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January 6, 2010

Yeager: Raiders' rocket primed, needs pilot

It really should come as no surprise that Texas Tech's vacant head coaching position is drawing interest from numerous high-profile coaches. Guys like Tommy Tuberville, Art Briles and Kevin Sumlin are not dummies. When they look at the program that Mike Leach has left behind, they do not see a wreckage-strewn disaster. Rather, they see a rocket that is fueled and primed for blast off.

The Red Raiders who return for 2010 are an impressive bunch. And they will be augmented by a talented, well-selected group of newcomers if the current recruiting class holds together.

But it's not only the returning players who make the Texas Tech job so attractive. It is also the facilities, the fan support, and the tradition of winning consistently that make the Tech post a true plum.

Jones AT&T Stadium now seats over 59,000 people and will very shortly expand to a capacity of more than 60,000. The west side of the stadium is already an aesthetic showpiece and the east side will match it in due course. Tech's football stadium will never seat 100,000-plus like that place down in Austin, but it will soon hold its own in the eyes of all but the most starry-eyed recruits.

But more important than the stadium itself is the fans who so often turn it into such a hellhole for the oppo. Red Raider rooters have always been a rude and brutal bunch, but where 40,000 was a typical turnout 15 years ago, 55,000 is closer to the norm now. Forty-thousand gonzo Red Raiders was maybe just supportable. Fifty-five thousand babbling loons painted up like The Joker is more than most people can stand.

The point being that Jones AT&T Stadium and its fans provide a home-field advantage superior to the vast majority of venues that are considerably larger. Prospective coaches are well aware of this fact and they consider it a huge plus.

And then there is the winning culture nurtured by Spike Dykes and fortified powerfully by Mike Leach. Over the course of the Spike Age and the Mike Moment the Red Raiders are 166-110-1. Moreover, Tech didn't have a single losing season during the 10 seasons Leach coached at Tech.

One could go on at length with impressive facts and stats to prove the strength and durability of the Tech program, but there's no need. It's self-evident. The Red Raiders expect to win and they usually do. The incoming coach, therefore, will not have to build self confidence and teach his players how to win. They already know their way to the good side of the scoreboard.

And speaking of those players, Tech's next coach will have some great material with which to work.

Assuming the head man wants to throw the sling the ball around the yard a little, he'll have a couple of talented, experienced fellows who know how to do just that. Taylor Potts, the 2010 Alamo Bowl Offensive MVP, was the starter for most of the season and he put up some pretty big numbers. But he also got banged up quite a bit, and when he did, Steven Sheffield proved to be a dynamo off of the bench. In fact, when healthy, Sheffield was basically unstoppable.

The ground game will be in equally good shape as the quarterback position. In Baron Batch and Eric Stephens, the Red Raiders will boast backs who combined for 1,138 rushing yards, 16 touchdowns and a 5.3 yards per carry average.

The receiving corps also returns almost completely intact. Freshman All-American Alexander Torres led the team in receptions with 67, but Detron Lewis, who had a marvelous game in the Alamo Bowl, was right behind him with 65 grabs. Tramain Swindall, Austin Zouzalik, Lyle Leong and Jacoby Franks, all major contributors in 2009, return in 2010.

The offensive line will also be a very solid group. The Red Raiders do lose an All-American in guard Brandon Carter, a good center in Shawn Byrnes and starting right tackle Marlon Winn, but everybody else, including backups who played extensively, return from a group that played better as the season went on. The youthful trio of Terry McDaniel, Lonnie Edwards and LaAdrian Waddle have talent to burn. Justin Keown is a highly competent center and Chris Olson is a valuable jack of all trades.

Defensively, there is work to be done up front where Tech loses three magnificent defensive ends in Brandon Sharpe, Daniel Howard and Rajon Henley, not to mention underrated tackle Richard Jones. But nose tackle Colby Whitlock returns and the remainder of the defense should be lights-out.

In Brian Duncan, Bront Bird and Sam Fehoko, Tech will field a stout trio of linebackers. Duncan should be a preseason All-Big 12 selection. Depth, however, will be a concern.

Freshman All-American Cody Davis should continue to develop into one of Tech's all-time greats at safety, and Franklin Mitchem will be alongside to contribute as well. LaRon Moore should contend for All-Big 12 honors in 2010, and in sophomores Will Ford and D.J. Johnson, Tech has a pair of young defensive backs with supreme talent.

Special teams also look good with the steady boots of Matthew Williams, Ryan Erxleben and Donnie Carona returning to handle field goals, punts and kickoffs respectively.

In short, if Texas Tech can find a few good defensive linemen they will be a top-20 caliber team on paper. And what coach in his right mind wouldn't want to put his hand to that?


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