Big 12: Matt Wallerstedt

Now that we're entering the first full week of Big 12 conference games, we got to thinking: Have there really been that many surprises so far?

No. 4 Oklahoma and No. 7 Baylor are both undefeated and rolling just as expected. The tier of teams below them is a bit of an uncertain jumble, which we could've predicted in August. A few programs that might've seem poised to take a small step back in 2014 -- Oklahoma State and West Virginia -- have been better than advertised. So is still-unbeaten TCU.

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What has been the biggest early-season surprise in the Big 12?

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Discuss (Total votes: 6,113)

But the on-field results, to this point, haven't provided many shocks. Kansas State, WVU and OSU played Auburn, Alabama and Florida State admirably close, for sure, but all three came up short of a season-changing upset. OU and Baylor handled their first conference road trips just fine, too.

But there are a few developments, some on the field and some off of it, that provide a nice dose of surprise.

Maybe the biggest one came last Sunday, when Kansas fired coach Charlie Weis four games into his third season in Lawrence. There was also the abrupt departure of Texas Tech defensive coordinator Matt Wallerstedt last month and the ESPN.com report that he'd been suspended of being under the influence of a substance on campus.

Charlie Strong's debut year at Texas, with losses to BYU and UCLA and potentially to Baylor and Oklahoma up next, also hasn't gone as planned. But we have been pleasantly surprised by the prolific start for West Virginia quarterback Clint Trickett and receiver Kevin White, as well as the sharp play of quarterback Daxx Garman at OSU after J.W. Walsh went down.

So which of those takes the cake? Let us know what you think by voting in today's poll.

What are we forgetting here? Oklahoma going 0-for-3 on Baker Mayfield, Dorial Green-Beckham and Frank Shannon playing in 2014? The nine Texas dismissals? Has there been a truly surprising game result we've overlooked? After you vote, please let us know in the comments below.
Mike Smith is not talking this week, which must be killing him.

The man now fully responsible for Texas Tech’s defense is not doing interviews this week, which is understandable. Tech is busy trying to rally from its abrupt coaching shakeup and prepare for a critical Thursday night game at No. 24 Oklahoma State.

The 33-year-old steps into a tricky situation, but one he no doubt treasures. The unexpected resignation of co-defensive coordinator Matt Wallerstedt last week is giving Smith, a loud and proud former Red Raiders linebacker, a pressure-packed chance to once again prove himself.

Smith
“He brings a lot of energy,” Texas Tech coach Kliff Kingsbury said this week. “Very positive. Good with the players. Things won’t change a lot schematically or personnel. But every guy is going to have their different way of doing things. I think he’s handled himself well.”

Smith’s rapid rise in the coaching ranks parallels Kingsbury’s in many ways. They were teammates at Texas Tech for three years. They cut their teeth with some of the game’s best coaches. They approach their jobs today with the passion of guys who wish they were still playing.

A four-year starting linebacker with the Red Raiders who racked up 314 tackles, Smith, who graduated in 2004, played hard and might’ve pranked harder. He and roommate Wes Welker, one of Smith’s best friends to this day, developed quite the reputation. One time, they released a pack of hairless rats in Tech’s running backs room.

On the field, though, they teamed with Kingbsury to help lay the foundation for the Mike Leach era in Lubbock. Smith tied for the team lead in tackles as a senior and was a seventh-round draft pick by the Baltimore Ravens.

He played there for two seasons under defensive coordinator Rex Ryan, backing up an All-Pro in Ray Lewis and learning from veterans like Terrell Suggs and Bart Scott.

But Smith’s climb up the coaching ladder couldn’t begin without a heartbreaking setback. He earned his first career start, in place of an injured Lewis, on Nov. 12, 2006. He injured his left shoulder on his very first snap, after a cut block from Tennessee Titans center Kevin Mawae.

The Ravens announced he would miss two or three weeks. But the injury was much worse than that. Smith suffered a torn labrum, rotator cuff and biceps tendon and had dislocated his shoulder. The injury would eventually require four surgeries.

Smith missed the 2007 season and reached an injury settlement with the Ravens in summer 2008. His playing days were over after just 14 games as a pro.

But Smith made some important friends during his time with the Ravens. After a stint as a grad assistant at Hawaii in 2009, he landed an internship with the New York Jets and reunited with Ryan.

This was grunt work at its finest: up to 20 hours a day of helping with game plans and meetings for little pay and less recognition. He stayed in the townhouse of then-Jets defensive coordinator Mike Pettine, now the Cleveland Browns’ head coach. Smith made a big impression, especially for his work helping revive linebacker Aaron Maybin’s career.

“It’s like the 'it' factor with coaches,” Pettine told the New York Daily News in 2011. “You either have it or you don’t. And he’s got it.”

He got the coaches’ attention, too, with his sideline antics. The no-name intern couldn’t stop himself from running on the field and celebrating his pass-rushers’ feats.

“The refs would tell me before the game, ‘Hey, Coach Smith, you’re going to have to stay off the field. You’re out there on the freaking numbers,’ ” Smith told the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal last year. “I was going to go tackle those guys.”

He turned down opportunities to work with two of his former Texas Tech coaches, Leach and Dana Holgorsen, after Ryan finally promoted him to a full-time gig -- outside linebackers coach -- for the 2012 season.

He couldn’t say no, though, to teaming up with Kingsbury at the end of 2012 as co-defensive coordinator. And now, for the first time in his young coaching career, he’s fully in charge of a defense. When the news broke Thursday, Smith received congratulatory text messages from both Ryan and Pettine.

In the week since, the interim DC has had plenty to fix after Tech gave up 49 points and 438 rushing yards in a blowout loss to Arkansas. Smith will lean on his NFL background to fix alignment issues. He’ll lean on his Ryan-trained love for dialing up blitzes, too. For all of Smith's energy, Tech Tech linebacker Sam Eguavoen said Smith’s daily demeanor meshes well with players.

“He's just more laid-back. I don't want to say a friendly environment, but it's less stress, less screaming,” Eguavoen said. “I mean, he comes to you like a man, not as a child or something.”

During Kingsbury’s weekly radio show last week, Smith spoke for the first and only time before the Red Raiders take the field against Oklahoma State. He told the story of meeting with the defense that day. He made a challenge to his players that he’ll promise to match:

“For the next nine games, give me everything you’ve got.”

New Texas Tech DC must fix run defense

September, 19, 2014
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Fourth-and-1 at Texas Tech's 39. Time for the Red Raiders, down seven points in the third quarter, to get a stop.

Arkansas lined up exactly how you would expect: A three-tight-end power set with a fullback. Nine blockers, one running back. No pass, no fakes, no funny stuff. Just a power run off right tackle. And Texas Tech played it right.

Safety J.J. Gaines met Arkansas back Jonathan Williams near the line of scrimmage. Williams juked left. Gaines whiffed. Then the Arkansas junior threw two stiff-arms at linebacker Sam Eguaoven and picked up 21 yards. Six plays later, the Hogs were back in the end zone.

[+] EnlargeAlex Collins
Michael C. Johnson/USA TODAY SportsOver the past nine games, this has been a familiar view of running backs for Texas Tech defenders.
This wasn't the turning-point play in Texas Tech's 49-28 loss. Just another landed punch in an eventual beatdown.

Williams ran for 80 yards in the second half, teammate Alex Collins added 167 yards, Arkansas averaged a ridiculous 7.15 yards per carry and attempted just two passes. No need to throw. Everything was working against a Red Raiders defense whose biggest flaw of 2013 re-emerged.

"You've got to give them credit," Texas Tech coach Kliff Kingsbury said after the loss. "They lined up and pounded us, and we just didn't have an answer today."

Fixing a Texas Tech run defense that has been a sieve in its past nine games is Challenge No. 1 for newly elevated defensive coordinator Mike Smith. Though Matt Wallerstedt exited Thursday because of off-field issues, he leaves behind one real on-field problem that Big 12 foes will try to exploit.

Since Oct. 26, 2013, Tech's first loss of last season at Oklahoma, the Red Raiders have the second-worst run defense in the FBS at 293.4 rushing yards allowed per game.

During that nine-game stretch, of which Tech has lost six, no defense in the country has given up more first downs on rushes (142). Only Southern Miss has allowed more touchdowns and more rushes of 10-plus yards.

In fact, Tech gave up 36 rushing touchdowns during that period, eight more than any other FBS team.

Though Arkansas has one of the best run games in the country, a power-heavy attack the likes of which Tech probably will not face again in Big 12 play, the fact is no FBS defense has faced more rushing plays in those nine games than Tech. Opponents know they must hit this weak spot hard. The Red Raiders know it's coming. They can't stop it.

In the third quarter against Arkansas, Williams' fourth-down dash was deadly because it was another play that kept Texas Tech’s defense on the field. The Hogs ran 23 plays in the quarter and kept the ball for a total of 12:45. That is an easy way to get your opponent gassed.

Linebacker V.J. Fehoko said he saw too many communication issues, too many times when defenders tried to do too much and didn't stick to their assignment.

"In this conference," Fehoko said Saturday, "the smallest mistakes go the longest ways."

Though this is a generally young defense, the starters in the front seven are all juniors and seniors. How are they going to react to another letdown against the run?

"You know, it's tough. It's tough when the ball's not going your way and the momentum's not going your way," Fehoko said. "But I think we've got to just persevere and fight through it. As a team we've got a lot of young guys, but that's no excuse. I think energy and fire comes from within."

So does Texas Tech's new leadership on defense. Smith was already the co-coordinator, so it's not a drastic change. He is expected to bring more of an NFL mindset to assignment and alignment than Wallerstedt. And no doubt he's already hard at work to address his defense's most obvious defect.

It's not that complicated. Next up is Oklahoma State. They and every other opponent are going to pound the rock. They will keep doing it, and the reputation will continue, until Texas Tech starts finding answers to stop it.

Big 12 morning links

September, 19, 2014
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Well, if it's any consolation, Kansas State probably would've beaten the Bucs on Thursday night. On to the links:
  • Kansas State players walked away from their 20-14 loss to No. 5 Auburn with an understandable message: "We should have won that game." The Wildcats were given every opportunity to win that game, even after their three missed field goals, but made way too many mistakes. Regardless of the result, I have to agree with the Kansas City Star's Blair Kerkhoff when he writes that we need more games like that one in college football.
  • The departure of defensive coordinator Matt Wallerstedt at Texas Tech is just the latest in a long, frustrating run of coaching changes for the Red Raiders. Don Williams of the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal looked back on those changes and Kliff Kingsbury's need for continuity. I'm not ready to write off Mike Smith, because I think he can get the buy-in from players, but no doubt this was another bizarre twist for the Tech coaching carousel.
  • Two good West Virginia reads for your Friday: Berry Tramel of The Oklahoman went to Morgantown to examine Dana Holgorsen's increasingly comfortable fit with West Virginia. Now that WVU has weathered the conference change and its depth is back in order, Holgorsen and Luck seem genuinely happy with where the program is heading. Also enjoyed this examination of Clint Trickett's perfectionist mentality by Allan Taylor of MetroNews. Trickett didn't think he played "worth a damn" against Maryland and saw only the plays he didn't make, despite surpassing 500 yards. Not shocking, coming from a coach's kid, but it's clear his recent success won't go to his head.
  • The fact this meeting with Central Michigan is a big-time, high-stakes game for Kansas is not lost on its players. Jesse Newell of The Topeka Capital-Journal wrote on KU's issue with emotional letdowns and inconsistent effort through two games. The veterans seem mad in the right way. But are they going to get 100 percent from everyone else? They're about to find out what kind of leadership they have.
  • Lastly, the report from E.J. Holland of Dave Campbell's Texas Football that Oklahoma co-OC Josh Heupel is a candidate for the SMU job is intriguing. Doesn't mean there's been contact or mutual interest, just that Heupel is evidently on the radar. I'm of the opinion that the Mustangs need to go with a young, exciting coordinator who can recruit the Metroplex and the rest of Texas like crazy. From that standpoint, there are better candidates than Heupel out there, but would many have interest? If Clemson's Chad Morris is ready to make the jump, SMU probably needs to pursue him as Plan A before everybody else does.

Texas Tech spring wrap

May, 1, 2014
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Three things we learned in the spring

1. Bryce Petty's reign as the Big 12’s best quarterback could be in jeopardy. Texas Tech quarterback Davis Webb picked up this spring right where he left off after earning MVP honors at the National University Holiday Bowl. The sophomore passed for 354 yards and four touchdowns during the Red Raiders’ spring game and looks ready to take his game to another level in his second season in Lubbock.

2. The Red Raiders' defense needs help. Replacing Kerry Hyder along the defensive line won’t be easy as Texas Tech needs junior college signees like Rika Levi to provide depth and competition up front while the secondary is young and inexperienced. The return of defensive coordinator Matt Wallerstedt means Texas Tech will have stability and consistency in its defensive coaching staff the first time in years, which should help, but Texas Tech’s defense will need to grow up fast if Red Raiders hope to insert themselves into the Big 12 title race.

3. Is there anything Kenny Williams cannot do? After leading the team in rushing and starring on special teams last season, the senior switched from running back to linebacker and found himself atop the depth chart at the end of spring. Second-year coach Kliff Kingsbury didn’t indicate that Williams time on offense is over so Texas Tech could have one of the nation’s top three-way playmakers at its disposal this fall.

Three questions for the fall

1. What happens if Webb goes down? Disaster. It’s telling that Texas Tech released a post-spring depth chart with Webb as a lone quarterback on the two-deep. If the sophomore is forced to miss time the Red Raiders’ hope of a dream season will take a major hit.

2. Who fills the playmaking void left by Jace Amaro and Eric Ward? Receiver Jakeem Grant is the first in line to fill the playmaking void left by the duo that combined for 2,299 receiving yards and 15 touchdowns in 2013. But Grant was a key piece in the offense last season, so someone else needs to show they’re ready to produce in Kingsbury’s offense. Keep an eye on D.J. Polite-Bray, Devin Lauderdale and Reginald Davis, a trio of sophomore receivers who could be poised to explode in Texas Tech’s passing attack.

3. Which defensive newcomers will make an immediate impact? ESPN 300 cornerback Nigel Bethel II and linebacker Dakota Allen are a pair of high school signees with the talent to help immediately while junior college defensive line signees Levi, Keland McElrath and Brandon Thorpe will get plenty of opportunities. The answer to this question will have the biggest impact on Texas Tech’s ultimate destiny this fall, particularly if Webb remains healthy, because it will be critical for defensive newcomers to be ready to contribute right away.

One way-too-early prediction

The Red Raiders will have a major impact on the Big 12 championship race. Lack of overall depth will keep Texas Tech from putting itself in the title hunt, but the Red Raiders will record an upset in 2014 that alters the title race and changes the destination of the 2014 Big 12 championship rings during the home stretch of the conference schedule in November.
LUBBOCK, Texas -- The list of two-way players to grace the Big 12 in recent years is a short one.

Oklahoma State cornerback R.W. McQuarters had an interception and a touchdown catch in the 1997 Alamo Bowl.

During Oklahoma’s national championship run in 2000, Andre Woolfolk, as a wide receiver and cornerback, became the first Sooners player in 21 years to go both ways.

Bill Snyder utilized Kansas State cornerbacks Chris Canty and Terence Newman at receiver.

[+] EnlargeKenny Williams
John Weast/Getty ImagesTexas Tech's Kenny Williams played linebacker this spring, and coaches are thinking about deploying him on both offense and defense.
And Charles Gordon and Aqib Talib were superb two-way performers for the Jayhawks as cornerbacks/receivers under coach Mark Mangino.

In 2014, Texas Tech’s Kenny Williams could become the next in a short line of Big 12 two-way players.

Williams has been the Red Raiders’ starting running back the past two seasons, but he spent spring ball exclusively at outside linebacker. Williams didn’t take part in Texas Tech’s spring game Saturday because of a minor injury. But he took snaps with the first-team defense all spring, and turned heads doing it.

“Kenny has done a great job coming over and learning the system,” said defensive coordinator Matt Wallerstedt. “He’s a football guy, so it doesn’t take him a whole lot of time. He sees everything, understands the concepts.”

The impetus for Williams expanding his football résumé began with a simple request before the spring. The Red Raiders graduated outside linebacker Terrance Bullitt, and Williams was looking to help every way he could. That included asking for an opportunity to boost the other side of the ball.

“I talked to Coach [Kliff] Kingsbury and Coach Wallerstedt, and basically told them, whatever the team needs, I’d be willing to do it,” Williams said. “I’ve always considered myself a defensive-minded person, so switching over to linebacker, I didn’t think it would be very hard for me. It’s kind of been like second nature.”

At first, the position switch seemed merely experimental. That's what spring ball is for. Williams had been a tackling machine on special teams for the Red Raiders, but learning linebacker in one spring appeared to be a monumental task. Yet, as the spring waned on, Williams showed his coaches and teammates he was a natural for the position.

“I think he’s a guy [who] can help us,” Wallerstedt said. “He played on all our special teams last year. He knows the offense cold. Kliff wouldn’t have given him the opportunity if he didn’t feel like he could miss reps at running back, and go back on offense and do what he does. With all these reps he’s been getting at linebacker in the spring, he’s going to be a guy we can count on.”

Though it’s possible -- if not probable -- that Williams ultimately ends up on one side of the ball or the other, Kingsbury and Williams both indicated the plan right now for next fall is to use him on both sides.

The Red Raiders have DeAndre Washington, who rushed for 450 yards backing up Williams in 2013, returning at running back. Sophomore Quinton White is primed for more playing time. Texas Tech will also add four-star signee Justin Stockton in the summer.

That depth gave the Red Raiders confidence they could try Williams on the defensive side. But Williams has also proven to be a key and reliable offensive weapon, rushing for 1,321 yards and 13 touchdowns the past two seasons. Williams has also been Texas Tech’s best pass protector among the running backs, and it’s no secret Red Raiders can ill-afford for Davis Webb to get injured as the only experienced quarterback on the roster.

“I’m willing to go from starting offense over to defense, or starting defense over to offense,” Williams said. “Wherever I can get in and help.”

There’s precedent for a player taking on both running back and linebacker in the modern game. UCLA’s Myles Jack was named the Pac-12 offensive and defensive freshman of the year last season while manning both linebacker and later running back for the Bruins.

The next few months will dictate if Williams can become Texas Tech’s version of Jack. But coming out of the spring, one valuable Red Raider has the chance to become even more valuable next season.

“We have a lot of time to really push the envelope with this,” Wallerstedt said. “We’ll have to see how we end up defensively. … we’ll know more in August camp.

“But saying we could only have him 25 snaps, would we take him? Certainly. He’s the type of kid who’s going to do whatever it takes to help his football team, whether that’s offense, defense or the kicking game.”

Texas Tech spring game review

April, 14, 2014
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LUBBOCK, Texas -- With a school-record crowd of 19,500 in attendance, Texas Tech finished its spring schedule with a two-hour spring game at Jones AT&T Stadium. Here’s what we learned from the game:

Best offensive performance: A bulked-up Davis Webb put on a show, completing 25 of 37 passes for 354 yards and four touchdowns. Most of his reps came in the first half, and he showed off some impressive touch on his TD throws -- his 23-yard score to Bradley Marquez under pressure was a gem. The sophomore QB even added a long touchdown run that was called back. And for what it’s worth, Webb was even better in Tech’s previous open scrimmages this spring. He’s just no fun to defend, and his coaches will vouch for that. “He’s driving me to drink Pepto-Bismol,” defensive coordinator Matt Wallerstedt joked after the game.

[+] EnlargeKliff Kingsbury
Tim Heitman/USA TODAY SportsKliff Kingsbury said his team will start the season with a lot more confidence than last year.
Best defensive performance: Got to give credit to Josh Keys for being opportunistic. The junior college transfer safety scooped up a fumble that rolled right to him at the end of the first quarter and scored from 22 yards out. That takeaway, a strip after a screen pass, had to be encouraging for a defense that ranked third-worst in FBS with a turnover margin of minus-14 last season. Redshirt freshman linebacker Collin Bowen also snagged an interception.

Best debut: This wasn’t a true debut, since he did play some special teams last season, but receiver Brent Mitcham made a nice impression. The senior spent three years on the scout team and had a minimal role in 2013 but stepped up on Saturday with a game-high six receptions for 80 yards. The best of the bunch was a catch over the middle that Mitcham turned and took down the sideline for a 41-yard gain.

Notable play: On a play-action pass in the first quarter, Webb rolled right, planted and fired a pass toward the opposite hash to a wide-open Jakeem Grant. The speedster made a defender miss along the sideline and cut across the field for a 75-yard touchdown. Grant finished with 105 yards on five receptions.

Developing storyline: Help is still on the way for this Texas Tech defense. Much will be expected of ESPN 300 cornerback signee Nigel Bethel II and junior college transfers Rika Levi, Brandon Thorpe and Marcus Smith when they arrive this summer. You should see a few more freshmen (maybe safety Payton Hendrix and linebacker Dakota Allen) fight their way into the two-deep. “As all of our guys get here in June and we have a monster summer, this thing will look a little different than even what it looked like today,” Wallerstedt said.

Biggest question answered: Can Texas Tech’s receivers make up for the loss of Eric Ward and Jace Amaro? From a statistical standpoint, they will go down as two of the all-time greats among Red Raider pass-catchers, but Webb is confident this group can be even better. In addition to Grant and Marquez, he singled out Reginald Davis, D.J. Polite-Bray, Devin Lauderdale and Derreck Edwards as playmakers he’s excited to utilize this fall. “This is the fastest receiving group I’ve known since I’ve ever watched Texas Tech football,” Webb said.

Quotable: "We have a lot more confidence than last year. Last year, we just tried to install and the guys are trying to figure us out and figure out our expectations. They know what they can be after that bowl game and carry that confidence over to being a top-15 team. They know what they can be if they put it all together, so that's exciting." -- Texas Tech coach Kliff Kingsbury

Big 12 lunchtime links

April, 14, 2014
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It's not like bringing a cat to the spring game but Kliff Kingsbury is still winning ...

Spring game preview: Texas Tech

April, 10, 2014
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On Saturday, Texas Tech will hold its annual spring game, which will be open to the public. Here’s a closer look:

When: 11 a.m. Saturday

Where: Jones AT&T Stadium

What to watch for:
  • QB Davis Webb: Building off his MVP performance in the National University Holiday Bowl, Webb has been fabulous in Texas Tech’s last two open scrimmages. In Midland, Texas, he threw four touchdowns to four different receivers. In the Red Raiders’ “Friday Night Lights” scrimmage last week, he completed his first 13 passes and threw for five more scores. The rising sophomore has rapidly developed since becoming the clear-cut starter last December and is playing with a lot of confidence. He could gain even more with another strong showing in the spring game.
  • New receivers: Even with All-American tight end Jace Amaro and second-leading receiver Eric Ward gone, Webb should have plenty of attractive targets. Jakeem Grant caught two touchdowns from Webb in the bowl game and has only begun to scratch the surface of his potential. Reginald Davis has been battling a groin injury this spring, but he has the overwhelming speed to give Webb the deep threat on the outside that the Red Raiders lacked last season. Bradley Marquez is as reliable as it gets at the receiver position in the Big 12. That trio has a chance to be as prolific as any in the league. If D.J. Polite-Bray and Devin Lauderdale continue to come on the other outside spot opposite Davis, look out.
  • Kenny Williams: Going into the spring, Williams asked the Texas Tech coaches if he could swing from running back to outside linebacker, where the Red Raiders needed help after Terrance Bullitt graduated. So far, the experiment has gone swimmingly, as Williams has proved he could impact Texas Tech on both sides of the ball next season. Texas Tech feels secure about its running backs with DeAndre Washington, Quinton White and, eventually, incoming freshman Justin Stockton. Williams could still help out there. But he could also boost a defense that was short on depth in 2013.
  • Juco impact: Sensing a need for an instant impact at several positions, Kliff Kingsbury signed nine junior college players in his recruiting class, including three – Lauderdale, safety Josh Keys and defensive tackle Keland McElrath – who have been around for the spring. All three players could play key roles for the Red Raiders next season and will be on full display in the spring game.
  • FS Keenon Ward: Defensive coordinator Matt Wallerstedt singled out Ward for standing out as much as any player on his side of the ball this spring. Ward has been bringing some thunder to the Texas Tech secondary, laying big hits, most notably on slot receiver Zach Austin in the Midland scrimmage. The Red Raiders are looking for a replacement for departed 35-game starter Tre Porter at safety. Ward is looking primed to fill that role, and is the best bet to provide the hit of the spring game.

LUBBOCK, Texas -- From the outside, it seemed as if the House That Leach Built was crumbling all around Kliff Kingsbury.

There was a five-game losing streak that included getting whipped at Texas on Thanksgiving night. His starting QB left for another Big 12 program. His right-hand assistant bolted days later for a different Big 12 foe.

Yet through such trying weeks, the 34-year-old first-year head coach never changed his demeanor. Not publicly. Not even privately with his team. He still arrived at Texas Tech’s football training facility during the 4 o’clock hour each morning. He still worked out twice a day, once around sunrise, and again after lunch.

[+] EnlargeKliff Kingsbury
Tim Heitman/USA TODAY SportsKliff Kingsbury stayed cool when there was chaos all around. The Red Raiders followed his lead and it's been paying off ever since.
Kingsbury refused to dwell on the past. Instead, he focused his players on the opportunities ahead.

“Really, a team gets its personality from its head coach,” said senior running back/outside linebacker Kenny Williams. “Coach Kingsbury is a very strong person. I think the way he conducted himself during that time made us a stronger team.”

Because their coach never wavered in the weeks leading up the National University Holiday Bowl, the team didn’t, either. And like a captain guiding his crew through choppy waters, Kingsbury righted the (pirate) ship at Texas Tech.

The two-touchdown-underdog Red Raiders completely dismantled No. 14 Arizona State in the Holiday Bowl -- and they’ve been riding a wave of momentum no one outside the program saw coming ever since.

“For what they did and the way they performed in the bowl game, I couldn’t have been more proud of those guys,” Kingsbury said. “I think the biggest part was the resiliency this team showed. That’s how you build for the future. Because it’s not always going to be going well. It’s not always going to fall in your favor. But you gotta keep fighting.”

After they rallied past West Virginia to move to 7-0 and into the top 10 of the polls, nothing seemed to fall in the Red Raiders’ favor. Texas Tech played Oklahoma tough in a tight loss on the road, but then lost to Oklahoma State, Kansas State, Baylor and Texas by an average margin of almost 24 points.

“I don’t think anyone on the team felt sorry for themselves or felt like, ‘Hey, this wasn’t a good team,’” Kingsbury said. “We just weren’t playing as good as we needed to be to beat good teams.”

But just like the five straight losses themselves, the losses of quarterback Baker Mayfield and assistant Sonny Cumbie stung, too.

Mayfield became a national story after winning the starting job during the preseason as a walk-on true freshman. He was named the Big 12 Offensive Freshman of the Year the same day he informed Kingsbury he was leaving to enroll at Oklahoma.

Cumbie’s departure was almost as shocking. He played quarterback at Texas Tech under Mike Leach, had been teammates and longtime friends with Kingsbury and was the only assistant retained by both former Texas Tech coach Tommy Tuberville and Kingsbury. Cumbie had recruited several of the players on Texas Tech’s current roster, including quarterback Davis Webb. And he had been instrumental in helping Kingsbury acclimate during his first few days as head coach, even bringing recruiting tape for Kingsbury to review in his empty office.

“It was really rough having coach Cumbie leave, because that was the guy that had been recruiting me since my sophomore year,” Webb said. “He’s a guy I got really close to. He knows my parents really well. He came to my house multiple times. That was really rough on me I guess because I look up to him a lot. Baker leaving threw everyone off guard, too. Coach Cumbie leaving to TCU was very surprising. So there was a lot of shock. But we never became distraught.”

Instead, Kingsbury kept his players on campus throughout December to prepare them for the bowl game. And by the time the Holiday Bowl rolled around, the Red Raiders had the look of a team that had successfully weathered a storm.

“Everything just boiled up in a pot,” Webb said. “And we just exploded.”

Really, a team gets its personality from its head coach. Coach Kingsbury is a very strong person. I think the way he conducted himself during that time made us a stronger team.

-- Texas Tech senior RB/OLB Kenny Williams
Taking over for Mayfield, Webb came out on fire. Also a true freshman last year, Webb threw touchdown passes on Texas Tech’s first four possessions and finished with 403 passing yards on his way to earning Holiday Bowl offensive MVP honors. The defense, finally at full strength again after several injuries, held up too.

“More than anything, that showed our players that you gotta handle adversity, you gotta be mentally tough,” Kingsbury said. “And if you do, that good things can happen.”

Good things have been happening for Texas Tech ever since.

Last month, Kingsbury scored a commitment from Jarrett Stidham, the nation’s No. 1 dual-threat quarterback in the Class of 2015. Stidham had offers from Alabama, Oregon, Texas and Baylor, which was thought to be the favorite because of Art Briles’ connection to Stidham’s Stephenville High School (Briles won four state titles there).

“Coach Kingsbury done everything to make sure that program is going in the right direction,” said Stidham, who revealed he’s been in touch with several other high-profile recruits about joining him at Texas Tech. “I believe what he’s doing is going to pay off.”

The momentum from the bowl game has carried over into the spring.

More than 10,000 fans attended an open scrimmage in Midland, Texas, and another big turnout is expected Saturday for the spring game in Lubbock. Plus, Texas Tech broke a record with more than 34,000 season tickets sold, and is sure to sell more with five months to go before the Aug. 30 opener against Central Arkansas.

On the field, Webb has used the bowl performance as a springboard and has been even sharper this spring. During the Midland scrimmage, he tossed four touchdowns to four different receivers without an interception. Even with All-American Jace Amaro and Eric Ward moving on, the Red Raiders appear to be loaded at receiver again as well, with Jakeem Grant, Reginald Davis and Bradley Marquez, all of whom had touchdowns in the bowl game.

The defense should be improved, with the players having a year of experience now in coordinator Matt Wallerstedt’s 3-4 scheme.

And the schedule lines up nicely, with Oklahoma and Texas both coming to Lubbock, and defending Big 12 champ Baylor still on a neutral field in Arlington, Texas.

“We’re really ready to build off the Holiday Bowl,” Webb said. “We don’t want that to be the highlight, though.

“We want that to be the jump-start.”

Maybe he was inspired by UCLA’s Myles Jack. Or maybe he got frustrated watching from the sidelines while knowing he could help.

Either way, Texas Tech’s Kenny Williams wants to be the Big 12’s answer to the Pac-12’s Jack, who was named Pac-12 offensive and defensive freshman of the year after starring at running back and linebacker for the Bruins last season. According to the Lubbock Avalanche Journal, the Red Raiders senior has spent the majority of the spring taking first-team reps as a linebacker after leading the squad in rushing with 497 yards and eight touchdowns as a junior.

[+] EnlargeKenny Williams, Jordan Evans, Dominique Alexander
Alonzo Adams/USA TODAY SportsKenny Williams may see time at running back and linebacker this fall.
“He’s looking great, I love that kid,” Texas Tech defensive coordinator Matt Wallerstedt told the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal. “Everybody here knows about him. He’s accountable. He’s reliable. He loves football.”

Williams had 14 tackles as a special teams standout last season, showing a hunger to make plays and a willingness to do whatever it takes to help the team.

“He wants to come over and help,” Wallerstedt said. “He’s learning and doing and great job, and he comes over with credibility.”

Williams wanted to make the move and the coaching staff was receptive as it searches for a replacement for Terrance Bullitt at outside linebacker. He immediately brought a veteran voice and senior leadership to the linebackers.

It could be an ideal fit. It would be difficult for Williams to start on offense and defense and then play both ways for the duration of any game, particularly since Tech led the Big 12 and FBS with 87.4 plays per game. Yet, having a veteran playmaker and leader as a viable option at running back and linebacker would do nothing but help the Red Raiders’ chances for success in 2014.

Ultimately though, Williams’ destiny could be decided by his teammates more than himself.

Fellow running back DeAndre Washington was right on the heels of Williams with 450 rushing yards in 2013 and could be in line to share carries with him this fall. Meanwhile, Williams’ ability to slide into the mix at linebacker means it will be important for other players to emerge at that position in Wallerstedt’s defense.

Even as Williams works at linebacker, spring is unlikely to decide where the Pflugerville, Texas, native could end up helping the Red Raiders the most during the 2014 season. The lone certainty is the Williams’ experimentation at the linebacker position gives the Red Raiders options and additional competition for playing time.
Competition will be intense to fill the critical “Raider” outside linebacking spot occupied by the productive Terrance Bullitt last season.

Departed: The Red Raiders bring back starters Pete Robertson at the “Bandit” linebacker position. Sam Eguavoen and Micah Awe will man the spots inside in defensive coordinator Matt Wallerstedt’s 3-4 scheme. But the Red Raiders still have to figure out how they will replace Bullitt at the “Raider” on the outside. Bullitt led all Big 12 linebackers with nine pass breakups, despite playing with a bum arm for most of the season. He won’t be easily replaced.

Spring contenders: Senior Dorian Crawford, senior Austin Stewart, redshirt freshman Collin Bowen, redshirt freshman Jacarthy Mack.

Summer contenders: None

The skinny: Wallerstedt has indicated that he’d like to audition several players at the “Raider” this spring.

Crawford will get the first crack after playing safety last season. Crawford sprained his ankle last preseason, and only appeared in four games. But Wallerstedt likes the potential of Crawford bringing speed to both man up slot receivers and also blitz off the edge.

Stewart will be another player to watch on the outside. Stewart played more than any of the other contenders last season, registering 39 tackles and two sacks last season. But Stewart was up and down at times, and could be used elsewhere on the field or as a spot player.

Mack has plenty of athleticism, too, but might be a year away from being ready to be an every-down player.

The dark horse to watch here is Bowen, who was part of last year’s walk-on class that produced starting QB Baker Mayfield and starting safety Tanner Jacobson. Bowen, a former high school QB, brings intelligence and toughness to the position that has impressed the coaching staff so far.

Prediction: Provided he’s not also needed at safety, Crawford will hold the starting job. But Wallerstedt will rotate in an array of players like Stewart and Bowen in certain situations at what could turn into a deep position for the Red Raiders.

Tech D surging thanks to 'money down'

October, 16, 2013
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LUBBOCK, Texas -- The Texas Tech defense has a motto for third down.

“We call that the money down,” said linebacker Terrance Bullitt. “That’s when you get paid.”

This season, the Red Raiders have been cashing in. And due in large part to their sweeping defensive turnaround, Tech is 6-0 for the first time in five years.

“When you hear about Tech, you think about how explosive our offense is,” said defensive end Branden Jackson. “We want to show the world that Tech isn’t just an offensive school.”

So far in coach Kliff Kingsbury’s first season, the Red Raiders are doing just that.

In the Big 12, they’re third in total defense, second in scoring defense and first in “money down” defense. Opponents are converting just 27 percent of their third downs against the Tech defense, which dating back to the Mike Leach era has long been a drain on the Red Raiders’ perennially high-scoring offense.

This season, the defense is carrying its weight.

According to ESPN Stats & Info, the defense has contributed more than nine points per game to the Red Raiders’ scoring margin. When adjusted for the offenses they’ve faced, that ranks 17th in the country.

That’s a massive improvement over the last two years. Tech’s Adjusted Defensive Efficiency last season was -0.3. And in 2011, Adjusted Defensive Efficiency showed the Tech defense cost the team more than a touchdown a game, which ranked 100th in the FBS.

“It’s a different attitude,” Bullitt said. “We wanted to put the team on the defense’s backs.”

Despite rotating true freshmen quarterbacks Baker Mayfield and Davis Webb, the offense has continued to hum like past Tech offenses. The Red Raiders trail only Baylor in Big 12 scoring offense with an average of almost 42 points a game.

But offense has rarely been a problem.

Since Leach’s first year in Lubbock in 2000, the Red Raiders have never averaged less than 30 points a game. And yet, they’ve never won a Big 12 title, either.

Defense is why the preseason pick to finish seventh in the Big 12 is thinking it can contend this season.

“Our offense is capable of putting up a lot of points,” said nose guard Kerry Hyder. “So we feel like the faster we can get them the ball, the faster than they can put up points.”

But unlike past years in Lubbock, when the offense hasn’t put up the points, the defense has been there to back them up.

In Tech’s marquee win so far -- a 20-10 Thursday night victory over TCU -- the defense came up big. The Red Raiders defense gave up 23 first downs and 401 yards of offense. But they bucked up when it mattered, forcing TCU to go 3 of 16 on third down, while stuffing the Horned Frogs twice on fourth down.

Eventually, after a dormant second and third quarter, the Tech offense finally woke up late in the fourth quarter, as Webb found Bradley Marquez with a 19-yard touchdown to break a 10-10 tie.

Its a different attitude. We wanted to put the team on the defense's backs.

Texas Tech linebacker Terrance Bullitt on the Red Raiders' improved defense.
“This has definitely been in the making,” Hyder said. “We’ve got a lot of older guys, especially in the front seven. I can feel the energy around the defense right now."

Hyder is a big reason for that energy.

A catalyst in the middle up front in coordinator Matt Wallerstedt's 3-4 defense, Hyder leads the Big 12 with nine tackles for loss. Last weekend in the win over Iowa State, he produced a team-high nine tackles with two quarterback hurries, despite facing constant double teams.

“He's probably not as big as some of the guys I've seen,” Kingsbury said of Hyder, who weighs just 280 pounds. “But he plays hard and he shows up on tape over and over again. He's been a real leader for that defense.”

Others have stepped up, too.

Inside linebacker Will Smith has helped Hyder plug the run and leads the team in tackles. Bullitt has been wreaking havoc from the outside, either dropping back in pass coverage or bringing pressure off the edge.

Together, those three have helped set the tone for Tech's defensive revival.

"We’ve come out here, tried to outwork the offense since the spring, and listened to our coaches," Bullitt said.

Up next, Tech faces back-to-back road tilts at West Virginia and Oklahoma in a pivotal stretch that will denote the Red Raiders as Big 12 contenders or pretenders. But if the defense keeps delivering on the money downs, the Red Raiders just might be the former.

"It’s finally coming together," Hyder said. "We’ve got a lot of confidence building.”

Big 12 lunchtime links

October, 2, 2013
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Now that Oklahoma State has a "Phantom Pistol Pete" helmet, make sure you're caught up on all its wardrobe options.

When Oklahoma State cornerback Justin Gilbert lines up against Big 12 offenses this season, he'll carry with him some rare experiences. During his college career, the senior has intercepted two Pro Bowl quarterbacks, held his own in one-on-one battles with a receiver who was a top-10 NFL draft pick and won 31 games in three seasons.

In the Big 12, experience is a important trait -- in a player and an entire defense.

“Experience is invaluable,” OSU defensive coordinator Glenn Spencer said. “You can't coach that, you can't recruit that, it just comes from guys being in the battles.”

Gilbert -- who intercepted Robert Griffin III and Andrew Luck as a sophomore and battled Justin Blackmon in practice during his first two seasons in Stillwater -- is one of seven returning starters on the Cowboys' defense, a trend that is seen across the league.

Seven of the Big 12’s defenses return at least half their starters in 2013. That, along with six different squads naming new quarterbacks, sets up an ideal scenario for the conference’s defensive coordinators. At Texas Tech, the Red Raiders return seven defensive starters, giving new defensive coordinator Matt Wallerstedt peace of mind as he approaches his first year trying to stop the explosive offenses in the conference.

“All those guys have played a lot of ball here and been in a lot of these different environments,” Wallerstedt said. “These guys have played some ball together, and I think that’s the big thing.”

Quite simply, it’s impossible for a Big 12 defender to know what he is up against until he’s experienced it firsthand.

[+] EnlargeGary Patterson
Tom Pennington/Getty Images"The biggest difference between a younger defense and an older defense is an older defense can be more multiple because they can get lined up and do more things," TCU's Gary Patterson said.
“I didn’t really understand how fast it was until I got out there,” Oklahoma senior safety Gabe Lynn said. “Once you get out there, get your first plays, you understand. I’m used to it. It’s my third year playing, I’m familiar with a lot of the different teams, different offenses.”

Several new faces at quarterback and a general lack of returning star power across the league promise to give the Big 12’s defenses the clear experience advantage this fall.

Still, “That doesn’t mean you’re guaranteed success,” Spencer said.

For one thing, the league average was 29.4 points allowed per game, 418.5 yards allowed per game and 5.74 yards per play allowed by Big 12 defenses. Thus, it’s not like Big 12 defenders are returning after having dominated their offensive counterparts in 2012.

Secondly, experience only goes so far. Talent overcomes experience on a regular basis. For example, TCU defensive end Devonte Fields had 10 sacks and led the league with 18.5 tackles for loss as a freshman. He enters this season as the Big 12’s preseason defensive player of the year as a sophomore.

Yet experience still has value. The conference has become known for its up-tempo attacks, which can put Big 12 defenses on their heels.

“It’s stressful,” Wallerstedt said. “Everybody is spreading the field now with a lot of different looks. Things are changing every year and creating a game of space, where you have to have guys making plays in open-field tackle situations and when the ball is in the air. You’re trying to disguise as much as you can to keep the quarterback guessing.”

Being able to turn to veteran defenders can make adjustments much easier while a team is in the middle of an onslaught of offensive attacks.

“Those guys are more adept to adjust quicker, understand what the issues are during a game,” Spencer said. “On our side of the ball it’s all about doing what you do and trying to force the issue but also reacting to the things you get. A more experienced team is able to work through issues on the sideline between drives, maybe some things they haven’t shown before. Those are some things that just come with experience.”

TCU brings back nine starters on a defense that led the conference in allowing 323.9 yards per game and 4.92 yards per play and ranked second with 22.6 points per game. Head coach Gary Patterson sees the clear value in having an experienced defense at his disposal against up-tempo offenses.

“Older players are used to tempo,” Patterson said. “The biggest difference between a younger defense and an older defense is an older defense can be more multiple because they can get lined up and do more things. Younger defenses, you're trying to get lined up and play defense. That's harder to do. You've got to be able to fight back. If you can't fight back, it's a long day.”

As Patterson notes, being ready is half the battle. Lynn is one of four returning starters on OU’s defense, and he’s already trying to prepare his younger teammates for the up-tempo attacks they will see this fall.

“We have a lot of freshmen,” Lynn said. “And I try to relay to them how important it is to get the calls and get lined up. You have to be prepared and be ready to play.”

It’s hard to believe that inexperience would keep Baylor, OSU, West Virginia, OU and Texas Tech, up-tempo offenses that finished in the top half of the conference in offensive yards a year ago, from having success in 2013.

Yet experience will matter in the Big 12 this season.

“I said from the start I am fortunate to be taking over with that [experience returning],” said Spencer, who is entering his first season as the Cowboys' defensive coordinator. “Does that guarantee success? No. But it’s better than the alternative.”

Staff writer Jake Trotter contributed to this report.

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