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July 29, 2008

Will the running games in the Big 12 scare anyone?

Somewhat lost in the excitement over Texas Tech's improved defense last season is the fact that the Red Raiders still finished 10th in the Big 12 (behind Baylor and Nebraska) in rush defense. Tech allowed 177 rushing yards per contest and four yards a carry. League-leading Oklahoma, by way of contrast, allowed just 78 yards a game and 2.8 yards per carry.

Clearly, the Red Raiders have much room for improvement in this area, and improve they must if they are to reach the summit of this most treacherous conference and plant upon it the Texas Tech banner.

There are, however, reasons for believing that Ruffin McNeill's run defense will improve significantly. Most obvious among them is the fact that six starters return to the Tech line and linebacker corps. Brandon Williams, Rajon Henley, Colby Whitlock, Jake Ratliff, Brian Duncan and Marlon Williams should ensure that the Red Raiders finish in the top half of the Big 12 in rush defense.

The addition of newcomers Brandon Sesay, McKinner Dixon, Chris Perry and Sam Fehoko will further help Tech's cause.

And the heightened experience for both units will decrease the likelihood of misalignments and busted plays, which often result in long gainers.

But there is also a stealth factor that should work in favor of the Red Raiders when it comes to run defense. In short, Texas Tech will not face a wealth of bludgeoning ground attacks in 2008.

Indeed, the only team that will sport a truly frightening ground game is the Oklahoma Sooners who return their entire offensive line, including all star candidates Phil Loadholt, Duke Robinson and Jon Cooper, as well as running back DeMarco Murray, who is being touted as one of the Big 12's best. Personally, Murray does not impress me, but then again, Mark Mangino could run that line and threaten the 1,000 yard mark.

Outside of Norman, Oklahoma, however, there is nothing the Red Raiders should not be able to contain.

The offensive lines that Tech will see, average 3.4 returning starters, but only a handful of those returning starters are candidates to bring home all conference, let along All America hardware.

In addition to the Sooner trio, the Red Raiders will see a Texas Longhorn line that returns four starters, the best of which is center Cedric Dockery. No other Longhorn lineman remotely raises the specter of Kasey Studdard, Jonathan Scott, and Justin Blalock.

Among Nebraska's three returning starters, only guard Matt Slauson merits real concern.

And that's about it. The Nevada Wolfpack should have a nice offensive line, and tackle John Bender and center Dominic Green will be two of the Western Athletic Conference's best. But we are talking about the Western Athletic Conference here, not the Big 12 or the SEC.

The running backs Tech will face look to be a rather underwhelming lot. Of the ten Division One teams the Red Raiders will see, only five return their starting running back. In addition to Oklahoma's Murray, SMU returns DeMyron Martin, Nevada has Luke Lippincott back, Texas A&M still has the tandem of Jorvorskie Lane/Michael Goodson, and Nebraska returns Marlon Lucky.

Murray will get his yards running behind the Ouachita mountain range, no doubt about it. One cannot say the same for Martin and a Mustang line that returns only two starters, and "Goodskie" scrambling behind an Aggie line that returns only one. Lucky is a good but not great all-around back running behind an average Cornhusker line. Nothing at which to scoff necessarily, but nothing like Lawrence Phillips and Tommy Frazier trampling smoking heaps of linemen and linebackers laid waste by Rob Zateska, Zach Wiegert, Aaron Graham and Brenden Stai.

Outside of Oklahoma, the Nevada Wolfpack may actually be Tech's most dangerous ground foe because they return almost the entirety of their line, and Lippincott, who is the best back in the WAC.

But the good news for the Red Raider defense is that although they will see some good backs and some good offensive lines, they will face very few teams that have both. There is, therefore, no good reason why Tech's rush defense should not rocket skyward in 2008.


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