It could easily be argued that protecting the quarterback is the most important aspect of football at every level of the game. Nothing can change a game more quickly and more dramatically than an injury to the QB. That fact is obviously not lost on the Texas Tech coaching staff after last week’s loss to West Virginia. That’s why keeping new starting QB Behren Morton safe now has to be the unquestioned priority for the Red Raiders.
Entering Saturday’s game against Houston, Morton is now the only available QB on the Red Raider roster who has thrown a pass in a game at the collegiate level. Behind him is true freshman, Jake Strong, who is yet to step foot on the field this season. What’s more, behind Strong, there isn’t even another scholarship QB in the program.
Thus, if the Red Raiders have any hope of turning the disappointing 2023 season around, Morton must stay healthy for the next eight games. However, recent program history doesn’t provide much evidence that such a scenario is possible.
Last year, for instance, Tech had to use three different QBs (Tyler Shough, Donovan Smith, and Morton) to start at least four games each. What’s more, it has been since Jett Duffey in 2019 that a Red Raider QB has started eight consecutive games. So Tech has to find a way to buck that trend if this season is going to be turned around.
How can Texas Tech keep Morton healthy?
What, then, can be done to ensure that Morton is able to complete the season and stabilize the QB position? There are a number of options, all of which Tech would be wise to explore.
First, the offensive line must play better. That’s a dicey proposition given that the pass protection from that group has been shaky at best this year.
Since the line is struggling again (Tech has given up 12 sacks thus far, tied for the most in the Big 12), it might be time to utilize the tight ends to help in the protection scheme again. That was done for much of 2022 to help the struggling Red Raider O-line but it meant that talented players like Mason Tharp and Baylor Cupp were less impactful as receivers.
The hope this year was that an improved line would allow Tharp and Cupp to be utilized more as receivers than as blockers but that just might not be possible given that this year’s line doesn’t seem to be any better at protecting the passer.
Another way to protect Morton is to throw the designed QB run plays in the garbage. All three of Shough’s injuries while at Tech came at the end of rushing plays. What’s more, one of Alan Bowman’s three significant injuries (the second time he suffered a collapsed lung in 2018) was the result of a designed QB run against Oklahoma in Lubbock.
Even in 2016 when Pat Mahomes started all 12 games for Tech, he sustained a sprained AC joint at the end of a long run against Kansas. The only reason he didn’t miss a game with that injury was likely because that game was played on a Thursday night giving Mahomes a few extra days to recover before playing the next week.
Running the QB is a risky proposition at the college level. Even a player as big as Shough (6-foot-5, 230 pounds) has proven vulnerable when acting as a runner. So it would be absurd to believe that the 6-foot-2, 215-pound Morton would be able to take a similar pounding and emerge unscathed.
Also, Morton isn’t equipped to execute the power run game that Shough majored in. Rather, Morton’s mobility lies in his ability to avoid pressure in the pocket allowing him to buy time to make throws downfield. While he can scramble for yards, which he will undoubtedly do, he isn’t the type of athlete who is going to run away from Big 12 linebackers and defensive backs.
If offensive coordinator Zach Kittley wishes to continue to utilize the power QB run game, he will likely have to turn to a “wildcat” formation where a receiver or running back takes the snap from the QB position. Deploying that type of QB run game would take the element of surprise out of the equation but it would keep Morton from taking more punishment than he already will each week.
Plays such as Nehemiah Martinez, Xavier White, Myles Price, Coy Eakin, or Tahj Brooks would be better suited to run the power QB game. They are all more elusive and more sturdy than Morton and should any one of those players go down, it wouldn’t spell disaster for the offense as it would if Morton were to be lost for a significant period of time.
Finally, Tech must figure out a way to get the ball out of Morton’s hands as soon as possible. Though Morton is more likely to push the ball downfield than Shough, especially over the middle of the field, he is also more decisive than Shough and he has a quicker release. Thus, he naturally gets the ball way faster…when he is confident in his reads, that is.
Several times in the loss to West Virginia, Morton held onto the ball too long when his first read was taken away and in almost every instance, a negative play occurred. Now, it will be up to Kittley to scheme ways for Morton to get rid of the ball on time and before a pass rusher can lay a hit on him.
While the quick passing game is not popular with fans, especially when it comes to wide receiver screens, that may be what Tech has to lean on to give Morton the best opportunity to stay healthy. Of course, if Tech can run the ball well, it will also do wonders for Morton’s longevity.
This year, Tahj Brooks has been Tech’s best offensive player and now, he should be the featured weapon. If Tech wants to run the ball 40 times per game with the running backs, so be it. This is not the time to hang onto the “Air Raid” identity for old times’ sake. Rather, Kittley must evolve as a play-caller and do what he doesn’t necessarily prefer because that’s what this team needs right now.
Suddenly, the QB position has become the thinnest group on the roster. That’s a frightening reality for Texas Tech fans to come to grips with. However, there are ways for the coaching staff to keep Morton upright, they just might require an adjustment of strategy, though. Ultimately, whether or not McGuire and Kittley can adapt well enough to get Morton through the next eight games in one piece will be what determines whether or not this season can be salvaged.