Koonz Returns To Ruston
LB Coach Spent Four Seasons At Louisiana Tech
DENTON - In a profession predicated on many moves, it’s not uncommon that a coach would be going against a former employer at some point. North Texas linebackers coach Jeff Koonz finds himself in that situation this week, returning to Ruston, Louisiana, as the Mean Green face off with the Bulldogs in a pivotal Conference USA West divisional matchup.
Koonz spent four seasons at Louisiana Tech from 2010-13, working on two different staffs, and there will be many memories flooding back Saturday at Joe Aillet Stadium.
“The community welcomed us and it was a great place to live,” Koonz said. “Our first daughter was born down the street in Monroe and we lived there for the first two years of her life in Ruston. I got married there, so there are a lot key milestones during the early stages of life that happened for us there. It is one of the stops we’ve made, but it certainly has some extra meaning to us.”
Koonz was a part of Louisiana Tech teams that played in the Western Athletic Conference under former head coach and current TCU offensive analyst Sonny Dykes, and in C-USA in current Bulldogs head coach Skip Holtz’s first season.
Several coaches, support staff and members of administration that Koonz worked with are still in Ruston, as are a handful of student-athletes he coached and recruited before leaving for Cincinnati following the 2013 season.
Head strength coach Kurt Hester, quarterbacks coach Tim Rattay, inside receivers coach Joe Sloan and cornerbacks coach Kevin Curtis, who was on Dykes’ staff, were with Koonz. He also spent time with Louisiana Tech offensive line coach Rob McFarland while the pair were at Iowa State, where Koonz also overlapped briefly with Todd Fitch, the outside receivers coach at the time and now the Bulldogs’ offensive coordinator.
Though there is sure to be some nostalgia, Koonz makes it clear that Saturday is nothing more than a business trip. Reminiscing and catching up with old friends and co-workers can wait. Saturday is about the task at hand, and the opportunity for the Mean Green to take a key step in the program’s growth and maturation.
“There’s a lot at stake,” Koonz said. “This is a big opportunity for us, as well as a huge opportunity for them, between the lines on the field, so that takes priority. I’ve got the rest of the year to make contact with those guys and we will, but, at the end of the day, this day is set aside for this opportunity.”
But some of those memories parallel what North Texas will attempt to do Saturday. In 2011, in Ruston in November in front of their home crowd on its way to the 2011 WAC title.
“It’s always something that will stick with me forever,” Koonz said of the conference title. “It’s the same thing that we are working towards here at North Texas, and it would mean even more now. When you make a move and go to another program or another place, you fully ingrain yourself in that.
“I honestly couldn’t be prouder to be a part of a process like this,” Koonz added. “The consistency and day-in-day-out drive starts with coach [Seth] Littrell and trickles down to our staff and to our team. Just sticking to the core values, focusing on the task at hand, accomplishing the mission and watching the guys do that is rewarding. Obviously through any mission you’re going to have unfortunate side-steps and steps backwards. To watch the guys adapt and adhere to our plan is something I am really pleased with.”
North Texas enters this week at 5-3 overall and 4-1 in conference play, and sit atop the west division with head-to-head tiebreakers over three key challengers. Louisiana Tech is a fourth challenger, and the defending division champion is 4-4 and 2-2 in C-USA play thus far.
A win Saturday would put the Mean Green on the cusp of the West title, and Koonz’s crew will play a major role in stopping Louisiana Tech’s attack. The Bulldogs employ a balanced offense and a focus for North Texas will be to make Louisiana Tech one-dimensional. Stopping the run is typically a key for any defense, but that rings true especially against the Bulldogs, whose two-headed ground attack features seniors Jarred Craft and Boston Scott, who have combined for nearly 1,000 yards and eight touchdowns. Being able to fill the gaps and stay sound in technique is a top priority.
Limiting the Louisiana Tech run game would put the onus on quarterback J’Mar Smith, who has thrown for a shade under 2,000 yards and 10 touchdowns with just four interceptions through the first eight contests.
“J’Mar is playing very well as a redshirt sophomore.” Koonz said. “He was a kid that I was recruiting before I left. He’s someone who can definitely manage the game and make the throws, is a good athlete and can throw on the run. He can make things happen with his feet when the play breaks down, so we have to really limit big plays, especially with the explosive offense they have.”
North Texas will also try to bottle up Tulane transfer Teddy Veal, Conference USA’s receptions leader with 50 catches. The go-to target has 30 more catches than the team’s second-leading receiver, Marlon Watts, but Louisiana Tech’s receiving corps has plenty of dynamic players who have big-play ability.
“For us it’s about finishing the game,” Koonz said. “You have to be a phenomenal sudden-change defense. Last week we were able to do that, and other times we haven’t, but we are striving to be more consistent and it’s like anything else, the guys believe they can do it and we are working towards that.”