Louisiana Tech head football coach Skip Holtz discusses where he feels his team is after its performance four weeks into the season.
Cory Diaz/The News-Star
RUSTON – Check. Check. Check. Check.
Those are the eager strokes of Skip Holtz’ pen cascading down the checklist to mark off empty boxes that described Louisiana Tech entering 2017.
While expectations outside the Bulldogs locker room soared during the preseason, questions swirled through the halls of the coaches’ wing of the Davison Athletic Complex. Questions, some simple and ones that head coaches have each year like: what will the identity of this season’s team be? How can we improve on both sides of the ball?
Other questions deal with specific personnel and/or team unknowns and dive deeper into full-unit characteristics that provide explanations and/or solutions to where a team can go. If those boxes get checked, especially early in the season, those unfilled boxes become erasers of doubt and bolsters of belief.
At the top of that checklist, it asks the overall question: can my team win a championship?
Through four weeks, Tech’s been checking boxes.
“We came into the season, we didn’t have one box checked off,” Holtz said. “I knew we had a seasoned safety, I knew we had two really good defensive ends, I knew we had a linebacker. I knew we had a couple of offensive linemen that have played a lot of football for us. Outside of that, it was a blank piece of paper. We’ve checked a lot of boxes in four weeks.
“Do I think our quarterback can be good enough? Check. Do I think he has the poise and presence and the moxie to be what he needs to be for our program to get to where it wants to be? Check. Do I think this team can play on the road in a hostile environment where they have to win? Yes. Do I think they can play with pressure? Yep, they did it at Western Kentucky, defensively stepped up huge and offensively with the game-winning drive. Offensively, did it again (at South Carolina). Unfortunately, the ball got batted and the guy made a great catch. I think we’re checking a lot of boxes with this team.”
Tech’s performance through just four games isn’t full proof, but an argument can be made that it is.
For starters, four brand new inexperienced starters in the defensive backfield had the challenge to improve a dismal pass defense from 2016 that was 14 spots from the worst in the nation. Through four games against two SEC opponents and a Western Kentucky team led by a senior quarterback in Mike White, the secondary, occupied by true freshman cornerback Amik Robertson, first-time starting safeties Darryl Lewis and DaMarion King and sophomore corners Aaron Roberson and L’Jarius Sneed, sits 65th in the country in passing yards allowed. Check.
Holtz mentioned redshirt sophomore quarterback J’Mar Smith. Out of a spot start in last year’s season opener at Arkansas that Tech almost won, 21-20, expectations were the guy was going single-handedly carry the Bulldogs to new heights as a sophomore and had to produce the same gaudy numbers as three senior quarterbacks put up previously.
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Smith’s numbers won’t wow you, but he’s done a couple of things those mature signal callers could not in helping Tech put an SEC team on the ropes, led his team on two, game-winning drives – he put Tech in position to win at South Carolina. More importantly, that one actual game-winning series beat WKU on the road – a huge enigmatic hurdle for the program.
Next week’s away game against a fired-up UAB team is the lone potential road landmine left on the Bulldogs schedule, but how this team has played the last two weeks has made Holtz confident and comfortable about the group.
All other tough conference showdowns, Tech gets at home, Southern Miss on Oct. 21 after a bye week, Nov. 4 versus North Texas for homecoming and UTSA comes calling in the regular season finale Nov. 25.
Saturday’s non-conference matchup with South Alabama can check off another box on the list: avoid an emotional letdown.
“I am really proud and I am really encouraged for what this football team can be from what I’ve seen. We have another hurdle in that we have to overcome adversity. We’ve got to come off a painful loss and we’ve got to find a way to put our best foot forward and to play four emotional weeks in a row,” Holtz said. “We’re checking a lot of boxes right now.”
The last unfilled box on the checklist can’t be marked off until season’s end as it’s the ultimate question. Can this team win a championship? We’re only four weeks in, but my answer? Yes.
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