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State of the Big 12: Could Texas Tech Ride Its Defense (?) to an Improved Year in 2018?

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There is still more than two months between now and the start of the 2018 college football season, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t plenty of football to talk about.

This summer we are going to check in on the current state of the other nine Big 12 teams to get an idea where they stand post-spring. We kick things off with the Texas Tech Red Raiders.

Offense

After five years in Lubbock, Red Raider golden boy Kliff Kingsbury has earned a reputation for high-powered offenses and quarterbacks who can sling it around. But in Year 6, it may be the defense that powers Texas Tech.

The Red Raiders lose 69 percent of their offensive production from 2016. That’s a lot of holes to fill, but it begins with the quarterback position.

Tech has three QBs – redshirt junior McLane Carter, sophomore Jett Duffey and true frosh Alan Bowman – all vying for the starting job. None were especially great in the spring game — the three combined to complete just 29 of 58 passes. Duffey led the way going 11 of 15 for 89 yards.

“My guess is that Jett Duffey is the starter,” said Albie Shore of Viva the Matadors. While some experts agree with Shore, others believe Carter is the favorite to land the job. Duffey only threw two passes last season. Carter on the other hand, played in four games and started one, going 23 of 46 for 359 yards, two touchdowns, and two interceptions.

Along with replacing their quarterback, the Red Raiders also lose their top three receivers and four of their top five from last season. Leading returner,  T.J. Vasher, showed a lot of promise in his redshirt freshman season. Vasher finished with 29 receptions for 545 yards and six touchdowns and also lead the team with 18.8 yards per catch.

Another name to keep an eye on this season will be incoming four-star recruit Erik Ezukanma. The 6-foot-2, 183-pound burner has the talent to see the field this season.

As noted, the Red Raiders are in the midst of a rebuild of their receiving corps. Here’s a look at what they have returning.

Returning WRs Receptions Yards TDs
T.J. Vasher 24 461 5
Antoine Wesley 8 108 0
Quan Shorts 8 103 2

In the running game, last year’s leading rusher Justin Stockton is gone. His two backups from last season, Tre King and Desmond Nisby, will compete for the starting spot.

Here’s a look at Tech’s returning ball carriers.

Returning RBs Carries Yards TDs
Tre King 121 588 4
Desmond Nisby 61 274 7
Demarcus Felton 22 102 0

While King had more carries last season and a better average yards per attempt, Nisby led all running backs with seven scores. Either way, Tech should feel pretty good about the running back position.

Defense

On a reversal of the norm, if the Red Raiders are going to reach a bowl game this season, it might just be on the back of the defense (?).

“This defense is the best defense since Ruffin McNeil was the defensive coordinator in 2008,” says Albie Shore of Viva the Matadors. ‘The defense is something to be excited about. I see two maybe three NFL draft picks on the defense alone.”

There are plenty of reasons to believe the defense will continue to show marked improvement in the fourth season under defensive coordinator David Gibbon.

Last season, the Red Raiders defense finished 7th overall in the Big 12. While not necessarily impressive, it’s a major improvement from their 10th place finish in 2016. (They finished 9th in 2015).

Plus, the defense saw improvements in interceptions (14 in 2017 from five in 2016), sacks (18 in 2017 from 14 in 2016), and forced fumbles (15 in 2017 from eight in 2016).

“The defense, for the first time in I can remember, made stops when they needed to make stops,” said Shore about the 2016 defense.

The defense will bring back a lot of starters. Their top three tacklers from last season return, including senior linebacker Dakota Allen, who led the team with 102 tackles. They also bring back sophomore defensive lineman Eli Howard, who led the team in sacks (5.5) and TFLs (8.5), and junior defensive back Justus Parker, who led the team with four interceptions and four forced fumbles.

I would also look out for junior linebacker Jordyn Brooks, who was third in tackles (89) and led the team in quarterback hurries with seven. In a year where numerous Big 12 teams are replacing quarterbacks, he could make some plays this year.

The defense had a nice performance in the spring game recording five three-and-outs, three sacks, two fumbles and an interception while outscoring the offense 40-27. That could be a preview of things to come this season.

VS. Oklahoma State

The Cowboys and Red Raiders face off early in the season on September 22, in what will be the Big 12 opener for both teams. This year, they’ll meet in Stillwater, where Texas Tech hasn’t won since 2001. For that matter, Tech hasn’t beaten OSU in their last nine tries.

That’s not from a lack of effort. Last year’s game was decided by a late touchdown, while 2016’s matchup went OSU’s way after Tech missed an extra point late.

ESPN gives Oklahoma State a 73.5-percent chance to beat the Red Raiders in Stillwater.

This could be a make-or-break year for Kingsbury. Despite making a bowl game last season, the Red Raiders still ended with a sub-.500 record, something they’ve done three times in Kingsbury’s five years. He’s going to need to finish the season above .500 and show real improvement if wants to feel confident about another season in Lubbock.

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