The bombshell dropped one day in the middle of summer.
Writers who cover the Big 12 Conference thought so little of Texas Tech as to collectively forecast for the Red Raiders a ninth-place finish this season in a 10-team league.
Though seldom slotted high, Tech has never been picked so low in a Big 12 preseason assessment.
“Being picked ninth in the conference, that’s a motivation,” said center Deveric Gallington who, being a senior, has as much on the line as any of his teammates. “As players and coaches, we know we’re a lot better than what’s being displayed in the media, but that’s not our job. Our job is to go out there and prove ourselves every week.”
Tech has much for which to atone after going 5-7 in 2011, the program’s first losing season since 1992. The Red Raiders lost four home games for the first time since 1990, four conference home games for the first time since 1984.
Wide receiver Eric Ward was a part of it and says he doesn’t take the experience lightly.
“You’re always going to remember that, because that was a season you played your heart out for,” said Ward, whose breakthrough, 84-catch season was a bright spot in an otherwise dreary fall. “You focus on little things you could have done to make it better.”
Can third-year coach Tommy Tuberville resuscitate the Red Raiders in 2012?
Tuberville seems to think so, in part because he doubts his defense can be as awful as last year’s unit that gave up a school record 471 points. Tuberville expresses comfort and confidence in his defensive staff, one on which he did a makeover by adding a couple of veterans with whom he’s worked in the past — coordinator Art Kaufman and defensive backs coach John Lovett, both of whom have long resumes.
Tech will start this season with some potential defensive stalwarts that weren’t in the picture at this time last season, players such as defensive end Branden Jackson (coming off a redshirt season), middle linebacker Will Smith (coming in from the junior-college ranks) and cornerback Cornelius Douglas (over full-time from offense).
Just before preseason workouts started, Tuberville said the defense could be 50 or 60 percent better.
“We’ve got more talent. We’ve got more speed,” he said. “It goes back to, you’ve got to have (enough) guys who can practice. We’re getting to a point now where we’ve got a rotation. We’re still one recruiting class away from offensive line depth and defensive depth. Then we’ll be at full strength. I think that’s going to really pay dividends for us.
“We’ll be much better on defense this year. Our players were embarrassed (last season). They played hard. They did everything we asked them to do. We just got torched.”
The Red Raiders’ defense wasn’t adept at anything in 2011 — 113th in pass-efficiency defense, 120th against the run. Beyond installing seniors Eugene Neboh and Douglas as the No. 1 cornerbacks, coaches sorted through numerous backups at their positions.
None of them perhaps are as important as one of Tuberville’s new hires. The 61-year-old Lovett has been a defensive coordinator at six programs, most notably Auburn (1999 to 2001), Clemson (2002 to 2004) and Miami (2009 and 2010).
His job this fall is to improve the Red Raiders’ pass defense.
“John Lovett’s my favorite guy I’ve ever worked with on teaching technique for corners,” Tuberville said, “because you can be as athletic as you want, but if you don’t have the technique of playing bump-and-run and playing zone and playing inside and outside leverage, you don’t use your talents as well as you could.
“I saw a lot of progress in the spring from our corners in their technique.”
On offense, the Red Raiders are counting on three newcomers — inside receivers Jakeem Grant and Javares McRoy and flanker Javon Bell — to inject a dose of speed that’s been lacking the last couple of years. The presence of those three has prompted the offensive staff to work on plays that cater to their quickness — end arounds, short flip passes as they motion across the backfield and so on.
Running backs Eric Stephens and DeAndre Washington, both coming off reconstructive knee surgeries, showed enough the first two weeks of preseason practice to convince offensive coordinator Neal Brown they’re back. Brown said both will play this year. If they return to their previous forms, that’ll be a big load off Brown’s mind.
And if they take a step back? Powerful sophomore Kenny Williams and quick JC transfer SaDale Foster have shown signs they can shoulder some of the load in the running game.
Of course, it all starts with quarterback Seth Doege, whose 4,000 passing yards in his debut as a starter was offset somewhat by the team’s season-ending five-game losing streak. Brown and Doege have said since that Doege played poorly in, really, only two of those five games.
Still, Brown knew the area in which he wanted Doege to improve.
“The thing that we’ve talked about and spent the most time on in the offseason is getting him to play through mistakes,” Brown said. “He’s going to make a bad play. He’s got to get over it. They can’t turn into two or three bad plays. Last year when he turned the ball over, they came in bunches.”
Brown said Doege was prone to letting a bad play or a bad series linger ... which led to another bad play or another bad series.
“You put so much into it and it means so much, he really feels like he let the players and coaches down when he made mistakes,” Brown said. “His positive plays are going to far outweigh his negative plays. If he makes a negative one, he just has to move on.”
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