Texas Tech is the most balanced it's been in years. Does that make them Big 12 Championship contenders?

Liz Parke

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Tony Bradford Jr. saved his best performances for his senior season in 2022. The Texas Tech defensive tackle was a consistent nuisance for opposing quarterbacks, notching a career-best nine tackles for loss and 5.5 sacks while leading Big 12 interior linemen with 35 pressures. The campaign launched him onto NFL radars, but before deciding whether to use his final year of eligibility at Texas Tech, he had to talk with head coach Joey McGuire.

The Red Raiders were coming off an 8–5 season and their first winning conference record since 2009, but Bradford Jr. quickly realized they could have even more success if he came back to lead the defensive line.

"We had a great conversation, and what a mature young man to understand how much this University has done for him," McGuire said. "That was one of the things we talked about, was there were more things he could do for Texas Tech."

The truth is, it actually would've been tougher to leave "Mrs. Debbie".

McGuire and his wife, Debbie, open their house to a different Texas Tech position group every Thursday for dinner. Coach McGuire usually sets up camp on his back porch or in his upstairs game room to kick back and talk about life with his players. But when they hosted the defensive line, the coach sat on the porch collecting mosquito bites, waiting for the guys to join him. Finally, he poked his head in the door to ask why no one was coming out to eat with him, only to find the entire group elected to stay inside and eat with his wife.

Two of Debbie's favorites, Bradford Jr. and nose tackle Jaylon Hutchings, were one of just three FBS duos to each record 30 pressures. They represented Texas Tech on Thursday at the Big 12 Media Days in Arlington, a sign that Texas Tech's style of Air Raid football paired with porous defense is shifting into a more complementary brand. The Red Raiders held opponents to under 30 points per game for the first time since 2009. Edge rusher Tyree Wilson became just the second Texas Tech defender in the 21st century to go in the First Round of the NFL Draft when the Las Vegas Raiders selected him seventh overall. And while McGuire says he'd take Wilson and his 14 tackles for loss last year back in a heartbeat, he's confident they've revamped their roster to offset his loss.

"Don't throw anything at me, but I think we're actually better in that room," McGuire said.

Six-foot-6-inch Myles Cole is first in line to replace Wilson and showed promise after switching to defensive end midway through last season, notching two tackles for loss against Ole Miss in the Texas Bowl. After four years at Syracuse, Steve Linton transferred in this offseason to play outside linebacker. McGuire and his staff feel both are future NFL players, which could continue a trend for defensive coordinator Tim DeRuyter, who coached Tyree Wilson last season and Kayvon Thibodeaux in 2021 when he was Oregon's defensive coordinator.  

"It shows the importance we're placing on that side of the ball, but it also shows Tim DeRuyter's defense," McGuire said. "He's had back-to-back number one Draft Picks at that position. If you want to play at a high level, play great football and have an opportunity to play in the NFL, you come to Texas Tech and play outside linebacker."

The secondary was Texas Tech's defensive weakness last season, ranking 103rd in the nation and allowing opponents to complete almost 60% of their passes. But DeRuyter's squad brings back four of five starters in the backfield, headlined by rangy 6-foot-3-inch corner Malik Dunlap, an All-Big 12 Second Team pick, and free safety Dadrion Taylor-Demerson, who led the team with three interceptions. The Red Raiders also dipped into the transfer portal to bring in former Baylor safety AJ McCarty, Fresno State's Bralyn Lux and San Diego State's C.J. Baskerville. McGuire is particularly excited about Baskerville, a former Richland High School standout who will serve as a hybrid safety and outside backer at 6-foot-3-inches, 210 pounds. 

Texas Tech is a dark horse pick In the perpetually unpredictable Big 12, where the last two teams to win the conference were picked seventh and eighth, respectively. There's a $220 million renovation to the football facilities in progress. McGuire rolled into Big 12 Media Days with pirate skulls inside his jacket, a tribute to the recently passed Mike Leach, Tech's head coach the last time expectations in Lubbock were this high for an upcoming season. That was over a decade ago.

"I know this is going to be coach speak, but we really do have to handle the expectations that maybe a lot of guys on the roster have not had before," McGuire said. "We've got a really good opportunity to be a really good football team."

But if they're to reach their potential, the offensive line has to be better. Texas Tech rotated through three different quarterbacks last season because none of them could stay healthy behind a unit that ranked 112th in the nation in sacks allowed per game. The Red Raiders have reshuffled their personnel to find an answer. Returning starters Monroe Mills and Caleb Rogers have flipped tackle spots. Western Kentucky transfer Rusty Staats is penciled in at center so Monroe Mills can return to his natural home at guard. McGuire is excited about another former Hilltopper, Cole Spencer, who missed all of last season due to injury. 

If the offensive line can improve, a unit ranked second in the Big 12 in total offense could be dangerous in 2023. Tahj Brooks led the team in rushing each of the past two years splitting reps with the departed SaRodorick Thompson and now assumes the full-time role. He spent the offseason practicing with Josh Hicks, a trainer for former Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott, to improve his elusivity instead of relying so heavily on the truck stick. McGuire said despite staying at 230 pounds, Brooks has remade his body composition so he can be featured on every down. Offensive coordinator Zach Kittley also installed more two-and-three back formations in the offseason so the Red Raiders could get intriguing prospects Cam'Ron Valdez and Bryson Donnell on the field at the simultaneously.

“Kittley is a mind thinker," Brooks said. "Anything that he sees around college football, either in the run game or the pass game for the running backs, he’s going to apply that. Even this spring and this offseason he’s been going through a lot of things to try to get the running backs the ball more.”

Quarterback Tyler Shough earned the starting nod after spring practice. Injuries have hampered his impressive 8–1 starting record in two seasons at Texas Tech, but the sixth-year quarterback enters 2023 with the same offensive coordinator for the first time in his career. McGuire credits Shough for displaying NFL-level preparation that provides an example for the rest of the team, something Shough picked up in Oregon, where he backed up Justin Herbert for two years. His high football IQ has allowed Kittley to expand his offensive play-calling. 

"There’s a lot more diversity to what we can do and some more complex plays we can get into I feel like with a lot of our older guys being really comfortable with the offense," Shough said. "We can get into some different, crazier plays or some more complex formations and motions.”

Texas Tech has the veteran leaders and a favorable schedule that granted them home games against Big 12 Championship game teams TCU and Kansas State on its side. McGuire's debut season in 2022 put the Red Raiders ahead of schedule in 2023 and firmly in the hunt for a conference championship. His high-energy attitude has already rubbed off on his players, and it's also starting to permeate throughout the fan base.

"He brings that energy, that ‘It Factor’ that most coaches don’t have," Brooks said. "Every workout, every practice, every team meeting he’s going to come in hype. Even if students are having a bad day, he’s going to put a smile on your face. As soon as you enter the building, he’s going to ask what’s wrong. He’s got an open-door policy. It’s a guy that you want to win for.”

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