An eerie and alien presence seems to be hovering over the Texas Tech football team this fall camp. It is a specter that has not manifested itself in Lubbock for well on two decades.
This thing, which agitates quarterbacks and offensive coaches, and which frustrates teammates so much that they spontaneously pummel one another with fists and helmets, goes by the name of Defense. The Seventh Seal has been opened, and something wicked this way comes.
Even though fall camp is less than a week old, the evidence for this defensive apparition’s existence is significant.
As the first post-practice media session commenced, Keenon Ward, normally a gentleman among football players, brayed and bellowed about picking off quarterback Pat Mahomes. Indeed, he told assembled media to ask Mahomes about it.
A visibly perturbed Mahomes acknowledged the veracity of Ward’s words and added that the defense indeed had had “a good day.”
The fact of the interception itself is considerably less significant, however, than Ward’s brashness. In past seasons defensive players never publicly talked smack to the offense because they had no room to talk, and because they were too beaten down and dispirited. And the offense, rather than pile on, seemed more concerned with trying to boost the confidence of a defense that was drastically overmatched by the Red Raider offense. Nowadays that offense and at least one coach seems annoyed by the defense.
In the second media availability session, starting running back Justin Stockton was asked how his camp had gone so far? His hesitant response was a decidedly diffident “Uh, it’s going good. Pretty good. There’s some things I need to improve on.”
In the same session a reporter mentioned to Kliff Kingsbury that he had seen the defensive line have success against the offensive line, and asked whether this had to do more with the defensive line’s improvement or weaknesses in the offensive line.
Kingsbury chose to praise the D-line: “I hope it’s their progression. Our offensive line, we have three returning starters really. It’s a pretty solid group so I think they’re making strides. Those guys are growing up. Adding Kolin Hill and Ondre Pipkins to those freshman in the mix—they’re playing well.”
Soon thereafter RaiderPower boss-man Jarret Johnson asked Kingsbury how the offensive line was doing in general. A flash of irritation passed across Kinsbury’s face before answering, “Really well. Really well. I think a lot has been made of that. I think some of you have been stressing it more than we have. We have three returning starters. Terence Steele is going to be a very, very good player, and we just have to figure out that fifth piece, but those veteran guys have shown great leaderships and it’s gonna be a solid line.”
Kingsbury clearly is not used to any aspect of his offense being questioned, in large part because that offense has performed exceptionally well against virtually every defense it has faced. The fact that the performance of Tech’s defense is provoking these sorts of questions is a monumental shift away from what has gone before.
Other straws are twitching in the wind, too.
Following the Petro Scrimmage earlier this year I noted Ondre Pipkins’ performance, stating that the interior of Tech’s offensive line simply couldn’t handle him. I then equivocated a bit, noting that it was just one performance and that we perhaps shouldn’t read too too much into it.
But Jarret Johnson has corroborated my assessment of Pipkins, remarking in a recent conversation that “the offensive line doesn’t know what to do with him.” Jarret also praised defensive end Gary Moore, and raved about Kolin Hill’s nasty on-field disposition.
And the nastiness seems to be contagious. Both Kingsbury and receiver Reg Davis (who graduated on Saturday) have remarked about the frequent fights that have been erupting throughout practice. And it is pretty clear that Kingsbury isn’t exactly desolated by the fights. He hired strength coach Rusty Whitt, in large part, to instill toughness in the team, and early returns suggest that the message has sunk in and taken root.
In closing, I will note that when I covered workouts for the 2005 Red Raiders, the fighting was almost ubiquitous. It seemed like something broke out about every fourth play. The offense and defense were constantly at one another’s throats.
That was because the defense was actually good enough to compete with the offense, and the offense didn’t like it. And that 2005 defense—which featured Dwayne Slay—was as good as any Tech defense since Spike Dykes’ retirement.
Now it is just possible that similar dynamics are at work within the 2016 squad. And if the 2016 defense, led by a line of Kolin Hill, Gary Moore, Breiden Fehoko, and Ondre Pipkins, is as good as the 2005 unit, then we will all have underestimated this team.