This is just about everything you wanted to know about the Red Raiders. Thanks to Don Williams, Lubbock Avalanche-Journal.
Question: Last year the Raiders were ranked in the top-25 in the nation in yards per carry. How is the running game this year? We know Baron Batch. What about Harrison Jeffers and Eric Stephens?
The running game has been a disappointment this season, to be blunt about it. Tech averaged only 2.1 yards per carry the first game. It's difficult to tell where to assign the blame -- the running backs themselves or an offensive line that misses two guys who received all-America recognition last year -- left-side starters Rylan Reed and Louis Vasquez. Baron Batch is off to a slow start coming back from an August elbow injury. There's this, too: The Red Raiders had only 19 rushes in the opener and 14 in the second game -- last year, they ran the ball about 25 times a game. Since Tech quarterbacks often check into running plays at the line, maybe that's something a new starting quarterback is having to get used to.
Jeffers and Stephens both are big-play threats. They've shown it in practice and they've already shown it in games, Stephens with a kickoff-return touchdown that was called back by a penalty (He still got credit for 54 yards before the flag.) They're both fast, and Stephens has great leg drive. He squat lifts 500 pounds, and he seems to translate that onto the field.
Question: How is Taylor Potts a prototypical Texas Tech quarterback? How is he unique?
Potts is a Tech prototype in that he's completing two-thirds of his passes. Tech followers just kind of take a high completion percentage for granted anymore. He's also like his predecessors in that he spent a lot of time in meeting rooms and practice before he got to start -- he's beginning his fourth year on campus. B.J. Symons, Sonny Cumbie and Cody Hodges were all fifth-year seniors when they started for the first time.
Potts is different in that he's bigger and taller than nearly all the others, and he seems to have a stronger arm. He's said he'll need to be careful not to trust his arm too much and throw passes into tight coverage.
Question: Tell us about the receivers. Detron Lewis is the primary guy, but lacks the elite size that Crabtree possessed -- how effective has he been in the early going and can he catch balls in tight spaces as well as Crabtree?
Lewis is the new No. 1 receiver, no doubt. He's not as tall as Crabtree, but he's pretty thick at 6-0, 205. Maybe it's just me, but he also seems to be showing more burst -- maybe just from having two full years in the team's conditioning program. In the opener, he turned a little 10-yard pass over the middle into a 49-yard touchdown. I think he's the guy who's most dangerous after the catch, though Ed Britton at split end has the great straight-line speed and isn't likely to get caught if he beats a corner on a fly pattern. Lewis, it should be mentioned, missed the second half of last week's game with a hamstring injury. With Tech's injury policy -- which is to say nothing at all when someone gets hurt -- it's hard to tell to what extent he's hurt, but he did come back and practice on Wednesday, so evidently it's not too bad.
A couple of storylines on the Tech receivers: Alex Torres, who was a terrific high school player at El Paso Franklin, came out of nowhere in the spring and summer to start at Crabtree's old flanker spot. He has nine catches in two games, but no really big plays. Tramain Swindall, the most proven receiver on the team after Lewis and Britton, dug
himself deep into the doghouse in August practice, so much so that he spent three weeks on scout team and didn't even suit up for the first game. He came back last week and went six catches, 123 yards and a touchdown, which is what everyone has been expecting from him.
Pass blocking by the offensive line has been solid enough so far. Potts has been hit a few times, but sacked only once. As mentioned above, the big issue has been a lack of success getting the run-game started. Tech has a couple of new players who have been competing -- and still are -- to be the left tackle. Chris Olson is the veteran, who was a pretty highly regarded recruit a few years ago off Matt Stafford's Highland Park team. Terry McDaniel is a small-school guy who has great measurables at 6-7, 335. Tech also shook up the starting lineup from week one to week two. Sophomore Lonnie Edwards got his first career start last week at left guard -- Tech line coach Matt Moore says he has great raw strength that he compares to Louis Vasquez, who was third-team AP All-American last year. If Edwards starts, Brandon Carter will play right guard. If game-one starter Mickey Okafor starts at right guard, Carter plays left guard.
The overall strength of the offense is that the Raiders are still throwing the ball effectively, even with a bunch of new faces. Lewis and Batch are legit playmakers, and Britton and Swindall are always capable of giving you a big game. The kid running backs, Jeffers and Stephens, are make a lot of highlights before they're done; I just don't know if
it'll be Saturday night in Austin, or how soon they can do it on a regular basis.
The weaknesses, as mentioned above, are this team really misses Rylan Reed and Louis Vasquez, who made for an outstanding left side of the line, and they need to get the running backs more involved than they've been the first two games.
Question: Ruffin McNeill had to replace Brandon Williams, McKinner Dixon, and the 19 sacks that they took with them. Where is the pass rush coming from this year?
Daniel Howard, a senior defensive end, has a lot of pass-rush ability. He's not only a 6-3, 240-pound guy who can really run, but he just relentless. You might be able block him, but he's never going to take a play off or quit before the whistle. I think a lot of fans -- even Tech fans -- misunderstand how talented he is. Lyle Setencich, Tech's previous defensive coordinator, once told me Howard has the kind of natural ability you expect to see from an Oklahoma or UT defensive player.
Unfortunately, Tech's depth at defensive end has been cut to the bone by just one unbelievable development after another. Among scholarship defensive ends who had eligibility remaining after last season, they've lost one to the NFL draft, two to academics and three to injury. It's Tech's version of what's happened to the Longhorns at tight end. They've lost two in the last week -- starter Ra'Jon Henley and redshirt freshman backup Ryan Haliburton.
Redshirt freshmen and older, they have only two scholarship defensive ends likely to suit up Saturday night -- Howard and senior Brandon Sharpe, who made a couple of plays in the Rice game -- third-down sack and fumble recovery -- to set up touchdowns.
Outside linebacker Bront Bird is another guy who they're putting in positions to be a pass rusher, and he's shown some ability at it. You'll see Bird walk up on the line of scrimmage and also rush from what Tech calls it's Joker position. That's a guy who roams around before the snap to confuse pass protection and then tries to hit a gap.
The strength of the defense – and this might be a pleasant surprise – is the playmaking of the linebacker corps. The starters – Marlon Williams (WLB) from Pflugerville, Brian Duncan (MLB) and Bront Bird (SLB) – are all returning starters and guys who have been in the program for four, three and three years, respectively. In the past, they’ve been solid, but not spectacular – they’ve made a lot of tackles, but not rung up any numbers to speak of in terms of sacks, takeaways or big momentum-changing plays. But in the first two games, they’ve played at a higher level. Williams already has five tackles for loss, a sack and an interception. Bird is showing some signs, both as a pass rusher and in coverage. If they keep it up, I chalk it up to a couple of factors: They’ve all been healthy, they’ve all been in the system for a long time and the depth chart at their position – both starters and top backups – has been free of injuries and other disruptions. So defensive coordinator Ruffin McNeill said this week he’s been able to do some things with them this season that they weren’t prepared to handle in the past.
I’d be remiss not to say defensive tackle play has been another strength. NT Colby Whitlock might be the best player on the defense. Next to him is Richard Jones, a steady senior, and they’ve gotten pretty good backup play out of Victor Hunter, a converted MLB, and Chris Perry, a former blue-chip recruit who originally went to Miami. They don’t have the depth problems at DT that they have at DE.
Weaknesses: They simply can’t afford for another defensive end to go down, and now the starters will be in danger of getting worn down. They feel comfortable with Howard and Sharpe, though both are more pass-rush than anchor-against-the-run guys. The other great unknown is safety play. Tech had a rare circumstance last year in which it had five senior safeties who all played. Two were starters and two more were the first options in their five- and six-DB packages. They lost one of the new starter safeties, Franklin Mitchem, to injury last week. He’s not supposed to travel to Austin. The other new starter is Cody Davis, who was a productive high school player at a good program in Stephenville, but he’s just a redshirt freshman. And on Saturday night, you’ll also see Will Ford, an OU commit that Tech stole, but a true freshman, and Brett Dewhurst, one of those walk-on-make-good stories that Tech always seems to have. Those guys were tested more last week by Rice, which went down the field quite a bit, and Tech had 12 pass breakups in that game. But there aren’t any Jordan Shipleys playing for Rice.
Tech offensive line vs. UT defensive front. I don’t see Tech, or many teams, shutting down the Longhorns in Austin. Since Mike Leach took over as head coach, Tech has given up 42, 43, 52 and 59 points in Royal-Memorial Stadium, and I don’t foresee that trend changing much. For Tech to win, or a have a chance to be in it at the end, it’s going to be in a high-scoring game. For that to happen, the offensive line is going to have to hold its own against people like Lamarr Houston and Sergio Kindle. They have to give Potts a chance to get into a rhythm and open some holes for the running backs.
Ed Britton, Tech’s senior split end, has had the two best games of his career the last two years against Texas: seven catches for 139 yards last year in Lubbock and seven for 116 yards and a touchdown two years ago in Austin. Also, Colby Whitlock has played big for Tech against the Longhorns with 10 tackles (four for loss) when he was a true freshman in the 2007 game at Austin and the safety that sort of got the ball rolling on Tech’s win over UT last year. He led the team with eight tackles in that game. Obviously, Tech needs those trends to continue.