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Despite huge turnover, Holtz bullish on La. Tech’s prospects

August 16, 2016

RUSTON, La. (AP) — Three of the main reasons Louisiana Tech was among Conference USA’s premier teams and won a bowl game last season were defensive tackle Vernon Butler, running back Kenneth Dixon and quarterback Jeff Driskel.

All three players were selected in last spring’s NFL draft — Butler in the first round — and their departures represent only the beginning of the turnover coach Skip Holtz is dealing with this season.

“We’ve lost some great players, some players that have made an incredible contribution to this team,” Holtz conceded as players reported for fall practice. “We will be one of the least-experienced teams in the country.”

But that doesn’t mean Holtz wants to lower anyone’s expectations. Holtz’s recruiting strategy over the past couple years has included a focus on transfers and junior college players.

“We have some difficult things we have to handle, but in saying all the challenges we’re walking into with this — with the very little experience and trying to put a new team together — I don’t know if I have ever gone into a season with this much excitement,” Holtz asserted. “We do have some talent on this football team, but we have a long way to go before we can turn that talent into a very productive football team.”

The departure of Driskel, a graduate transfer from Florida who played one season for the Bulldogs, means Tech will likely turn to Ryan Higgins at quarterback — eventually. Higgins appeared to win the starting job in spring practice, but Holtz has said Higgins won’t start the season opener as part of his discipline stemming from a drunk-driving arrest this summer. When Higgins returns, he’ll give the Bulldogs a veteran presence, having started in 2013 as a freshman before backing up one-year transfers Cody Sokol and Driskel the past two seasons.

Dixon’s departure represents the loss of the most productive running back in Louisiana Tech history: he finished his career with 4,480 yards and 72 touchdowns rushing, along with 972 yards and 15 touchdowns receiving. His 87 TDs scored rank second all-time in the NCAA.

Here are some things to know about Louisiana Tech in 2016:

PLUGGING HOLES: If losing Butler wasn’t bad enough, Tech also must replace seven other starters on defense, including three starters in the secondary and all 3 linebackers. “We are kind of like a jigsaw puzzle,” defensive coordinator Blake Baker said. “We have the pieces talent-wise, but we just have to figure out how to put it together.”

SKILL SETS: At running back, Holtz heads into the year unsure if Boston Scott, Jarred Craft and Jaqwis Dancy will handle the position by committee, or if one emerges as a featured back. At receiver, Tech got a boost from freshman Adrian Hardy’s transfer from Oklahoma. The Bulldogs also have a pair of productive, experienced receivers returning: junior Carlos Henderson and senior Trent Taylor.

SEASON OPENER: Holtz’s overhauled lineup will open the season with arguably its toughest game when the Bulldogs visit Arkansas on Sept. 3

KEY GAMES: The Bulldogs invade Big 12 country with a visit to Texas Tech on Sept. 17, followed by their Conference USA opener at Middle Tennessee, a favorite to win the league, on Sept. 24. Tech hosts defending conference champ Western Kentucky on Oct. 17 and closes its regular season Nov. 25 with a visit to Southern Miss, another preseason league favorite.

PREDICTION: There’s so much uncertainty across the roster, forecast a return to a bowl game might be too optimistic. A winning season will require numerous first-year starters to emerge with excellent seasons.

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College football website: collegefootball.ap.org