Jah’Shawn Johnson decided to have some fun at Big 12 Media Days. When he showed up at The Star in Frisco Johnson had a “Texas Tech Media Day Bingo Card” in his hands. He made it with the help of the Tech Sports Information Department. On the card were questions Johnson anticipated the media would ask him. Naturally, some of them were about the defense, where he’s a returning starter at safety.
He knew those questions were coming. Anyone who saw the Red Raiders play defense last year knew those questions were coming.
“It was definitely disappointing, but we can’t blame anyone but ourselves,” Johnson said.
Texas Tech’s defense was impressively bad last year. The Red Raiders were dead last in FBS in total defense in 2016, allowing 554.3 yards per game. They were last in scoring defense, giving up 43.5 points per game and creating just 13 turnovers, which was tied for No. 112 in FBS. In eight of their 12 games the Red Raiders gave up 40 or more points.
It was enough to put Red Raiders head coach Kliff Kingsbury, a former Red Raiders quarterback, on just about everyone’s hot seat list this offseason. Tech athletic director Kirby Hocutt has expressed his support for Kingsbury, but the fifth-year head coach knows things can change quickly.
“We know we have to be much improved,” Kingsbury said. “But that’s part of the job. I think that everybody but the four that make the playoff every year are basically on the hot seat in college football. You’re coaching for your job every year, and we know that.”
That’s part of the reason the defense has been such a focal point this offseason, especially after last year.
It’s hard to pick a low water mark for last season. Perhaps it was the nearly 70 points the Red Raiders gave up to Arizona State in a 68-55 loss in Week 2. For Johnson, it was undoubtedly the 66-59 loss to Oklahoma on Oct 22. The Red Raiders gave up 854 yards of total offense to the Sooners, the exact same amount the Red Raider offense racked up under the guidance of quarterback Patrick Mahomes. The Sooners had to outlast the Red Raiders to win that one, and Johnson and the rest of his Red Raiders walked away from that game wondering what might have been.
“That was definitely a bad feeling, knowing that we needed just a couple of stops to win that game,” Johnson said. “I don’t even know if we created a turnover in that game (the Red Raiders didn’t). [Oklahoma is] a high-powered offense and when you’re playing in this league it’s hard to stop someone on each possession because [the offense] gets so many. There were a couple plays where we could have created turnovers. I know I had a couple of plays where I had my hands on the ball.”
So how does Texas Tech fix something that massively broken? You start by introducing some consistency in the defensive room. David Gibbs returns as defensive coordinator in 2017. It’s his third season on the staff but his second full season as the coordinator, and Johnson says the system is sound. The Red Raiders just need to make more plays. Additionally, Kingsbury spent more time with the defense during spring workouts, going so far as to attend every defensive film session, something he had not done in the past.
Next, you take everyone down a peg. This offseason Kingsbury covered up every “Double T,” the Red Raiders’ signature logo, including on the players’ helmets. The team will get them back, Johnson said, when Kingsbury believes they deserve it.
Third, you throw out the depth chart, even if there is one on paper.
“There are no starters at this point,” Johnson said. “We have so much depth now we’ve been competing and anyone can start right now. We’ve all been in the playbook and we all know things well.”
Of course, some players have more experience than others and Tech returns five starters from last year’s team. Johnson, a two-year starter, has 25 games under his belt as a safety entering his redshirt junior season. Last year he was the Red Raiders’ second-leading tackler (77) and was one of only two Red Raider defenders to start all 12 games. He also tied for the team lead in interceptions with two.
Junior defensive end Kolin Hill, sophomore middle linebacker Jordyn Brooks, senior cornerback D.J. Polite-Bray and junior safety Kisean Allen are the other returning starters. But the Red Raiders are looking for some instant help, too. Dakota Allen returns at linebacker after being dismissed from the Red Raiders after the 2015 season and spending last season at East Mississippi Community College, the school that is the subject of the “Last Chance U” documentary on Netflix.
Before Allen was dismissed from Tech he had 87 tackles and two interceptions as a redshirt freshman.
“We expect him to pick right back up where he left off,” Kingsbury said. “He’s a leader for us already in our locker room. He can tell those young guys about the mistake he made, about what he went through, about how good they have it. He’s made an immediate impact off the field, and I’m hoping that his presence on the field is felt that way as well.”
Plus, the Red Raiders found three junior college transfers to shore up the secondary.
So will it all work? We’ll see. But for a program that is regularly among the best offenses in the nation, having a defense that is average would do wonders for the Red Raiders’ bowl and Big 12 hopes.
Jah’Shawn Johnson says the scheme is there. And now the attitude seems to be following right into fall workouts. “I think in the past everyone was trying to do everyone else’s jobs, independent of people to make plays,” Johnson said. “Everyone wants to be the one to make that play now. We get jealous if someone makes a solo tackle. It means not enough people are getting to the ball.”
And the Red Raiders have apparently had enough of that.
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