RUSTON – Louisiana Tech head football coach Skip Holtz has felt like he’s worn a new and different hat for his team for a few weeks.
And that feeling was emphasized even more as the Bulldogs opened preseason camp Friday morning on the practice fields.
“I’ve become the COVID-19 coach,” Holtz told media members following the team’s first fall session. “I am overemphasizing. I don’t ever want a player to say that we are not doing everything within our power to protect our players and protect our program to give us a chance to have this opportunity. I want to go the extra mile.
“At the end of the day, they’re going to say I’m in a safe environment. If we have to contact trace, I don’t have to list anybody. If we’re going to come back and play this game, we have an obligation to put our players in the safest environment we can to protect them and give Louisiana Tech an opportunity to play, if that’s what happens in college football this year.”
Under any normal circumstance, players would’ve packed in tight for a breakdown to kickoff practice. But Friday, Holtz yelled “stay where you are” to his players after their stretched for the first team breakdown of fall camp.
Throughout the two-hour session, and the first time in 225 days the entire football team was out on the field together, Holtz spend a hefty amount of time reiterating the program’s safety measures. Each players’ helmet now has a face shield that stretches to the bottom of its face mask attached to it. And when the team took hydration breaks, all 105 guys spread out across both practice fields, sitting more than six feet apart from one another, and when they weren’t drinking, with masks pulled up over their noses.
“Social distancing, we’ve been doing that since workouts started back, trying to keep space and wearing masks,” said junior safety Jaiden Cole. “If we take our helmets off, we put our masks on. It a norm now, like coach Holtz says. We’re getting used to it still.”
Both Cole and junior wide receiver Griffin Hebert agreed that the new face shields ramp up the temperature for the players and that it’ll take some getting used to, but the implementation of them along with Holtz’s emphasizing and the other safety measures Tech has put in place, there were little to no concern for the entire team to be practicing together.
“No, I was more excited than anything because we haven’t had this atmosphere in 220-something days,” Hebert said when asked if he had any worries regarding his health. “It was amazing.”
“With everything going, we were kind of nervous, not knowing whether we were going to play or not,” Cole added. “It seemed like some teams canceled their seasons. So we’re really excited and blessed to be here, playing and doing what we’ve been training for since we couldn’t really work out.”
A plethora of new faces peppered the fields during the first practice. More than 30 players, transfers and incoming freshmen alike, got their first taste with the team. Newcomers like Abilene Christian graduate transfer quarterback Luke Anthony, former Virginia Tech safety Khalil Ladler, former LSU offensive guard Donavaughn Campbell garnered plenty of attention.
But all of the new players will attract much of the coaching staff’s time and energy early and often during camp as Holtz knows, especially on the defensive side of the ball, several of them will need to help Tech this year. Due to the effect of COVID-19, the program and the young guys, missed out on key developmental time.
“We have to bring some of these young guys along. We’re not in Kansas anymore Toto. It’s going to be a lot for some of these freshmen and new guys. We’ve got 30 days to get ready,” Holtz said. “We’ve got a lot of decisions to make on who’s going to fit where. We’ve got to build some depth.”
LA Tech’s biggest concern
Following day one of fall camp, Holtz said how fast new defensive coordinator David Blackwell and linebackers coach Brian Gamble can manufacture depth in the middle of the unit will be paramount.
“My biggest concern is the linebacker level and what it’ll look like underneath the (new faces in the secondary. We’re only as strong as our weakest link,” the coach said.
Senior Ezekiel Barnett is the lone returner. But Trey Baldwin is back and received plenty of significant snaps last season, but his progression will be vital for Tech’s defense. Redshirt seniot Alex Zayed and Isaiah Windmon could be role players, and redshirt freshman Maki Carabin could be one to watch at linebacker.
Breaking down Louisiana Tech’s QBs
When asked about his first impressions of Anthony, Holtz had plenty of praises for the grad transfer signal caller.
“Luke has a strong arm, throws a tight ball, a very accurate ball. You can see why he’s had the success he’s had, throwing for all the yards and touchdowns,” Holtz said. “And for it being the first day, he was comfortable out there. I thought all the quarterbacks did some good things.”
Holtz lauded the way redshirt sophomore quarterback Aaron Allen, who took most of the first teams reps Friday, and backup Westin Elliott executed the first day out.
Louisiana Tech will return to the field Saturday morning at 9 a.m.