Air Raid coaches are always struggling to build the quality defenses that will elevate the system and school to the ultimate prizes of college football and Texas Tech is no exception. Current head man Kliff Kingsbury's own coach, Mike Leach, typically found this to be true in his own time on the vast plains of West Texas.
The Leach-era Red Raiders had one breakthrough season, in 2008, when they finished 11-2 and in a three-way tie for first place in the Big 12 South with the traditional heavyweights Texas and Oklahoma. While that season featured Graham Harrell throwing for 5111 yards and 45 touchdowns and Michael Crabtree nabbing 1165 receiving yards with 19 touchdowns, the big difference that season was the defense.
The Red Raiders saw a gradual rise in the mid-2000's when they hired assistant coach Ruffin McNeil and then, after a catastrophic defeat to Oklahoma State in the middle of the 2007 season in which they surrendered over 600 yards of offense, McNeil was promoted to defensive coordinator.
He emphasized a simpler, cover 2 approach and drastically improved the quality of Tech's DL play, allowing their back seven to sit back in coverage and make life difficult for Big 12 passing offenses. In 2008 they had a pair of defensive ends in McKinner Dixon and Brandon Williams who combined for 19 sacks while safeties Darcel McBath and Daniel Charbonnet took advantage of the opportunity to jump routes from a two-deep shell and combined for 11 interceptions and 13 pass break-ups.
The Red Raiders got one more good season of good defensive play in 2009 under McNeil before the University fired Leach and McNeil was hired away by the East Carolina Pirates. Since then, they've had abysmal defenses although they've maintained their core identity as a dynamite Air Raid offensive team.
This is always the challenge of the coordinator turned head coach, adopting a philosophy on the other side of the ball that you can maintain through recruiting, hires, and general oversight.
As the new head of Air Raid University, Kliff Kingsbury worked hard this offseason to secure the services of Houston's DC David Gibbs in hopes of locking down a defensive philosophy that could jive with his offensive system. It's a very different approach than what McNeil paired with Leach's system back in the day but perhaps the Raiders can find a defensive identity at last and get back to challenging for the Big 12 crown.
The David Gibbs system
The Houston Cougars only ranked 80th in defensive S&P in 2014, but they did consistently produce turnovers. Gibbs' system can perhaps be best characterized as turnover-oriented as creating takeaways is the dominant theme in all of his strategic choices.
There are a few facets to how Gibbs pursues turnovers and they combine to form a cohesive overall philosophy dedicated to taking the ball away. First there's the culture he creates, which is most essential and arguably the most difficult thing for a defensive coordinator under an offensive coach to accomplish.
Gibbs emphasizes ball-stripping, even to the point of missing tackles, and even encourages his players to try and smack the clipboard out of his hands at practice. The energy and enthusiasm he generates amongst his charges is evident on film where you routinely see Cougars running to the football in packs and willingly delivering and taking blows.
On this play you'll see defenders blowing up blockers, defensive linemen pursuing the football down the line of scrimmage, and Houston getting numbers to the point of attack as quickly as they can. Against a big, physical team like Pittsburgh it's not a given that defenders will play this hard.
Of course, this wasn't necessarily the problem for Lubbock last year as they also played hard and tried to get numbers to the ball, but Gibbs' success in building a defensive culture in the midst of a spread offense speaks well of his ability to get results in Lubbock.
Last year the Raiders struggled where bad defenses typically struggle, with their force play on the edge. Here's an example of Arkansas bouncing a run outside thanks to a WR crack block on an unsuspecting safety combined with an offensive tackle successfully hooking the rush-end, the result is an easy corner for the RB to turn downhill around:
Gibbs' system relies heavily on keeping the ball funneled inside to team pursuit and to the deep safety who acts as an eraser on anything that slips through. Good force play and tackling from the safety positions are essential ingredients:
This play is a good example of what the base defense is for Gibbs, which is essentially a 5-2 front with three deep zone defenders. The key to this scheme is that he's able to bring a great deal of disguise despite playing a similar scheme on most snaps. For instance, Gibbs might play a standard under front:
The sam linebacker and weakside "rush" end are looking to keep the ball between them and within easy access of the inside linebackers and erasing free safety. They could also create a 5-2, three-deep defense with a man-blitz as they did with this scheme against Pittsburgh:
It's a very similar defense but different players are dropping into different roles which can create confusion for the blockers in knowing who to prioritize and confusion for the QB on which pass defenders are going to be where. The three deep zone defenders will then act as hawks waiting to pounce on mistakes.
Gibbs will also bring only three or four rushers and mix in Cover 4 or another classic three-deep scheme, Tampa-2:
The consistent principles from call to call can help create an understanding for the players on defense on how the system is supposed to work although it does require each player to learn multiple roles within the over-arching structure.
In many ways this is quite a departure from the system Ruffin McNeil used to great effect in the late 2000's which put the same players in the same roles over and over again. The main challenge for the Tech D won't be finding schematic solutions though, but improving their personnel.
David Gibbs and the Tech defensive roster
Offensive coaches often fail to bring much in the way of game planning or oversight on defense and sometimes even structure practices and culture around what suits the offense rather than what results in great defensive play.
Another problem comes from the head coach over-allocating scholarships and superior athletes to offense. If you're an Air Raid coach, your general strategy is to win games by out-scoring the other team and when you design practices or leverage your team's resources accomplishing that aim is often going to be the priority.
The problem is that it's hard to play good defense without having some fast-twitch athletes and overall depth. The first rule of producing good anti-spread defense is to eliminate glaring weaknesses that opposing offenses can isolate and hammer. Next, you want to have some weapons that you can attack with or build around.
Tech may actually be closer to accomplishing step one than you'd assume from their horrendous 104th place finish in defensive S&P in 2014. Their DL features a returning player who's playing a natural role for their skill set at every defensive line position for the first time in a long time while they have two very strong young corners to build around in Justis Nelson and Nigel Bethel II.
You can see Bethel demonstrate excellent deep zone defense here, breaking on the pass and nearly getting a pick-six. He'll fit in perfectly with Gibbs' ball-hawking system:
The main issue is inside at linebacker, nickel, and safety where Tech needs to find a third reliable coverage player to play man coverage on a slot and some tacklers. Deep safety in particular needs a player that can take reliable and fast angles to the football to clean things up when creases open up underneath. They return two starters in JJ Gaines and Keenon Ward but no one in the Tech secondary covered themselves in glory in 2014.
In the meantime, Gibbs will have to rely on generating high numbers of turnovers to end drives and be the difference that allows the offense win shootouts. He has one crucial tool for accomplishing this in rush-end Pete Robertson who had 12 sacks in 2014.
The nature of Gibbs defense, which is to ask every player to perform different roles in creating the main 5-2 Under, three-deep structure, will bring Robertson from a variety of different angles and make him an absolute terror to account for in protection. Another strong season from Robertson combined with better disguise, coverage, and more opportunistic play from the back-end could make for a much improved Raider defense in 2015.
Long-term, the team has scored some major recruiting coups with Hawaii defensive tackle Breiden Fehoko, undersized and underrated Texan linebacker D'Vonta Hinton, stolen Longhorn safety Jamile Johnson, and Ohio State linebacker transfer Mike Mitchell.
If Gibbs is successful in building a defense at Tech that runs to the football, strips ball-carriers, features quality at every spot, and has some great athletes in key places then perhaps Kingsbury could find his own Ruffin McNeil to elevate the program to its highest potential.
If not, then Tech may balk at paying Kingsbury's generous contract through the year 2020 as he cycles through defensive coordinators while finishing in the middle of the pack in the Big 12.