Courtesy of LA Tech Athletic Communications
With a mix of solid returnees and impact newcomers, the Bulldogs’ special teams unit has been working hard throughout fall camp as they move towards the season opener on Aug. 26.
With over 40 newcomers to the Louisiana Tech roster, the competition for playing time has increased significantly, resulting in more special teams depth for the Bulldogs in 2023.
“You get some transfer guys coming in that are coming in here for a reason,” Sharp said. “They are coming in here for a starting job, and it raises the level of effort, which helps us in the kicking game. Everybody will be pushing themselves to the limit, so they will try to figure out how to get on the field, elevating depth in the special teams area.”
The Bulldogs have one of the most dangerous returners in the country in redshirt senior Smoke Harris. He is one of two returning FBS players with 500+ kickoff return yards and 200+ punt return yards in 2022. The St. Francisville native enters the 2023 season among NCAA Active career leaders in punt return average (3rd, 11.2) and punt return yards (4th, 605). Last season Harris handled both kick and punt return duties for Tech and is expected to be involved in both this season.
“Right now, we got Smoke starting on punt return which is a no-brainer, and he is starting on kickoff return also,” Sharp said. “We are figuring out if he will be the main guy on kickoff or off returner. As we go through camp, we have to figure out if we got another guy that could possibly be a return guy.”
Some guys that have the potential to complement Harris in the kick return game include freshman Dedrick Latulas, and redshirt sophomore Matthew McCallister. Redshirt sophomore Solo Lewis is also among the returnees who had kickoff return duties a year ago.
The Bulldogs ranked 45th nationally and third among Conference USA programs in kick return average (21.26) last season while ranking 17th nationally and leading CUSA in punt return average (12.42). Sharp believes that this year’s return units can improve on last year’s performance.
“We did a really good job in the return game last year,” Sharp added. “We did not hit any for a big touchdown, but we had a handful of big returns. This year, we have the ability and personnel to return a couple of touchdowns. Hopefully, we can build on that, but we also have to be better in the kickoff return game.”
Redshirt junior Jacob Barnes and sophomore Buck Buchanan return to handle the kicking duties. Barnes dealt with most field goal-kicking duties in 2022, while Buchanan specialized in long-range field goals and kickoffs.
Barnes has made 110 of his 111 extra-point attempts in his career (99.1%) while making 42 field goals in 53 career attempts (79.2%). He currently ranks in the Top-10 in numerous LA Tech career categories, including, Extra Points Made 7th (110), Extra Point Attempts 7th (111), Career Scoring 8th (111), and Field Goals Made 8th (42).
Buchanan was impressive as a true freshman in 2022, leading all C-USA freshmen in kickoff yards (4,199) and touchbacks (34). He also ranked third among all FBS freshmen in kickoff yards and fourth among all freshmen in touchbacks.
One thing that the kicking unit has been focusing on this fall is working on their blocking and getting more lift under kicks to cut down on the number of blocked field goals after opponents blocked six a year ago.
“We are working on getting the ball higher, blocking up front and just getting the whole operation cleaner,” Barnes said. The whole unit needs to improve, and we are making strides to improve when it comes to game one we will be ready to go.”
With the departure of punter Austin McCready and long snapper Griffin Armstrong, competition is open for both positions to be filled.
Redshirt freshman Patrick Rea and graduate transfer Blake Oschendorf are two punters to watch throughout fall camp.
Rea saw action in four games during the 2022 season, tallying 396 total yards with an average of 39.6 yards per punt, highlighted by a season-best 51-yard punt at Charlotte on Nov. 19. Oschendorf arrives in Ruston after spending the 2021-22 seasons at Eastern Michigan. Before his time at Eastern Michigan, he was the starting punter at Minnesota State-Moorhead, where he had 127 total punts for 4,779 yards, averaging 37.63 yards a punt.
Redshirt sophomore Ean Burch and Alabama transfer Gabe Pugh are currently in competition for the starting long snapper position.
The Bulldog specialists will continue to build throughout fall camp as they prepare for their week zero Conference USA showdown with FIU on Aug. 26 at 8 p.m. inside Joe Alliet Stadium when Louisiana Tech opens its 120th season of collegiate football.
“Everyone is excited about the week zero matchup,” kicker Jacob Barnes said. “We have been training all offseason, so I think having the game earlier benefits everyone. Starting fall camp a week earlier helps us a little, but everyone will be excited and ready to go against FIU.”