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Texas Tech Spring Ball Questions: Will the Defensive Line Improve Next Season?

The Texas Tech football program has undergone massive changes since the end of the 2015 season and it's an ongoing process. As such there are a lot of questions heading into spring ball. Over the next several days leading up to the first practice we'll be looking at five of the biggest questions surrounding the team one question, one day at a time. Next up is a look at the defensive line.

There are a lot of questions heading into spring ball. Over the next five days leading up to the first practice we'll be looking at five of the biggest questions surrounding the team one question, one day at a time. Yesterday we talked about the coaching staff. Next up:

2. Perhaps the most obvious question heading into spring ball is will the defensive line be any better?

When I first arrived in Lubbock at my post here at in 2013 I remember going to lunch with a handful of Tech fans with legit ties to the program. At one point I was asked, "What do you think is the problem with the program, what does Kingsbury have to do to turn it around?" 

I responded, "The problem is the defensive line and until something is done up front this team is going to be mediocre at best." That drew some blank stares and even a couple eye rolls. What I didn't know then, but would soon get acquainted with is the broken record on the message board of "we need better defensive linemen!"

Well, as nauseating as it may be to hear or read over and over the reason that line of thinking is repeated so much is because it's so true. It doesn't take a football savant to recognize Tech needs help on the defensive line.

Of course when so close to the program you look for all the symptoms of what is and is not working. For example, Davis Webb's sophomore slump and Patrick Mahomes' virtuoso performance last season showed us just what the team is capable of with QBs at the opposite ends of the spectrum.

My point is a struggling QB+Tech's defense=4-8. A golden God at QB+Tech's defense=7-6. Of course there are many more factors that go into it, but this is a big picture look. 

Big 12 teams know and have for years to just line up and run over Texas Tech and despite the juggernaut that is the Red Raider offense, it will blink first.

Now, despite just atrocious numbers which I won't regurgitate again here for everyone's sake, Tech's defense did accomplish one thing last season under David Gibbs many recent Tech defenses had not; he slowed down one-dimensional teams enough for the offense to outscore them. The Red Raiders' biggest wins in 2015, and what distinguished it from the 2014 season, were wins at Arkansas, against Kansas State and at Texas.  

What did all those teams have in common? Yes, they were run-first teams with quarterbacks who had a hard time hitting a broadside of a barn. 

That being said 7-6 is mediocre, even with a record-setting offense, so if Tech wants to move up in the Big 12 the next step is to improve the defense and as they like to say "it all starts up front."

So here's a look at my pre spring 2-deep, who Tech is losing on the defensive line, who returns and who signed with Tech in the 2016 class.

DL Returners:

  • DT Breiden Fehoko
  • DT Broderick Washington
  • DE Talor Nunez
  • DE Zach Barnes
  • DE Kris Williams
  • DE Lonzell Gilmore
  • DE Christ Tompkins

DL Losses:

  • Demetrius Alston
  • Pete Robertson
  • Armani Brumfield
  • Branden Jackson
  • Rika Levi
  • Keland McElrath
  • Marcus Smith

DL Additions:

  • DE Kolin Hill
  • DT Ondre Pipkins

2016 DL signees:

Count me in the camp which thinks Tech's defensive line will be better simply because of the new cast of characters, the addition by subtraction camp. The junior college experiment failed as Rika LeviKeland McElrath and Marcus Smith all failed to produce really any tangible results.

Pete Robertson and Branden Jackson were dependable in that played in nearly every game for three years and played a TON of reps. As a matter of fact they are the two biggest indictments of the addition by subtraction theory, because if they were so bad, how come they never came off the field despite playing for three defensive coordinators the past three seasons. Whatever your thoughts on those two are they are both gone and someone needs to step up. 

The one guy who actually exceeded expectations and probably overachieved was Demetrius Alston, but even he was undersized and was often pushed around.

Those are the guys who have left, what's the skinny on the new guys replacing them?

First off, Tech has a new defensive line coach in Kevin Patrick, who came over from North Texas, and was an All-American defensive end himself at Miami back in the late 80's, early 90's. He has quite the task ahead of him, but here's who he has to work with.

I fully expect redshirt freshman Broderick Washington to make a push for the starting gig at the nose next to returning defensive tackle (3 tech) Breiden Fehoko, a beast stud in the making. Junior college signee Mychealon Thomas is expected on campus this summer, but heading into spring ball Washington is my pick. Wash has been described as one of the stronger guys on the team who has made some strides since getting to campus and making the switch from an offensive lineman in high school to an interior defensive lineman at a power five program.

I consider Michigan transfer Ondre Pipkins to be a cherry on top player, meaning Michigan wouldn't have run him off if they thought he could play. He suffered major knee and concussion injuries in the past. That being said, if he does work out, he could be a great bridge for one season as the younger guys develop. 

I'm a lot more hopeful on the outside as I often thought Gary Moore was a better option at strongside defensive end than Branden Jackson. At 6-foot-5, 235 pounds, Moore is an athletic guy who registered three sacks and four tackles for loss with much fewer reps than Jackson who finished with two sacks and 4.5 tackles for loss last season. Can he be dependable both on and off the field? We'll see.

Kolin Hill is a transfer from Notre Dame, who perhaps gives me the most hope about the defensive line other than maybe Fehoko. He'll likely replace Pete at the rush end/outside backer hybrid position. I really hope he is used as a pass rusher more than Pete was last season, because he has all the tools to be one of the best in the Big 12. He played as a true freshman for the Irish and turned some heads with his play before getting homesick and returning to Texas. He's listed at 6-foot-2, 235 pounds but looks much bigger than that in person.

Talor Nunez and Lonzell Gilmore are two other defensive ends who are intriguing to me. Nunez, a former walk-on who was awarded a scholarship last year, showed promise before hurting his knee and missing most of the year. Gilmore is an athletic rush end type player who has put on 15 pounds of muscle since hitting campus and redshirting last season. 

The truth is we won't really have an idea about this group until the 2016 class gets on campus this summer as many freshmen are expected to be counted on next season. That is a scary proposition and perhaps the biggest indictment of this group, overall. 

My question for you is: 

Do you think the defensive line will be better next season with all the new blood and why?

Bonus question: Which DL newcomer are you most excited about?

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