Entering his third year at the helm in Lubbock, it's put-up time for Tommy Tuberville, who enters 2012 with his third defensive coordinator in three seasons.
With the 2012 season set to kick off this week, there's not much time left for season previewing, but join me for one last look elsewhere around the conference, as I chat with Seth from Double T Nation, SBN's outstanding Texas Tech Red Raiders blog.
I almost hate to do it, Seth, because I'm sure it's agitating enough for Tech fans as it is, but I have to start this conversation by asking about the transition from Mike Leach to Tommy Tuberville, which this fall will be Tuberville's third year at the helm. But I'll do my best to help us at least try to do this purposefully and productively.
Here's the issue that I'm interested to hear your take on: I think it's fair to say that under most circumstances, the "replacing Mike Leach" angle to this story would by this point be mostly for entertainment/dramatic value -- rehashing old loyalties and preferences, and so on. Let's set all that stuff aside as totally or mostly irrelevant... It seems to me that there's still a Mike Leach angle to this situation, and I'm curious to hear if you agree.
Ignoring all the melodrama and other aspects of the Tuberville-Leach debate (even the marginally relevant ones), the one thing that does leap out to me as a big, ongoing issue is the impact that "replacing Mike Leach" seems to have impacted the approach of Tuberville himself. Over his first two years in Lubbock, Tuberville has largely maintained the wide open, pass-happy offensive approach (with about 20% more rushing attempts and 10% fewer passing attempts) with a reasonable amount of success, while the defense has been nothing short of a disaster. Heading into the 2012 season, Tuberville -- who cut his chops as a defensive coordinator -- is on to his third defensive coordinator in as many years, firing Chad Glasgow in December of last year after the Red Raiders allowed a ghastly 6.5 yards per play.
Two years isn't necessarily a definitive amount of time, but I would think that a Tech fan would be pretty concerned about the way that Tuberville's tenure has begun. Tech has been pretty bad, but not because they've been enduring the pain of a harsh transition into a totally different approach. It's been Air Raid offense and matador defense, same as it ever was. And there, of course, is where Mike Leach's potential relevance arises.
What's your take on how Tuberville's gone about the job at Tech? And do you think that Mike Leach has had a lingering influence on Tuberville and the program, for better or worse? How are Tech fans feeling about the program under Tuberville as we head into his third season?
Seth, Double T Nation: As I have had time to reflect about all that happened, I've somewhat come to three conclusions about Leach, Tuberville, and Texas Tech.
1. Leach is/was a terrific coach. There is no debating that as far as I'm concerned. When people write that he did more with less, I absolutely believe that is true and no one will ever be able to convince me otherwise.
2. For the past two NFL Drafts, Texas Tech has had one player drafted, Baron Batch, and one player invited to the NFL combine, Colby Whitlock. It is not a popular sentiment on DTN, but I think that Leach's recruiting fell off a bit and there really was a lack of overall talent on the field the last two years. Putting aside recruiting rankings, in Leach's most successful year, 2008, Texas Tech had four players drafted in the 2009 NFL Draft, led by Michael Crabtree (OG Louis Vasquez, LB/DE Brandon Williams and S Darcel McBath), but didn't include Graham Harrell. I don't think it is a coincidence that Leach's best team had a handful of NFL caliber players and I don't think it is a coincidence that Texas Tech had it's worst year last year and no player was invited to the combine and no player was drafted. Some were picked up as NFL free agents, but still, I can't shake the thought that just 1 player drafted in the past two years means something. Maybe UT fans can speak to this on the offensive side of the ball, especially at the skill positions, vs. the defensive side of the ball.
3. Tuberville has done a good job, not great, of maintaining the offense. And when I write "maintaining" I mean he hired an offensive coordinator that's done a good job at calling a pretty good offense. It hasn't been as explosive, but it hasn't been bad. Tuberville has done an awful job of hiring defensive coordinators for the past two years and in retrospect, I wish he would have "owned" the defense and taken some responsibility or accountability to get the defense settled. Tuberville should have given the Texas Tech defense some identity since this was his forte at Miami. I actually think he knows what he's talking about defensively, but I think it's mainly limited to the tried and true 4-3 that he employed at Miami and is finally employing here. Still, he should have hired a 4-3 guy from the beginning and not messed around and try to hire a defensive coordinator from Alabama where Texas Tech didn't have the athletes or personnel, or hire a defensive coordinator from TCU that couldn't convey to the players where to line up properly and the proper technique.
If you take those three things, that Leach is most likely a much better coach than Tuberville, that there was a drop-off in the talent for the last couple of years, with or without Leach, and that Tuberville has passed in respect to the offense, but failed horribly in respect to the defense, then you've got a team that is .500 for the past two years. I can't ever think that the reason why a team wins or loses, with so many moving parts, is just a result of one thing. It's usually a combination of things.
As far as Leach having a lingering influence, I do think so, especially on the offensive side of the ball. I think a lot of fans wanted Texas Tech's offensive coordinator Neal Brown to be as good as Leach since he had all of the same toys that Leach had, but I think that this diminishes just how good Leach was at coaching offense. Brown utilizes more screens and just doesn't go as vertical as Leach did and that's probably been the biggest problem with Brown's version of the Air Raid offense. Not only that, the offense was really inconsistent last year, but there was a ton of pressure on the offense to literally score every time because the defense was so bad.
I think that for the most part, you have a handful of fans that really think and believe that Tuberville will succeed if given enough time, then you have the other handful of fans that are still bitter about Leach's termination and can't wait until Texas Tech hires Tuberville's replacement, and then I think a majority of fans just want Tuberville to win. Winning football cures a lot of woes. Right now, most fans are optimistic and I think that Tuberville's success will greatly hinge on if he can field a serviceable defense, in which case, things could really get turned around relatively quickly if the offense is even slightly better.
There's a lot of really interesting stuff in there and we could easily spend this entire conversation on this topic alone. And maybe after this season we'll do just that, checking in on how things look after Tuberville's third season.
But with that season nearly upon us, let's get into this year's team and talk about what things might look like in Lubbock. We've already talked about how desperately Tech needs to improve on defense and we'll return to the task ahead of Art Kaufman in short order, but I want to start with the offense, which at least on paper looks like it will be Tuberville's most dangerous unit yet but as we also briefly discussed has only been pretty good the past two years (and definitely hasn't been consistent).
With Neal Brown returning to call the plays, do you expect we'll continue to see much of the same from the Red Raider offense in 2012 -- essentially an Air Raid Lite offense? And then building on that, what adjustments should Brown make if Tech's offense is to take things up a notch this year? Do you think Tech might be suffering a bit from being Air Raid-ish -- that is, from not fully committing to that offensive approach? Or do you see the majority of potential for improvement to be personnel-related, stemming from better performances by players?
Seth, Double T Nation: Actually, I think the offense is going to be much improved so long as Doege pushes the envelope a bit down the field. For those interested in background reading, I've detailed quite extensively the number and impact of big plays over the course of a season. CFBStats.com actually compiles a list of plays that go 15+ yards and 20+ yards (here are the passing numbers) and the interesting thing in comparison of this version of the Air Raid verus Leach's version of the Air Raid was that Leach's offense had more plays in the 15+ and 20+ categories. Brown's offense has been too horizontal, evidenced further by Doege's relatively pedestrian yards per attempt, 6.9. That's not good enough.
Granted, some of this is because Texas Tech really didn't have a deep threat that could burn an opposing defense down the field. So to answer your question, how would I open things up, well, I'd get the ball down the field. Darrin Moore got injured early in the year and was never really the same. Moore is a deep threat in that he's a big receiver that can go over smaller defensive backs. But there was no burner. This year, a lot rides on the addition of JUCO WR Javon Bell, who is supposed to be providing that deep threat. I also think that with a year of maturation, Bradley Marquez is going to be able beat quite a few defensive backs. Marquez is actually a really mature kid, he was drafted by the Mets and plays ball for them during the summer and I think he's a smart kid that understands what he needs to do. Redshirt freshman Derreck Edwards is another guy that is impressing thus far and similar to Moore is Marcus Kennard, a big receiver that is just more physically imposing that most cornerbacks. Last, but not least, few teams have an athlete like tight end Jace Amaro, 6-5/245, and is really unlimited as to what he can do on the field. He was a true freshman last year so he was also adjusting and the reports are that he added 10 or 15 pounds from last year and has been catching the ball more consistently. So now that Doege has some options and with a handful of these guys maturing last year, the hope is that they can establish more plays down the field, which should open things up in for the underneath stuff and to run the ball.
I actually think that Tuberville is pretty committed to the Air-Raid, although in the 2010 season, Tuberville did like to run out the clock a bit, but I didn't have a huge problem with it because it didn't result in a loss. A lot of Texas Tech fans want Tuberville to keep his foot on the gas. Again, if it means winning a game ugly, I don't really care about the style points, as long as Texas Tech gets the win.
Early on, there was quite a bit of talk about zone-blocking vs. man-blocking and that was the reason for the issues, but truthfully, I think Leach utilized both types of blocking and would morph from one to the other depending on the situation. The one difference is that I think that Brown wanted to utilize more zone-blocking with rushing plays, which can be a very effective, but you have to be committed and I don't know if he had time to really get that down with the line. Tuberville fired long-time offensive line coach Matt Moore last year and hired Abilene Christian head coach Chris Thomsen as the new offensive line, so I'll be interested to see this year if he utilizes those zone-blocking schemes.
I should also mention that Texas Tech lost a handful of starters last year to injuries. RB Eric Stephens was injured during the TAMU game and out for the rest of the year. Stephens was actually headed towards a 1,000 season. I did an awful job of keeping track of those injuries during the course of the year last year, so I don't have a totally accurate head-count, but there were a handful of injuries to the starters, Moore and Stephens in particular, and with them being healthy, that makes a big difference.
Overall, I do think the offense will be better and it will be more consistent. There were a lot of players that matured last year, there are a lot of options at the skill positions and with the players that were injured are healthy, then the offense can be significantly better. I'm actually excited to see what the offense is going to do.
Honestly, after researching the Red Raiders for this year's preview magazine, I came away thinking similarly to you with respect to the likelihood that Tech's offense would be a good bit better this year. Particularly if -- as you noted -- Doege can start stretching the field with downfield passing this year, the unit has a chance to be one of the frightening versions of the Air Raid. The kind you don't want to play in Lubbock.
Even if it is, though, there's still that defense to fix, so let's roll up our sleeves and get in the filth. Tuberville imported long-time UNC assistant Art Kaufman to become Tech's third defensive coordinator in three years, and he immediately set to work shuffling up the roster. Things To Fix On Tech's Defense is a big topic, so let's take it piece by piece and start at the top with Kaufman. What has been his approach to tackling the mess left behind by Chad Glasgow? And is your initial impression of what he's been doing a favorable one, or is your inner pessimist saying that this is deck chair reshuffling?
Seth, Double T Nation: Actually, Kaufman is Texas Tech's fourth defensive coordinator in four years, if you include Ruffin McNeill. So there's that incredibly depressing news.
The biggest difference between Kaufman and the other two defensive coordinators, is that Tuberville has an incredible amount of familiarity with the 4-3, especially the one that Kaufman brings. With James Willis and the 3-4, Texas Tech didn't have the personnel to run the 3-4, especially asking the cornerbacks to be man-cover corners. Few teams in the country can ask their corners to do this. Texas Tech is not one of those teams. With Glasgow, he was a first year coordinator that maybe was overwhelmed. Things got really weird in that Tuberville hired John Lovett as the defensive backs coach, some recruits told reporters that Texas Tech was moving to the 4-3 and then they got even more weird when Glasgow left. This whole year with Glasgow feels like a bad dream.
But we're moving on to bigger and better things, amirite? Kaufman and Tuberville have worked together before and Kaufman was working at North Carolina for Butch Davis, who was at Miami probably about the same time that Tuberville was at Miami. I do like Tuberville's hire in secondary coach John Lovett, who was the defensive backs coach and defensive coordinator at Miami for a handful of years. I think he knows his stuff. Maybe the best byproduct of all of this is that Tuberville hired coaches that had actual experience coaching and went from a defensive staff having a total of 27 years of coaching experience to one that has 48 years of coaching experience in Kaufman and Lovett alone.
So now Tuberville has familiarity with the defense and coaching experience, but maybe the best endorsement comes from safety Cody Davis, who was asked to rank the four defensive coordinators he has had in terms of ease of learning and enjoyment of playing and he ranked Kaufman right there with McNeill. Granted, he may have to be a bit biased, but he didn't have to answer the question in the first place and it's not popular to praise the prior coaching staff, so I think he's being honest.
Do I think this will make a difference? I don't know. I'm hopeful for some sort of magical season where Texas Tech can rank in the 70's or 80's in total defense. I think that would be a miracle. I wrote this in my preview of Baylor and I think it's true for teams like Texas Tech, Baylor, Oklahoma St., etc.:
"I tell this story every once in a while, but at one time I was listening to former OU head coach Barry Switzer on the radio and he was asked if Texas Tech would ever challenge for a top spot (this was when Leach was still the head coach) and he flatly said that teams like Baylor and Texas Tech and Oklahoma St. will never really challenge Texas and Oklahoma because they don't have the defensive talent that UT and OU have. His theory was that the gap in talent was significant and that offensively, teams could always do things to play for upsets, but that overall, athletes on defense are the greatest equalizer. Not defensive coordinators, but players. I don't think that the talent gap for teams like BU, TTU and OSU has changed all that much so I'd be surprised if there is significant change with those teams for that reason. Being defensive coordinator at these places may be the toughest task in college football."
Defensive coordinators for these types of teams are being asked to just hold down the fort and that is not easy. I don't know what to think about whether or not the talent on the defensive side of the ball has improved that much for Texas Tech. Generally speaking, I think it's pretty much like it has been, but there may be a minor improvement of the quality of players. Still, the defensive line is probably undersized, but maybe deeper than it has been. The linebackers are all young or inexperienced. One of the cornerbacks was Texas Tech's best inside receiver last year and the other may be a walk-on from last year or one of a few incoming JUCO players. Tuberville signed 7 defensive JUCO players last year to try to do something about getting some depth and competition, but it wouldn't surprise me if the defense showed marginal improvement if for no other reason than I think the defense will be better organized and have a better idea about making adjustments in-game, something that Glasgow and Willis never had to do. That's me being incredibly optimistic.
Even having experienced a season as miserably depressing as the Longhorns' 2010 campaign, this was still jarring to read: "I'm hopeful for some sort of magical season where Texas Tech can rank in the 70's or 80's in total defense. I think that would be a miracle."
I had to re-read it to make sure I wasn't just missing your sarcasm, and you can correct me if I'm wrong but I read that to mean what it says. And it's actually not as drastic as it sounds when you consider just how badly Tech's defense played last year. Even so, I do want to follow up with you on what you said about coaching defense at a school like Tech, Baylor, or Oklahoma State. I'm curious as to what you make of the very strong season Oklahoma State had on defense a year ago. By one measure, the Cowboys' had the third-best defense in the country last season, behind only Alabama and LSU, and just ahead of Texas. SB Nation's Bill Connelly called OSU's 2011 defense the "ultimate bend-don't-break defense," and I'm curious whether you think that defensive coordinator Bill Young is providing a blueprint for how a team like Texas Tech can be successful on defense. And how does that mesh with how Ruffin McNeil was finding success in Lubbock before he left?
Seth, Double T Nation: I did a couple of things this offseason: first, I took a look at the teams that improved the most on defense according to Connelly's numbers from 2011 to 2010, and second, I also tried to create my own metric, which ultimately ended up being yards allowed per game over big plays per game. Every defense always seems to preach that they need to make big plays, but a team has to limit those yards and make big plays in order to be elite, maybe more so in the Big 12.
You are absolutely right in that Oklahoma St. was a bend-but-don't-break team last year, giving up over 450 yards a game, but as everyone knows, the incredible amount of turnovers that the defense created was something to behold. For the most part, the team with the most turnovers created finishes the season with a number the high 30's, somewhere around 37 or 38, the two outliers were Oklahoma St. last year, who had 44, and Cincinnati and South Florida who had 42 each in 2007. Connelly had a terrific piece where he posited that that Oklahoma St. wound up with nine more turnovers than what they should have. That seems to be about right historically speaking, in that from 2011 through 2008, Oklahoma St. had about six or so additional turnovers than what had been par for the course.
So my big takeaway from all of that for Texas Tech is that they were awful in both categories, creating turnovers or creating big plays (sacks, tackles for a loss, pass break-ups, and forced fumbles) and yards allowed. One of those two categories has to improve in order to see improvement for Texas Tech. I think in the Big 12 today, we're really talking about most defenses stopping an opposing team just a couple of extra times or creating a couple of extra turnovers in order to give the offenses another shot at scoring. If Texas Tech can force just a few more stops, whether it be by being technically sound or creating a big play, then I think the jump seems more plausible. Heck, even Oklahoma was 55th in the nation in yards allowed last year, but that means that they gave up more than 100 less yards than Texas Tech. I think that speaks to the overall offensive nature of the Big 12, but a team has to be better in one of those two categories, yards allowed per game or big plays. Ideally, you'd like to see improvement for both.
As to McNeill's success, I think it was predicated on simplicity. That should sound familiar. I think that's pretty much the key for an offense or a defense. You can't make things overly complicated unless a team has athletes that can compensate. It's about knowing where to line up properly, it's about knowing your assignments and it's really just about fundamentals on each and every play. If a team can do those things on play-by-play basis, then I think it's much easier. Texas Tech could never adjust to UT's unbalanced line last year. That's not to take away from what UT did, but Texas Tech just couldn't adjust to something that was seemingly simple to defend, or should be. But UT just kept doing it over and over and over. I'm not at all saying that Texas Tech would have won that game had they been able to adjust, but the inability to adjust just might be a microcosm of what was wrong with Texas Tech's defense last year.
With Kaufman he said all the right things. He preached simplicity, he preached good technique, and there were some videos from Texas Tech where you can see him teach things as simple as proper footwork for a defensive back or how to bump a receiver off the line of scrimmage. Again, incredibly simplistic, but that's the key in teaching football, make it easy and repeatable. I'm currently reading Steve Belichick'sFootball Scouting Methods, published way back in 1962 and it's interesting to read about how he scouted teams and has given me insight, despite the fact that it is I think near 50 years old, but he wrote, "A coach's ability is not judged on what his knowledge of the game is, but rather on what he can impart to his players." That's really stuck with me this offseason and I'm hopeful that Kaufman can do just that.
Very interesting, Seth. I'm glad that I asked you about that, because I'd missed those posts crunching defensive numbers.
You've been more than generous with your time and thoughts, so we'll try to wrap this up with one last question. Tech is an interesting team to me this year, because while the top priority in many ways is improving the structural foundation of the program under Tuberville, hitting a peak in the talent cycle with offensive skill players the Red Raiders have the potential to be a dangerous second-tier team in 2012. That can be a tricky pair for fan expectations.
You've got a hand on the pulse of the Texas Tech fan base more so than anybody else; how are fans viewing the upcoming season? And what about you? What are you expecting, and how will you evaluate the success of the season?
Seth, Double T Nation: I go back and forth on this team quite a bit and I think that means that this team could be a 4 or 5 win team at its worst or a 8 or 9 win team at its best. That's too much leeway and it's not good that I'm that unsure about so many things.
I think it's almost always important to determine the success or failure of a team based off of wins or losses. This is a bottom line business for the most part. There are exeptions, like new coaches taking over bad programs and things like that, but for a coach into his third year as head coach, it comes down to wins and losses. I think Tuberville gets that there's a sense of urgency to win now. Texas Tech's athletic director has said that a program needs to show improvement for someone to keep their job. That's probably a fair statement for an AD and it's fair for Tuberville in that he needs to show improvement off of that 5-7 season. If he can't do that, then I don't know if he keeps his job. This may be a very low bar, but if Tuberville can win 7 games and a bowl game, then I think fans will be happy and I think his AD will be happy. If not, then I think he's on the fence.
I've sorta grown to like Tuberville in a weird way. He always talks about the weather and the wind, which seems odd since it is almost always windy in Lubbock. He says things that don't make any sense, although I think that sometimes he just says what he thinks. Literally. But this year, aside from the talk about the weather, Tuberville has seemed more focused and it's really just something that I've picked up on recently. He recently talked after a practice about how this team cannot afford to stop. It cannot afford to rest. That they have to keep pushing through. I appreciate that sense of urgency. I don't know that Tuberville had that urgency last year. I'd also say that in some ways he's made the program better. I not necessarily giving him credit for all of this, but the locker rooms and football facility were updated, the weight room was completely renovated and now on the list of things to build at Texas Tech is an indoor practice facility. There are a lot of fans on DTN that think that those sorts of things are necessary, that those are superficial things and the last coach didn't seem to need them. They are right. He didn't need them, but college football is an arms race for most teams. Most teams don't have coaching wizards and unfortunately, this is part of today's world.
I think most fans are probably on that 7 to 8 win threshold, in that this is the number of wins that they need to see for Tuberville to keep his job. If a lot of the things that I'm concerned about fall the right way then I think that can happen. Texas Tech has almost always had to play with a chip on its shoulder. That's the identity of West Texas in that for the most part, it is a hard working salt of the earth group of people and we know we don't have a lot the history or facilities or recruiting prowess as a lot of other teams. I think a lot of West Texans take pride in working hard, and in the past, including Leach's teams, but going back to Spike Dykes and beyond that, I think a lot of Texas Tech fans always felt that you weren't going to out-work Texas Tech and they weren't going to give up. Last year, in that stretch run after the Oklahoma win, Texas Tech lost 7-41 to Iowa St. at home, lost 20-52 in Austin, 6-66 to Oklahoma St. at home, a close game at Missouri, but losing 27-31, and a 42-66 loss to Baylor. That's a lot of give-up in those last five games losing by an average of a 30.8 points. So maybe more than anything else, I think fans want this team to be in the fight each and every game, work hard and if they can get to 7 wins and are fighting hard to do it, then I think most people will be happy with the season.
This was awesome, Seth. I learned a lot, was glad to catch some key posts at DTN that I'd missed, and am already looking forward to resuming this conversation when Texas Tech game week rolls around this October. Good luck, and enjoy the 2012 season, amigo.