Kliff Kingsbury made his return to the Texas Tech Red Raiders and returned the Air Raid to Lubbock with solid results. Tech raced out to a 7-0 record thanks to a soft opening to their schedule, riding the arms of two true freshmen quarterbacks, before hitting the teeth of their schedule. The Red Raiders faltered down the stretch, losing the last five games of the regular season before bouncing back with a dominant 37-23 win over the Arizona State Sun Devils in the Holiday Bowl to finish the year 8-5 with loads of optimism about the future.
Now, Kingsbury has to deliver on that optimism. He has his quarterback situation settled (thanks to the transfers of Baker Mayfield and Michael Brewer) but will have to get his team to improve in year two if they hope to take a step forward in the Big 12. There is plenty of reason to be excited about this Tech football team with a young core of playmakers. Will they deliver on their potential and make a run at a conference title?
Davis Webb took advantage of a tumultuous quarterback situation last fall and rose to the top of the depth chart as a prototypical Air Raid quarterback who can run Kingsbury’s offense to perfection. The 6-foot-4 sophomore finished last season with 2,718 yards passing and 20 touchdowns against just nine interceptions while getting rid of the football on time and showing an excellent understanding of the passing offense. With the reins to the offense 100 percent in his hands for 2014 (as he finished spring as the only QB on the roster), Webb is poised to enjoy a breakout campaign as one of the Big 12’s rising stars.
While the running game is always a bit of an afterthought in the Air Raid, Texas Tech is not hurting for experience at running back. Despite leading rusher Kenny Williams (497 yards, 8 touchdowns in 2013) moving to linebacker, the team is in good hands with junior DeAndre Washington at the top of their depth chart. Last season, Washington rushed 107 times for 450 yards and scored four touchdowns. In addition, he was a valuable weapon out of the backfield, recording 34 catches for 269 yards.
The receiving corps takes a major hit losing their top two pass-catcher from 2013 in tight end Jace Amaro and receiver Eric Ward. Together the pair combined for 189 catches in 2013 for 2,299 receiving yards and 15 touchdowns. But the cupboard is far from bare in Lubbock thanks to a system that distributes the ball very well to all its receivers. Jakeem Grant returns after finishing third on the team with 65 receptions for 796 yards and seven touchdowns as a sophomore in 2013 along with senior Bradley Marquez, who finished 2013 with 49 receptions for 633 yards and six touchdowns.
Texas Tech was hurt by the run as their defensive front got pushed around regularly in 2013 and they finished as the No. 99 rushing defense in the country. Kingsbury went out and added some junior college beef to provide additional strength to the defensive line. Look for 350-pound Rika Levi to find an immediate role in the middle at nose tackle along with 305-pound Marcus Smith. Their added bulk in the interior should help returning defensive end Branden Jackson carry the pass rush as the only d-lineman with a sack to his name from 2013.
At linebacker, Tech is loaded with talent as five of the top six tacklers return to replace the graduated Will Smith, who led the team with 103 tackles and 10.5 tackles for loss last season. The group will be further boosted by the addition of Williams from the offense, and transfers V.J. Fehoko from the Utah Utes and possibly Mike Mitchell, a former five-star 2013 recruit who left the Ohio State Buckeyes to play closer to home in Lubbock. If the line can play tougher this fall, this group of linebackers should be a dynamic bunch of playmakers.
In the secondary, meanwhile, the strongest aspect of the 2013 defense will become one of the weakest in 2014. Texas Tech loses all four starters from last season and will be turning to an inexperienced group to step up into featured roles. Strong safety Keenon Ward and cornerback Justis Nelson are exciting sophomores to watch this fall as they step into the starting lineup after making some plays in relief last season. The young duo combined for two interceptions, seven pass breakups, and a forced fumble as freshmen in 2013.
This season, the Texas Tech schedule is not nearly as backloaded as it was in 2013, which means we will know a lot more about this team earlier in the year. After a winnable stretch of non-conference games, highlighted by the Arkansas Razorbacks coming to Lubbock, the Raiders open Big 12 play with back-to-back road games against the Oklahoma State Cowboys and Kansas State Wildcats. Their November slate will be tough again with home dates against the Texas Longhorns and Oklahoma Sooners and a neutral site game against the Baylor Bears in the regular season finale.
There are a lot of exciting pieces to this Texas Tech team, particularly on the offensive side of the ball. But if the team continues to struggle on defense, they’ll have a very hard time breaking through into the upper tier of the Big 12 in 2014. Look for a young Tech team to win eight or nine games this season as they build the foundation for a conference title run possibly in 2015.