5 keystone players for Texas Tech’s defense in 2020

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The Red Raiders need these players to step up if they want to shake off the bad defense labels

I read from a reliable source that Big 12 higher ups believe the football season has a 70% chance of proceeding as planned and a 100% chance of being cut short. Not very encouraging on the back end but, hey, at least we’ll get some games in there!

If things are going to improve next year, the talent has to be there. Just as an ecosystem depends on a keystone species for it’s health and survival, the ecosystem of Texas Tech Football will live or die depending on the performance of these players. -RM

My colleague Ryan Mainville wrote a piece detailing who, on the offensive side of things, are going to be crucial to Tech’s success in the upcoming season. Naturally we’ll shift to see who, on the defensive side of things, are going to be what defines the 2020 season as a success. Unlike Ryan I’m breaking my list up into the leaders of each defensive level with a wing-man selection for the defensive backs and defensive line to make 5 total.

LB Riko Jeffers

Texas Tech’s best defensive efforts start with the quarterbacks of the defense. Riko Jeffers is next in line of an increasing lineage of stud Tech LBs; following in the steps of Jordyn Brooks who followed in the steps of Dakota Allen. Jeffers, very much like Brooks, has sat quietly dominant on the defense while other linebackers took center-stage. Each season the young bull has improved his game in each facet and finished 2019 with 76 tackles, 3 sacks, 2 forced fumbles, and a pass deflection. In fact, he only came second behind Brooks in tackles (much nearer when strictly looking at “solo tackles”) but out preformed him in subsequent categories. Via his twitter, it’s apparent that Jeffers is ready to step into the spotlight.

An important point to note is that Jeffers isn’t the only linebacker coming into this season with high expectations. Over the off season Wells and Patterson brought on the likes of Brandon Bouyer-Randle from Michigan State and Krishon Merriweather from Garden City CC. Boyer-Randle is coming to Texas Tech for an opportunity to show that he’s got the stuff to be a starter, after having an unimpressive time at Michigan State. Merriweather, on the other hand, is coming to Texas Tech for an opportunity to capitalize on his development after racking up 153 tackles last season. It’s very much a tale of two cities, but in this instance they remain equally hungry to have breakout seasons with Texas Tech.

Oh, yeah, don’t forget about Xavier Benson who was a solid 3 in the Tech LB squad last year.

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DB Zech McPhearson

The defensive squad this year absolutely needs to take a step forward in their pass defense. Last season Texas Tech ranked 128 out of 130 teams giving up an average of 307.8 yards per game. Yeah. I know that we play in a pass-heavy conference with really good quarterbacks across the board, but if Tech wants to compete for the top four spots of the conference then it has got to get pass defense under control. That starts with Zech McPhearson.

Last season we had McPhearson transfer to Tech from Penn State after very limited playing time with the Nittany Lions. Sometimes a transfer like that can cause some questions like “how hard working is this guy?” but in one season McPhearson proved that he’s the key DB for our future. He racked up 51 tackles with 5 pass breakups and a sack. And although he didn’t have the flash of getting interceptions like Douglas Coleman, McPhearson was impressively involved for a player on the edge of the field.

McPhearson has the experience and responsibility to bring together this upperclassmen-heavy DB core together. Seniors Demarcus Fields and Thomas Leggett, with Juniors Adrian Frye and Adam Beck have all the tools to become one of the best pass defending teams in Tech history. I believe they have that capability. I mean in 2018 Adrian Frye was a bonified top 10 defensive back in the nation, Demarcus Fields has proved he’s a reliable ball hawk, Thomas Leggett has the skill set to be a lock-down safety, and Adam Beck is a perfect rotational guy. Could this be Tech’s year to shut down pass-heavy teams?

Wing-man: Adrian Frye

I don’t think I need to give a lot of context for Adrian Frye. Top 10 defense back in the nation as a corner back in 2018 only to regress after he’s moved to the safety position in 2019. Frye sat in Douglas Coleman III’s shadow all season despite having the same, if not better, abilities. I’m inclined to believe that the positional shift gave Frye a learning curve that reflected on his statistical progression, but now that he’s had a year to develop it’s high time he steps back into the spotlight. Because McPhearson is that shutdown defensive back, Frye has to take the mantle of ball hawk and create turnovers for this squad.

DE Eli Howard

Watching the defense last season was fun because big Broderick Washington stuffed run after run no matter who was carrying the ball. Given his departure to the NFL the Red Raiders are going to need somebody else to step up and lead this defensive line with the same level of domination. In considering who might be the best replacement it’s a tall order. You’ve got to consider who has seniority to be an authoritative voice, who has the game experience to make a difference, and who has that underlying drive that will get them ready for 4th and short in a late game scenario.

Seniority? Oh Eli Howard’s got it. Experience? How about the longest active streak of career starts on the team. Drive? Try Athlon listing Eli Howard on their first team All-Big 12 for 2020 for size. Basically when you’re coming for Eli Howard – you best not miss. Last season the defensive end showcased his abilities by beating opposing teams around the edge. That skill culminated in five sacks on the season with a number of QB hurries. Overestimating Howard’s importance to this season’s defensive line would be difficult proposition.

The difficulty in leading from the edge is emphasized when opposing teams start pulling their run game to the opposite side of the field. That’s where Howard’s authoritative voice needs to come in strong and respected to ears like Jaylon Hutchings, Nelson Mbanasor, and Devin Drew – the Iowa Western CC transfer. If there’s an opportunity to respond powerfully in Washington’s absence then it starts & ends with Eli Howard.

Wing-man: Devin Drew

Devin Drew was a monster last season with the Iowa Western Reivers collecting 51 tackles, 14.5 sacks, 23.5 tackles for loss, six pass breakups, five forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries. A part of me wanted to overlook his production since it was at a community college, but the reality is that his trajectory is directly correlated with this year’s DL production. I like the direction of Hutchings and Mbanasor’s development, but if Drew comes in and plays like he’s been ready for Division I all along then this is going to be a tough defensive line. Howard remains, in my mind, the captain of this group but if he can rally Drew to take that next step then we’re looking real good for 2020.

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