Texas Tech Spring Football: Skepticism About JUCO Defenders Is Justified

Nov 25, 2016; Arlington, TX, USA; A Texas Tech Red Raiders helmet sits on the field at AT&T Stadium before the game between the Red Raiders and the Baylor Bears. Mandatory Credit: Michael C. Johnson-USA TODAY Sports
Nov 25, 2016; Arlington, TX, USA; A Texas Tech Red Raiders helmet sits on the field at AT&T Stadium before the game between the Red Raiders and the Baylor Bears. Mandatory Credit: Michael C. Johnson-USA TODAY Sports /

The annual offseason task of trying to rebuild the Texas Tech defense is once again underway.  This year, the Red Raiders are counting on JUCO transfers to fortify the team’s most fatal flaw.

The Texas Tech football program’s quest for a solid defense has often felt as futile as Wylie E. Coyote’s pursuit of the roadrunner in the old Warner Brother Cartoons.  For the better part of two decades, the Red Raiders have tried every approach imaginable to field a defense that is simply average.

During the four years of Kliff Kingsbury’s tenure as head coach, the philosophy of the coaching staff regarding the defense has seemed to shift almost every year.  That is to be expected when the team employs three different defensive coordinators in four years.

Different voices and changing schemes have left the Texas Tech defense as directionless as a sidewinder in a west Texas dust devil.  And once again, Kingsbury and defensive coordinator David Gibbs are betting that this off-season’s plan is going to be the one to turn the defense around.

But Red Raider fans are skeptical because what is being sold is a reincarnation of a method that has already been tired and deemed unsuccessful by the current coaches.  This is not the first time that Kingsbury and his staff have gambled on JUCO transfers to provide immediate reinforcements.

In 2014, Kinsbury brought in an unusually large number of JUCO players.  Nine JUCO transfers were part of Kingsbury’s second signing class as head coach.  Of those, six were defensive players expected to fortify a unit left thin after the 2013 seniors departed.

Unfortunately, this tactic did not work out.  None of the JUCO signees made a significant impact.

Defensive tackles Rika Levi, Keland McElrath, Marcus Smith and Brandon Thorpe were nothing more than warm bodies being discarded with little regard by opposing offensive lines.  Safety Josh Keys never played a down before leaving the program and linebacker Sam Atoe was not quick enough to provide help against speedy Big 12 offenses.

After that season, Kingsbury and staff indicated that they were not going to rely on JUCO players anymore.  Instead, the plan shifted to building the defense with high school signees.

In 2015 and 2016, the Red Raiders inked a mere two JUOC defenders, defensive back Paul Banks and defensive tackle Mych Thomas.  On the other hand, the 2016 class included 11 high school defensive recruits.

But no matter what Kingsbury and Gibbs have tried to do in recruiting, the results have been consistently disastrous.  In 2015 the Tech the defense was 127th out of 128 teams in the nation.  Then, in 2016  the defense fell to last in America.

So once again, Kingsbury has shifted his philosophy and returned to hoping that JUCO players can resurrect the defense.  But, will this group be different and help save Kingsbury’s job?

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The one difference in this year’s JUCO class is that the bulk of the transfers are not defensive lineman but defensive backs and linebackers.  Three DB’s and two linebackers will all be expected to contribute immediately in 2017.

The Texas Tech secondary has been decimated by attrition.  2016 saw the graduation of Keenon Ward, Justis Nelson and Thierry Nguema.  Also, junior defensive backs Nigel Bethell and Tevin Madison left the program last season.

To fill the gaps, Gibbs is hoping that Octavius Morgan, Jaylon Lane and Vaughnte Dorsey will be able to solidify the Red Raider pass defense.  Of that group, Lane is the most heralded.  The former 4-star prospect was highly coveted out of high school before an odd off-field issue forced him to head to JUCO instead of Oklahoma State where he had verbally committed.

While Lane has the most upside of the JUCO signees, the return of a familiar face is what Texas Tech fans are most optimistic about.  JUCO linebacker Dakota Allen has returned to Lubbock after being dismissed from the team two seasons ago.

He was the second-leading tackler on the team as a true freshman in 2014 and should pair with sophomore Jordyn Brooks to form the best linebacker duo Texas Tech has fielded in recent memory.  Fellow JUCO LB Tony Jones arrives with a pedigree as a quality pass rusher and looks to help Tech finally find a way to apply consistent pressure to the quarterback.

But while these JUCO additions arrive with as strong of a pedigree as any JUCO transfers have, fans are still skeptical.  Most JUCO players do not blossom until year two on campus which means that this year could be another struggle for Texas Tech.

And more disconcerting is the signal that this reverse in direction sends.  Kingsbury and his staff are desperate and appear to be grasping at straws to save their jobs regardless of how it impacts the long-term health of the program.

Next: Texas Tech BB: What Went Wrong This Season?

After seeming to learn their lesson from the failures of past JUCO players, the Texas Tech football coaching staff once again returns to a well that rarely produces anything.  If that well remains dry, next year will see another change in philosophies but that change will come from a new coaching staff.