Like any football team, Texas Tech has several players whose performance will be particularly critical to the squad's success. These players, whether by virtue experience, leadership, 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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Heading into the 2012 season, there was reason to believe that Will Smith was the most important player on the Texas Tech football team. Tommy Tuberville and Art Kaufman could hardly say enough glowing things about the JUCO transfer from California.
The Tech coaches gushed about Smith's ability to almost instantaneously absorb the defensive scheme and plays. They praised his maturity. They called him a coach on the field and the defense's quarterback. And after a memorable interception in a scrimmage, Tuberville said that Smith's big-play, game-changing ability had been the missing ingredient in previous Red Raider defenses. In short, Smith was anointed a virtual messiah, and local media types, including yours truly, parroted the message from the mount.
But, as so often happens in the game of college football, what everybody saw or thought they saw in practice did not completely materialize on the actual field of play. Oh sure, Smith started 11 games and was a significant factor in the modest improvement of Tech's defense last season, but he was hardly the revelation everybody expected him to be.
Smith chipped in 55 tackles, good for fourth best on the team, but not a number you'd expect from your starting middle linebacker. Even more underwhelming, Smith didn't have a single sack, interception, pass breakup, forced fumble or fumble recovery. In short, he was not the big-play artist Tuberville indicated he would be, and which the defense so desperately needed.
But that was—as they say—then, and this is now. Smith has a full year of college football under his belt. And sometimes, as was the case with one Dwayne Slay, junior college players don't really blossom at the D1 level until their second season. Perhaps now Smith will live up to his previous billing.
As in workouts last season, Smith certainly showed flashes of brilliance in spring scrimmages. He was not necessarily a force between the tackles against the run, but he showed great speed and range, and was excellent against the pass. And in the Big 12, fast linebackers who can cover are worth their weight in palladium.
According to the current depth chart, however, Smith has his work cut out just to crack the starting lineup. He is currently behind spring sensation Sam Eguavoen at the WILL linebacker position.
Personally, I believe Smith is too talented and experienced to keep on the bench. Not that he'll unseat Eguavoen, but he may very well be moved to another linebacker spot just to ensure that the best four linebackers are on the field.
Smith could wind up at the Raider back position where the injury-plagued Terrance Bullitt and Chris Payne hold sway, or the bandit position where untested sophomores Branden Jackson and Pete Robertson are the frontrunners. The former option is probably the more likely. But whatever Smith's ultimate resting point, look for his contributions to be more significant than they were last season.