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July 31, 2012

Preview: LBs will make impact


MORE: Reason for excitement at LB | Free 30-day trial

What a difference an offseason makes.

From additions by way of recruiting to the weight room to a new defensive scheme, it looks like all the tools are in place for Texas Tech to show improvement on defense. And that progress will be fueled by an improved linebackers unit.

On the first day of the Red Raiders' spring football season -- a cold, rainy February afternoon that captured the bad taste that the 2011 defense had left in everyone's mouth -- the team's linebackers trotted out and looked much different than they had three months prior.

That was largely because most of the faces were new.

POSITION VITALS
Texas Tech's linebacking corps was almost nonexistant last year. The starting lineup changed nine times week-to-week last season, and the players were even less consistent than the depth chart. Terrance Bullitt was the team's most impressive player around the line of scrimmage, and he was technically a safety.
THE BASICS
Returning Starters: Terrance Bullitt (12*), Daniel Cobb (7), Blake Dees (5), Sam Eguavoen (5)

Others Returning: Justin Cooper, Zach Winbush

Newcomers: Chris Payne, Will Smith, Kris Williams

Departures: Cqulin Hubert

* Bullitt started 12 games last season at strong safety in the Red Raiders' 4-2-5 defensive scheme.
2011 NUMBERS TO KNOW
Of the Red Raiders' top four linebackers heading into camp -- Terrance Bullitt, Sam Eguavoen, Chris Payne and Will Smith -- only Bullitt was on campus 18 months ago.

Bullitt led Texas Tech in tackles for a loss (9.5) last season; he was ranked No. 12 in the Big 12 in that category.

Only six teams in the past 10 seasons allowed more rushing yards per game than the Red Raiders did in 2011 (258.83). Of that group, Northwestern (2002) is the only team from a BCS AQ conference.
BATTLE TO WATCH
It will be interesting to see how solid of a hold Sam Eguavoen has on the weakside linebacker position and whether or not Chris Payne will make a push for that spot. Eguavoen may look like more of an every-down linebacker, Payne has much more experience.
Junior college transfers Chris Payne and Will Smith stood out for different reasons. Smith, 6-foot-3 and 228 pounds, looks and moves like a big-time linebacker. Payne isn't as physically imposing, but more than makes up for it with his speed and ability in coverage. Terrance Bullitt, a newcomer to the position but not the roster, stood out as well; he was Tech's most consistent defensive playmaker in 2011 despite suffering from a nagging and painful shoulder injury.

Smith will quarterback the entire defense just a few months removed from Riverside (Calif.) Community College. He will be in charge of calling the front and responsible for communicating between the front seven of the defense -- all the linebackers as well as the defensive line.

"Will came in as a two or as a three in the spring and worked his way to middle (linebacker) early," Bullitt said. "He gave the defense a spark and because of that he came a leader on defense. I'm sure he's going to be able to hold onto that spot and make some plays for us this year.

"He's doing a good job. He says the transition isn't as hard as he thought it would be. He's just playing football and he's used to the position."

[ More RRS: Expectations are high for Bullitt ]

This is a big departure from last season where the Red Raiders could not find any consistent linebackers. Smith, Bullitt, Payne and Sam Eguavoen give Tech four dependable options without even reaching into the backers' depth.

Daniel Cobb should see plenty of reps along with Blake Dees. Both saw significant playing time last season but battled consistency. Zach Winbush also saw some playing time.

Justin Cooper is an eighth linebacker the coaching staff is excited about. He is coming out of a redshirt freshman year.

There's some depth left to be desired on the defensive line, but the linebackers should help the line stop the run in a fashion the defensive front just wasn't capable of last season.

If all goes to plan the Red Raiders can swing some of those close games they failed to last season.

NEW FACES: We've already talked a lot about Smith, but we need to talk about the respect he earned so quickly.

Smith quickly found himself atop the depth chart at middle linebacker this spring thanks to a combination of solid tackling, pass swatting and even the occasional interception on an errant pass. He showed a knack of making plays, which was something Tech's defense sorely lacked in 2011.

[ More RRS: Kaufman looking for two more to step up ]

Payne, a defensive back and linebacker tweener from Gulf Coast (Miss.) Community College, adds depth and could be used situationally. He missed some of the spring with an injury, so fall camp will be key to how much he will contribute this season.

Kris Williams, an incoming freshman from Dallas, is expected to redshirt.

PRESSURE IS ON: Will Smith. Smith was arguably the biggest story of the spring for the Red Raiders, and enters the fall surrounded by a healthy amount of buzz. He's proven everything possible except for whether or not his success in practice will translate to Saturdays.

BIGGEST QUESTION: Will this group of linebackers be able to make plays? Last season, the Red Raiders' linebacking corps seemed almost non-existant at times. If Tech is to return to the postseason, the team's linebackers will need to make their presence felt on the field.


PRE-CAMP DEPTH CHART
There isn't much that seems uncertain about the Red Raiders' depth chart. Terrance Bullitt will start, as will Will Smith. The only fluidity is on the weakside, where Chris Payne could push Sam Eguavoen for his spot.
STRONGSIDE LINEBACKER
1. Terrance Bullitt JR-2L Bullitt led the Red Raiders in tackles for a loss (9.5) last season; he ranked No. 12 in the Big 12 in that category.
2. Chris Payne SO-TR Payne transferred to Tech at midterm from Riverside C.C.; he could be used situationally this season.
MIDDLE LINEBACKER
1. Will Smith JR-TR Smith was arguably the biggest story of the spring for the Red Raiders, as he quickly ascended to the top spot on the MLB depth chart.
2. Blake Dees SO-1L Dees was the first true freshman linebacker to start a season-opener since Brock Stratton in 2003.
WEAKSIDE LINEBACKER
1. Sam Eguavoen SO-1L Eguavoen started five games as a true freshman in 2011 despite still being fairly new to football.
2. Justin Cooper FR-RS Cooper redshirted last season. He chose the Red Raiders over offers from Cincinnati, Connecticut and others.




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