April 26, 2008

What we didn't learn

The most unusual outcome of Texas Tech's spring practices is that, despite the general feeling of accomplishment that resulted from them, there remain as many unanswered questions now as there were before the workouts began. Put another way, while the team as a whole seems good and sound, there are several positions on the roster that have yet to be solidified and nailed down. And one senses that in a few cases, the nailing down won't be complete until the 2008 non-conference games are all played.

What follows is a look at several of the more prominent questions that still must be answered affirmatively for the Red Raiders to take the Big 12 crown.

How Does Running Back Shake Out? Texas Tech's ground attack will be better in 2008 than it was in 2007. On that you can make bank. The offensive line returns fully intact, and so does the backfield, which has been strengthened by the addition of Baron Batch. Even still, issues remain to be resolved at this position.

With Batch, Aaron Crawford, Kobey Lewis and Shannon Woods all in the fold, Tech hardly lacks for quality depth. But none of the four horsemen successfully took command of the position this spring. None of them dazzled anybody with brilliant running even while they all impressed with their tough, hard-nosed play.

So, the Red Raiders may well have four good backs but no great ones. When the going gets tough against a top-flight defense with a championship in the balance, does Tech have a back capable of punishing a defense that is selling out to stop the passing game? Will the Red Raiders be able to punch it in from the Red Zone when the field is compressed and the secondary is thick with defensive backs? We still don't know.

What Happens in the Event of the Unthinkable? Such is the skill of Tech's offensive line that few defenses can lay a glove on Graham Harrell unless they do so after the whistle. (This applies in particular to Texas A&M.) Nevertheless, football is a violent sport and there is always the possibility that Harrell could sustain a serious injury at some point. And given the extreme importance of the quarterback in Mike Leach's offense, were Harrell to go down, Tech's potential dream season could be in jeopardy. If, that is, the backup quarterback proves unable to deliver the mail.

Following spring drills, this remains a concern.

Taylor Potts, Harrell's current understudy, certainly looks like a prime time player. He's big, strong-armed, and has surprisingly good mobility. But he was wildly inconsistent this spring. Potts, who throws nicer intermediate and deep balls than short, looked very good on a couple of drives but then looked lost on the third. He would make a few sparkling throws, only to follow them up with a couple of bad balls into coverage.

Presumed number three quarterback Stefan Loucks began to come on at the conclusion of spring workouts, but Potts is the arm Leach will go to if he has to. And Potts needs to be ready.

Does Tech Have a Right Cornerback? Finding a replacement for Chris Parker opposite Jamar Wall was arguably Tech's biggest must going into spring ball. And it will remain a must going into the summer.

The candidates are plentiful: LaRon Moore, Marcus Bunton, Pete Richardson, De'Shon Sanders, Brent Nickerson, Taylor Charbonnet. But as of the present, none of them have staked an undisputable claim to the starting spot.

Moore has the best measurables. But he was injured most of the spring and has not shown enough on the actual field of play to prove that he's a good football player in addition to being a nice package of vital statistics. Bunton and Richardson are tough, physical tacklers, but their coverage skills are questionable. Much the same could be said of Sanders. Nickerson covers well and is a cerebral corner, but run support could be an issue with him. Charbonnet looked as good as any corner during spring drills, but he's a redshirt freshman. Are cornerback coach Brian Mitchell and defensive coordinator Ruffin McNeill willing to put a freshman on the island during a season in which so much is expected?

Who Handles Field Goal Duties? It is likely that two games in 2008 will be decided by field goal kicking. In those games, the team that can connect on makeable field goals will win. And, of course, two games can spell the difference between a BCS bowl and the Holiday Bowl.

Tech lost one of its all-time clutch kickers in Alex Trlica. The current lead candidate to replace him is Cory Fowler who did nothing to wow the public or coaches during the spring. When summer comes, so will strong-legged freshman Donnie Carona. If he can do as well with field goals as then freshman Jonathan LaCour did with punts last year, then the Red Raider should be fine. But if he's not ready for the big time and Tech has to go with Fowler, there could be heartbreak in the Hub come 2008.

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