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If Kliff Kingsbury makes it through 2018 at Texas Tech, it might be because of ... defense?

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The Red Raiders’ defense should have a pulse now, and it’s hard to worry about a Kingsbury offense.

NCAA Football: Texas Tech at Texas
Kliff Kingsbury
John Gutierrez-USA TODAY Sports

Bill C’s annual preview series of every FBS team in college football continues. Catch up here!

The Hal Mumme-Mike Leach meet cute has been documented in books and plenty of interviews. When Mumme showed up at moribund Iowa Wesleyan for his first head coaching job, he noticed that his phone had tons of messages. He thought it was potential assistants calling to express interest, but there were only two of those — a young coach named Leach and a gang leader from L.A. The rest were schools basically calling to schedule a sure win against IWC.

That’s a perfect start to the story of the air raid offense. But it’s funny how random fate is when fleshing out a coaching tree.

Take WVU head coach Dana Holgorsen, for instance. He happened to live in Mount Pleasant, Iowa. After ignoring Mumme’s recruiting advances, he transferred to the hometown school in 1991. By 1993, he was Mumme’s QBs coach at Valdosta State. When Leach got the Texas Tech job, Holgorsen came along.

Kliff Kingsbury was waiting. The New Braunfels product had come to Tech to play for Spike Dykes, an old-school, run-first, run-second guy. (That his son Sonny would become an air raid disciple — thanks to landing a graduate assistant job at Kentucky under Mumme — had to make for interesting conversation at the Thanksgiving table.)

During his redshirt year in 1998, Kingsbury watched as Tech QBs Rob Peters and Matt Tittle threw 286 passes while handing off to star running back Ricky Williams* 306 times. As a sophomore starter for his crazy new coach, he would throw 585 times while Williams rushed just 127 times.

Kingsbury eventually took to this wacky system, throwing for 5,017 yards and 45 touchdowns as a senior in 2002. Tech won nine games that year, its best season since joining the Big 12. The Red Raiders would win at least eight games for each of the next seven years, peaking with their 11-2 2008.

Leach was chased out of town a year later, for reasons not pertaining to football, but he set a bar that has been impossible for even a disciple to match.

2017 Texas Tech S&P+ progression

With Leach, Tech was above average in the Big 12. The Red Raiders haven’t cleared that bar, or cleared more than eight wins, since.

Despite only marginal improvement on paper, it’s not hard to be encouraged by what Tech managed last season. Sure, they went just 6-7, improving by just one win and eight spots in S&P+ (66th in 2016, 58th in 2017). But they did this despite losing an all-timer in quarterback Patrick Mahomes II and falling from sixth to 25th in Off. S&P+.

Tech desperately needed something from its defense, and the defense actually delivered. A little bit, anyway. The Red Raiders had ranked 114th or worse in Def. S&P+ for three straight years but improved to a less incompetent 88th; they held opponents to 24 or fewer points in five of six wins, and while they scored 76 fewer points, they also allowed 103 fewer.

This is the lowest of low bars, of course. But it offered proof of concept for Gibbs and and a path forward for Kingsbury.

Kingsbury is facing pressure after averaging just 5.5 wins per year over the past four seasons. Tech’s receiving corps has been decimated by turnover, and there’s another new starting QB to break in, but the defense returns almost everyone and could improve further.

* Yes, younger readers, Texas wasn’t the only Big 12 school to have a star running back named Ricky Williams in the late-1990s.

Offense

2017 Texas Tech offensive radar

Kingsbury has been a coach for just 10 years, but in that span, he’s only worked on two offenses that didn’t rank in the Off. S&P+ top 25. It’s hard to worry too much about a Kingsbury offense, no matter what level of turnover.

This will be tested in 2018, though. The Red Raiders have to replace starting quarterback Nic Shimonek (3,963 passing yards), starting running back Justin Stockton (1,032 combined rushing and receiving yards), and four of their top five receivers (Keke Coutee, Dylan Cantrell, Cameron Batson, and Derrick Willies, who combined for 241 catches and 2,931 yards).

Coutee was particularly valuable, improving his output from 105 yards to 890 to 1,429 over a three-year span. But that’s kind of the point, isn’t it? Journeys from nothing to something tend to happen in this system.

NCAA Football: Birmingham Bowl-Texas Tech vs South Florida
T.J. Vasher
Adam Hagy-USA TODAY Sports

Here’s your new Tech receiving corps:

  • Sophomore T.J. Vasher, a four-star Wichita Falls product, exceeded Coutee’s explosiveness last year, averaging 18.8 yards per catch over 29 receptions. He was inconsistent, but he was a freshman.
  • Juniors Quan Shorts and Antoine Wesley combined for 19 catches and 246 yards last year. Shorts scored twice in his nine receptions, and the 6’5 Wesley could make Tech’s outside receivers more formidable than normal, considering Vasher’s size. Junior Donta Thompson is big enough (6’5, 225) to potentially line up at tight end.
  • Senior inside receivers Ja’Deion High and JoJo Robinson combined for only nine catches last year, but Robinson is a former four-star, and they should at least approach the bar set by Batson, whose 84 percent catch rate and 8.2 yards per catch were the id of a possession man.
  • Oregon State grad transfer Seth Collins, a former QB who caught 12 passes last year, should also be able to fill a possession role.
  • Kingsbury signed five freshman receivers, including 6’3 four-star Erik Ezukanma and 6’5 Myller Royals.

So who’s that new QB going to be? McLane Carter probably has the best odds. Carter made a surprise start over Shimonek against Texas and was unready for the role — Shimonek subbed in to lead the upset. But Carter’s getting an entire offseason to prep this time, instead of just a week.

Sophomore Jett Duffey had his moments this spring, as did true freshman Alan Bowman. The battle isn’t over and probably won’t be when the season begins.

NCAA Football: Kansas State at Texas Tech
Tre King (4)
Michael C. Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

Kingsbury’s version of the air raid is probably the most pure, this side of Leach’s — Tech was 119th in run rate on both standard and passing downs and ranked 33rd in tempo and ninth in solo tackles created. That still means the Red Raiders were 50-50 between run and pass on standard downs, though, and ranking 15th in Rushing S&P+ was both a boon and a side effect of defenses preoccupied by passing.

Stockton was a particularly effective complementary halfback, averaging 6 yards per carry — 6.4 outside of a month when he was dealing with injury. That sets a pretty high bar for replacements Tre King (4.8 per carry last year) and Da’Leon Ward (4.2 in 2016).

But they’ll have a hell of a line in front of them. Everybody who started a game last year returns, including three honorable mention all-conference guys: left tackle Travis Bruffy, left guard Madison Akamnonu, and center Paul Stawarz. Better yet, only Stawarz and part-time starting guard Jacob Hines are seniors. So this is going to be a good line for a while.

Defense

2017 Texas Tech defensive radar

So much of Gibbs’ defense returns that S&P+ projects the Red Raiders to improve into the Def. S&P+ top 40. I’ll believe that when I see it, but it would be disappointing if they didn’t exceed last year’s gains.

Said gains came mostly in the big-play department. The Red Raiders weren’t really any more disruptive than they had been in 2016 — 105th in havoc rate (125th in 2016), 119th in Adj. Sack Rate (126th in 2016) — but they avoided catastrophe.

They went from 111th in IsoPPP (which measures the magnitude of an offense’s successful plays) to 47th, improving a little bit in their allowance of big run plays (from 74th to 39th in Rushing IsoPPP) and improving drastically in pass defense (from 120th to 36th in Passing IsoPPP).

In a conference full of defenses with bend-don’t-break profiles, Tech’s was the bendiest.

2017 Texas Tech defensive efficiency & explosiveness

Kingsbury and Gibbs rolled the dice on JUCOs and came up big. Three JUCO DBs — safety Vaughnte Dorsey and corners Octavious Morgan and Jaylon Lane — came up big, combining with returnee Jah’Shawn Johnson, former reserves Desmon Smith and Douglas Coleman III, redshirt freshman Damarcus Fields, and former walk-on Justus Parker to create a semi-viable secondary. And now they’re all back.

NCAA Football: Kansas State at Texas Tech
Justus Parker
Michael C. Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

Opponents managed just a 121.4 passer rating in Tech’s six wins but a 162.0 in Tech’s seven losses. Still, the good moments were better than they’d been in a while.

The front six has to replace only one piece, but he was a pretty good one. Nose tackle Mychealon Thomas was one of the most underrated players in the Big 12. He nearly led Tech’s line in tackles (he had 33 to end Kolin Hill’s 38), but opponents averaged just 1.3 yards per play when he was involved in the tackle. He was active but held the line.

Broderick Washington Jr. and Quentin Yontz are back at tackle, and sophomore Joseph Wallace flashed potential (three TFLs among 8.5 tackles) in 2016 before redshirting in 2017.

The attackers around the DTs should be pretty good. Ends Hill, Tony Jones, and Eli Howard combined for 21.5 TFLs, 11.5 sacks, and nine passes defensed, and Rice grad transfer Preston Gordon joins the rotation, too. And the top three linebackers, including WLB Dakota Allen (six TFLs, six passes defensed) are back.

The pass defense should continue to improve. We’ll see what the run defense does without Thomas.

NCAA Football: Texas Tech at Houston
Eli Howard
Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Special Teams

Because of its predictive impact, place-kicking carries the most weight of any category in the Special Teams S&P+ equation. That was bad news for Tech, considering it really didn’t have a place-kicker last year. Three guys attempted at least 10 PATs and three field goals each; they combined to go just 10-for-16 on field goals under 40 yards (you should be at least 80 percent here, not 63 percent) and 1-for-5 on field goals over 40. When Tech was losing five of six late in the regular season, its kickers were going 2-for-9 on 3-pointers.

Things did stabilize a bit when Clayton Hatfield took over. He made four of his last five FGs and was a perfect 22-for-22 on PATs. Tech has to hope that carries over into 2018.

Otherwise, this unit should be alright. Punter Dominic Panazzolo is solid, and while return man Cameron Batson is gone, having good legs is step one.

2018 outlook

2018 Schedule & Projection Factors

Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
1-Sep vs. Ole Miss 25 -6.8 35%
8-Sep Lamar NR 49.9 100%
15-Sep Houston 59 4.6 60%
22-Sep at Oklahoma State 19 -10.3 28%
29-Sep West Virginia 43 1.6 54%
11-Oct at TCU 22 -9.8 29%
20-Oct Kansas 103 14.7 80%
27-Oct at Iowa State 46 -3.0 43%
3-Nov Oklahoma 9 -12.9 23%
10-Nov Texas 27 -3.0 43%
17-Nov at Kansas State 61 -0.3 49%
24-Nov vs. Baylor 50 0.2 51%
Projected S&P+ Rk 47
Proj. Off. / Def. Rk 63 / 39
Projected wins 5.9
Five-Year S&P+ Rk 2.5 (59)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 59 / 45
2017 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* 11 / 6.9
2017 TO Luck/Game +1.6
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 62% (31%, 93%)
2017 Second-order wins (difference) 6.9 (-0.9)

Because of the extreme returning production on defense, and the extreme lack of it on offense, Tech’s S&P+ projections are ... interesting. The Red Raiders are expected to move up to 47th overall, which makes sense, but they’re projected to fall to 63rd on offense and rise to 39th on defense.

Based solely on recent history, it’s hard to imagine both of those things happening. But ... what if only one does? If the offense craters to average levels and the defense doesn’t make another jump, then Tech probably only wins about three games in 2018.

But if the defense is indeed at a top-50 level, combined with the typical Good Kingsbury Offense? Then basically every game on the schedule is winnable.

That makes Tech awfully intriguing, even if the overall S&P+ projection of 6-6 with a bunch of tight games (seven projected within 6.8 or fewer points) is still the most likely scenario.

It does feel like Kingsbury can’t afford another down year. With a typically good offense and the most experienced (and, sadly, proven) defense he’s ever had, he’s got a chance to finally stand out.

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