Spring practice for the Texas Tech defense may as well be spring training for a high school baseball team.
Always watching, new defensive coordinator David Gibbs is telling his players to keep their eye on the ball. Or more specifically the quarterback and when and where the ball is going.
A defender might break up a pass or get a takeaway, but if his eyes aren’t where Gibbs wants them to be, he’ll hear it.
“If your eyes aren’t in the right spot as you go through a progression, even if you make a play, he won’t be happy because it isn’t the way he teaches it,” safety J.J. Gaines said.
Texas Tech’s defense needs more than just eyes on the ball. The Red Raiders need their hands on the ball.
That’s why Gibbs is here. Texas Tech had only 15 takeaways last season, 18 the year before and 13 before that. The Red Raiders defense hasn’t had more than 20 takeaways in a season since 2010.
At one point, Texas Tech went 16 consecutive games without a positive turnover margin and 12 consecutive games in the red. Obviously, there’s an offensive component to all this, but in those 16 games, Texas Tech’s defense forced only 18 turnovers. Texas Tech went 5-11 overall and 2-10 in the Big 12 in those 16 games.
Listen to the Cover 2 Podcast: Early 2015 Big 12 Preview
Meanwhile, on the other side of the state, Houston was racking up turnovers at a near-record pace. The Cougars had twice as many takeaways as Texas Tech in 2014. They’ve had more takeaways in the last two seasons (73) than Texas Tech had in their last four (66).
If for no other reason than the stat sheet, Texas Tech coach Kliff Kingsbury had to give Houston’s defensive coordinator, Gibbs, a look. Whatever approach Gibbs brought to Houston, Texas Tech needs some of that magic touch if the Red Raiders are going to reverse their momentum.
“I don’t have any miracle answers,” Gibbs said. “Just because it worked at Houston doesn’t mean it’s going work here. But I also believe in the system that we’ve put in.”
Perhaps this is basic, but Gibbs is focusing on eye discipline to boost Texas Tech’s dismal turnover numbers. For a team that has the fewest takeaways in the Big 12 in the last three seasons (40), Gibbs has to start with the basics.
“We’re built on more pressure and keeping eyes on the quarterback and when the ball is thrown, where the ball is thrown, it allows you to have more guys breaking on the ball,” Gibbs said.
The 47-year-old Gibbs is well-traveled. He’s coached defensive backs for three different NFL teams and has been a coordinator at Minnesota and Auburn.
His 2013 season at Houston was something of a breakout. Houston forced 43 turnovers, eight more than any other team in the country that year. The Cougars also averaged nearly a plus-2 turnover margin per game (plus-1.92).
How did Houston thrive on turnovers? Some of it was certainly ability and coaching. The Cougars were also a statistical anomaly.
According to Football Study Hall, teams recover roughly 50 percent of all fumbles and intercept 22 percent of passes defended (interceptions plus pass breakups).
The 2013 Houston defense recovered 69.3 percent of fumbles and intercepted 31.3 percent of defending passes. Combined with the offense’s good fortune, Houston “nearly broke the system,” Football Study Hall’s Bill Connelly wrote.
In other words, Houston was lucky. But there’s something to be said about being at the right place at the right time.
“I believe you ask a basketball coach if you believe that his team got outhustled or outrebounded or watch a basketball game and one team always gets the loose balls, what’s the difference between a loose ball in basketball than a fumble in football? It’s hustle,” Gibbs said. “It’s guys running to the football. It’s a combination of things. Is it luck? Yeah, it’s luck.”
As much as Gibbs needs to reverse Tech’s turnover trend, he needs to repair a dismal run defense. The Red Raiders allowed a Big 12-worst 259.5 rushing yards per game and allowed 5.2 yards per carry, the eighth-worst average in the league.
Opponents weren’t afraid to average 50 carries per game against the Red Raiders because they knew Tech couldn’t do anything to stop it.
Defensive line has been a major issue, and Texas Tech is counting on a true freshman, Breiden Fehoko, to be an impact player. The linebackers are short on experience as well.
Perhaps some of the youth might be a good thing. Gibbs is the fifth person to coordinate the defense since Ruffin McNeill left before the 2010 season.
In many ways, all the ingredients of a disorganized defense were present in Lubbock in recent years.
Gibbs is another new face, so where might he succeed where others have not? If Gibbs can get everyone in the right place at the right time, he’ll have a fighting chance to turn around the Red Raiders’ defense.
“That’s what happens on these bad defenses,” Gibbs said. “You got guys trying to do too much and then all heck breaks loose. I see it on good defenses. But the good defenses have good players behind the players making the mistakes. The problem at some of these places is that you don’t have the erasers. I’m not saying they were doing it last year, but they’re not going to do it this year.”