The 2010 season is well underway, and as I type this, I have the impression that many of us are no further along in figuring out where Texas Tech stands than we were in the spring when we learned who the new staff was going to be and what their philosophies were. Most fans, when they took off their red and black colored glasses, expected 2009 to be a bit of a rebuild after 2008. Now in 2010, a season that I would have thought 2 years ago would be one in which we would make a run at the Big XII championship, we find ourselves in a new landscape without a map to guide us. I won’t claim to hold the map of the 2010 season in my hand, but hopefully, this will offer a compass that will help navigate through the rest of the season.
Find your way after the jump
Comparing anything in our offensive scheme to 2007 or 2008 is futile. Those who cling to these as the only map to success will be frustrated and find themselves lost. Michael Crabtree no longer plays for Texas Tech. Neither do Louis Vasquez, Rylan Reed, Brandon Carter or Graham Harrell. Athletic receiving talent like Crabtree’s changes the entire landscape of the passing game. With Crabtree on the field, teams were all but forced to drop 5 into coverage and double team him. And he still got open and made plays. This generally left man coverage on the other 3 receivers with a LB covering at least one of them. This also left only 6 men in the box to guard the run, freeing up Baron Batch to romp in the second level. It is easy to get to the 2nd level when Reed and Vazquez are locking down the left side, any serviceable center can take on the RT, with Carter to chip the RT and then help out Marlon Winn when he decides to take a play off. Go review some old film and count the plays where Carter is blocking air, looking for the blitz, because all 4 DL are engaged.
Running Backs: Most of our playmakers on offense are in the backfield. We need to use them to be successful. This is not new for 2010. Batch continued to be the beneficiary of the history of a pass-heavy attack in 2009, and abused the opposing team any time they dropped 5 men into coverage. This year, he won’t often catch as many defenses playing with less than an honest front. In the SMU game, we saw the defense keyed on Batch, keeping a LB home, any time he was in the game. Against UNM, we saw running back by committee as Stephens and Batch received equal touches, and Crawford, Jeffers and McRoy all saw reps. I believe that the staff was not risking injury with Batch against UNM, as we had scored the go-ahead touchdown before 3 minutes had passed. Batch should see at least the plurality of touches against UT; however, Stephens will split reps and the others may see the field as the situation dictates, or just for a different look. We are not a power running team. The staff knows this, though in some areas I expect us to approach the game in a more "textbook" manner. Look for more opportunistic carries (i.e. when the defense isn’t playing an honest front) and a few outside runs with a lineman pulling to keep the D honest (we saw this against SMU). It should not surprise if the sweeps are the carries that Jeffers and McRoy see. I expect to see more screens against aggressive defenses (textbook). Also, I look for more play action to set up the deep pass (also textbook) and more of the two back set, especially in short yardage situations. Though we may attempt one or two power running plays, just to test the waters and show we aren’t scared to do it, don’t expect a lot of traps up the middle in conference.
Receiving Corps: We have been without our full complement of receivers in the first 2 games, but that will benefit us later in the season, as young guys received reps they might not have seen otherwise. Swindall, Lewis and Franks have been about what we expected. Torres made a slow start this week and will hopefully be more serviceable going forward, but from the sounds of it he will not be 100% for the rest of the season. Leong has had a good start, but will not match up as well against bigger more talented DBs in press coverage. Ward is not the next Crabtree. At least not yet. But I do expect him to split more reps as we need someone with his size and speed on the field. The slot receiver position has the most potential for explosive plays, but consistency has dogged Douglas, and Zouzalik may be rusty after being out for several weeks following an appendectomy. Torres, Ward and either Corndog or Zou are the keys to watch here. Look for us to continue to utilize a host of players able unless one of these guys is able to step up as a possession receiver.
QB: Timing and communication with the receivers is the biggest issue that I see so far. These are easily fixable and are consequences of a prolonged QB controversy, injury, and splitting reps. Taylor Potts has made far more good decisions than bad, and his accuracy has been above average. I have seen a lot of people complaining that Potts is throwing behind the receiver. While that is true in some instances, I also see Potts throwing to the outside shoulder, away from the defender (where he should) and the receiver turning the wrong way on the ball. More reps with the receivers and they will learn each other’s tendancies. Look for his completion percentage to creep closer to 70% over the season, but perhaps not against UT.
Neal Brown will call more deep routes than the underneath, find-the-hole-in-the-coverage stuff that we have been accustom to. Deeper throws leave a smaller margin for error, so wish for but don’t expect any QB in the Neal Brown Air Raid 2.0/NASCAR offense to approach Graham Harrell-like completion rates.
I still see in Potts the tendency to throw a bullet when a softball is called for. And I think Potts will be having nightmares about the Kindle hit all week. I don’t know what it will take for him to shake that demon, but until he does, he will have the tendency to get rattled for a couple of plays any time he is knocked down. It would not surprise me if Sheffield sees the field to run the option pitch as a trick play with Jeffers (or maybe I just think that could be fun to watch).
Play calling: I have said this before, but what separates a great offense from a good offense is the ability to line up, see that the defense is lined up for the play you have called, and still be able to execute the called play successfully. In the first 2 games of 2010, we have seen a lot of the offense just running the play that was called, attempting to exert their will. The leash may be long in terms of making mistakes and learning, but this offense has worn a choke collar in the first two games in terms of running the play called versus checking at the line. In doing so, they are learning how to do what they have to for the play to be successful, regardless of whether or not it is the best play given the defensive alignment. And don’t think for a minute that the run by Taylor Potts on the zone read the other night wasn’t called from the press box. He had been faking the run to that side all night up to that point. That play was set up that way. That play was for Will Muschamp to notice.
The right side of the OL may be the weak spot, but if you come crashing in every play and don’t contain, we can take advantage. Speaking of the O-line, we may be close to locking down the left side again a la 2008 if Waddle has really improved as much as it appears in the first 2 games. The right side will need a steady rotation to keep guys fresh, especially late in a close game. Going forward, look for more checks at the line and more of the "prairie dog" offense. We won’t do it every play, but in certain situations we will see how the defense comes out before making the play call. Look for us to throw more early in games (I’m guessing 3:1 Pass to Run), and once the staff feels we have a comfortable lead, switch to more run oriented schemes (closer to 1:1) to burn clock.
Defensively, we still have Colby Whitlock as the anchor on the DL. I predict this man will see time on Sundays. Already departed for the league are Brandon Williams, Brandon Sharpe (a huge surprise to most in 2009), Darcel McBath and Jamar Wall. Whitlock in a 4 man front is a recipe for havoc against the run or pass, especially with good containment and just the threat of a speed rush from the edge. Enter a completely new defensive scheme. In my mind, there are 2 basic philosophies when it comes to defense. The first is read and react. Success with the read and react defense is counting on either 1) having sufficiently talented players capable of matching or exceeding the level of skill of the offense or 2) preventing the big play and waiting for the offense to make a mistake. The second philosophy is to scheme and act. Success in this type of defense is predicated on forcing the offense to recognize what the defense is doing and adjust, forcing the offense to play into where you want them to, allowing you to anticipate the play (knowing their tendencies helps) instead of react, and trying to force mistakes. In reality, any defense is a mix of the two philosophies. In a traditional 4 man front, the offense can, almost by default, account for 8 players (4 DLs and 4 DBs). It’s like playing Blackjack. One card down, all you have to be able to do is count to 21, and basic probability tells you the odds of winning the hand. In a 3 man front, the offense can only account for 7 players. All of the sudden you are playing Texas Hold-‘Em instead of Blackjack. With two cards in the hole, the probable combinations increase significantly. Does your two-pair beat my two pair, or am I playing 3-of-a-kind. Maybe a flush? Is the Buck going to play as a rush end or an OLB? Maybe a different LB will blitz. We are playing a different game than we were in the past, so trying to compare based on points or yards allowed is moot, especially 2 games into the season. On some series we will give up a big play because the aggressiveness leaves a hole that is exploited by the perfect play call. On the next, it may end with a turnover and a short field. The pace of our offense will create more possessions for both teams. By default this creates opportunity for the other guy to accumulate more yards and potentially score more points. The only thing that matters on defense is the percentage of successful series (those ending without the other team scoring).
Defensive Front: Some people are complaining about the run defense versus SMU. Keep in mind that the point of the spread offense is to take advantage of the weak spots in the defense. The hand-off to the lone RB on a draw play is designed to take advantage of the fact that the defense has dropped 5 into coverage. We learned that we can’t stop the run consistently with just 6 in the box. Against SMU, dropping into coverage is the right scheme ALL DAY. Just as in the past, Tech could call run after run after run and teams would still be defending pass, against a June Jones offense, defending pass first is the way to go. The Tech defense held Kyle Padron, a QB who finished 2009 with a 160 rating, 9.6 yds/att and 4 INTs in 7 games as a freshman to a 105 rating, 5.7 yds/att and 3 INTs. That’s pretty good.
While we are in theory running a 3 – 4 scheme, in practice we’ve seen a lot of 4 man fronts with the Buck on the line en lieu of a regular DE. We have also tried some interesting blitzes from this formation and moved guys around more pre-snap. Similar to the offense, I think this has been to get the guys used to the pass rush from this position. In the second half against UNM, we switched to a 4 – 3 and seemed to have some improvement. I predicted during the off season that we would still be a primarily 4 – 3 defense because we just don’t have all of the right personnel to make the wholesale switch to a 3 – 4. Look to see more of the 4 man front in conference.
Bronte Bird showed a lot of improvement against UNM versus SMU, playing more downhill and filling gaps more quickly. His play will continue to improve through the season. I like him in the middle versus outside, trying to run with a slot receiver as in the past. Look for Bird’s stat line to impress by the end of the season. I don’t think he’ll log time on Sundays, but in the end, we’ll all be glad he was a Red Raider. Sam Foheko has yet to impress me, and I expect him to be sharing more reps with the younger guys as we get later into the season.
Defensive Backs: I have been pleasantly surprised by the overall performance of the secondary. They have been playing a lot of press, man coverage over the first 2 games. The benefit is we have guys in position to make a play on the ball. The bad news is a small slip or blown assignment means a big play. The other thing this has done is show that slow-developing, long, crossing patterns are difficult to defend with our personnel. We still don’t have the wheels to keep up with the other team’s fastest receivers. While schematically simple (this is your guy – stick with him), man coverage is difficult to execute at this level because the likelihood of a mismatch is still high. Look for us to mix in more zone coverage, show press at the line and then back-peddle quickly, and use cover 2 in conference play, especially against teams with a lot of fire power at receiver. Texas has yet to show that they can replace the McCoy-Shipley tandem, and are still looking for guys to step up at receiver. I expect us try to test them early in press coverage and see how they respond before shifting to zone.
While the defensive revolution is underway, our winning will still be predicated on our offense being more efficient than the other guys (scoring on a high percentage of possessions), not a Zack Thomas INT for a TD in the waning seconds of the game, for those who fear a return to 1999. Again, % of scoring drives is the only stat that matters. Total yards is inversely proportional to field position. If defense and special teams set us up for short scoring drives, and the other team puts up hundreds of yards but doesn’t score, it means we win.
There you have it, my ramblings on where we stand and what may lie ahead. Maybe I'm the one who's lost. Feel free to throw darts.