2018 Gridiron: Louisiana Bulldogs
Colors: Cardinal and white
Total Returning Lettermen: 4
2017 Overall Record: 0-10
Head Coach: Joe Calhoun
Years at School: 1
Record at School: 0-0
Overall Record: 0-0
ISLE OF BULLDOGS: SWEEPING CHANGES IN LEADERSHIP, CONFERENCE AFFILIATION POSITION LOUISIANA FOR A NEEDED RESET
THERE’S A LOT TO UNPACK HERE: In June, Bulldog Football graduated eight seniors who ended their High School Football careers without ever experiencing a varsity victory. That’s a scenario that the powers that be within the Louisiana School District worked diligently over the course of the last year to assure as best they could would not happen again. In the interest of giving their student-athletes the best experience possible, the wheels were set in motion over a year ago for Bulldog Football to exit the rough and tumble Clarence Cannon Conference (where it had won just two of 50 games over the last five years and essentially struggled to be top-end competitive since 1998) for the more like-sized competition afforded them in the Eastern Missouri Conference. Louisiana won’t be officially welcomed into the EMO Fold until 2020, which puts the Bulldogs in Conference Affiliation limbo. Granted, that means a cobbled together schedule of disparate opponents (although to his credit, Athletic Director Ryan Griffin was not only able to fill out a full slate of nine regular season competitors on short notice, he managed to secure early trial run contracts with future EMO foes Van-Far and Mark Twain for the next two seasons) for the next two years. By the same token, it also buys new a new coaching regime two years to rebuild the foundations of the program for their kids without the demoralizing weekly prospect of having to play sacrificial lamb to the Monroe City/Palmyra/Centralia power elite every week. In short, there’s a chance here to build some traction, attract kids walking the hallways back into the program with the prospect of a more enjoyable experience and some potentially winnable games right away after four years of “victory starvation.”
THERE’S STILL MORE TO UNPACK HERE: The man now tasked with overseeing this complete overhaul of Bulldog Football is Joe Calhoun, who spent the last three years as an Assistant on Greg Purdum’s staff. Calhoun, who is the son of Bulldog Sports legend Rockne Calhoun, beat out two other candidates for the job after Purdum announced his decision to resign; which in truth worked out as a clean slate opportunity for all involved. Purdum, who has garnered considerable coaching contacts throughout the industry in his career, is probably better suited to the college game. And Louisiana gets the cosmetic advantage of getting to sell the “fresh start/new era” concept moving forward; which is not a small thing when you are trying to turn the page on a less that exemplary Football past and move enthusiastically forward into the future. Calhoun’s initial value here was in understanding that rebuilding the image of Bulldog Football went well beyondwellsimply rebuilding Bulldog on the Football Field. He kick started his tenure with a Commitment Dinner for potential players, offering them a glimpse into just what a sacrifice of their time and efforts playing football could mean as solution to past problems and restoration of community pride. Calhoun also, in the spirit of team building, emphasized that his program would be of service to that same community in ways that extended beyond merely scoring touchdowns; creating a true service arm of Bulldog Football with the Touchdown Club. It will be directly involved in charitable works, fund raisers, and acts of kindness to people in need to allow Bulldog Players to feel they are directly contributing to Louisiana, in concert and through brotherhood, to make a difference. When you consider that success in football is so often the resulted of coaxing directed selflessness to a greater goal, the resonant value of such an activity for young men away from the field would seem a natural chemistry and personal pride builder.
THE NUMBERS GAME: Here’s the immediate synopsis of what Joe Calhoun and his staff are fighting to turn the tide. There were seventeen kids in the program last Fall, eleven of whom either graduated or moved out of the District. That leaves six holdover kids and just four Lettermen as the New Pillars of Change for Louisiana Football. To that equation, the new coaching regime has been able to coax an influx of new faces to make the commitment to be “the solution” here for the future. Speaking from a purely X’s and O’s standpoint, that’s a really daunting challenge. Looking Big Picture, however, a turnaround of the fortunes of this program was never going to happen without a game changing “leap of faith” moment and the increased participation Joe Calhoun is anticipating based on what he’s heard from kids at that aforementioned Commitment Dinner may well represent that long overdue pivot. More to the point, anyone who has even casually taken note of the success Louisiana has enjoyed in both basketball and track and field in recent years can attest that this school produces some quality athletes. So when a kid like Derek Richards, who is universally heralded as one of the Top Three basketball talents in the entire Tri-States, decides he’s going to play Football in his Senior Year; that’s a game-changer in profile and reputation alone for Bulldog Football before the kid even catches his first pass. And as we saw last season with Zeb Riney at Clark County, an athlete of Richards caliber can translate incredibly quickly and dramatically to the sport even when “coming off the couch” so to speak. Of course, there are going to be growing pains for all the newcomers involved, Richards included. If Football were easy, everyone would do it. But the potential here, given this influx of guys, is intriguing and the source of optimism looking into the future.
WHAT TO EXPECT WHEN YOU ARE PROSPECTING: Schematically, Joe Calhoun football profiles thusly: A physical RPO styled Offense ideally helmed by a dynamic quarterback and a Multiple Defense that allows kids to fly around from the Linebacker and Secondary Spots and make plays. Within those base frameworks, the Bulldog staff is tasked with invigorating an Offense that scored just 10 points per game on average last season and significantly tightening the seal on a leaky defense that gave up more than 50 points and 500 yards a contest a year ago. There’s evidential cause for hope on both fronts, beyond just the obvious lessening of strength of schedule. Offensively, there’s the silver lining of “the Cam Henderson Nuclear Option,” which is considerable. For everything else that went sideways last Fall, Louisiana found a catalyst Quarterback; the football equivalent of buying a dilapidated fixer-upper home, only to tearing up the carpet and discover pristine Hard Wood Floors hiding beneath. Hidden value. See also that through all that struggle, Henderson orchestrated an offense that averaged 100 passing yards per game. There’s the potential here for balance. And Cam can flat move, which should add some dimensionality to a run game in need. Watching his highlight cutups from last season, Cam did a very credible job reading his options and finding yards even when the blocking ahead of him wasn’t always advantageous. He’s got some bob and weave to him. If you afforded just one luxury item to ignite a rebuild, Cam Henderson is terrific place to start.
Defensively, the Bulldogs will scheme up with a 3-3 Stack and bank on an infusion of speed and athleticism into the back eight to close ranks. There is some initial traction to be found at Defensive Line with both Tyler Hopkins (6’3” 220lbs) and Dalton Gloe (5’10” 280lbs) reprising their roles as Starters from a year ago. Incoming Junior Jesse Calvert could suit up and instantly solidify that front as a team strength. Jacob Gray is back as a starter at Linebacker as well and the Bulldogs will array a host of new starters around him. Junior Devin Cropp is a potential complimentary piece to Gray at Linebacker. Cody Love projects to jump in at Cornerback. Derek Richards and Damien Burse project as a really nifty Free and Strong Safety combo. What this group may lack in experience, it should be able to compensate for nicely in mistake-erasing mobility.
DON’T SLEEP ON: Sophomore Jordan Luck, who could loom as a potential fix to a ground game that averaged just 100 yards a contest a year ago. Luck cut his teeth here as a Frosh at H-Back and had some nice moments in the Spring in Baseball, showing a tease of “it factor.” He and Devin Cropp can be effective counterpunches to Cam Henderson in the backfield and should benefit with more room to run behind a veteran blockers Tyler Hopkins and Dalton Gloe. The running game could also open up a bit more underneath with teams having to contend with Richards, Burse, and Love in the receiving game as well.
THE DUERR DIAGNOSIS: There is a long, uphill road to travel for this program; the inherent price of so much long entrenched mediocrity. At same time though, there’s also finally some visible light coming from the end of the tunnel. A sense of investment in the future of the program. A more level playing field. More bodies. A new voice on the sidelines. All these things carry with them hope. And that alone can be inducement enough to spin all these things forward into a more positive light. That should be the goal for the 2018 campaign: setting the table for the bigger victories to come. I am not overly concerned with win/loss record in Year Reset here (although I would argue that in contrast to years past, when all a Bulldog fan could do was circle Highland on the slate and wait, there are at least three potential “break the streak” opponents on this schedule this year) as I am in seeing the Bulldogs compete with hunger and self-confidence for four quarters. The days of being down 35 points in the second quarter and turbo-clock finishes should now be largely a thing of the past. That’s step one. It’s going to probably take all this new talent a few weeks to get their varsity football legs, but when that does happen, I do think the Bulldogs are going to be able to score points; on just about everyone. There aren’t many Defensive Backs on the schedule who can check a Derek Richards in space or keep contain on the edge on Cam Henderson. Much of that ultimately will ride on Joe Calhoun’s ability to find three new competent Offensive Linemen but if that all works, this could be a really fun offense. And maybe there’s some confidence carry-over from that side of the ball to defense as well. That unit will get a stern test of its tackling resolve right out of the gate with rising star Jace Barton and Mark Twain in the opener. But there’s also incredible opportunity in that was well. If Louisiana comes out opening night and looks drastically improved against an offense that people think is going to be pretty good; that’s an instant shot of adrenaline into this program and the flash point too long denied Bulldog kids. Rest assured, Bulldog Faithful. That long overdue moment is coming at some point this Fall. There’s too many things moving positively in your favor for it not to follow suit. So keep the faith for one more Fall and I feel confident in telling you that if all falls into place, this article in this magazine is going to be the most fun one we’ve written in 15 years. And that will be a blast for all involved; even the author himself who is overjoyed at the prospect of finally selling you more than carefully nuanced glimpses of hope. So go make good things happen Bulldogs. It’s not often in this world any of us get a change to reverse history. Your legacy could be exactly that.