Texas Tech coach Tommy Tuberville rubbed some people — especially the staunch supporters of former coach Mike Leach — the wrong way last season by talking incessantly about his plan to win championships with the Red Raiders.
After all, he got used to being part of such discussions during 10 seasons at Auburn, winning or tying for five division titles and once taking the Southeastern Conference championship.
Late in his first year at Tech, which ended with the Red Raiders going 8-5, Tuberville quipped that he never predicted a championship for his first year in Lubbock. The best thing about that first year is that, while he kept the program on track — Tech won at least eight games for the ninth year in a row — it inevitably gives way to year two.
At Auburn, Tuberville improved from 5-6 to 9-4 in his first two seasons.
Many who cover the Big 12 Conference aren’t picturing such an improvement for Tech this season. As they get ready to launch the 2011 season, the Red Raiders are picked seventh in the slimmed-down 10-team Big 12. Dave Campbell’s Texas Football Magazine slots Tech a more charitable fifth while calling the Red Raiders “the conference’s biggest enigma.”
But Tuberville sounds confident that he’s used the last 20 months to lay the groundwork for better days.
“It’s been a good year and a half,” he said recently. “We’ve made a lot of progress on the program. Anytime you’ve got changes like we’ve had, it takes a while to get things the way you want them. I think from our chaplain program all the way through our academics and strength program, everything’s kind of coming into place. It’s not all there yet. We want to get it the right way. We don’t want to have to be changing it as we go too much.”
Ultimately, success will be determined with what the Raiders show on the field.
“The big thing is your current players — are they buying into the philosophy?” Tuberville said, “And I’m real pleased with that area in terms of not just the football part, but lifting and understanding we’ve got to get faster and stronger.
“Speed plays a big part of the game, and nobody was proud of how we played, on defense, inconsistent last year. At times, we played decent, but a lot of times we didn’t play up to our capabilities. A lot of that had to do with speed and the depth we didn’t have when we had injuries.”
Whether the Red Raiders are able to improve on last year’s 3-5 showing in conference games — a record good for only fifth in the South Division — will depend in large part on how much they’ve improved team speed. That attribute was lacking on a defense that finished 114th overall and 118th against the pass.
Former defensive coordinator James Willis last year rated team speed a six on a scale of one to 10. And, even for an offense that averaged 33 points a game, Tech coaches bemoaned a shortage of players who were threats to score from anywhere on the field.
It’s telling that the Raiders managed only one offensive touchdown apiece in losses to Texas (24-14) and Oklahoma (45-7).
“We very seldom had the big play happen for us,” Tuberville said. “In this offense, you’re going to need to make some big plays. We tried to address that in recruiting this past year.”
In February, the Raiders added skill-position signees such as tight end Jace Amaro, wide receiver Bradley Marquez, scatback DeAndre Washington and power back Kenny Williams. The 6-foot-5, 250-pound Amaro gives the team a new dimension — a tight end who can widen the edge blocking for running backs and present an enormous target for quarterbacks.
Coaches hope Marquez can be part of the solution to the shortage of big plays. The freshman from Odessa — a 2,000-yard rusher in football, a New York Mets signee in baseball and a state-meet qualifier in the long jump after just dabbling in the event — made a splash in preseason workouts, planting himself firmly in the two-deep at flanker.
And Tech coaches think there’s reason to believe some holdovers can step up their contribution.
The pistol-offense set they’ve added to the playbook is designed to help players such as running back Eric Stephens and quarterback Seth Doege pose more of a threat. Stephens will have a better view and potentially more running lanes. Doege has a chance to freeze some safeties and linebackers with more play-action pass options than the Raiders used in the past.
Unless his spring and preseason practices were a mirage, 6-foot-4, 214-pound wide receiver Darrin Moore was just scratching the surface last year when he produced 15 catches and one touchdown in 12 games. Moore showed in March and August he can manhandle Tech cornerbacks when the stadium’s empty. Now the Raiders need him to do it on Saturdays.
The offense that coordinator Neal Brown put in last year relies heavily on short passes — but that doesn’t mean everyone expects them to wind up as short gains.
“In this offense, when you throw a 5-yard pass, it’s built around guys making somebody miss and going 60 at times,” Tuberville said. “That’s not going to happen every time. We did that a little bit (last year), but we were just inconsistent at it.”
With all five offensive line starters back, plus Stephens, improving the running game is a reasonable expectation. However, Alex Torres and Tramain Swindall are the only receivers on the roster who have caught more than 40 passes for 500 yards in a season, and both are coming off down years.
The graduation of outside receivers Lyle Leong and Detron Lewis, who combined for 161 catches, left a substantial void. That’s why Moore’s apparent improvement and Jacoby Franks’ encouraging comeback from a broken foot matter so much.
“We’ve got more weapons now that we can choose from, with the freshman class coming in and more speed,” Tuberville said. “We desperately need speed and not just on defense; we need speed on offense. We’re not a very fast team.
“That was an objective from recruiting this year — taking speed on both sides and trying to get it into the game as much as we can. They’re going to be young, but at least we’ll be a little faster.”
At least the offense, for the fault Tech coaches find with it, still ranked high up the charts last season in scoring and passing. The Raiders even threw more touchdown passes in Tuberville’s first season than in Leach’s last (39 to 38).
It’s hard to dress up a defense that surrendered at least 24 points in all but four games. Willis was relieved of his duties last December and replaced with Chad Glasgow, who comes off a TCU staff that led the nation in total defense five times in the last 11 years.
The swath of injuries that cut through the defense last season led to 25 players making at least one start. Seven who started at least six games are back: safeties Cody Davis, Brett Dewhurst and D.J. Johnson, cornerbacks Tre Porter and Jarvis Phillips, end-linebacker Sam Fehoko and nose tackle Donald Langley.
Davis, the team’s second-leading tackler in each of his first two seasons, and Johnson, also a key player for two years, haven’t had a typical offseason for veterans. In Glasgow’s defense, the weak safety that Davis plays and the free safety that Johnson mans are integral in terms of calls and communication.
Johnson said most of the team’s defensive backs and linebackers watched a lot of videotape this summer of TCU, both together and by themselves.
“I watched film on my own,” Johnson said, “just looking at TCU’s defense and how they ran it. And then on top of that, I looked at what we did during the spring, the difference between TCU’s defense and our defense in the spring and my safety position and their safety position. I’ve learned a lot of stuff watching it.”
The graduation losses of four-year regulars Bront Bird and Brian Duncan left the Raiders starting over at linebacker, but sophomore middle linebacker Cqulin Hubert left off last season with 13 tackles in the TicketCity Bowl, and true freshman Blake Dees was a bright spot in spring and preseason practices, so much so that he was a starter heading into game week.
“I think our guys are more understanding of the attacking-style defense we want to play,” Tuberville said. “The area that we’re probably behind on a little bit, just because of experience, is linebacker. We lost two or three linebackers last year that played a lot. Now we’re looking at basically all new guys at the linebacker position.”
One of the wild cards for potential improvement is newcomer Leon Mackey, a highly touted 6-5, 255-pound defensive end who could give the pass rush more sizzle. Mackey, a Delaware native, signed with Virginia Tech in 2008, South Carolina in 2009 and failed to qualify both times. He’s had two years at Hargrave (Va.) Military Academy and came to Tech from Hinds (Miss.) Community College, where he was ranked among the nation’s top 10 junior-college recruits.
“I feel good, the fact that people expect a lot out of me,” Mackey said, “because that’s what I want to get. The expectations are going to be there, but all I do is control what I can control, which is working hard every day and getting better as a player and as a person on and off the field.”
Tech actually ranked third in the Big 12 in third-down defense last season, allowing a 35.8-percent conversion rate, but it didn’t feel that way to Tuberville.
“The thing that we want to do is play a lot better on third downs than we did last year,” Tuberville said. “There’s a lot of times we didn’t get teams to third downs — heck, they made a first down after two downs.
“But we want to get teams in more third-and-longs and then be successful in keeping them from making first downs and getting our offense back on the field. For our offense, that’s a key — get the ball in their hands as many times as possible.”
Tech players raved this summer about the quality of the off-season program that strength and conditioning coach Joe Walker put them through.
Walker offices in the south side of the team’s Football Training Facility. Tech players can’t walk into his weight room without seeing a sign that reads: Make It Personal!!! Next to the command are the logos of the five teams to which Tech lost last season, and the scores.
The unspoken message is to pay back each loss, preferably sooner than later.
“We’re not there,” Tuberville said. “Obviously, it’s going to take a while to get to the point we feel like everything’s kind of together, but we’re a lot farther along than we were last year in terms of being on the same page and how we want to play and how we want to look and the speed of the game that we want to play.”
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