Jeff Driskel: The Untold Story (Until Now)

    From Florida Gator to Louisiana Tech Bulldog, Ashley Barnett talks to the once prized recruit about the next chapter in his career.

    July 23, 2015

    Last year’s stunning turnaround would not have been possible if QB Cody Sokol didn’t transfer from Iowa. Playing the role of Sokol this fall, Tech fans hope, is Jeff Driskel, who failed to reach lofty expectations while at Florida. If Driskel can reinvent himself in Ruston, the Bulldogs maintain enough talent on both sides of the ball to repeat as Conference USA West Division champs. 

    This is an especially important year for Holtz, who’s still rebuilding his reputation following a failed three-year stint at South Florida that ended with his ouster in 2012. 

    Louisiana Tech has authored back-to-back winning seasons just once this century, achieved by Holtz predecessor Sonny Dykes in 2011 and 2012. So, building off last year’s improbable 9-5, divisional-winning campaign is a top priority for every member of the program. Because as exciting as last fall was for the Bulldogs, they’ll fall off the radar in a flash if their encore performance is a dud. 

    While Driskel will be a seminal figure in 2015, it’s not as if he’ll be asked to carry the team without help. Tech boasts one of the league’s top backs, Kenneth Dixon, as well as a receiving corps that brings back four of last season’s top five pass-catchers. On defense, the Bulldogs have a new boss, Blake Baker, yet the same philosophy—use speed and tenacity to force the opposition into costly mistakes. The 2014 D ranked second nationally to Washington in combined sacks and takeaways, a huge element to last year’s overall team success. 

    Job well done last season, Louisiana Tech. But 2014 will lose its sizzle if you can’t deliver an appropriate second act under Holtz. The Bulldogs harbor as much talent and balance as anyone in the league, including a high-profile SEC quarterback seeking redemption on a new campus. The key for Tech is to remain hot and in contention for the West Division crown. 

    Anything less, with a deep and veteran roster, will reignite questions about Holtz, whose hiring and debut drew sharp criticism two years ago. 

    What you need to know about the offense: Coordinator Tony Petersen engineered one of the biggest year-over-year turnarounds in 2014, which he plans to continue in 2015. The Bulldogs went from No. 12 in Conference USA scoring to No. 3, nearly doubling their points. Now, a turnover-happy defense was certainly a factor, but so was the injection of Iowa transfer QB Cody Sokol. And now that Sokol has finished his cup of coffee in Ruston, it’s Jeff Driskel’s turn to provide the jolt … as long as he beats out holdover Ryan Higgins. Petersen will again lean heavily on his backs, physical downhill runners Kenneth Dixon and Jarred Craft. However, the passing game is the key. Driskel—or Higgins—needs to precipitate balance, while engaging an eclectic receiving corps headed by Trent Taylor, Paul Turner and Carlos Henderson. Up front, Tech will be missing its best blocker, enormous RT Mitchell Bell. New line coach Robert McFarland is banking on 6-8, 331-pound OT Derek Edinburgh, an LSU transfer, being a key part of the rebuilding plan along the O-line. 

    What you need to know about the defense: Manny Diaz did a brilliant job of transforming the Bulldogs into an attacking tour de force in 2014. A good enough job, in fact, to land him the same coordinator position on Dan Mullen’s Mississippi State staff. Young and fiery Blake Baker, the safeties coach, was the immediate beneficiary, earning a significant promotion at the age of 32. Since it aint broke, Baker doesn’t plan to fix the job that Diaz started. Tech will continue to push the envelope, pin its ears back and pile up sacks and turnovers. It’s now in the team’s DNA. Baker’s secondary could be the most talented and disruptive in the league. His D-line has an inside-outside presence with Vernon Butler and Vontarrius Dora, respectively. The coach’s linebackers, though, have been an offseason focus after all three starters graduated. Scrappy seniors Beau Fitte and Nick Thomason are poised for a breakout finales, but much more help and depth will be needed at the position. 

    The Schedule: The Bulldogs will get two high-profile non-conference tests versus Kansas State and Mississippi State, the latter against former defensive coordinator Manny Diaz. 
    – The defending West Division champs drew two of the tougher East Division opponents in 2015 with a Sept. 12 trip to Western Kentucky and a Sept. 26 visit from Middle Tennessee. 
    – There will be no rematch of last year’s Conference USA Championship Game with Marshall … unless, of course, both schools capture their respective divisions for a second straight year. 
    – Louisiana Tech better use the opener with Southern as a tune-up, because trips to Western Kentucky and Kansas State loom in the Week 2 and Week 3 on-deck circle, respectively. 
    – The Bulldogs will play 10 games in a row before finally earning an off week on Nov. 14. 
    – WATCH OUT FOR … UTSA. Larry Coker’s Roadrunners are always well-coached, especially on D, and the home team has won each meeting between these two programs. 

    The season will be a success if … the Bulldogs avoid a yo-yo season. Tech won nine games in 2012, four in 2013 and nine again last year. It’s that kind of erratic behavior that’s prevented the squad from gaining traction as a Group of Five program. Nine wins will admittedly be difficult with a schedule that includes road trips to Western Kentucky, Kansas State, Mississippi State, Rice and UTEP. Still, there’s enough veteran talent in Ruston for the Bulldogs to again compete for the division, while sealing up a postseason berth with some margin for error in November. 

    Key game: Oct. 31 at Rice. Louisiana Tech’s bid to repeat as the West Division champ really goes into high gear with this trip to Houston to play the Owls. This will be the first of two crucial divisional matchups, including a game at UTEP three weeks later, that could determine one-half of the Conference USA title game. Rice is always well-coached, with a deep and diverse backfield that’ll test the rebuilt second level of the Louisiana Tech defense. 

    2014 Fun Stats: 
    – Points off turnovers: Louisiana Tech 178 – Opponents 54 
    – Takeaways: Louisiana Tech 26 – Opponents 35 
    – Sacks: Louisiana Tech 38 – Opponents 19 

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