Five Spring Thoughts on the Defensive Backs

Trial by fire. That was the mantra for the cornerbacks, and maybe most of the defensive backs last year, as they all appeared to be young and inexperienced, but they received that experience and they *should* be better. At least theoretically. We discuss those cornerbacks, the safeties and the idea of injecting a ton of coaching talent.

1. What Didn’t Happen. Maybe the thing that didn’t happen is the best move of the offseason. I was always a bit squeamish about moving three solid and upcoming safeties to a linebacker spot, even though that linebacker spot was really a fifth safety. This also goes back to the same idea as the linebackers, which is with defensive coordinator David Gibbs running things, it appears that these guys are in their correct positions, which includes keeping Derrick Dixon, Payton Hendrix and Jalen Barnes to the secondary for now. Without those guys at the safety spot, you would have only had J.J. Gaines, Keenon Ward, Jah’Shawn Johnson and John White competing at the back safety spots (with Johnson and Gaines out for the spring). That’s no bueno. That’s not nearly enough competition for my taste. But you add in three more bodies into that mix and it makes me feel a bit better. That’s not to say that Hendrix couldn’t eventually become a linebacker, for someone with his size and frame, that makes sense.

2. Quality Cornerback Rotation. One of the really terrific things that I think developed last year is that we all saw (and sometimes cringed) at the cornerback play. It was rough at spots, but it was also incredibly encouraging because you saw players like Tevin Madison and Nigel Bethel, II make some pretty terrific plays. Of course, that was counterbalanced by some deep throws that seemed to find the endzone more times than not, but I’m not at all discouraged here. In fact, with Bethel, Madison, the emergence of D.J. Polite-Bray and I’m feeling pretty good about things. I really like the options here. The sometimes maligned Justis Nelson is a bit tough because he doesn’t have the speed to keep up with a lot of receivers, but he does have the length. Size can only make up for part of being behind receivers, so I think we’ll maybe see Nelson get a bit more help from the back-end. The other part here is that I think with the way the defense is going to play in the secondary, it is going to favor smaller defensive backs that can break quickly on the ball. Safety may end up being the best spot for Nelson.

The tough part here is that I think there’s a comfort level, at least for me, of three at cornerback (Madison, Bethel and Polite-Bray), and that may not be enough. I’m guessing that this is the reason why Gibbs focused on Paul Banks from Navarro J.C. to help out at the cornerback spot. I think eventually, you’ll also see Joseph Clark at cornerback. The one guy who I just don’t have a clue about is LaDarius Newbold. A 4-star coming out of high school, wanted by Notre Dame and everyone else. It’s now or never for Newbold, but if he could focus and be interested each and every play, then he’s the lone wildcard for this team and I have no idea (and really neither does anyone else) if he can play.

3. Prospects to Players. A jump has to be made here. These guys need to go from “hey, they’re true freshmen, so don’t criticize that much” to knocking some passes out of the air and making some deflections and instead of touchdowns being throw, it’s time to get growned up. Bethel, Dixon, Madison, and Johnson are no longer freshmen, and Polite-Bray and Nelson are juniors. We’ve barely even talked about Keenon Ward and J.J. Gaines, who have to figure out how to be healthy for an entire season. So those snaps need to pay off in a big way here pretty soon, preferably in 2015. I think most of us as fans took those snaps where there would be one great play coupled with a touchdown throw and we’d all think that these guys are a work in progress. I know that these guys that played probably thought that too. “Just give me a bit more time and I’ll be in the right position next time.” I believe that’s the case and I believe that they will be better in 2015.

4. Passes Defended. Want a fun stat of the day? Texas Tech averaged more “passes defended” than Houston last year, 4.92 to 4.62. Pretty awesome, right? Passes defended are interceptions plus passes broken up divided by the number of games. The big difference between those averages were the interceptions, where Texas Tech had 6 interceptions and Houston had 19. It seems as if one play should count more than another, but not with passes defended. The moral to the story here isn’t that Texas Tech needs to defend more passes. It seems like this is okay. The moral to the story needs to be Texas Tech defenders actually catching the ball and converting some of those defended passes.

5.A. Inject a Ton of Coaching Talent. There are essentially four coaches that have all coached and/or currently coach defensive backs. Kevin Curtis and Trey Haverty are the incumbents, then add David Gibbs and Zach Spavital and you’ve got yourself a group of coaches that have a ton of experience, largely because of Gibbs. Gibbs is an NFL coaching veteran, with stops in Houston, Kansas City and Denver, and those positions don’t just get passed around like candy. That takes time to get in those circles and stay there. And Spavital has 7 seasons at Houston, where Houston didn’t have the best pass defenses, but as Gibbs mentioned when he and Spavital were hired, it takes a little something to be able to stick around for 7 years in a situation like that. More than anything, we’re about to see a pretty interesting coaching experiment, where you inject a ton of coaching expertise into a group that has both veteran and young players that were always on the edge of doing something great (see passes defended above) but rarely completing the task. How much does coaching matter? We’re about to find out.

5.B. Help on the Way.  I’ve gone through 1,000 words and not talked a bit about Jamile Johnson, maybe the second highest rated defensive recruit for this team.  Johnson brings size and speed and a bit of ferociousness (which can be both good and bad) as a hitter in the secondary.  Johnson followed his high school coach, Emmett Jones, along with J.F. Thomas.  There’s the thought that Johnson will push at the safety spot, but it is a crowded secondary right now, especially since Dixon, Barnes and Hendrix didn’t flip to linebacker.  Still though, Johnson is really good, so this is going to be interesting.

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