Texas Tech begins spring football practice Wednesday. This the 10th in a series of spring previews, looking at the Red Raiders’ cornerback positions.
As recent Texas Tech football recruits go, among those who attracted the least fanfare would be 2013 signee Justis Nelson and Thierry Nguema, a late addition to the 2011 class who grayshirted and joined the program in 2012.
Being unheralded at the start doesn’t mean they’ve gone unnoticed since.
Nelson and Nguema will be Tech’s first-team cornerbacks when the Red Raiders start spring practice Wednesday. It’s vital for those two and others to take positive steps, because Tech lost three senior cornerbacks off the 2013 team. The Red Raiders will miss especially miss Bruce Jones, who had a team-leading 10 pass breakups and set a tone with his tenacious style and unshakable confidence.
Nelson, a 6-foot-2, 175-pound sophomore from Dallas Christian, was one of the team’s pleasant surprises last season, when he started the last three games and made an interception in the end zone to help seal Tech’s 37-23 Holiday Bowl win over Arizona State.
Though a fairly anonymous recruit, Tech cornerbacks coach Kevin Curtis was a big fan of Nelson’s, who wasted little time showing why.
“He could really be a special player,” Tech defensive coordinator Matt Wallerstedt said last week. “He doesn’t have a second gear top-end speed-wise. He’s not a burner like (cornerback Tyler) Middleton, but he’s going to be smart enough, he’s got good ball savvy and good awareness that I think he’s going to make a lot of plays here.”
Nelson begins spring as the first-team field, or wide-side, cornerback. Sophomore Dee Paul from Munday will be behind him. Tech plans to seek a medical hardship waiver on behalf of Paul, who missed all but three games as a freshman with a hamstring injury, but the paperwork has yet to be filed, Tech spokesman Blayne Beal said Friday.
For much of last season, Curtis and Tech safeties coach Trey Haverty both lobbied to have Nelson at their position. Nelson debuted in the ninth game of the season against Oklahoma State, playing safety. By game 11, against Baylor, he was in the starting lineup at cornerback.
“He got thrust into it against Baylor,” Wallerstedt said, “and had a couple of (plays made) against him, but he never came off and hung his head. He just kept battling. He’s very athletic. He’s going to be a hard one to beat out.”
Nguema, a 5-10, 160-pound sophomore from Corona, Calif., Santiago, got into nine games in 2013 as a redshirt freshman. His physical skills aren’t as plain to see as Nelson’s, but coaches have been impressed with Nguema’s approach and that he makes the most of what he has.
“I’ll be curious to see what he does,” Wallerstedt said. “He’s getting thicker with his upper body. He’s still real skinny with his legs. But he was a guy that shadowed Bruce Jones every single practice. I mean, he’s into it. He’s going to have to play smart. He’s not a burner either, but he’s probably fluid enough.”
Nguema, aside from gaining weight and strength, needs to sharpen his ball skills.
“But I see progress with him, and he’s always trying to do what’s right,” Wallerstedt said. “It sounds like he’s gaining confidence. Some of these guys that haven’t played (show) very little confidence.”
Nguema likely will have to keep impressing if he wants to start in 2014. He’ll be at boundary, or tight-side, cornerback with junior Tyler Middleton and sophomore La’Darius Newbold queued up behind him as the second and third options.
Senior Martin Hill and junior Brandon Bagley are two other corners trying to make an impression this spring after not finding a role so far.
Tech coaches managed to redshirt Middleton (5-11, 195) last season, though the former Midland star’s speed is captivating. Late in the season, they moved Middleton from running back to cornerback and first impressions were favorable.
“They weren’t sure how physical of a runner he was on offense,” Wallerstedt said, “and then he came over on defense and in some of our scrimmages with our younger guys, knocked the dog out of some people. We were excited to see that because we didn’t know he had it in him.”
The former all-conference running back at Navarro College has good size and state-meet sprinter’s speed. “Just how fast does he pick up the system?” Wallerstedt said.
The other candidates include three returners who’ve never pushed for playing time: Newbold, Hill and Bagley. Newbold, if he doesn’t crack the cornerback rotation soon, could be shifted to safety or Raider outside linebacker. His high-cut frame and longer stride might work better at one of those spots.
In the meantime, Wallertstedt would also like to see the 5-11, 195-pound Lancaster product be more confident and aggressive.
“Can he pick things up here at safety or at Raider, and will he stick his teeth on you?” Wallerstedt said. “That’s been his deal. Now, if he starts to fly around and throw his body around, he could be end up there or maybe at the Raider spot, because he’s talented enough.
“He’s just young. If he gets beat, he sticks his head down. He just hasn’t been consistent.”
One cornerback not in the mix this spring is junior Jeremy Reynolds. Reynolds, who didn’t travel to the Holiday Bowl, is focusing on academics this semester and won’t take part in on-field workouts, Wallerstedt said.