By Jackson Leuschen, CycloneFanatic.com Contributor
Iowa State will open Big 12 Conference play at home against Texas Tech on Sept. 29. The Red Raiders had a poor finish to the 2011 campaign, losing five in a row and seven of eight. However, their offensive style of play can still be dangerous. That one win came on the road against the then top-ranked Oklahoma Sooners.
Defense has traditionally been the issue for the Red Raiders and last year was no different as they were 117thnationally in scoring defense (allowing over 39 points per game), 113thin pass efficiency defense and had the country’s worst run defense (giving up 258 yards per game, 12 more than any other team). They surrendered 30 or more points in 10 consecutive games to end the season, an incredibly poor run. In an effort to improve, they’ve brought in three new defensive coaches including new coordinator Art Kaufman, who will change from a 4-2-5 to a traditional 4-3 scheme.
The TTU defense loses only two starters from a year ago but both of those losses come on the defensive line. And after being horrendously soft up the middle, the defensive line is the unit that needs to improve the most. Kerry Hyder played out of position as an undersized defensive tackle last year and it looks like he’ll be lining up on the inside again this year. Dennell Wesley must start holding down the middle of the line better and should do so after gaining good experience starting the last three games of 2012 at nose in the place of Langley. Three defensive ends with starting experience – Dartwan Bush (seven starts), Leon Mackey (six) and Jackson Richards (four) – will duke it out for the two end positions. Of the returning ends, Bush was the top man with two sacks. He also tied for the conference lead with four forced fumbles. Bush and Delvon Simmons (DT) each recorded two sacks in the spring game.
Linebacker is a deep position group for Texas Tech. Last year they only started two backers but four guys were among that rotation, including Daniel Cobb (seven starts), Cqulin Hubert (six), Sam Eguavoen (five), and Blake Dees (five). Cobb made 70 tackles and 7.5 tackles for loss, both good for third on the team. Hubert made 5.5 tackles for loss with a single sack and a pick. Eguavoen and Dees, who will both be sophomores in the fall, combined for over 60 tackles. Junior college transfer Will Smith had a strong spring and could crack the starting lineup after making five tackles and picking off a pass in the spring game.
The corners employed a big rotation with Tre’ Porter (6), Derrick Mays (5), Eugene Neboh (5), Jarvis Phillips (4) and Happiness Osunde (2) all making multiple starts. Porter was the only one of the five corners to intercept a pass. In an effort to bring better ball skills to the defense, Cornelius Douglas and Brad Marquez will be moving over from receiver, where they combined for nearly 570 yards receiving, to make an impact in the defensive backfield. Douglas began the transition to defense toward the end of the season and managed a fumble return for Tech’s only touchdown against Oklahoma State.
Safety had the most consistency and production of any position on the Red Raiders defense, starting the same three players at three positions all season long. D.J. Johnson was a big player at free safety as he led the team with two interceptions, was second with just over 80 tackles, and was tied for fifth in the Big 12 with three forced fumbles. Terrance Bullitt and Cody Davis started at strong and weak safety. Bullitt made 9.5 tackles for loss with four pass break ups, while Davis led the team with 93 tackles and five pass break ups. As the team moves to a two-safety lineup, one of the three will end up the odd man out. As the biggest of the three, Bullitt (6-3, 215) has more potential for a position switch than either Davis (6-foot-2, 200) or Johnson (6-foot, 200), and a move to outside linebacker could benefit both him and the team.
Seth Doege, a senior, comes from a long line of Texas Tech quarterbacks to put up incredible passing numbers. Last year he averaged 333 passing yards per game, good for third in the conference and more than Baylor Heisman Trophy winner Robert Griffin. His biggest strength is his accuracy as he completed 68 percent of his passes with 28 touchdowns and 10 interceptions in his first full year as a starter. Doege enters the season as one of the top passers in the conference and as usual, the team’s offense will rest primarily on its quarterback’s shoulders.
For the past three years, the top running back has been Eric Stephens and if he’s fully recovered from a knee injury that shortened his 2011 campaign, that streak will continue. Already seventh on the team’s career rushing yardage list, Stephens was a second team all-Big 12 performer in 2010 and in 2011 had 565 yards rushing and 133 yards receiving in just five games. In the seven games after the injury the Red Raiders didn’t even average 100 rushing yards per game. Backups DeAndre Washington and Kenny Williams combined for only 500 yards and five touchdowns on the ground for the season. All the Tech backs are on the short side, as they’re listed at 5-foot-9 or under and only Williams is over 200 pounds. The quick group of runners fit in well in the spread offense, where they can hide behind the big TTU offensive line undetected by the defense until they’ve already reached the second level. The depth isn’t bad, but clearly Stephens’ all-around ability adds another dimension to the offense.
Amazingly, TTU’s top three pass catchers from a year ago all finished in the top 10 in the conference in receptions and yards per game. Even better for the Red Raiders, all three are back. Eric Ward, a 6-foot, 200 pound junior, put up 800 yards on 84 catches with 11 touchdowns. Next best was Alex Torres, a 24-year old senior who spent two years away from football at the Air Force Academy, where he put up over 600 receiving yards and four touchdowns. Ward and Torres received all-conference honorable mention honors following the season. Darrin Moore, who is the tallest receiver on the roster at 6-foot-4, was third on the team in catches and yardage and also added eight touchdowns. Austin Zouzalik and Marcus Kennard have primarily worked out of the slot and they will get more time on the field this coming season. Kennard led the team with 97 yards and two touchdowns in the spring game.
The offensive line is the only place the Red Raiders’ offense lost a starter as left guard Lonnie Edwards and center Justin Keown depart. LaAdrian Waddle (LT), Deveric Gallington (RG), and Terry McDaniel (C/RT) started nearly every game on the line last year. Beau Carpenter filled in well in his one start at guard last year and is expected to take over at LG. Brothers Tony and Alfredo Morales and Le’Raven Clark, three redshirt sophomores, are all the ideal size to play center and will battle it out for the final starting spot.
Donnie Carona was fantastic kicking last fall, going 14-for-18 on field goals, with three of those misses coming on blocked kicks. Unfortunately Carona has graduated, leaving the kicking duties to Ryan Bustin. Bustin showed he’s no slouch himself, hitting three of four field goals with a long of 49 yards in the spring scrimmage. Ryan Erxleben averaged almost 42 yards per punt and put 14 over 50 yards with 19 of them inside the 20 yard line, helping the Red Raiders finish second in the conference in net punting. Ben McRoy, a 5-foot-8 speedster from Lakeland, (Fla.), averaged 25 yards per kickoff return and his younger brother Javares McRoy should join him back there. Zouzalik was the main punt returner, averaging 7 yards on his 11 return attempts.
The Red Raiders were a young team a year ago and it showed in their record 5-7 record. With 18 returning starters they’re now a veteran group and the expectation is they’ll turn things up a notch. The offense will continue to perform at a high level with a great air attack and the return of Stephens to the backfield. The biggest room for improvement exists on the defensive side of the ball, where TTU was one of the nation’s worst. Better toughness, discipline and consistency from the defense and they’ll bounce back from a 2-7 Big 12 record and return to a bowl game.