Defensive end Jake Ratliff is tied for the longest tenured starter on the field with free safety Darcel McBath and quarterback Graham Harrell. Ratliff's somewhat lanky 6 foot 8 inch tall frame disguises a player who has surprising quickness and is strong enough to stand up to offensive tackles at the line of scrimmage, even though he is outweighed by 50 pounds or more on a typical day.
Ratliff isn't a great pass-rusher but has worked extensively on his bull-rushing skills and his hands seem to be faster than they have in past years.
While Brandon Sesay may be more gifted athletically than Ratliff, it is unlikely he will be named the starter any time soon. Instead, Sesay will spend time backing-up Ratliff at left end and working at defensive tackle during certain packages. Sesay could also find himself on the field in long-yardage situations as a pass-rusher when Ratliff moves inside in certain packages.
Defensive tackles Colby Whitlock and Rajon Henley took some time to become comfortable as the starting interior linemen for Texas Tech during the 2007 season. Once they did, it became difficult to force them off of the line of scrimmage.
Whitlock is the heavier of the two weighing in between 285-295 pounds while Henley is the taller and faster of the pair. They combined for one of the most important plays of the '07 season when Henley forced Virginia quarterback Peter Lalich to fumble and Whitlock recovered near the goal line to give Tech the chance to tie the ballgame late in the 4th quarter.
Whitlock, who garnered Freshman All-American status last year, should continue to improve with a full year of weights under his belt while Rajon Henley should also improve, simply because he now knows what he'll be facing during the season.
Chris Perry's transfer and the health of Richard Jones could be two of the biggest factors that contribute to the improvement of the defensive tackle position. Jones a smaller, faster tackle while Perry is a prototypical 6 foot plus, 300 pounder, they work very well together. Perry will need some seasoning before his is ready to push for a starting spot but he should be able to immediately provide depth while Jones' performance should improve without a nagging injury in his shoulder.
Right (weak-side) Defensive End:
Brandon Williams, Sandy Riley, and Daniel Howard all return as the 1, 2, and 3 players at right defensive end. Williams, whose plays is consistent though not always spectacular, is the starter at that position and looks poised for a big year. Williams has a knack for getting into the backfield but has struggled at times to finish plays.
Sandy Riley, while listed as the number two player at right end, is really in a tie with Daniel Howard. Riley has shown flashes throughout the spring and fall but hasn't yet backed up his practice performance with in-game big-plays.
Daniel Howard, on the other hand, has made big-plays for the Raiders, including a tackle of Oklahoma back-up Joey Halze in the upset over OU to end the 2007 regular season. Howard's combination of speed/size allows him to play the "joker" defensive end position in the nickel/dime defensive packages where he will either rush the passer with a hand down or bounce around the line of scrimmage to rush as a linebacker. Howard has also, at times, dropped into pass coverage posing a formidable threat to quarterbacks and receivers.
McKinner Dixon has also been working at right end, opposite of where most of his time was spent during his first stint at Tech in 2005 when he played left end.
Overall, this is a unit that has seen the addition of 3 talented players in Sesay, Dixon, and Perry along with the health of Richard Jones and the year of added starting experience to Colby Whitlock and Rajon Henley.
Add in the fact that both starting defensive ends return and that there is a legitimate two-deep across the defensive line for the first time since Mike Leach's arrival on the South Plains, this is a unit that could surprise during the 2008 season.
Left End: B
Defensive Tackle: A-
Right End: B+
Overall Grade: 8.8/10
While the unit saw an influx of talent between the Gator Bowl and the start of the 2008 season, it is also a group that should see serious improvement from the returning players. Perhaps the most pivotal player, the one who must continue to improve, is Colby Whitlock. If he can make it to the next level, then this unit could easily be the cog that lets the re-vamped 2008 Texas Tech defense announce its presence to the Big XII.