right across the street at Ruston High, who under Franklin’s system is charged with calling the cadence.
“I always thought it was kinda silly,” said Franklin, “when we’d go play at Nebraska, or go play at Florida State, we had to go to the silent count, so we tried this the first year I went back at Troy. And we’ve never, ever had one time where we couldn’t do the cadence. The neat thing about it is, it usually helps the center become a better player.”
With the departure of No. 2 quarterback Nick Isham mid-camp, Warner and friends will be blocking full-time for Colby Cameron, who wrested the starting quarterback job from Isham midseason last year. Cameron will be winging balls to Patton, the leading returning receiver, along with Myles White and D.J. Banks, transfers from Michigan State and Tulane, respectively — and at least five other guys. “We’re going to play eight receivers, every game,” said Likens. “That’s a given.” “Starter” is a misnomer here as well. The coaches lean hard on this when recruiting against bigger programs in Texas and Louisiana. ”You can say whatever you want to get somebody to come to school there,” said Likens, “but we can put the film on and say, literally, we’re gonna play 11 skill guys a game.”
If Likens has his way, that might include lining up returning running back Ray Holley. Sidelined for the team’s final eight games last season after sustaining a back injury against Mississippi State, Holley has been held out of contact in spring ball for precautionary reasons, but wowed coaches while goofing off in the slot receiver position, to the point where Likens is openly plotting to swipe him. “He was good,” Likens said. “He could walk out and play receiver right now.” Ingram is having none of it, however: “He did a good job, but I’ll make sure he drops 10 balls at the next practice, so that won’t be an issue.” As for Holley: “I’m a running back. I’m a running back at heart. But if we go empty set, I don’t wanna go off the field!” Just in case Likens succeeds with his dastardly plan, the Bulldogs return plenty of ground-based firepower besides Holley in the form of former walk-on tailback Hunter Lee, who was thrust into heavy duty in last year’s Idaho game as the team’s injuries mounted and was actually outgaining starter Lennon Creer per carry by bowl time. Lee was put on scholarship just in time for San Diego.
All told, the offense amassed 54 points and 830 yards of offense in the spring game, which was designed to provide (wait for it) more reps than gameday structure. Three turnovers in the first “quarter” were perhaps the biggest concern: During that 1-4 stretch in 2011, the Bulldogs were -4 in turnover margin; during the 7-0 stretch they went +15 to finish +11, good for 13th-best in the FBS. But Dykes feels they’re as ready as they can be for fall camp and Shreveport. ”It was a great spring and the best I have been around since I began coaching,” Dykes said. “We are so much further along than we have been in the past.”
Whether the 2012 Bulldogs will take the form of a recognizable Dykes-and-Franklin team remains to be seen, but Dykes seems heartily pleased to be evangelizing what has developed. “At Texas Tech, people would come visit, and you say ‘OK, here’s what we do,’ and there’s kind of a disappointed look on their face, where they were like, ‘That’s it? You gonna show us the real stuff?’
“But what Mike Leach is so good at, and Hal Mumme before Mike, is understanding that football hasn’t changed. It’s still a fundamental game. And it’s about guys playing fast and being able to execute. Keep it simple, allow players to play fast, and stress technique and execution. You do that, doesn’t really matter what style of football you’re playing, you’re gonna be successful.”
This is not a program that deals in subterfuge, and Dykes scoffs a bit at those who do. “I mean, if you have these great secrets, it seems like you would show ‘em in games, and everybody’s got your game film,” Dykes said. “I mean, honestly, if Kevin Sumlin said ‘We’d like to bring our staff and come visit you guys,’ we’d say, ‘You know, we’d love to have you.’”
Louisiana Tech opens the 2012 season Aug. 30 against Texas A&M at Shreveport’s Independence Stadium.