EDITOR’s NOTE: In the two weeks leading up to the 2017 college football season, The Franchise columnist and co-host John E. Hoover previews the Big 12 Conference. Today: Texas Tech.
Texas Tech’s defense was bad in 2016. Like, historically bad. Like, all-time bad.
It was so bad that during his time on the big stage at Big 12 Media Days in July — a normally sanguine 20 minutes of easy questions and tepid answers — Tech coach Kliff Kingsbury got a couple of starkly blunt queries. One intrepid reporter sounded almost angry.
“Just cutting right to it, Kliff,” one questioner began, “why has the defense been so bad, and how are you going to fix it?”
“I figure there may be 5,000 (high school) seniors who start on defense in Texas a year,” another asked. “You recruit from other states. Why can’t you get 10, 15, or 20 who can hold your opponents to 30 points or less a game?”
“That’s a great question,” Kingsbury said, almost deadpanning but also a little agitated. “I wish I had the answer. Like I said, that’s something we work on. We haven’t been good enough defensively, and we’ll continue to try and recruit the right players and develop them and get better.”
Right now, Kingsbury would take 30 points a game. In a Lubbock minute.
Tech ranked dead last in FBS in total defense in 2016, allowing 554.3 yards per game, and last in scoring defense, allowing 43.5 points per game.
“As a head coach,” Kingsbury said, “it falls on me, no question.”
That it does. Now beginning his fifth season at his alma mater, the former record-setting Red Raider quarterback must answer for every aspect of his program. These seniors were his recruits. He’s had the same defensive coordinator now (David Gibbs) for three consecutive seasons. There are no more excuses.
And yet, with records of 8-5, 4-8, 7-6 and 5-7, the program hasn’t shown any consistent upturn since Tommy Tuberville left. Let’s face it, the Red Raider defense stunk under Tuberville and Mike Leach just like it stinks under Kingsbury.
But another defensive effort like last season all but guarantees another losing record for Kingsbury, and even a golden boy, a favorite son, a beloved alumnus can’t withstand that.
With a 24-26 career record so far — 13-23 in Big 12 play — no coach has a seat hotter than Kingsbury’s.
“We know we have to be much improved,” Kingsbury said. “But that’s part of the job. I think that everybody but the four that make the playoff every year are basically on the hot seat in college football. You’re coaching for your job every year, and we know that.”
Tech gained some stability when Gibbs was hired in 2015, then promoted at midseason — and then wasn’t fired in 2016. That’s something of a rarity for defensive coordinators in West Texas.
“He’s been able to bring in players that fit his scheme,” Kingsbury said. “He’s been able to bring in coaches that he’s comfortable with. So I expect to see us be improved. I like what I saw this spring. We played a lot of young players on defense last year, and I’m hoping those snaps pay dividends going into this year.”
Who can say what the low point was of 2016? Remember that zany 68-55 loss to Arizona State? Or that unbelievable 66-59 loss to Oklahoma?
How about the 66-10 loss to Iowa State? No Cyclones team had ever scored that many points on a conference opponent. But against the Red Raiders, Iowa State’s usually impotent offense made it look easy.
“It was definitely disappointing,” said safety Jah’Shawn Johnson, “but we can’t blame anyone but ourselves.”
Kingsbury did as much when he had all the Double T logos in the football facility covered up during the offseason. He also banned it from any apparel. Players love the logo and have a deep pride in it. But Kingsbury took it away until he decides they’ve earned it back. And the football program and athletic department got on board, too, tweeting about the ban and posting videos shaming the team.
“It’s really an embarrassment,” wideout Cameron Batson said in the video. “You come here, sign your letter of intent, and you don’t get to wear that Double T. That’s a big disappointment. Coach Kingsbury said we all have to earn the right to wear the Double T. Nobody in the facility is wearing the Double T, so everybody is working hard, trying to get that Double T.”
They’ll get their logo back, of course. Eventually. But will that be the impetus for a winning season?
Replacing a record-setting quarterback who became a first-round NFL Draft pick is a stiff challenge for the offense. Patrick Mahomes will be missed. But Nic Shimonek showed great promise last year as Mahomes’ backup, completing 66 percent of his passes for 464 yards with six touchdowns and just one interception, including 271 yards and four touchdowns against Kansas.
Both the offense and the defense return seven starters, but the offense also suffered the transfer of leading receiver Jonathan Giles, who caught 69 passes for 1,138 yards and 13 touchdowns but decided to bail for LSU. The defense also lost a transfer to LSU in tackle Breiden Fehoko. Those two could have helped Texas Tech win this season, and might have helped Kingsbury save his job.
And it’s not over yet. Tech will still score points. With three starters back on the offensive line and four starting receivers in Batson, Keke Coutee, Dylan Cantrell and Derrick Willies, Shimonek should put up big numbers.
Three starters are back in the secondary in Johnson, D.J. Polite-Bray and Douglas Coleman, but the other jobs — even those where 2016 starters are back — remain mostly open. One bonus to this year’s team is the return of linebacker Dakota Allen, who played as a true freshman in 2015, then got arrested for felony burglary in 2016 and spent last season at junior college powerhouse East Mississippi Community College, where he became a star on the Netflix documentary series “Last Chance U.”
Now he’s back in Lubbock and “has been huge,” Kingsbury said. “Dakota is a guy who made a mistake after his freshman year and went to junior college and paid the price and did everything right, earned his way back, and was a tremendous player for us his freshman year. We expect him to pick right back up where he left off. He’s a leader for us already in our locker room. He can tell those young guys about the mistake he made, about what he went through, about how good they have it. He’s made an immediate impact off the field, and I’m hoping that his presence on the field is felt that way as well.”
If Allen and his teammates can improve Texas Tech’s defense, then maybe this season won’t be Kingsbury’s last chance.
Columnist John E. Hoover is co-host of “Further Review with Hoover & Rew” and can be heard every weekday on The Franchise in Tulsa from noon to 3 p.m. with co-host Lauren Rew. In Oklahoma City, catch him Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday mornings at 10:25 and every Friday afternoon at 4:05. Listen at fm107.7 in OKC, fm107.9/am1270 in Tulsa, on The Franchise app, or click the “Listen” tab on The Franchise home page. Visit his personal page at johnehoover.com.
- 2017 TEXAS TECH SCHEDULE
- Sept. 2: Eastern Washington
- Sept. 16: Arizona State
- Sept. 23: at Houston
- Sept. 30: Oklahoma State
- Oct. 7: at Kansas
- Oct. 14: at West Virginia
- Oct. 21: Iowa State
- Oct. 28: at Oklahoma
- Nov. 4: Kansas State
- Nov. 11: at Baylor
- Nov. 18: TCU
- Nov. 24: at Texas