March 3, 2008

A few defensive off-season questions

Unlike the [tm]Texas Tech[/tm] offense, whose credentials are certified and whose success is assured by virtue of 10 returning starters, the Red Raider defense remains a bit unsettled and enigmatic. Sure, the defense improved noticeably in 2007 and returns eight starters, but until this side of the ball fields a dominant unit, questions will persist. We here examine some of those uncertainties.

Schematic Changes? The presumption is that current interim defensive coordinator Ruffin McNeill will lose that qualifier and become the permanent head honcho on defense. When this happens-and even if it does not-the future shape of the Red Raider defense will be a matter requiring resolution. McNeill did not have adequate time during the season to introduce dramatic schematic alterations after replacing Lyle Setencich, but he'll have plenty of time between now and the 2008 opener against Tulsa.

What changes might he make? Well, that's a crapshoot frankly. McNeill has occasionally stated his preference for a more aggressive defense, but that can be achieved many ways. One is through motivation, a tactic McNeill has already employed. A second method is to streamline and simplify the defense, yet another approach McNeill has adopted. A third is to blitz more, which again, is something McNeill may have already done. The fourth way is to dispose of players in a more aggressive posture in the base defense. This generally entails positioning players closer to the line of scrimmage and may be achieved through various configurations. And the extent to which McNeill does this will be a key story of spring and summer workouts.

What Will the Defensive Line Look Like? For the first time in memory the defensive line looks like it could be a team strength. All four starters return from a young but talented group that showed signs of being a good unit in 2007. Those starters are defensive ends Brandon Williams and Jake Ratliff, and tackles Ra'jon Henley and Colby Whitlock. Williams received some All Big 12 mention while Whitlock raised Freshman All America antennae. Henley got better as the season progressed, and Ratliff is the most experienced player on the line. He also had a sterling game in Tech's Gator Bowl victory.

But that's only half of the story. The Red Raiders will also benefit from a massive infusion of talent from their current recruiting class. A trio of junior college daisy cutters-Brandon Sesay, McKinner Dixon and Broderick Marshall-will certainly shake up the Tech line for the better.

Where, specifically, they play is an open question, however. All three have inside/outside ability although it is generally thought that Sesay and Dixon are more suited to end while Marshall is an inside guy. Similarly, it is not certain that Ratliff will remain on the outside. He started his career as a tackle and was very effective there despite his lean frame. And finally, there is always the possibility that Ruffin McNeill could switch to a three-man line in the base defense. If that happens a chaotic picture becomes even more incomprehensible. Stay tuned!

What Happens at Middle Linebacker? From this observer's perspective, the defense's most crying need is a middle or inside linebacker who is capable of reliably slamming the door on runners who crease the line between the tackles. As the season progressed the defense did a better job of gumming up the inside run, but this area remains a weakness.

Paul Williams, the 2007 starter at MIKE was frequently dinged and, perhaps as a result, was only serviceable.

Backup, Victor Hunter showed serious signs of being an interior headhunter, but until he seals up first-team status, he must be designated a situational substitution player.

There has also been rumor that outstanding freshman strongside linebacker Brian Duncan may be moved inside. That is a move that has possibilities.

And we shall also see what redshirt freshman Sam Fehoko is capable of. My sense is that his sideline-to-sideline potential is tremendous, but his ability to attack between the tackles is what will need proving. It is not out of the question that Tech could have a freshman starter at linebacker for the second year in a row.

Who Takes over for Chris Parker? Potentially the most harmful personnel loss on defense is the departure of cornerback Chris Parker. And the chief reason is because there is no true leading candidate to replace him.

There are three backups with varying amounts of experience (Pete Richardson, Laron Moore, Marcus Bunton), an athletic redshirt (Deshon Sanders), and an athletic JUCO transfer (Jarell Routt).

There is also a possibility that starting free safety Darcel McBath could be moved to cornerback, a position he knows well and is fully equipped to man. If McBath moves, he starts. It would be foolish to remove a returning starter from the lineup only to relegate him to backup status. If McBath stays put, however, somebody else simply must come to the fore.

What Impact from Steven Harris, L.A. Reed and Franklin Mitchem? Harris, Reed and Mitchem are a safety trio that we really know very little about. They will be counted on, however, to supply depth at the very least, for the 2008 squad.

What we do know is that Harris was the special teams' MVP runner up to Alex Trlica. He is fast, explosive, physical and Tech fans are dying to see him on the field as a safety. So far, however, their desires have been frustrated.

Reed is a former starter at receiver who also starred on special teams, and would seem to have all the tools to do well at his new position.

Mitchem is a redshirt freshman who showed good potential before he was felled by a leg injury during practice. If he's back to 100% health, he could make his presence felt. And if McBath moves to cornerback, they will all get a golden opportunity not only to play, but to start.




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