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December 1, 2009

Report Card: Grading the Raiders' season

For probably the first time in Mike Leach's Texas Tech tenure, the defense out-performed the offense. Not that the Air Raid was a complete dud, mark you. The Red Raiders have the No. 9 scoring offense in the nation, the No. 2 passing offense, and are ranked No. 7 in total offense. Still, this was boom-and-bust offense. It produced marvelous outcomes against Nebraska, Oklahoma, Kansas and Kansas State, but foundered against Houston, Oklahoma State and Baylor.

The Red Raider defense, on the other hand, was steady as a rock all season long with the exception of the Texas A&M game. Under Ruffin McNeill, Texas Tech's defense has turned the corner and is now one of the best units in the Big 12.

Special teams, too, saw dramatic improvement in 2009 under the direction of new coordinator Eric Russell. He's transformed a liability into an asset. In 2010 he just might turn an asset into a weapon.

Now for an assessment of each position group on the Red Raider football team.

QUARTERBACK: It was without question the most tumultuous season in many a year for Tech's quarterbacks. Initial starter Taylor Potts was inconsistent before being knocked out of the lineup in the second quarter of the New Mexico game. He was inconsistent after he returned, too. In the meantime, Steven Sheffield was a tremendous sparkplug during his brief stint as the starter before he too suffered serious injury. Seth Doege was largely ineffective in an even briefer stint. Obviously, consistency will be the watchword for Tech's quarterbacks in 2010.

RUNNING BACK: The trio of Baron Batch, Eric Stephens and Harrison Jeffers certainly had its moments, but was not the overwhelming force many expected it to be. Batch, returning from a sickening elbow injury, started the season fairly slowly, but has blossomed into a very effective player. Stephens, too, has picked up the pace and shows tremendous promise when given a significant number of carries. Jeffers, after showing tremendous flashes early, has largely disappeared. His role was never clearly defined. Jeffers could be a superstar at Tech. Or he could be the next Shaud Williams.

In short, this unit simply dropped far too many passes to receive (so to speak) a high grade. Virtually ever wideout on the roster, and Edward Britton and Detron Lewis in particular, mishandled passes at an alarming rate. These drops were sugar in the Air Raid's gas tank. On the plus side, Alexander Torres shows every indication of being a special player, and Austin Zouzalik, another freshman, could be his near equal. Lyle Leong also had many fine moments.

Like the quarterbacks, this unit was beset by injury and performance suffered tremendously as a result. The 2009 line surrendered 30 sacks, roughly three times the number allowed by last year's unit. Run blocking was generally quite good. Generally speaking, the line improved significantly during the final third of the season when health and stability finally put in appearances.

The performance of this group was simply unbelievable given the losses of McKinner Dixon, Brandon Sesay and Brandon Williams, as well as the appearance of an injury plague early in the season. Against all odds, however, Brandon Sharpe, Daniel Howard and Rajon Henley proved even better than Dixon, Sesay and Williams. Tech's 40 sacks were second best in the nation. Tackles Colby Whitlock, Richard Jones and Victor Hunter were also very good. With a bit more interior depth this would have been the best defensive line in the nation.

If any group played exactly as the pundits predicted it was Tech's linebackers. This unit will not garner much in the way of post-season hardware, but it was instrumental to the improvement of Tech's defense. Brian Duncan was a rock all season, while Marlon Williams proved something of a big-play performer. Backup Sam Fehoko looked good in the first significant snaps of his collegiate career, while Bront Bird's leadership and versatility proved invaluable.

The youngest unit on Tech's defense held its own quite well indeed. The Red Raiders surrendered a fair amount of passing yardage, but rarely succumbed to the long ball. Corners Jamar Wall and LaRon Moore developed into superb tacklers, while youthful safeties Franklin Mitchem and Cody Davis were a bit inconsistent in this area. Still, many feared disaster from the incredibly raw Red Raider safeties and that never remotely materialized.

Red Raider fans no longer need cringe when Tech's special teams units take the field. Tech now holds an advantage over the vast majority of opponents in this area. The Red Raider kick coverage unit was a phalanx of Hellfire missiles aimed at opposing returners. Eric Stephens broke Tech's single season record for kick return yardage. Field goal kicker Matthew Williams proved deadly from 43 yards in. Ryan Erxleben solidified the punting position. And Donnie Carona's kickoffs were some of the best in the Big 12. What's more, these groups just got better as the season went along.

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