After spending the previous two seasons restoring their status as one of the nation’s premier programs, the No. 10 Texas Longhorns are yet to achieve a rather notable feat under the tutelage of head coach Tom Herman — win their season-opener.
The odds heavily favor Texas’ favor to re-write that history and capture a season-opening win over Louisiana Tech on Saturday, with the Horns owning a 92.5-percent win probability, per ESPN’s FPI. However, the Louisiana Tech team coming to Austin is largely an experienced bunch that won’t simply lie down and allow the Longhorns to cruise to an easy win, especially considering the winning culture head coach Skip Holtz has established by guiding his Bulldogs to five consecutive bowl-winning seasons.
“Experience,” Texas defensive coordinator Todd Orlando said of what stands out about Louisiana Tech. “You go through their two-deep and I think everybody on the offensive side has been redshirted. They’ve got all these older guys and that’s how you run a program.”
Orlando’s sentiments are most evident throughout the entire offense.
The Bulldogs boast a tremendously experienced offensive line, with redshirt senior Ethan Reed (40 career starts) and redshirt senior Drew Kirkpatrick returning to their roles as starters at left and right guard, respectively, as does redshirt junior Kody Russey, who’s tallied 26 starts at center throughout the previous two seasons. The Bulldogs do replace both tackles, but even those stepping in are well-qualified. Former four-star LSU offensive tackle Willie Allen, who made two starts in 11 appearances last season, now mans the left tackle spot, while 6’8, 320-pound redshirt senior Gewhite Stallworth will anchor the right side of the line after missing the majority of the 2018 season due to injury.
Setting up shop behind this seasoned bunch will be redshirt senior quarterback J’Mar Smith, who’s entering his third season as the Bulldogs’ full-time field general after passing for 3,160 yards and 15 touchdowns with 10 interceptions in 2018.
Though he is experienced, Smith has been inconsistent and often-times underwhelming, as most evident by his 57.3-percent completion rate, which echoed throughout an offense that ranked 98th in passing S&P+ last season.
Fortunately for Smith, he’ll have a few weapons at his disposal, with none more notable than redshirt junior receiver Adrian Hardy, a former Oklahoma signee who enters the 2019 campaign as on the Biletnikoff Award Watch List and as a preseason Conference USA first-team selection after hauling in 75 receptions for 1,145 yards and six scores as a sophomore.
With 70-catch receiver Teddy Veal no longer in Ruston, former four-star TCU signee Isaiah Graham, also a redshirt junior, will operate opposite of Hardy as Louisiana Tech’s Z receiver.
Given that Texas is breaking in two new starters at corner in Jalen Green and Kobe Boyce, how well the two sophomores match up against Hardy and Graham, respectively, will likely go a long way towards dictating whether or not the Bulldogs can keep things close and threaten an upset as they have in recent years against LSU, Arkansas, and Kansas State.
After totaling 327 yards on 30 receptions last season, redshirt sophomore Alfred Smith could be due for a breakout season, and the same can be said of redshirt freshman slot Smoke Harris and redshirt senior Rhashid Bonnette, who missed the second half of the season with an ankle injury. Holtz also expects South Alabama graduate transfer Malik Stanley to make an immediate impact at the position, adding further depth to a receiver room that could prove to be one of, if not the best in the Conference USA.
The tall task as far as Louisiana Tech is concerned is, of course, that its receivers will be tested through trial by fire against a Longhorns secondary that, though lacking experience at corner, boast an embarrassment of riches throughout, while numerous former top-ranked safety prospects and high school All-Americans gracing the two-deep.
While it remains to be seen exactly how the carries will be divided, the running back rotation, too, will feature its fair share of experience.
Though redshirt junior Jaqwis Dancy appeared to be the favorite to replace the departed Kam McKnight after amassing 667 yards and nine touchdowns in 2018, it’s redshirt junior Israel Tucker, who turned in 377 yards throughout his 10 appearances (5 starts), set to get the starting nod against Texas. Justin Henderson, yet another redshirt junior, will be in the mix for carries in Austin, as well.
As offensive coordinator Todd Fitch figures out that carries distribution, his running backs will get to cut their teeth a bit against a Texas front six that features several first-year starters, though many of them — nose tackle Keondre Coburn, Mac linebacker Ayodele Adeoye, Rover Jeffrey McCulloch — are former high school All-Americans, as well.
The other side of the ball tells a bit of a different story, though the secondary is certainly an exception.
As is the case with Hardy headlining the receiving corps, junior Amik Robertson is Louisiana Tech’s star in the secondary. Also a preseason Conference USA first-team pick, Robertson has been tremendously active in the defensive backfield throughout his first two seasons as a starter, notching nine interceptions to pair with 27 passes defended and 15 tackles for loss.
The issue as far as Robertson’s next start is concerned? He’ll be pitted against Texas’ 6’6 star senior Collin Johnson, which could prove especially problematic given that Robinson is just 5’9. That said, despite his size, or the lack thereof, Robertson is especially quick and technically sound and simply finds ways to make plays on the ball, as evident with his noted stat line.
After transitioning from safety this offseason, redshirt senior Michael Sam will man the cornerback role opposite of Robertson, which senior L’Jarius Sneed — more on him momentarily — held down in 2018 before his move to safety. Yet another JUCO product, Sam’s initial season in Monroe was cut short due to a season-ending injury, but he found the field during 11 games last season, including a start for the Bulldogs’ SoFi Hawai’i Bowl win over Hawai’i.
Now a full-time starter, Sam will be tasked with slowing Texas’ sizeable and speedy Z receivers, redshirt senior John Burt and sophomore Brennan Eagles.
Also stepping into a significantly heightened role is redshirt freshman Bee Jay Williamson, who surprisingly beat Darryl Lewis, a redshirt senior who made 26 straight starts and led the team with 91 tackles last season, for the starting role at boundary safety. Holtz credited Williamson’s athleticism and competency in coverage as reasons for him leapfrogging the long-time starter ahead of the 2019 season.
Starting alongside Williamson at safety will be Sneed, who, as noted, made the transition this offseason from his role as the starting field corner, and he’s confident that he knows the key to containing Texas’ receivers.
“Well, they can’t handle the press,” Sneed said of Texas’ wideouts, per the Monroe News Star’s Cory Diaz. “I know for sure we’re going to have to press them up a lot. They’ll struggle with us pressing them up and just stay on top of the routes.”
Sneed has played plenty of football throughout his time with Louisiana Tech, logging 20 starts in 28 appearances, but from a pure talent standpoint, the Texas receiver corps he and a secondary that ranked 36th in passing S&P+ last season will see on Saturday is among the best he’ll have matched up with throughout his career with the Bulldogs.
Maybe more notably — Sneed and the secondary will quite likely be required to hold their own in coverage far longer, far more often than they did in 2018.
While first-year defensive coordinator Bob Diaco will enjoy the luxury of an experienced secondary returning multiple starters, he’ll also have to find his footing up front, as Louisiana Tech lost its entire defensive line; one that was headlined by hybrid edge rusher and all-time NCAA sacks leader (45) Jaylon Ferguson, who’s now with the Baltimore Ravens after overwhelming his way to 17 sacks and 26 tackles for loss last season. There’s simply no easy replacement for an elite talent like Ferguson, and that chore will be made even more challenging as Diaco, a coordinator who doesn’t typically overwhelm with pressure, transitions Louisiana Tech to a 3-4 scheme from the 4-2-5 stack that Blake Baker implemented last season.
Of course, replacing an entire starting defensive line is far easier said than done, but at the least, he’ll insert some experienced presences in redshirt senior nose tackle Courtney Wallace and senior defensive end Ka’Derrion Mason, which combined for 61 appearances in reserve roles throughout the past two seasons. Starting on the edge opposite of Mason will be redshirt sophomore Milton Williams, a 6’4, 271-pounder who appeared in eight games last season.
UConn graduate transfer Kevin Murphy will add some quality depth on the edge.
Slotted behind that bunch will be a four-man linebacking crew, which will include a hybrid safety in redshirt senior James Jackson, who started all 13 games at safety last season while totaling 74 tackles, 8.5 tackles for loss, and four pass breakups. Redshirt junior Willie Baker, who transitioned from defensive end this offseason, will occupy the opposite outside linebacker role as a bit of a hybrid edge rusher, and he’s expected to emerge as an even more impactful presence after totaling 33 tackles, 11.5 tackles for loss, and seven sacks (four came during the Bulldogs’ bowl win) in 2018.
Unsurprisingly, redshirt senior Collin Scott returns to his role as a starting linebacker — one of the two in the middle this time around — after finishing second on the team with 87 tackles last season. However, perhaps due to an injury that forced him to miss the final week and final scrimmage of fall camp, it won’t be senior and former JUCO National Defensive Player of the Year Connor Taylor starting alongside him but rather, redshirt junior Trey Baldwin. The former three-star Missouri signee appeared in four games last season, but Holtz said he made the most of his opportunity when Taylor went down, which prompted his place in the starting lineup.
That said, Taylor is expected to play, and in all likelihood, he’ll see just as many snaps, if not more than Baldwin.
Save for a considerable surprise, this front seven likely won’t enjoy much success pressuring Sam Ehlinger, especially if Texas’ rebuilt offensive line lives up to the praise its garnered throughout the offseason. If that proves to be the case and Ehlinger enjoys plenty of time to set up shop in the pocket, it’s quite possible, if not likely that the Horns pick apart Louisiana Tech’s strength defensively — its secondary — and in turn, produce plenty of points.
As if it weren’t clear by now, Louisiana Tech will bring a considerably experienced squad to Austin, which returns a small army of starters who have won plenty of football games with the Bulldogs. And it’s one that features its fair share of talent, especially at receiver, throughout the secondary, among a re-constructed linebacking corps, and along the offensive line.
But despite the strengths that this Bulldogs team does boast, which should be enough to end the season with another bowl berth, there simply isn’t enough talent on hand to prevent Texas from securing the first season-opening win of the Tom Herman era.
“I just think [Texas is] a very talented team that doesn’t have a lot of weakness in it,” Holtz said. “Which is why, I think, some of the talking heads from all over the country have put Texas in the top 10, and many of them have put them in them in the top four in the national picture.”
Prediction: Texas — 41, Louisiana Tech — 17