April 25, 2008

What we learned this spring

In a sense, one never really learns anything from watching practice, no matter how diligent, seasoned and acute the observer. Football practice, after all, tends to bring out the best and the worst in players, but seldom the median.

In the past few years we've seen Tech football players look like Mike Singletary in practice only to vanish into thin air once the season starts. We've seen players sulk and go through the motions all spring and summer only to turn into All Big 12-type performers once the chips were actually down.

During Texas Tech's 2008 spring workouts, we also contended with different attitudes and motivations for the offense and defense. Hence, Graham Harrell, Mike Crabtree and the Air Raid didn't have to prove anything to anybody. Harrell is an All American candidate, Crabtree might be a favorite to win the Heisman trophy, and the offense itself has consistently been among the nation's elite for the past several seasons.

And with 10 starters returning from last year's frightening attack, is there any real doubt about how deadly the Air Raid will be in the upcoming season? Only among hypertensive worry warts and the Tech offensive coaching staff. Everybody else, including the players, expect to see an offense that will run roughshod over any defense a college team can put in front of it.

For that reason the Air Raid probably coasted a bit through spring drills. And to the extent that they were putting forth maximum effort, it was to further burnish an already brilliant escutcheon. This sword has drawn blood before and will do so again.

The Red Raider defense was a different story altogether. If the Tech offense is a mighty conqueror in content repose after having annihilated a string of foes, the defense is a restless Hotspur driven mad with lust to prove its worthiness on the field of battle. Whereas the offense is known far and wide for its maniac prowess, the defense, if it is known for anything, is known as a doormat. The Tech stoppers are frequently regarded as a sieve that has allowed a national champion caliber offense to be largely wasted.

And you think that doesn't grate? You think a proud new defensive coordinator in Ruffin McNeill doesn't spit iron filings when the defense is regarded as the sick kitten to Texas Tech's offensive bull mastiff?

McNeill took that pride and that burning desire to show everybody what he and his players are capable of doing, and he instilled it in the defense. And it showed.

Practically from day one of spring drills, the defense got the better of Tech's mighty offense. Playing particularly well out of their base set, the defense got very good pressure on the quarterback while going against an admittedly beaten up offensive line. Facing Crabtree, Eric Morris and new phenom Detron Lewis, the defense did not bust. Confronted by a four-headed running beast in Baron Batch, Aaron Crawford, Shannon Woods and Kobey Lewis, the Red Ruffians rose to the occasion practice after practice, week after week.

Consequently, big plays for the offense were conspicuous by their absence. Crabtree was a handful in seven-on-seven drills, but during team workouts and scrimmages, the defense contained the nation's best receiver very well. And whereas previous Tech defenses were routinely gouged by long running plays, it was not until the final week of the spring that a Red Raider back was able to break a long touchdown run.

The defense tackled excellently, executed soundly, and, led by a fiery linebacking corps augmented by freshman Sam Fehoko, played with an intensity that the offense did not match.

So what does all of this mean? To begin with, it demonstrates just how much of the game of football is mental. The offense and defense entered spring ball with entirely different mindsets and totally different goals, and consequently, they authored completely divergent outcomes.

An unheralded but spirited defense, playing with a chip on its shoulder and an ax to the grindstone, pelted around a spangled offense that was trying merely to refine its own near perfection. The Red Ruffians grabbed the princes in shining armor by the scruff of the neck and knocked their blocks off.

But do not fear for the Air Raid. Come September this unit will be hale and healthy, and it will be visiting destruction on opposing defenses with apparent ease. This is the same talented, experienced group that blew through virtually every defense it faced last season. And it is coached by the same mastermind.

The real question is whether the Tech defense can keep alive the embers of furious wounded pride that they ignited this spring. Ruffin McNeill, for one, will not let up. And if his players have sufficient reserves of energy and mental toughness to continually respond to McNeill's verbal lash, look out world.

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