March 12, 2008

Is Chris Parker the toughest to replace?

The [tm]Texas Tech[/tm] Red Raiders figure to be a much-improved football team in 2008. Pre-season prognosticators are already saying so, for what it's worth. Early projections are putting the Red Raiders anywhere from #12 to #17 in the nation. Inasmuch as Tech finished the 2007 season ranked #22, these predictions suggest that Mike Leach's team will vault upward an echelon.

But in what will that improvement consist?

The 2007 Red Raiders boasted the number six scoring offense, the number one passing offense, and the number two total offense, so it is difficult to imagine too much improvement there.

Tech could improve in certain spots on special teams, but with the departure of All-Big 12 placekicker Alex Trlica, it is unlikely that special teams will be significantly better on the whole.

That leaves the defense. And frankly, the defense left much to be desired in 2007 having concluded the season ranked #50 in total defense. With eight starters returning, this is obviously the area in which Tech must improve dramatically if they are to fulfill and perhaps exceed lofty pre-season prognostications.

As indicated above, the defense loses only three starters. They are middle linebacker Paul Williams, safety Joe Garcia and cornerback Chris Parker.

The loss of Williams may not be too terribly difficult to overcome, for while he was the defense's fourth leading tackler and tallied 6.5 stops for losses, interior run defense was still the defense's gravest weakness. Some of that can be attributed to Williams' inability to consistently shed blocks and fill gaps.

And indeed, in the second half of the season second team MIKE backer Victor Hunter seemed to get almost as many snaps as Williams. If Hunter replaces Williams in 2008 the Red Raiders will have quality experience at the position and arguably a better run-stuffer than they had in 2007.

The loss of Garcia may be felt more in the locker room than on the field. Yes, Garcia was a very solid safety and had a nice career for the Red Raiders, but his contributions came as much in the leadership department as anywhere else. Garcia's intelligence, character and positive personality will be tough to replace.

On the field, however, there should be little if any drop-off at strong safety. Backup Anthony Hines has the size, athleticism and ability to cover ground that NFL scouts crave. If he can stay healthy, Hines could open some eyes in 2008. If not, the supremely talented Steven Harris or converted wideout L.A. Reed could fill the breech. In any event, Garcia's old position should be in good hands next season.

But it is at Parker's cornerback position where there is cause for concern. Like Williams and Garcia, Parker was never a star with the Red Raiders, but particularly in his senior year he was a reliable performer. In 2007 he registered 36 tackles, gathered in an interception, and led the team in pass breakups with 11. With lockdown corner Jamar Wall on the opposite side of the field, teams were forced to throw at Parker and Parker more than held his own. As a result, the Red Raiders concluded the season with the nation's 17th-best pass defense.

But Parker is gone and his heir apparent remains a mystery. Backups Marcus Bunton, Laron Moore and Pete Richardson may be the primary options.

Bunton has a wealth of experience, having started multiple games during his career. Whether or not he is an every-down coverage man remains to be seen, however.

Moore has blazing speed but his body of work is so exiguous that it is impossible to evaluate his ability.

Richardson is a physical player who performs admirably in practice, but so far Tech's defensive coaches have not seen fit to put him on the field with any frequency whatsoever.

Two newcomers will jump into the fray during spring drills. DeShon Sanders is an excellent athlete with nice size, but the double transition from junior college football to the Big 12, and from safety to corner has not been easy for him.

Jarell Routt, a Red Raider via Texas City and Coffeyville Community College has a combination of size and speed that easily equals any cornerback currently on the Tech roster. But the jury, of course, is very much out on him. Routt could be the next Aqib Talib or he could fade into the woodwork. At this point we just don't know.

One thing about which we are certain is that if the Red Raider defense is to elevate its stature, there can be no glaring weakness at cornerback, which is the defensive position most vulnerable to exposure and exploitation. If Tech fans are pining away for Parker next season, we will know that he was the man that the Red Raiders could not replace.

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