May 1, 2008

Ruffin McNeill's bunch is for real

You can't blame Red Raider football fans for being a bit gun-shy. It's been many a long year-even decades depending on how you look at it-since they've seen truly high-quality defense played by a Texas Tech football team.

Oh sure, the Red Raiders have had standout defensive games from time to time, and have even had respectable seasons on defense. But when was the last time Tech's defense finished the year in the nation's top ten in yards or points allowed per game? Heck, the top twenty even?

I'm not privy to the historical data, but my guess would be that Tech hasn't had a defense of that caliber since the mid 1980s at the latest. That is a looooong defensive dry spell.

But now, for the first time since the days of Jerry Moore and David McWilliams, there is serious promise of defensive prowess on the High Plains. It now appears that the Red Raiders have a combination of talent, experience and depth on defense that comes close to matching what they have on offense. And they've got a defensive coordinator who motivates, liberates and captivates his players.

In short, there will be no room for excuses when it comes to the 2008 Tech defense. Defensive coordinator Ruffin McNeill doesn't plan on offering any.

And it does all start with McNeill.

Since taking over the defense following yet another stop troop debacle in Stillwater last season, the Red Raider defense has shown steady, even dramatic improvement. What had been the worst defense in the Big 12 became statistically the best defense by season's end.

Tackling improved. The amount of big plays allowed was reduced. The defense became stronger against the run.

All in all, this unit was very solid toward the end of last season. The only real deficiency was a seeming inability to create turnovers.

And the good vibrations just kept coming during spring ball. To say that the defense dominated the Air Raid would be an overstatement. To say that they got the better of arguably the nation's best offense would, however, be dead bang accurate.

The defense played with intensity and confidence from the first day of spring to the last. It also played like a sound, well-coached defense. It was impressive.

But that was just practice. And it was practice against an offense and against personnel that the defense knows as intimately as Paul Newman knows Joanne Woodward. How will the Red Ruffians fare against Texas, Kansas, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State? Do we have any real reason to believe that they are stout enough to hold each of those offenses under four touchdowns?

I believe the answer is a resounding yes. All of the evidence screams yes.

Eight starters return from a defense that was improving rapidly last year, and by all indications, improved throughout the spring.

There are potential stars up front in Colby Whitlock, Ra'jon Henley, Brandon Williams, and McKinner Dixon. And that's not even counting JUCO transfer Brandon Sesay who may well be the best of the bunch.

Linebackers Bront Bird, Brian Duncan and Marlon Williams are solid and bring more speed to the table than Tech has had at the position in a very long time. And redshirt freshman Sam Fehoko will be a game-changing performer once his grasp of the defense gets better.

Jamar Wall is one of the nation's premier cover corners, and Darcel McBath anchors a good group of safeties.

And there is depth. So much depth. Not so long ago players such as Daniel Howard, Brandon Sharpe, Richard Jones, Chris Perry, Tyrone Sonier, Daniel Charbonnet and L.A. Reed would have been slam dunks to start for the Tech defense. Now it's entirely possible that all of them will come off the bench.

The coaching staff, too, is an excellent, well-seasoned group. Ruffin McNeill, along with Charlie Sadler, Brian Mitchell and Carlos Mainord have been together for many years and have a goldmine of football knowledge between them. They know the defensive scheme, they know their personnel and they know one another. There is stability and focus here.

So what may we set against all this empirical evidence? Outside of concerns at one cornerback position, and a history of mediocre and worse defense, practically nothing. And the past does not determine the future. This is not the defense of Lyle Setencich, Greg McMackin or John Goodner. This is a different animal entirely. And at the conclusion of the 2008 season it will have put down the first building block for a new tradition of excellence in Texas Tech defense.

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