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Talbot: Red Raider defense must gain respect to defy expectations

Posted: July 13, 2017 - 7:41pm

It’s hard for a team to get respect when its defense ranked dead last in the NCAA last season.

It’s even harder for it to get it when last season’s starting quarterback is picked No. 10 overall in the NFL Draft and his replacement has only played sparingly over the last two seasons.

So, Texas Tech is just going to have to gain respect instead.

Thursday, the Red Raiders were chosen to finish eighth in the Big 12 football preseason poll, which is voted on by media representatives that cover the conference.

And it just barely edged out Iowa State for that spot. Tech garnered only 85 points in the poll that saw Oklahoma top it once again despite the retirement of Bob Stoops. The Cyclones, which humiliated the Red Raiders last season 66-10 up in Ames, Iowa, got 83 points in the poll.

The problem for the Red Raiders is without Patrick Mahomes II, they lack an identity for people to say, “Yeah, with that guy or that offense, they could knock off a few people in the Big 12 this season.”

And certainly no one is going to say “With that defense? Man, they could upset some people.”

Not. Going. To. Happen.

So, the Red Raiders will begin the 2017 season on Sept. 2 against Eastern Washington with some pretty darn low expectations. But, sad to say this isn’t out of the norm for Tech.

It was picked eighth that season because it finished pretty poor 4-8 record the year before even with Davis Webb, who was recently drafted by the New York Giants, as quarterback. Mahomes had gotten in as a freshman, but all bets were off as to who would actually start.

Mahomes won the job and along with a stellar season from DeAndre Washington led the Red Raiders to a Texas Bowl, a 7-6 season and a tie for fifth place in the Big 12. In 2012, Tech was picked ninth in the preseason conference poll, but went 8-5 overall and 4-5 in the Big 12 (again, tying for fifth place in the conference).

So while the media may not like Tech right now, a lot can change in a season. But, a lot has to happen for the Red Raiders to prove the prognosticators wrong.

And that starts with the defense.

If Tech loses five games where it scored 37 or more points, including two losses when scoring 55 or more, the predictions will be right. If that defense can’t crack the top 100 and Nic Shimonek doesn’t play as well as he did in his limited time last season (or he gets injured), the media’s vote will be spot on.

Those are two pretty big ifs.

Shimonek looked darn good last season, completing 65.5 percent of his passes for 464 yards and six touchdowns. The problem is he did it mostly against Kansas and Stephen F. Austin — the two weakest teams on Tech’s 2016 schedule. So, there is not a lot of precedent to say, “Yeah, he will be fine against Oklahoma” or “Sure, I can’t see why’d he have any issue with the TCU defense.”

But, Shimonek moves better than people think, has a good —but not Patrick Mahomes like — arm and has a nice touch on his ball. I think he will be solid.

Tech doesn’t have a lot of proven depth behind him with Payne Sullins, McLane Carter and Xavier Martin. I suppose Jett Duffey could be the backup, but I don’t think Kliff Kingsbury should even let him back on the team (a column for another day).

So, it is Shimonek or bust. And that could put even more pressure on the defense, which again was dead last in the NCAA last season in yards per game (554.3) surrendered.

It has to improve. The Red Raider defense was ranked 125th against the pass, 116th against the rush and only forced 13 turnovers last season.

It just wasn’t respectable.

That’s precisely what the rest of the beat writers across the conference looked at when they chose Tech eighth.

And exactly what Texas Tech has to gain back.

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