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Texas Tech Seeks a Defensive Resurgence in 2017

With the strength of last year’s Texas Tech offense headed to the NFL, the Red Raiders will need improvement from their defense in 2017.

Getty Images - John Weast

Texas Tech missed bowl eligibility by narrow margins in 2016. Though, expectations were much higher given the presence of a Top 10 NFL draftee at quarterback. Patrick Mahomes II did his part, but unfortunately, he was not able to play defense as well. The defense was porous, which has been a trend for longer than Red Raider Nation would like to admit.

Tech was painfully close to establishing a very solid season. The margin for error in the Big 12 is small and Tech’s defensive play was not enough to break through in those three pivotal games. However, in six games that can fairly be characterized as “shootouts”, Tech managed just 1 win.

The traditional formula for beating Tech was employed most effectively, and most surprisingly, by Iowa State. That formula involves pressure on the quarterback, and a physical offense that either limits possessions by Tech or results in touchdowns and points on the board.

Historically, Tech thrives at forcing scoring contests and relies on out pacing the production of opposing offenses. In order to be successful, they only need create a two-score margin and achieve a minimal amount of defensive stops or turnovers. Yet, in the shootouts they created in 2016, they were only successful one time.

With a few questions on offense, the Red Raiders are going to have to rely more on defense than they have in the past.

So What About That Defense?

Let’s get the defensive conversation out of the way. Texas Tech spent the spring concentrating on defense and most of their talk was about the improvement on that side of the ball.

On the positive side, the secondary should be improved, and barring another rash of injuries, the best players should be on the field most of the season. A third year under the same defensive coordinator will provide more familiarity and a greater basis for judging whether there is hope for improvement under the current coaching regime. On the negative side, the front seven is weak and will need to show marked improvement in order to apply pressure and prevent the secondary from being reached in the running game.

Ultimately, the Tech defense does not have to be a top 50 unit. They simply need to raise their output marginally. That increased production needs to come in two areas.

The first area is third downs created. The Red Raiders gave up the most first downs per game to opponents in the Big 12 (27/game). Red Raider opponents only faced 164 third downs, last in the Big 12. That means that opponents moved down the field achieving first downs without having to face many third down opportunities.

Second, Tech only gained 13 turnovers on the season. Tech will turn the ball over based on their style of offense, therefore, it is critical that they create turnovers. Turnovers are not predictable, nor are they easy to create. Pressure and scheme deception have the highest correlation with turnover creation. It will be critical that Tech employ some combination of those two to create additional turnovers in 2017.

If Texas Tech can employ scheme changes and stabilize personnel that result in increasing the amount of 3rd downs faced by opponents and increased turnovers, then there is likely to be enough offensive efficiency to flip the score in the inevitable shootout games.

Help the Defense

This is a creative way to say — run the ball. Kliff Kingsbury doesn’t want to run the ball and the offensive line was not cooperative in opening holes. I do not expect Kingsbury to decide to run the ball more, which may be his undoing.

But, I wanted to point on one game in the 2016 schedule. The TCU game. Tech won 27-24 in overtime on the road. TCU played coverage by dropping eight on almost every play. It was effective and stymied the Red Raiders attack for much of the game. In the second half, Tech smartly began to run the ball. This jump started the offense and led to a comeback victory.

It was an easy adjustment to make, though Tech was slow to make it. It was a case of take what they are giving you. Ward was very effective as a physical runner once the adjustment was made.

It is also important to note that the pace of the game was slowed and the defense benefited from the additional rest and seemed to feed off of the physical nature of the game. I don’t believe that Tech has to abandon its offensive principles to help its defense with a more physical approach on offense. Instead, Tech needs to recognize when opportunities are given to them and call plays that are dictated.

If Kingsbury can show a tendency to exploit soft defensive schemes with a physical run game, then opponents will tend to adjust to the more traditional alignments that are vulnerable to his air raid attack. This isn’t a call to run the ball to a level the team is not designed for, instead, it is a call to stop forcing the ball through the air and take advantage of the opportunities that teams provide. Use the TCU game as a blueprint and build a team that is even more difficult to defense.

QB Efficiency

The third key to an increased win total is replacing Mahomes. In my opinion, Tech relied too heavily on Mahomes ability to create and improvise. He could overcome his poor decision-making with an other worldly arm, but too often the team couldn’t overcome his mistakes and tendency to put the defense in a bad position.

This year the likely starter is Nic Shimonek. In limited duty, Shimonek performed admirably in 2016. He does not have the same improvisational skill as his predecessor, but he is capable of running the offense efficiently. If Shimonek turns out to be the starter, I cannot see a reason why the Tech offense should drop off in any measurable capacity.

Shimonek reminds me of Kingsbury as a player. He has a bit better arm strength, but has a lot of confidence and time in the system. Needless to say, with the defensive struggles for Tech, Shimonek will have to be able to command the offense efficiently to give Tech a chance to return to the bowl picture.

Will Kingsbury Save His Job?

It is widely assumed that a repeat performance of 2016 will cost Kliff Kingsbury his job. That inevitability was more prominent last week as the presumed successor is the now Oklahoma head man, Lincoln Riley.

Even with Riley off the board, there are a number of solid candidates that are well suited to the Tech job, though I suspect many would like to see Kingsbury succeed.

I don’t know if Kingsbury has that it in him to make the adjustments that are needed. The rash of decommitments and transfers is concerning. The turnover, prior to this year, in the defensive coaching staff is disconcerting as well. There appears to be a reliance on his superior capability as opposed to a more patient, analytical approach.

Tech has a very difficult schedule in my opinion. Pre-season games against a troublesome Arizona State and a solid Houston are not an ideal way to break in a new QB. The likely season-making stretch is late in the year where Tech faces Kansas State, Baylor, and TCU. Two of those games are at home and Baylor is a neutral site contest. None of those are easy victories, but all are attainable.

If Tech is able to create more turnovers and 3rd downs, adjust to a new QB, and take advantage of opportunities in the running game, they will in a position to extend Kingsbury’s stay and establish themselves at the top of the 2nd tier of the Big 12. If not, then we will likely be introduced to a new coach for the 2018 season.

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