My apologies for not getting this cranked out yesterday. The parents are in town, and my computer time was spent setting up this Football Outsiders podcast with Beano Cook and Charlie Flowers (which, by the way, you should give a listen if you have the time).
Thursday we looked at an offense that, despite a couple of question marks, is likely to still be rock solid. Today, it's the defense's turn under the spotlight. Will Tommy Tuberville's first Tech defense continue what has been steady, solid improvement in recent years, or will 2010 be case of square-peg-round-hole-itis?
Standard Downs S&P+: 38th
Redzone S&P+: 32nd
Q1 S&P+: 35th
1st Down S&P+: 20th
Rushing S&P+: 60th
Standard Downs: 68th
Adj. Line Yards: 90th
Passing S&P+: 23rd
Standard Downs: 19th
Adj. Sack Rate: 2nd
While I'm not going to tell you that Tech had one of the best defenses in the country last year, I am certainly going to mention that they were as much of a reason for Tech getting back to the nine-win mark as their offense was. Both units dropped off at least a hair compared to their 2008 heights, but this D made plays at key times, especially when rushing the passer. Last year's defensive coordinator Ruffin McNeill was able to dial up effective blitzes on passing downs, which allowed them to play Missouri-style effective defense -- when Mizzou's D is doing well, it's because they're getting pressure on the QB while the DBs drop back and clean up the messes if the quarterback still gets the pass off. They didn't force a ton of turnovers, but they got to the quarterback and were able to prevent a ton of big plays in the passing game. Unfortunately for them, their three leading sack-masters from a year ago (Brandon Sharpe had 15, Daniel Howard had 8, Marlon Williams had 3.5) are all gone, as is their best corner Jamar Wall.
|Standard Downs S&P+||73||40||41||63||38|
|Passing Downs S&P+||46||24||46||7||23|
|Adj. Line Yards||105||77||98||75||90|
|Adj. Sack Rate||96||44||28||18||2|
|* F/+ data does not exist for offenses and defenses until the 2006 season.
We really should take a moment to applaud the job McNeill did in his limited time as the leader of Tech's defense. He was on Mike Leach's staff from the first days in Lubbock, serving first as linebackers coach, then he took over for Lyle Setencich after an amazing defensive debacle in Stillwater in 2007. In his first full season in charge of the Tech D, the Red Raiders improved from 61st in Defensive F/+ to 25th, showing particular strength on passing downs. Tech was still not quite able to leverage their way into passing downs enough (their Line Yardage, a.k.a. defensive line performance against the rush, remained terrible), but when they did, it was lights out. But five-year trends do not matter much when you are hitting the reset button with the coaching staff, the defensive scheme (like seemingly everybody else in the country, they're moving from a 4-3 to a 3-4) and quite a bit of the personnel. If the Tech offense is a bit of an unknown, so is the defense. This makes Tech the single biggest question mark on the Mizzou schedule. Some opponents have known strengths and weaknesses (Nebraska is defense-heavy, ATM the exact opposite), but we have simply no idea what Tech is going to be capable of in Tommy Tuberville's first season.
2009 Unit Ranking: 26th (5th in the Big 12)
Projected DE Depth Chart
Kerry Hyder (6'3, 255, RSFr.)
Scott Smith (6'7, 275, Jr.)
Lawrence Rumph (6'4, 270, Jr.)
Britton Barbee (6'2, 296, Sr.)
Projected DT Depth Chart
Pearlie Graves (6'1, 278, RSFr.)
David Neil (6'5, 280, Jr., 1.0 tackles, 1.0 TFL/sacks)
There will always be period of transition when a defense moves to a 3-4. Neither the ends nor tackles recruited to play a 4-3 will likely be quite hefty enough to handle the rigors of extra blocking from the offensive line, and everybody has to adapt to a new role. Well, take the normal amount of transition, and double it in Tech's case. They must replace every player who was even a remote pass rush threat (their only returnee with more than one sack last year it Whitlock, who had three). Their top three listed defensive ends are newcomers -- a redshirt freshman and two junior college transfers. Their only known quantity on the line is a tackle who was a bit undersized in the 4-3, and now is a lot undersized in the 3-4.
One thing Tech could have going for them here is freshness, the element of surprise. Only three of the ten players listed above registered a tackle in a Tech uniform last year. Donald Langley (Tennessee) and Chris Perry (Miami) are both transfers from other BCS schools. There is almost certainly a bit of talent and athleticism here, and since so few of them have actually taken snaps in a 4-3 at the major college level, they could adapt to new roles faster. This is obviously the positive spin of "They have almost no experience," but I do what I can.
2009 Unit Ranking: 19th (4th in the Big 12)
Projected "Buck" Depth Chart
Projected LB Depth Chart
Now we get to potentially the most experienced unit of the Tech defense. Players like Brian Duncan and Bront Bird have been steady performers throughout their time in Lubbock, and they will be counted on to be the same in 2010. Duncan could perhaps be the most important player on the Tech roster. He moves into the "Buck" role for Tuberville's first Tech defense, the DE/OLB hybrid who will spend a lot of his time rushing the quarterback. (Being that the Tech depth chart lists the line as DE-NT-DT instead of DE-NT-DE, I'm thinking he will spend as much or more time as the fourth end as he does the fourth linebacker.) He was a tackler, not a pass-rusher last year -- he was fourth on the team with eight tackles for loss last season, but none were sacks. How he adapts to the "fourth end" role will likely determine how Tech's defense performs overall. He is as experienced as you could want a senior leader to be, but he doesn't have this type of experience.
The rest of the LB corps should be rock solid. Bird, Julius Howard and Sam Fehoko are all strong, though since they'll all spend time as the fourth rusher in the 3-4, we'll have to see how well they serve in attacking roles; the three combined for 93.0 tackles last year, but only 7.5 tackles for loss. Behind all of these upperclassmen are a host of redshirt freshmen.
2009 Unit Ranking: 63rd (7th in the Big 12)
Projected CB Depth Chart
LaRon Moore (5'9, 200, Sr., 39.0 tackles, 4.0 TFL/sacks, 2 INT, 1 FF, 2 FR, 6 PBU)
D.J. Johnson (6'0, 170, So., 23.0 tackles, 1 INT, 1 FF, 6 PBU)
Will Ford (6'1, 186, So., 18.5 tackles, 1 INT, 1 PBU)
Tre'Vante Porter (6'0, 185, Fr.)
Jarvis Phillips (6'0, 189, RSFr.)
Eugene Neboh (5'11, 174, So.)
Projected S Depth Chart
Cody Davis (6'2, 200, So., 69.5 tackles, 1.5 TFL/sacks, 6 PBU)
Franklin Mitchem (6'2, 198, Sr., 51.0 tackles, 1.0 TFL/sacks, 2 INT, 3 FR, 3 PBU)
Brett Dewhurst (6'0, 193, Jr., 23.0 tackles, 1.0 TFL/sacks, 4 PBU)
Jared Flannel (5'11, 167, Jr., 3.0 tackles)
Terrance Bullitt (6'3, 182, RSFr.)
Yahsua Williams (6'3, 181, RSFr.)
Many are writing the Tech secondary off this season because of the loss of star corner Jamar Wall; but while I still think the linebackers are the best unit on the field for the Red Raiders this fall, the overall dropoff should not be too significant here. Wall was good, but playmaker LaRon Moore should be able to step into the #1 CB role without much of a problem (we'll have to see if D.J. Johnson or Will Ford are then capable of stepping into Moore's #2 role without dropoff). Both safeties return, including freshman 2009 All-American Cody Davis. Neither Davis nor Franklin Mitchem spent much time behind the line of scrimmage last season, but they combined to intercept two passes (both via Mitchem's hands), break up nine passes, and recover three fumbles.
A secondary is only as good as the pass rush in front of it, and that was never more true than for Tech's secondary last year. If the opposing quarterback was getting the pass off, it was likely going to be complete (opposing QBs completed 60.3% of their passes last year), and no Tech defender grabbed more than two interceptions last year, not even Wall. The secondary will need to help the super-green pass rush out this year, holding their coverage longer than they did in 2009. Can they?
2009 Unit Ranking: 17th (3rd in the Big 12)
Net Punting: 74th
Net Kicking: 3rd
K Matt Williams (5'8, 164, Sr., 60-for-61 PAT, 11-for-14 FG, Long: 43)
P Ryan Erxleben (6'0,1 90, So., 43 punts, 40.8 average)
KR Eric Stephens (5'8, 182, So., 32 returns, 25.7 average)
PR Austin Zouzalik (6'1, 181, So., 21 returns, 9.6 average)
The only truly known quantities on this Tech team are the offensive skill position players and the special teams unit. Despite mediocre punting, this unit ranked in the overall Top 20 last season and returns all of its marquee players. Eric Stephens is a very strong kick returner. Matt Williams was not tested significantly last season (only four of his 14 field goal attempts were from beyond 40), but he was quite consistent. That's probably a good thing, as not every coach is as flamboyant about going for it on fourth downs as Leach was (case in point: the 2007 MU-Tech game that saw Leach forgo approximately 26 field goals and fail miserably in the process). Both Williams and punter Ryan Erxleben (how exactly do you pronounce that? Earls-leben? Erz-luh-ban?) will possibly be counted on to shoulder a larger load this season. Then again, new offensive coordinator Neal Brown coached at Troy last year, where their kicker attempted just 14 field goals...
When I was on The Closers the other day, SleepyFloyd7 asked about Tech, and I more-or-less admitted that I have absolutely no idea what this team is going to do in 2010. I think it's tremendously unfair to them, however, to assume that Texas A&M is in the No. 3 spot in the South this year. Yes, they are more of a known quantity than Tech, but that's not necessarily a good thing; part of the "known quantity" in ATM is "Their defense was horrendous last year." Of the five best teams on Tech's 2010 conference schedule, three (Texas, Missouri, Oklahoma State) are at home (Oklahoma and ATM are away), as is Houston in non-conference play. While all the new blood on defense and on the offensive line (not to mention in the coaching booth) could take a while to come together, there is enough potential here that a very good 2010 is not out of the question. That's as close to an out-and-out endorsement as I can come, but in my head, Tech is the No. 3 team in the South until they prove they are not.