Contrasting the Defensive Backs from 2015 to 2016

With our last look at the defense, we take a look at the defensive backfield and whether or not the group will be better or worse compared to next year.

Photo via Allison Matherly @ Flickr

We’ve tackled, not literally, the defensive line and linebackers in looking at the personnel of the defense from last year to this year. I am admittedly torn on the cornerbacks and don’t give a clear answer really at all as to whether or not I think they’ll be better or worse, especially since it appears that none of the cornerbacks from last year will be true cornerbacks this year and the current options are limited in terms of performance from last year.

Left Cornerback

Man, I don’t know if it can get worse. I hate typing those sorts of things about my own team, but son of a son, the defensive backs were really rough last year.

Before I get into any sort of analysis, I do want to point out that Tevin Madison is on the two-deep at free safety. That’s right, he’s backing up Jah’Shawn Johnson. We’ll get to that when we look at the safeties, but apparently Madison, or any short cornerback, is not really an option at cornerback any longer.

So, right now, the best option at left cornerback is Paul Banks, III, who struggled quite a bit last year. Oh, and the official depth chart has Justis Nelson at left cornerback, but folks in the know would tweet about how Nelson was really the nickel defensive back more than anything else, playing the slot. Which means that Banks or someone else is going to get the look here. I really don’t know how much of an improvement Banks over Madison or Nigel Bethel II actually will be, but maybe this is Gibbs wanting to get his “type” of cornerback on the field. Tall and rangy except for just one guy.

If I had to guess, either Desmon Smith or Demarcus Fields make some sort of impact and if I had to put my money on either one of these guys, I’d put it on Fields. That’s probably a bit of a surprise for some of you, but I like Fields athletic ability just a bit more and I think I see Smith as a safety rather than a cornerback. I know Smith played some cornerback last year, but I think he’s got safety written all over him.

Better or Worse?

Let’s just pretend that the left cornerback last year was Madison or Nelson here and although Madison actually made a ton of plays, seriously he did, he had 67 tackles last year and 2 interceptions and led the team along with Nigel Bethel with 11 pass break-ups. Of course, Madison saw a ton of action, but we tend to just remember those bad moments. In any event, I don’t know how much worse it can get, although it can be technically worse since Texas Tech was only 112th in pass defense. I haven’t had a push thus far and I think if Fields plays as a true freshman along with Banks, you’re probably looking at worse production. I even have a difficlult time deciding that because I think Gibbs is finally getting what he wants here, which is big cornerbacks who are rangy. I don’t know if Banks really fits that bill, but Fields does for sure.  Maybe if Gibbs has what he wants in terms of type, it’s better. I really don’t know.

Right Cornerback

Thierry Nguema and D.J. Polite-Bray. Nguema was/is a walk-on (not sure if he’s earned a scholarship or not) that has stuck with playing for Texas Tech. He was originally recruited by Tuberville and here he is, a senior, and listed as the starter. Sometimes, you sit there and wait, but I don’t have a ton of hope for a walk-on cornerback. I hate typing that because I’m typically the sort of person that thinks that if the coaches believe that he can start, then who am I to judge. It just feels like I’ve seen this show before. I hoped and thought that D.J. Polite-Bray would make such a move this spring that there would be no denying him. I get the feeling that Polite-Bray is a different cat. Not in a bad way, just different. I’d guess that Polite-Bray is a good enough athlete to play cornerback, just need to do it with consistency. That’s the difference between Nguema and Polite-Bray, I’m guessing, is consistency.

Better or Worse?

With Bethel being the main starter her last year (and I very well could have my cornerback spots mixed up, I do have a recollection that Bethel may have been at right cornerback, but I could be wrong and don’t know how much it matters). I’ve always liked Polite-Bray significantly, but he wasn’t healthy all year last year. I can’t say I know all that much about Nguema, but he’s featured quite a bit in Rusty Whitt’s workout clips that he posts to Twitter and I would guess that Nguema is a guy that is over-achieving and he could be the starter.  The thing with Bethel from last year is that he also made plays, but he also allowed a ton of plays as well. Maybe we just gave him the benefit of the doubt because of the stars next to his name, but he was pretty rough too.  I think I’m in the same spot as I was with the left corner back spot. I just don’t know but I’ll say worse and I’m not exactly sure why because I can talk myself into either or proposition.

Free Safety

I think the way that Gibbs likes to run the defense is for there to be one deep safety and another safety that plays in the box. I’d imagine that he likes to mix things up and that’s not an absolute rule, but let’s pretend for now that Jah’Shawn Johnson is that free safety. Johnson has shown to be a turnover machine and I loved that about him last year. However, Johnson has the propensity to get sucked into the defense and then a receiver gets behind him and it’s church. Johnson’s aggressiveness can be a great trait, but it can also be one of those faults that lead to bad plays. Johnson and Madison are the free safeties at this point and Madison has the speed to play, but I’m not sure if he has the requisite height and weight to be an intimidating presence. And if this is a position of pure speed, then this is pretty much it. Not knowing just how fast Christian Taylor is, there may not be a ton of options.

Better or Worse?

Better. With another year under his belt, Johnson should be one of the stars of the defense along with Breiden Fehoko.

Strong Safety

We finish up with Keenon Ward and Payton Hendrix and these are to be your enforcers, your in-the-box safeties. Ward was replaced last year by Gaines and/or Johnson. I think Ward was susceptible to the same sort of thing that Johnson is, which is that he gets too aggressive, makes a bad read (or just makes a bad read) and then he’s not fitting where he’s supposed to be in the overall scheme of the defense. I hope with another year of seasoning for both Ward and Hendrix, that they can combine to be what Gibbs is looking for from the safety position.

Better or Worse?

Better. I’m a believer in Ward and I think Hendrix just needs an opportunity. He’s too good of an athlete not to see the field and he fits the Gibbs’ mold to a “T”. I think a combination of both of these guys will be better than the revolving door last year.


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