As the Texas Tech football team tries to improve its secondary after a dreadful 2019, the coaching staff is experimenting with players in different roles in hopes of finding a winning combination.
Sometimes sports can resemble a chemistry experiment. Trying to find a mix of players that complement each other and then putting those elements in positions to succeed, coaches often have to take on the role of a mad scientist in order to find a successful formula.
That appears to be what is happening in the Texas Tech football team’s secondary this fall. Trying to improve upon the third-worst pass defense in the nation from last year, Matt Wells and his staff are still tinkering with their ingredients at the back end of the defense.
Heading up that experiment are defensive coordinator Keith Patterson (who is also coaching safeties this year) and new defensive backs coach and associate head coach Derek Jones. The latter was one of the biggest offseason additions the program made as he arrives from Duke with a reputation for being a standout recruiter and a top-notch motivator.
Jones met with the media this past weekend and spoke about what the team is trying to do in order to ensure that last year’s woes in the passing game don’t continue into 2020. It seems like the focus right now is on trying to find a way to get the right combination of players on the field by putting them in positions that work for the good of the whole.
One noticeable change that Jones has spearheaded is the way the “spur” position will be used this year. In 2019, it was more of a hybrid safety/linebacker spot manned by players like Adam Beck Evan Rambo, and Kosi Eldridge. But thanks to Jones’ influence, Tech is going to put another corner on the field as the “spur” (a role more commonly known to football fans as the nickel corner) in an attempt to better cover speedy slot receivers. And the player that seems to be getting a serious look at that spot is Zech McPhearson, last year’s best corner.
“We started him out on the outside,” Jones said, “…and then you know, the biggest questionmark we had with implementing me into the schematics was who was going to play the nickel…
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“Probably a week or so ago, Coach Patterson came to me and said ‘let’s take a look at Zech at that position and he’s done wonderful. He’s a smart guy. He’s a conscientious guy. And he’s picked it up really well. And what that’s done is enable us to get what we feel like is the best combination of guys on the field.”
What makes the former Penn State transfer more than likely to stay on the inside is his toughness and the physical nature with which he plays the game. That will allow him to also be part of helping support the run defense and even factoring into the pass rush.
“Zech’s a physical guy,” Jones said. “and we felt like he’s a guy who can handle some of the blitzes and some of the run responsibilities that come with [playing the “spur” position].”
But if McPhearson moves from the outside corner to the slot corner, Tech will have to find another starter on the outside. The answer might be a player who spent 2019 at safety.
“JaMarcus Ingram on the outside has [made] a huge impression on me,” Jones said. “I think JaMarcus has taken it upon himself to really listen and implement the things that he’s learning in the meeting rooms and it’s showing up on the field.”
Ingram is a senior who transferred to Tech last August from Utah State. He registered 11 tackles and a pick in 12 games last year while playing much of the season with a cast on his hand. Now, he’s apparently worked his way into the mix for a starting job at corner, which he played some of at Utah State under Keith Patterson in 2018.
Another former safety who has moved positions is junior Adrian Frye. After a disastrous stint at safety last year, the former All-Big 12 corner is back on the outside and Jones likes what he’s seen as a result.
“Been really solid…” Jones said. “Came on strong after about the first week of practice and really been impressed with him, not only from a playing standpoint but his leadership in the meeting room. That’s been impressive as well.”
As a redshirt freshman in 2018, Frye racked up a team-high five interceptions on his way to first-team all-conference honors. But last year, his move to safety was a trainwreck as he became arguably the team’s biggest individual liability. Now, Tech’s hopes of a revamped and improved secondary depend heavily on his ability to rediscover his game at corner where he will likely be Tech’s field coverage man (the corner that covers the wide side of the field).
“You have to look at the best combination of your guys,” Jones said. “And when you look at the skill set of Adrain, and you look at the skill set of Zech, and skill set of Alex Hogan, you want to know how you can get those guys in there.”
The good news is that the Red Raiders feel like they have plenty of quality, Big 12-caliber players to turn to in the secondary. That includes newcomers like grad transfer Eric Monroe from LSU, JUCO DBs Cam White and Cam Watts, and freshmen Nate Floyd and Kobee Minor, all of whom Jones praised.
It seems as if Jones believes that the ingredients for the formula are present. It is now his and Patterson’s job to be the ones to put them together in a way that will get the best chemical reaction.