January 14, 2009

Loss of Williams adds to uncertainty

We had heard rumors earlier this month that a certain Brandon on the Texas Tech football team was considering declaring for the NFL draft. But we didn't think that Brandon was a defensive end with the last name of Williams, our focus was on Brandon Carter.

Like the proverbial bolt from the blue, however, Brandon Williams has jolted the Tech football program by casting his fortunes into the annual NFL talent lottery. And the Texas Tech Red Raiders are left with a huge and unexpected hole to fill as a result.

The most obvious downside of Williams' decision for the 2009 team is the fact that the team loses its best defensive player. Williams was an unsung recruit, but it was clear from the moment he set foot on the Tech practice field that he was something special. He shocked everybody by playing as a true freshman, and has steadily and consistently improved since his debut in scarlet and black.

That improvement continued right into Williams' final game with the Red Raiders, the 2009 Cotton Bowl. He was matched up most of the afternoon with Mississippi tackle Michael Oher, one of the top offensive line prospects in the upcoming draft and a sure-fire first round selection.

Most observers expected Oher to neutralize Williams without much difficulty, but that is not what happened. Rather, Williams was Tech's lone defensive bright spot as he gave Oher fits recording four tackles, three tackles for losses, two sacks, and forcing a fumble. So impressive was Williams' performance that it may well have convinced him beyond any doubt that he is ready for the NFL.

But is the Tech defense ready for life without Brandon Williams?

The primary commodity that Williams brought to the defense was a superior pass rush threat. Williams led the Red Raiders with 13 sacks, which is five more than runner-up McKinner Dixon, and 10 more than third place Daniel Howard. And it may well be Howard who is tasked with trying to replace Williams and his pass rush productivity.

If there's any consolation whatsoever in the loss of Williams it is the fact that the defensive line and the entire front seven will be deep and experienced in 2009. With the exception of end Jake Ratliff, and now Williams, the entire front seven returns next season. This group should still be a team strength in 2009.

But the loss of Williams still hurts badly, and if the Red Raiders are to generate a pass rush anywhere near as effective as it was in 2008, certain players absolutely must take advantage of the opportunity Williams' departure affords.

Dixon will now be the undisputed bell-cow of the Tech pass rush. He is more than capable of notching a double-digit sack total, but for him to reach peak effectiveness the Red Raiders must find a secondary pass rusher comparable to what Dixon was in 2008.

Daniel Howard has already been mentioned, and he is perhaps the prime candidate to step into the pass rush void. Because of the talent Tech has had at defensive end, Howard has never been anything close to an every-down player. It will be interesting to see how productive he can be if given the opportunity to be on the field 75% of the time.

Another possibility is Brandon Sharpe. He has seen less action than Howard even, but has shown flashes when given the chance to play. Sharpe has the quickness and speed to make an impact.

The most intriguing possibility, however, would be to move defensive tackle Brandon Sesay to defensive end, the position he was originally recruited to play. At six-foot-six and 280 pounds, Sesay would be the most physically imposing defensive end to suit up for Tech in a very long time. What's more, he probably has almost as much raw ability as Brandon Williams.

For Sesay to move to defensive end, however, somebody will have to step up to provide meaningful depth at defensive tackle. That person could be true freshman Romario Cathey, or perhaps an as yet unknown recruit. It is unlikely that defensive coordinator Ruffin McNeill will sacrifice critical depth at defensive tackle in order to slide Sesay to defensive end.

Regardless of what McNeill and defensive ends coach Charlie Sadler decide to do, however, the loss of Brandon Williams will be felt. You simply don't replace the sort of ability Williams has at the drop of a dime. But that is what the Red Raider defensive brass must try to do.

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