Legacy-rich seniors hunt for red-hot October
Dec. 22, 2016
By Teddy Allen
RUSTON – You know that pieced-together truck you try to start on a cold morning?, and sometimes it catches and most times it doesn't?
That was the Louisiana Tech football team in 2013.
Things started all kinds of slowly for the current Tech senior class, whose 4-8 record that woeful four seasons ago wasn’t worth sticking in a Salvation Army kettle.
There are no excuses, but there are facts:
The 2012 Bulldogs team that went 9-3, made it into the nation's Top 25 polls and led the NCAA's Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) in scoring offense at 52 points a game had 31 seniors, so that left a hole or two. Or 31.
That team's head coach, Sonny Dykes, left for Cal, as did many on his staff. An early-December 2012 hire, Skip Holtz and his staff, quickly assembled, didn't have a lot of time to recruit. Junior college players made up more than one-third or that year's signees.
Not many players. Not much speed. Not much strength. Not much of a chance. 4-8 record.
"Helpless," said punter Gerald Shouse, then a redshirt freshman, of the feeling then. "A struggle."
"We never had a bond," said offensive tackle Darrell Brown, also a redshirt freshman in 2013. "We were 11 people playing as 11 individuals, not as one team. That goes for offense, defense and special teams."
But Holtz said from Day One he wished to "build a program," not just One Team For One Year. The first steps were "helpless. A struggle." The struggle was as real as a long autumn of 4-8 gets. But here's what's happened since:
Convincing back-to-back bowl wins and 9-win seasons. Two C-USA West Division titles. The chance Friday in the Lockheed Martin Armed Services Bowl against Navy for a third-straight 9-win season and bowl win. Already, the 2016 senior class has accomplished a first for the program in the FBS era: three straight bowl games.
Fourth in the country for least number of returning starters, the 2016 Bulldogs were picked to finish second in the C-USA West. They finished first. Holtz says now that six wins would have been most realistic, seven would have been special, eight would have been a reach. The 'Dogs have a chance to win nine.
But how? What is it about this team and this senior class that would allow them to play in a title game, go to a bowl, and be one of the nation's most prolific scoring teams at an average of 44 points a game?
A lot of it was that 4-8 season.
"That changed everyone's mindset," Shouse said. "Nobody wanted to go back to that. We decided we can't handle losing, and we're not going to go back to that."
"After our last game (in 2013, a 30-10 loss at UTSA), looking at the seniors who the year before had been on such a good team, I remember the look in their eyes of absolute defeat," said senior deep snapper Darrell Travis. "That weren't doing it because they felt we (underclassmen) let them down, but that it ended for them this way. Big guys. My friends. Balling their eyes out."
"That left a terrible taste in or mouths," said inside receiver/tight end Conner Smith. "We got stomped by teams that shouldn't have beaten us. The guys behind us now, all they know is playing for a conference championship and in a bowl game; we know what it's like to be bad. We didn't want to go 4-8 this year."
Another reason they didn't was because of the Davison Athletics Complex; it's debut was August 2015. This year's seniors watched every piece of it being built.
"Huge," Travis said. "We'd been going to work in a big ol' garage-looking weight room so long. Knowing we'd get in the DAC, that definitely had something to do with getting us better."
Some of it was getting familiar with the staff, like Kurt Hester, hired by Holtz to lead strength and conditioning. With Holtz on the job less than a month and hot on the recruiting trail in January of 2013, he put Hester charge of the January 2013 team meeting, the first offseason meeting after the 9-3, high-scoring year.
"They think since the last team was good, it's automatic that they're going to be good," Hester said. "Didn't happen. We were slow...we had a new staff...we were a selfish team. I think 4-8 made the guys we had left angry and embarrassed. That's a good combination to go into offseason with.
"We needed a commitment to be selfless, to learn how to lead, and that's by outworking the guy beside you," Hester said. "That's when we started to build a team."
"Coach Hester helped bring us together in the offseason and pretty much forced us to push each other," said Brown. "There was no way we were going to get through it by ourselves; we had to have each other. Once we started hanging out, it built a bond and a trust. Guys started doing extra work. That helped us grow physically. But at the same time, we were learning to trust each other more. Once you build that trust, you can begin to communicate with each other."
The transfers helped too. A lot. At just the right time and just the right spots.
"After 4-8, in the spring, there was a difference," said Shouse. "You could see it. Then fall started, and Cody and Houston came, and you could see it more."
Cody and Houston are quarterback Cody Sokol, an Iowa graduate transfer who became Conference USA's Newcomer of the Year, and defensive end Houston Bates, a graduate transfer from Illinois, now with the Washington Redskins. Each made a huge difference. As did Jeff Driskel, a graduate transfer from the University of Florida who duplicated Sokol's feat and helped lead Tech, as its quarterback, to another 9-win season and convincing bowl victory.
Maybe the biggest reason reason for the success of this senior class is -- it figures -- the success of the seniors. Quarterback Ryan Higgins performed so well -- 37 TDs?, Seriously? -- that he earned Most Valuable Player honors in C-USA. (Redshirt junior Carlos Henderson, in that first Holtz & Co. recruiting class, is second in the FBS with 17 receiving TDs.) Travis is a three-year letterman, and Smith, injured much of his junior season, will wind up a two-year letterman. This is a group without a lot of "starter" experience, but they've come on at the right time.
"Higgins was put in a tough situation, had to swallow a tough pill, but he grew and learned and took advantage of his opportunity when the time came," said inside receivers/assistant head coach Joe Sloan. 'When transfers came in (to play quarterback), he didn't do what today's culture seems to do a lot of the time. It says, 'Go find a better situation for yourself. You're being done wrong.' He didn't do that. He hung in there. Look at him now.
"Lloyd Grogan -- he really grew up. Darrell Brown got stronger, developed, and he's all-conference. (Center Joseph) Brunson and (Conner) Smith had injuries last year and have had wonderful seasons this year," Sloan said. "We have a lot of guys in that locker room who always had the goal of a championship; Tech is important to them."
Fitting that Tech's three four-year non-redshirt freshman are one off each "team"; receiver Trent Taylor, safety Xavier Woods and punter/holder Logan McPherson. It's taken a team effort to get one of the youngest teams in the FBS to to Armed Services Bowl.
"Xavier and Trent have been stars all the way," Sloan said. "But then you've got other guys too who, in different ways, helped get us here."
"Here" is in Fort Worth. In another bowl. Against Navy, the Bulldogs, losers of their most recent two games after a seven-game winning streak, will be on hunt for that red-hot October mojo. In the past three seasons combined, Tech is 12-1 in October In the past four seasons, 14-3. In the past 5, 17-3. Whatever caused such mid-season magic, Tech needs to recapture it against the nation's No. 25-ranked team.
"I believe in my teammates and the game plan," said Brown. "At the end of the day, if we execute our jobs individually and focus on doing what we're supposed to do, then as a team, we'll handle our business. We'll get this done."
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