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What’s next for Kliff Kingsbury and Texas Tech?

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NCAA Football: West Virginia at Texas Tech Michael C. Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

Through eight games, Pat Mahomes has thrown for 3519 yards at 8.8 yards per pass with 28 TDs and 7 INTs. If you remove his sack yardage (sacked 20 times for a loss of 173 yards), he’s run the ball 75 times for 449 yards and 10 more TDs.

He’s on pace to finish the year with over 5,000 passing yards, 500 rushing yards, and 50 total touchdowns. It’s been a brilliant performance that has put eight different Tech receivers over 200 receiving yards and has the Red Raiders currently ranked seventh in offensive S&P. The wear and tear of carrying the Tech offense every Saturday has Mahomes playing through a bad shoulder, but even with that ailment he dropped over 800 total yards on the Oklahoma Sooners, leaving Oklahoma DC Mike Stoops completely shellshocked...

It took 88 passes and 12 carries to get there, but Mahomes managed an amazing performance in that game. It just wasn’t enough, because in addition to being ranked seventh in offensive S&P, Tech is also ranked an abysmal 118th in defense. They fell 66-59 to Oklahoma in a game that serves as a nice microcosm of their whole season.

Tech will probably finish the year somewhere in the vicinity of 6-6 despite featuring the greatest QB their program has ever seen leading his second consecutive top 10 S&P+ offense. The Red Raider offense could conceivably improve and get better in the future, as great a talent as Mahomes is it’s not impossible that Kingsbury could develop another skilled athlete into a legendary Air Raid QB (he’s already done it twice) while also fielding better talent at the other 10 positions on the field.

But it’s clear that this program will never leverage the tremendous advantages they get from the offensive machine Kingsbury has built until they shore up this defense that’s so bad just about any team in the country can exploit it.

Life after Mahomes

Kingsbury learned well from Mike Leach how to keep his offensive roster going with players that can thrive in his system. Texas Tech always has a revolving door for tall, wide OL with quick feet that can pass set and be “obstacles” in either the passing game or the run game, shifty slot receivers that can wreak havoc in space, and a few big targets on the outside to help keep the chains moving.

The Raiders were fairly young across the OL this year and should return as many as four players that started multiple games in 2016. Their WR corps will take a hit but also returns most of the top targets. Their biggest question mark is at QB. This offense goes from being a perennial top 30 unit to a potentially top 10 unit based on how much value-add they get from the skill set of the QB.

Mahomes adds three dimensions to their offense that your typical Lubbock Air Raid QB doesn’t always bring to the table. The first is an ability to hit windows downfield and outside the hash marks which reduce the effectiveness of quarters coverage bracket techniques since modern coverages usually leave at least one cornerback on an island. NFL arm strength in a spread QB is typically pretty lethal.

The second is his running ability, his first few steps are really quick and at 230 pounds he’s a pretty fearless and physical runner. Finally, there’s the way he combines his mobility and arm strength with poise to create off-schedule opportunities for their offense with the scramble. When the QB can beat the blitz with his legs and then throw over your head or to the opposite hash, there’s not a ton you can do. Just ask Mike Stoops.

The Raiders’ two main quarterback options next year are Iowa transfer Nic Shimonek, a big Texan native who looks like he stumbled onto the gridiron looking for a hockey tryout, and redshirting freshman Jett Duffey.

Shimonek has been very effective in his snaps this season and would be a fairly unique QB for the Red Raiders. He’s pretty big at about 6-3, 220 and all that size comes with an arm that’s a bit stronger than some of the QBs that have had success at Lubbock in the past. He throws with nice touch and knows where to send the ball in this system but he doesn’t have anything close to Mahomes’ mobility or ability to fling the ball down the field from multiple arm slots. Maintaining an elite offense with Shimonek at the helm would require finding some big time receivers to help him out but they wouldn’t slip too far with him at the helm either.

Jett Duffey is the future of Red Raider football, but that future probably begins in 2018 after Shimonek graduates. He’s fast, faster than Mahomes even with a 4.23 shuttle and 4.69 40 at the NFTC event after his junior year. Duffey also has a pretty strong arm and is comfortable looking downfield and flicking bombs to receivers pulling away into open grass while on the move.

With some seasoning under Kingsbury in making Air Raid progressions in the passing game, Duffey figures to be able to bring some extra value to the system with off-schedule playmaking and a “plus one” advantage in the run game running the zone read play.

There’s no reason to believe that Kingsbury can’t keep this machine rolling at Tech and potentially field his next great QB relatively soon whenever Duffey is ready to go. The question is whether he can get this defense on track to afford himself the time to reach the Duffey era.

Defensive option #1: Keep pouring coal in the turnover train

The David Gibbs era at Texas Tech has not gone at all according to plan. The goal of his system is to focus first and foremost on creating turnovers which philosophically would seem to meld perfectly with Kingsbury’s desire to win shootouts with his offense.

If you’re scoring tons of points very efficiently every week and your defense is focusing on giving you extra possessions then you will tend to come out ahead. However, Tech is -5 in turnover margin this season and had a negative margin in 2015 as well.

The Raiders can’t stop the run, which is normally an essential part of forcing an offense into situations where they have to throw the ball against prepared coverage. These are all troubling signs for Gibbs and his chances at being retained by Kingsbury, particularly if the head coach is under fire for his own job.

However, if Kingsbury is looking at 2017 as a make or break year for his tenure at Texas Tech then he has to weigh the risk of starting over against the possibility that Gibbs could finally realize break through in year three.

For instance, Tech’s 4-2-5 starting lineup features five seniors mixed in with five sophomores and a sole junior. Up front in particular the Red Raiders have redshirt sophomores at both DE spots, at DT, and two of the three LBs they tend to play are underclassmen as well. The top three tacklers on the team are those two LBs and a sophomore safety.

It’s not hard to see the Tech run defense improving in another year under Gibbs’ direction as they continue to coach up these youngsters, develop better conditioning and greater size, and get more depth into the program to allow them to survive the grueling shootouts their offensive strategy subjects them to.

The question for Kingsbury though is whether he still believes in the turnover strategy or in Gibbs as an overseer of talent acquisition and development. If not, they could go down another path in an attempt to salvage the defense in time for the 2017 season.

Defensive option #2: The Baylor path

Gibbs tends to be as schematically complex as he can get away with since confusing the QB is an essential part of his strategy. They’ve been simpler up front this year at Tech but they’re mixing in a lot of coverages on the back end with their veteran secondary. The Big 12 is all about simplicity though and offenses such as Tech’s own are looking to use pace, spacing, and option tactics to allow their offenses to execute at a high level while marching up and down the field.

Matching these offenses requires that the defenders be able to also play simple, assignment-oriented football so they can be aggressive and execute team concepts.

Over the last six years Baylor has posted the following S&P+ defensive rankings:

2011: 95th

2012: 60th

2013: 21st (won B12 title)

2014: 39th (won B12 title)

2015: 65th

2016: 19th

Their DC Phil Bennett has focused on nailing down their 4-2 Over-quarters defense and adding versatility and tweaks that are built on a very simple schematic foundation. What’s more, he’s done it all while coinciding with an up-tempo practice format and offense. Is this the best practice for pairing a defensive strategy with an explosive offense?

Bennett himself may be available next year after Baylor inevitably cleans house and starts over with a new staff and Kingsbury could pursue him as a replacement to Gibbs, although Bennett will likely have better offers. But if not Bennett, perhaps Kingsbury should seek to make a hire who can implement a simpler approach to defense that’s geared around getting kids to play fast. Particularly a hire who’s shown he can do so while coexisting with an up-tempo “let’s win shootouts” style of offense.

His predecessor Mike Leach did so by hiring Ruffin McNeil in the late 00’s and was rewarded with decent defense and more wins. This has always been the biggest challenge for Air Raid teams, finding a defensive approach that can coexist with the offense. Kingsbury took an interesting chance on Gibbs’ strategy but 2017 is a make or break year for Tech and with Mahomes nearly certain to be in the NFL it’ll be on the defense to pick up the slack.

Texas Tech fans should probably sit back and enjoy the Pat Mahomes era for what it is, perhaps even rooting for the 5,000-500-50 statistical triumph as a means to enjoy a middling season. The not too distant future is going to require some adjustments though in Lubbock or Kingsbury’s run of dominant QBs won’t be allowed to continue.