March 13, 2014
RUSTON, La. - Louisiana Tech will open spring football practice Friday afternoon as the program enters the second year under head coach Skip Holtz.
Friday's practice - along with most spring practices - will be open to fans and the media and is slated to being at 4 p.m. All practices will be held at Joe Aillet Stadium or the Tech Practice Fields with all dates and times subject to change. The NCAA allows each football program to hold 15 spring practices sessions and for Louisiana Tech that will culminate in the annual T-Day Spring Game on Saturday, April 12 at Joe Aillet Stadium.
The program will hold a closed practice over the weekend with the third practice - which will be open to the media and the public - will be Monday afternoon. All weekday practices - held mostly on every Monday, Wednesday and Friday - are scheduled to start at 4 p.m.
Friday afternoon's session will mark the first practice this spring for the Bulldogs, a team looking to improve on a 4-8 record last season. Hitting the ground with an actual ball in hand will be a welcome sight to a group of players that have spent a dedicated offseason working hard with head strength coach Kurt Hester.
"Kurt Hester has done a great job in the weight room in the offseason," Holtz said. "We just have to continue to develop a lot of the younger players that played last year and eliminate some of the mistakes and become better. This is the beginning of the process of putting this team together and going out there in the spring and seeing what we are and what we have."
While the program is entering the second year in the Holtz era this spring will mark the first for several new faces, including three new assistant coaches in defensive coordinator and linebackers coach Manny Diaz, defensive line coach Oscar Giles and safeties coach Blake Baker.
Those seven returning faces include a young secondary that gained a lot of playing experience in 2013 as the Bulldogs only returned one starter in the back seven in cornerback Le'Vander Liggins. Entering 2014, those players are a year older and with a year more of playing experience under belt as Diaz works to continue to build an improving defense. The squad made great gains in 2013, ranking as the fourth most improved defense in the country.
"Defensively I am just excited to see a lot of the young guys come along. To see the continued development of Kentrell Brice and Lloyd Grogan is awesome. It is nice to see Nick Thomason coming out there as a linebacker, as well as Beau Fitte. I am excited to see what Pinson and McDonald are going to do to continue to develop and get better. I am just anxious to see a lot of these young guys continue to come along. Where I think we need to make the biggest strides is on the offensive side of the ball."
In order for the defense to continue to improve it must focus on a defensive line unit that graduated three starters in Justin Ellis, IK Enemkpali and Shakeil Lucas, two of which (Ellis and Enemkpali) were invited to the NFL Combine. Enemkpali garnered first team all-conference and all-Louisiana honors in 2013.
"We did lose some really good players on the defensive line from a year ago and they will be sorely missed but when you look at guys like Vernon Butler, Malcolm Pichon, Vontarrius Dora and Kevin Kisseberth those are not names that are new to stepping on the football field," Holtz said of the defensive line. "We were two deep a year ago and a lot of those guys got very valuable playing experience. DeAngelo Brooks is another one that is in that boat and had the opportunity to play quite a bit. I think that is the difference from the offensive line to the defensive line is that you have a lot of guys there. I think Stan Eggen did a really good job at recruiting and creating depth at that defensive line position while he was here. It is time for those young guys to step in, but they have had some valuable playing experience as well."
The offensive line will again be a position to focus on as Louisiana Tech lost three starters off a unit that lost four starters a year ago. Offensive line coach Matt Moore will again be tasked with the challenge of developing five starting players and quality reserves in only 15 spring practice sessions and a month's worth of work throughout fall camp in August.
"We were hit hard with graduation with the offensive line and the wide receivers," Holtz said. "When you look at the offensive line losing your center in [Vince] Cano, right guard in [Matthew] Shepperd, left guard in [Jeremy] Graffree followed up by a year where we had lost four the year before. That is seven in two years and when you look at it, that is a lot of new faces and a lot of young guys. We have to continue to patch work that together. Having been here now for a full year and we will have recruited almost every offensive lineman almost two deep, just talks about the youth of that offensive line and how far of the job Matt Moore has come putting the pieces together. That has to be a huge focal point."
Another area of focus for the Bulldogs this spring will be at receiver with Tim Rattay coaching the outside receivers and Joe Sloan guiding the inside receivers. That position group is expected to showcase more speed and knowledge on the field as Paul Turner becomes eligible after sitting out the required year by the NCAA after transferring from LSU and Carlos Henderson ready to go this fall after redshirting last season. However, Henderson and inside receiver Hunter Lee will be unavailable throughout the spring as they continue to recover from offseason surgeries.
Additionally, Holtz and quarterbacks coach Tony Petersen expected to see continued development in the quarterback position wtih Scotty Young and Ryan Higgins both returning after sharing most of the snaps last season.
"Receiver is the same way [as offensive line], losing as many numbers as we did," said Holtz. "The positive is that you have guys like Sterling Griffin coming back. I am anxious to see Paul Turner. I am anxious to see the continued development of Trent Taylor and some of those guys. I think those are probably the two biggest positions that I think are going to have the most moving parts to it. Obviously quarterback is a position where we have to get better. We are going to continue to try and bring players in here that are going to give us a chance to improve and compete but I think Ryan and Scotty have to get better. They have to improve from what we did a year ago."
Hotlz and his staff are excted for their second year of spring practice after entering last year's spring session needing to balance the 15 practices with evaluating personnel and developing a playbook best suited to the team. This year, the coaching staff now has a strong evaluation of the returning players and have spent most of the offseason building a more comprehensive playbook to help the team continue to grow.
"I think knowing about your team is the biggest difference compared to last year," Holtz said of having a year to evaluate personnel. "You know what your strengths are, but you definitely know what your weaknesses are and that is what we did not know going in [last spring]. We talked about some things we need to do with the positions on offense but you do have stability and a very solid core at the running back position with guys like Kenneth Dixon, Tevin King, Blake Martin and Marlon Seets. We have a very good nucleus there. I think there are pros and cons. You know what you need to work on in development and what you need to do to get there."
For a team that went 4-8 last season and struggled in several games - especially on the offensive side of the ball - each rep ran in each spring practice will be vital to building a team that has a chance to make a bowl game in 2014.
"I do not think 15 practices are enough when you talk about some of the woes we had on offense," Hotlz said of only having 15 practices allowed in the spring. "I think that is where it all starts and where we have to get better. We made huge strides a year ago on defense and we got a lot better throughout the course of the year as a defensive football team. I believe there were only three or four teams that had a more significant jump defensively around the country than we did. There were a lot of positive things and a lot of those guys are back. I think we have to continue to develop defensively but we have to get some situations straight on offense and we have to continue to develop our quarterback because that is going to continue to be the key to use being able to have success. That does not happen overnight. I wish there was a maturity pill that we could give a freshman to make him a senior real quick. Playing the quarterback position is all about decision making. We cannot get enough reps right now for those quarterbacks to continue to develop."
The 15 practices the team is allotted this spring will be vital to developing a team that will open the season against the Sugar Bowl Champion Oklahoma Sooners in a game that starts three straight road games to open the 2014 season for the Bulldogs.
"Playing three games on the road to start the season is going to be a heck of a challenge," said Holtz of the early season schedule. "It is certainly not the ideal situation when you are walking in with a program that would like to see development and growth. You do not like to walk into a game against a team that is going to be ranked probably in the top five to start the season. It is probably not an ideal situation but it is a challenge that we are looking forward to. It adds to the excitement of getting our football team ready because you know you are going to have to play at a really high level out the gates if you are going to have any chance at all being competitive."
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