Five for 10: Defensive Depth

Texas Tech coach Kliff Kingsbury has stated repeatedly the goal every year is to win the Big 12 championship. In order to do that the Red Raiders must win at least 10 games as the last team to win a Big 12 title with less than 10 regular season victories was Colorado back in 2001. With that in mind is doing a five-part series analyzing what Tech must do in order to get to 10 wins.

If the last few years of Texas Tech football have proved anything, it is the value, nay, the absolute necessity of defensive depth. All too often folks look at talented starters and salivate, neglecting to consider the greenhorns and marginal players backing them up. And this hidden weakness has doomed the Red Raiders again and again.

Since 2011, Texas Tech has gone 4-14 in the final six games of the season, including bowl games. And in those 18 games the Red Raiders surrendered an average 46 points per contest. Tommy Tuberville was Tech’s coach for two of those seasons, but lest we lay the blame entirely on Tuberville’s lacquered pine-box, the Red Raiders gave up an average of 44 points per outing during the last six games of Kliff Kingsbury’s maiden voyage.

A partial explanation for Tech’s late-season defensive swoons is, of course, the fact that Tech’s schedule has been back-loaded with very good teams. That said, there simply is no gainsaying that defensive injuries and a lack of defensive depth has also played a critical role in the November/December misery. Proof of this is Tech’s very good defensive effort against Arizona State in last year’s Holiday Bowl after defensive coordinator Matt Wallerstedt welcomed back a bevy of injured players after the pre-bowl interim.

If the most recent recruiting class is any indicator, the current Tech coaching staff seems to have taken the lessons of the last three years to heart. Thirteen of 25 players Tech signed are slated to play defense, and for a program that has hung its hat on offense, those numbers are significant.

What’s more, as Wallerstedt and Kingsbury have made crystal clear, several of those defensive recruits are expected to play key roles for the Red Raiders in the upcoming season. Indeed, outside of perhaps Michael Coley and Tevin Madison (both defensive backs), every single defensive recruit stands a legitimate chance of slotting into the two-deep before the season is done.

But is that such a good thing? It may speak well for the quality of the recruits, but any time a Big 12 defense is relying on inexperienced players to fill important roles, warning klaxons shriek and offenses lick their chops.

Still, there is some reason for cautious optimism regarding defensive depth.

The defensive line, in particular, looks deep. It is entirely possible that Tech’s three-man front could go three deep with respectable players this fall. The Red Raider line will go to battle with the likes of Jackson Richards, Donte Phillips, Branden Jackson, Gary Moore, Rika Levi, Demetrious Alston, Keland McElrath, Brandon Thorpe and Zach Barnes. That group should be able to get Tech through the season in good shape.

There should also be reasonable depth at safety. Aside from projected starters Keenon Ward and J. J. Gaines, Wallerstedt will rely on Josh Keys, Jalen Barnes, Dorian Crawford, Payton Hendrix and possibly Derrick Dixon. Keys and Crawford looked good in the spring, and Hendrix is a freshman who appears talented enough to make a major splash immediately.

That leaves linebacker and cornerback where major depth concerns remain. The Red Raiders still don’t know what they have (let alone whether they have depth!) at field cornerback opposite Justis Nelson, while every linebacker position save Bandit and Mike--where Pete Robertson and Kris Williams, and Sam Eguavoen and Micah Awe respectively, hold sway--looks a bit shaky.

Ideally, Tech would like to play many defensive players in the non-conference schedule in order to give them experience and to avoid injuries to the starters, but with tough non-con games against Arkansas and UTEP on the slate, that may not be possible. Consequently, if the Red Raiders are to tap double-digit wins, they may simply have to hope and pray that injuries at linebacker and cornerback do not mount up.

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