Big 12 spring check-ins: Texas Tech

Ian Boyd

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Things are going horribly for Texas Tech athletic director Kirby Hocutt. In the last year he had to fire Kliff Kingsbury, the blessed, only to see him take a head coaching job in the NFL. Then he replaced him with Utah State head coach Matt Wells, who immediately floundered to 4-8 and 4-6 records. After the second year there was a push to shove out Wells for Art Briles which Hocutt understandably didn't sign on for. However, Wells did have to make the classic "embattled head coach" move and fire his offensive coordinator David Yost.

Yost was not the problem for Tech, at least not as a coordinator. Wells and his brand of defense has flopped badly at Tech and they've been drawing in defenders through the portal en masse to attempt to solve the problem with little to show for it yet. Finding an offensive coordinator willing to come in for a year was understandably difficult and they landed on Sonny Cumbie, who was getting pushed out at TCU.

After all that, Texas poached Chris Beard from Texas Tech and potentially scuttled the basketball program which had begun to supersede the football program as the pride and joy of the athletic department.

So there's a lot riding on Texas Tech football this season, even with honest expectations such as "finish .500 or better" or "find a quality quarterback."

Infrastructure stress test: Offense

I know Texas Tech fans will argue vehemently with the notion David Yost was actually a strength of the Matt Wells program and his firing a poor idea. I'll throw y'all a bone and say Sonny Cumbie is a good recruiter and his immediate success bringing Tyler Shough from Oregon (and T.J. Storment from TCU) was certainly a boost to the program.

Shough is a good fit for the Cumbie program, using zone-option to give the offense an advantage in the box and then bringing the arm strength to push the ball outside when teams have to overcompensate to get numbers to stop the quarterback run game. The rest of the offense is in pretty good shape as well. Both tackles, one guard, and the center are all back from a good run blocking unit along with tight end Travis Koontz who helped the Red Raiders run true spread power last season.

Star running back SaRodorick Thompson is also back along with some other established or up and coming receivers. Tech has never lost the ability under any head coach to find lots of good wide receivers. If Tyler Shough can stabilize the quarterback position for them and bring a blend of what Henry Colombi and Alan Bowman offered they'll be in pretty good shape here.

Infrastructure stress test: Defense

One of the biggest moves of the offseason in the league was Tech moving defensive end Tony Bradford from end/tackle to nose. The nose tackle position was previously occupied by Jaylon Hutchings, who was good for a few positive snaps a game before wearing down and becoming a net negative for the unit. Especially in the pass rush.

Bradford anchored a State Championship defense at North Shore a few years back and was an absolute menace. He's listed now at 6-1, 290 (probably 250 in high school) and brings a lot more quickness to their nose position. He'll try to shoot gaps and help distract offenses from the Tech linebacker corps and then also split some time with Jaylon Hutchings and perhaps give Tech more consistently decent D-line play. At the ends they have big guys in Nelson Mbanasor (6-3, 275) and Devin Drew (6-2, 280) to give them a chance at holding the point of attack.

Linebacker is quietly a team strength. Colin Schooler was very effective after transferring in late for 2020 and returns along with Kriston Merriweather and Riko Jeffers. They've never gotten the sort of pass rush from Jeffers they've hoped for but between those three linebackers they have some pretty solid and flexible players. Amazingly, Tech ended up playing a lot of 3-4 defense last year because this trio along with Jacob Morgenstern constituted so much of their best players on defense. They may have to do so again, regrettably.

The hope would be that at least this year the defense actually knows how to line up and execute the scheme. With safety Eric Monroe back behind these four linebackers, there's at least some hope this unit can actually execute a scheme together even if they're hopelessly outclassed in space.

Space force speed test: Offense

The main weapon here is Erik Ezukanma, who caught 46 balls for 748 yards and six touchdowns last season. Ezukanma isn't a speed demon but he's big, runs good routes, and is tough to beat to the ball when it's in the air. He's 6-3, 220 now and just a serious load outside for cornerbacks trying to check him 1-on-1. If Shough can master the timing to throw comebacks and hitch routes to the field there should be free yardage most every week throwing to E2 when the defense plays off on him.

The Red Raiders will also be replacing T.J. Vasher outside this season with the well reviewed Loic Fouonji, another big bodied outside receiver who can present some matchup problems outside. Tech's ability to hit teams inside with the spread run game is going to help them generate a lot of space outside. Sonny Cumbie really rode the struggle bus at TCU but he'll have a lot more to work with here than he did most years in Fort Worth where defending the Metroplex from Red Raiders was the priority.

Pass protection has been a limiting factor in taking shots for Tech, they've lacked high level tackle play although Yost had a few good workarounds in giving his quarterbacks some quick shot alert throws and building effective play-action off the power run game. If Cumbie doesn't maintain the emphasis on the power run game you're going to hear about it on this blog every week, folks.

However, adding T.J. Storment from TCU also helps. The Frogs landed Obinna Eze from Memphis through the portal, who's a bit more athletic and skilled in protection than Storment, and so Storment took his super senior eligibility with Cumbie to Lubbock. As I've written a handful of times, I think he'll upgrade their left tackle spot a little bit but also allow them to spin Ethan Carde down to right tackle and then right tackle Josh Burger inside to guard.

Space force speed test: Defense

This is where Tech has been particularly atrocious. Zech McPhearson ended up being solid last year holding down a corner spot while Tech yielded either 1-on-1 matchups or big linebackers in space executing overly complicated playbooks half of them had only recently learned everywhere else on the field. It didn't work out well.

Now McPhearson is off to the NFL, leaving Tech bereft of a cornerback you trust to make up for being so coverage deficient everywhere else. Technically Adrian Frye is still around but he's never been able to recapture the magic from his first season at Tech. UCLA transfer Rayshad Williams is coming to try and help, we'll see how it all goes.

Then for edge rush, last year Tech moved Riko Jeffers around and brought him on blitzes from multiple angles. Flooding the field with linebackers and having him move around and drop from multiple alignments was successful in confusing offenses enough to get Jeffers one sack on the year. Just one.

I think the biggest issue was actually the lack of any contain rush whatsoever from the other D-linemen, who were often exhausted from playing heavy snaps and staying on the field because the Raiders couldn't get stops with a 3-4 defense in the Big 12 and played with tempo on offense. Jeffers may be more effective if they can push the pocket better and contain opposing quarterbacks in 2021.

In summation

Texas Tech has been an absolute mess on defense for most of my consciousness as a college football fan, save for the Ruffin McNeil era in the late 2000's under Mike Leach. Last year was among the worst I've seen, even though they had some bright spots like Colin Schooler stuffing Charlie Brewer on the goal line.

I don't really think Matt Wells knows how to solve the issue either. His formula at Utah State involved a lot of pressure, good linebacker play, and some talent infusions through the transfer portal. They have been working the latter two as well as they can but the pressure isn't coming, Big 12 offenses are a whole different animal than the Mountain West variety. Wells background at Utah State was actually on offense, running spread-option schemes on behalf of Gary Andersen, but he learned the defense as head coach. They were going nowhere out there with this formula until David Yost came and breathed life into the formula with his offense.

But Yost's offense wasn't giving them a big advantage in the Big 12 and needed time to be realized. Now they don't even have that. If the Shough addition goes well this looks like a team which can potentially win six games, make a bowl, and perhaps give Wells one more year to figure it out. But with the recent blow to the basketball program, Hocutt and the stability of the overall administration may be shaken up leading to changes at the top sooner than later.
 
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system poster

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I know Texas Tech fans will argue vehemently with the notion David Yost was actually a strength of the Matt Wells program and his firing a poor idea.
I don't disagree that Yost was the strength of Matt Wells's tenure, but I think that's damning with faint praise. I get that you like his broad, strategic approach, and you're probably right, but at a tactical, play calling level he was hit or miss. The better defensive coordinators in the league had an easy time baiting him into certain plays and reading/predicting some of his more dangerous (to the health of the quarterback) play action concepts. He also wasn't great from a personnel perspective. He wasn't good at evaluating the talent on the roster both in terms of getting the best players on the field and in recruiting to fill holes. One of the best examples of the latter was that it was obvious when he took the job in 2018 that offensive tackle was going to be a massive problem for the 2020 season, but they waited until the last minute to find stopgaps and ended up taking flyers on a couple of guys that weren't up for playing tackle in the big 12, which ruined our shot at a bowl game before the season even started.

Ultimately you're right though that defense is a massively bigger problem. Keith Patterson doesn't know what he's doing on any level. While talent is a huge problem and depth even more so, there was substantially more talent on the roster when Patterson walked in the door than, for example, when Kingsbury showed up, in 2019 especially. That 2019 team will have had at least 3 NFL draft picks, including a first rounder, as well as two other former first team all conference players. The lack of depth, in the secondary especially, was always going to be a problem, but the 2019 defense should have at least been passable.
 

lazer2222

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What would be a reasonable path for Tech to get respectable on defense? They aren't going to be able to recruit elite level DL, LB, or DBs in the short term. At least not enough to try to win with a pure talent advantage over the top half of the league. Should they be taking the Iowa State approach of recruiting midwestern kids and developing them for 3-4 years? Should they continue to recruit Texas hard and just change their scheme? What should they be doing in order to get enough stops to have a chance each week?
 

Ian Boyd

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I don't disagree that Yost was the strength of Matt Wells's tenure, but I think that's damning with faint praise. I get that you like his broad, strategic approach, and you're probably right, but at a tactical, play calling level he was hit or miss. The better defensive coordinators in the league had an easy time baiting him into certain plays and reading/predicting some of his more dangerous (to the health of the quarterback) play action concepts. He also wasn't great from a personnel perspective. He wasn't good at evaluating the talent on the roster both in terms of getting the best players on the field and in recruiting to fill holes. One of the best examples of the latter was that it was obvious when he took the job in 2018 that offensive tackle was going to be a massive problem for the 2020 season, but they waited until the last minute to find stopgaps and ended up taking flyers on a couple of guys that weren't up for playing tackle in the big 12, which ruined our shot at a bowl game before the season even started.

Ultimately you're right though that defense is a massively bigger problem. Keith Patterson doesn't know what he's doing on any level. While talent is a huge problem and depth even more so, there was substantially more talent on the roster when Patterson walked in the door than, for example, when Kingsbury showed up, in 2019 especially. That 2019 team will have had at least 3 NFL draft picks, including a first rounder, as well as two other former first team all conference players. The lack of depth, in the secondary especially, was always going to be a problem, but the 2019 defense should have at least been passable.
I hear you on the talent acquisition side for Yost. Obviously Cumbie has made immediate improvements to the roster there by snagging dependable Storment and then high upside Shough. You'd rather Yost be coordinating those guys though.
What would be a reasonable path for Tech to get respectable on defense? They aren't going to be able to recruit elite level DL, LB, or DBs in the short term. At least not enough to try to win with a pure talent advantage over the top half of the league. Should they be taking the Iowa State approach of recruiting midwestern kids and developing them for 3-4 years? Should they continue to recruit Texas hard and just change their scheme? What should they be doing in order to get enough stops to have a chance each week?
I don't think recruiting to Lubbock is quite as big of a problem as they make it. Bradford is a good player they pulled from North Shore who was just a bit smaller than other schools wanted. The transfer portal is useful as well.

Their problem has tended to be that their secondary is not good, they don't recruit it well, and they don't develop it well and often change up their schemes too much or demand too much from the players when the league already demands a lot.

Ruffin McNeil had Tech playing really good, sound, smart defense without bringing in a ton of amazing talents or getting ultra creative in recruiting. He just kept things consistent and simple, gameplanned well from simple base schemes, and developed his players.
 
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techhoopsguy

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This is as bullish as I've been on Tech in a long time.

It's primarily because of our schedule. We don't waste two of our home games in the same season on UT/OU. In the 8 seasons since the Big 12 moved us to that schedule, we've won 6 or more regular season games in 3 out of 4 "odd" years (2013, 2015, 2017, etc.) and lost 7 or more regular season games in all 4 of the "even" years. We also got the Big 12's blessing this year to not play a non-con P5 team. With home and homes v Oregon/Miss. State + sneaky tough games at Colorado State or v. Houston on future schedules, this is the easiest schedule (to win 7+ games) that Tech will play for the foreseeable future.

For the first time in a long, long time, Tech will have multiple 21+ year old guys on defense. I count 14 guys from the 2016-2018 HS grad classes that will be heavy contributors on defense. Those 14 guys combine for 240 career P5 starts. Throw in the aforementioned Tony Bradford, who was from the 2019 class, and it equals 250 P5 starts and about 18,500 career snaps. I saw somewhere that the 2009 Florida defense that returned 242 career starts was one of the most experienced defenses in CFB history. With the benefit of the wacky COVID/Super Senior year stuff, this Tech defense will probably be the most experienced in the history of the sport. I have no idea what that translates to, but I know the worst defense in the history of modern college football (Tech in 2016) returned only 90 career starts.

Tech's defense has always been bad. And it's always been statistically hampered by playing more possessions per game than everyone else (there were 39 possessions in Tech's game with UT last year). I consider Bryan Fremeau to be like the Kenpom of CFB, since his ratings are tempo agnostic. He rated Tech's defense as 53rd in the country last year, which is about as good we've been in the post Leach era. There's little doubt in my mind (turd polishing warning) that this will be the best defense that Tech's had in 10+ years.

A big ? mark is at QB. Some smart football people seem to think that Tyler Shough (Oregon transfer) is a top 5ish QB for his draft class. We need that to be the case, considering we suddenly have serious issues at WR (Erik Ezukanma broke his arm this spring).

Easiest schedule + best defense for Tech + the potential to have a real difference maker at QB = most bullish I've been on Tech in a long time.

If we can't win 6 games this year, I'm not sure it'll ever happen again.
 

stilesbbq

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This is as bullish as I've been on Tech in a long time.

It's primarily because of our schedule. We don't waste two of our home games in the same season on UT/OU. In the 8 seasons since the Big 12 moved us to that schedule, we've won 6 or more regular season games in 3 out of 4 "odd" years (2013, 2015, 2017, etc.) and lost 7 or more regular season games in all 4 of the "even" years. We also got the Big 12's blessing this year to not play a non-con P5 team. With home and homes v Oregon/Miss. State + sneaky tough games at Colorado State or v. Houston on future schedules, this is the easiest schedule (to win 7+ games) that Tech will play for the foreseeable future.

For the first time in a long, long time, Tech will have multiple 21+ year old guys on defense. I count 14 guys from the 2016-2018 HS grad classes that will be heavy contributors on defense. Those 14 guys combine for 240 career P5 starts. Throw in the aforementioned Tony Bradford, who was from the 2019 class, and it equals 250 P5 starts and about 18,500 career snaps. I saw somewhere that the 2009 Florida defense that returned 242 career starts was one of the most experienced defenses in CFB history. With the benefit of the wacky COVID/Super Senior year stuff, this Tech defense will probably be the most experienced in the history of the sport. I have no idea what that translates to, but I know the worst defense in the history of modern college football (Tech in 2016) returned only 90 career starts.

Tech's defense has always been bad. And it's always been statistically hampered by playing more possessions per game than everyone else (there were 39 possessions in Tech's game with UT last year). I consider Bryan Fremeau to be like the Kenpom of CFB, since his ratings are tempo agnostic. He rated Tech's defense as 53rd in the country last year, which is about as good we've been in the post Leach era. There's little doubt in my mind (turd polishing warning) that this will be the best defense that Tech's had in 10+ years.

A big ? mark is at QB. Some smart football people seem to think that Tyler Shough (Oregon transfer) is a top 5ish QB for his draft class. We need that to be the case, considering we suddenly have serious issues at WR (Erik Ezukanma broke his arm this spring).

Easiest schedule + best defense for Tech + the potential to have a real difference maker at QB = most bullish I've been on Tech in a long time.

If we can't win 6 games this year, I'm not sure it'll ever happen again.
Great stuff. Always appreciate your input here

Personally think Shough is perfect for what Cumbie wants to do. I guess we find out this year if Cumbie still has it or not

Have to wonder if losing Ezukanma ends the Tech season before it even really gets started. He's one of my favorite WRs to watch in the conference

Wells is a defensive coach who has no problem hiring air raid OCs, right? If he cant put something together this year, he's earned his firing