Texas Tech football: More explosiveness needed from running backs

Texas Tech's running back Tahj Brooks (28) runs with the ball against Oklahoma in their last Big 12 home football game, Saturday, Nov. 26, 2022, Jones AT&T Stadium.
Texas Tech's running back Tahj Brooks (28) runs with the ball against Oklahoma in their last Big 12 home football game, Saturday, Nov. 26, 2022, Jones AT&T Stadium. /

Whenever people think of Texas Tech football, they naturally envision footballs flying all over the field and receivers running circles around defenders.  However, when the Red Raiders have had their best offensive attacks, the running game has been a huge component of the attack.  In 2023, that’s an area where offensive coordinator Zach Kittley and the rest of the coaching staff need to find more explosiveness, though after a season that saw the running game stuck in neutral for much of the time.

A season ago, Tech’s rushing attack was pedestrian at best.  Ranking just 8th in the conference in yards per game on the ground at 159.3, Tech was still 58th nationally, a number that proves just how much the ground game has come back en vogue in the Big 12.

However, where the Red Raiders were woeful on the ground was when it came to big plays.  For instance, at just 3.9 yards per rushing attempt, Tech ranked 80th in the country.

What’s more, last year’s team had only seven runs of 30 or more yards.  That was only good for 8th among Big 12 teams.

Even more alarming though is the fact that 2022 saw all 13 games transpire without Tech breaking off a run of over 40 yards.  Only eight teams in the country had that dubious distinction with a dreadful Colorado team being the only other Power 5 squad on that list.

The reasons for the lack of huge running plays were two-fold.  First of all, Tech’s offensive line in 2022 was below-average and while most of the focus went to that unit’s struggles in pass protection, it was also true that the line simply didn’t open up the types of huge lanes that often lead to big runs.

Typically, if a running back got to the second level of the defense, there were linebackers or safeties waiting to greet them meaning a big play would require the running back to make a one-on-one move to get into the open field.

That takes us to the second factor; Tech’s 2022 running backs were simply not electric.  Both SaRodorick Thompson and Tahj Brooks brought plenty to the table last fall but speed and elusiveness were not their calling cards.

Rather, they thrived on power and grinding out tough yards and while both have had big plays in their NCAA careers, neither is going to make something out of nothing.

Thus, when the rushing lanes weren’t cleared through the entire defense, there was little hope of a Tech running back taking it to the house.  Will that change in 2023?

Thompson is off to the NFL where he’s in camp with the Seattle Seahawks as an undrafted rookie but Brooks returns as the team’s featured back fresh off of a 691-yard, seven-touchdown season.  However, there are some names on the depth chart behind him that can bring more speed to the RB rotation.

Many fans are expecting sophomore Cam’Ron Valdez to be a big-play threat.  The 5-foot-9, 205-pound native of Rockdale, Texas will finally get an opportunity for regular carries in the offense after waiting behind Thompson and Brooks for the last two seasons.

While Valdez isn’t a guy with blazing top-end speed, he does seem to get up to full speed in a hurry and his decisive running style allows him to get north and south quickly which might lead to big plays, especially if the offensive line can open up some lanes through the second level of the defense.

We saw a glimpse of that in the Texas Bowl when he took a handoff 29 yards in the second half.  Of course, that run was spoiled by the fact that Valdez slowed up near the goal line allowing an Ole Miss defender to catch him from behind and poke the ball loose eventually resulting in a turnover.

Still, the quick burst he showed that night in Houston is evidence that he has big-play ability.  Had that happened in the middle of the field, Valdez likely wouldn’t have slowed and almost certainly would have gone for at least 40 yards.  Hopefully, more of that will be in store for this exciting new face in the two-deep rotation.

Also, don’t sleep on the idea of receivers being part of the rushing attack this year.  Tech was one of the programs that made the jet sweep common in the sport but that has not been a huge feature of the offense in recent years.

However, with speedy inside receivers such as Myles Price, Xavier White, and Drea McRay on the roster, Kittley would be wise to get the ball in their hands in creative ways, and handing it to them is an easy way to do that.  Could one of them break loose for a huge ground gain at some point this season?  It is easy to envision that happening.

Ultimately, it is exciting to think about the increase in explosiveness that Tech will feature this year on offense.  If that can bring the offense more chunk plays on the ground, it will make life easier for the quarterbacks and it will help give this offense something that has been missing for a few years.  That could be one of the best indications that this year’s offense is going to be on par with some of the elite attacks that this program has produced over the past two decades-plus.