Texas Tech Football: Red Raider running backs could offense’s backbone

Texas Tech Red Raiders running back Tahj Brooks breaks out of the backfield against the Mississippi State Bulldogs during the AutoZone Liberty Bowl at Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium on Tuesday, Dec. 28, 2021.Jrca6029
Texas Tech Red Raiders running back Tahj Brooks breaks out of the backfield against the Mississippi State Bulldogs during the AutoZone Liberty Bowl at Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium on Tuesday, Dec. 28, 2021.Jrca6029 /

There was a time, long before the days of Mike Leach and the “Air Raid” passing attack, that the Texas Tech football program was known for producing standout running backs on an almost annual basis.  Though we aren’t likely to see the offense revert to the ground and pound philosophy that defined the program in the 1980s and 1990s, when running backs such as Byron Hanspard, Bam Morris, and James Gray were the unquestioned stars of the offensive attack, we could find that in 2022, the running back position might once again be the backbone of the Red Raiders.

All of a sudden, defense and running the ball have come back into style in the once pass-happy Big 12.  In fact, last season saw four players (Breece Hall of Iowa State, Abram Smith of Baylor, Bijan Robinson of Texas, and Deuce Vaughn of Kansas State) average over 100 yards rushing per game.  Meanwhile, half of the teams in the conference (Baylor, Texas, TCU, Oklahoma, and Oklahoma State) averaged at least 185 yards per game on the ground.

That’s not to say that the forward pass is going the way of the dodo bird but those numbers do suggest that a shift towards ball control and physicality have come back en vogue in a league that for the last two decades has been the nation’s leader in regards to airing it out and lighting up the scoreboard.

Fortunately for the Red Raiders and their first-year head coach, Joey McGuire, the personnel on this year’s Texas Tech football team appears more than equipped to go to battle on the ground.  In fact, given the questions Tech has at other position groups on offense, one has to wonder if moving the ball by land will almost be the preferred method of attack this fall.

The one-two duo of SaRodorick Thompson and Tahj Brooks is being vastly overlooked by national media outlets given that neither is a superstar in the game the way Robinson or Vaughn is.  But the people on the South Plains know what we have in this pair of talented and dynamic ball carriers.

Last season, that tandem managed to combine for 1068 yards and 17 TDs while averaging 5.6 yards per carry.  Had those numbers come from an individual, they would have been good enough to garner significant preseason accolades.

But instead, Tech will enter the fall with a running back stable that is likely to take many fans of other programs by surprise.  For instance, had Brooks carried the ball three more times, he would have qualified for first place on the Big 12’s list of leaders in yards per carry last season by averaging 6.5.

Meanwhile, Thompson’s 10 rushing TDs were 8th-most in the conference despite the fact that he carried the ball just 107 times.  The fewest number of carries a player ahead of him on the rushing TD list had last year was Robinson’s 195.

Therefore, Tech would be wise to lean heavily on that duo of running backs this season.  Especially given that there are no proven wide receivers on the roster and significant questions about any of the three QBs in the running for the starting job, the ground game could become offensive coordinator Zach Kittley’s best friend; that’s if he is willing to use it.

Last season, at Western Kentucky, Kittley ran the ball only 24.8 times per game.  But that could have been a result of having Bailey Zappe, one of the most prolific passing QBs in the history of the college game, running his offense.  When you have a player of Zappe’s ability throwing the ball, it would be tough to refrain from throwing it on every snap and that’s nearly what Kittley did during his three years coaching Zappe (the previous two coming at Houston Baptist of the FBS).

But perhaps Kittley should borrow a page from his predecessor’s playbook.  In the 2021 Liberty Bowl, Texas Tech interim head coach and offensive coordinator Sonny Cumbie devised a game plan that saw the Red Raiders run the ball 44 times for 260 yards and three scores in a 34-7 drubbing of heavily-favored Mississippi State out of the mighty SEC.

That rushing attack made the game far easier for redshirt freshman QB Donovan Smith, who saw plenty of easy-to-read man coverage in the second half thanks to the fact that the Bulldogs felt the need to dedicate extra men to the box in order to try to slow down the Red Raider rushing attack.  Kittley would be wise to try to make the game as easy for his QB this year (be that Smith or junior Tyler Shough).

So this fall, let’s see if the ground game comes back into prominence for Texas Tech.  That’s because this year’s offense may be better suited to churn out the yards on the ground than any Red Raider offense in recent memory.