After spending the last two seasons with graduate transfers at quarterback (Cody Sokol and Jeff Driskel), Louisiana Tech head coach Skip Holtz made a vow to stay away from multiple enticing options and pick a quarterback from in-house for the 2016 season.
It became abundantly clear as spring turned into summer that the job was senior Ryan Higgins’ job to loss. The Texas native was the only quarterback with starting experience, making six starts in the 2013 season. Higgins passed for 1,715 yards and six touchdowns as a sophomore, but lost out to the before mentioned graduate transfers in each of the last two seasons.
There was no reason for anyone looking at the Louisiana Tech program to expect anything other than Higgins getting the chance to bookend his career as the starter and attempt to lead the Bulldogs to a bowl berth.
Then Higgins sabotaged himself. Less than a month before the season opener at Arkansas, Higgins was arrested in Ruston and charged with a DWI and speeding. Higgins performed poorly on a standardized field sobriety test and had a blood alcohol content of .119. As bad as the arrest was, it came at an inopportune time as the Bulldogs reported to fall camp three days later.
The player that took advantage of this opportunity to earn more playing time was redshirt freshman J’Mar Smith. He came into fall camp as the #3 quarterback behind Higgins and sophomore Price Wilson. After the competition, Smith was moved past Wilson and became the backup to Higgins. He then vaulted to the starting position when it was announced the Higgins would not start due to the DWI, but was not suspended.
Expectations around the program were a half of Smith in action, before bringing in Higgins to mop up the massacre of a blowout loss in the second half. It would give Smith much-needed game action and give Higgins a chance to play some in the season opener before taking over as the starter for the rest of the year.
Not willing to just lie down for their SEC counterparts, the Bulldogs defense stopped Arkansas cold with an interception by defensive star Xavier Woods. That brought Smith onto the field for the first time. All he did was march the Bulldogs 62 yards in eight plays, capping the drive off with a nine-yard rush to take a 7-0 lead.
The redshirt freshman never looked back, leading the offense on a game-tying touchdown drive as the first half ended. At halftime, the game was tied at 14, throwing Holtz’s plans into disarray. He could not pull a starting quarterback that had been masterful in a game that was tied at the half.
Smith started the second half and led the Bulldogs to two field goals that saw the lead swell to 20-14. Though Arkansas found a way to pull out a 21-20 win in the end, everyone watching was incredibly impressed by the skill and poise of Smith.
Despite his excellent play, Smith was demoted to back up and Higgins was placed as the starter. But why?
Here are a few possible reasons why Holtz made this odd decision.
Loyalty to Higgins: Though Higgins committed the DWI and was not allowed to start versus Arkansas, he was still allowed to be a team captain for the game. It shows how loyal Holtz is to Higgins to still allow him to be the captain in the game despite being unofficially suspended.
A flash in the pan: Holtz and company believe that Smith’s performance was the result of Arkansas not game planning enough for Smith and getting burned. The coaching staff thinks that when a team actually prepares for Smith, he will not be as effective.
That end of the game hit: Attempting to lead the Bulldogs to a game winning score, Smith was crushed on both sides in a hit that caused his helmet to go flying off to the side. Smith was clearly dazed and would not have gone back into the game if the defense made a stop. He is not on the injury report, but it was clear that he was not right after that hit.
Didn’t get the win: If Barnes made either field goal attempt from 54 or 39 yards, we would have been talking about an upset win instead of a one-point loss. A win over Arkansas would have forced Holtz to keep Smith as the starter. A loss allowed Holtz the excuse to go with Higgins as the starter and not feel like he was cheating to do so.
Higgins is better: This is debatable as it has been clear from the beginning of the competition that Higgins was going to be named the starter unless he completely crapped the bed. Every other quarterback on the roster was playing for the backup role. Maybe Higgins is just that much better.
Whatever the reason, Higgins is the starter for a Week Two matchup with South Carolina State and is set up to perform well versus the FCS program. Higgins will have a much harder time in the following few weeks as Louisiana Tech travels to Texas Tech and MTSU, before hosting UTEP and Western Kentucky. By then, we may see a fully fledged quarterback controversy between Higgins and Smith.