Heading the list of departures were two of the best players in recent program history — running back Kenneth Dixon and defensive tackle Vernon Butler. Dixon, who rushed for 4,483 yards and 72 touchdowns during his prolific college career, was a fourth round draft pick of the Baltimore Ravens. Butler, a 6-foot-4, 324-pound run stuffer, was a first round choice of the Carolina Panthers.
Those two were among six All-Conference USA selections within a large senior class that led Louisiana Tech to back-to-back bowl wins for the first time in program history. Quarterback Jeff Driskel, taken in the sixth round, is a backup for the Cincinnati Bengals. Cornerback Adairius Barnes (Detroit Lions), safety Kentrell Brice (Green Bay Packers), linebacker Vontarrius Dora (Denver Broncos) and wide receiver Paul Turner (Philadelphia Eagles) also made active rosters.
"We had seven players from last year's team wind up in NFL training camps," fourth-year head coach Skip Holtz said. "Obviously, Kenneth Dixon and Vernon Butler are both making an impact as rookies. I think some of the other guys are going to have nice careers. It was a special senior class that accomplished great things here and left some big holes to fill."
Navy, which graduated 36 seniors from the 2015 team that set a single-season school record with 11 victories, can certainly relate. The Midshipmen, who will meet the Bulldogs at Amon G. Carter Stadium in Fort Worth on Friday, lost a record-setting quarterback in Keenan Reynolds and a three-year starting nose guard in Bernie Sarra.
Louisiana Tech was particularly hard hit on the defensive side of the ball as only three starters returned. The Bulldogs brought back six starters on offense, but had to replace two important parts at quarterback and tailback.
Under the direction of Holtz, Louisiana Tech did not miss a beat — compiling an 8-5 record and finishing as runner-up in Conference USA. The Bulldogs are making a third consecutive postseason appearance for the first time in school history.
"We started this season ranked 123rd out of 128 Football Bowl Subdivision schools in returning experience. This was supposed to be a rebuilding year," Holtz said. "It's a real testament to our coaching staff, to our recruiting and to our strength and conditioning program that so many young players were ready to step in and ready to play at a high level."
Topping the list was quarterback Ryan Higgins, who earned first team All-Conference USA after passing for 4,208 yards and 37 touchdowns. The 6-foot-2, 207-pound senior, who saw minimal action as the backup to Driskel the previous two seasons, led an attack that ranks fifth nationally in scoring offense (44 points per game) and eighth in total offense (516.1 yards).
"What Higgins has been able to do as a fifth-year senior is very impressive. His development has been one of the big reasons for our success," Holtz said. "Higgins has done a great job of protecting the football and making good decisions. He understands the offense and has a very accurate arm."
Higgins was blessed with a pair of big-time targets in Carlos Henderson and Trent Taylor, both of whom were semifinalists for the Biletnikoff Award as the country's best receiver. Taylor set the Conference USA single-season record with 124 receptions, which produced 1,570 yards and 10 touchdowns.
"Trent Taylor is the absolute epitome of stability. He shows up every week and, ho-hum, has 10 catches for 120 yards," Holtz said. "Trent possesses off-the-charts intangibles and is kind of like a security blanket for Higgins. He runs great routes and catches everything thrown his way."
Henderson emerged as a big-play threat this season, racking up 1,406 yards and 17 touchdowns on 72 catches. The 5-foot-11, 191-pound junior is also a dangerous kickoff returner, averaging 30.4 yards and taking two back for touchdowns.
"Carlos has great speed and moves. He has a chance to go all the way every time he touches the ball because he is so fast and elusive," Holtz said.
Junior Jarred Craft stepped into the tailback void left by Dixon and had a solid season, rushing for 1,011 yards and nine touchdowns. Classmate Boston Scott, a 5-foot-6 jitterbug, provides a nice change of pace.
"Together, Jarred and Boston have given us nice production when you look at yards per carry," Holtz said.
Higgins, Henderson, Taylor and senior left tackle Darrell Brown were members of the offense all named first team All-Conference USA. Senior center Joseph Brunson and sophomore left guard O'Shea Dugas were second-team selections.
Sophomore defensive end Jaylon Ferguson enjoyed a breakout season and teamed with senior safety Xavier Woods to lead the defense. Ferguson (6-5, 255) tops Conference USA and ranks fourth nationally with 14.5 sacks and also amassed 16 tackles for loss.
Woods led the league with five interceptions and is second on the squad with 81 total tackles. Woods was a repeat pick as first team All-Conference USA while Ferguson also made the first team after earning honorable mention as a freshman.
"Jaylon has been a real difference-maker, a disruptive force," Holtz said. "Xavier is a four-year starter and the quarterback of our defense."
Senior linebacker Jordan Harris, who leads Louisiana Tech with 94 tackles, was a second team selection. Kicker Jonathan Barnes, a two-time semifinalist for the Lou Groza Award, also earned a place on the second team after making 20 of 25 field goals and 71 of 72 extra points.
"Our front seven may not be as flashy as last season, but overall has been very solid," Holtz said of the defense, which is allowing an average of 32.7 points and 418.4 total yards.
This is the fourth head coaching gig for Holtz, who previously led Connecticut (1994-98), East Carolina (2005-2009) and South Florida (2010-2012). The 52-year-old coaching lifer, who got into the business in 1987, owns a 118-93 career record. He is the son of the legendary Lou Holtz, serving as his assistant at both Notre Dame and South Carolina.
"I still get quite a bit of advice from my dad. I would be foolish to not take advantage of all his wisdom and experience," said the younger Holtz, who played wide receiver at Notre Dame in 1986.
Louisiana Tech narrowly missed pulling off a major upset in the season opener, falling 21-20 to Arkansas of the Southeastern Conference. The Razorbacks (7-5), who finished fifth in the SEC West Division, are playing Virginia Tech in the Belk Bowl.
Louisiana Tech went 6-2 in Conference USA during the regular season, losing to Middle Tennessee State and Southern Mississippi. The Bulldogs won the West Division and were beaten by Western Kentucky (10-3, 7-1), 58-44, in the conference championship game.
"I think the balance, from top to bottom, in this conference is outstanding," said Holtz, who led Louisiana Tech to a 9-5 record and West Division title in 2014. "We have some really talented football teams in this league, a lot of really good players and quality head coaches."
Holtz was named the 33rd head coach at Louisiana Tech after Sonny Dykes departed to take the same position at California. He inherited a program that lost 35 seniors and struggled to a 4-8 record in 2013.
Armed Forces Bowl
NO. 25 NAVY VS. LOUISIANA TECH
At Dallas, Texas
Friday, 4:30 p.m.
RADIO: 1430 AM, 1090 AM
LINE: Louisiana Tech by 5
LOUISIANA TECH AT A GLANCE
LOCATION: Ruston, Louisiana
COLORS: Blue and Red
HEAD COACH: Skip Holtz, fourth year (30-22)
AFFILIATION: Conference USA
HOME VENUE: Joe Aillet Stadium