Last season couldn’t have ended much better for Louisiana Tech defensive end Willie Baker.
He had a sterling four-sack performance as the Bulldogs claimed their fifth straight bowl victory, in Hawaii no less, a 31-14 against the homestanding Warriors.
And yet for Baker, a fourth-year junior from Livonia, and the rest of the Bulldogs, there was a sense of something missing — namely a Conference USA championship.
Despite its recent record of success, Tech hasn’t claimed a league title since 2011, when it was still in the old WAC. Twice since then the Bulldogs have played for the C-USA championship and lost.
They were 8-5 overall, 5-3 in conference play last fall.
“We’re definitely hungry for more,” Baker said. “We’ve been so close to having double-digit winning seasons and a conference championship, but didn’t quite get there.
“This year might be it.”
Certainly much of Tech's success on defense will depend on Baker. Playing behind Jaylon Ferguson, the West Feliciana grad who became the all-time FBS sack leader and the Baltimore Ravens' third-round draft pick, Baker had 11½ tackles for loss last year for the Bulldogs who finished a respectable No. 27 nationally in total defense.
Ferguson obviously left some big cleats to fill, especially since none of the Bulldogs' starting defensive front four returns.
“Playing with Jaylon was amazing,” Baker said. “He put in extra hours working to make me better, and he also taught me about being humble and patient.
“Everybody plays a different role on a team, and sometimes you’ve got to wait your turn. I hope I can be leader like he was.”
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The Tech defense, Baker added, has gotten a big boost from new coordinator Bob Diaco. The former UConn head coach is replacing Blake Baker, now at Miami.
“Coach D brings so much energy and excitement,” Baker said. “Every day he picks you up and everything he tells you is positive.
“We’ve got a new scheme, too. But with Coach D, it’s about his attitude and having all of the integrity in the world.”
Tech's offense should be solid with senior quarterback J’Mar Smith back for his third year as a starter. But Smith regressed last season, at least until the bowl game.
“J’Mar’s back with a whole different attitude this year,” Baker said. “From what I’ve seen, he’s going to play all season like he did in the bowl game. He’s as hungry as I am.”
Certainly Smith’s efforts will be aided by the return of junior wide receiver Adrian Hardy, who led the league in catches (75) and yards (1,145) last season, although he wound up with only six touchdowns.
The ground game struggled last year, primarily because of injuries. Center Ethan Reed will be counted on to lead a revamped offensive line.
The schedule begins with a huge challenge at Texas, followed by a game against Grambling at Joe Aillet Stadium.
“We know all about Texas playing LSU the week after they play us,” Baker said. “But they had better not be looking ahead or they’ll be in trouble.
“And we know how Grambling’s going to come in here aiming to beat us. We won’t be overlooking them.”
But to Baker, it’s what lies at the end of schedule that really matters — November games against North Texas, Marshall, UAB and UTSA, which will determine whether the Bulldogs are playing for a conference title or settling for another runner-up season.
“We didn’t always handle success last year,” he said. “We’ve got the kind of team that’s good enough to have a lot of it if we remember that.
“Everybody goes into the season hungry. We’re just going to be hungrier than anybody else.”
Aug. 31 at Texas, 7 p.m.
Sept. 7 Grambling, 2:30 p.m.
Sept. 14 at Bowling Green, 4 p.m.
Sept. 20 FIU, 7 p.m.
Sept. 28 at Rice, 6 p.m.
Oct. 12 UMass, 6 p.m.
Oct. 19 Southern Miss, 2:30 p.m.
Oct. 26 at UTEP, 7 p.m.
Nov. 9 North Texas, 3 p.m.
Nov. 15 at Marshall, 6 p.m.
Nov. 23 at UAB, TBA
Nov. 30 UTSA, 2:30 p.m.