While the Texas Tech defense earned the majority of the blame for last year's disastrous season, fans also at times questioned the general offensive philosophy. Even with a depleted arsenal of weapons at the skill positions, fans and alums on call-in shows and message boards wondered if Neal Brown's version of the spread offense would rival the offenses seen in West Texas the previous decade.
The funny thing is, not too long ago the same questions were being asked about a new act in town. "Why are there so many screen passes?...I thought passes were supposed to go forward." And of course, the ever popular v-word: "When will this team go vertical?"
Those were all calls and questions I fielded in local talk radio during the 2000 and 2001 seasons.
Then, 2002 happened. Things fell into place for the Texas Tech offense, Kliff Kingsbury threw for 5,017 yards and conducted the Goin' Band from Raiderland after a Tangerine Bowl win. Those calls subsided.
The cliché in football is that a team will improve the most from week one to week two of a given season and year one to year two of a tenure of a given head coach. It was year three, however, that saw the Air Raid offense evolve from a gimmick that very few understood to the machine responsible for rewriting the Texas Tech, Big 12, and NCAA record books.
While Kingsbury will always be known as the leader of the brigade, it was the skill position players that improved and grew in the offense that made it thrive.
In 2001, Kingsbury threw for 3502 yards and 25 TDs. The four leading pass catchers in 2001 all caught at least fifty passes and had at least 550 yards receiving. Ricky Williams lead the way with 92 catches. Carlos Francis led the way in yardage with 703.
In 2002, freshman Taurean Henderson replaced Williams in the backfield and ran for 793 yards and caught 98 passes for 633 yards. The other components of the 2002 offense were the same as 2001. The numbers jumped in the receiving corps with the number of skill position players with 500 yards receiving or more moving from four to six. 2002 was also the first year the air raid had a 1000 yard receiver, when Wes Welker caught 86 passes for 1054 yards. In addition to Welker and Henderson, Mickey Peters, Nehemiah Glover, Carlos Francis and Anton Paige all caught at least 48 passes and had over 550 yards.
Tech knew what they had in 2002 with Welker and Francis, who both are now NFL veterans. It was the improvement of Paige and Glover in 2002, however, that made the offense transition from a perceived gimmick to a potent weapon. Both went from between 200-300 yards receiving in 2001 to at least 550 each yards in 2002. Paige's specialty was the fade route and getting open on the sidelines. Glover may have been the best in Tech history at the inside screen pass.
The possibilties are there for a similar breakout with the Neal Brown offense in 2012. There are at least 7 players who will factor in at a skill position who did not play a snap for Texas Tech in 2011. (Tyson Williams, Derreck Edwards, Jakeem Grant, Javares McRoy, Javon Bell, Sadale Foster, Jordan Davis)
Seth Doege returns after throwing for over 4000 yards in not just his first year as a starter, but his first year playing competitive football since he was a sophomore in high school. Doege has appeared more decisive in the pocket this fall and that is something that Kingsbury improved on throughout his career at Texas Tech as well.
Eric Ward is the leading returning receiver. Darrin Moore and Alex Torres each had over 500 yards receiving last season and the three are the known commodities . But in order for this offense to put up comparable numbers to 2002 and beyond, the Red Raiders will need the production of guys like Jace Amaro, Tyson Williams and Bradley Marquez to be and in some cases double or even triple last season's production. When a defense has to make the tough decisions to cover one particular receiver or one side of the field, that's when the opportunity presents itself for the younger guys to make those defenses pay.
"I do think we'll be improved on offense," said Neal Brown. "We're so deep at the skill positions that the receivers can't take a day off physically or mentally because they will lose their spot on the depth chart. The competition out there right now is pretty intense."
"Every receiver in this offense can produce, and each guy excels at something different. Moore is physical and has great hands. Eric (Ward) can do everything that we need a receiver to do, Bradley is so elusive, and Marcus is so long, he's probably Doege's favorite target to throw the fade route to because he's so lean and long. He just goes up and gets the football."
Doege is also confident in his receiving corps heading into this season. "We have a lot of dangerous guys at the skill position, but we have to go out and prove it on Saturdays."
If the Red Raider offense does prove their worth and depth offensively and prove their pundits wrong, the 2012 version could be the machine that this fan base has hoped to see when coach Tuberville told fans at his introductory press conference, "We're going to keep the air raid."