Rebuilding Tech's Defense: Part I

With new defensive coordinator David Gibbs in place the Red Raiders look to rebuild the defense after one of its worst statistical performances is program history in 2014. takes a look at returning talent, committed recruits and targeted prospects in this three-part series. Up first is an evaluation of what the Red Raiders have returning on the roster.

Now that Texas Tech has its new man in charge of the defense in David Gibbs, it is time to evaluate what he has to work with both on the roster and what new talent could be added with the current recruiting cycle.

Last week

David Gibbs

at Gibbs' introduction to the media on campus, I asked what his first step as the new head man was.

"Getting organized in recruiting, figuring out, listening to the guys who were on staff last year," Gibbs said. "Watching film--which we've been doing the last couple days--and just trying to figure out which positions we need to go recruit guys at. Then at the same time put guys that are already on the roster in the right position."

I will attempt to do the same for you in a three part series:
Part I: Returning Talent
Part II: Committed Prospects
Part III: Remaining Targets

Part I: Returning Talent

Some of the players mentioned in this story will likely not be on the roster by spring practice much less by next fall, but everyone listed is on the current roster so that is what we'll work with in this section with one exception; Breiden Fehoko, who has already enrolled and is on campus. I have even spoken, with his proud mama, Linda, about it.

Coach Gibbs said he will use multiple alignments depending on his roster, the opponent and situation, but if forced to declare a base front he said he would use a 4-3 with one of the defensive ends standing up in a two-point stance.

With that in mind, here is my projected two-deep heading in to spring ball:

 photo DefensiveAlignment2-deep_zps4c5d3c05.jpg

Above is just a rough outline to give you a visual idea of how I see the depth chart as of right now. As I pointed out above, Gibbs said he does not have a defensive front or scheme set in stone, he will adjust to his personnel, which is a good sign, what you want to hear in my opinion, but who will emerge this offseason is anyone's guess.

Still, let's break down the two-deep I provided above beginning with the defensive line.

I truly believe there are only a couple positions close to being locked down and Branden Jackson (6-4, 270) at strong-side (the heavy side, opposite the most blockers) defensive end is one of those. It's up for debate how good or bad of a season Jackson produced in 2014, but count me among those who thought he was pretty good. Debate all you want, but barring injury he'll be starting opening day next year.

I penciled in Demetrius Alston as Jackson's backup because I believe he possesses the perfect size at 6-foot-3, 267 pounds and skill set to play there. I think he can be more than a serviceable reserve who played out of position last season as a 3-technique, or 3-4 defensive tackle, and probably isn't a Big 12 starting talent. He can play though, and could help keep Jackson fresh during games and subsequently throughout the season.

Opposite them will be Pete Robertson (6-3, 236) as the starting stand-up defensive end. The 2014 Big 12 sacks leader even referred to himself as a defensive end in a postseason interview, which you can see in the video directly below.

There's no reason to believe he will not thrive as a pass rusher once again his senior year, hopefully without having to worry about dropping back in coverage as much.

Behind Pete is Andre Ross (6-2, 235), who is something of an enigma. When healthy and motivated he was a difference maker, a physical presence on a defense desperately in need of some. Alas, he is often injured and has had eligibility issues in the past. I don't know if he'll ever play again, but he sure could help at a number of positions, especially there at the weakside defensive end.

Moving inside to defensive tackle we have a trio of junior college players mixed with a freshman high school All-American. I don't think it's any secret that Breiden Fehoko is expected to start from Day 1. He comes in with a lot of hype and rightfully so in my opinion when you look at his film. He's a guy who registered 20 sacks as a junior in high school, he's big (6-3, 290), he's quick for his size, he's powerful (reportedly benches 460) and he has a very quick and violent swim move to go along with his bull rush.

He's rated as a five-star by for a reason and he's the type of talent Tech just doesn't sign along the defensive front. The Red Raiders need him to be the real-deal.

Joining him will

Rika Levi

be the before mentioned junior college trio, assuming they all return. I have no idea who will start and where, but the hope is Rika Levi (6-2, 367), Keland McElrath (6-4, 312) and Marcus Smith (6-3, 310) all make the old junior college jump from year 1-2 that so many have at Texas Tech and in college football in general.

Other defensive linemen in the mix include raw, but athletic defensive end Gary Moore (6-5, 226), senior-to-be Donte Phillips (6-2, 280) who can probably play multiple positions up front, Anthony "Snacks" Smith (6-0, 331) and Josh Outlaw (6-4, 295), who was moved over to defense from the offensive line late last season.

Linebacker is a position that struggled mightily last season to say the least. Texas Tech is getting a major upgrade in talent this season, but is untested.

Let's start with the veteran of the group, Micah Awe (6-0, 220), who has been a career backup, but has tallied 139 total tackles (93 solo) in 38 games played over his career. He did start four games late last season, including a stellar performance against Texas where he registered 12 tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss and a sack.

Awe is small and is sometimes out of position, usually due to his aggressiveness. He's also physical, capable of stringing together multiple big hits in a game and plays with a chip on his shoulder which is refreshing to see on a defense lacking a lot of fire. I think he starts somewhere and my guess is inside.

I have redshirt freshman Dakota Allen (6-2, 240) backing him up inside, because I see him being the future there. Honestly I wouldn't be surprised if he starts more games than not next season, but we haven't seen him play a down yet, so we'll see. Coach Mike Smith said Allen is the complete package and he expects him to have a memorable career at Tech. We'll see.

Sam Atoe (5-11, 235) showed flashes of being a playmaker last season at linebacker. He was originally slated to play safety, but showed up bigger than expected and ended up getting some time at linebacker. I think he could be a perfect fit at one of the outside spots.

At the other side is Mike Mitchell, the heralded former five-start talent who transferred to Texas Tech last fall from Ohio State. The question

Mike Mitchell

isn't whether Mitchell will start, but where? He has worked both at inside and outside backer, but his combination of size (6-3, 230) and speed (once ran an official 4.39-second 40-yard dash) gives the Red Raider staff a lot of flexibility to get the best players on the field at the same time.

I penciled in Mitchell outside because I believe he can be force both in the run game and as an outside blitzer from that position. In truth, he may be moved all around the formation to take advantage of his talents.

Malik Jenkins (6-1, 212) and Kris Williams (6-0, 230) are listed as the backups outside in the two-deep, but that is just a guess. They didn't redshirt and at least saw the field some, so I'm just assuming they will get first crack, but we'll see.

Other linebackers in the mix include youngsters Kahlee Woods (6-0, 224), Jacarthy Mack (6-1, 196) and walk-on Grant Bouma (6-2, 230).

If the rotation at linebacker was confusing then check out the defensive backs. First off I want to go on record right now saying I think this position will be greatly improved next season. I like the young talent returning and new coaches Gibbs and Zac Spavital, who each come in with years of experience coaching the position.

Some probably looked at the diagram above and was confused with Justis Nelson starting at safety. I spoke with Nelson after the season and he said there is a very good chance he plays safety next year, but he added he wasn't sure in an interview posted directly below.

Nelson (6-2, 177) began his career in 2013 at safety before being moved to corner and then spent most of last season there before being moved back to safety out of necessity for the Baylor game. I thought he and freshman Derrick Dixon (I'll get to him later) made a great tandem that game. J.J. Gaines (6-0, 185) is coming off another shoulder injury, and it is not the one that knocked him out of he 2013 season. I'm not sure where he is in his recovery. If healthy I believe Gaines and Justis are your two free safeties and will battle for the starting gig.

Though a liability in coverage at times, Keenon Ward (5-9, 199) had a decent sophomore season at safety last year and I believe it's his job to lose. Though, I think Dixon (5-9, 185) is breathing down his neck. Though both are undersized at 5-foot-9, they are two of Tech's most physical and instinctive players. Look for Dixon, who I believe is better in coverage, to see the field a lot.

A trio of true freshman corners took their lumps, yet each showed glimpses of ability. Nigel Bethel (5-9, 178), Tevin Madison (5-10, 160) and Jah'Shawn Johnson (5-10, 170) should all return a year wiser and with bodies more suited to FBS football after a year in the strength and conditioning program. I like this group a lot and as I said before am expecting big things from them.

D.J. Polite-Bray (5-11, 183) is another guy moved over to defense from the offense late in the season. He actually held up O.K. when thrust into action. He has the talent, so it will be interesting to track his progression. Athletically, he has the goods to compete in the Big 12.

Payton Hendrix (6-2, 195) is one to keep an eye on as a player who could see time at either safety position or outside linebacker. The redshirt freshman possesses the talent to start, he's just an unknown at this point with veterans ahead of him. Also in the mix are safety John White (5-10, 205) and corners Thierry Nguema (5-10, 175) and La'Darius Newbold (6-1, 201).

*Coming soon: Rebuilding the Defense Part II, Committed Recruits*

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