The ever-changing Western Athletic Conference will be hard to recognize by this time next year, but Louisiana Tech coach Sonny Dykes said he is just now starting to feel at home.
Dykes inherited the Tech program in January 2010 after Derek Dooley fled for Tennessee, with Dykes arriving in Ruston as a first-time head coach and lacking any ties to the school or its conference.
He said a full year on the job has done wonders.
“Last year at this time, I was still trying to make the adjustment of being a first-year head coach and everything that goes along with it,” Dykes said. “Trying to learn everybody’s name. Figure out who your players were. In year 2, I’m much more comfortable really with everything about being a head coach and what’s going on inside our program.”
Tech went 5-7 (4-4 in the WAC) last season, showing a very WAC-like combination of high-powered offense and anemic defense, especially late.
Spurred by Tennessee transfer Lennon Creer, the Bulldogs averaged 34.2 points in their final six games, but gave up 34.5 points in the same stretch.
Dykes was most disappointed with Tech’s inability to hold leads.
The Bulldogs outscored opponents 93-68 in the first quarter last year. But they were beaten 102-64 in third quarters and 99-73 in fourths.
Against Fresno State, Tech led 14-0 early and 14-10 at halftime, but Fresno scored 33 of the game’s final 40 points, including 16 straight to start the fourth quarter. Against Nevada, Tech led 7-0 and 14-7, but Nevada finished the 35-17 rout on a 28-3 run.
“We’ve got to be a little grittier football team than we were a year ago,” Dykes said.
Tech was picked fourth in the WAC behind short-timers Hawaii, Fresno and Nevada, who will follow perennial heavyweight Boise State to the Mountain West after this year. The WAC is adding five new schools for next year, but only Texas State and UT-San Antonio will play football.
Dykes said the team that wins the conference this year will probably be the one that gets the best quarterback play.
“In college football now, there’s so much placed on the quarterback’s shoulders,” Dykes said. “It’s an incredibly important position.”
That’s why Dykes is in a hurry to get his own quarterback job settled.
Colby Cameron is the favorite behind center after throwing for 275 yards and five touchdowns in Tech’s spring game, but he will have to hold off Tarik Hakmi and Taylor Burch in a race for the starting job. Nick Isham could be a contender, too, if the freshman from California picks up the offense quickly enough.
Whoever takes the snaps will enjoy handing off to Creer, who exploded for 1,181 and 10 touchdowns last year - most of it in the second half of the season.
On defense, Tech has Matt Broha (14.5 career sacks) returning at defensive end and Jay Dudley (last year’s leading tackler) at linebacker.
The X-factor is Ryan Williams, who moves from cornerback to safety for his senior season.
“It’s like anything else,” Dykes said. “What you try to do is figure out who your best players are and build your offense, your defense or your special teams around them.”
Tech built its special teams around Philip Livas in previous years, and the speedster from Houma responded with an NCAA record-tying eight returns for touchdowns in his career.
The loss of Livas leaves a hole, but kicker John Hinton and punter Ryan Allen give Tech assets in the kicking game.