Texas Tech co-defensive coordinator Mike Smith seemed to have a firm two-deep throughout spring practice at both the outside linebacker positions he coaches. Branden Jackson and Pete Robertson battled neck and neck to start on one side, and an ideal scenario took shape on the other side when junior Chris Payne emerged to complement veteran Terrance Bullitt.
Yet, the two-deep at both spots will look very different when the Red Raiders begin preseason practice in early August.
Tech coaches have decided in the last couple of weeks to move Jackson to a 3-4 defensive end to help a line depleted by the departures of Delvon Simmons and Michael Starts. Meanwhile, Payne, after being a spring-ball standout, failed to stay eligible and is no longer in the program.
Now Tech linebackers will look to Bullitt, a player who has long acted as a team leader type despite battling shoulder injuries the last two years.
“If he can say healthy, I wouldn’t be shocked or surprised if he’s the leader of the defense and succeeds over everybody, just because he wants it so bad,” Smith said. “I’ve challenged him to lose some weight and work on his flexibility, because that position does a lot of things. So far, he’s leaned up, rocked up. Every time I look in the weight room, he’s working on his flexibility.
“We’ve got to have more guys like him. He’s really bought into everything.”
Bullitt missed the last four games last season after needing surgery on his left shoulder for the second year in a row. His health will be just as important if not more so this fall. The depth behind Bullitt at Raider outside linebacker consists of junior Austin Stewart (6-0, 206), being converted from deep safety, and true freshman Caleb Woodward (6-1, 200).
Both players fit what coaches are looking for at that position – a big safety type. But their Big 12 experience is nil.
Stewart’s move was precipitated by the loss of Payne, a player whom Smith had raved about during the spring for productive, fearless play.
“Chris Payne had a great spring,” Smith said. “It’s tough losing him.”
Stewart played in only four games last season, his first on the Tech campus. That’s partly because former Tech coach Tommy Tuberville was concerned about Stewart’s academic progress and had him focusing on classwork.
“Austin Stewart has ability,” Smith said. “He could be the best one in the room.”
At the bandit outside linebacker position, Robertson spent all spring competing againstJackson. Now he’ll spend August workouts competing with Andre Ross, a transfer from Navarro College who joined the program just two months ago as a late addition to the 2013 class. He’s been on campus taking part in summer workouts.
“That’ll be a battle,” Smith said, “because both those guys are extremely, extremely athletic. They can run, and they can fly. They’re two of the fastest guys on the team. Whoever starts (in the season opener) against SMU, the other kid is going to play just as much, because we’re going to get after the quarterback.”
Ross, listed at 6-foot-4 and 230 pounds, played six-man high school football at Calvert. At Navarro, he redshirted for one year as a receiver, then moved to defensive end last season and was credited with seven sacks.Oklahoma, TCU, Baylor and Texas A&M were among the schools recruiting him this spring. He has three years of eligibility remaining to play three seasons.
Regardless how quickly Ross might adjust, now’s the time for Robertson to come into his own. The 6-foot-3, 230-pound sophomore from Longview was credited with 20 tackles, two sacks and a caused fumble last season as a young backup.
“Pete might be the most athletic of the group,” Smith said. “He’s an old-school player. He’s tough. He’s physical. He loves football. He’s the kind of guy I look for.”
The Red Raiders had some other options during spring practice who are no longer in the picture, at least not at outside linebacker. Freshman Kris Williams, who grew bigger and thicker during his redshirt year, has been moved from Raider to one of the inside linebacker positions, and redshirt freshman Chase Robison decided to transfer. Smith said Robison believed he would have a chance for more playing time elsewhere.
Smith said the decision to move Jackson back to end came in the last week or two. The 6-4, 255-pound sophomore from McKeesport, Pa., had 19 tackles, a pass breakup and a caused fumble last season while playing in all 13 games.
Jacksonis likely to be a valuable player as he matures, Smith said, because he appears capable of playing several places in the front seven – from either outside linebacker spot to end or even tackle.
“He’s smart. We never have any kind of problems with Branden,” Smith said. “This is a kid that you can put that kind of stuff on him and have him learn all this defense because he can handle it. Some guys can’t handle it. Branden Jackson can do that. He’s a guy that can play multiple positions.”
Depth chart: outside linebackers
Bandit: Pete Robertson, So.; Andre Ross, So.; Zach Barnes, Fr./Jacarthy Mack, Fr.
Raider: Terrance Bullitt, Sr.; Austin Stewart, Jr.; Caleb Woodward, Fr.
Seniors lost: None.
Departures with eligibility remaining: Chris Payne (academically ineligible); Chase Robison (released to transfer).
Best spring: “I thought those outside guys, Branden (Jackson) and Pete (Robertson), did a great job rushing the passer,” Tech coach Kliff Kingsbury said. “I thought Terrance (Bullitt) did a really good job. He just has a nose for the football. Getting back into it, coming off that surgery, he just got better and better.”