Covering college football for nearly 30 years, I’ve seen it happen over and over: Many fans form an opinion of a player based on the reputation he carried as a recruit and stick to that opinion no matter what.
They continue to “see” the greatness in a blue-chip who turns out to be ordinary or worse, looking for the positives and rejecting any evidence to the contrary. Conversely, a player who was lightly recruited needs to play, in Texas Tech’s case, at a Zach Thomas or a Wes Welker level to ever get much credit.
Take the current squad, for example. In many instances, it seems, there’s a disconnect between how many fans view a certain player and what coaches think of the same guy.
Here are six players, in alphabetical order, who are the Red Raiders’ most undervalued.
DT Demetrius Alston
The Red Raiders’ four new junior-college defensive linemen had better play really well, really soon. Otherwise, they might suffer the same fate as Alston, who was in their shoes at this time last year and was generally dismissed by the public when he wasn’t an immediate-impact guy.
True, he made 12 tackles, none of them in the backfield, in 12 games last season. But keep in mind he’d missed all but three games of the 2012 season at Hutchinson (Kan.) Community College with a broken tibia. He felt he was never 100 percent last year, his footwork and explosiveness still not all the way back.
Alston turned the corner in March and April, came out of spring practice listed first-team at defensive tackle, and it wouldn’t be a shock to see him hold off the competition.
“Demetrius Alston has had a great offseason,” defensive coordinator Matt Wallerstedt said. “He came off the broken leg last year and it really probably took him a while. I think he realizes that we signed a bunch of JC guys, but he’s been here a year and I don’t think he wants to give the job up.”
K Ryan Bustin
He made 23 field goals last year, tied for third most in the FBS, out of 27. Inside the 40, he was 22 for 24. He was one of 20 semifinalists for the Groza Award, which goes to the nation’s best kicker.
So what’s the problem? He doesn’t kick a pretty ball. The left-footer’s kicks tend to spin closer to horizontal than to vertical.
But Bustin, barring injury, is likely to set the Tech career field goals record this season — in only three years.
And it doesn’t sound as if new special teams coach Darrin Chiaverini plans to “fix” him.
“Coach Gansz told me a long time ago, every kicker’s going to have a different style,” Chiaverini said, referring to former UCLA special-teams coach Frank Gansz Jr. “As long as they’re consistent in their approach and his technique and fundamentals, it doesn’t matter how the ball comes. As long as it’s going through those uprights.
“I’ve watched (Bustin) in practice. I’ve watched his fundamentals. He’s sound. He knows what he’s doing. He’s good between the ears as far as mental toughness. I think he’s going to have a huge year.”
IR Jordan Davis
Davis caught 28 passes for 243 yards yards last season. His catch total probably would have been closer to 40 or 50 had he not been hurt for much of the year. Davis suffered a hamstring injury during his five-catch, 70-yard game in the season opener. Just when that was healing around midseason, he hurt an ankle.
As a walk-on transfer from a lower-level program, Davis gets perceived as a mere place holder until a more talented player steps in.
The reality is, he’s a staple in Tech’s five-receiver sets and not at all overlooked by offensive coordinator Eric Morris.
“There’s probably not a tougher guy that we have in our receiving corps than him,” Morris said. “He wants to be really good and tries extremely hard at it, and he probably runs the best routes on our entire group of receivers.”
Another example of a junior-college transfer who didn’t take hold right away, Fortenberry was sidelined by back problems in 2012, an ankle injury in spring 2013 and arthroscopic knee surgery in summer 2013.
Line coach Lee Hays never sounded down on him, though, consistently praising Fortenberry, even when he was out, as a guy who puts in extra time and has a fun personality in the locker room. Some better luck was all he needed.
Fortenberry finally got it last season and started all 13 games.
OG Alfredo Morales
Alfredo Morales wasn’t the big-name recruit his brother Tony was, so he has to bring his lunch pail every day if he wants to get much appreciation.
Which he does.
“Alfredo works the absolute hardest out of everybody,” Hays said, “and when you come in and are that dedicated, we’re always going to give you a shot. It’s Alfredo’s job until somebody can unseat him. That kid does everything we ask and then some and has been a leader on the O-line.”
That was this week.
And back in April, Hays said Morales worked harder than any offensive linemen during spring practice.
So it’s no real surprise he’s started 12 games the last two years and will add to that total this season.
CB Thierry Nguema
He’s skinny-legged. He was a no-name recruit. He was a late addition to his signing class. And nobody knows how to pronounce his name. It’s “TEER-dee (roll the Rs) In-GEE-ma (soft G)” — with an accent from France, where he was born.
Wallerstedt said Nguema, eager to learn, shadowed Bruce Jones like a puppy in practice every day last year, which is a good act to follow. Jones was the Red Raiders’ No. 1 cornerback in 2013 because he had the mental toughness the position demands and was a fearless tackler, never mind his smallish size.
Nguema might not win the cornerback competition he’s involved in at the moment, but it won’t be for lack of giving his best effort every day.
He’s a guy who gets the most out of his ability.
“No doubt,” Wallerstedt said.
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