Critical 20: No. 5 Branden Jackson

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 of experience, leadership, importance of the position played, depth concerns, or sheer talent, are especially crucial. They may or may not be the best players on the club, but they would be very conspicuous were they absent for any reason.

Perhaps the best way to conceive of the critical players is to determine if 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.

Texas Tech Critical Twenty
Gary MooreDERS FRClarksville, TX6-5245No. 20
Rodney HallRBSRAngleton, TX5-10240No. 19
Donte PhillipsDLJRMilwaukee, WI6-2280No. 18
DeAndre WashingtonRBJRMissouri City, TX5-8190No. 17
Bradley MarquezWRSROdessa, TX5-11200No. 16
Baylen BrownOLSOSan Antonio, TX6-4305No. 15
Micah AweLBJRArlington, TX6-0200No. 14
Ryan BustinKSRKilgore, TX5-11180No. 13
Rika LeviNTJRSan Francisco, CA6-3350No. 12
Keenon WardSSOSnyder, TX5-9195No. 11
Rashad FortenberryOTSRTylertown, MS6-5285No. 10
Justis NelsonCBSOMesquite, TX6-2170No. 9
D.J. Polite-BrayWRSOLithonia, GA6-1175No. 8
Sam EguavoenLBSRGarland TX6-1220No. 7
Jakeem GrantWRSOMesquite, TX5-6160No. 6
Branden JacksonDEJRMcKeesport, PA6-4265No. 5

There is no doubt that a strong pass rush is one of the most important components, not only to defense, but of modern football in general. A potent pass rush solves many problems. It makes the job of defensive backs easier by hurrying quarterbacks into inaccurate throws, and relatedly, abets turnover creation by increasing the likelihood of interceptions.

In 2014 the Texas Tech pass rush was substandard. The Red Raiders registered only 21 sacks, and their 1.62 sacks per game came in at No. 90 nationally out of 125 programs. Those lackluster figures didn't harm Tech's pass defense too much as the Red Raiders finished No. 31 in pass defense efficiency, but Tech lassoed only eight interceptions on the season and was No. 104 in interceptions per contest. Clearly, there remains work to be done in the pass rush department.

The player who will most be counted on to stoke up the Raider rush is junior defensive end Branden Jackson. The Pennsylvania product certainly had a very solid sophomore campaign. He recorded 63 tackles, nine tackles for loss and four sacks. One would have to say that Jackson is about where most projected him to be after he signed with Tech as a hot prospect from the mid-Atlantic.

But as an upperclassman, and the team's leading returning pass rusher, the responsibilities and expectations that fall on Jackson's shoulders are considerably more substantial. If the Red Raider defense is to improve, it will improve in tandem with Jackson's progress.

And at this point it is difficult to know how much, if any, Jackson will improve as a junior. Simple common sense suggests that Jackson will improve as a result of more experience and greater maturity if nothing else. Having said that, there was little evidence of improvement from Jackson in the spring. Of the veteran players expected to lead the Red Raiders in 2014, Jackson had the most silent of springs. In fact, so quiet was Jackson that one had to double check to make sure he wasn't actually on the sidelines in street clothes.

Is Jackson's lackluster spring performance a cause for concern? Maybe. But maybe not. It's a basic fact of football—and one coaches are loath to admit—that an individual's performance on the practice field doesn't always translate to game day. Some players are practice day dynamos and game day duds. Others are exactly the opposite. Hopefully, Jackson falls into the latter category.

One of the reasons Jackson is so important to the team is that pickins behind him are mighty slim. His current backup, Zach Barnes, is a 215-pound true sophomore who played in only five games last year. Another option will be junior college transfer Brandon Thorpe (following in the path of Brandon Williams, Brandon Sharpe, and Branden Jackson, Thorpe will be the fourth Tech DE named Brandon in the past several years), a 6-foot-5 275-pounder who looks like the real deal. Then again, you never want to count on newcomers to solve your problems.

One thing for certain is that Branden Jackson will be one of the most closely watched Red Raiders when Tech kicks it off in the fall. The team needs him to have a big year.

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