Despite the optimism entering the season, the Texas Tech Red Raiders failed to qualify for a bowl game for the second time in three years and sat at home this winter with a 5-7 record.
Simply put, it was the same old story in Lubbock. Head coach Kliff Kingsbury’s offense lit up the scoreboard with a high-octane passing attack, but the defense couldn’t make enough stops. Case in point: the Red Raiders lost three games in which they scored at least 44 points, including a 68-55 loss to Arizona State and a 66-59 loss to Oklahoma.
As the Red Raiders open spring practice March 4, and prepare for the spring game at The Star, the Dallas Cowboys’ new headquarters and practice facility in Frisco, on April 1, we take a look at five storylines to watch as the program takes aim at getting back to a bowl game.
Podcast: The 2017 Big 12 Primer
5 Storylines to Watch During Texas Tech’s Spring Practice
1. Replacing QB Patrick Mahomes
It’s never easy to replace a player as productive as Mahomes, who guided Texas Tech’s offense to 566.6 total yards of offense and 463.0 passing yards per game last season – both of which led the nation. The Red Raiders also scored 43.7 points per contest, which ranked fifth in the FBS.
Mahomes was tops in the nation with 5,025 passing yards and he finished third with 41 touchdown passes. A superb athlete, he also ran for 12 scores. He declared for the NFL Draft shortly after the season and this week is in Indianapolis taking part in the Scouting Combine looking to prove to scouts, coaches and team executives that he’s more than just a system quarterback.
Mahomes is the most talented QB to come through Lubbock in a long time, but he isn’t irreplaceable. Nic Shimonek got his feet wet last season, completing 38 of 58 (65.5 percent) of his passes for 464 yards and six touchdowns with only one interception as Mahomes’ backup. The rising senior was 15-for-21 for 271 yards and four touchdowns against Kansas in relief of an injured Mahomes in the Red Raiders’ 55-19 win. Junior college transfer McLane Carter will also be in the mix.
Shimonek and Carter will have plenty of weapons to throw to, as Texas Tech returns its top four receivers from last season. This quartet is headlined by Jonathan Giles (team-high 69 receptions, 1,158 yards, 13 TD) and also includes Derrick Willies (18-288-2), who struggled with injury in his first season with the Red Raiders. Both running back and offensive line are question marks, but this the reality is that this offense has shown an ability score points in bunches and still lose. Which brings us to…
2. Defense, Defense, Defense
Regardless of how well Shimonek plays, if the Red Raiders don’t make significant improvement on the defense, Texas Tech can’t expect better results in the win column.
The Red Raiders coughed up 554.3 yards per game last season, which was the worst in the nation by more than 30. Opponents averaged 7.05 yards per play, which ranked 126th out of 128 FBS teams. The Red Raiders allowed 315.8 passing yards per contest, and surrendered 8.6 yards per pass attempt – both of which ranked among the bottom 10 nationally.
Talented defensive lineman Breiden Fehoko left the program, which is a major blow to a unit that also has to replace starting tackle Ondre Pipkins. In total, this defense lost 40.5 percent of its tackling production to graduation, including linebacker Malik Jenkins (64.5 tackles, 2.5 tackles for a loss) and defensive back Justis Nelson (52.5 tackles, 0.5 TFL, 12 pass breakups).
There is hope that the unit can improve. Linebacker Jordyn Brooks is a bright spot that led the team with 73.5 tackles as a true freshman. Brooks also contributed five tackles for a loss, a sack and a forced fumble. Jah’Shawn Johnson also returns. Johnson was the team’s second-leading tackler and the only Red Raider with multiple interceptions.
3. Re-Tooling the Offensive Line
Because of the sheer number of passing plays the Texas Tech offense calls (the Red Raiders attempted 653 in 2016), its offensive line is going to give up a high number of sacks. Tech allowed 30 last season, an average of 2.5 per game that ranked eighth in the Big 12 and No. 95 nationally. The 4.6 percent sack rate wasn’t terrible, but there is room for improvement. Also, while the Red Raiders don’t rely heavily on the running game, a 3.2 yards per carry average, which shrunk to just 2.9 in conference play, ranks among the worst in the nation.
Terence Steele is the only returning offensive linemen who started all 12 games last season, and the 46 combined career starts among returnees is the second fewest among Big 12 teams (Iowa State). Fortunately, head coach Kliff Kingsbury has injected some talent into the unit, and early enrollee Jack Anderson headlines the newcomers that should make an impact. The highest-rated member of the 2017 recruiting class, Anderson was an Under Armour All-American with dozens of other offers.
4. Newcomer to Know
Given the state of the Texas Tech defense as a whole – and the secondary in particular – one player isn’t likely to make much of a difference. That’s why the Red Raiders added six defensive backs in the 2017 recruiting cycle, including three junior college players that are already on campus.
Among them, four-star cornerback recruit Octavious Morgan enters the spring as a favorite to earn a starting spot in the secondary. A talented, 6-foot, 200-pound cornerback with shutdown potential, Morgan recorded nine interceptions in two seasons at Butler (Kan.) Community College and scored two defensive touchdowns.
5. Make or Break for Kliff Kingsbury?
Texas Tech decision-makers surely expected better than a 24-26 overall record and zero winning seasons in Big 12 play when they tabbed the former Red Raiders quarterback to lead the program four years ago. As a result, Kingsbury enters the 2017 campaign with one of the warmest seats in the league. If Tech can’t fix its defense to the point that scoring six touchdowns in a game isn’t good enough to win, and misses a bowl game for the third time in five seasons, it is likely that Kingsbury will be fired.
Pre-Spring Outlook for Texas Tech in the Big 12
Looking around the Big 12, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State appear to be the early favorites. Texas is as talented as anyone, and Tom Herman has a great track record, but first-year head coaches are hit-and-miss. Baylor is in that boat as well with Matt Rhule, and the Bears have a ton of off-the-field distractions that could weaken their on-field performance. Kansas State has great promise, but there are questions surrounding the health of legendary head coach Bill Snyder. TCU and West Virginia have been inconsistent in recent seasons.
All in all, the Big 12 – especially in the middle of the standings – features a great deal of unknowns. There is opportunity for a team like Texas Tech to make a move. If Kliff Kingsbury and company stay explosive offensively and make strides on the defensive side of the football, the Red Raiders can finally put together a winning conference record and climb into the top half of the league standings. Of course, we’ve been saying that for years now.
— Written by Nicholas Ian Allen, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @NicholasIAllen.