Something unique is playing out this season at Texas Tech, and it’s not something that the Red Raiders are particularly proud of. The offense is currently having a prolific season averaging over 45 points and almost 581 yards per game. Okay, they should be proud of that. However as good as that is, it’s the other side of the ball that’s becoming famous; albeit for all the wrong reasons.
The defense is currently having a historically bad season. Opponents are averaging 42.2 points and over 560 yards per game, which would represent a couple of dubious school records.
With an offense currently ranked fourth in the country, and a defense ranked 126th, the Red Raiders are about as Dr. Jekyll and Mr Hyde as it gets. Currently the 122-spot difference between the two rankings would also be a record in the FBS.
To understand how Texas Tech arrived here defensively requires an understanding of the team’s history, current season, and recruiting.
The Recent History Of The Defense
While the Red Raiders have a proud lineage of great defensive players, the school has never been known for having a great defense.
For the last 15 years the narrative regarding Texas Tech football has been that Mike Leach showed up, installed his Air Raid offense, and dropped any pretense of having a defensive identity. The reality is that defensive production under Mike Leach was similar to what it was under Spike Dykes. In the 13 years that Dykes roamed the sidelines in Lubbock the defense gave up an average of 24.6 points per game. In Leach’s 10 season as the head coach the defense surrendered 25.5 points per game, which represents less than a 1 point per game difference. In the last 40 years Texas Tech has had one top 25 scoring defense, which came under Leach in 2005.
The real drop off came when Tommy Tuberville (ironically, a defensive minded coach) was brought in after Leach’s dismissal. In the season following the Red Raiders gave up 30.9 points per game which was an increase of more than a touchdown per game at a 8.4 point average. That’s a huge increase!
The Red Raider defense had not surrendered an average point total on defense that high in the previous six seasons. Under Tuberville the defense would flounder giving up an average of 34 points per game during his tenure.
The arrival of Kliff Kingsbury was met with a large amount of fanfare, as Kingsbury grew up in the Mike Leach system. The Red Raider faithful were promptly rewarded with an 8-4 season that was capped off with a win in the Holiday Bowl over a ranked Arizona State team.
The winning record covered over the fact that the Red Raiders had given up 30.5 points per game that season, which ranked 88th in FBS. The high-octane offense was back, and kept the winning going by averaging 35.8 points per game.
The defense hasn’t been as quick to return. Last season set the low mark for the program when they gave up 41.3 points and 513 yards per game, which made them the 123rd ranked scoring defense in the country.
It’s no coincidence that during this run of historically bad defense, the Red Raider’s have lacked any consistency at the defensive coordinator position. The position has rotated between eight different coaches since 2007.
The rotation started mid way through the 2007 season when Tech lost to Oklahoma State 45-49 after giving up 610 yards in the game. The week after defensive coordinator Lyle Setencich resigned. The remainder of the 2007 season through the 2009 season Ruffin McNeal held the position, during McNeal’s tenure the defense had its best run of the last several years by only yielded an average of 25 points per game.
It’s when Tuberville arrived as head coach the string of one and done defensive coordinators started, and is still going through this season.
The 2015 Season
As I said above, this year’s defense in on pace to supplant last year’s defense as the worst in Texas Tech history. Through ten games the Red Raiders defense has given up between 414 yards and 750 yards each game. To put that into perspective, the low of 414 would rank 80th in total defense if it were the average. Furthermore the defense has surrendered 600 yards or more against five teams thus far this season, which is half of the opponents they’ve faced. In each of those games they’ve also given up 45 points or more.
So how did it get so bad? The problems for this defense start up front, and were created prior to this season with a lack of depth, and an a tougher than expected schedule. Not a great combination.
The 2015 defensive line rotation is primarily made of up seven players including a true freshman, two sophomores, one of whom is a 235 pound converted wide receiver, and the other is a former two-star outside linebacker. The remaining four players are all seniors, although three are junior college transfers who haven’t quite lived up to expectations. It no surprise that the most tenured player, Branden Jackson, is leading the line with 25 tackles, which accounts for 30% of the lines overall tackling production.
When the 2015 Texas Tech football schedule was posted most fans looked at the three-game stretch of Arkansas, TCU, and Baylor as the toughest part of the schedule, although there was one other thing that caught a few people’s eye: from Labor Day until the weekend before Thanksgiving, the Red Raiders play 11 straight games with no bye week. That’s a brutal stretch for a unit short on depth.
Through the first nine games of the schedule, the Red Raiders have played teams that have had at played one less game than they have. For two of the remaining three games, they will play games against teams that have played two fewer games. Simply put, their opponents are just fresher than they are. The last few games the entire team has been able to keep up with opponents for the first half, but once the second half arrives the team looks to be a step slower with the fatigue growing throughout the remainder of the game. Take the game against Oklahoma State for example. The Raiders held a 17-point lead through much of the first half, but the Cowboys went on to win by 17 behind a 42-point second half performance.
The weakness of the defensive line, and the cumulative effect of playing more games, is made worse by the fact that the Red Raiders rotate through fewer defensive lineman than any other team in the Big 12. Texas Tech’s regular rotation of seven players is tied for the fewest number of defensive lineman in rotation.
The chart points to a few problems. First, Texas Tech’s defensive line produces the fewest tackles as a percentage of total team tackles in the Big 12. At 13 percent, the defensive lines production is almost anemic, and it’s about 50 percent less than the Big 12 average. Second, In terms of tackles per game, the defensive line produces around nine tackles a game, which is three fewer than the next closest team.
Part of the production problems are the result of being inexperienced, constant turnover in leadership, but also, just not being very good.
Also hurting the Red Raiders though, is their defensive line has played more snaps per game than any other team in the conference, and it’s not even close. With an average of 82.2 snaps a game, the defense is on the field an additional 6.4 snaps per game than the average Big 12 team. Combine that with being ahead of the rest of the conference in games played, and short on line depth, and seven players who rotate through average a total of 117.4 snaps this season. That’s nearly double that of other lines in the conference. Now, the average assumes the entire defensive line is playing the same number of snaps, which isn’t likely. However it is useful when considering how many snaps the entire unit has taken part in, and when taking everything into consideration, the Red Raiders defensive line has seen around 63.5% more game action than the average Big 12 line.
The disparity only continues going forward. In their remaining three games the Red Raiders will face opponents whose defensive lineman have seen around 29%, 30%, and 44% fewer snaps in West Virginia, Kansas State, and Texas respectively.
Recruiting Failure Has Lead To Lack Of Depth
College football is unique because when a new head coach arrives they essentially have to take stock of what the previous coach left and decide how best to use what’s there and how to fill any gaps they find. In hindsight, it appears that poor planning, recruiting execution, and attrition led to this mess. Chalk it up to Kingsbury being an extremely young first-time head coach, but there is no doubt they failed to pull in the recruits needed to replace players leaving on the defensive side of the ball.
When Tommy Tuberville left the Raiders had plenty of talent on both sides of the ball. In fact on the team is still relying on several recruits from Tuberville’s last two recruiting classes including OT Le’Raven Clark, WR Jakeem Grant, RB DeAndre Washington, DB J.J. Gaines, DE Branden Jackson, LB Micah Awe, WR Reggie Davis, C Jared Kaster, DB Thierry Nguema and DB Keenon Ward. Those are the ten most recognizable names from a list of 17 players that remain from Tuberville’s days at the helm.
When Kingsbury took over the program in December of 2012, he and the staff had their work cut out for them trying to retain the commits who hadn’t already de-committed and finding suitable replacements for the players who didn’t stick around. Furthermore, after the 2013 season, the Red Raiders lost four senior defensive lineman. Kingsbury turned to the JUCO ranks to fill the holes with four transfers. Three of those four transfers still remain on the roster, however they’ve added a total of just 23 tackles to date which only out paces 2015 four-star defensive tackle signee Braiden Fehoko by six tackles. To say that the 2014 signings haven’t produced at the expected level would be a huge understatement.
Things are looking up though. This spring the Red Raiders signed the aforementioned Fehoko, who could be the Red Raiders biggest recruiting grab ever, and they also signed defensive end Lonzell Gilmore, and guard Broderick Washington. Fehoko has played in all of the Red Raiders games so far this season, and has the second-most tackles on the defensive line. The team was also able to pull in a senior transfer from Michigan in Ondre Pipkins, and he will be available next season. Also, the 2016 recruiting class, which won’t sign until early February, currently has eight defensive line commits including a junior college transfer.
Next year’s line will be full of first-time starters, converted offensive players, transfers, and of course, Fehoko. So, a quick turnaround is unlikely, but Kingsbury and staff seem committed to fixing their depth issues.
It’s hard to see any silver linings for the Texas Tech defense being anything other than bad for the rest of this season, and possibly for a another season to come. However, take heart Red Raider fans, because there is hope. The schedule lets up significantly down the stretch, and if the offense continues to score and chew up yards at the rate that it has, they’ll have a chance in each of the remaining games.
It’s been a rough start, but this program is headed in the right direction under Kliff Kingsbury. The only other program to experience the kind of offensive and defensive disparity the Red Raiders have this year is Baylor. In 2011 and 2012 Baylor had the fourth and fifth best scoring offenses in the country to go along with the 113th ranked scoring defense in each of those years. The Bears seemed to have worked it out, and with new defensive coordinator David Gibbs the Red Raiders have a chance to duplicate Baylor’s success.
In a recent press conference Gibbs was asked about what he was most disappointed in other than the losses.
“You know, obviously the run defense.” Gibbs said. “Never had a problem with run defense in my history. You know, the crazy thing is we are playing run defenses. I know when you’re sitting there watching the game and you’re watching it on TV and everybody is like, why don’t you put 10 guys in the box. You have to gap out, you have to be sound, you have to do things if you’re going to improve. If you’re going to be some rat-trap guy, go blitz every snap, that’s fine and dandy, too, but I’m trying to build something. Obviously it’s taking some time. We’ve played some really good teams, some teams that obviously you watch them come out on the field and you watch us, and it’s not the same. So we’ve got to do a better job recruiting, got to do a better job coaching, and the players got to do a better job playing.”
It’s been awhile since a defensive coordinator has talked about building anything in Lubbock this late in a season. As Gibbs stated, it’ll take time, recruiting, coaching, and effort on the player’s part to get this defense turned around. With recruits on the way and a defensive staff that appears to be in it for the long haul, the Red Raiders might just surprise a few people in the seasons to come. For the remainder of this season though, they just have to be good enough to give the offense a chance to win.