It has been said before, but never has it been truer than now: defense will determine whether the Texas Tech football team sinks or swims in the upcoming season. And based upon how desperately the Red Raiders need defensive help, everything, and I do mean everything, rides on how quickly the incoming defensive recruits elevate the play of the defense.
In certain respects this defensive class looks to be just what the doctor ordered. As Tommy Tuberville stressed in his signing day press conference, the Red Raiders have upgraded their speed with this class. Particularly in the back seven.
Linebackers Ryan Flannigan, Chris Payne, Will Smith and Kris Williams can all motivate. So can cornerbacks Bruce Jones, and Thierry Nguema. And the same goes for Casey Gladney if he's moved from receiver to cornerback as looks like will happen.
Perhaps even more important than speed, Tuberville stressed that many of Tech's newest defensive additions are excellent open-field tacklers. As anybody who witnessed Tech's defensive catastrophe last season will attest, the Red Raiders desperately need tackling machines. If the current crop is what Tuberville says it is in this regard, Tech should be a better tackling defense in 2012.
In addition to general characteristics such as speed and tackling, Tuberville's staff lassoed several prime individual talents on defense. Gladney, Micah Awe and La'Darius Newbold all have the talent to not only rotate but start immediately in the secondary. Outside of Cornelius Douglas (and he could return to offense), there doesn't appear to be a cornerback currently on the roster who has the talent of that trio.
A couple of defensive linemen could provide immediate help too. On the inside, Anthony Smith resembles Anthony Adams of Penn State and Chicago Bears fame. He's the classic high-energy fireplug who is capable of creating havoc in the middle of the line.
Michael Starts is built like a defensive tackle but will play defensive end for the Red Raiders. With any luck, Starts will provide the anchorage Tech so desperately needs on the strong side of the defensive line.
Having said this, we have seen from the experience of Delvon Simmons and Jackson Richards that it is extremely difficult for freshmen to make a serious impact on the defensive line. Heck, even JUCO superstar Leon Mackey didn't shake up the universe.
But if there's one single concern with this defensive class, it's the lack of size in the secondary, and particularly at linebacker.
Tuberville believes that Big 12 defenses can afford to play only one true linebacker, a maximum of two, because of the predominance of spread offenses. Consequently, Tuberville and staff focused on small, speedy linebacker/safety hybrids such as Chris Payne, and Ryan Flanigan. Tech's heaviest linebacker recruit is 220-pound Will Smith and its heaviest defensive back is 200-pound Austin Stewart.
Placing a premium on speed at the expense of size is a gamble though, even in the Big 12. The downward spiral of Tech's 2011 season commenced when Iowa State bulldozed the Red Raiders on the ground. Baylor did the same. Heck, even Texas State gouged Tech with the running attack. And with TCU debuting in the Big 12 next season the Red Raiders will face another potent running offense.
Let us not forget, moreover, that Tech finished dead last nationally in rushing defense a year ago. Whether the latest crop of defensive recruits is capable of significantly improving Tech's rush defense is very much open to question. And if they do not, all of the added speed will be a band-aid on a severed femoral artery.