Texas Tech football: Make-or-break Red Raiders for 2023

Texas Tech football: Make-or-break Red Raiders for 2023
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Texas Tech’s head football coach Joey McGuire attends football practice, Tuesday, Aug. 8, 2023, at the Sports Performance Center.

With the Texas Tech football program now essentially a week into fall camp, the excitement for the 2023 season is ramping up, and given how strong the Red Raiders’ roster is this year, it is easy to understand why the fans in Raiderland are eager to see this team on the field.

What makes Joey McGuire’s second squad in Lubbock so intriguing is that there appears to be no glaring weakness on paper.  Now, this isn’t to suggest that the roster features position groups that will be among the tops in the nation across the board.  Despite the massive strides McGuire has made in revamping the talent level for his team, he has some significant work to do in order to have a top-10 roster in terms of talent.

However, for the first time in perhaps a decade, the Red Raiders appear to enter the season with every position group being at worst average by Big 12 standards.  That is a refreshing change from recent years.

For instance, does anyone remember the 2018 season when, with his job on the line, Kliff Kingsbury went into the fall with McLane Carter, Alan Bowman, and Jett Duffey as his options at QB?  That had to be the worst collection of talent at the game’s most important position that Tech has fielded since prior to the Mike Leach era began in 2000.

Or don’t forget the 2011 season when Tech’s secondary was so bad that when No. 2 Oklahoma State came to Lubbock in November, the best option the Red Raiders had to try to cover eventual two-time Biletnikoff Award winner, Justin Blackmon, was 5-foot-9 Cornelius Douglas who had only recently converted to defensive back after spending most of his career as an inside receiver. The result was a disastrous 66-6 loss that was one of the earliest signs that the post-Leach era of the program was spinning out of control.

Even as recently as last year, Tech had to cobble together an inadequate offensive line with a JUCO walk-on in Dennis Wilburn starting at center, a first-time starter at right tackle in Monroe Mills, who had never started a game in his college career, and a first-time left tackle in Caleb Rogers.  The results were not great even though Wilburn and Mills proved to be better than most assumed they’d be.  Ultimately, Tech’s line was a weakness for most of the season and led to an offseason revamping of that position group that we will discuss in more detail momentarily.

The point is that just about every position group on the field has at one time in recent memory been woefully inadequate in a given season for the Red Raiders.  Again, that’s not just a problem that is unique to Texas Tech but rather it is a battle that most programs not named Georgia, Alabama, or Ohio State grapple with every fall.

However, the 2023 Red Raiders appeared to have their roster in as healthy of a place as it’s been since perhaps the magical 2008 season.  Still, there are some players on the team that will have to come through for the first time or take their play to another level to elevate their position groups to a place where this team is

truly capable of competing for a Big 12 title

So let’s take a look at five make-or-break players on the roster.  As we, it will become obvious what the two biggest areas of concern might be as we enter what we hope will be a season that sees McGuire’s program build off of last year’s momentum.

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Now, Rogers has flipped tackle spots with Mills meaning that Rogers is headed to the right side of the line.  But will simply flipping spots actually make a difference?  Call me skeptical.

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The simple fact is that Rogers is going to have to elevate his play this fall, regardless of where he’s lined up.  The good news is that he did improve over the course of the 2022 season helping Tech to a 4-0 finish to 2022.

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Still, at times he was absolutely abused by good pass rushers.  Take the game against Houston in Lubbock.  That afternoon, the Cougars’ defensive end Derek Parish had his way with Rogers to the tune of 10 tackles 4.5 sacks, and 6.5 tackles for loss all while playing with a cast on his broken hand.

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Almost all season, Tech had to scheme around Rogers’ struggles and send extra help his way to keep the quarterbacks from being ambushed from their blind side.  This year, the hope is that a year of technique and physical improvement combined with fewer encounters with elite pass rushers by means of his move to right tackle will help Rogers be less of a liability.

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However, teams are certain to test what they will likely perceive to be the weakest line in this O-line until Rogers proves he’s a better player this season.  If he can be a league-average tackle this fall, it will do wonders for an offensive line that enters the year with no starter returning in the position he manned last year.

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Oct 1, 2022; Syracuse, New York, USA; Syracuse Orange defensive lineman Steve Linton (17) reacts to getting a sack against the Wagner Seahawks during the first half at JMA Wireless Dome. Mandatory Credit: Gregory Fisher-USA TODAY Sports

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Is Steve Linton ready to be a star?

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To the casual fan, the name Steve Linton is not going to be familiar.  However, die-hard Texas Tech football fans have been salivating over the off-season reports about what the Syracuse transfer could become in 2023.

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Arriving from a program where the strength and nutrition program was apparently lacking and having added as much as 20 pounds of muscle this offseason, Linton is projected to be Tech’s best pass rusher this fall.  But is he ready to be a star in the Big 12?

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Last year, he made 22 tackles and had 3.5 sacks in 11 games making only one start.  This year much more than that is expected of the Georgia native.

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In fact, some believe that he could play his way into the 2024 NFL Draft despite having two years of eligibility remaining.  That would be a best-case scenario for a Red Raider team looking to replace Tyree Wilson’s pass-rush abilities.

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Make no mistake, Tech’s coaching staff is confident that the impressive depth that the program has amassed along the edges of the D-line will be enough to help cover for Wilson’s absence.  What’s more, there is no thought that just one player will bring to the field what the best defensive player in the Big 12 did last year.

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Still, someone is going to have to step forward and be a consistent disruptor on passing downs and the hope is that Linton will prove ready to be that guy.  Some are even projecting that he could be a double-digit sack performer for the Red Raiders.  Should that come to pass, this defense is going to be the best Tech has fielded since the final years of the Leach era and Linton will get a shot to play on Sundays.

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