Position Evaluation: Defensive Backs

RaiderPower.com takes a look at Texas Tech personnel, coaching staff, incoming recruits and targeted prospects at defensive back.

Kevin Curtis has coached Texas Tech cornerbacks the past two seasons and is continuing to do so, but is now listed as defensive backs coach. He's getting a little help from defensive coordinator David Gibbs, who is also listed as safeties coach.

Curtis was a two-time All-American, three-time All-Big 12 safety at Tech from 1998-2001, before being drafted by the 49ers, who he spent three seasons with. After a one-year stint with the Texans and then in NFL Europe with Cologne, he began his coaching career.

Curtis coached the secondary at Navarro College, who went 21-2 in his two seasons there, and then enjoyed two more successful seasons at Louisiana Tech before joining the Red Raider coaching staff under Kliff Kingsbury in December of 2012.

Gibbs possesses over 20 years of experience coaching defenses and defensive backs, including nine in the NFL at Denver, Kansas City and Houston. He was also a safety on the 1990 national championship team at Colorado and is the son of coaching lifer Alex Gibbs.

Gibbs, who was hired as defensive coordinator in January, has stated on several occasions he will protect his secondary, he is not going to leave them on an island to be dissected by Big 12 quarterbacks and he's not going to ask them to produce impossible results.

"For me to be able to play there was certain techniques I was able to use and I have always implemented those," Gibbs said. "It's helped me be a better coach because a lot of times as a coach if you haven't played the position it's easy to say something just because you heard somebody else say it. I'm not going to ask a kid to do this, this and this knowing that there is no way possible that kid can do that, because I have been out there and I know."

The quartet of young Red Raider corners, including true freshmen Nigel Bethel, Tevin Madison and Jah'Shawn Johnson, took a healthy beating in 2014 along with the rest of the defense.

The fourth part of quartet, Justis Nelson was a grizzled vet compared to the above mentioned freshmen, but in truth had started less than a handful of games heading into his true sophomore season and was very green.

Now they not only have experience, they were forced to fend for themselves 1-on-1 last season as the defense loaded up against the run in a desperate attempt to slow down teams from pounding the rock.

I believe this experience, along with a full offseason in the the program will yield huge dividends for this group of returning corners and I wouldn't be surprised if it is the most improved position group on the entire team in 2015.

Shutdown corner is being whispered around the football facility about Bethel, who tallied 41 tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss and six pass breakups in nine games (seven starts) last season. He also ran for the track team, which included a time of 10.48 seconds in the 100 meter dash at the Big 12 Outdoor Championships in Ames, IA.

His performance in the spring game was notable as he sat on routes, fought off blocks in the screen game and generally made plays the whole time he was out there.

I expect Bethel to be the best corner on the team, up for All-Big 12 honors and a fan favorite, if he isn't already. His combination of aggressiveness, instincts and pure speed makes up for his diminutive 5-foot-9, 180-pound frame.

Nelson brings height at 6-2 and experience after starting 14 games the past two seasons. He was victimized some in single coverage last season, but he also led the team with 16 pass breakups to go along with 44 tackles and a pair of fumble recoveries. Nelson brings versatility as he has shown an ability to play safety against quality opponents as he did in the season finale against Baylor. In fact, free safety may be his best spot, but I have concerns if he could hold up for a season in run support from that position at 180 pounds.

Madison is a guy who is easy to root for. He's a competitor, who like Bethel isn't afraid to mix it up in run support. Despite often being outmatched at 5-10 against taller receivers, Madison has also shown an ability to play the ball in the air and battle defenders. He looks like Tech's starting slot corner and will get tons of reps next season.

Johnson only played in four games and missed spring ball due to a shoulder injury. Like Nelson, Johnson is capable of playing corner or free safety so it will be interesting to see where he fits in this fall.

D.J. Polite-Bray began last season as a starting receiver, but ended up at corner and received some playing time in the finale against Baylor. Often times these position changes don't work out, but the coaches may have found something here. The 6-0, 190-pound Polite-Bray looks like a natural at corner and should challenge for playing time. I like his physicality, size and fluidity in coverage.

Though more experienced, the safety position may have more question marks than the corners. Keenon Ward returns at one spot and figures to be a leader in the secondary.

Ward is a physical presence in support around the line of scrimmage. In 10 games last season (Ward missed a couple due to injury) he amassed a team-leading 53 solo tackles to go with 67 overall stops, 1.5 tackles for loss, six pass breakups, an interception and a forced fumble. He does however struggle in coverage, but said during the spring he feels much more comfortable defending the pass in Gibbs' system.

Expected to start next to Ward at safety is J.J. Gaines, who failed to finish each of the past two seasons due to unrelated shoulder injuries. Last season Gaines tallied 63 total tackles, 2.5 for loss, two interceptions, four pass breakups, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery. Gaines is a hard one to figure out as he looked pretty solid as a sophomore early in the 2013 season, but looked mighty shaky at times in 2014.

I think Gaines is more than capable at his position in the right scheme with the right personnel around him, yet questions remain. Can he stay healthy? When Tech gives up points to some of these explosive offenses will he keep his head in the game?

The Red Raiders have been forced to turn to walk-ons at safety the past two seasons late as attrition decimated the position. I don't want to jinx anything, but I don't think that will be a problem this season.

Jalen Barnes looks like a player despite an injury scare in the Midland scrimmage. The 6-foot, 190-pound redshirt sophomore played in 10 games a season ago, mostly on special teams, but at safety some and notched 17 tackles.

Payton Hendrix is an imposing figure at 6-foot-2, 202 pounds. In the glimpses I have seen in practice and after going back and watching the spring scrimmage I can say he looks fluid in coverage as a center fielder type. The redshirt freshman covers a lot of ground and will be able to challenge even the taller, more athletic receivers for jump balls he'll see in conference play. I'm anxious to see this guy play.

Derrick Dixon started the season finale and acquitted himself well with nine tackles and two pass breakups in the contest.

Dixon is a guy some schools shied away from because of his 5-9 frame, but at 200 pounds he brings a load on impact and is more than capable in man coverage in the slot. He figures to be a staple in this secondary somewhere over the next several years as I doubt the Red Raiders have too many better football players than him.

Michael Coley is another member of the 2014 signing class getting a look at safety. The 6-3, 202-pound athlete is still trying to figure out where he fits best, but may not be ready for prime time next season. That's O.K. though as some take longer to develop, especially guys who have moved from other positions.

I wouldn't be surprised if he develops into a heavy contributor down the road.

Walk-on John White played in eight games in 2014, mostly on special teams, but filled in at safety due to a series of injuries and was competitive. If the 5-10, 210-pound senior takes the field in the secondary next season in a pinch he at least has a little experience under his belt.

Junior college transfer Paul Banks possesses good size at 6-foot-1, 175 pounds and should be a little more physically developed coming from the JUCO ranks. David Gibbs and Zac Spavital both recruited him when they were at Houston so they should have a good idea what they have in him. His immediate contribution is simply more depth in what is becoming a crowded position room.

Jamile Johnson flipped to Texas Tech late in the 2015 recruiting cycle in part to follow former Dallas South Oak Cliff coach Emmett Jones out West. Johnson gives Coach Gibbs another big, versatile athlete (6-0, 200) to plug into his defense. Johnson possesses enough speed and skill to play corner and physicality to play safety.

Christian Taylor is a guy who will come up and lay a lick on ball carriers. Tech could use more like him. His coverage ability is still in question, but he should get an opportunity to develop into the position and possibly become a physical presence down the road.


 Neiman Armstrong (6-0, 170), DeSoto: Committed to Texas Tech  HIGHLIGHTS
 Damarcus Fields (6-0, 173), Taylor:  Committed to Texas Tech HIGHLIGHTS

 Obi Eboh (6-1, 172), Southlake Carroll:  HIGHLIGHTS
 A.J. Green
(6-0, 170), DeSoto:  HIGHLIGHTS
 Jaylon Jones (5-10, 165), Allen:  HIGHLIGHTS
 Jared Mayden (6-1, 190), Sachse:  HIGHLIGHTS
 Trayvon Mullen (6-2, 180), Coconut Creek (FL):  HIGHLIGHTS
UNRANKED Ka'Darian Smith (6-0, 170), Spring: Committed to Houston  HIGHLIGHTS
 Levonta Taylor (5-10, 180), Virginia Beach (VA) Ocean Lakes: Committed to Florida State  HIGHLIGHTS

 Demarkus Acy (6-0, 165), Dallas Wilmer-Hutchins:  HIGHLIGHTS
 Deontay Anderson (6-1, 192), Manvel:  HIGHLIGHTS
 Calvin Bundage (6-2, 190), Edmond (OK) Santa Fe:  HIGHLIGHTS
 Brandon Jones (6-0, 190), Nacogdoches:  HIGHLIGHTS
 Chanse Sylvie (6-0, 175), Shreveport (LA) Calvary Baptist:  HIGHLIGHTS

 Christian Wallace (6-2, 205), Katy Tompkins:  HIGHLIGHTS
 Collin Wilder (5-11, 175), Katy:   HIGHLIGHTS

Raider Power Top Stories