When a defense cannot just line up and stuff the opponent, one good way to get off the field is to generate turnovers. Interceptions are, of course, a major part of the turnover equation.
Along with every other problem in the book, the 2011 Texas Tech defense rarely created turnovers. And an almost total lack of interceptions was the nub of that weakness.
Opponents threw at Tech 314 times, and the Red Raiders intercepted only five of those offerings (one pick every 62 pass attempts). That sorry number tied Tech with Indiana, Eastern Michigan and Fresno State for No.112 nationally in interceptions.
But not only was last year's interception tally poor by national standards, it was dreadful by Texas Tech historical standards. Going back fifteen seasons through 1997, the Red Raiders' worst interception total was 10. Tech netted that total three times—in 2009, 2007 and 1998.
Conversely, Tech's largest haul of pilfers was 18, which the Red Raiders achieved in 2008 and 2001. Indeed, during Greg McMackin's tenure and the first year of Lyle Setencich's reign, Tech had consecutive seasons with 15, 18, 16 and 16 pilfers. So ballhawking defense can happen at Tech!
The question is, can it happen soon? Like, shall we say, this coming season?
Over the past 15 seasons the Red Raiders averaged 13 interceptions. And as recently as 2010, they netted 15. Thirteen picks, therefore, is not an unreasonable expectation.
Will the Red Raiders intercept more or less that 13 passes in 2012?
Football swamis routinely assert that a strong pass rush makes good pass defense. While hardly profound, this assertion is true insofar as all units on a football team interlock, and quality anywhere begets quality elsewhere.
But a pass rush need not be utterly ferocious in order to give the secondary a chance to do its job. As long as the defensive line and linebackers don't give quarterbacks all day to pick apart the secondary, the defensive backs should be able to cover well enough to defend passes and snag interceptions.
Texas Tech's front seven figures to be at least that good in 2012. Defensive end Dartwan Bush is poised for the proverbial "breakout" season, while redshirt freshman Branden Jackson could make waves as Bush's bookend. Furthermore, linebackers Will Smith and Sam Eguavoen are athletic and fast enough to heat up quarterbacks from the second level.
In short, quarterbacks should not be free to survey the field leisurely when facing the 2012 Red Raiders. And that will help the secondary create turnovers.
But no matter how good the pass rush, if coverage is poor, interceptions will not happen. That was certainly the case with Tech's defensive backfield in 2011. It was equally not the case during the spring of 2012.
Tommy Tuberville frequently pointed out that the secondary did not give receivers much breathing room this past spring. He was pointing out an obvious truth. Even an untrained eye could see that coverage was far tighter than it had been, even when passes were completed.
The key to this improvement was better cornerback play from the likes of Cornelius Douglas and Eugene Neboh. The former receiver and the ex walk-on were rock solid and then some during the spring. And while their natural abilities account for much of their fine play, credit must also go to new secondary coach John Lovett who has his charges playing with far better technique than they did in 2011.
Most of Tech's interceptions this season will come from the cornerbacks, but free safety D. J. Johnson will also contribute. He's a bit erratic, but is more than capable of making the big play.
The projection here is that Douglas will have an All Big 12 season, intercepting around six passes in the process. The rest of the defense will pick up the slack exactly, and Tech will record 13 interceptions.