Matt Wells takes charge in Lubbock as the Red Raiders will see plenty of changes on both sides of the ball
The Texas Tech Red Raiders scored a lot of points and produced a huge number of passing yards under Kliff Kingsbury, but after failing to reach a bowl game for the third time in six years, the school parted ways with its former quarterback, play-caller and head coach. Kingsbury, who surprisingly landed the Arizona Cardinals head coaching job in the aftermath of his firing, left Lubbock with a 35-40 record, including a 5-7 mark in 2018.
Texas Tech acted quickly to hire Matt Wells as Kingsbury’s replacement. Wells spent the last six seasons as the head coach at Utah State, where he compiled a 44-34 overall record, including a pair of 10-win seasons. The Aggies spent the bulk of the 2018 campaign ranked in the Top 25, and though the team ultimately failed in its quest for a Mountain West title, Utah State proved itself to be one of the best Group of 5 programs in 2018.
But can Wells help the Tech contend in the Big 12? As Wells' first spring practice leading the Aggies has begun, we should get a small sample of what changes the new coaching staff intends to implement in Lubbock.
5 Storylines to Watch During Texas Tech’s Spring Practice
1. New head coach Matt Wells
When the news broke that Texas Tech hired Wells, many fans and analysts made particular note of the Red Raiders’ decision to move away from the Air Raid offense that had become a staple of life in Lubbock. But, despite operating out of a new offensive system, Tech should still be very dangerous under the direction of Wells and new offensive coordinator David Yost.
With Yost calling the plays at Utah State last year, the Aggies ranked second in the nation in scoring (47.5 ppg) and 10th in yards per play on offense (6.84), so fans shouldn’t expect a huge drop-off offensively from the Kingsbury era. The balanced offense was successful both on the ground and through the air, ranking among the top 31 nationally and in the top three in the Mountain West in both rushing (203.2 ypg) and passing (294.2) a year ago.
However, the biggest change for the Red Raiders could come on defense. While Texas Tech took a step back in 2018, Utah State improved nearly across the board under first-year defensive coordinator Keith Patterson, who has joined Wells at Tech. The Aggies ranked fourth in the conference in scoring defense (22.2 ppg) and third in yards allowed per play (5.0). Utah State made its biggest improvement against the run, shaving 73.38 rushing yards per game from its 2017 average to 143.0 allowed per contest. And though the Aggies allowed more passing yards last season, the defense collected 22 interceptions — the most in the nation.
2. Quarterback competition
Wells and the Aggies relied heavily on standout quarterback Jordan Love last year, and Love responded by throwing for 3,567 yards and 32 touchdowns with just six interceptions as a sophomore. As luck would have it, the Red Raiders have a talented sophomore signal-caller of their own for Wells’ first season. Alan Bowman completed an impressive 69.4 percent of his passes (only four full-time FBS starters posted a higher percentage) for 2,638 yards and 17 touchdowns with seven interceptions in eight games as a true freshman in 2018. Unfortunately, Bowman was hospitalized due to a partially collapsed lung he suffered on a hit in late September and it was an injury he re-aggravated later in the season and one that caused him miss a total of four games. Finally healthy again, he enters spring practice as the front-runner to start for Texas Tech in 2019.
But Bowman will face competition for the top spot on the depth chart. Jett Duffey also saw plenty of action in 2018 as he stepped in to start when Bowman was injured. In eight games, Duffey completed 67.5 percent of his passes for 1,221 yards and eight touchdowns with four interceptions. A more dangerous runner than Bowman, Duffey added a team-high 369 yards and four touchdowns on 79 carries. And let’s not forget about McLane Carter, who won the starting nod in the season opener against Ole Miss before an injury sidelined him and opened the door for Bowman. Carter played in five games in which he completed 54.9 percent of his passes for 318 yards and two TDs with two interceptions.
3. Building blocks on defense
Poor defense has long been a concern for Texas Tech, and after making slight progress statistically in 2017, the Red Raiders regressed last season. Tech surrendered an average of 448.9 yards of offense per game in 2018, which ranked eighth in the conference and 108th in the country. The Red Raiders allowed 5.95 yards per play (90th in the FBS), and were particularly susceptible to the pass, ranking ninth in the league and No. 129 in the country in pass defense (288.3 ypg). Texas Tech allowed 8.0 yards per pass attempt, which sat 102nd overall.
But despite those ugly results, there are reasons to be optimistic the Red Raiders can improve in 2019. Linebacker Jordyn Brooks led the team with 84 total tackles last season, and Riko Jeffers ranked third with 71 stops, giving the Red Raiders two solid, productive players in the middle of the unit. The defensive line returns several key contributors, led by Eli Howard and Broderick Washington Jr., who recorded 3.5 and 3.0 sacks, respectively, last season. And, perhaps the best of the bunch, Adrian Frye, returns in a secondary that must replace three seniors that ranked among the top 12 on the team in tackles. Frye earned Freshman All-American consideration last season when he recorded 21 tackles and five interceptions, one of which he returned for a touchdown.
4. The offensive line
And speaking of building blocks, the Red Raiders have an experienced group of offensive linemen that should help ease the transition to the new system. Terence Steele (37 career starts), Madison Akamnonu (27), Jack Anderson (25), and Travis Bruffy (21) give Texas Tech something only one other Big 12 squad (Iowa State) has: four returning linemen with more than 20 career starts under their belts. Add in part-time starters Bailey Smith (3) and Dawson Deaton (2), and the Red Raiders return more starts than any other O-line in the conference.
Experience doesn’t equate to excellence, but the Red Raiders performed well as a pass-blocking unit last season. Tech surrendered 25.0 sacks last season, which ranked third in the Big 12. And with Steve Farmer following Wells to Lubbock as offensive line coach, there’s a great chance that success will continue. Utah State ranked fourth nationally in sacks allowed per game (0.77) last season, and the Aggies allowed a total of 10 sacks all year, which tied for the fourth fewest in the country, in 465 pass attempts. In other words, the Utah State offensive line allowed a sack every 47.5 pass plays (attempts plus sacks) for a sack percent rate of only 2.1. Only Florida International allowed a lower sack percentage (2.04 percent) last season. Texas Tech surrendered sacks on 4.46 percent of its pass plays — or one sack every 22.4 opportunities.
5. The running game
Though the Red Raiders kept their quarterbacks upright relatively well a year ago, the offensive line has a lot of work to do to turn Tech into a consistent running threat. Texas Tech ranked ninth in the Big 12 and 113th nationally with an average of 3.64 yards per carry, and the Red Raiders averaged a meager 132.6 rushing yards per contest (109th in the FBS). A quarterback (Duffey) led the team in rushing, though running backs Da’Leon Ward and Ta’Zhawn Henry were close behind with 341 yards apiece. Henry scored eight times on the ground to lead the team with Ward adding three TDs.
We can expect both ball carriers to see a heavier workload — and better numbers — in 2019. Utah State averaged 5.5 yards per rushing attempt last season and the Aggies totaled 37 rushing touchdowns, both of which led the Mountain West and ranked among the top 15 in the country. Running backs Darwin Thompson and Gerold Bright split carries in 2018 with terrific results, notching a combined 1,932 rushing yards and 24 TDs on the ground while averaging a collective 6.57 yards per attempt.
(Top photo courtesy of texastech.com)