Saturday, April 21, 2007

Texas Tech Spring Football Preview


With Mike Leach’s offensive scheme, Texas Tech would probably lead the league in passing if yours truly were their #2 receiver. Granted, my YAC average would be lower than Byron Hanspard’s GPA, but you get the point. But as the differences between 2005 and 2006 proved, continuity is still important in Lubbock. For the first time in seemingly ever, Leach handed the reins to somebody who wasn’t a fifth-year senior—sophomore Graham Harrell—in 2006, and the Red Raiders took a step backwards. That, or 2005 was above standard, and Tech just regressed to the mean. Either way, Tech managed to look a bit shaky while throwing for 369 yards per game last year...definitely not an easy feat. But if “regression” equals 8 wins, that shows how far Tech has come under Leach.

Coming off a 9-3 2005 season which saw them qualify for the Cotton Bowl—their biggest bowl game since, well, the 1995 Cotton Bowl—Tech took a step backwards in ’06. Playing someone harder than 2005’s non-conference slate of Florida International, Sam Houston State, and, I think, Lee’s Summit North High School, Tech barely escaped El Paso with a win on 9/9 (defeating UTEP, 38-35, in OT), then got tripped up by TCU the next week, scoring only 3 points in the process, their lowest total since scoring 3 against Nebraska in 2000. The Red Raiders rebounded by winning in College Station and moving to 4-1, but back to back losses to Missouri (38-21) and Colorado (30-6, the first time in Leach’s tenure that they’d been held to single digits twice in the same season) sent them reeling. A win in Ames got the Red Raiders back on the right path and moved them to 5-3 when horrid Big XII officiating struck hard against Texas; a couple of horribly questionable (to my eyes, anyway) calls—one of them being the right call being overturned in the replay booth and the wrong call standing—led the Longhorns to a 35-31 victory. Tech recovered well, however. They defeated Baylor and Oklahoma State and went to the Insight Bowl an overwhelming favorite over sinking Minnesota.

Either an inspired effort by Minnesota or a sleepwalk by Texas Tech led the Golden Gophers to a 38-7 lead halfway through the 3rd quarter of the Insight Bowl. However, Minnesota then learned what every Big XII team already knew—you must continue stepping on Tech’s throat, otherwise you might lose. Two TD passes and two TD runs later, it was 38-35 when Alex Trlica’s 52-yard bomb as time expired sent the game to OT. You didn’t have to be a rocket scientist to figure out who was going to win at that point. A 3-yard Shannon Woods run in the first OT gave Tech a 41-38 victory and the biggest comeback win in bowl history. The game signified the entire 2006 season for Tech—their defense was (as always) shaky and their offensive execution was inconsistent, but you can never, ever count them out.

Key Returnees

Continuity could be the major issue for Tech once again this season. Graham Harrell returns (though he got a strong battle from RS Freshman Taylor Potts in the spring), as does junior RB Shannon Woods. However, replacements are needed for Harrell’s top two targets—Joel Filani and Robert Johnson, who combined for 180 catches, 2,171 yards, and 24 TD’s in ’06. You know the system will produce new stars, but still...that is some hellacious production to replace. Danny Amendola returns, and guys like L.A. Reed, Michael Crabtree, Grant and Todd Walker, and Edward Britton will be fighting to become Harrell’s new top target.

Continuity problems might also strike on the O-line, where four starters must be replaced. Replacements like Ofa Mohetau were pretty highly-recruited, but a) there is always a breaking-in period with new linemen, and b) the number of scholarship players on the O-line is in the single digits. In other words...little experience and no depth. It’s hard to know whether to expect improvement or regression for the Tech offense in ’07—they have a returning starter at QB for the first time in eons, but the WR corps and O-line are quite raw.

In Texas Tech’s 2007 Spring Prospectus (pdf), here’s the first sentence regarding Tech’s D-Line: “At what might be the thinnest area of the depth chart, the Red Raiders enter spring practice with just seven scholarship players up front on defense.” OUCH. When former Mizzou commit Richard Jones went out for the spring due to shoulder surgery, Tech was down to two DT’s. Coach Leach, you might want to recruit more than just WR’s...just so you know. I mean, I realize you’ve always just looked to outscore teams in shootouts—and you’re pretty good at doing just that—but jeez...

There is at least better news in the LB corps. The group there is relatively unheralded, but they’re experienced. Seniors Kellen Tillman, Chad Hill, and Paul Williams might not make a lot of big plays, but they’ll at least bring to the table a stabilizing influence. With a porous D-line, though, they’ll be forced to make a lot of plays.

The one unit which could actually consitute good news is the secondary, where both safeties (Darcel McBath and Joe Garcia) and CB Chris Parker return. Tech’s pass defense was actually quite decent in 2006. They gave up only 5.7 yards per pass and 10.4 yards per catch, while allowing only a 55.0% completion rate. The problem here is, they will be quite overworked if the front seven can’t stop anybody.

Bowl hero Alex Trlica and strong kick returner Danny Amendola anchor a pretty decent special teams corps.

Spring Developments

The major developments were already mentioned above. Taylor Potts outplayed Graham Harrell on more than one occasion and threatened to turn Harrell into the first QB to throw for 4,500 yards one year and lose his starting gig the next since...ever? Meanwhile, injuries on the interior threatened to turn two thin units (O-line and D-line) into anorexic ones.

Fun With Numbers

By the numbers, here are the five biggest keys to success for Tech in 2006:

1. First Down Ratio
2. Rushing Yards
3. Yards Per Carry
4. Yards Per Pass Attempt
5. Third Down Ratio

This was relatively similar in 2004 and 2005, too. This is the Texas Tech blueprint, and I don’t see the results changing too much—for better or worse—as long as Mike Leach is there. The extraordinary turnover on the lines could cause some out-of-the-ordinary numbers this year, though.

Just like I don’t know what to think about Tech in 2007, I don’t know what to think about their schedule, either. Their three major non-conference games are at SMU, UTEP at home, and at Rice. All three of those teams are, to some degree, capable of knocking off a BCS-level team on the right day. Rice was in a bowl last season, UTEP’s been pretty strong for a few years, and SMU damn near qualified for a bowl themselves (I also don’t know what to think about the SMU taking place at 3pm on a strange is that?? I realize it’s Labor Day and all, but...weird nonetheless). It really wouldn’t surprise me if Tech’s non-con record was just 3-1. As for the conference schedule...road games against OSU, Missouri, Texas, and Baylor lead to a 2-2 record at best, I would think. They get ATM and OU at home (along with Colorado—revenge game!—and Iowa State) 2-2 or 3-1 is likely there.

In other words, even with almost nonexistant line play, Tech’s probably looking at the same 7-5 or 8-4 season they experience just about every season. But even though their records are relatively predictable from year to year, I have to admit...nobody in the country goes on (or gives up) 20+ point runs like Tech. They’re always exciting.