Big 12: Jake Ratliff
Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin
After unprecedented success last season, Mike Leach will be facing the biggest rebuilding job of his coaching tenure at Texas Tech.
The Red Raiders notched a share of their first South Division title and posted an 11-2 record that tied for the school's single-season record for victories. But Leach will be facing the challenge of replacing many of the key components from that team.
The Red Raiders lose seven starters from the offense, including record-breaking quarterback Graham Harrell and two-time Biletnikoff Award winner Michael Crabtree.
The Red Raiders also lose the left side of their starting offensive line -- All-Big 12 tackle Rylan Reed and three-year starting guard Louis Vasquez -- along with underrated center Stephen Hamby and starting running back Shannon Woods. Senior starting guard Brandon Carter and starting tackle Marlon Winn both will be seniors next season, emphasizing the need for immediate help inside from this recruiting class.
Junior Taylor Potts is penciled in as Harrell's replacement at quarterback. Baron Batch should be Tech's next running threat and the Red Raiders have a slew of receivers who should be able to replace Crabtree's production -- at least in quantity.
But the Red Raiders' biggest aim will be an improvement of the defense's production. The unit appeared to wear down late in the season in disappointing performances against Oklahoma and Mississippi, games in which the Red Raiders were torched for an average of 56 points and 570 total yards per game.
And the departure of defensive end Brandon Williams, who led the Big 12 in sacks last season before declaring for the NFL draft, along with starting defensive end Jake Ratliff will definitely weaken the Red Raiders' pass rush.
Immediate help also will be needed at safety. The Red Raiders lose all four safeties from their two-deep roster, including starters Darcel McBath and Daniel Charbonnet. Both McBath and Charbonnet ranked among the top 20 nationally in interceptions, providing some playmaking for a secondary that ranked 94th nationally in pass defense.
It will be interesting to see if Leach can capitalize on the success of his memorable 2008 season. But matching that season will be an immediate challenge for this recruiting class because of all the talent leaving the program.
Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin
An old recruiting adage says that college football is more about the Jimmys and the Joes than the Xs and the Os.
Texas Tech's defense is confounding that notion today, taking a group of unheralded recruits and combining them into one of the Big 12's most productive units.
The Tech defense isn't dotted by four- and five-star recruits. The Red Raiders don't consider internet rankings when they are filling in players for their defense.
"We recruit to fit our system," Texas Tech defensive coordinator Ruffin McNeill said. "Coach Leach has always done that and we as a defense are doing it now, too. We go by film only and how we think guys will help in how we play defense."
Starting defensive end Jake Ratliff was an undersized tight end in high school in Lawton, Okla. Nose tackle Colby Whitlock got more notoriety as a state wrestling champion in Noble, Okla., than he did for football. Making his development even more intriguing is that Noble is only a couple of long touchdown passes away from Norman, where the Red Raiders will be playing for a shot at the Big 12 South title Saturday night against the Sooners.
And defensive end Brandon Williams, the Big 12's leader in sacks, was discovered playing defense and rebounding in a basketball game for his high school in Fort Worth.
"He must have weighed about 215 pounds at the time," McNeill said. "(Safeties coach) Carlos Mainord saw him playing basketball and thought he might be able to eventually help us."
After extensive work in college, Williams has blossomed into a 265-pound sacking specialist who has wreaked havoc on Big 12 offenses throughout his career. He's just another one of Tech's underrated defenders who came to the South Plains and got better.
Daniel Charbonnet arrived at Lubbock as a walk-on, mainly because of his friendship with former Texas Tech wide receiver Danny Amendola. He had started his career at Duke as a freshman starting cornerback who got homesick repeatedly losing with the Blue Devils. Charbonnet wanted to come home and Tech provided him that opportunity.
"I was looking around and Tech looked like the best place for me," said Charbonnet, who has combined with free safety Darcel McBath to contribute 11 interceptions this season. "It's worked out well for me. This is a great situation for me."
The Red Raiders' group of defensive overachievers has been the underrated component of a 10-0 team that is off to the best start for Texas Tech since 1938.
The defense almost was an afterthought in some of coach Mike Leach's early teams. But the installation of McNeill has helped them develop into a cohesive unit that meets the specifications of the coach.
"I think the key is more good, solid, overall defense," Leach said. "Just to not have flaws in your defense. Understand the other guy is going to get some yards, and then just outlast them and keep making plays
The little team that could has blossomed under McNeill's tutelage.
After taking over four games into last season -- after Tech was blistered for 49 points and 610 yards in a loss to Oklahoma State -- McNeill has built a defense in his vision.
His mantra is "fast legs and clear minds" and the Red Raiders are playing like it. He jokes that he took his original playbook of concepts and then cut it in half to enable his players to have a clearer understanding of his philosophy.
Over the last nine games last season, Tech was No. 1 in the Big 12 in total defense. This season, the Red Raiders are second and have been especially effective in recent weeks holding high-powered offenses like Kansas, Texas and Oklahoma State well below their averages for scoring and total offense.
"Their defense is playing with almost an offensive style," Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy said.
But the biggest challenge will come this week against Oklahoma, which leads the nation in scoring offense, is third in passing offense and fourth in total offense. Adding to the difficulty is that Oklahoma is 59-2 at home under Bob Stoops.
"You have a lot of confidence, but going to Norman is a tough place to play," Ratliff said. "This is a completely different team. And I wouldn't expect to see much of what they did last year. This will be two different teams going against each other."
McNeill utilizes one of the most basic philosophies in the Big 12. The Red Raiders like to sit back in a zone defense and make opposing offenses go the length of the field to beat them.
With Tech rarely making turnovers on offense and the Red Raiders' potent attack scoring a high probability of the time, it gives the Tech defense a unique advantage. If they can contribute two or three stops during the course of the game, they should be in good shape.
"It's a very good defense and very solid," Oklahoma quarterback Sam Bradford said. "There's lot of zone coverages they use. They try to force mistakes and end drives with their zone defense and don't make many mistakes. We're going to have to be disciplined and take what they give us within our system if we're going to be successful."
Mike Leach has some definitive plans for this weekend in Nevada. And they don't involve casinos or card-playing.
Even if he had free time, the Texas Tech coach said he's not that interested in a trip to any of Reno's gaming meccas -- mainly because it just doesn't suit him.
"I don't really do much of that," Leach said. "Cards and counting to 21, that's not really my deal. I get tired of adding and subtracting."
An interesting admission from the architect of one of the most prolific passing offenses in NCAA history -- particularly considering his team's challenge on Saturday night in Mackay Stadium against a similarly potent offense.
Two of the nation's four most prolific offensive attacks will hook up when the Red Raiders travel to visit the Wolf Pack. Statisticians will be doing the adding in what should be a wild offensive battle with two offenses who posted a combined 1,268 yards last week.
Containing the Wolf Pack's vaunted "Pistol" offense will prove challenging to Tech's defense that showed surprising struggles in a 49-24 victory over Eastern Washington last week. The Red Raiders were singed for 341 passing yards in the opener and rank 100th nationally in pass defense.
Those struggles came after much hype before the season about how improved their defense would be with eight returning starters and an influx of talented junior college players along the defensive line.
"I know a lot of people were disappointed we didn't come out and hold them to seven points," Tech safety Darcel McBath said.
Tech defensive coordinator Ruffin McNeill defended his team's performance by saying that Eastern Washington's yardage per attempt was below his team's typical goal.
"I know that looked like a lot of yards, but they threw 63 times," McNeill said. "I was pleased with some of the things we did. I thought we were strong on our third downs. But we have some things have got to improve."
Tech did have its moments, but it should have expected them against the Football Championship affiliated first-game opponents. The Red Raiders limited Eastern Washington to 23 rushing yards on 22 carries, forced three turnovers and produced three sacks. Eastern Washington produced only two long scoring drives of 54 and 77 yards.
But the score caught the attention of many critics who have wondered if the Red Raiders might be a tad overrated with their current No. 12 ranking in the Associated Press and ESPN.com power polls.
"I could see why people might have looked at that and wondered, but I don't think they realize how good that team was," Tech defensive end Jake Ratliff said. "They were much better than all of us thought. We had to work to beat them."
The biggest area for specific improvement will be cutting down on penalties. Tech was flagged 18 times for 169 yards -- a couple of dubious school records that topped the previous mark set in Leach's first season in 2000.
The penalties were separated into three areas by Leach -- selfishness, technique and aggression. Tech picked up six personal fouls, all in the first half. They were flagged five times in the second half, with two of them for pass interference.
Tech coaches are determined not to let that affect their aggressive nature on defense, Leach said.
"There's some very bad teams out there that have no penalties," he said, "and part of it is they don't push the envelope enough to get any penalties. You definitely don't want to be one of those teams."
The Red Raiders prepare for a team in Nevada that should be even more challenging to contain than Eastern Washington was, McNeill said.
In Nevada's "Pistol," unique challenges are in place from an offense that borrows elements from the spread, shotgun and Wing-T offenses. Quarterback Colin Kaepernick lines up 3 1/2 yards behind center, and the tailback is 7 yards behind center.
The Wolf Pack typically employ one running back, one tight end and three wide receivers, relying on inside handoffs and bootleg runs from Kaepernick. Leach is so impressed he says that the 6-foot-6 Kaepernick might be the best quarterback Tech will face this season.
Games like Saturday night's contest in Reno are ones that the Red Raiders have traditionally struggled in. Unexpected road losses to New Mexico in 2004, Oklahoma State in 2005 and Colorado in 2006 have come in similar situations.
The Red Raiders are the only Big 12 team to be bowl-eligible in every season in the conference's history. But a frustrating knack of stumbling against lesser opponents has kept the Red Raiders from ever qualifying for a BCS bowl game or winning a Big 12 title.
Tech hasn't won an outright conference championship since winning the Border Conference in 1955 and hasn't won 10 games in a season since 1976.
Playing well after the struggles of the first game could be an indication that this team is different from those Tech teams that preceded it.
"The thing we got out of last week was how disappointed the kids were -- even more than some of the people out there," McNeill said. "Our kids weren't happy. We won by 25 points, but our kids expected more out of themselves than that.
"And I think that helps us coming into this week. They won't be overlooking this game. How we played last week will keep them from being overconfident. We were glad we won, but we've still got a lot more improving to do."
Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin
Texas Tech is a fashionable choice to emerge as a potential BCS buster as the Red Raiders contend for their first Big 12 championship.
With most of the Red Raiders' offensive weapons back from last season, points shouldn't be a problem. Their hopes to contend will depend on the growth of a defense that struggled in previous seasons.
Tech coach Mike Leach addressed his team's defensive struggles after an early 49-45 loss to Oklahoma State when he fired veteran defensive coordinator Lyle Setencich and replaced him with Ruffin McNeill on an interim basis. The Red Raiders responded to the change by ranking third in the conference in pass defense and leading the conference in pass defense in Big 12 games last season.
After the season, Leach hired McNeill on a full-time basis after the Red Raiders' victory over Virginia in the Gator Bowl. He's begun working with his new philosophy with 10 returning defensive starters and a boatload of impressive junior-college transfers.
Most observers expect the play of McNeill's defense will ultimately determine whether the Red Raiders measure up to their early hype. We caught up with him for a few minutes after he got back from a recent vacation to talk about his plans for his unit.
Your defense showed some great improvement over the last have of the season. What are you expecting from them after a full spring and fall training camp to work with them?
RM: The thing we wanted to do in the spring was to prepare to get us ready for the first two weeks of fall practice. It will still revolve on us playing with sound fundamentals. We're going to be making sure we keep improving on that aspect. And we're also going to keep trying to install some new things. The kids did a good job last season of grasping the things we wanted them to. We kept adding some things. The biggest thing for us will be to keep the kids geared in and focused.
How did the spring go as far in building on what you learned last season?
RM: The kids are comfortable in what we're asking them to do. The spring gave us a chance to slow down and put the concepts in that we wanted. I'm excited after seeing how comfortable they looked in the spring. They had some big eyes and ears and wanted to learn what we wanted them to learn and what we were tossing them. I'm looking forward to continuing it.
Your defense seemed to peak late last season with the season-ending victories over Oklahoma and Virginia in the bowl game. Did that success give you a natural progression to keep building into the spring and the fall?
RM: I think the way we finished really sparked our confidence and it really showed in the offseason. When I took over [as interim coordinator] we wanted to install confidence where they would believe in themselves. I wanted them believe in what we do. There will always be ups and downs, especially in the Big 12. But I was very pleased that we never lost our confidence. We fought through adversity and I was really pleased with that. We've got lots of guys back and after what we accomplished gives us something to build on for this season.
Texas Tech is getting some unprecedented national attention this summer coming into the season. Most prognosticators believe the team's biggest question mark will be the defense. Do you like the feeling of being in the crosshairs as your team tries to capture its first Big 12 title?
RM: I've heard that pretty often (laughing) and we've told the kids about. But there are a couple of things to consider. One is that you hope after you've been here for awhile that there should be some expectations put on us. Secondly, we're not close to being what we could be with our program. We have high expectations we place on ourselves and it works within our program. The crosshairs are not intimidating. I appreciate them. It tells us we have a chance to do some special things if we believe and can focus on the task at hand.
Tell us about the growth of your defensive line, which could potentially be your deepest group you've had since you've been at Tech.
RM: All of our development always starts from the inside [at defensive tackle] and we have a good group there with Colby Whitlock, Rajon Henley, Richard Jones and Chris Perry, who's a transfer from Miami. At the ends, we've got Jake Ratliff back, Brandon Williams. Daniel Howard did a good job. McKinner Dixon came back to us and had a good spring. The depth will help us. I'm very pleased with their progress. It's a young group, but they've really developed. I'm looking forward to seeing how far they've come.
What about the work of Dixon, who was a standout as a freshman in 2005, before he became academically ineligible and had to go back to junior college before he came back?
RM: I can tell a difference in him since he's come back. He's always been a good kid, but coming out with as much publicity as he had [from high school] made for some early challenges. Now, he's making sure everything is settled in his life. Junior college helped him reprioritize his life. It kind of humbled him a little. Not that he was cocky, but he's got things in order now. And he can be a big help for us. He did a good job of bonding with his teammates after he came back. And he did a great job of picking up where he left off on the football field.
And how about Brandon Sesay, who was highly regarded at College of the Sequoias. Will he be a part of your team this year?
RM: He's ready to go. He's in a class this summer and should be ready to go at the end of the semester.
You've been a defensive coordinator twice before with stints at Appalachian State and UNLV. How did those opportunities change how you will get ready for your opportunity at Tech?
RM: I'm very fortunate to have my staff intact. Most of us have been together for four, five or six years and that's really comforting. Knowing we've had a chance to watch film and study together over the years gives us a better comfort level. And these kids know what to expect as a group. Having the staff together, having that continuity and then going through the spring will help us.
Are you approaching this opportunity this season any differently than before? Are you more excited because of all of the high expectations on the program?
RM: The one thing I learned early is to always be myself. I feel comfortable in my situation after being a coordinator two previous times before. I'm really looking forward to it. There's a different excitement that I've got now than I've had in a long time. I'm looking forward to the opportunity.