There is a great deal of excitement in Lubbock this spring. The Texas Tech Red Raiders look like national championship contenders in both basketball and baseball, and the football program enters spring practice following an encouraging 2017 campaign.
Head coach Kliff Kingsbury led Tech to an upset over rival Texas in the regular season finale, which cooled his seat considerably. Nevertheless, a 38-34 loss to South Florida in the Birmingham Bowl meant the Red Raiders finished 6-7 overall (and just 3-6 in Big 12 play), which secured the first back-to-back losing seasons for the program since 1984-85.
Finding a way to replace 69 percent of the offensive production from last season, according to calculations by Bill Connelly from SBNation, is just one of the tasks facing Kingsbury and his coaching staff this spring. How big of a deal of this? Consider that’s the most lost by any team in the Big 12 and a percentage that’s topped by just three other in the entire FBS.
Of course, if there’s one team that is capable of reloading offensively, it’s Texas Tech. And given last year’s improvement on defense, the Red Raiders look like a good bet to get back to a bowl game — and hopefully for Kingsbury and the Tech faithful, a winning season.
5 Storylines to Watch During Texas Tech Spring Practice
1. Quarterback development
Departed senior Nic Shimonek threw for 3,963 yards and 33 touchdowns in his only season as the primary starter for Texas Tech. But given head coach Kliff Kingsbury’s track record for replacing quarterbacks, he and new offensive coordinator Kevin Johns should find a capable replacement. McLane Carter (above, right) wrestled the job away temporarily last season and enters spring as the favorite to start in 2018. Carter, a former junior college transfer who still has two years of eligibility remaining, saw action in four games in 2017 and started the regular season finale against Texas. He completed 23 of 46 pass attempts for 359 yards and two touchdowns with two interceptions overall, and was 16-for-37 for 237 yards and two picks against the Longhorns before being replaced by Shimonek.
Carter will compete with rising sophomore Jett Duffey, JUCO transfer Nick Gerber, sophomore Colt Garrett and true freshman Alan Bowman, who is already on campus and will practice this spring. Duffey completed both his pass attempts for 16 yards against FCS opponent Eastern Washington in the season opener, and added six rushing yards on four carries in his only action. Garrett played sparingly against Kansas, but did not attempt a pass.
2. Continued improvement on defense
It’s rare when posting mediocre numbers counts as a huge success for a defense. However, given the sorry state of the Texas Tech defensive unit during Kingsbury’s tenure in Lubbock, the 2017 Red Raiders showed great improvement. Thanks to experience, stability on the coaching staff and an influx of talent from the junior college ranks, Tech finished seventh in the Big 12 in total defense (443.8 ypg) and fifth in yards allowed per play (5.78), which ranked 105th and 77th in the nation, respectively. The biggest difference was against the run. After allowing 238.6 rushing yards per game in 2016, Texas Tech held opponents to 161.6 per contest last season. That resulted in a jump of 54 spots (from No. 116 to No. 62) in that category nationally. One shining example of the turnaround was the Red Raiders holding West Virginia to 44 rushing yards — the lowest total for an opponent in five years.
Overall, the improvement over a 2016 unit that ranked near the bottom of the FBS leaderboard in nearly every major defensive category, paired with the expected return of the top nine tacklers from last year’s squad (and 19 of the top 20), has generated optimism for the defense heading into 2018. Overall, 96 percent of last year’s production returns, which is more than all but one FBS team. Ten starters are expected to return and the experienced unit should be able to build on its success this spring. Throw in the turnover among Big 12 quarterbacks next season, and the Red Raiders’ defense could poised for even more success this fall.
3. Finding new offensive weapons
Texas Tech’s receiving corps featured three senior starters last season, and the fourth, junior Keke Coutee, declared early for the NFL draft after posting huge numbers. Including running back Justin Stockton, who also is out of eligibility, the Red Raiders must replace five of the top six players from last year’s squad in terms of both receptions and receiving yards.
Of course, there is still reason to be optimistic about the Tech passing game. Huge (6-6) target T.J. Vasher returns after a redshirt freshman season that saw him finish with 29 receptions for 545 yards and six touchdowns while also leading the team by averaging 18.8 yards per catch. Antoine Wesley, listed at 6-foot-5, and part-time starter Quan Shorts caught a combined 19 passes for 246 yards and two scores. Both should play bigger roles this season. JoJo Robinson, a former four-star Arkansas signee and JUCO prospect who was one of 19 transfers to join the Red Raiders in 2017, also is expected to return after seeing limited action last season.
Leading returning rusher Tre King (right) and last year’s rushing touchdown leader Desmond Nisby will compete to be the primary ball carrier. King, who split time with Stockton and gained 623 yards and scored five touchdowns, is the 190-pound lightning to Nisby’s 235-pound thunder. Nisby gained 273 yards on 62 carries and found the end zone seven times. There will be lots of new names on the depth chart, but Tech’s offense still has plenty of talent to work with, and should still put up plenty of points in 2018.
4. Improving the pass rush
The Texas Tech defense was aggressive under defensive coordinator David Gibbs, and a huge reason for its improvement was the 29 turnovers forced, which led the Big 12 and tied for sixth nationally. As a result, the Red Raiders tied the school records for takeaways and turnover margin (plus-11). However, both figures would have been better if Tech had more success rushing the passer. The Red Raiders ranked No. 118 nationally with a 2.6 percent sack rate on standard downs according to Connelly’s advanced statistics. For comparison sake, the national average is 5.3 percent. On passing downs, Texas Tech ranked 107th nationally with a 5.2 percent sack rate, compared to the 7.8 percent national average. In raw figures, the Red Raiders ranked last in the Big 12 and 109th nationally with just 18 sacks in 528 opportunities — an ugly 3.41 percent overall sack rate.
Eli Howard led the team with 5.5 sacks and 8.5 tackles for a loss last season despite not starting consistently. With Zach Barnes out of eligibility, Howard should become a fixture in the starting lineup, which could help the pass rush overall. Fellow ends Kolin Hill and Tony Jones as well as linebackers Dakota Allen and Jordyn Brooks all showed some pass-rushing talent last year and could improve in 2018. Riko Jeffers, a 6-foot-2, 245-pound linebacker who earned playing time as a true freshman, could develop into a nice option as well.
5. Newcomers to know
Texas Tech relied heavily on newcomers in 2017, including Allen, who returned to the program after a stint in junior college and emerged as a difference-maker. The 2018 squad shouldn’t have to rely as heavily on transfers. In fact, the 17-man recruiting class Kingsbury and his staff finished in February didn’t include a single JUCO player. Still, opportunities exist for some players to make an instant impact.
With the receiver position in transition, early enrollee Myller Royals should have an opportunity to compete for early playing time. The 6-foot-4, 180-pound three-star prospect from Abilene, Texas, has an ideal frame for the position. Fellow three-star signee Sterling Galban also is already on campus. Erik Ezukanma, a four-star prospect ranked among the top 50 high school wide receivers in the 247Sports Composite, arrives this summer as the jewel of the 2018 recruiting class. Ezukanma, a 6-foot-2, 183-pound playmaker, has the talent to get on the field right away.
— Written by Nicholas Ian Allen, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @NicholasIAllen.