1) Graham Harrell- We all knew that Graham didn't have a problem throwing the ball to his slot receivers. In his first four games as a starter, Harrell has thrown 4 touchdowns to his slot receivers. In all of last season, the slot receivers only caught 9 touchdowns. Graham's ability to read the slot and hot route has allowed him to burn the blitz on numerous plays. Graham has shown good pocket presence and has avoided the rush on several occasions. His problem continues to revolve around holding onto the ball to long and checking off to the same receivers. When the Red Raiders struggled offensively on a hot day in Fort Worth, Harrell continued to look for only Robert Johnson when he got in trouble. Once TCU took Robert away, Graham didn't know what to do and would get flustered and either be sacked or throw a pass that was uncatchable by a receiver. All of these things will come in time as Graham gets more experience, but considering that he is in only his fourth start, Harrell has done a better than competent job of running the Air Raid.
2) Defensive Line- With the graduation of defensive tackles Fred Thrweatt and Randall Cherry, Tech not only lost an emotional leader in Thrweatt; they also lost the two top back-ups along the interior of the defensive line. With the return of Dek Bake, this loss had been offset, but there were serious questions as to who would play behind starters Ken Scott, Chris Hudler, and back-up Dek Bake. These questions have been answered by three of the most surprising and promising true freshmen on the Tech squad this year. Dantay Ward, Richard Jones, and Rajon Henley have all not only played in relief of the starters, but they have played well. Between the three, they have accumulated 15 tackles and been a large part in the Red Raiders rushing defense this season. When it became apparent that McKinner Dixon wasn't going to be able to play in the 2006 football season, Keyunta Dawson was moved back to defensive end after practicing at linebacker all spring and for a part of the summer. With the return of Seth Nitschmann, who missed all of the 2005 and the first 3 games of the 2006 season with a knee injury, the emergence of Jake Ratliff, and a few shining plays from Brandon Williams, it looks like the woe of Tech defenses the past few years may be coming to an end. That woe was, of course, the inability of the defensive line to get consistent pressure on the opposing quarterback. Jake Ratliff got the party started against TCU with the first sack of the season, which would eventually be paired with another from senior defensive tackle Chris Hudler. Against Southeastern Louisiana, freshman defensive end Brandon Williams recorded two sacks, and 3 other tackles. Williams is tied with Keyunta Dawson for the team lead with two sacks each, matching the high that Dawson shared with McKinner Dixon in 2005.
3) Offensive Line- After an amazing and dominant season in 2004, the Tech offensive line wasn't as good in 2005. They never really developed consistency, suffered several injuries, and were just not very effective at blocking for the quarterback as the season wore on. This isn't to say that the 2005 line was bad, but they were certainly a letdown after the great play of the line in 2004, which featured two players that are now in the pros in Dylan Gandy and Daniel Loper. In 2006, the offensive line has turned their game around. The right side of the line continues its good play led, surprisingly to some, by Gabe Hall. Hall was the most pleasant surprise on the line in 2005 and has continued his high level of play. Right guard Manuel Ramirez seemed to have regressed some against TCU when he was called for holding and hasn't been his usual explosive self off of the ball. Ramirez has shown in the past that he is capable of great play, but it just hasn't been seen this year against the one decent defense that Tech has played. Center Brandon Jones continues to be the biggest stomach ache on the offensive line. While he is without question the best blocker at the center position, he has a scary habit of snapping the ball high, low, or too slow for the quarterback. Still, Jones stepped up his play in the later part of last season, and Raider fans can look for that trend to continue. Perhaps the best surprise this season on the offensive line from a first year starter has been Louis Vasquez. Louis is gigantic at 6 feet, 6 inches tall and 341 pounds. Yet for a big guy, he moves extremely well and has not really had a problem with stunting defensive linemen or blitzing linebackers/ secondary members. In fact, Vasquez is mobile enough that he is listed on the depth chart as the back-up left tackle, quite a feat for a man of his size. Speaking of left tackle, Tech fans really haven't had a reason to complain this year. Glenn January has stepped his play up to a level above where it resided for most of last season. He has done a good job setting the pocket from the left, and other than a bone-headed penalty that brought back a touchdown against UTEP, he has yet to completely blow any serious plays. Unfortunately for Tech, Glenn was carted off of the field against SE Louisiana with a splint and some serious ice packs on his right ankle. Luckily, he did come back to play for a small portion of the fourth quarter, although he did limp off of the field later in the game. Hopefully, Glenn will be able to rebound nicely this week.
What We Don't Know
1) Secondary- When the Secondary has been your strength for two seasons on defense, you would think that it would remain your strength for the third season. Yet with an embarrassing performance against UTEP, the players in the Red Raiders secondary are question marks. Chris Parker has not played since the first half of the UTEP game, and while Darcel McBath did have two interceptions against UTEP, he has yet to be the turnover machine that many though he could be. Joey Garcia was dormant for the majority of the first two games but it seems that the light finally came on in his head during the TCU game. Garcia recorded 11 tackles, including 2 tackles for loss and three unassisted stops. Antonio Huffman has continued to play very well, in particular against the run and holding his own in the running game. While he was burned against UTEP for their first touchdown, he did a good job against Tech's other opponents about not letting receivers burn him. Marcus Bunton has probably been the biggest surprise of the season playing for Chris Parker. Bunton is a converted running back (as was another Raider defensive back, Vincent Meeks) and has taken the skills that made him a good running back and translated those well to playing defensive back. He is extremely physical and has no problem going up for the ball. He also has a very smooth transition in direction when shadowing a receiver and could be one of the better defensive backs to step on the field for the Raiders this year. Rising stars include Jamar Wall and Brent Nickerson, but we have yet to see what the two young backs are truly capable of.
2) Linebackers- With Keyunta Dawson back on the defensive line, senior Kellen Tillman, senior Brock Stratton, and senior Fletcher Session are the starting linebackers. These three are by far the most athletic linebackers that have taken the field for Tech in the last several seasons, and yet they haven't played to their potential. Fletcher Session has missed two drive and momentum-killing shots against UTEP and TCU and wasn't able to play against SELA because of an injury. Tillman, while he has made 12 stops, showed one of his biggest weaknesses against TCU when he was ejected from the TCU game for unnecessary roughness while he was on the sideline during a Tech kickoff. Brock Stratton continues to be a bit of an enigma. One play, he will look like an All-American linebacker by meeting the ball carrier in the hole, wrapping up, and driving through to make a punishing stop. Then on the next play, he will miss an easy tackle and allow the ball carrier a huge gain. The two positives in the linebacking corps seem to be the play of strong side (or SAM) linebacker Chad Hill and the versatility of Paul Williams. Hill played against TCU and had 4 tackles, including an upending of Horned Frog quarterback Jeff Ballard. Williams has played at both the middle and weak side linebacking positions and has continued to show why he was so close to winning that starting MLB job.
Texas Tech has played only four games in a twelve game season, so there is a lot left to be learned. Yet after these first four games, we have gotten to know a fair amount about this team and the players that make it up. While nothing is definitive by any means, there are certainly some signs that the best is yet to come for the 2006 Red Raiders.