Spring Football Preview: Defensive Line

RaiderPower.com takes a look at the Texas Tech defensive line situation as the Red Raiders open spring practice.

When asked who specifically he needed to step up this offseason, defensive line coach Mike Smith responded without hesitation, "The entire defensive line. Every single one of them."

Well, no argument here. I can beat you over the head with numerous dubious statistics showing what a poor job the Texas Tech defense did last season, starting with the defensive line. I'm not going to do that again. No doubt many of you reading this have already seen those stats numerous times and been forced to choke back a chunk or two.

Simply put, Tech was manhandled in the trenches on defense to the point where teams such as Arkansas, Kansas State, Texas and Oklahoma did not have to even attempt many passes. They knew they could simply line up and run over Texas Tech and they did.

The Red Raiders have yet another defensive coordinator in David Gibbs, who is known for his defenses creating turnovers. If he's going to duplicate or get even close to THESE NUMBERS, Tech is going to have to improve up front exponentially.

Many times last season the opponents listed above didn't even get to third down before moving the chains. Tech has to start winning first downs, meaning stopping the run so it can unleash its pass rushers and create those coveted turnovers and sacks.

The good news is Tech showed late in the season it can bow up in situations and get stops against an elite offense.

The Red Raiders' performance in the season finale will never be mistaken for the 90's Miami Hurricanes defenses, but Tech did force Baylor to punt five times, recovered a fumble and even held them on downs once. The gut-check by the defense gave Tech a shot at victory and if it can be duplicated next season, the Red Raiders will be a much improved team.

More good news is Tech returns practically every player up front who had a hand in that game.

All-Big 12 performer Pete Robertson led the league with 12 sacks and the team with 81 total tackles. Much is expected of the 6-foot-3, 238-pound senior at the stand-up defensive end position.

Much is also expected of senior defensive end Branden Jackson (6-4, 268), who despite not producing the numbers Robertson did a season ago, was described by coach Smith as the top performer on defense. Jackson finished with 44 tackles, 10.5 tackles for loss and five sacks in 2014.

Branden Jackson

Others expected or capable of playing end are Andre Ross, Gary Moore, Zach Barnes and perhaps Kris Williams and/or Demetrius Alston.

Ross (6-2, 245) played sparingly last season, but when he was on the field he was a difference maker, as coach Smith said, just by his physicality. He can play either end spot, but figures to backup Robertson at the stand up position.

He's expected to miss most of the spring with a shoulder injury, but Smith said Ross should be back in the fall and he likes where Ross' head is at.

Moore (6-4, 224) is an athletic former receiver turned defensive end who showed flashes according to several reports from the coaching staff. The redshirt sophomore still seems like a project to me, mostly because of his vulnerability in the run game, but if the light comes on, or if the weight stays on, then look out.

Barnes (6-2, 230), another redshirt sophomore, sat out last season after playing just a little as a true freshman in 2013. I wouldn't be surprised to see him play either end spots or step back to outside linebacker, where he played in high school.

Williams tallied three tackles in seven games last season redshirting in 2012 and then not playing a down due to an injury in 2013. The junior could end up backing up Robertson at defensive end and a big spring would go a long way towards getting him on the field, especially with Ross out with the injury.

Alston played in six games last season, starting three before suffering a season-ending lower leg injury. Alston could help with depth at both defensive tackle and especially as Jackson's backup at end.

Speaking of defensive tackle, Texas Tech is getting a major injection of talent to the position with the addition of 2015 signee Breiden Fehoko, who was rated as a five-star prospect and the No. 24 overall prospect in the nation by Scout.com. As a midterm enrollee, the 6-3, 287-pound lineman is already on campus and available this spring. That's a good thing because, no matter what the coaches say in public, they need him to be the real deal and to be ready to go this fall.

The one thing I keep pointing to, other than my faith in Scout's recruiting analysts, is how he absolutely dominated the competition when given the opportunity to face the best of the best from around the country at both The Opening in Oregon last summer and then at the Under Armour All-American game in Florida in December.

The film and copy, multitudes from Scout alone, at both events showing and describing his dominance is a major reason he rose in the rankings and why many think he's a can't miss prospect. Combine that with his strength and work ethic and one can be hopeful he'll work out.

Speaking of hope. Many Texas Tech fans are hoping the junior college trio of Rika Levi (6-2, 339), Keland McElrath (6-4, 307) and Marcus Smith (6-3, 308) make the JUCO second-year leap that is so common for those in their situation. If even just two of them do make that leap, then Tech will have a real shot of significant improvement up front.

Coach Smith expects them to, simply due to experience and better technique, adding just getting lined up properly and knowing the correct down and distance at all times should help wonders.

Of the three, McElrath, who tallied 46 tackles, showed me the most last season both in practice and in games. His combination of quickness off the ball and strength could wreak some srious havoc on opposing offenses with a good spring and rest of the offseason. While he was on campus last spring as a midterm enrollee, he also missed a lot of practice time with an injury, so hopefully he can get a full spring of work in this time.

Anthony Smith, known as "Snacks" has actually lost some weight so far this offseason and is down to 335 pounds. He could stand to lose some more weight, but the rising junior showed some progress in seven games played last season and should help depth in the middle if nothing else.

Donte Phillips (6-2, 288) played in five games in 2014 before suffering a season-ending injury. He is not expected to participate this spring and some question if he'll be able to return at all. We'll see, but he would definitely help out in terms of depth up front.

Speaking of depth, Josh Outlaw was moved from offense to defense late last season in an effort to provide more reserve beef. Outlaw, 6-4, 309, played in nine games last season as a redshirt sophomore and still has time to develop at defensive tackle.

Also in the mix is sophomore Talor Nunez (6-4, 263), who played mostly on special teams a season ago, but did register a tackle for loss.

Predicted post-spring depth chart: Starters-Jackson, McElrath, Fehoko, Robertson. Second team-Alston, Levi, M. Smith, Z. Barnes. Third team-Nunez, A. Smith, Outlaw, Moore.

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