Five Things is a handful (i.e., five) of thoughts about a single topic. Hopefully, discussion ensues.
The Defensive End Conundrum
1: Losing Dixon and Sesay
I've really tried to ignore this topic over the offseason, but potentially losing McKinner Dixon and Brandon Sesay is borderline catastrophic. Already losing Brandon Williams to the NFL doesn't help the situation. Apparently Dixon may be out due to grades and there is speculation that Sesay, who was held out of spring football practices for part of the spring, may also be lost because of grades. That's three of your top returning pass rushers that may not return. There are people who are holding out hope that Dixon returns and Sesay has made his grades, but the purpose of this exercise is to assume that these guys are gone and where Texas Tech can go from here.
2: Who is Here
As of right now, I think the starters are pretty solid, in part because Rajon Henley is moving to the defensive end on a full-time basis. On the right side Daniel Howard seems to be the best player available. There was talk during the spring that Brandon Sharpe might move into that right DE spot, but I've always liked Howard's motor and if we just take player performance to date, Howard has been the better player. The guy that has to step up is Ryan Haliburton, a redshirt freshman last year, who I'm hoping has put on weight to play the position. I saw a little bit of Haliburton during the Red-Black Spring Game, but he didn't necessarily stand out so I'm not sure if he's going to make the leap from a guy who is going to be a bit player to a guy who is going to be a difference maker.
3: Stepping Up
Any time that a true freshman is slated to play, especially along the defensive line, you have to wonder as to whether or not they're going to be able to compete immediately. If I had to pick one or two incoming freshman that could make a difference at defensive end in 2009 I think I'd pick Pearlie Graves (6-3/260), who was recruited as a defensive tackle, but has the requisite size to play defensive end right now. Graves is supposed to be a really active guy and that could play well at defensive end. Kerry Hyder (6-2/246) is next on the list to make a difference. Hyder,
was a somewhat unheard of recruit from Tennessee (Ed. he's actually from Austin so please ignore.) but from all accounts, he's the kind of active player that could play immediately, although I'm not counting on it. The obvious projects are the two late recruits, Aundrey Barr (6-2/225) and Chris Knighton (6-2/240). I think that Barr may be a little bit ahead of Knighton mainly based on this video (hat-tip Tortilla Retort), Barr may be one of those gems that can play immediately, but I'm not getting too excited just yet just because we know the transition can be difficult.
4: Change in Philosophy
Last year, I thought Ruffin McNeill did a good job of just letting the defensive ends just play and rush the passer. Granted, I think that Williams and especially Dixon did a better job of playing the run, more Dixon than Williams, than the previous year. One of the keys to Texas Tech's success last year was being able to put pressure on opposing quarterbacks, due in large part to having to legitimate defensive ends in Williams and Dixon, was huge. This year, things may change. You may not see McNeill just let the defensive ends go, but I think that is partly because of personnel. With Henley being a former defensive tackle, he's shown that he can be effective against the run and that may be where this team's strength lies. I know that this goes against the spread offenses of the Big 12, but the truth of the matter is that I'd much rather Texas Tech be what they are and not what they are supposed to be. We'll talk more about this at a later point, but defensive tackle may be a little talked about strength for this team and if that's the case, I get the feeling that McNeill will want this team to be really good at what they are, which is stopping the run. I do think that you could see Howard make a large leap in terms of production, especially if he gets more plays than he did last year. Howard off of the edge is the key and I get the feeling that he's going to be better than most people realize.
5: Building Depth
Very early in the 2010 recruiting class, Leach, McNeill & Co. have secured commitments from three defensive ends. Jackson Richards (6-4/240) is going to play early. He's that good (no pressure, right?). Jaqwaylin Arps (6-3/230) and Kedrick Dial (6-5/215) are more projects than anything else, but I think with defensive ends this aspect may be the most overlooked by the casual fan. Defensive ends are vital, especially in the Big 12 with so many passing offenses and I'm sure that the staff has said that they cannot let a situation that will potentially happen in 2009 happen in the future. I'm hoping that Graves can eventually move to defensive tackle and so this means that these guys along with Barr, Knighton and Hyder there will be plenty of options, some of which you hope step up and become players next year. Of course, if Graves doesn't make the move, you've still got a really good player at defensive end in Graves, somewhat like Rajon Henley, a bit of a tweener