Spring Practice Defensive Overview

Yesterday we reviewed how the offense progressed throughout spring practice, and now we switch our focus over to the defensive side of the ball. How did Keyunta Dawson adjust to playing linebacker? Who will replace Dwayne Slay, Vincent Meeks, and Khalid Naziruddin? The answers to these questions and more are all found inside.

Defensive Line

LDE:


McKinner Dixon:  Dixon will be the starter here unless his grades are not where they need to be.  Last season, he turned a performance as good as anyone possibly expected from a true freshman.  Although he did not practice much in the Spring, Dixon’s performance when he did attend was good enough to reaffirm his spot as the starter.

Rashad Hunt:  Rashad is someone that I still believe should crack the two-deep with how well he has played in the Spring.  However, this would seem to necessitate a position switch from RDE to LDE in my opinion.  Hunt truly has been excellent throughout the Spring, and Rashad simply looks ready to step on to the field.  His pursuit abilities alone are worth giving him some PT when defensing an option attack or screen passes.

Jared Williams:  Jared is an extremely capable player when it comes to defending against plays up the middle.  He might be the best on the team at closing up the running lanes, and is another guy who should see some PT when his specialty is needed.

RDE:

Seth Nitschmann:  Seth is likely your starter here as of right now given his experience.  However, Seth is going to have to be completely healthy if he expects to keep the starting job.  Also, he might need to have a solid performance in Fall practice to keep the backups from taking his spot.   Don’t read too much into this, as there has been some spectacular play by those behind him.

Tyler Yenzer:  Tyler has been consistently excellent, and looks completely field-ready if he is needed.   Yenzer is an all-around good player, so don’t be surprised to see him get some PT next year.  Rashad Hunt is still a possibility in the depth chart here as well, but that should all depend on Nitschmann’s health.

Phillip Jones:  Jones will likely back up Yenzer assuming Hunt switches sides and Nitschmann is healthy.  His status is still a bit up in the air as to where he will be plugged in.  Jones has gotten significant playing time in the Spring, so the coaches must see something that they like from him.

LDT:

Dek Bake:  Dek has officially won me over after watching his entire Spring.  He is one of the best players on the team at disrupting the backfield with the pressure that he puts on with his pass-rushing ability.  Also, the intensity that he brings is some of the best you’ll find.  In my opinion, he deserves to get some serious PT next season.

Ken Scott:  Ken is also a talented player, but I think that he may have lost the starting job by sitting out much of the Spring.  Bake was consistently excellent, so it appears that Scott will have to make a fierce comeback in the Fall to earn the starting spot.  Ken has the in-game experience, though, so it is entirely possible that he keeps his spot.

Victor Hunter:  Hunter has been used in the defensive line as well as at Linebacker, so there is somewhat of a mystery at this point as to where he ends up.  Still, he has gotten quite a bit of PT with the backups at both LDT and LDE, so it appears that he would be worked in here if he was needed.

RDT:

Chris Hudler:  Chris might be the best defensive lineman we have.  His play always seems to make a difference in how well the entire unit performs.  I don’t think enough people noticed or appreciated how well he played last season, and Hudler looks poised for another great performance.

Jake Ratliff:  Jake has a tough gig being behind a great player like Hudler, yet he still impressed the hell out me with his consistently spectacular play.  Those of you who have followed my reports throughout the spring know that he was almost always on my underrated list.  Ratliff’s solid play overall will earn him a starting spot before his career as a Red Raider is through.  Barring an injury, though, it probably won’t happen this year.

Brian Jones:  Brian was injured most of the Spring, so it was difficult to gauge his performance.   Coach Ruffin McNeil seems to take great interest in Jones, treating him almost like a son in the way he criticizes and praises him.  With this kind of attention, Jones may very well develop into a great player.

Obviously, the question here was whether or not the defensive line can fill the void left by Keyunta Dawson.  The answer, in my opinion, is a surprisingly solid yes.  The starters have looked good, and the backups have been extremely impressive.   With Jake Ratliff, Tyler Yenzer, Dek Bake, and Rashad Hunt stepping up their game, our 2-deep roster for next year looks excellent.   This unit has the potential to be one of the best in recent years, even without Dawson.


Linebackers


LOLB:

Keyunta Dawson:  Keyunta Dawson has made the transition from DE flawlessly.  He is a flat-out weapon, and is going to be a huge factor in next year’s defensive success.  It really isn’t that much of a stretch for me to predict that Dawson wins awards for his play next year, but I’m going to do it anyway.  Keyunta will be a major contributor in ’06; count on it.

Kellen Tillman:  Tillman is a bit of a grab-bag.  He is always a great defender against the run, has good speed, and shows great intensity.   However, control seems to be an issue, as he is occasionally out of position.  I have seen him play great, and I have seen him struggle.  Still, Tillman may very well get in on the rotation next year with his potential.

Calen Schearer:  Schearer’s strength is arguably his awareness, as he always seems to put himself into position to make the play.  However, as solid as all facets of his game are, Calen is not especially great at one thing, which may be what is holding him back.

Sandy Riley:  Riley had a tremendous Spring for a redshirt freshman, but is simply not experienced enough to see the field yet.  The linebacker position requires great discipline, and in a year or two’s time, Riley will have learned it and will be ready to step into starting role.

MLB:

Paul Williams:  Paul has stepped in Stratton’s absence and perhaps taken the starting spot.  Personally, I think that he has earned it with some solid play last season and a great Spring.  I can’t really think of a weakness in his game, and Williams looks poised to step on to the field and make an impact next season.

Brock Stratton:  Brock may have a tough road ahead of him, as he not only has to rehab an injury, but has to possibly regain his starting spot with some excellent play in the Fall as well.  Certainly, his experience will help, but he has to fight off Williams, which will be no easy task.

Victor Hunter:  Hunter is a player that surprised many with his versatility and talent both as a defensive lineman and linebacker.  He will likely end up wherever the coaches feel that depth is more of a concern.  Victor shows promise for the future, and with his versatility, might even be our next Keyunta Dawson.

Chris Wallace:  Wallace is a player who got a surprising amount of reps considering his inexperience, which perhaps suggests that the coaches feel that he is capable of becoming a great player in the future.  Chris didn’t stand out in my eyes, which means that he was neither making mistakes nor big plays.  Still, he has plenty of time left as a Red Raider, so we’ll simply have to wait and see how he progresses.

ROLB:

Fletcher Session:  Fletcher is a returning starter from last season, so conventional wisdom would suggest that he keeps the position.  However, Fletcher was hurt for much of the Spring, but some of his competition was as well.  If he comes back fully healthy for his Senior season, I expect great things from him.

Brent Slaughter:  Slaughter is arguably the most agile of all of the linebackers, and thus, is probably the best linebacker against running backs in the open field.  Brent also shows impressive quickness, and I expect him to get some role-specific PT next season after turning in a solid Spring performance.

Chad Hill:  Hill, like Session, was also injured for most of the Spring, and he may very well have lost the number two spot to Slaughter because of it.  Still, Chad has always impressed me with his play when he has had the opportunity, and I expect big things from him in the future.  He may very well be a 2007 starter.

Ryan Hale:  Hale had a tremendous Spring for a redshirt freshman, and proved to be one of the hardest-hitting players on the team.  Ryan was one of the most welcome surprises of Spring practice, and has significant potential for the future.  If he continues this type of play, expect to see him as a starter before his time as a Red Raider is through.

The question here was if the linebacking corps could fill in the holes left with the addition of Keyunta Dawson and development of Paul Williams.   This is thankfully another emphatic yes, as this group of LBs has the potential to be the best of the Leach era.  It appears that the unit finally will have the speed to compete with the quick offensive players in the Big 12.


Defensive Backs


LCB:

Antonio Huffman:  There were many people who were concerned about Huffman for next season, and this truly should not be the case.  Not only is Antonio one of the hardest-hitting DBs, he’s one of the quickest as well.  Huffman had an excellent Spring, and I can see no reason why he should be replaced.

Marcus Bunton
:  Bunton’s Spring practice was extremely limited, which is truly a shame given his potential.  Assuming he is healthy, he will be an extremely solid backup for Huffman.  Expect him to contend for the starting spot here in 2007.

Daniel Charbonet:  Texas Tech’s other Danny from The Woodlands has talent nearly paralleling that of his counterpart.  He has looked consistently capable in coverage, and will likely see the field in the future if he keeps up such excellent play.

Nathan Stone:  Stone turned some heads with his play, as he had an impressive Spring.  Stone is not easily shaken by even our talented wide receivers, which is a testament to his potential.  If Nathan can learn to keep his eye on the ball a bit more, he can easily become a great DB.

RCB:

Chris Parker
:  Parker looked to be more pained from not being on the field practicing than he did from the injury itself.   I wasn’t happy with it, either, as I was hoping every single day to see Chris out there in pads.  Anyone who doubts his abilities needs only to watch his play from last season to get an idea of what he can do.  I truly hope he is healthy enough to play next season.

James “Scooter” Conwright:  Conwright proved to always be on top of his game, as he never seemed to make any significant mistakes.  Scooter has been a solid player, and with time, could possibly ease into a starting spot.

Brent Nickerson
:  Nickerson has been a big-play corner in that he occasionally goes all-out for the interception or deflection, sometimes giving up a big play.  His risk-reward play has its benefits, but he will have to bring more consistency to the table to contend for a starting spot.

Clarence Ward
:  Ward has to sit out next season for transfer eligibility reasons, or he perhaps might be higher on the depth chart. He is the tallest of the cornerbacks, and as would be expected, looks to be one of the best when faced with taller receivers.  Clarence shows great promise for the future.

FS:

Darcel McBath
:  It appears that McBath has played well enough to take the starting job away from Lance Fuller.  With his speed and consistency, it would be awfully surprising to see him off the field.  He has picked up the position well, and looks to be one our better DBs for next season.

Lance Fuller
:  Lance has played well overall, but simply can’t compete with McBath’s athleticism.  Fuller will undoubtedly make for a great backup, and it truly is a shame that one of these two guys won’t get the starting job.

Jordy Rowland:  Rowland has had a good Spring, but simply does not have the experience to challenge for a starting spot yet.  He has the tools to become a good player, and it will be interesting to watch his development.

Chris Cruz:  Cruz is a hard hitter and sure tackler, but appears to not quite have what it takes to cover the great receivers of the Big 12.  Chris does provide the unit with depth, though, and may very well be used in role-specific situations.

SS:

Joe Garcia / Anthony Hines: I have watched these two all Spring, and I still can’t decide which player I prefer get the starting spot.  On the one hand, Garcia has made few, if any mistakes, is very solid overall, and might be the slightly better player of the two in coverage.  However, Anthony Hines’ ability to spy on the run has been fantastic, and he tends to make more big plays than Garcia does, but Hines is perhaps more of a coverage liability.  The one thing that I can say for sure is that either one of these guys is capable of being a great player for the Red Raiders next season.

LaShawn Vation
:  Vation was a highly-touted recruit out of high school, and I understand why.  He looked talented beyond what a freshman should be, and shows quite a bit of potential for the future.  I would be extremely surprised if he doesn’t contend for a starting spot sometime in his career as a Red Raider.

Taylor Read:  Taylor has not seen enough action thus far to indicate that he is ready to step on to the field, but he has played well in his limited opportunities in the Spring.  He made some big plays that stick out in my mind, which is more than can be said for many of the second-team players.

The question was whether Texas Tech could rebound after losing three starters in the secondary, and if everyone can stay healthy, the answer will be yes.  If Huffman, Parker, McBath, and Garcia / Hines are our starters, then we will be in very good hands.  I hope opponents think that they will be able to throw all over us next year, because they may be sorely mistaken.  Replacing Slay’s turnovers will prove difficult, but the potentially improved coverage should make the need for them less significant.

Overall, the team looks poised to be a legitimate contender for the Big 12 title next season.  I don’t even think that suggesting such means that I’m biased, as this is simply based upon what I have seen from our team in comparison to others.  I live and breathe this stuff.  Many of you are counting the days until football season as I am, and this could very well be one of Texas Tech’s best in a long time.


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