Texas Tech made big strides in several areas in 2015 — most importantly in the win column. After suffering a 4-8 season in head coach Kliff Kingsbury's second season in 2014, the Red Raiders won four games in Big 12 play last year and finished 7-6 overall following a loss to LSU in the Texas Bowl.
As usual, the offense carried the way. Patrick Mahomes is one of the best quarterbacks in the Big 12, and has thrown for more than 6,200 yards and 52 touchdowns across his freshman and sophomore seasons. In 2015, Mahomes led the conference in passing yards (4,653, the best total in the Big 12 since 2011) and tied Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield with 36 touchdown passes. Mahomes also was tops in total offense with 5,109 yards, nearly 1,000 more than No. 2 Trevone Boykin.
Of course, Mahomes can't win games all by himself, and the Red Raiders must replace several key playmakers on offense and improve a defense that was one of the worst in the country. With spring practice underway, we take a look at what it will take for Kingsbury and Mahomes to lead Tech to a second straight bowl game.
5 Storylines to Watch in Texas Tech’s Spring Practice
1. Rebuilding the Defensive Line
Defensive coordinator David Gibbs returns for his second season, but three assistants were dismissed following a dreadful statistical performance in 2015. Texas Tech allowed 280.5 rushing yards per game last season, which was the worst in the Big 12 and No. 127 out of 128 FBS programs. The Red Raiders allowed 547.7 total yards per game last year. The only program to allow more was fellow Big 12 member Kansas.
However, despite the embarrassing results a season ago, there are some building blocks in place. Breiden Fehoko, an Honorable Mention All-Big 12 defensive tackle who started all 13 games as a true freshman last season, is the best and most experienced player returning on the defensive line. In fact, with the loss of Brandon Jackson and Pete Robertson, Zach Barnes and Gary Moore are the only others with any starting experience among returners.
The defensive line should benefit from seven newcomers, including transfers Kolin Hill (who could help at end or linebacker) and Ondre Pipkins, as well as junior college signee Mychealon Thomas. The competition will be fierce for a spot in the rotation up front, and is likely to continue well into the fall.
2. Building Upon the Secondary
The secondary is the strength of this defense. Last season, the Red Raiders forced 25 turnovers, including 15 interceptions. Only West Virginia, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State picked off more passes among Big 12 rivals.
Jah'Shawn Johnson had a good freshman season, with 85 total tackles, 4.5 tackles for a loss, two forced fumbles and four fumble recoveries, and should be one of the team's best defenders next season. Johnson, Nigel Bethel II, Keenon Ward and Tevin Madison all have potential, and form a solid foundation to build upon.
3. Replacing Jakeem Grant
Grant left Lubbock as the school's all-time leading receiver, which is quite an accomplishment given the amount of yardage the Red Raiders have piled up over the years. Last season alone, Grant caught 90 passes (which led the Big 12) for 1,268 yards and 10 touchdowns. He also was a major contributor as a return man, which helped him place among the top four players in the nation in all-purpose yardage.
Devin Lauderdale (43 rec., 639 yds., 4 TDs) is facing an indefinite suspension, which means Ian Sadler (43-596-3) leads the returners this spring. Derrick Willies signed with the Red Raiders as one of the most highly sought-after junior college prospects in the most recent class. At 6-foot-2 and 210 pounds, Willies is built much more like Michael Crabtree than Grant - but only time will tell whether or not he will have the type of impact Crabtree or Grant did for Texas Tech.
Either way, Willies and fellow newcomers De'Quan Bowman and T.J. Vasher, as well as a healthy Dylan Cantrell, should provide Mahomes with plenty of weapons.
4. Revamp the Running Game
If you weren't paying close attention to Texas Tech last season, you may have missed the fact that running back DeAndre Washington had an All-Big 12 senior season. You also may have missed Washington becoming the first Tech player to rush for more than 1,000 yards in a season twice since Byron Hanspard (1995-96). Washington was actually No. 2 in the Big 12 with 1,492 rushing yards and 14 touchdowns last year, and led the conference with 1,877 yards from scrimmage.
Justin Stockton appears to have the inside track to replace Washington after rushing for 367 yards and five touchdowns last year (plus 341 receiving yards and six scores), but it will likely be a three-man competition and a committee approach is a possibility. Demarcus Felton showed big-play ability with a 53-yard touchdown run against Iowa State last season, but he had just seven total carries. Corey Dauphine also will be in the mix.
5. Rebuilding the Offensive Line
Texas Tech is one of several Big 12 teams that must overhaul its offensive line. Two-time all-conference honoree Le'Raven Clark, who was a four-year starter, including a three at left tackle, will be the toughest to replace. But his spot it just one of three up for grabs this spring.
Baylen Brown has made 23 starts for the Red Raiders, but Tony Morales (six career starts) and Justin Murphy (four) are the only returning players with any starting experience and both are coming back from injury. Conner Dyer, Madison Akamnonu, Poet Thomas and Robert Castandea also should be in the mix to see plenty of playing time this fall.
Pre-Spring Texas Tech Outlook in the Big 12
There are obviously major concerns on defense, but the Red Raiders will go as far as quarterback Patrick Mahomes takes them. Now that Davis Webb has left for Colorado, it would be up to either Iowa transfer Nic Shimonek or early enrollee true freshman Jett Duffey to step up should something happen to Mahomes, and the drop off would be significant.
As long as the reworked offensive line can keep Mahomes healthy (he scrambles regularly and is Tech's leading returning rusher with 456 yards and 10 TDs), the Red Raiders should put up a ton of points, and should make it back-to-back bowl games for the first time under head coach Kliff Kingsbury. However, until we see significant improvement on defense, Tech won't challenge for a Big 12 title.
— Written by Nicholas Ian Allen, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Allen's work can also be found on SaturdayDownSouth.com, SaturdayBlitz.com and FanSided.com. Follow him on Twitter @NicholasIAllen.