Critical 20: No. 3 J.J. Gaines

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 GrantWRJRMesquite, TX5-6160No. 6
Branden JacksonDEJRMcKeesport, PA6-4265No. 5
Pete RobertsonLBJRLongview, TX6-3225No. 4
J.J. GainesSJRIrving, TX5-10180No. 3

If Pete Robertson is Texas Tech's primary playmaker in the defensive front seven, J. J. Gaines figures to fill that role in the secondary. And a Red Raider secondary that loses three starters from a year ago and recorded only eight interceptions—Florida State's 26 led the nation—in 2013 needs all the playmakers it can get.

In a very real sense, Gaines is the secondary's only true returning starter. He started the first five games of 2013—and recorded two interceptions during that period—before going down with a season-ending injury against Iowa State. And the Red Raider defense, which hadn't given up more than 23 points prior to the tilt with the Cyclones, proceeded to give up an average of 44 points per game over the next seven outings. Coincidence? I don't believe in ‘em.

It is crystal clear that Matt Wallerstedt values Gaines' presence. Even though Gaines was technically well enough to play during the spring, he did not participate in any contact drills or scrimmages. Wallerstedt held him out because he understands Gaines' importance to the defense and didn't want to run any risk of Gaines' re-aggravating his injury.

What Gaines adds to the secondary is a fast, athletic presence with a nose for the pigskin. In other words, he is a complete safety who not only covers well, but helps generate turnovers. There can be little doubt that had Gaines stayed healthy throughout 2013 the Tech defense would have claimed well over the eight interceptions that it actually recorded.

But Gaines will be important for other reasons besides his actual play. With young sophomores Keenon Ward, Justis Nelson and La'Darius Newbold presently slated to start alongside Gaines in the secondary, he will be the veteran of the bunch. It will be largely up to Gaines to ensure that his fellow defensive backs have their coverages correct and fulfill their assignments. Late in the 2013 season there were too many blown assignments in the secondary and Gaines' presence will hopefully reverse that trend. At the very least, Gaines will be a valuable resource for Ward, the safety who will start alongside him.

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