On national signing day 2008, Texas Tech signed a small class that was destined to get smaller. The original group of 17 contained 13 high school recruits, only six of whom are still around to take part in senior day Saturday at Jones AT&T Stadium.
“It’s kind of unreal how many people come and go,” said tackle Terry McDaniel, one of the survivors from that ’08 signing day.
Just before the Red Raiders host Kansas at 11 a.m. Saturday, they’ll recognize 18 seniors. Over the years, the small core group was supplemented by seven transfers, three members of the 2009 class who never redshirted and two walk-ons.
“Of course, I don’t want to leave my teammates,” said cornerback Eugene Neboh, one of the walk-on success stories. “I love them boys. I’ve been through a lot with them. I also understand it’s getting close to that time where we get to start a new chapter in our lives as well.”
Quarterback Seth Doege, offensive linemen Deveric Gallington and McDaniel, receiver-return man Austin Zouzalik and defensive backs Cody Davis and Cornelius Douglas are the six who made it from signing day 2008 to this week’s last walk down the Jones AT&T Stadium tunnel.
Four members of the 2008 class were junior-college signees, and several others washed out of the program early. Defensive end Ryan Haliburton and running back Harrison Jeffers didn’t finish their eligibility, but stayed in school. Lineman Joe King transferred to Tulsa, where he was still in the program this year.
But the attrition that hits most college signing classes was hardly the biggest challenge faced by the 2008 group. They’d spent only three semesters on campus when Mike Leach was fired and replaced by Tommy Tuberville, turning the Tech world upside down.
“I think the senior class was very important in instituting change with the new coaching staff,” Zouzalik said, “kind of embracing it and letting it soak through everyone on the team and promoting the change that the new coaching staff brought. We’re a pretty big part of that, along with the class that graduated before us.”
This year’s fifth-year seniors were redshirt freshmen in 2009, when Leach was suspended the day the Red Raiders arrived in San Antonio for the Alamo Bowl and fired two days later. Tight end Adam James was at the center of the controversy.
“With the town being divided like it was — all this team Leach and stuff, and us being close to Adam — it was pretty tough there for a while,” Zouzalik said. “... Now everybody’s bought in. Everybody believes in the program. The culture has for sure changed around here, but I think it’s changed for the better.”
Tech has yet to approach the 29 victories it achieved in Leach’s last three seasons. Zouzalik said he thinks that will come.
“Even this season,” he said, “we’re on the cusp of something pretty big. It’s not always from a football standpoint that I say it’s changed for the better. It’s just the atmosphere and all the discipline. Accountability being preached. Everybody playing as a team. Not as many individuals. That’s really the main thing that has changed.
“We run an offense really similar to what we used to, so it hasn’t changed a whole lot for us on the field. Off the field is really where all the changes have come from.”
Over the course of five seasons in the Texas Tech program, Terry McDaniel developed a reputation for being a versatile offensive lineman. Not that he planned it that way. When he signed in 2008, McDaniel assumed he’d spend his college career playing tackle.
And he has, for the most part.
But at one time or another, he’s played every offensive line position in a game except left guard.
“I remember my sophomore year when we practiced, I would go down the line,” he said. “During first-team offense against scout-team defense, I would literally go from left tackle to left guard to center to right guard to right tackle, two plays each, so all the first-string guys had a quick breather. That was helpful to understand every position.”
The 6-foot-7 McDaniel wound up starting four games at left tackle, three at center and 18 at right tackle. Like practically any other player who stuck it out for five years, McDaniel weathered ups and downs.
As a redshirt freshman in 2009, McDaniel was making his fourth start in a row when he went down with a severe leg injury against Nebraska. He suffered a tibia plateau fracture, damage to two knee ligaments and didn’t crack the lineup again until 2011.
“Probably the toughest thing here was when I got injured against Nebraska in ’09,” he said. “That was kind of frustrating. You’ve just got to keep grinding and working every day to get through it.”
At least McDaniel was a scholarship player all the way through. Eugene Neboh, on the other hand, wasn’t placed on scholarship until the beginning of 2011, the start of his junior season. For three years, Neboh paid own his way.
“I thank my parents each and every day for me making it that far,” he said. “I’m just glad I got the scholarship for them.”
Though an all-around athlete at Odessa Permian, Neboh’s first interest wasn’t football. He passed up a scholarship offer to Notre Dame for soccer and scholarship money to Tech for track and field. He was a standout hurdler growing up in Odessa.
Eventually, that talent would yield a Big 12 cornerback with 18 career starts and counting.
But in the fall of 2008, Neboh fell into line at the back of the cornerbacks and started working his way up. The process moved slowly,
“I’m not going to lie to you,” said Neboh, a deeply religious man. “There’s times I was questioning my decision as a whole. That’s where my God comes in, where Jesus comes in. I continued to pray to him, and he showed me the way. I’m very grateful.”
The surviving members of Texas Tech’s 2008 signing class comprise such a small group they could squeeze into one household. You might say they even try to on a daily basis.
Doege and Zouzalik — who connected for five important pass plays in a triple-overtime victory at TCU — have been roommates for four years. A year later, kicker Donnie Carona and safety Cody Davis moved in.
“And then (senior receiver Alex) Torres is pretty much like our other roommate,” Zouzalik said. “He’s always at the house. Everybody thinks he lives with us.”
Carona, the only high school recruit from 2008 who did not redshirt, used up his eligibility last season. He’s still on campus working on a master’s degree.
He was one of the first players with whom Zouzalik got acquainted.
“Donnie, actually, before we got here sent me a Facebook message,” Zouzalik said, “like, ‘Hey, man, what’s going on? I’m the kicker.’ I was thinking, ‘A kicker. Those guys are usually kind of strange. He had a comb-over and his hair was lofted up, so I was like, ‘I don’t know about this guy.’ So I never answered his message.
“Now me and Donnie are like best friends, so it was kind of weird how it all turned out.”
Alas, all fun times, including college days, come to an end. The roommates will play their final home game Saturday, and they won’t even be roommates much longer. Davis and Doege are on their way out, both engaged to be married.
“Now me and Donnie are the bachelors in the house,” Zouzalik said. “We’re kind of like the kids, and Cody and Seth are our parents. They keep us in line.”
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