Air raid guys get a bad rap when it comes to defense. Their propensity for tempo and passing mean that their opponents get lots of possessions and lots of snaps. That leads to allowing quite a few yards and points even if they have pretty good defenses.
Adjusting for tempo and opponent, plenty of guys on the Hal Mumme tree have produced decent defensive performances.
- Mike Leach’s last Texas Tech defense ranked 27th in Def. S&P+. His Washington State defenses have improved for a couple of years in a row, growing from 101st in 2014 to 63rd in 2016.
- Dana Holgorsen’s West Virginia defenses have been top-50 for three straight years and top-40 for the last two.
- Art Briles’ 2013 Baylor defense ranked 26th.
- Sonny Dykes’ 2011 Louisiana Tech defense ranked 25th.
- Mark Mangino had Kansas defenses at 21st in 2005 and 35th in 2007.
- In Seth Littrell’s first year as North Texas head coach in 2016, the Mean Green improved from 120th to 93rd.
These are anecdotes and not statistically significant proof. But it shows that having an up-tempo, potentially pass-heavy attack and a solid defense is possible. Adopting the air raid does not commit you to awful defense.
Someone needs to tell that to Kingsbury.
Four years ago, Texas Tech’s hire was one of the most natural you’ll ever see. A former Red Raider quarterback under first Spike Dykes, then Mike Leach, Kingsbury enjoyed some time in the pros before returning to college football and succeeding as an offensive coach. Houston ranked seventh in Off. S&P+ in 2011 with Kingsbury as co-coordinator, and when he followed Kevin Sumlin to Texas A&M in 2012, his first Aggie offense, led by Johnny Manziel, ranked second.
Kingsbury was only 33 when Tech named him head coach in December 2012. It hadn’t even been 10 years since he threw his last pass — against Clemson in a dominating Tangerine Bowl win — in Red Raider red and black. Still, this felt right. After Leach’s controversial firing in 2009, Tommy Tuberville had taken over, and while he engineered two eight-win seasons and plenty of yards and points, the fit just wasn’t there.
Thus far as head man, Kingsbury has proven himself a great offensive coach. After a first-year reset, the Red Raiders have ranked 19th, first, and sixth in Off. S&P+. And in that three-year span, they have lost four times while scoring at least 50 points and 12 times while scoring at least 30.
Tech’s Def. S&P+ ranking the last three years: 114th, 124th, and 125th. The Red Raiders are the exception that proves the rule — yes, you can play decent defense with this offensive system. But Tech can’t. Or at least, Tech hasn’t yet.
After going 8-5 in his first year (with his worst offense to date, no less), Kingsbury has since gone just 16-21. The 2016 season was his second bowl-free campaign in three years. His status as a Tech legend has earned him a little more rope than another coach might get, but he’s stretched that rope out pretty far. His offense will remain prolific despite the loss of first-round quarterback Pat Mahomes II, but he and defensive coordinator David Gibbs have to rebuild their defensive line and hope injury was the primary cause for Tech’s dreadful pass defense.
There were a lot of injuries to deal with, for what it’s worth. Twelve different defensive backs made at least 6.5 tackles, and three of them played in all 12 games. The shuffling up front was nearly as bad. Even Nick Saban needs some semblance of continuity; Tech’s 2016 defense never had a chance.
Still, for most of three years the Tech defense has been the unfair air raid stereotype. And as magical as Kingsbury’s offensive touch is — again, I’m simply assuming another top-15 offense despite the Red Raiders losing an incredible quarterback, plus a nearly 1,200-yard receiver — he might be looking at a coordinator gig in 2018 if Tech can’t make a few stops per game.
2016 in review
If you’re looking for hope, maybe there’s this: Tech’s defense had three of its five best performances in the first five weeks, before attrition had set in.
- First 5 games (3-2): Avg. percentile performance: 72% (~top 35) — 86% offense, 41% defense | Avg. score: Tech 55, Opp 39 (plus-16)
- Last 7 games (2-5): Avg. percentile performance: 38% (~top 80) — 49% offense, 24% defense | Avg. yards per play: Opp 47, Tech 35 (minus-12)
The first five games did include frustrating shootout losses to Arizona State and Kansas State, but the KSU loss was fluky — Tech outgained the Wildcats by 257 yards and was only minus-1 in turnovers, but KSU scored two return touchdowns and won all four fourth downs (Tech was 0-for-3, KSU 1-for-1). Still, six weeks into the season, Tech was still a healthy 36th in S&P+. Six games later, the Red Raiders were 82nd following a 56-point loss to Iowa State.
Their final ranking bounced back to 66th thanks to a blowout of collapsing Baylor, but the last seven games saw five miserable defensive performances and a couple of offensive duds as well. Injuries played a role, but this was a disturbing look at how low the team’s floor is. Will good health lead to a longer look at the ceiling?
Even adjusting for tempo (and nagging injuries to Mahomes), Tech’s offense was ridiculous. Only four teams produced an adjusted scoring average (i.e. an Off. S&P+ rating) of 40-plus points per game in both 2015 and 2016: Cal, Clemson, Oklahoma, and Texas Tech. That’s two air raid programs (Cal was led by Sonny Dykes both years) and two that combined to go 50-6.
That Tech’s offense maintained most of its 2015 form was impressive, considering Mahomes had shoulder and wrist issues for much of the year. Mahomes was also asked to carry more of a load because of a complete restart in the run game.
The 2015 Tech attack featured 1,500-yard rusher DeAndre Washington behind a line that included three three-year starters; in 2016, freshman Da’Leon Ward led Tech backs with just 428 yards (4.2 per carry) behind a line that only had a couple of experienced pieces and had to start eight different guys at least once. Five of the eight were either freshmen or sophomores.
And Tech fell all the way from first to sixth in Off. S&P+.
Kingsbury’s track record makes it impossible to worry about points. In a limited sample size, Mahomes’ backup Nic Shimonek completed 66 percent of his passes and nearly matched Mahomes’ per-attempt averages. He wasn’t nearly as much of a mobility threat, but if he wins the starting job in 2017, he’ll probably be fine.
Of course, if junior Payne Sullins, JUCO transfer McLane Carter, or freshman Xavier Martin wins the job instead, he’ll probably be fine, too. But it’ll probably be Shimonek.
Leading receiver Jonathan Giles elected to transfer, which would be a source of concern for most offenses, but Giles was one of four Red Raiders targeted at least 80 times last year, and the other three are back.
Giles was impressive, mind you — he combined a 62 percent success rate with 16.8 yards per catch, a 97th-percentile performance overall. Still, the experience level at receiver is solid. Inside receivers Keke Coutee and Cameron Batson combined for 116 catches at 9.5 yards per target, Dylan Cantrell is a physical possession guy on the outside, and between senior Derrick Willies, sophomores Quan Shorts and Antoine Wesley, and redshirt freshman T.J. Vasher, odds are good that at least one more high-proficiency wideout will emerge.
Tech will be able to pass, and that should result in at least 30 points in most 2017 games. But to reach 2015 levels, the ground attack will be key. The line is in a far steadier place, especially if it finds itself less reliant on freshmen. But a back still needs to emerge.
It was easy to assume that guy would be Justin Stockton a year ago. Through his first two seasons, Stockton had averaged seven yards per carry with seven receiving touchdowns. But aside from a couple of long early receptions, he was woefully unproductive in 2016, and he spent the spring dealing with issues related to head injuries.
Da’Leon Ward, meanwhile, was efficient for a freshman but offered no explosiveness whatsoever; per carry, Demarcus Felton was the most productive of the backs, but 237 of his 354 yards came in a three-game span early in the season. Kingsbury has said that he’s looking for a potential graduate transfer to fill in the two-deep here. It’s not hard to see why, especially if Stockton remains a question mark.
New quarterback? Iffy running back? No matter. Tech will score points. Bowl hopes will again hinge on whether the defense can be at least semi-competent.
The Red Raiders were bad in every way a defense can be bad in 2016.
- 128th in plays of 10-plus yards (241, or 20 per game!)
- 128th in passing downs success rate (40.9 percent)
- 126th in success rate (49.4 percent)
- 126th in Adj. Sack Rate (32.9), 126th in passing downs sack rate (2.4 percent)
- 124th in plays of 30-plus yards (44, nearly four per game!)
- 123rd in rushing success rate (51.8 percent)
- 119th in standard downs success rate (52.5 percent)
- 118th in passing success rate (46.9 percent)
- 105th in points per scoring opportunity (4.92)
- 101st in stuff rate (16.7 percent)
Or, in chart form:
Tech had by far the worst success rate and IsoPPP average in the Big 12, a conference not known for defensive prowess.
Coordinator Gibbs is, on paper, the perfect air raid defensive coordinator. He found success as D.C. at both Minnesota and Auburn at times, and he calibrates his entire defense around forcing turnovers.
Well, that’s what he wants to do, anyway. He couldn’t do much of anything with Tech’s young personnel in 2016. Tech managed a paltry 13 takeaways (112th in FBS) and forced just nine fumbles (78th).
This went beyond injury; after all, the Red Raiders boasted two former blue-chip defensive tackles in Breiden Fehoko and Ondre Pipkins, they missed one game between then, and they still couldn’t stop the run to save their lives. Still:
- Leading returning defensive end Gary Moore missed five games.
- Leading returning linebacker Dakota Allen was kicked off the team in May (and then rejoined in December).
- Second leading returning linebacker D’Vonta Hinton missed seven games.
- Second leading returning safety Tevin Madison missed 10.
- Safety Payton Hendrix missed six. Safety Keenon Ward missed three.
- Cornerback Nigel Bethel II transferred before the season, and corners Paul Banks III and Desmon Smith missed a combined seven games.
And on and on. It was like coaching a brand new defense every week. And when you’re in a league full of high-tempo offenses adept at exploiting any crack, that’s deadly.
We don’t know if Kingsbury puts the right amount of emphasis on defense, and we don’t know if Gibbs’ turnovers-über-alles approach has merit. But continuity would help us find out.
It would allow us to figure out if a secondary that allowed a 151.6 passer rating (with 28 touchdowns to just five picks) was bad because of talent or inexperience. Six DBs with at least 13 tackles return, and five of them were either freshmen or sophomores last year. Safeties Jah’Shawn Johnson and Douglas Coleman III combined for 15 passes defensed and four tackles for loss, which might be a good sign of potential play-making ability, and at nearly four stars, junior Payton Hendrix was the closest thing to a star recruit the secondary has.
The cornerback situation is less clear, but between senior D.J. Polite-Bray, sophomore Dsmon Smith, and JUCO transfers Octavious Morgan and Jaylon Lane, there are options, I guess.
Allen’s return gives Tech a couple of potential play-makers at linebacker. He made six tackles for loss with three passes defensed as a redshirt freshman in 2015, and Jordyn Brooks had five and four, respectively, as a freshman last year. But they could be having to shed a lot of blockers if the line can’t do its job. The line was iffy last year with blue-chippers Pipkins and Fehoko; now both are gone. So is Kris Williams, the only player on the team to record more than one sack. Yikes.
I’m not particularly worried about the tackles. A foursome of 2016 backups — seniors Zach Barnes and Mychealon Thomas, sophomores Broderick Washington and Joseph Wallace — combined for 7.5 tackles for loss among 36 tackles, and Wallace had three in only eight games. The ends, though? Kolin Hill is the closest thing to a proven play-maker, and he had four TFLs and three breakups. Gibbs doesn’t mind a bend-don’t-break approach at times, but you need at least some attacking potential.
Because Tech was good at finishing drives in the end zone, kicker Clayton Hatfield was only asked to take 14 field goals last year. But five of them were longer than 40 yards, and he missed only one. That’s an encouraging sign considering he might be asked to salvage a few more stalling drives this time around. (His five missed PATs are a red flag, however.)
Hatfield’s great per-kick average salvaged a No. 67 Special Teams S&P+ ranking for a unit that was iffy at punting (not that they punted much) and had no oomph in kick returns. There’s a good chance he’s relied on even more in 2017.
2017 Schedule & Projection Factors
|Date||Opponent||Proj. S&P+ Rk||Proj. Margin||Win Probability|
|14-Oct||at West Virginia||69||-0.9||48%|
|Projected S&P+ Rk||66|
|Proj. Off. / Def. Rk||4 / 124|
|Five-Year S&P+ Rk||3.6 (51)|
|2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk||45 / 45|
|2016 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin*||-4 / -1.0|
|2016 TO Luck/Game||-1.2|
|Returning Production (Off. / Def.)||61% (62%, 59%)|
|2016 Second-order wins (difference)||5.3 (-0.3)|
S&P+ projects Tech fourth on offense and 124th on defense. The offense will be its typical awesome self (though maybe not quite as awesome — Giles’ transfer wasn’t part of the initial S&P+ projections), and the defense faces more burden of proof than any unit in the country.
I assume the secondary will come through, but it’s hard to paint an optimistic face on the defensive front. That means a lot more shootouts. We expect nothing less in Lubbock.
So can the Red Raiders win some more shootouts? S&P+ projects five relative tossups — Arizona State, at Houston, at WVU, Iowa State, and Kansas State are all between 40 and 53 percent win probability — and Tech will probably have to win at least three of those to bowl.
At some point, bowling might not be enough, but it would be a step forward. Kingsbury needs a few of those, but you can’t get a few without the first one.