Swag. If there is one thing Kliff Kingsbury can be credited for bringing to Texas Tech, it is this, and he did not wait long to exploit it. In a town that has been dubbed the most boring city to live, it shouldn't have been as effortless as it was. But when other schools' fans fall in love with you and New York Magazine posts a picture of you shirtless, physical attributes necessary for those feats make it easier to take notice. Whether it's those baby blue eyes or the Ray Bans that shield them, he has brought an unmistakable enthusiasm to the program. Much like the swooning coeds he has captivated, recruits are starting to take notice. Since Tommy Tuberville's last season, the class average star rating has risen from 2.61 to 2.84 in Kingsbury's debut, with this year's class currently sitting at 3.33. Small sample size or not, the year to year improvement is apparent, and is likely to only improve.
Kingsbury's first year as a head coach started off as well as it possibly could have, with the Red Raiders sporting a 7-0 record heading into a highly anticipated matchup with Oklahoma. But as well as the season had gone to that point, it ended just as poorly; Tech lost their final five games by an average of 20 points. A Holiday Bowl date with Pac-12 South Division champs Arizona State did not invoke optimism amongst the Red Raider faithful. However, not only did Tech beat the spread of 17 levied against them, they very nearly reversed it as they demolished the 16th-ranked Sun Devils 37-23.
National implications of a middle to low-tier bowl game are minimal at best, but the importance of this bowl victory for Texas Tech is almost immeasurable. Instead of going into the offseason with a five or six game losing streak, they completely flipped the narrative with a dominant upset victory almost no one anticipated. Returning the bulk of their starters from an effective offense a year ago, they have the national media's attention coming into this season, garnering some top 25 votes.
The quarterback position is number one in almost any offense, but it holds a special importance in the Mike Leach/Kingsbury air-raid. Unfortunately for Kingsbury, an excess of youth at the position last year left the door shut for anyone else to get playing time once Davis Webb finally won the competition. So everyone except Webb transferred, leaving incoming freshman Patrick Mahomes to assume the backup role. Fortunately for him, Webb is pretty much a stud and will only get better as his years progress. He added twenty pounds in the offseason, which has already translated to more zip on his throws and is expected to do some big things after a full offseason under his belt.
Wide receivers are almost as important as quarterbacks in this offense, and Seth C from Viva the Matadors tells me to expect big things from senior Bradley Marquez as he moves to the inside to replace All-American tight end Jace Amaro. Junior speedster Jakeem Grant has been trusted with the opposite slot position. Starters on the outside should be D.J. Polite-Bray and all-name team candidate Reginald Davis, who returns after gaining 200 receiving yards last season. Last name sharer Jordan Davis returns 248, and three other returning receivers are viable options behind them. Add a JUCO transfer and six true freshmen, and you get a wealth of options to put together the most potent offensive combination.
No matter how little the running game is used in Texas Tech's offensive system, an effective and well timed run can take pressure off the quarterback and passing game. While their leading rusher from the past two seasons does return, it will mostly be on the other side of the ball. Inspired partly by UCLA's Myles Jack and seeing a drastic need, Kenny Williams will be a starting linebacker, but will handle some carries as well as serve on special team coverage. So with his partial switch, DeAndre Washington will assume the title of main ball carrier. The junior compiled respectable numbers, logging 4.2 yards per carry last year on 107 attempts and will look to continue the same sort of production while handling most of the load. Sophomore Quinton White will serve as his main backup. He holds an absurd 10 yards per carry, though on only 13 carries. They both have similar size and will use their quickness to gain yards.
Strong offensive line play has been a staple in Lubbock over the past decade or so. From 2005-2009, they had five lineman drafted and will almost assuredly have another one drafted in 2015. Le'Raven Clark is currently rated the fourth best offensive tackle prospect by nfldraftscout.com and will protect Webb's blind side for the second season. He was briefly moved to right guard this offseason, but has since moved back. Coaches wanted JUCO transfer and former K-State recruit Dominique Robertson to take over left tackle for the season, but have since changed their minds. Robertson has been experimented with at right guard as well. In all, five players are ready for the two guard spots, which means that there is plenty of depth to go around. Center Jared Kaster was out most of the preseason with a shoulder injury, but returns to the gridiron five pounds heavier and fully healthy.
Texas Tech is looking to improve on their defensive performance from last year despite only having five defensive starters return. Matt Wallerstedt, former linebacker coach during the '06 and '07 seasons at his alma mater Kansas State, is the first defensive coordinator to serve more than one season in Lubbock since 2009. Both Wallerstedt and Kingsbury believe this will increase the stability of the defense and help resolve some trust issues that were blamed for the fragile mentality that plagued the team last year, especially during that five game losing streak. Judging by their Holiday Bowl dominance of a strong Sun Devil offense, they appear to have taken some steps in the right direction since the 41-16 blowout loss to Texas.
Linebacker Pete Robertson is returning as a junior after finishing last season with 60 tackles, including nine tackles for loss and 2.5 sacks. He also ran the ball back for a touchdown on one of his two interceptions and forced two fumbles. The expectation is for him to be a vocal leader on the defense and keep things quick and disruptive. Sam Eguavoen returns for his Senior campaign after amassing 70 tackles last year. With 27 career starts, Kingsbury and Wallerstedt are expecting Eguavoen to take on leadership responsibilities and to help carry the defense to a better performance this year. Eguavoen is on record as saying he has two dates circled on his calendar for revenge games. Kansas State is not either of those games (Baylor and TCU), but that doesn't mean that he won't being looking to avenge last season's loss. Kenny Williams also brings his talents to the linebacker corps this season. He did not play the position in high school, but has shown some natural tackling ability on special teams and entertained the idea of switching over in the spring of 2013. Obviously he still has some learning to do at his new position, but has shown promise since his switch-over and has the physical tools to make the transition successful.
The defense also brought on four junior college linemen with the goal of providing immediate size and experience to the front. None of them hold a starting spot for the season opener against Central Arkansas, but will undoubtedly be factors on a previously paper-thin D-line. Keland McElrath, defensive tackle, hails from Coahoma Community College in Mississippi and transferred at mid-term. He was able to practice and play in the spring game, giving him an earlier start on a defense looking to utilize speed to stop the offenses of their conference mates. Demetrius Alston bested him for the tackle starting spot, and Jackson Richards holds the nose guard position. Defensive end Branden Jackson is the only returning starter of the group.
Defending beyond the front seven could be dicey at times this season. Four sophomores are poised to start in the secondary this year, but the unit as a whole has the potential to be very solid once they start to gel. The safety positions are in fairly good shape already, with J.J. Gaines and Keenon Ward receiving significant playing time last year. Gaines has already shown promise, compiling 16 tackles and two interceptions in five games, missing the remainder due to injury last year. The corners are the weak spot on this defense with starters Justis Nelson and La'Darius Newbold only seeing playing time last year in garbage time. With any amount of inexperience, shaky moments are inevitable. But if all four can develop more consistency and limit their mistakes, then Red Raider fans will not have to wait long to see just how promising their futures could be.
Local and national media alike are very high on Kingsbury's squad this year. The buzz surrounding Davis Webb and confidence radiating from his head coach can largely be attributed to that. But I believe the that Holiday Bowl thrashing has left a lasting and undeniable influence in the public mind. As impressive and unforeseen as the victory was, the five games before that were just as, if not more, off-putting. Yes, it was his first season as head coach, and yes, he only had two true freshmen quarterbacks, but replacing two NFL caliber receivers and over half of your defensive starters with inexperience and JUCO transfers does not bode well against the upper half of the league. Worse, after the quarterback exodus there's not much of a backup plan in the event Webb goes down. No doubt the talent is there to give anyone a run for their money, and Kingsbury has the program moving rapidly forward. But the amount of flaws leaves me skeptical of a championship run, at least for this season.