Texas Tech Football: Players Who Must Have a Strong Spring


Today marked the first practice of the 2015 spring football session for the Texas Tech Red Raiders, and many returning players need a strong spring to cement their role on the team. If Tech hopes to field a more experienced and battle-tested roster this fall, the following players must use this opportunity to prove they are ready to step up.

Sep 25, 2014; Stillwater, OK, USA; Oklahoma State Cowboys wide receiver Jhajuan Seales (81) makes a catch in front of Texas Tech Red Raiders defensive back Justis Nelson (31) during the third quarter of a game at Boone Pickens Stadium. Oklahoma State won 45-35. Mandatory Credit: Alonzo Adams-USA TODAY Sports

Justis Nelson

Justice Nelson is a tall and rangy corner who emerged over the last three games of 2013, his redshirt freshman season. With Texas Tech depleted by injury in the secondary, Nelson was pressed into action and he acclimated himself quite well. In Tech’s Holiday Bowl victory that season, Nelson sealed the game with a smooth interception in the end zone. And it looked like Tech had found a corner with enough size and length to matchup against the larger receivers in the Big 12.

But as we have learned too many times, a nice stretch of play from a young player does not guarantee the player’s trajectory will continue upwards.

Tech entered 2014 confident that Nelson was a No. 1 corner. However, during the season Nelson was far from that. Despite being 6’2” tall, Nelson lost most of the jump ball battles thrown his way. He lacked the ability to play the ball in the air, often failing to time his jump properly so he could get the ball at its highest point.

Nelson must improve this part of his game, not just for himself, but for the benefit of the Tech defense.

Nelson is now a junior and he must be a key contributor to what is an extremely green defense. By the end of last season, Nelson was no longer starting, and had been replaced by Nigel Bethel II; meaning both of Tech’s starting corners were true freshmen (Tevin Madison being a season-long starter), and under six-feet-tall.

Not having a reliable big corner hurt Tech in the West Virginia game, where the 6’3” sure-fire first round NFL draft pick, Kevin White continually jumped over Bethel (who is only 5’9”) for huge plays. Nelson was also repeatedly beaten in Stillwater, Oklahoma by backup quarterback Daxx Garmon, who was only able to throw the deep posts and fades hoping his receivers made plays or drew penalties. Unfortunately, that is exactly what happened against Nelson that night.

There is some talk of Nelson moving to free safety, but I hate that idea. A free-safety needs strong skills when playing the ball in the air and that is where Nelson struggles. I also don’t think his slender 177 lb. frame will make him an effective tackler, especially in the run game. And I don’t see him lasting the full season healthy at safety.

He needs to remain at corner and fend off the challenges of youngsters like (RS freshman Michael Coley who is 6’3” and 189 lbs., plus 2015 Tech signee Jamile Johnson from Dallas, Ja’Shawn Johnson (who sat out last year with an injury), and wide receiver-turned corner D.J. Polite-Bray, who saw playing time on defense near the end of 2014.

For Tech’s defense to be solid in the secondary, Nelson needs to be a reliable answer at one of the corner positions, thus allowing defensive coordinator David Gibbs (whose expertise is coaching the secondary) as many options as possible.

Reginald Davis

Davis, a former four-Star recruit from tiny Teneha, Texas was mentioned prior to the 2014 season by his head coach as a player who would emerge as a go-to playmaker. Unfortunately, Davis was inconsistent at best last year, as he was expected to be Tech’s best outside threat, but he totaled only 29 receptions for a mere 318-yards and five touchdowns. Davis struggled getting a clean release off of the line, coming down with jump balls, and making routine plays.

By the end of the season, Davis saw his time on the field diminish greatly as Dylan Cantrell emerged as an outside target. Davis has blazing speed and could be a big-play threat, but his speed won’t help him if he can’t get open or make difficult, but not impossible, catches.

Sep 6, 2014; El Paso, TX, USA; Texas Tech Red Raiders wide receiver Reginald Davis (2) catches a ball against the UTEP Miners defense at Sun Bowl Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Ivan Pierre Aguirre-USA TODAY Sports

By signing seven receivers in the 2015 recruiting class, Tech sent a clear message to the returning receivers, especially Davis. Competition for Davis’ spot will not arrive until this summer, but when players like Dallas’ J.F. Thomas (four-star WR recruit), Donta Thompson from Ennis (6’5” three-star WR recruit), Tony Brown from Los Angeles (who runs a 4.41 40-yard dash), and Quan Shorts from Humble, TX (6’2” 4-star WR recruit) arrive on campus, they will have every opportunity to unseat Reginald Davis as a starter.

But for now, Davis enters spring practice with few competitors behind him, thus ensuring he will receive plenty of practice reps and will have ample opportunity to prove himself to his coaches. Freshmen are erratic, so as a junior, Davis needs to be a steady player on the outside opposite Devin Lauderdale who emerged as a deep threat last season, especially during Pat Mahomes’ final three starts.

Justin Murphy

With the departure of right tackle Rashad Fortenberry, Tech desperately needs the massive 6’7” Murphy to live up to his four-star ranking and take over as the other book end on the offensive line, opposite all-conference tackle La’Raven Clark. There is no other obvious choice for this spot, and Murphy was recruited for this exact situation.

Tech was fortunate enough to have the liberty to redshirt Murphy last year so that he could put weight on his gigantic frame. Now it is Murphy’s time. He has become known around the program for his intense and nasty streak on the field, similar to a former Tech right tackle and fan favorite, Brandon Carter. Murphy doesn’t need to paint his face or wear a green Mohawk haircut like Carter did, but he does need to protect the face of the quarterback and move people off the line in the run game.

Tech’s offensive line will enter the season with a combined 95 starts between the other four starters. And if Murphy can be the type of player the coaches expect him to be, he will secure the line and make it one of the top units in the Big 12. Murphy looks to be Tech’s choice to replace Clark next year at left tackle protecting the blind side of the quarterback.

A strong spring will send him well down the path Texas Tech needs the giant from Belton, TX to travel.

Keland McElrath

With the lack of experience and depth on the defensive line, Tech needs this junior college senior transfer to make significant strides towards being a big part of the defense. The 6’4”, 312 lb. tackle/end has the build to stand up to major college offensive lines, but at times in 2014, he disappeared from games making no impact. In other games, he was one of the best interior defensive linemen on the field.

McElrath struggled with conditioning and technique — both of which must improve this spring. And it would be wonderful if he could learn to play both end and tackle this year, giving the defense some versatility. But for that to happen he must first dedicate himself to improving the fundamentals of his position.

In JUCO football he could dominate his opponents physically with no regard for hand placement or footwork. Now he must improve both, and develop a pass rush move (or two) under new defensive line coach, Mike Smith this spring.

There are limited options on the defensive line because Texas Tech signed only two interior players in 2015 (fortunately one of them is Braiden Fehoko, the All-American from Hawaii). Because of this, McElrath must be a more consistent player this year, and it all begins this spring as he develops his skills.

Rika Levi

Another JUCO senior defensive lineman who could make a huge impact for Tech next season is the human dump truck, Rika Levi from San Francisco.

After 2013, it was clear that Tech was undersized on the defensive line so they recruited four large JUCO defensive linemen (one of those being McElrath). Levi came into the program late in the summer, missing most of the off-season workouts. His weight was reported to be around 350 – 370 depending on which publication or source you believe.

Oct 18, 2014; Lubbock, TX, USA; Texas Tech Red Raiders defensive tackle Rika Levi (99) during the game with the Kansas Jayhawks at Jones AT&T Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Michael C. Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

While it sounds fantastic to have that huge of a man anchoring your defensive line, ask yourself if you’ve known anyone in that weight range who is an optimal athlete.

Levi played too heavy last year, and the coaches want to see his weight drop 30 – 40 pounds while he adds muscle. Levi has a reputation as a high motor player with a strong leadership presence in the locker room. The problem is that his motor is carrying far too much weight to run for long periods of times. Often, Levi would be unable to complete a series without needing a breather. That becomes a problem against up-tempo offenses that do not make it easy for the defense to substitute.

Through social media postings, it appears that Levi has already bonded with fellow Tongan, Breiden Fehoko, as both have posted videos of the duo throwing around tremendous amounts of weight in the weight room.

What is ironic in this relationship, is that Fehoko possesses the maturity and discipline needed to help Levi build strength and endurance. While Levi can help Fehoko adjust to life in Lubbock.

Tech fans must hope that Levi learns table discipline from Fehoko this spring and summer. A fit and more agile Levi would be an important piece of the defensive puzzle this season.

Gary Moore

After this season, Texas Tech will lose its two best edge rush defensive players, Pete Robertson and Branden Jackson.  Initially recruited as a receiver out of Clarksville, TX,  Moore was soon moved to defensive end. His athleticism and work ethic is not in question; he has all the intangible tools necessary, and insiders say he may be the best pure athlete on the team

What has prevented Moore from making an impact on the field is two-fold. The most pressing issue is his inability to put on quality weight needed to play defensive end. A good college rush end needs to be in the 230 – 240 pound range while maintaining his quickness. Sure, Moore could join Levi at the table and easily put on 20 pounds of fat, but finding a way for him to add muscle to his 6’5” frame has been a challenge.

Second, his pass rush skills must be improved. Defensive line coach Mike Smith must equip Moore with the moves necessary to beat Big 12 offensive tackles around the edge. Thus far, Moore has depended solely on a speed rush making his attack easy for the opposing tackle to prepare for.

Smith has learned under Rex Ryan and other NFL defensive gurus, and the fact that he still receives calls from NFL teams offering him jobs to be an assistant coach for them should be enough proof that Smith knows what Moore needs. The question is whether or not Moore can put on the weight and be effective enough to spell Jackson or Robertson, who often played upwards of 75 plays in one game.

The Tech defense is known to wear down in the second half due to the lack of quality depth. But if Moore can develop into the type of player the coaches envisioned, he can provide meaningful snaps while giving Robertson or Jackson a breather this year, and be the featured pass rusher the following season.

Tech fans have heard plenty of praise about Moore from inside the program, now we want to see it on the field. This spring will be huge for Moore as he learns a new scheme and works with a new position coach.

Championships are not won in the spring, but foundations are laid and improvements are made on the practice fields six months from kickoff. Not going to a bowl game robbed Tech of about 20 extra practices last fall so the team has not been together on the field since December. If these six players can improve this spring, Tech will head into the grind of summer workouts with momentum, and there will be hope for significant improvement in 2015.