Like any football team, good, mediocre or bad, Texas Tech has several players whose play will be particularly critical to the squad's success. These players, whether by virtue experience, leadership ability, importance of the position played, depth concerns, or sheer talent, are especially crucial. They may or not be the best players on the club, but they would be very conspicuous were they to be absent for any reason. In fact, that may be the best way to conceive of the critical players—they are the performers the team could least afford to lose.
With this series, we will take a reverse order look at the Red Raider football players we consider most invaluable.
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Theoretically, Texas Tech's offense should produce a higher percentage of touchdowns in the red zone, as its running game becomes more potent. Certainly, Tommy Tuberville has harped on the need to develop the ground attack in order to do better on short-yardage and goal line situations.
Unfortunately, the Red Raider running game is a mystery going into 2012 because of the questionable status of Eric Stephens, DeAndre Washington and Kenny Williams. The former two are rehabbing injuries while the latter is mired in a seemingly endless legal imbroglio.
Because of the uncertainty at running back, it may be fortuitous that Tech has a very talented young kicker on the roster in the name of Ryan Bustin.
The sophomore junior college transfer from Kilgore redshirted in 2011 as Donnie Carona rose to the occasion and had a very good senior season. Consequently, Tech's coaches really didn't know what they had in Bustin.
But the players did.
They, apparently, paid more attention to Bustin than the coaches, and occasionally whispered to them that Bustin was something special. By his own admission, Tuberville said the coaches paid little attention to the players' praise. Bustin's showing in spring camp, however, caused them to sit up and take notice.
Bustin had one of the best spring camps by a Tech kicker in recent memory. From 45 yards in he was absolutely deadly. He was consistent throughout the spring, never going through a lull in accuracy. And late in camp—particularly during the Red/Black scrimmage—Bustin began showing the ability to connect from 50 yards and beyond.
Bustin did all of this good work, of course, without much stress and pressure. He was kicking field goals in front of teammates, coaches and reporters, with little on the line.
It remains to be seen whether Bustin can get the job done on national television from 50 yards out with a bowl game on the line. Banging home field goals on a lazy spring day in Lubbock is one thing; doing it in Norman in November is another animal altogether.
Bustin's other duty will be kickoffs. And the NCAA, in an ever increasing effort to sanitize the game of football, has moved kickoffs to the 35-yard line, restricted kickoff coverage teams to a five-yard run as the ball is kicked off, and decreed that touchbacks will now come out to the 25-yard line.
In theory, this should make the placekicker's job easier, insofar as a less mighty leg is required to boot the ball into and out of the end zone. But it's entirely possible that coaches, gnashing their gums over letting the opposition start at the 25, will instruct kickers to kick the ball just short of the goal line in hopes of stopping returns short of the 25. If this transpires, Bustin and all his colleagues will be required to get tremendous hangtime on their kickoffs, and to finesse them inside the five.
Whether it be field goals or kickoffs, you can bet Ryan Bustin will work hard on his craft this summer. Chances are good, he's doing so right now.