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Part 1: The Rise and Fall (and Rise Again) of the Red Raider Offensive Line

 

(Author’s note:  I would appreciate any clarifications from the readers.  Pulling the information together was a challenge, and I certainly don’t want to offend any of the past or current players and their supporters.  As new information arrives, I’ll certainly update the information and make sure to give credit where it is due.)

One of the least reported stories of the Mike Leach era has to be the surprisingly volatile history of the offensive line and the improbable path to success that it has enjoyed over the past three seasons.

The offensive line during the Leach era has generated three All Americans, four NFL players and numerous All Big 12 performers, while at the same time featuring a recruiting class in which four out of five recruits left the team, another recruiting class which resulted in zero starters; a recruiting performance that had yielded  exactly one 5-star recruit over a decade(who subsequently left team); and has gone through four coaches in 10 years.

Despite these challenges, Texas Tech’s offensive line seems to have made a tremendous breakthrough over the past 3 seasons, and has emerged as one the elite offensive line corps in the nation.

The current status was far from pre-ordained.  In fact, like everything to with Leach, the road has been a long and winding one, but the results have been no less astonishing.

Most (ill-informed) observers view the Tech offense as a system of interchangeable parts.  When one player leaves, they assume, another fills his place and the production rarely changes.  Of course, usually these people are referring to quarterbacks and receivers.  Such a belief, on the one hand, is a credit to Leach and his program, but on the other hand is a disservice to the subtle coaching abilities of his staff and athletic gifts of its players.

In the case of the offensive line, however, this belief is even more entrenched.  Most observers assume that the line is the anchor of the Tech offense, its bulwark, is rock.   The offensive line is massive, the offense hums at the pace of 7,000 yards per season, and what ultimately differentiates the team from year to year are a host of other variables. 

Of course, in the case of Texas Tech’s offensive line, nothing could be farther from the truth.  Few fans appreciate the constant soap opera within the ranks of the offensive line which Leach has endured since his arrival, the degree of difficulty with which he has assembled his units from year to year, and, in contrast to his own longevity, the revolving door of offensive line coaches which have marked his tenure.

Texas Tech Offensive Line (2000-10)

 

Returning Starters

New Starters

3*,4*,5*

Recruits

Pass Attempts/ Sack

Rush per Carry

Overall Record

Winning %

2000

NA

NA

NA

20.4

2.6

7-6

54%

2001

NA

NA

NA

20.3

3.5

7-5

58%

2002

2

3

2,0,0

16.7

3.6

9-5

64%

2003

3

2

0,0,0

30.0

4.5

8-5

62%

2004

3

2

1,0,0

23.3

3.8

8-4

67%

2005

2

3

2,0,0

16.3

4.2

9-3

75%

2006

3

2

2,1,1

34.5

4.6

8-5

62%

2007

1

4

3,1,0

42.4

3.1

9-4

69%

2008

5

0

2,1,0

50.9

4.8

11-2

85%

2009

3*

2

3,0,0

 

 

 

 

The chart above provides a useful way to link the performance of the offensive line with the performance of the overall team.

  • The Returning Starters and New Starters columns is meant to reflect the degree of difficulty coaches face from year to year from blending in new starters
  • In this table, the measurables used to assess performance is number of passing attempts per sack and average rushing yards per carry.  For example, the 2008 squad allowed a Leach era-best 51 passing attempts per sack and helped to generate 4.8 rushing yards per carry which led to an 11-2 season and an 85% winning percentage.   

What is noteworthy about the 2008 performance is that it is actually closely matched by the 2007 squad (comprised of the same individuals except Brandon Carter), a group that featured just 1 returning starter and 4 new starters. 

To better understand the magnitude of the 2007 and 2008 breakthrough performances, one has to look back to how Tech managed to get there in the first place. 

Robert Anae (2000-2004)

Robert Anae and Mike Leach first met in the early 1980s at BYU.  At the time Leach was a coaching neophyte hanging around Lavell Edwards’ practices.  Anae was an All-Conference Offensive Lineman for BYU’s 1984 national championship team and later drafted into the USFL.   Anae’s coaching resume includes  Hawaii, high school, BYU, Ricks College in Idaho, Boise State, and prior to joining Leach, the role of offensive line coordinator at UNLV. 

Based on the shared understanding of what Leach hoped to do at Texas Tech and his experience playing and coaching in spread-type offenses, Coach Anae would help to define the prototypical Red Raider offensive lineman, and indeed become a major contributor in refining the offensive line skill sets and techniques considered necessary for executing the spread offense.    

Coach Anae’s contribution at the early stages of the Leach era should not be underestimated.  Anae had to transform a current group of players who were initially recruited to play in a conventional  run-oriented offense into competent pass blockers for the wide open spread offense. 

To better understand the enormity of Anea’s task, in one season Tech’s starting quarterback went from averaging 143 passing yards per game in 1999 to 284 yards per game in 2000 (of course today, we’ve become accustomed to seeing 284 yards being produced in a single half).   In 1999, the Red Raiders averaged 150 yards per game on the ground, while in 2000 the team averaged just 67 yards per game.  The year 2000 was a tremendous year of transition for the program and required every ounce of coaching ability to change the team’s direction and philosophy.

The  2000 offensive line that year allowed just 20 passing attempts per sack, and Tech would wind up Leach’s inaugural season losing to Texas, Texas A&M, Nebraska, Kansas State and OU. 

By 2004 Anae’s squad was generating only slightly more passing attempt per sack and Tech was only averaging about one more win a season than Leach’s inaugural year. 

Still, the direction of team was clear at this point.  Tech’s passing production had increased to over 6,000 yards, or 475 yards per game, and the prototypical Tech offensive line was defined by future NFL mainstays Ramirez, Loper and Gandy.

If there was a Spread Offense Hall of Fame, one could argue that Anae would certainly be amongst its members as a key innovator during its early adoption stage. 

Anae Report Card

 

Highlights

Low Lights

Recruiting

 

2000-02: Seven of thirteen recruits would play in the NFL

2000-04: Three 3-star recruits

2003-04:  Only recruits one 3-star player

2003 Class:  4 out of 5 recruits leave program

2004 Class:  No recruit emerges as a starter

Performance

 

2003:  Unit generate 4.5 rushing yards per carry

2000-04:  7 All Big 12 performers

2002: Unit allows a Leach-era worst 46 sacks, one sack per 16.5 passing attempts.

 

Overall

Anae left Texas Tech in 2005 to return to BYU as its new offensive coordinator where he is now in his fifth year. By all accounts Coach Anae seems like an outstanding person, and certainly someone who Coach Leach greatly respects.  “He is very smart. I consider him one of the top offensive line coaches in the country and at Texas Tech, that's where it all starts, on the line. Robert will be a good offensive coordinator because he is a good football coach.”

Nevertheless, Anae leaves a mixed legacy at Texas Tech.  Certainly, his first recruiting class is one of the top groups in Tech history which included current NFL players Daniel Loper, Dylan Gandy and All-Big 12 performer Cody Campbell.  In addition to that heralded class, Anae was also responsible for bringing in such stalwarts as current NFL player Manny Ramirez, Glen January and EJ Whitley and coached Toby Cecil for most of his career.

The latter years of 2003 and 2004 were far less kind.  In fact, the recruiting results of these classes were dreadful.  From the 2003 class, four out of five starters would leave the team.  From the 2004 class, no recruit would ever become a starter.  Somehow, Anae was unable to build on the success of his first two years.  In his latter two years, Anae managed to attract just one 3-star recruit.

Still the gaping holes in the 2003 and 2004 recruiting classes would leave Tech bereft of Big 12 talent, a noticeable gap which would be reflected throughout the 2005-2007 seasons.

(Note of clarification: In practice, various coaches are responsible for recruiting offensive linemen.  While the offensive line coach may not have direct responsibility for recruiting a particular player, the offensive line coach has significant influence in the recruit’s decision making process. Hence, here I assign the credit for the recruiting classes to the offensive line coach).

As far as production is concerned, Anae’s efforts seemed to create a new level of expectations that subsequent Tech O-lines have largely lived up to. By limiting opposing defences to one sack per 30 passes and by generating at least 4.5 yards per carry, Texas Tech’s offense is able to be extremely efficient.  Ever since Tech’s sack-riddled 7-5 campaign in 2002, Tech seems to have found a ‘new normal’ under which its offense line needs to operate for the offense to be successful.

Still, you can only imagine the quiet panic which must have settled in following Anae’s departure and the graduations of future NFL players Gandy, Loper and Campbell (who was waived a year later).  By 2004, Leach had certainly generated excitement about the program, particularly after knocking off California in the Holiday Bowl.  By then Leach was only averaging about one more victory per year than was Spike Dykes  - hardly enough to secure his future, and certainly not enough to keep his detractors at bay. Going into 2005, Leach would be starting a new quarterback – unproven fifth year senior Cody Hodges, sifting through an unsettled offensive line and breaking in a new offensive line coach.  The prospects for building on the success of the 2004 did not appear likely.

Bill Bedenbaugh (2004-2006)

Bedenbaugh joined Leach at Texas Tech in 2000 as a graduate assistant working with the offensive line.  He was later promoted to running backs coach, prior to being named Leach’s offensive line coach after Anae’s departure.   

When Bedenbaugh inherited the program he was left holding a pretty uneven hand.  His returning starters included Ramirez and Whitley along with 3 new starters.  Almost all of the 2003 recruiting class had left the team, and the 2004 recruiting class would never generate a starter.  In effect, it would be up to Bedenbaugh to rebuild.  

Bedenbaugh’s inherited 2005 unit turned out to be one the worst lines in the Leach era.  Passing attempts per sack dropped from 23 attempts to 16 attempts in a single year.  Still, the offensive line helped generate a respectable 4.1 rushing yards per carry.  The Red Raiders finished 9-3 that year, the second best performance of the Leach area. Despite the growing pains of the offensive line, the Red Raiders would complete a successful year thanks to a weak non conference schedule, poised senior quarterback, strong running game, and an upset win over Oklahoma.

Bedenbough Report Card

 

Highlights

Low Lights

Recruiting

 

2005 Class: Produce 3 All Americans, 5 starters, 2 NFL players

2005-06:  Four 3-star, One 4-star, One 5-star recruit

2006 Class:  5 of 7 recruits leave the team

Performance

 

2005/2006:  Unit generates 4.5 yards per carry

2006:  Unit gives up just 19 sacks, one for every 35 passes

 Two All Big 12 Performances

2005:  Unit gives up 36 sacks in a single season – one sack for every 16.3 passes

 

Continue to Part II