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Texas Tech Football: Red Raiders' 2020 Spring Preview

Texas Tech Football: Red Raiders' 2020 Spring Preview

Texas Tech Football: Red Raiders' 2020 Spring Preview

The Texas Tech Red Raiders suffered high highs and low lows in 2019, which ranged from a 45-35 victory over then-No. 21 Oklahoma State to an unbelievable ending in a 37-34 loss to Kansas. The Red Raiders lost six of their final seven games last season, which included a double-overtime loss to Baylor in Waco and home losses to TCU and Kansas State in November — all by a margin of three points or fewer.

When all was said and done, Texas Tech finished the 2019 season 4-8 overall, with a 2-7 mark in Big 12 play, and failed to qualify for a bowl game for the second consecutive season. Yet the only conference rivals to beat the Red Raiders by more than 10 points were Oklahoma and Texas.

As the Red Raiders look ahead to the 2020 season, and the opener at UTEP in El Paso, head coach Matt Wells and his squad are surely focused on turning close losses into wins. And as the Red Raiders take the next step in that process, we explore five storylines to watch during spring practice.

5 Storylines to Watch During Texas Tech’s Spring Practice

1. Quarterback Alan Bowman

Bowman became Texas Tech's starting quarterback in the second game of his true freshman season, but in his first two years with the Red Raiders, Bowman has started just 10 times because of a series of injuries. Over that span, Jett Duffey started 11 games, including nine last year. But Duffey is no longer with the Texas Tech program, which leaves Bowman as the only experienced quarterback for the Red Raiders.

Bowman played in three games last year before suffering a season-ending shoulder injury, which preserved his redshirt. The sophomore completed 65.6 percent of his passes for 1,020 yards and six touchdowns with three interceptions. He averaged 6.6 yards per pass attempt, which would have ranked ninth in the Big 12 had he qualified for the conference leaderboard, and was 1.1 yards fewer than Duffey, who ranked No. 7 in the league and 48th in the nation in the category. As a true freshman in 2018 for former Texas Tech now Arizona Cardinals head coach Kliff Kingsbury, Bowman completed 69.4 percent of his passes for 2,638 yards and 17 touchdowns with seven interceptions, while averaging 8.1 yards per attempt across eight games.

2. Consistency in the receiving corps

Texas Tech had a long list of players involved in the passing game in 2019. Overall, 12 Red Raiders caught at least 10 passes, and nine are expected to return in 2020. However, no one emerged as the go-to playmaker as RJ Turner led the team with 45 receptions, Erik Ezukanma led with 664 yards, T.J. Vasher’s six touchdowns were best, and Xavier White paced the unit with an average of 15.9 yards per reception.

Turner, the grad transfer from ULM, and tight end Donta Thompson, who caught 26 passes for 311 yards, have departed. That means Ezukanma, Vasher, White (who missed the final eight games due to injury), Dalton Rigdon (sidelined for the final two), KeSean Carter, and McLane Mannix all could be in line for a heavier workload in 2020.

It would be best if someone (Ezukanman or Vasher most likely) emerged as a true No. 1 receiver. Ezukanma blossomed in November and caught seven passes for 135 yards and a touchdown in the season finale against Texas. Vasher has flashed huge potential throughout his career, and the 6-foot-6 wideout recorded his third career 100-yard performance against Oklahoma State, but he has also been inconsistent and was suspended for two games in November for a violation of team rules.

Carter, a track star with incredible speed, also broke out against the Longhorns, hauling in 11 passes for 150 yards (nearly half his season total of 303) and a touchdown. Mannix caught 26 passes for 248 yards and three touchdowns in his first season with Tech following a transfer from Nevada. White posted 107 yards in his debut against Montana State but accounted for just 55 receiving yards across the next three games before he was lost for the year.

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3. New-look offensive line

Texas Tech entered 2019 with one of the most experienced offensive lines in the country, and the Red Raiders played like it. Tech ranked first in the conference and eighth nationally with a 91.92 O-Line Performance Rating, according to CFB Winning Edge. The Red Raiders were especially adept keeping pressure off of Duffey (though Duffey's athleticism also played a role), as Tech ranked No. 8 nationally with a 3.4 percent sack rate.

This year, Texas Tech must replace three full-time starters on the offensive line. Tackles Terence Steele and Travis Bruffy and guard Madison Akamnonu are all out of eligibility, and the trio leaves Lubbock with 129 career starts among them. Those who remain have combined to start 53 games. Guard Jack Anderson, who missed the final eight games of the season due to injury, accounts for more than half that total (28). Center Dawson Deaton (14 starts) accounts for more than a quarter.

Anderson will likely slide back into his starting job at right guard, or he could play on the left side with Weston Wright continuing in the role. Zach Adams and Casey Verhulst appear to have the inside track at left and right tackle, respectively, though Trevor Roberson and Landon Peterson are sure to be in the mix as well. Freshmen Caleb Rogers, Larry Moore and massive (6-8, 325) Ethan Carde could challenge for playing time in fall camp.

4. Replacing Jordyn Brooks at Linebacker

The Texas Tech defense was the worst in the Big 12 and one of the worst in the country last year, statistically speaking. The Red Raiders allowed 480.3 yards per game, which ranked No. 127 nationally — worst among Power 5 units. And though that number might be slightly inflated by Tech's fast-paced offense, the Red Raiders allowed 6.6 yards per play, which ranked 119th in the country, and was better than only Washington State and UCLA among the P5.

Nevertheless, Brooks was one of the most productive defensive players in the Big 12 at linebacker, and replacing him will be a top priority for Tech in 2020. Brooks led the team with 108 total tackles and ranked second in the conference with an average of 9.82 stops per game. He was one of just six defenders nationally, and the only among Big 12 defenses, to record 20.0 tackles for a loss, and he ranked second among all FBS players with an average of 1.8 TFLs per game. Though Brooks only recorded 3.0 sacks as a senior, he was credited with 12 QB hurries, which led the team.

Fellow starters Riko Jeffers, who ranked second on the unit with 76 total tackles, and Xavier Benson, who ranked fourth with 57, are back. Former safety Adam Beck has four career starts to his credit, and is the front-runner to move into a full-time starting role in 2020, particularly after the medical retirement of Evan Rambo, who was limited to six games in his only season with the Red Raiders following a transfer from Cal. Krishon Merriweather, a 2020 signee from Garden City (Kan.) Community College who earned second-team NJCAA All-American honors in 2020, should also be in the mix.

5. Limiting big plays

Defensive coordinator Keith Patterson has an aggressive philosophy as a play-caller. In some instances, that's highly advantageous for a defense, as Tech's 14 interceptions last season were good for third in the conference. But sometimes, over-aggressiveness can lead to a defense getting burned for big plays — something that happened far too often for the Red Raiders in 2019.

Of the 403 pass attempts Tech’s opponents attempted last year, 35 gained 30 or more yards. At 8.7 percent, the Red Raiders allowed the highest rate of explosive pass plays in the country. The lack of a consistent pass rush hurt (Tech ranked seventh in the conference and No. 80 overall with 24 sacks as a unit in 2019), as did an inability to knock down passes (the Red Raiders ranked last in the Big 12 and No. 124 with just 30 pass breakups). The good news? Texas Tech is experienced in the secondary and welcomes back three starters, including cornerbacks DaMarcus Fields and Zech McPhearson.

— Written by Nicholas Ian Allen, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and managing editor of CFB Winning Edge. Follow him on Twitter @NicholasIAllen.