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Texas Tech Defensive Preview

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Overview

I’ve been putting this off for a while because there’s just no short way for me to write it and I needed to harness my emotions. I’m a little torn on my feelings regarding the defense of my beloved Red Raiders. One side of me really wants to buy into the spring hype of a unit that for the first time in the Leach Era, held their own, if not won the spring battle against the offense. The realist side of me wants to focus on a front 7 that was plagued with poor fundamentals, talent, and alignment issues culminating in a running game, feeding frenzy when facing competent zone read teams in 2007.

I keep reading some stat where Tech had the top-ranked defense in the Big 12 from the period when Ruffin McNeill took over until the end of the season. This is proof that stats can be misleading, and end of the day, the only stat that really matters on that side of the ball is scoring defense. I couldn’t resist breaking this down a little further before we get into the personnel section. Of the 9 opponents that McNeill and company faced after the Okie State debacle, 3 included Northwestern St. (directional LA D-II school), Iowa State (centrally located IA D-I state school w/D-II talent), and Baylor. Yes, I do believe quality of opponent should play a factor when evaluating a team. My Claude Mustang team stomped a mudhole in Bovina every year. Sudan would hold a donkey barbecue and we would provide the ass every year in the1st round of the playoffs, even though on paper we had a better defense. So, let’s take a look at what was left: Texas A&M, Missouri, Colorado, Texas, Oklahoma, and Virginia. Those teams averaged 47 carries for 217 yards on the ground against Tech, or 4.6 yards per carry. For the casual football fan, I’ll go ahead and clear the air. That’s a sucky number. Those same teams averaged 18 completions for 190 yards through the air. That sounds like you’ve got Ed Reed and Champ Bailey in your secondary, but that’s not the case. Points per game, you ask? It’s 32. Our record against those teams was 3-3. Most of you have already translated this info by now, but it shows an obvious trend that teams with above average talent will try to keep the ball on the ground to shorten the number of possessions the Tech offense receives throughout a game. When you look at the stat sheet, it appears we held Mizzou to 75 yards under their per game average, but that’s not really the whole story, and hence this is where the top ranked defense myth begins. It’s the formula to beat us and it works. Now, they did have an inspired effort against OU by only allowing 106 yards on 34 carries. Take out that game and the numbers get even worse. I know OU was playing from behind and forced to pass, but our front 7 did a formidable job of shutting down their run game early and that’s how OU got in that position. That gives me hope that they can play good run defense, and it also gives me hope that we do have a formula for beating good teams. There are just some issues I would like to address after re-watching all those games thanks to DVR.

When reviewing games, I typically watch each running play of less than 3 yards twice. Each run play over that, I watch four times to figure out exactly what went wrong. One common myth is that Tech’s defensive tackles are undersized, no talent leftovers. That may be the case, but in this scenario, the leftovers are pretty solid. Not All Americans, but pretty solid. They have some moments where they tend to get overwhelmed, but for the most part, they’re quick, stay low and can be disruptive for interior guys. Oklahoma might be the only group I would trade for going into this season. The real problem for Tech was at DE and LB coupled with bad alignment. I chalk some up to talent and a lot up to coaching.

Let’s cover the alignment and coaching aspects first. Tech’s base defense is the 4-3, pretty common. Sentencich and now his predecessor, McNeill, preferred to defend spread offenses with their base personnel and split the LBers over slot receivers. Missouri ran the same play 80% of the time from mid-2nd quarter to the end of the game. What this creates is a numerical mismatch in favor of the offense on zone read plays. I don’t have the technological capabilities to draw this up HenryJames style, so I’ll just have to write it out. With the assumption of a 4-wide formation being defended as discussed, you’re left with 5 OL, 1 QB, and 1 RB facing 4 DL and 1 MLB in the box. Since the backside DE is typically the read, he goes unblocked in most cases. This allows for the pulling of either a backside guard or tackle to the playside hole. Now, you’ve got the coveted 5 on 4 in the running game. It’s veer blocking 101 (which I contend is still the most innovative offensive development of the last century) with a variety of schemes available to allow advantageous combo and down blocking scenarios for all involved. A good OL coach overseeing a good, experienced OL will allow the OL to call these schemes at the line. It was generally my most enjoyable experience as an offensive tackle. You either have the option of earholing a 3 technique on your way to blowing out an MLB’s ACL, or simply sealing off a DE from the inside. Any average OL in the Big 12 can execute this blocking scheme given minimal talent. The ability of your center vs. the ability of the opponents’ MLB is the X factor as to whether this play goes for 7 yards a pop or 70 all at once. If he has the feet to perform the reach block on a MLB, then you’ve got one-on-one situations in the open field featuring Jamaal Charles vs. Joe Garcia (this scenario allows for the playside OT to stay on the double team of the playside DT). The backside guard pulls executing an easy kickout block on the playside DE. Or, this is how I would probably call it facing two 3 techniques. BROWN!!! BROWN!!! BROWN!!! (code for downblocking at the 1A level of Texas High School Football). Hector Ramirez, a 5’9", 230 lb DT from Bovina, has to this day not put 2 and 2 together, and his left ear is still ringing. Obviously, there’s a couple of other ways to block it depending on the DT alignment, but this has been a sufficient example to give you a picture. It’s 5 on 4 blocking and you’ve got a shitload off options.

All that being said, veer blocking is not fool proof and has a couple of weaknesses. That’s why you don’t see teams running the zone read against Michael Strahan and Osi Umenyiora. Good players coupled with sound coaching can overcome these obstacles. Texas Tech doesn’t quite have that luxury on the defensive side of the ball. If I were a Big 12 South OC and playing Tech, I would line up in 4 wide sets every time, run the zone read until they stopped it, and then start picking on the mismatches created by having OLBs covering slot receivers. I won’t even get into the ramifications of playaction under this scenario. I’ll just provide Chris Parker as an example. I may be way off here, but I think I think I’m right.

I chalk this up 100% to coaching and not knowing what your personnel can and can’t do. A 4-2-5 alignment would seem more appropriate, but that’s just like my opinion, man. However, I’m going to give a mulligan to McNeill because many of the fundamental and technique issues that need to be corrected will take an entire spring and fall of practices, plus some patsies on the non-conference schedule. At a minimum, they played harder and McNeill at least has the insight to put the most talented players on the field. Youth also played a factor in some of our mistakes. Whether he continues to defend zone read offenses with base personnel in a 4-3 will determine how long he gets to keep his job. If I was in his shoes, I think I would sellout to stop the run. Maybe we’re not that good at defending the pass either, and as a fan, I am not aware of this. But, it seems like with Leach’s offense, a gambling type defense might be a better fit. John Goodner figured out in West Texas, that with limited talent, you had to use unconventional methods and implemented a hybrid 4-4 blitzing scheme. Statistically, we weren’t significantly better, but we did lead the nation in turnover ratio during his tenure, which is always the great equalizer. Now, let’s get this thing rolling with personnel and I’ll address technique/fundamental issues with individual players as we go.

Defensive Tackle

Things might be in the best shape they’ve ever been at Texas Tech. Not saying we’re the Miami Hurricanes of the 80s, but it’s much better than what we’ve been accustomed to since the days of Gabe Rivera. We’re 4-deep with Rajon Henley (Jr.), Colby Whitlock (So.), Richard Jones (Jr.), and Miami Hurricane transfer Chris Perry (Fr.). That’s not bad for Tech. Perry was the 2nd ranked DT in the state of Texas for 2007 behind none other than Andre Jones, so I guess he would be the top rated now.

Henley and Whitlock are the incumbent starters and both have good motors. Henley gives up some size at 6’3", 265 lbs and it shows at times during the running game. However, he’s one of the best interior pass rushers in the conference due to his quickness. Henley plays hard and is disruptive enough to justify the manhandling he sometimes receives on double teams. Jones provides solid depth and at times, outplays Henley in the run game. Ideally, Jones would be in during obvious running situations while Henley filled in on passing downs. Whitlock was the surprise recruit of the year for Tech as he came in and started earning Freshman All American honors. He’s the former heavyweight rasslin’ champ of Oklahoma, so his background in leverage and penchant for steel chairs to the head has translated well to playing DT in the Big 12. Whitlock is also surprisingly quick for his size (6’2", 285 lbs) and rarely gets completely dominated. A year in the offseason will help tremendously with his strength, and he’ll compete for All Conference honors before he’s done at Tech. I haven’t seen Perry play, so I’ll reserve judgment. This unit might be better served by sacrificing some quickness for some bulk, but we’ve been in a lot worse shape at this position. We’ll get blown off the ball from time to time, but they typically respond well, and bounce back to make plays.

Defensive End

This is where things start to get a little dicey for Tech. At one end, you’ve got some talent in junior Brandon Williams (6’5", 253 lbs) with no discipline. Williams has a quick first step and his pass rushing skills were enough for him to garner 2nd team All Big 12 last season. I think the first thing I can remember my coach telling me in 7th grade when I lined up at DE was "never get deeper than the deepest guy". I’m pretty sure it hasn’t changed today. Williams has a bad case of getting too far up field leaving gaping running lanes that even a blow-darted, Gary Busey could run through, if Hugh Charles isn’t available. He actually can play the run pretty well when he stays at home, so I’m not too concerned about him. All his issues can be fixed with serviceable coaching. We’ll see how that turns out.

On the other end, senior Jake Ratliff stands 6’7" and weighs in at 247 lbs of pure blocking dummy. Ratliff is a good guy, plays hard and you don’t mind having him on your team. However, when he consistently gets reach blocked by Big 12 tight ends, he may not be the guy you want starting. Ratliff suffers less from fundamental issues and more from lack of speed, size and strength. The good news here is McNeill recognized this and sought immediate help from the JUCO ranks. Lufkin product McKinner Dixon took a couple of years off to focus on academics at Cisco Junior College and returned in the spring to spend his time in the Tech backfield. Dixon was a highly rated recruit coming out of high school and backed it up by starting on the Cotton Bowl unit garnering freshman All American honors. He forgot to go to class, though, and he’s back for a second chance. I expect Dixon to be starting by the time conference play rolls around and that excites me. His presence alone will take 20 yards per game off the rushing total.

Others worth mentioning are JUCOs Daniel Howard and Brandon Sharpe. Howard proved to be a serviceable pass rusher last season, but I don’t know shit about Sharpe at this point. The big X-factor that seems to have Tech fans on edge is the status of JUCO DE Brandon Sesay, who originally signed with Georgia out of high school. He stands 6’6", weighs 273 lbs, and is allegedly pretty quick. I’m not sure if he can play, but his offer list of over 70 includes Michigan, Florida and Tennessee among others. I don’t think Tech has ever quite signed an athlete like this on the defensive side of the ball. McNeill plans on playing him, but the big question here is why he hasn’t started practicing with the team yet. I’m losing hope quickly and we already received our break of the year when Harrison Jeffers qualified. Sesay has been living in
Lubbock, but something just doesn’t add up here. I’m not counting on him at this point. Overall, this unit just makes too many mental mistakes for my fancy. Fundamental aspects of playing DE in the 4-3 like keeping your outside shoulder free, getting too far upfield, and staying in your rushing lane show up in this group like an untimely herpes breakout when facing opponents with above average offensive lines.

Linebackers

This group was all over the place in 2007, mostly in the wrong direction. Reading hats seems to be a problem with this group and they leave themselves with fewer angles than a circle. I really feel there’s some talent in this group and experience will do more good than anything.

Sophomore Brian Duncan has moved over to MLB from OLB to replace the disaster that was Paul Williams. I haven’t seen Duncan play at MLB, but he actually showed some promise last season and I’ve got hope for him. He’s intelligent, fast enough, and sheds blocks decently, but I’m not so sure he’s aggressive enough for the position. Duncan will need to play well to hold off redshirt freshman Sam Fehoko of Hawaii, who outplayed him at times during the spring. Fehoko had a great showing in the spring, and sounds like more of a playmaker, who will succumb to mental mistakes from time to time. This defense is in severe need of playmakers at the LB position, so I’m interested to see what this kid can do. What’s funny about this whole situation is that the best LB on our roster in 2007 is now running 3rd team at MLB in Victor Hunter. I haven’t quite received a clear answer explaining his drop on the depth chart (indifference seems to be the most common answer), but our run defense immediately improved when Hunter was in the game. He’s 5’10", 255 lbs, so he’s well suited to take on OL versus the "rangy" guys that occupy most of our positions. If Duncan and Fehoko outplayed Hunter, then I’m satisfied, but it still doesn’t explain why Paul Williams started over Hunter when there was a clear difference in results. I’m guessing it comes down to offseason effort and that’s a shame because Hunter had a lot of potential. I’m willing to roll with Duncan until I see a couple of games. I just didn’t quite see the type of downhill aggression that I covet when he was at OLB last year. This is allegedly his natural position, so we’ll see. I would test him early and often, if I was an opposing coach.

At OLB, Marlon Williams returns to man the weakside. I call him "Hoppy", which is not a good thing. Williams is a workout warrior with good speed and strength, and the end product is a guy who doesn’t know what’s about to happen next. Then, when he does jump on the pile late, he feels the need to flex and remind the crowd that he’s a fucking machine. Williams does that thing on film where he hops around in one spot or another, peeking into the backfield trying to find the ball. He was only a sophomore, so we’ll see if experience helps. Williams has shown some flashes of brilliance (OU and Virginia), but overall needs to attack the line of scrimmage more aggressively on perimeter plays and keep his outside shoulder free. He’s athletic enough to pull the ole’ move, but that only gets you so far.

The strongside OLB position is one I’m genuinely excited about. True sophomore Bront Bird from Permian won the job in the spring, and based on the limited film from his true freshman season, it didn’t surprise me one bit. Of all the guys we’ve discussed in our LB corps, Hubie Brown agrees with me in that Bird has the most upside. He’s a converted rough neck from the oil fields of West Texas, who spent his high school career at strong safety and wide receiver. I like LBs who play fast, and that’s one thing Bird brings to the table. At 6’3", 225, he shows the ability for diagnosing plays early and he gets to the ball quick. On film, he appears to be the fastest and most athletic LB on our roster. Dykes and Goodner made a living bulking oversized safeties like Bird up and then turning them loose on the corner. The formula worked once, and no Tech team really feels complete without a starter from Midland Lee or Odessa Permian on it. It’s good karma. Now, if we could just get the right mix of an Amarillo High Sandy and a splash of Pampa Harvester, this defense could be formidable.

Safety

I may be in the minority among Tech fans, but I still think this group will be the strength of the defensive unit. Darcel McBath returns for his 3rd year as a starter at free safety. McBath is one of the guys who have all the physical tools to be a fairly high draft pick, but it doesn’t necessarily translate into big plays on the field. He’s got great speed, adequate size, and a knack for disappearing in long stretches. I’m not sure how many other of the top teams in the Big 12 that McBath would start for, but at Tech, you just can’t keep an athlete like him off the field. In Tech’s Cover 2 scheme, it seems we find McBath giving up a lot more touchdowns to tight ends in the red zone than I deem acceptable. He’s solid and defends the deep ball pretty well, but you just don’t seem to get a lot of interceptions out of this position. That being said, I’m perfectly comfortable knowing he’s back there.

Strong safety saw the departure of Joe Garcia, and while a decent player, I actually think we’ll be better here this year. The starting nod will come down to either ultra talented Anthony Hines or the heady, underrated Daniel Charbonnet. Hines actually beat out Garcia as a sophomore, but a shivving injury suffered at an East Lubbock night club put him out for the 2006 season. Garcia held the position for 2007, but in spot duty, you could see the tremendous upgrade in athleticism brought by Hines. He suffered a knee injury in the Gator Bowl, but is expected to be healthy for the fall. The general consensus is that he’s the guy in that case. If for some reason Hines can’t go, I feel like Charbonnet will be just fine. He’s a good tackler and always seems to be in the right spot. Just because he’s a white, suburban kid from The Woodlands, don’t chalk him down as slow. At a minimum, he’s faster than Garcia and I think a better athlete when changing direction. We’ll be fine at safety in 2008, but depth is a significant issue and were McBath to go down, I might try some deep balls on this unit.

Corner

Junior Jamar Wall returns to man the left side, and he’s arguably one of the top returning cover men in the Big 12. By the time his career is over, Plainview old-timers will be mentioning his name in the same sentence as Dibi Ray, Kojak, and Willie Ansley down at the Co-op without cracking a smile. His five interceptions make him the theft leader among the conference at the corner position. Wall’s transformation from the UTEP game to the end of the season was nothing short of remarkable. It’s been reported that, after the UTEP game, Andy’s Dad offered Wall a hookup for a gig at the Attebury Grain in Plainview earning three times what he makes as a Tech football player just to get him off the field. By the end of the season, Andy’s Dad was wearing a #3 replica jersey to games and begging Wall to be the guest speaker at the Lions’ Club pancake breakfast in the spring. He’s the one guy on this defense that could start at any Big 12 school, and the formula for which Tech should recruit all DBs. Wall’s a converted 2,000 yard rusher and long jump champion from a small school. Since we normally whiff on the top rated DBs in the state, Leach seems to have borrowed the Gary Patterson formula of recruiting RBs from small schools and converting them to DB. Good call.

The right corner is another story. Once again, there are two converted RBs vying for the position in LaRon Moore and Pete Richardson, along with Marcus Bunton and Brent Nickerson. Moore is the best athlete and one of the fastest guys on the team. CB coach Brian Mitchell seems to favor Moore, but his absence in the spring nursing an injury will probably result in numerous blown coverages early in the season. Bunton gets the nod in experience, but from what I saw, mostly bad. Nickerson made the biggest move in the spring passing Bunton while Moore was out and Richardson fell to the bottom of the depth chart. If Moore doesn’t have the position locked down by conference play, take note and forward this to your beloved Greg Davis. This could be a problem area all season for Tech.

Summary

This is way more information than you probably wanted or needed, but I just don’t know how to write it any other way and I don't really care. Overall, Tech will be improved on defense by shear default that experience provides. However, I still expect to see them dominate D-II teams and Baylor, while giving up 200 yards on the ground to good teams. The one thing that could change for this unit is sacks and turnovers. Williams and Dixon should be able to get to the QB off the corners, and Henley and Whitlock are both above average interior pass rushers. The Achilles heel until proven otherwise is lack of fundamentals and discipline when defending the zone read. I think Leach has this thing headed in the right direction, I just wish he started 3 years ago. It was a savvy move handing the reins to a black DC with a robust personality and "family" sales pitch, and I think you'll see an upgrade in the talent recruited to Lubbock on this side of the ball. Whether he's a good X's and O's guy is yet to be determined.

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"Say dawg, we's family in Lubbock."