Spring Breakdown: Defensive Backs

Texas Tech wrapped its first season under coach Kliff Kingsbury with a Holiday Bowl win over Arizona State, signed a promising 2014 recruiting class and now spring ball takes a hiatus for Spring Break. RaiderPower.com senior writer Joe Yeager wraps his roster evaluation with the defensive backs.

Probable Starters
Justis Nelson, 6-foot-2, 170 | Sophomore | Mesquite, Texas
Thierry Nguema | 5-foot-10, 160 | Sophomore | Corona, California
J.J. Gaines | 5-foot-10, 180 | Junior | Irving, Texas
Keenon Ward | 5-foot-9, 195 | Sophomore | Snyder, Texas

Backups
Josh Keys | 6-foot, 180 | Junior | Seminary, Mississippi
La'Darius Newbold | 5-foot-11, 195 | Sophomore | Lancaster, Texas
Dee Paul | 6-foot-0, 165 | Sophomore | Munday, Texas
Jalen Barnes | 5-foot-11, 185 | Freshman | Port Arthur, Texas
Jeremy Reynolds | 5-foot-9, 170 | Junior | Greensboro, North Carolina
Tyler Middleton | 6-foot, 190 | Junior | Midland, Texas
John White | 5-foot-10, 200 | Junior | Bremond, Texas
Martin Hill | 5-foot-11, 170 | Senior | St. Louis, Missouri
Brandon Bagley | 5-foot-10, 170 | Junior | Los Angeles, California
Summit Hogue | 5-foot-11, 195 | Junior | Lubbock, Texas

Most Intriguing Battle: Can Thierry Nguema hold off Tyler Middleton at the boundary cornerback position?

Position Power Rating: 83

Among the 10 or so players expected to compete seriously for meaningful snaps in Texas Tech's defensive backfield, none are seniors. Perhaps as many as three are juniors. In short, Texas Tech's secondary will be young indeed in 2014.

But experience isn't everything, particularly in the secondary where raw athletic ability is often paramount. And this batch of Red Raider defensive backs does have its fair share of talent.

Take cornerback Justis Nelson, for instance. By late in his freshman campaign, it was obvious to everybody who saw him play, that Nelson could be something special. If cornerbacks can have the "it" factor, Nelson has it. He's skinny as a rail and doesn't have Olympic sprinter speed, but Nelson has a knack for draping himself over receivers, and his 6-foot-2 frame and long arms do not hurt. Only time will tell, but Nelson could develop into Tech's first true lock-down corner since…? In all honesty, I'm not sure Tech has ever had one.

Or take strong safety J. J. Gaines. The junior suffered an injury that derailed what was shaping up to be a very good sophomore season for him, and it's an injury that continues to limit his participation in spring ball. But in the first half of Tech's 2013 season, Gaines developed into the only real playmaker in the Red Raider secondary. The injury to Gaines was arguably the first blow in the ultimate disintegration of Tech's defense that year. A healthy Gaines in 2014 is equally a step in reconstituting that defense.

Then there is sophomore free safety Keenon Ward. He has yet to really turn it on in actual game situations, but last spring was very impressive. As of last season, Ward had still not mastered the totality of Matt Wallerstedt's defense, but once he does, look for him to become a very physical run-stopping safety.

Outside of that trio, there are a few other tantalizing prospects that we hear good things about, but have not yet seen.

JUCO transfer Josh Keys is a fluid, athletic player who will challenge Ward strongly for a starting berth.

Jalen Barnes was making big waves in fall camp 2013 before an injury shelved his freshman season. He's now in competition with Ward and Keys at free safety.

Much is expected of Tyler Middleton, a very good junior college running back who redshirted last season and is now in the thick of it at cornerback. He may be the fastest player on the entire defense, and at 6-foot-0 and 180 to 190 pounds, has ideal cornerback size. If he can fully make the transition from offense to defense, he could pair with Justis Nelson to give Tech two lethal cornerbacks.

But much of the excitement over Tech's secondary is over potential rather than actual accomplishment. No Red Raider defensive back will be a preseason All Big 12 selection. But will a Tech DB's name be ledgered among the conference's elite in December? That is the more interesting question.

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