"We've got some guys in some new spots," sixth-year Assistant Head Coach Ruffin McNeill said Wednesday. "A couple of the guys that we recruited that we red-shirted bring a little more speed (to the special teams) to what we had. We're going to have more athleticism and a little more speed."
McNeill, who oversees the defensive line and special teams for Texas Tech, said the special teams did lose some experience compared to the squad that helped the Red Raiders beat 4th-ranked California in the Holiday Bowl. But that's natural, and this spring's practice reveals potential improvements every session.
"We lost some experienced guys in special teams, but we gained, maybe, a little more athleticism in places," McNeill allowed following the first session of the second week of spring drills. "We feel pretty good about where we are."
If anybody ought to know how to compare where the Red Raiders are now to where they've been, it's McNeill. He spent his first three seasons with Tech as a linebackers coach, overseeing Lawrence Flugence's record-setting performance for career tackles and NCAA single-season tackles. McNeill also coached John Saldi's outstanding freshman year, culminating in the linebacker's defensive MVP award during Tech's 55-15 Tangerine Bowl win. Before coaching, McNeill won letters all four years at East Carolina University – a three year starter at defensive back, he was team captain for two years and instrumental in ECU's 1976 Southern Conference championship as well as the Pirates' 1978 Independence Bowl appearance.
"We try to teach in a whole/part concept," McNeill said of Red Raider head coach Mike Leach's approach to instilling gridiron skills. "We'll just show them the whole, and more of the whole package this week, and then as we go on we'll break ‘em up into parts."
it won't be new for every member of the special teams' squad. Returning from last year's team are punter Alex Reyes and placekick specialist Alex Trlica, as well as kicker Keith Toogood. This year sophomore Danny Amendola, who was one of the conference's leading punt returners as a true freshman, looks to continue his performance.
"We feel good about where we are right now," McNeill, who is in his 20th year as a college coach, continued. "We have a long way to go. We have a couple more weeks of spring (practice), and we'll see where we are at the end of that. We feel good about the athletes that return the football.
"We feel good about our kicking situation with Trlica and Reyes," he said. "We just have to get the people in the right spots and we'll be okay."
"Everybody's healthy. That's a good thing," McNeill said. "Yes, that's a good thing."
The veteran coach joined Tech after a year at Fresno State; his collegiate coaching credentials include a graduate assistantship at Clemson, where he completed his Master's in counseling in 1987; he has coached, specializing in defenses, for Austin Peay, Appalachian State, North Alabama, and UNLV. He took over special teams' coordination in 2003.
"First, we appreciate the fan support that we have here at Texas Tech," McNeill said. "I hope they know how big of an influence and advantage it gives us, when we play at home or even on the road. They (fans) can be proud of their team – they work hard. I work out with ‘em in the mornings, during the season, the 5 a.m. - 6 a.m. group, and they work extremely hard.
"They want to represent Texas Tech in a positive manner. You can count on ‘em doing the best they can at practice – they're good kids. You can coach ‘em hard, you can get on ‘em hard, and when you coach them they want to do what you ask ‘em to do.
"They're willing to work. That's the key thing with our kids. I'm very proud of that." He said, "They (fans) can be proud of it too. That's some of the inside scoop. They work hard, and they're ready to do whatever they can to help Tech win."