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Gaines, young prospects give Tech hope at safety

Tech's defensive staff optimistic about Gaines, at least three other contenders

Posted: March 3, 2014 - 10:38pm  |  Updated: March 4, 2014 - 1:16am
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Texas Tech's J.J. Gaines will be in the mix at safety for the Red Raiders. (Stephen Spillman)
Texas Tech's J.J. Gaines will be in the mix at safety for the Red Raiders. (Stephen Spillman)
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With 35-game starter Tre Porter having graduated and part-time starter Tanner Jacobson having departed for a two-year Mormon mission, Texas Tech has some holes to fill at safety going into spring practice.

There’s a realistic hope the position could be a strength in 2014, though. Tech’s defensive staff feels optimistic about being able to find a reliable duo based on what J.J. Gaines gave them in a half season last year and having at least three other contenders to trot out alongside him.

First things first: Gaines’ status will be either no-contact or not practicing this spring as he recovers from the shoulder injury that felled him in mid-October, leading to surgery. But with what Gaines showed earlier in his career and then starting for the first half of the 2013 season, it’ll take some doing to unseat him at strong safety.

At 5-foot-10 and 180 pounds, the junior from Irving Nimitz doesn’t bring much size to the table, but everything else checks out.

“I thought he looked really solid,” Tech defensive coordinator Matt Wallerstedt said with emphasis last week about Gaines’ 2013 season. “Good player. Smart.

“I don’t want to say (he’s in the) starting lineup, but he’s a six-game starter that was playing really good. If he comes back and takes the field like he did before he got hurt, he’s going to be hard to beat.”

The free safety job shapes up as a competition primarily among sophomore Keenon Ward (5-9, 195), incoming junior-college transfer Josh Keys (6-2, 190) and redshirt freshman Jalen Barnes (5-11, 185). The safeties pool also includes two of the Red Raiders’ top special-teams players: juniors John White (5-10, 200) and Summitt Hogue (5-11, 195), the latter back after spending the back half of last season at outside linebacker.

With Gaines unavailable in the spring, though, Keys and Barnes will start out playing strong safety while Ward runs with the first team at free safety. In Tech’s scheme, the strong safety patrols the wide side of the field, the free safety the tight side.

They all should feel some urgency, because the Red Raiders signed a fleet of defensive backs in February, and wouldn’t mind if true freshmen safeties Payton Hendrix, Jah’Shawn Johnson or Derrick Dixon showed up in the summer ready to play.

Gaines’ injury last season resulted in one of the safety jobs being up in the air from week to week. Ward and Jacobson started three games apiece, and Austin Stewart one.

Ward, the former Snyder standout, has as much speed as any of the candidates. But he was hot and cold as a freshman, missing a check that led to a touchdown for Kansas and missing some tackles against Oklahoma State. On the flip side, he intercepted a pass against Oklahoma State and graded high in the Holiday Bowl win over Arizona State.

“I think he’s going to have a chance to have a good career, if we can get him to finish on tackles and have confidence at the point of attack,” Wallerstedt said.

Keys, a rangy mid-term transfer from Mississippi Gulf Coast, had scholarship offers from at least 17 programs in BCS conferences, so he comes with a set of expectations. It helps that he’s in school and can get some on-field experience learning the system in March and April.

“We’re expecting some big things out of him,” Wallerstedt said.

The same can be said for Barnes, with whom Tech coaches were impressed when they signed him in February 2013 and again in the summer. Then he suffered a shoulder injury in August camp that required surgery. Barnes, from Port Arthur Memorial, was able to do some on-field work in early Holiday Bowl practices.

“(Safeties coach) Trey (Haverty) is really fired up about the kid,” Wallerstedt said. “He has good feet, good size, good range, is learning the system. This will be a great spring for him. We’re expecting him to emerge.”

If coaches like what they see over the next few weeks, it’s conceivable the two-deep at safety could come from players working there this spring. There’s also the possibility that Dorian Crawford, a safety trainee last season and the first-team Raider outside linebacker at the moment, could go back to the secondary depending on how developments go at both positions.

“As things move and we get our whole team here this summer, Crawford may be at safety, he may be at Raider,” Wallerstedt said. “We’re just going to have to evaluate.”

 

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