January 31, 2008

Have the issues up front been resolved?

If it truly "all starts up front," then the 2008 Red Raider defense may be on the verge of starting something big. Four youthful returning starters from last year's rapidly improving unit plus a massive infusion of talent from the incoming recruiting class should see to that.

The returning starters are senior defensive end Jake Ratliff, junior defensive end Brandon Williams, sophomore defensive tackle Colby Whitlock and junior defensive tackle Ra'jon Henley. And the amazing thing is that no member of that quartet is absolutely guaranteed to retain his starting position!

The defensive end positions should be the most tumultuous during spring and summer workouts. Ratliff's starting spot could be the most direly imperiled. Not that he was chopped liver in 2007, mind you. He was second on the team in quarterback hurries with six, and used his six-foot-seven frame to bat down three passes at the line. Ratliff also had an excellent outing in the Gator Bowl. But that may not be enough to hold off the incoming competition.

Most formidable among the newcomers is junior college transfer Brandon Sesay. The six-foot-six 275-pound native of Atlanta who has 4.6 speed in the forty, had offers from Florida, Michigan and Tennessee, among others. He is a prototype defensive end who is borderline NFL-ready right now. It is difficult to imagine that he will not crash the starting lineup almost immediately. Ratliff looks like the most likely victim here. And it's not too shabby to have the likes of Ratliff as a backup.

The other defensive end position could be an even greater and more intriguing battle royal. Returning to his starting post here is Brandon Williams who emerged as one of the Big 12's best last season, earning second-team all league notice from at least one media outlet. But defensive coordinator Ruffin McNeill may well choose to place incoming junior college transfer McKinner Dixon in direct competition with Williams.

Dixon was a heavily recruited player from Lufkin who signed with Texas Tech and started on the defensive line before crapping out academically and going the JUCO route. He is physical, aggressive, mean and very talented. And if he is unable to unseat Williams, it is not impossible that he could be moved inside.

Alas, the competition inside would not be much easier for Dixon. True sophomore Colby Whitlock, for instance, earned some Freshman All American notice last season and doesn't appear to be moving anywhere but up through the ranks of the nation's elite defensive tackles. Next to Whitlock is junior Ra'jon Henley who began to live up to his high promise toward the end of the season, and whose sack and caused fumble was the key play in Tech's Gator Bowl victory. Nevertheless, it is not out of the question that Dixon and Whitlock could be your starting tackles in 2008.

The players mentioned above are just the headliners, however. Tech will have a slew of talented backups and situational players to provide depth and flexibility along the forward wall.

Richard Jones, for example, was the team's number three defensive tackle in 2007 and was very solid in that role. He will be joined in 2008 by JUCO phenom Broderick Marshall. A six-foot-five 280-pounder originally from Austin, Marshall may have as much raw ability as any tackle on the team next year. Incoming freshman Joey Fowler could be the sleeper of the 2008 recruiting class, and David Neill and Bobby Agoucha are members of the 2007 recruiting class who could also help out inside. Agoucha was good enough to play as a true freshman before a wrist injury terminated his season very early on.

Defensive end will also boast an embarrassment of depth. Junior Daniel Howard is a pass-rushing specialist. Fellow junior Brandon Sharpe could also make an impact following an injury-marred junior campaign. Sandy Riley was a valuable backup in 2007 and will fill that role again in 2008. Incoming freshmen Ryan Haliburton and Brian Christopher are promising, but with the wealth of talent and experience at defensive end it would be a shock if they both did not redshirt.

All in all, that is sixteen players whom Ruffin McNeill, if necessary, could call upon next season. The numbers at defensive line have never been better. Neither has the talent.

At the end of the day, this is a defensive line that could be an immovable object against the run and an irresistible force against the pass. The ability to control gaps, shed blocks and lock down the run will be particularly crucial. Run stoppage-or its lack--has been the Achilles' heel of Tech's defense for a very long time. If that heel is healed in 2008, opposing offenses will not be able to control the ball and that will mean more opportunities for Tech's deadly offense to torment the defenses they face. And that is the secret to the Red Raiders having a season none of us will ever forget.

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