Texas Tech football: Red Raiders could set mark for futility at marquee position

LUBBOCK, TEXAS - NOVEMBER 23: Wide receiver RJ Turner #2 of the Texas Tech Red Raiders runs a reception for a touchdown against cornerback Lance Robinson of the Kansas State Wildcats during the second half of the college football game on November 23, 2019 at Jones AT&T Stadium in Lubbock, Texas. (Photo by John E. Moore III/Getty Images)
LUBBOCK, TEXAS - NOVEMBER 23: Wide receiver RJ Turner #2 of the Texas Tech Red Raiders runs a reception for a touchdown against cornerback Lance Robinson of the Kansas State Wildcats during the second half of the college football game on November 23, 2019 at Jones AT&T Stadium in Lubbock, Texas. (Photo by John E. Moore III/Getty Images) /

With one game remaining in the 2019 season, the Texas Tech football team is on the verge of setting a mark for futility at a position that has become synonymous with the program.

A few years into the Mike Leach era of the Texas Tech football program, the most ironic signs in the history of college football were posted outside the gates of Jones Stadium.  Reading something akin to “No throwing objects inside the stadium” these admonitions were aimed at discouraging fans, especially students, from throwing tortillas (and other objects) during games, which drew quite the laugh given how much attention the new “Air Raid” offense was bringing to the program.

In fact, for the last two decades, no program in the nation has become more synonymous with throwing the football than Texas Tech.  That’s why, last December, most Red Raider fans began to obsess over what the 2019 offense would look like with new OC David Yost in charge given that in 2018 at Utah State, he ran the ball more than he threw it.

Fortunately, this year, Tech has not gone away from throwing the ball as its primary means of picking up yards.  Actually, Yost has called 473 pass plays to just 380 running plays.  By comparison, that’s almost the exact same disparity between passing and rushing plays that the 2018 team had as Kliff Kingsbury called 98 more passes than runs.

But what is different this year is that the Red Raiders are on the verge of setting a 20-year low for production at receiver, a position that has become synonymous with Texas Tech football.

Currently, the Red Raiders’ leading receiver is grad transfer R.J. Turner who has 619-yards.  If he doesn’t haul in at least 84 yards Friday against Texas, he will be the program’s least-productive top receiver in terms of yards in the spread offense era, which dates back to Leach’s arrival in 2000.

Currently, that distinction belongs to Carlos Francis, who had 703 yards in 2001, Leach’s second year at Tech.  That year, he caught 50 passes (which was 42 behind team-leader Ricky Williams) and three touchdowns.  Right now, Turner has caught 42 passes and three touchdowns as well.

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In total, there have been only six years since Lubbock became ground zero for the nation’s spread offense revolution (2000, 2001, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2014) that Tech’s leading receiver did not crack the 1000-yard mark.  What’s more, in four other years (2003, 2004, 2007, 2012), this program produced two 1,000-yard receivers.

This all underscores just how pedestrian the Texas Tech passing game has been this year when compared to what we’ve come to expect.

Entering the regular-season finale, Tech has thrown for 3,497 yards and 22 touchdowns.  Currently, that is the second-lowest total in the modern era of the program and will likely wind up as the program’s 3rd-least productive passing season since the start of the Leach era.  What’s more, the only time Tech has thrown for fewer touchdowns in a season was in 2000 when sophomore Kliff Kingsbury threw 21.

There are a number of factors that have contributed to this downturn.  None of them are acceptable.

First of all, this is a program making a transition to a new offense and a new coaching staff.  An adjustment period was expected this year but given Yost’s reputation for being an offensive guru and a standout QB developer, more was expected than the third-lowest passing total since the program started to prioritize that method of moving the ball.

Certainly, some of the blame falls at Yost’s feet.  His play-calling has at times been more conservative than most of us would like to see.  Most notably was the Iowa State game when he called for his offense to run 16 wide receiver screens.

But one must admit that Yost has been a bit handcuffed by what he’s been working with at QB.  This marks the second-straight year that Tech has had to rely on three different quarterbacks to start a game with Alan Bowman making the first three starts, Jackson Tyner starting at OU, and Jett Duffey getting the final eight.

Though Duffey has been better than most of us thought he would be as the starter, to suggest that he’s as good as the other QBs to lead this offense over the last 20 years is a stretch.  Perhaps only Nic Shimonek in 2017 and the 2018 version of Duffey himself were more limited as passers than this year’s edition of Duffey.

All season, it’s been apparent that Yost has been trying to protect his third-string QB with his game plans.  For instance, he stopped running the break-neck tempo offense that he had Bowman executing in the first three games.

A huge component of Yost’s scheme is to have his QB get to the line and snap the ball in the first 10-15 seconds of the play clock.  That’s not what he’s been able to do with Duffey because he does not trust the junior to make the correct reads at the line of scrimmage thus forcing his offense to go to the “prairie dog” look where all of the players stand up and look at the sidelines to get the play call like prairie dogs peeking out of their holes as they look for predators.

Still, another reason is that this offense simply lacks elite talent at receiver.  That’s evident by the fact that only one of the four starting receivers (or tight end) is a multi-year starter and that player, T.J. Vasher, was suspended for the West Virginia and TCU games, allowing Turner to emerge.

Meanwhile, the other starters have been a redshirt freshman (Erik Ezukanma), a former walk-on (Dalton Rigdon), and a converted WR in Donta Thompson who has made the jump to tight end and came into this season with three career catches.  Factor Turner and transfer McLane Mannix into that group as well and it is easy to see that this is a receiving corp comprised of vagabonds, inexperienced players, and overachievers.   That’s a far cry from the likes of Michael Crabtree, Joel Filani, or Jace Amaro.

Speaking of Crabtree, in his redshirt freshman season, the most prolific season in Tech history, he had 1,962 yards and 22 touchdowns.  That is just 145 yards less than this year’s top four receivers have combined and the same number of touchdowns that the entire team has accounted for through the air.

That’s why the 2020 recruiting class is so critical.  With five receivers and a tight end committed, including 4-star receivers Loic Fouonji and Ja’Lynn Polk, there’s every likelihood that the future of the Red Raider passing game rests with the upcoming recruiting class.

Next. The all-time out of state Texas Tech football team. dark

Friday, the Red Raiders will face the second-worst pass defense in the Big 12, Texas.  (Don’t worry about the fact that Tech’s pass defense is the worst.  That’s irrelevant for this conversation.)  But even if Duffey and his receivers put up one of their better days of the season in Austin, this will remain one of the most underwhelming passing attacks we’ve seen from the Red Raiders and that’s an area that has to improve in 2020.