Should someone have an extra ticket or two for the Texas Tech season opener, J.J. Gaines could see that they get into appreciative hands.
The Tech strong safety is set to make his first career start Friday at SMU, 10 minutes from where he grew up.
It’s no easy assignment. SMU’s fifth-year senior quarterback, Garrett Gilbert, will be slinging passes at a Tech secondary with four new starters.
“I watch them at home. I get the DVDs,” Gaines said this week. “I’m trying to be the best prepared for the situation. I know they’re going to try to target us DBs, because we’re young, but we’re trying to prepare for it, to not let any deep balls over our head.”
Tech lost Cody Davis, D.J. Johnson, Cornelius Douglas and Eugene Neboh from last year’s secondary, but the unit wasn’t left empty-handed. Nickel back-turned-free safety Tre Porter has 22 career starts, and cornerback Bruce Jones started six games last year when Douglas was injured.
Gaines, a 5-foot-10, 180-pound sophomore from Irving Nimitz, has made a natural progression from last year when he showed promise in practice and played well on special teams.
“J.J., he’s big-time,” co-defensive coordinator Mike Smith said this week. “He’s one of our top secondary guys overall, out of the corners and safeties. He communicates great. He’s back there always talking. That’s what you want from a safety is somebody that can communicate, doesn’t freeze under pressure. He gets guys lined up, he talks and for that little size, he’ll come down and hit you, too.”
Gaines spent last year backing up Johnson and has worked with the first team from the time the 2012 season ended.
“I’ve really been working on my eyes,” he said. “That’s the main part of the game. Over the summer, I was getting extra reps, just working on my eyes, where the ball is and stuff.”
As a safety lined up in the seam, Gaines also has gone against inside receiver Jakeem Grant. That’s another way to get ready for the Mustangs.
“They’ve got a pretty good offense over there,” he said, “so you’ve got to prepare mentally. Guarding guys like Jakeem one on one, he’s one of the fastest in the Big 12, so guarding guys like him helps me prepare for it.”
Smith said what Gaines has shown in August is a step up from when they left off in April.
“I think he’s made a huge, I mean a huge, improvement from the spring,” Smith said. “He’s actually one of my favorite players on defense.”
Players on the travel squad are allotted four tickets apiece for the game, to distribute to family and friends. As of early this week, Gaines had yet to round up any unused extras from teammates.
He’s sure to have a rooting contingent, regardless.
“It’s going to be a good feeling going back home, first start,” Gaines said. “It’s about 10 minutes from my house, so it should be a great environment.”
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