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Spring Check-In: Louisiana Tech

Underdog Dynasty’s Tanner Spearman gives us some rundown on LSU’s other in-state opponent for 2018.

NCAA Football: Frisco Bowl-Louisiana Tech vs Southern Methodist Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

1. Louisiana Tech’s had a nice run of success under Skip Holtz — what do they have returning in 2018?

Quite a bit. For the first time since 2012, the Dawgs will return the same starting QB as the year before, and three of the top four receivers from 2017 are back as well (Teddy Veal, Rhashid Bonnette, and Adrian Hardy). The passing offense wasn’t great, but with this much continuity, you have to think it will improve in 2018, especially considering that it was basically an all-new passing offense from the year before. On top of that, the offensive line only had one senior on the two-deep depth chart. Both of the top running backs are gone, however, and that was the anchor that kept Tech afloat while the pass suffered. I think the rush will be just fine, but we’ll have to wait and see to be sure.

As for defense, La. Tech has plenty returning there, as well. Linebacker and safety are the question marks, but Holtz brought in three JUCO linebackers to help with that. The corners were young but strong, especially true freshman Amik Robertson, so it’s just a question of the safeties at this point.

2. What was the mood surrounding spring practice?

I can’t say for sure how the players felt, but I can wager a guess. Last year was a disappointing season. A lot of new faces had to step up from the year before. After three straight 9-win campaigns, Tech finished 7-6, having to win their last two regular season games to even qualify for a bowl. The season was defined by three 1 point losses (South Carolina, UAB, North Texas) and a double overtime loss (Southern Miss). Seven more points, and La Tech could have finished the regular season 10-2. What could have been? A season like this can lead to a determined group working hard to get better, and I imagine that was likely the prevailing mood.

3. Quarterback J’Mar Smith was up and down as a passer — what does he need to improve on?

Short answer: decision-making and accuracy.

Long answer: I think it’s primarily just a matter of reps and confidence. As a freshman, he started Tech’s 2016 season opener against the Arkansas Razorbacks while starter Ryan Higgins sat for disciplinary reasons, and Tech nearly won that game (21-20 was the final). As a result of that lone start, all offseason Smith was hyped up to the extreme as he prepared to take over as the starter. He himself admitted after the 2017 opener that he was far more nervous for that game than the Arkansas game, since he was now the guy with all the expectations upon him. Early in the season, he was forcing passes when he could have taken off and gained yards on the ground, which is especially frustrating when he’s billed as a dual-threat. It also didn’t help that the offensive line was struggling early on and the depth chart was constantly changing in that area. The bowl game was one of his best performances of the year (15 of 23 for 216 yards, 3 touchdowns with no picks; 10 rushes for 22 yards plus a rushing TD). I think now that he has a year of experience under his belt, he should be able to use this off-season wisely. I have a lot of faith in quarterbacks coach Tim Rattay to make him better. Not saying he’s the next Lamar Jackson, but I expect an improved, more consistent J’Mar Smith in 2018.

4. Any newcomers or surprises this spring that could make an impact in the coming season?

The position to watch is running back. The loss of Jarred Craft and Boston Scott means 1,572 yards need to be replaced from last year. In their stead, watch Jaqwis Dancy. Midway through the 2016 season, the team announced that he had Stage 3 Hodgkin’s Lymphoma and was seeking treatment at St. Jude. The team played in his honor the rest of the season. In the off-season, he was declared cancer-free and slowly returned to football. He didn’t get many reps last year, due to being third on the depth chart as well as trying to recover his strength and weight. Now, he’s back to full strength and will take a full load for the first time. He only got meaningful reps in one game last year (at UTEP), but he put up 135 yards and a touchdown in that game.

In addition, watch Kam McKnight. The senior has officially played wide receiver up to this point, but he is a bigger body and played a variety of roles. Although he lined up wide, he was sometimes used in a similar role to a tight end. He would block on the perimeter and make catches in the middle of the field. He also took handoffs and is the team’s third leading returning rusher behind Dancy and Smith. They are going to move him to running back alongside Dancy, and the two will compete for the starting role. I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see them both get plenty of use in the backfield in 2018.

5. What are Tech fans thinking about this September’s matchup? Feeling an upset, or more just looking to make the best of the paycheck game?

Probably depends on who you ask. The more pessimistic fans probably don’t expect much, but I think a lot of fans believe Tech can do what Troy did a year ago, and they would love nothing more than to see that happen. Tech led at halftime the last time these schools met, and the program is much stronger now than it was that year. There’s a lot of excitement for this game. Many of the more diehard fans are tired of the attitude that it’s all about LSU in Louisiana, and although they know one game won’t change that, they see this game as an opportunity to perhaps earn just a little respect from the world outside of Ruston.