Piecing together the Defensive Puzzle

Texas Tech quarterback Davis Webb and the offense has carved up the defense in two scrimmages with little to no resistance. While the Red Raiders are expected to move the ball and score points against everyone, just how much work does defensive coordinator Matt Wallerstedt and the staff have between now and the start of the 2014 season? And does he have the pieces to make it work?

For the first time since the 2009 season, the Texas Tech Red Raiders have the same defensive coordinator they had the year before.

Given that coaching and schematic continuity are generally considered good things, it is expected that, despite some significant personnel losses, Tech's defense will be improved in 2014. Strangely enough, however, in two public scrimmages, the Red Raider defense has been anemic, to put it kindly.

There are logical explanations for the unimpressive showings. To begin with, the defense has been without J. J. Gaines, a veteran player who is expected to be the team's best safety.

Furthermore, the defense, in confronting Tech's offense, is battling a typhoon filled with meat cleavers. For going on a decade and a half, the identity of Red Raider football has been its prolific, high scoring passing attack, and the 2014 iteration would seem to hold promise of being one of the best ever to singe the ether over the High Plains.

Despite these mitigating factors, however, there is reason for concern. One would expect the continuity brought by Matt Wallerstedt and his staff to produce organization and balance, even without any increase in playing talent on the field. Instead, there have been breakdowns at the line of scrimmage, and blown coverages and missed assignments in the second and third levels of the defense.

Tackling, too, has been a problem. It was average in the Petro Scrimmage, but horrendous for Friday Night Lights. One might expect Tech's offense to have a talent advantage, but it is also proving to be tougher and more physical.

The overall impression through two scrimmages is that the Tech defense is inchoate rather than fully formed and organized. It appears as though Wallerstedt is trying to find solutions at individual positions rather than working to polish a finished product. If so, so be it. In that case we can expect Tech's offense to roll in the Red-Black Scrimmage, and we will not see the real Red Raider defense until next fall when Wallerstedt has put the pieces in place and has applied the final coats of varnish.

So, what pieces does he have to work with?

Clearly, the return of J.J. Gaines to full health will solve problems at strong safety. It is also safe to say that Wallerstedt will be able to count on veterans Pete Robertson (outside linebacker), Sam Eguavoen (inside linebacker), and Justis Nelson (cornerback). But that is less than half a defense. Are there any other players showing signs of being able to plug gaps? Despite the shaky showings in the scrimmage, there may be a few.

Free safety Keenon Ward had a good Petro Scrimmage, and after a start that saw him struggle in coverage Friday night, settled in and played pretty well. He and Gaines should pair to give Tech very good play at safety.

Inside linebacker Micah Awe has showed signs of being a good player, but is still inconsistent. Awe is capable of making spectacular plays in coverage and delivering knock-out hits, but will he make routine plays routinely? If so, Tech is good at inside linebacker.

Cornerback Tyler Middleton may be the most pleasant surprise thus far on defense. He had an eye-opening scrimmage in Midland, and may have been the defensive MVP in scrimmage No. 2. He's a big, fast, physical corner who looks like he can cover. If so, he and Justis Nelson solve Tech's problems at cornerback, and round out a pretty darned good secondary.

Another pleasant surprise is inside linebacker V.J. Fehoko. He will provide quality depth in the center of the defense.

Interior lineman Donte Phillips had a fine scrimmage in Midland, but played with the twos on Friday, and didn't make noticeable plays, although the No. 2 defense was far more effective than the starters in that scrimmage. If--and it's still a fairly large if--Phillips develops into a good one, then he teams up with Branden Jackson to give Wallerstedt a pair of very solid starters on the three-man defensive front. Not to mention the junior college help up front in the form of three space eaters due to arrive this summer.

If that plan comes together then Wallerstedt still has work to do at outside linebacker, nose tackle, and in building that oh so critical depth. And that is a man-sized challenge, even for a coordinator who is solidifying rather than just starting out.

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