Last Saturday's matchup again Northwestern State was the debut of the new fundamentally sound Ruffin McNeill defense. McNeill took the players back to the basics during practice, spending a lot of time on tackling and getting lined up correctly and quickly.
Although the Demons weren't a huge test for the defense, the game provided a good barometer for how well the new intense practices that focus primarily on fundamentals are working. "You have to be ready to play against a team like Northwestern State; if you don't believe me, just ask Michigan," said head coach Mike Leach. "It's really easy to discount who you're playing [when it's not a D-I opponent], but we were ready to play and we did get a week better, so I was proud of that. But I think the same thing needs to happen this week."
One aspect of the defense that had been difficult for the players was learning the scheme implemented by previous defensive coordinator, Lyle Setencich. In theory, Setencich's defense is very effective, but it requires that the D has enough experience so that everyone knows where they need to be. It involved a lot of thinking, which at times can inhibit the aggressiveness of the players.
This is one area where Coach McNeill has drastically changed the approach taken with the players.
"I think we improved our practices and improved our level of intensity during the game," explained Coach Leach. "A lot of that has to do with mentality and enthusiasm and the excitement of going out there and playing. Sometimes things can be overanalyzed to the point that your mind is clouded, and I think [McNeill] has removed a lot of the clouds out of player's minds, and I see them bouncing around and playing with a high level of enthusiasm."
Bennie Wylie, Texas Tech's strength and conditioning coach, has always held the respect of the players. Wylie is hard on them during the offseason, constantly pushing them to get stronger and faster, but the players respect him because he is not afraid to jump in there and do the workouts right along with them.
Coach McNeill has a similar attitude and enthusiasm about the game, and both have been infectious amongst the players.
"If you can see a coach that gets involved at practice, and sweats the way Coach Ruff does, he is soaking wet when practice is over," said freshman linebacker Brian Duncan. "He's out there running, he's in our face, and it's alright to mess up in front of him and be corrected at that time. His intensity is on a high level, and it's something we really needed."
During the game, Coach McNeill is on the sideline with the team, always there to coach and to ensure the players remain excited to be playing. It's hard to keep the excitement and intensity up when you're blowing out an opponent, but that's what McNeill brings to this Texas Tech defense.
"It's exciting to play for a coach like Coach Ruff," said senior cornerback Chris Parker. "He has a lot of energy, and he's aggressive and he wants you to be aggressive out on the field. His intensity is always going to be up, and to see somebody like that on the sidelines that gets so hyped, it's exciting."
Test #2 will come on Saturday in Lubbock when the Red Raiders square off against the Iowa State Cyclones. This will be a more challenging test for the defense and will require the players to get "another week better" if they want to duplicate last week's stellar performance.