By Wendell Barnhouse
LUBBOCK, Texas – Perhaps it's just a coincidence but the last time that Texas Tech had the same defensive coordinator in consecutive seasons, it had the best numbers on defense in the last five seasons.
In 2009, Ruffin McNeill was in his third and last season running the defense for Texas Tech. That season, the Red Raiders allowed 22.5 points and 352 yards per game. In the next four years, they never allowed fewer than 30.5 points per game and only once allowed less than 418 yards in total offense per game.
The hope for improvement this season lies in the fact that Matt Wallerstedt returns as coordinator and that he is in charge of a unit that has more depth, talent and size up front.
"That's big for them, two years having the same defensive staff in place with the same terminology," second-year coach Kliff Kingsbury said. "I can tell this spring they weren't thinking as much. They were actually flying around to the football."
During last season's 7-0 start that pushed Texas Tech into the top 10, the defense disguised a lack of size by playing a 3-4 alignment that helped counter the passing game and offered an ever-changing look designed to disguise quarterbacks.
But during a five-game losing streak that closed the regular season, the scheme didn't matter. Tech allowed an average of 48.6 points and nearly 300 yards rushing during the losing streak.
The need to improve the defense even led to the Red Raiders losing their leading rusher the last two seasons. Senior running back Kenny Williams volunteered to switch to linebacker … and has already earned a starting spot.
Wallerstedt also has more size on the line thanks to four junior-college transfers who all weigh 270 pounds or more. Rika Levi, Keland McElrath, Marcus Smith and Brandon Thorpe are all expected to be key contributors.
"All those guys will be a huge piece of the puzzle," said Wallerstedt, who says the added size and depth will allow him to use some 4-3 alignments when opposing offenses are run-oriented. "When you're trying to stop the run or somebody is trying to jam the ball down our throat, those guys have to step up big time for us. We should be deep enough where we can move some guys around to solve our issues."
Wallerstedt, who coached with Kingsbury at Texas A&M before they both moved to Texas Tech last season, is in the second year of a three-year contract.
"I just wanted there to be some consistency here on that side of the ball," Tech coach Kliff Kingsbury said last week. "For so long, they'd seen a guy leave, a guy leave, a guy leave. I just felt that (length of contract) would kind of promote that.
"I trust him to handle the defense. That's why I hired somebody with that experience. I have a heavy focus on the offense, obviously, coaching the quarterbacks and game planning. So I trust him and that staff with that, and I'm excited about the carryover from year one to year two and see what kind of improvement we've made."
Coach: Kliff Kingsbury, second season.
2013: 8-5 overall, 4-5 in Big 12.
Bowl: Defeated Arizona State, 37-23, in Holiday Bowl.
Returning starters: 8 on offense, 5 on defense.
Key players: Soph. QB Davis Webb, junior RB DeAndre Washington, senior WR Bradley Marquez, junior WR Jakeem Grant, soph. WR Reginald Davis, junior OL Le'Raven Clark, junior DE Branden Jackson, senior LB Kenny Williams, junior LB Pete Robertson, senior PK Ryan Bustin.
Three Points To Ponder
1. While the front seven of the defense figures to be improved – more size, depth and talent – compared to last season, the secondary is untested and inexperienced. The top eight players on the depth chart released this week list no seniors, one junior, four sophomores and three freshmen. Not redshirt freshmen – players who were playing high school football a year ago. Freshman Tevin Madison is starting at one cornerback and his backup is another freshman, Jah'Shawn Johnson.
2. The offensive line is also a young group. Right tackle Reshod Fortenberry is the only starter. Le'Raven Clark was all-Big 12 last season as a sophomore and the hope was that he could move from left tackle to guard to help shore up the middle and improve run blocking. For that to happen, junior-college transfer Dominique Robertson needs to improve his conditioning. If that occurs, he could eventually start at left tackle and let Clark shift positions.
3. Texas Tech struggled in special teams, particularly in punt returns and coverage. To boost those units, the Red Raiders hired Darrin Chivarini to coach special teams. The return games should benefit from a number of speedy receivers on the roster but inexperience on the coverage units will be a concern. Senior Kenny Williams, who moved from running back to linebacker, has been a consistent performer on special teams during his career.
Defensive end Branden Jackson on Kliff Kingsbury's demands for discipline and accountability:
"From day one, coach Kingsbury, for as cool as he is and as laid back as he is, there's just a point you don't cross. We've had people on the team kind of jiggle around with the line and try to test the waters, and we all found out real quick what happens. People have been removed from the team, removed from practice, suspended from practice. All for not doing what's expected of us. Now the team is, what coach Kingsbury says, goes. No one questions that."
Numbers To Note
Texas Tech has just one losing season in the last 19 years, the fewest of any FBS program in Texas. Since 1995, Texas has two losing seasons, TCU has four and Baylor has 14. … Since 2000, the Red Raiders have averaged 40 points in their season openers. … Texas Tech has sold out of season tickets (38,524) for the first time in school history. … Despite not taking over as the starter until halfway through the season, sophomore quarterback Davis Webb led the team in passing yards (2,718) and passing touchdowns (20). … Senior kicker Ryan Bustin set the school's single-season record for field goals with 23 (in 27 attempts) last season.
|Aug. 30||Central Arkansas|
|Sept. 6||at UT-El Paso|
|Sept. 25||at Oklahoma State*|
|Oct. 4||at Kansas State*|
|Oct. 11||West Virginia*|
|Oct. 25||at TCU*|
|Nov. 22||at Iowa State*|
|Nov. 29||Baylor (at AT&T Stadium, Arlington, Texas)|