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July 18, 2008
THE SCHEME: The "Air Raid" offense is Texas Tech's pass-oriented version of the spread. In eight seasons under Mike Leach, the Red Raiders have produced the nation's leading passer seven times (Graham Harrell was second to New Mexico State's Chase Holbrook in 2006). Further, Tech has led the nation in passing offense in five of the past six seasons.
STAR POWER: In his redshirt freshman season, wide receiver Michael Crabtree earned All-America honors while winning the receiver's triple crown by leading the nation in receptions, receiving yardage and receiving touchdowns. He has excellent size, hands, speed and intelligence – and a top-flight quarterback in Harrell throwing to him. Crabtree is a solid downfield blocker, too.
IMPACT NEWCOMER: The loss of Alex Trlica, a reliable kicker in the clutch who never missed an extra point in his career, leaves Tech with a gaping hole. The Raiders are hopeful incoming freshman Donnie Carona can fill it. Carona, from Beaumont, Texas, didn't get many field-goal opportunities in his senior year of high school, but did convert a 48-yarder.
IT'S HIS TIME: Two years ago, running back Shannon Woods led the Big 12 in all-purpose yardage as a freshman. But he fell out of favor last season, was suspended a few games and was thought to be transferring. He returned, though, and could be a factor in the Red Raiders' running game.
STRONGEST AREA: Yeah, Tech has the nation's leading passer and receiver, but the strongest area is the line. All five starters return, including All-Big 12 guard Louis Vasquez and tackle Rylan Reed, who neutralized Virginia All-America Chris Long in the Gator Bowl. The top three reserves are back, too. Returning starting center Shawn Byrnes could lose his job to Stephen Hamby.
BIGGEST PROBLEM: Tech's starting receivers are good, but there is a depth concern. Tech is counting on redshirt freshmen at inside receiver, and it's unknown who will back up Crabtree. As long as the starters stay healthy, the Red Raiders are fine. But injuries could create problems.
OVERVIEW: Some things often are taken for granted – tomorrow, your health, your spouse. And then there's Texas Tech's offense, which is almost as reliable as the sun rising in the morning. The Red Raiders have ranked no lower than sixth in the nation in total offense in each of the past six seasons. The return of Harrell, Crabtree and a proven line should ensure that this season won't be any different. Harrell threw for 5,705 yards last season, but threw four interceptions against both Missouri and Colorado, so he needs to get better there. The Red Raiders also need to upgrade the running game, which was the nation's least productive in '07. Still, the passing game is so prolific that any running success is a bonus.
THE SCHEME: The Raiders favor a basic 4-3 defense. But they've gotten more aggressive under coordinator Ruffin McNeill. They hope to create pressure and use more man coverage.
STAR POWER: Junior cornerback Jamar Wall is a strong candidate for all-conference honors after his 2007 performance. Last season, he grabbed five interceptions, broke up five passes and posted 50 tackles.
IMPACT NEWCOMER: Defensive end Brandon Sesay already is being trumpeted as the best defensive signee in the Leach era. Sesay, a 6-foot-6, 273-pounder, originally signed with Georgia out of high school in 2005. He comes to Tech after two seasons in junior college, where he was the No. 11 JC prospect in the country. He still needs to be cleared by the NCAA, but when that is taken care of, Tech hopes it will have the type of defender it hasn't had in recent seasons.
IT'S HIS TIME: Junior linebacker Marlon Williams made significant strides in '07. He recorded 71 tackles and had big games against Oklahoma and Virginia. Red Raiders coaches are hopeful he'll build on that performance and establish himself among the Big 12's top linebackers this season. The other returning starting linebacker is Brian Duncan, who moves to the middle after playing strongside linebacker last season.
STRONGEST AREA: It's not enough that everybody is back on the line, but the arrival of Sesay, Miami transfer Chris Perry and junior college transfer McKinner Dixon bolsters an already impressive group. The Red Raiders expect to be six deep at end.
BIGGEST PROBLEM: The only problem with having a player such as Wall at right cornerback is that opponents will throw to the other side, which is where the Red Raiders might have a problem. Junior Brent Nickerson and sophomore LaRon Moore likely will compete for the starting spot and can expect to be challenged frequently. If they don't respond, this could be a glaring weakness.
OVERVIEW: Defense never has been a point of strength in Leach's tenure, and that's not likely to change. But the Red Raiders expect to be significantly improved in '08, which may be good enough for a legitimate run at a league title. The Red Raiders played better after McNeill was elevated to coordinator four games into last season. They finished third in the Big 12 in total defense, which may come as a surprise to some. That improvement, combined with the return of so many starters and the influx of talent among the incoming prospects, has raised expectations on the South Plains. Tech's defense doesn't project to be dominant, but with all the offensive firepower, it doesn't have to be. Still, one thing to remember: In its four losses, Tech gave up a combined 179 points (44.8 points per game).
Trlica wasn't automatic on field goals by any means. In fact, last season he only converted 60 percent of his attempts. Still, he never missed extra points and came through in the clutch with a game-winning 41-yard kick in the Gator Bowl. His departure means the Red Raiders probably will count on a true freshman. That's a reason for worry. Other than that, though, the special teams are solid. Sophomore punter Jonathan LaCour averaged 42.6 yards an attempt in '07, while Eric Morris, Detron Lewis and Edward Britton are able return men. The coverage units were good last season.
Tech has become nationally respected in eight seasons under Leach, who has led the Red Raiders to eight consecutive bowl appearances and a 5-3 record in those games. Yet "nationally respected" doesn't necessarily translate to "nationally relevant." None of those bowls was of the BCS variety, and Tech typically finishes third behind Oklahoma and Texas in the Big 12 South. Defense has been the biggest issue. Leach hopes he has fixed the problem by putting McNeill in control of the defense. After McNeill's promotion last season, the Red Raiders reduced their average points allowed from 27.3 in the first four games to 24.8 in the nine remaining games.
The first half of the schedule includes four teams coming off losing seasons and two Division I-AA opponents, so it will be a big disappointment if the Red Raiders aren't 6-0 going to Texas A&M on Oct. 18. Tech had its problems on the road last season, falling to Oklahoma State, Missouri and Texas. This season, the Raiders travel to Nevada, Kansas State, A&M, Kansas and Oklahoma, so reversing their road fortunes is vital to a successful season. Tech typically faces a cream-puff non-conference schedule, and this season is no different. Division I-AA Eastern Washington is on the schedule because Tulsa canceled a scheduled game.
Tech fans will readily acknowledge this is the season they've been waiting for since the formation of the Big 12. In truth, it's probably the most anticipated season since 1976, when Tech finished 10-2. But even then, the Red Raiders had to share the Southwest Conference championship with Houston and went to a lower-tier bowl. But with Harrell and Crabtree heading an explosive offense and a defense that's expected to be improved, Red Raiders fans truly believe Tech can usurp Oklahoma and Texas and win the Big 12 South. Tech hasn't won an outright conference championship since winning the Border Conference in 1955 and has posted double-digit victories just four times in school history.
Olin Buchanan is a national senior writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.