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Texas Tech roundtable: turning around a difficult season

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Viva the Matadors reached out to a few friends to prepare a panel to recap TCU and review the season.

Andrew Dieb-USA TODAY Sports

We are in the final stretch of the season, which is a great time to take stock of where the program is and where it is going! Let me take a second and thank our panelists for their responses. @gunsupnation ‘s RC Maxfield, our very own staff member Emory, @ShehanJeyarajah, @robbreauxshow all took the time to answer my questions below and I can’t thank them enough for their participation. Without further ado, here we go!

Starting with the most immediate result, the TCU game ends in an ugly loss. What did this game tell you about this team that you didn’t already know?

Rob- I learned that Max Duggan can run a 4.2 40. It reassured me I wasn’t crazy that the defense was playing ‘winnable’ Big 12 defense. To only give up 38 when the offense goes three and out 9 times and your special teams gives them the ball back in Texas Tech territory five times is impressive.

Emory- To be completely honest, it really did not tell me much of anything. The tackles were a known liability, and that was exploited by the TCU pass rush. Colombi’s intermediate game was off and he struggled with pressure, but still had some nice throws. The defense played well, but gave up a couple really explosive plays and could not avoid mistakes. Essentially, the TCU game was very similar to how the team looked against Kansas State, and unfortunately the game ended in a similar fashion.

Shehan- The loss itself didn’t tell much more, but the way Texas Tech’s offense regressed told me that this team is heading in the wrong direction. The only scores of the game were flukey. TCU is a good defense, but hasn’t been that good – what’s going to change?

RC- My immediate thought was to try and figure out the thought process of Matt Wells deciding to kick a field goal on 2nd down while the offense was having its best-sustained drive of the game. Overall, I thought we learned quite a bit about the defense. I thought they played their best game of the season and with very difficult circumstances on the defensive line. TCU isn’t the best offense in the Big 12 and their offensive line definitely has its flaws, but the defense got pressure on Duggan at a high rate, and that limited a lot of what TCU could do offensively. The two penalties (one each by Fields and Beck) really changed the whole outlook of the game for Tech.

The first half was an episode in offensive futility. The second half the offense moved the ball reasonably well, and likely had a TD wiped out by Wells’ decision to kick the field goal. What do you attribute to the offenses struggles? What needs to change to right the ship?

Rob- This offense has zero rhythm. That starts with the offensive line, but I don’t think they are the entire story. What needs to change? Nothing can change midseason that will create a noticeable change. You don’t have a set of All-Big 12 tackles you’re waiting to unveil against Baylor. I do think there needs to be more of an effort to get the ball to your playmakers down the field. The top three being Carter, Ezukanma and White.

Emory- Well I have my reservations on the calls that David Yost makes, but a lot of the issues in the first half were personnel based. As I stated in my last response, the tackles have been a huge issue all year, and that was no different in the first half. Combine that with a quarterback that does not feel pressure well, and a disaster could ensue. Colombi also missed Ezukanma on what likely would have been a huge gain early on, which would foreshadow the end of the game as well. Sarodorick Thompson is still banged up. Going forward, I have sort of accepted that we are not going to suddenly resurrect the 2016 offense. Bringing Patrick Mahomes back would not completely fix our issues. With that said, there are some minor tweaks that could give us more than five yards per pass play. For one, we could experiment with the tackles. Landon Peterson is an intriguing option that should see some time, and Will Farrar has the potential to play some as well. Beyond that, I want to see Xavier White utilized significantly more, especially given the lingering injury issues with all of our slot receivers and with Sarodorick. He’s been our most efficient player in the run game, and his versatility could be very valuable in the pass game. Maybe we could even use some MOTION that does not involve Myles Price. Finally, I’d like to see more intermediate passes. Vasher and Ezukanma have both been efficient throughout their college careers on passes between 10-20 yards. Vasher has only been targeted six times in that zone and Ezukanma has not been utilized there enough since Colombi took over.

Shehan- It seems like Texas Tech is struggling to find an offensive identity. Are they a tempo team? Are they a physical team? Are they finesse? Are they run-first? Until they determine something they can do well, I don’t see how they can create a successful unit.

RC- Man, Casey Cowan and I discussed this during our postgame show and I personally blame a majority of it on play calling. I wonder if Yost was lifted in a sense by the talent he’s had at the QB positions at his prior stops. Now, obviously the QB shouldn’t get all the credit, but it for sure helped Yost. For me, the middle of the field and the vertical passing game has to be used more frequently for this offense to be successful. Yost uses the screen game as a part of the run game and negates the middle of the field for what seems like quarters at a time. Get your playmakers in space such as a KeSean Carter and allow the offense to not operate just outside the numbers.

We all know what call everyone is talking about. What are your thoughts on the field goal decision? What did this decision tell you about Wells?

Rob- Wells is like that kid in junior high who just learned to cuss and he’s trying to show everyone he knows how but it’s all wrong and it doesn’t make any sense. Just replace cussing with being aggressive. He’s trying, but it’s just not him.

Emory- It was without question the worst call of the Matt Wells era, and really makes me question if we are using analytics correctly. I am not a big football scheme guy, nor do I have the understanding to truly criticize specific play decisions as a journalist, even if I may have casual fan thoughts. I can analyze numbers though, and the numbers for the field goal decision are completely baffling. I could write an entire article on why the move was egregiously dumb from a math perspective, but even if you believe a field goal was the right move, it was still executed in a terrible manner. The field goal unit was rushed on, and Wells probably wasted 20 seconds in not spiking the ball before running the unit on. Even if Wolff had made the kick, which was bound to be a low percentage move, it was still destined for failure. Scoring a touchdown in two minutes against a prevent defense is a lot harder than getting into field goal range in one minute against normal defense, especially when you consider Tech could not generate consistent drives all game. Driving consistently against prevent would be nearly impossible. I try not to be too reactionary, but that decision seriously has me questioning what goes into a decision by Wells.

Shehan- The thing I like about Wells is that he’s willing to try things and be aggressive which I think a lot of coaches aren’t willing to do. That decision though… not his best. You still need a touchdown at that point in some form and Tech hadn’t put together a real TD drive all day. Why would you prematurely end your best chance at one? It didn’t make any sense to me.

RC- I truly can’t comprehend the logic behind it at all. As I mentioned earlier, your offense is having its most sustained drive of the entire game and you decide to completely halt all that momentum to give a kicker who at the start of the game had yet to make an FG attempt all season? Oh, and did I mention Tech still had three timeouts?!?! It’s illogical and just had me completely dumbfounded quite honestly. For me what it showed is that Wells was okay settling for a possible tie and overtime instead of telling the players we are going for the win.

Henry Colombi is a polarizing figure. Has he done enough to remain the starter?

Rob- Yes. Who else? The staff doesn’t trust McIvor.

Emory- It really does not matter what I think, because Colombi is not getting benched by this coaching staff. He had two passes of 60 yards against TCU. The first was on a busted coverage, while the second one was a gorgeous throw. Both traveled more air yards than any completion by Alan Bowman this year. The problem? If you take out those two completions, Colombi averaged only 3.4 yards per attempt. This has been a major issue with Colombi, as despite generating four plays of over 40 yards (compared to 0 for Bowman), his yards per attempt is lower than the Grapevine product. This is largely due to a lack of success in the intermediate game, where Bowman was really good at finding Vasher and Ezukanma. Anything to the outside that is longer than ten yards is a questionable throw for Colombi, and that limits the offense. Also, the sacks for Colombi have been a huge issue (12 sacks in 151 dropbacks, six of which were pinned on him per PFF), and that was not an issue at all for Bowman. I never thought Bowman should have lost the job in the first place, and I still think both quarterbacks are a scapegoat for larger issues within the offense.

Shehan- The issue with the quarterback situation is ultimately that the issues on offense are bigger than one position. Whether because of line, regression or just overall performance, Texas Tech’s run game has been inconsistent. The offensive line has regressed the past two weeks and hasn’t been the strength we thought it could be. I still think Colombi is likely the more likely quarterback to provide consistency, but it’s hard to see whether either Colombi or Bowman can do that.

RC- Yeah, I think he has for the remainder of the season. The offensive line has done him no favors and neither has the conservative play-calling. Colombi doesn’t have the best arm in the world, but he can push the ball down the field as he showed Saturday when he needs to.

Moving on from the TCU, let’s take a look at the fully body of work. This season is clearly going down the toilet for Tech, but it is being played under unique circumstances. How much does this pandemic season impact Wells’ future?

Rob- Everyone is playing in unique circumstances. I don’t know about the long and distant future, but I think Wells will be the head coach in 2021. Only if he beats Kansas though.

Emory- For me, this season is basically an extension of last year offensively, while defensively this season must be taken with a large asterisk. Having the Coronavirus limit training camp and practices was always going to hurt a Tech defense built on new faces, and having the virus go through Tech’s locker room seriously hampered the development on the defensive side of the ball. The Houston Baptist and Texas games were obvious consequences from the lack of practice, and since then there is still a lot of chemistry issues on both sides that have limited the performance. So, every opinion should be formed with those limitations in mind. With that said, Matt Wells has really frustrated the Tech fanbase, and that is a dangerous game to play. Remember- Kliff Kingsbury got fired in 2018 despite having arguably his best team. Why? Because the fanbase was sick of losing, and they did not care about injuries. Matt Wells is one unfortunate losing season away from the same thing happening to him.

Shehan- I don’t think the pandemic affects my evaluation of this season too much. Texas Tech hasn’t had major COVID issues during the season, that’s not why they’re struggling. That said, Tech has been about what a lot of us expected in year two under Wells. It’s necessary context, but doesn’t define this season for Texas Tech, to me.

RC- I think quite a bit, if we are being realistic, Wells didn’t inherit a “full cupboard”. He has needed to get guys in here through the transfer portal and not having a offseason with his first true recruiting class can’t be understated.

There are a lot of theories as to what has gone wrong. Over a year and a half into Wells’ tenure, what are you seeing that’s holding the program back? Do you believe Wells can turn the corner before his time runs out?

Rob- I think Wells has already shown us what he is. A slightly above average recruiter with average in-game skills and moderate ability to adapt in-game. I don’t think a corner needs to be turned in Lubbock, the program is already at the bottom. It’s a Bowl game or bust next season.

Emory- I do not see any underlying reason for Tech’s recent struggles. I view each team as independent of each other, and for the most part the issues for Tech have been vastly different throughout the last decade. Terrible defense and close losses are the only result-based constants, but even then the process that led to those results varied drastically. To give an example- in 2017 I thought Tech overachieved the talent that they had. Shimonek and the revolving door at running back were no match for the 2015 duo of Mahomes and Washington, yet they were one minute away from having the same record, with insane turnover luck and a fundamentally improved defense being the main improvements. In 2018, I thought the issue was the injuries and some poor luck in close games. Tech lost the last five games of the year, and in four of them they had a lead for more than half of the game. Analytically, they were literally on par with the 10-2 Texas team that made the Sugar Bowl. With all that said, this year’s team is a large combination of issues. To flip the script of the question, I no longer think there is a single thing that makes Tech better than average. The great talent is not there at any position outside of wide receiver (which is not being utilized for a variety of reasons). The game management has been questionable throughout the year. And the luck has not been favorable in any way. Tech has lost the turnover battle badly in three games, and in another one had horrendous end-of-game luck (having an onside kick go through a players hands is very much a luck-based result). Lastly, the team morale is not ideal for a team trying to compete in the Big 12. There is quite a split between the old Kliff guys (i.e. TJ Vasher and Damarcus Fields) and the rest of the team brought in by Wells.

Shehan- I think Texas Tech is still struggling to find an identity. They came in saying they wanted to be hard-nosed, physical and football junkies. None of that comes through. Offensively, this team is still pretty finesse. Building a culture like that takes time, but I think it’s fair to say they’re behind schedule

RC- Not being able to adjust is the main thing that stands out for me. What I mean by that, is Yost is one of the best OC’s in the country when it comes to scripted plays (first 15 plays of the game), however after those plays are done, he doesn’t adjust until Tech is behind by 2 or 3 possessions.

The calls for David Yost’s job get louder every game. Is it time to make that change, or should Wells stay committed to his guy?

Rob- I don’t like calling for a coaches job, but if Someone else was calling plays in 2021 I wouldn’t be upset.

Emory- I am by no means a fan of David Yost, but I find it hard to believe he is as bad as some Tech fans suggest. I do think there are some very frustrating aspects of Yost’s system, but he’s also handicapped by having two limited quarterbacks and two of the least productive tackles in college football. It is hard to scheme up a great scheme without great quarterbacks or great line play. All that said, there are some offensive minds that could certainly maximize the receiver and running back talent in a better way, specifically guys like Zach Kittley or Seth Doege would be worth looking towards, if we were to stay in the Tech family of coaches.

Shehan- Two years ago when Wells came to Lubbock, I remember Texas Tech fans watching their phones closely to make sure that the highly-touted David Yost would come with him. This was a guy fresh off being named a Broyles Award finalist and was seen as the crown jewel of adding Wells. Obviously, results have been mixed, but I’m not ready to say that Yost just forgot how to be a good coordinator. Wells ran into trouble at Utah State when he cycled through assistants. I expect him to be loyal to his guys for at least into next year, and I think that’s the right decision.

RC- Yeah, I think it’s getting really close and could happen as soon as after the Baylor game if they struggle like they did in Ft. Worth. Techs offense has scored 101 points in their last 20 quarters. Also, to me, it seems like he doesn’t put the skill guys in a position to be most successful. At some point as a coach, you have to put your playmakers in a position to succeed even if that means changing your scheme a bit.

The biggest knock on Kingsbury was the horrible recruiting classes that dragged the programs overall talent down. Looking at the 2019, 2020 and 2021, how would you grade Wells as a recruiter?

Rob- That was the biggest knock on Kingsbury? Not the 43 ppg on defense and a losing record with the greatest NFL quarterback ever through three seasons? Wells recruiting is a B+? I think he’s been very good at convincing grad-transfers to come to Lubbock. The true freshmen this year have been productive. The highest rated QB to ever stay committed is still projected to join the program. Hard to complain about it.

Emory- First, it is important to make the point that Kliff’s classes did not drag the talent down. They dragged the depth and sustainability of the team down. Kliff put at least nine (could be more depending on TJ Vasher) receivers in the NFL during his tenure, and even through 2018 put together classes that had solid top-end playmakers. With that said, the line depth deteriorated in his last couple years at Tech, and left Wells with some huge gaps to fill on both sides. So far, I like what Wells has done in balancing out the classes. The 2020 receiver class is loaded with talent, and I like what is coming with Morton and Valdez, but the line depth has already been improved in the last two classes, specifically on the defensive side of the ball. That is something that we will not see the true effects of for a couple years, but it does look promising

Shehan- I’d consider myself in wait-and-see mode. The 2020 class was pretty encouraging overall both in terms of level of talent and positional balance, and we’ve already seen several newcomers contribute in big ways. I would consider his first two classes overall underrated by the numbers. The transfers have also been big in terms of balancing the numbers on the roster between lower and upperclassmen. However, Wells fancies himself a developer at his core, so we’re going to figure out by 2021 whether some of the projects he brought along can pay off.

RC- Yeah, I think so far this is Wells’s biggest strength as a head coach. The 2021 class is one of the best in recent memory. He gets a good combination of high schoolers as well as power five transfers or those from the JUCO ranks that allow for the team to have the depth that wasn’t there with Kliff. I’d give him a solid B on the recruiting trail

The secondary has been the biggest blight on this defense. With all the transfer talent that came in, what is Tech still missing on the back end? What about Keith Patterson’s scheme should he change to protect the secondary?

Rob- First of all, the secondary isn’t the biggest blight, the corners have played admirably. I actually think the Texas Tech defense has been pretty good this season. I know a lot of people get frustrated with the three man rush, but I think this scheme is solid. A game changer at Safety sure would be nice.

Emory- Chemistry. Tech’s defense is like a 1,000 piece puzzle with about 20 missing pieces and 200 that are not connected yet. There are a couple huge personnel deficiencies at the safety positions, and that is a major problem, particularly as a coach like Lincoln Riley was able to torch that group all night. Fields, McPhearson, and Hogan are all decent corners according to PFF, but with safeties that are not used to playing together and a unit that has seen numerous lineup changes this year, it will be hard to avoid getting torched. With that said, Patterson could do well to bring some more blitzes in the front seven to help out the secondary. Forcing the ball to come out quick could mitigate some of the long passes that have plagued Tech all year, and bringing different looks may generate some turnovers, which have been hard to come by for a unit with only five takeaways all year.

Shehan- To be honest, I think the focus on the secondary is overblown. The far bigger issue to me is that Texas Tech’s defense ranks among the worst teams nationally in sacks. It doesn’t matter how good your secondary is if quarterbacks have forever to throw the ball. I don’t know if scheme is enough to make up for personnel – they could try blitzing more from different angles but that comes with its own lane of drawbacks. I think it’s ultimately just defensive line development.

RC- Depth, that’ll come with recruiting though. I also think it’s just part of being in the Big 12 to a degree. I thought in Ft. Worth, the secondary played pretty well. Now, Duggan helped them look good at times, but I thought overall the secondary played pretty well with McPherson being the main standout

Wells won’t be fired this season more likely than not for numerous reasons. Is year three the win or go home year for Wells?

Rob- I think there is at least one box Wells still needs to check to be brought back next season but to answer the question, Yes. Bowl or Bust in 2021. If Texas Tech loses big to Baylor and Oklahoma State it might be win or go home early in December in Lubbock.

Emory- I think it is, mainly because the buyout price will not be worse than what Kliff’s was, the fans are not anywhere near as attached to Wells as they were to Kliff, and the enthusiasm around the program is at an all-time low. I personally want some form of continuity at the coaching position, but on the same level college football is a business and it’s hard to justify keeping a coach who is not delivering on-field results or giving fans a reason to like him.

Shehan- I think no question Wells needs to have some on-field success to keep this going. Wells pitched a full-scale rebuild when he arrived in Lubbock and I certainly don’t think it’s fair to write the story on him two years in. However, year three is when rebuilds usually start showing some life. I don’t think it needs to be a breakout year by any means, but a bowl game should be assumed.

RC- No, I think starting a true freshman at QB next season in Behren Morton will give him a bit more of a leash. Also, I believe Yost will be gone so having a new OC and at least trying to find an offensive fix will allow him to be here through at least half of 2022.

Finally, there are a few winnable games ahead. How does Tech’s season finish up? is it possible for this team to end the year on a high note/get invited to a bowl?

Rob- Texas Tech will beat Baylor and Kansas and get to 4-6 on the season. That’s an improvement on last season mathematically. A Bowl game is definitely possible at 4-6 but not guaranteed. I think one of the plethora of Bowls in Texas, if they allow fans, would LOVE to have the Red Raiders join.

Emory- I see Tech beating Baylor and easily beating Kansas. Both are revenge games for the team, and particularly against Baylor the matchup is very favorable for a Tech defense that has been legitimately good at containing the intermediate pass as of late, and has been solid against running backs under Keith Patterson. I have no idea how bowl invites will go, but as the ninth best team in the Big 12 I find it hard to see Tech getting an invite.

Shehan- Kansas is a win, Baylor is a 50/50 game, Oklahoma State is a loss. I’d probably lean towards a 1-2 finish to end 3-7 for the year, which is disappointing but not a reason to panic. Beating Baylor is certainly possible but I’d imagine 4-6 isn’t good enough to get a bowl invite. The Oklahoma State game is a bad matchup so I just don’t see winning it.

RC- This coming weekend against Baylor will be very telling, how does this team respond to Wells’s decision in Ft. Worth? Do they take it as him not having confidence in them? Does it have any impact at all? That’s what I’m looking for, does Tech come out flat and if they do, they’ll beat Kansas, but that’s it for Tech in the win department if they do. I don’t think they’ll receive a bowl invite personally, especially with all the power five conferences now playing.