When head coach McGuire took over at Texas Tech in 2022, he hired OC Kittley to return to Lubbock from Western Kentucky. Kittley was a player and grad assistant with the Red Raiders under Sonny Cumbie and worked with Patrick Mahomes during his time there. After three productive years as OC at FCS Houston Baptist, Kittley set records at WKU with QB Bailey Zappe in 2021, earning the 6th ranked offense in F+ advanced statistics.
I happened to watch that season for a project on the Hilltoppers’ RB coach Locklyn, now at Oregon, and was impressed with, among other things, how analytically driven Kittley’s offense appeared to be when I ran the numbers after charting WKU’s 2021 season – a basic statistical regression showed he cut out plays that weren’t working, leaned into the plays that were, and made smart choices regarding tempo and 4th downs.
Kittley’s uptempo pace and 4th down aggression certainly continued — and if anything accelerated — during the 2022 season I charted at Texas Tech. By some advanced statistical measures this was both the fastest offense in adjusted pace and the boldest in field position adjusted 4th down aggression in the country last year. However, I was surprised that the self-scouting that I thought was so effective at WKU seemed to vanish at TTU, with several examples of plays that Kittley insisted on running over and over despite low success rates, and other plays that had very high YPP numbers only appearing once in a blue moon.
On the podcast, Macon and I discussed Kittley’s playcalling at great length, and he seemed pretty hot about it. I think that ultimately Macon is right and it’s Kittley’s job to manage all relevant factors to produce the best offense he can, but it’s worth noting there were an awful lot of complications during the 2022 season that made it difficult to suss out how exactly playcalling decisions were being made. The most obvious was #12 QB Shough, a former 4-star and transfer from Oregon, getting hurt in the opener and missing most of the season, being replaced with running QB Donovan Smith (who’s since transferred out) and then-redshirt freshman #2 QB Morton during his absence. Other issues included a porous offensive line and wide receivers who sometimes struggled with drops and creating separation.
Shough’s history is complicated. After redshirting in 2019 behind Justin Herbert, he was the starter in the shortened 2020 season at Oregon in the first year of OC Joe Moorhead’s RPO offense. Considering the unique circumstances I thought he performed pretty well, and the film review articles I wrote of his games reflected only some measured criticism of a few incorrect RPO reads that weren’t unexpected (though I thought some in the Oregon fanbase took their criticism too far), so it was surprising to me that the Ducks’ previous staff pulled him in at the end of the year and he wound up transferring out. He won the starting job at Texas Tech in 2021, the final year of head coach Matt Wells’ tenure, but broke his collarbone in week 4 against Texas and missed the rest of that season. He won it again in 2022, but as previously mentioned he was injured and sat out another eight weeks, before taking on a peculiar grab-bag of opponents to end the year.
So for a QB from the 2019 cycle, Shough has had to deal with Pac-12 covid practice restrictions and then two straight years of significant injuries – he’s on his fifth year in college but hasn’t had anywhere near the effective developmental time that usually implies, and the fact that we’ve seen what could be called rookie mistakes in the opener last Saturday didn’t come as a big shock to me. I suppose there’s a possibility he gets pulled for Morton, whose arm talent is astonishing, but in 2022 was constantly making freshman mistakes of a far greater magnitude … I have no way of knowing where Morton’s development is at this point.
From charting and eliminating garbage time and the FCS game, Texas Tech in 2022 had a per-play success rate in the designed passing offense of 39.6% (216 successes vs 329 failures, given the down & distance) across all three QBs, with an average of 6.2 adjusted YPA and 12.5% of passes gaining 15+ yards. Shough’s numbers in isolation are better, though not by leaps and bounds: 42.7% success, 6.6 YPA, 14% explosive.
Against Wyoming in the 2023 opener, with Shough taking every snap, those numbers were virtually identical. That’s not a surprise, since all of the personnel are the same – the coaching staff, playcaller, receivers, and offensive line are all essentially the same people, and so regardless of how tangled the knot is, it’s the same knot. As was the case in 2022, there were precisely four consistently effective pass types that Shough can make in this offense that we saw on Saturday; here are representative examples:
(Reminder – you can use the button in the lower right corner to control playback speed)
- :00 – Multiple quick hitches in the pattern is a staple of this offense, which tends to march down the field with a lot of short plays; here the throw is to top inside target #1 WR Price who’s pretty good about getting extra yardage.
- :09 – This RPO slant pass varies in effectiveness depending on the defense, last Saturday it really ate up the Pokes because both backers bit on it every time and there’s no underneath coverage, and the new FCS transfer #10 WR McCray is a good speedy addition to the inside WR corps, replacing #20 WR Martinez who missed this game for weird reasons.
- :17 – In-breaking intermediate routes like this dig to #9 WR Bradley were far and away the most productive use of his 6’5” frame, he can catch a high ball lofted over the backers without breaking stride while running away from coverage.
- :35 – Throws based on pre-snap reads to the flat were also heavily used by Smith and Morton, but when Shough returned they stuck around in the playbook; this one is to the next leading inside receiver #14 WR White.
Macon and I spent quite some time trying to figure out if this is a playcalling issue or a quarterback issue (or something else) on the podcast, but the bottom line is that throws to the middle of the field are both far more effective and far less common than throws to the sidelines. In 2022, the three intermediate or deep route throws to the middle featured above combined for a 64% success rate and 12.1 YPA, but comprised only 4.5% of meaningful plays. However, throws to the sideline – out-routes, flag-routes, the sideline go, flanker screens – had only a 42.5% success rate and 5.6 YPA, but were 24.1% of meaningful plays.
Whether there’s something wrong with pass protection (both offensive tackles have very poor grades, over 24% per-play error rate, on my tally sheet), receivers getting separation or their hands (I have a 5% drop rate which is pretty high), play design, or the QB(s), ultimately this is a huge mismatch in frequency and effectiveness of inside vs outside passing which is baffling. I thought there was a chance that some of these issues might be addressed over the offseason, but instead every one of them persisted repeatedly in the opener against Wyoming. Some examples:
- :00 – They’re off schedule from taking a sack on 1st down and so should be looking for bigger yardage here, but nobody’s able to create separation in this pass pattern and Shough eventually checks it down unproductively just before the RT lets the three-man rush through.
- :08 – This double-stack formation is pretty close to a dead giveaway that a flanker screen is coming, which I seldom saw blocked well even when they weren’t at a numbers disadvantage vs the defense (which the overhang backer creates here). The new transfer center was also snapping the ball at Shough’s shoelaces all night, and for a QB his size having to scoop it up really throws off the timing of this throw.
- :16 – The back’s not doing a great job in blitz pickup here, but the bigger issue in my opinion is that #11 WR Fouonji hasn’t matched the development of his hands or his footspeed to go along with his natural size advantage at 6’4”, and so he can’t shake the coverage on this comeback or hang onto it when the corner flashes in front.
- :30 – Wyoming’s coverage is busted here – there’s a man/zone confusion – so this ought to either be a free 1st down to Price or touchdown to Bradley. Shough goes for the prize but doesn’t place it very well, though it’s still catchable and uncontested, and Bradley loses the ball before the DB arrives.
The complication for Texas Tech’s offense that’s truly impossible to resolve is the extent to which the offensive line performance constrains the playcalling. To put it plainly: the o-line didn’t grade out very well in pass protection or in run blocking last year on my tally sheet. They’ve shuffled it somewhat, flipping the left and right tackles, moving the center to RG and bringing in a new transfer center, but their performance against Wyoming had identical grades as last year. I think there’s a possibility that the interior of the line could be good zone blockers in the run game, but Kittley isn’t calling those plays frequently enough for me to study the question to my satisfaction (or for it to matter), instead preferring a complex power scheme which requires the tackles and tight ends’ involvement and, simply stated, they can’t execute.
Shough’s record under pressure is a mixed bag. When he returned to the starting position in 2022, he was an immediate improvement as a scrambler over Smith and Morton, and especially in the first halves of games he tends to remain cool in the pocket. But as games go on, the amount of pressure this line tends to give up inevitably gets to him. Last year, 33% of dropbacks resulted in a sack, scramble, or throwaway on my tally sheet, and in raw stats, Texas Tech was 116th nationally in sacks allowed. I thought that played a significant factor in the opener against Wyoming, and the pattern was very similar to what I saw from charting in 2022. Some examples:
- :00 – Pretty effective twist here, the center/LG exchange is late and the RB picks up no one, but Shough properly assesses the open side of the defense and slides out of it for a 4th down conversion.
- :10 – The end drops out into coverage so that’s a defensive tackle who’s beating the LT on the speed rush, and the RT decides to just fling the guy who’s beating him at the QB. I was surprised this wasn’t flagged for intentional grounding, at any rate Shough doesn’t find an outlet before pressure arrives.
- :28 – The center’s getting driven back on this three-man rush but the pocket should be clean enough to climb and find an outlet, whereas bailing into zone with multiple backers in intermediate coverage and eyes in the backfield guarantees a minimal gain. Sliding to protect himself is a good idea but he’s down by rule as soon as he starts it, about 3.5 yards past the line of scrimmage.
- :35 – Shough’s holding the ball too long here, and the RT doesn’t see the late rusher at all. This is the downside of the multiple short hitches pattern without a quick read, it’s just too slow developing for the level of protection this line affords.
On the surface, the Red Raiders’ rushing offense looks simple enough to understand, with modest efficiency and explosiveness numbers: in 2022 they had a 46% per-play success rate on designed runs (158 vs 186), 4.3 adjusted YPC, and 10.5% gained 10+ yards. When these numbers really collapsed against Wyoming last Saturday — to 32% efficiency, 3.3 YPC, and zero designed (as opposed to scramble) runs over 10 yards – it might have been something of a shock, but I sort of expected it might happen due to the departure of their great RB from last year, SaRodorick Thompson, who signed with the Saints.
In 2022, Texas Tech had two primary backs, Thompson and #28 RB Brooks, plus a few backup carries by #0 RB Valdez. There were significant differences in their running styles, with Thompson far more likely to bounce the ball outside of poor blocking by the formation, and Brooks more likely to try and power through it on muscle runs. There was a measurable effect – Thompson bounced on 45.8% of his carries, and produced a successful play on 74.4% of them, while Brooks bounced on just 16.6% of his and succeeded on 38.1% of those. The difference added up to a full yard on their YPC averages, 5.02 vs 4.01.
Against Wyoming, we continued to see Brooks — and to some extent Shough on designed runs – run through contact, and almost all of their successful rushing plays last Saturday came this way. Some examples:
- :00 – The RT is slow to get up to the second level and, as Macon mentioned on the podcast, #80 TE Tharp is just too tall to be an effective blocker with his high center of gravity, so Brooks has to muscle through a lot of contact for this run, but he does it.
- :08 – The new LG doesn’t control his guy at all and he loops around to square up on Brooks, but that’s okay he runs right through him for the 1st down.
- :14 – Towards the end of the game Kittley increasingly turned to Shough running the ball like this QB counter – I was leery every time he ran it last year, coming off two straight injuries, but he’s been great so far (knock on wood). Here he just bowls over the backer.
- :24 – This was always going to be an iso on that last safety that Brooks would have to beat, though he shouldn’t have to do it while carrying the backer the LG is supposed to be controlling at the second level. He does anyway.
I think that issues in the run game contributed to the Red Raiders’ drive efficiency issues in 2022. The defense handed them several short fields, but their touchdown rate when they had a short distance to punch it in was only 37.5%. Furthermore, Texas Tech’s quick tempo belied how many long, unproductive drives they went on, without explosive rushing to close the gap. Their full-field touchdown rate (drives starting on their own 40 or farther back and ending in a touchdown) was only 25.6%, the lowest rate for any offense I charted in 2022 except Bill Musgrave’s at Cal.
It appears that Texas Tech is now without an effective improvisational back, but still the same blocking and playcall issues, and this explains the falloff in their rushing performance last Saturday. If anything, the insistence on ineffective off-tackle gap schemes has intensified since 2022, when they represented a third of all rushing calls but had only a 38% success rate and 3.7 YPC (meanwhile all other designed run plays were 46% successful with 6.4 YPC). Against Wyoming, gap schemes were nearly 50% of runs and were completely ineffective, and the option game had several errors as well. Some examples:
- :00 – This is an RPO give, correct read both times, but the blocking’s not there for the run component. Both the C and the RG have their hats on the wrong side, and the LG is on the ground.
- :08 – The C’s assignment is the backside LB, instead he’s comboing the DT like this is zone, letting that backer run all the way around the formation and catch the back from behind. The pullers get around in time but aren’t clearing their men clean, causing a pile up.
- :16 – There are seven defenders in the box and six blockers so it’s imperative that the back follow his lead, but Brooks picks the wrong gap for some reason, going right into the one unblocked guy instead of left behind the pullers to open grass.
- :23 – This is the wrong read of the unblocked end, he’s stepping down and inside on the back. Shough then tries to block him, which is an odd choice. At any rate the LT is losing the DT and the LG just forgets to get off his chip and block the backer so the inside run was doomed anyway.
McGuire hired DC DeRuyter from Oregon, and the jump in Texas Tech’s performance was enormous – from the 86th ranked defense in F+ in 2021 to 39th in 2022. DeRuyter’s career as a DC and head coach stretches back nearly 30 years, and I studied it extensively for the year he spent in Eugene. Unlike many long-tenured coordinators, DeRuyter has refused to stay still schematically, and so it wasn’t a big shock when I turned on the tape and found that he’d altered structures again to fit the personnel he inherited in Lubbock.
Last year they used a nickel configuration with two big down linemen and two lighter edge players on the line of scrimmage on 88% of meaningful snaps, switching to a three-down bear front and sacrificing the nickel on the remaining 12% of snaps only when the offense went to heavy looks with multiple tight ends. That’s a significant change from DeRuyter’s past use of three-down, one-OLB systems (at first 5-0-5, then a Tite 4i-0-4i front in the last few years). He also extensively made use of the nickelback at Texas Tech more as a hybrid third linebacker with extensive pass rush and edge containment duties, whereas in the past his nickels have been more pass coverage-oriented safeties. The things that haven’t changed in DeRuyter’s scheme are funneling everything to the inside linebackers and really juicing their tackle numbers, a variety of exotic blitz packages often involving the DBs and dropping out the backers or edges, and playing the secondary off in coverage on most downs.
The two most significant interior d-linemen return from last season, and in my opinion they’re the best defensive players on DeRuyter’s squad: #97 DT Bradford and #95 DT Hutchings. Both are super seniors with excellent havoc potential despite also being enormous run stoppers over 300 lbs apiece. On the podcast, Macon and I discussed how unique it is to see guys of their size actually hunt down the quarterback instead of occupying linemen and letting their shiftier teammates do it for them.
It was entertaining last season to watch opposing offenses make the same mistake over and over against this defense, which was to run a typical inside zone scheme against this defensive front with Bradford and Hutchings — as well as several capable rotational players — anchoring it, because they were absolutely immoveable in a straight-ahead contest. On my tally sheet the Red Raiders stopped inside zone running at a 52% success rate last year, and most of their failed defenses were only barely so because the average yardage surrendered on such plays was just 3.6 adjusted YPC.
Last Saturday, Wyoming found out the same thing when they tried their inside rushing attack, and Texas Tech had them pretty effectively bottled up despite some personnel changes at other positions. Some examples:
- :00 – There’s a couple new faces in the secondary I’ll talk about below, they did a pretty good job in perimeter run stopping on the couple of times Wyoming tried it.
- :07 – Nothing doing straight up the middle against these DTs, might as well try and knock the mountains outside the stadium over.
- :14 – Here the Pokes are comboing the DTs, which is a better idea, but they don’t have enough personnel left over to get to the LB and the DB both; the latter is unblocked and makes a solid tackle.
- :26 – A couple of the new backup DTs are in on this play, one’s looking good but the other’s running himself out of the play. The new transfer nickel cleans up, however.
Almost everything about personnel in the rest of the defensive front is different in some way compared to last year, however. The rotational guys on the interior have changed out – two of them, Philip Blidi and Vidal Scott, have left the team, and the third, #6 OLB Cole, moved to the edge – in favor of ULM transfer #5 DL Ledet, sophomore #98 DL Banks, and true freshman #96 DL Washington. The excellent edge Tyree Wilson was drafted in the 1st round by the Raiders and last year’s other edge starter #8 ILB Pierre was moved to the inside backers. Last year’s backup edge #14 OLB Adedire is still a backup behind Cole and Syracuse transfer #7 OLB Linton. Happily they got back former walk-on #3 OLB Ramirez from a gruesome leg injury, but sadly seem to have lost promising young player #17 OLB I. Smith to an ACL issue.
For the inside backers, both of last year’s excellent starters have departed, Kosi Eldridge and Krishon Merriweather. The primary backups both returned, #32 ILB Matthews and #10 ILB Rodriguez, however Pierre took Matthews’ spot as starter when he switched from outside to inside backer, and Rodriguez suffered a foot sprain against Wyoming (right after securing a fumble he forced, awfully) and will be out for a while. Matthews took over next to Pierre for the rest of the game last week, but he graded out very poorly, and by reports (which Macon confirmed on the podcast) they’ll try out redshirt freshman #13 ILB Roberts as starter instead, or perhaps rotate between the two.
In my opinion, despite posting pretty good run defense grades against Wyoming, all this personnel shuffling constitutes a bit of a step back for the defensive front compared to last year. The loss of an NFL talent in Wilson alone virtually guaranteed that, but I also think that the issues at linebacker and the dip in rotational experience on the interior of the line are relevant here too.
I also noticed against Wyoming that, unlike last year, DeRuyter was hesitant to switch out of the nickel and into their bear front when the Pokes put in multiple tight ends – this didn’t matter early in the game when they were mostly passing out of 12-personnel, but later on as the score tightened and Wyoming resumed running, DeRuyter just kept sending constant nickel blitzes and I believe it hurt their rush defense. I asked Macon if he thought that was due to a lack of confidence in the rotational players in the front compared to last year, and he said the staff has expressed a lot of confidence to the media, but I’m not sure I’ve seen it on the field.
The last matter regarding Texas Tech’s rush defense is that it has a tendency to get over-aggressive and run themselves out of the play. This doesn’t really show up on inside zone defense, but against every other form of rushing playcall they faced last year (by and large we’re talking about wide zone, split-flow, and gap schemes since this was the Big-XII plus Houston, NC State, and Ole Miss), their rush defense numbers were actually underwater, with just a 35% defensive success rate and surrendering 6.0 adjusted YPC. Where Wyoming effectively attacked Texas Tech on the ground on Saturday, this was how they did it – not head on, but laterally pinning or washing down the line, or reading and running around them. Some examples:
- :00 – Here’s outside zone against the new guys, Linton as the stand-up end and Banks as the boundary side DT. Pretty smooth sailing, and Pierre whiffs on the tackle.
- :07 – Cutback running was by far the most effective way to run inside against Texas Tech last year. Wyoming never got great yardage with it, but the reader can see how it works on this play, with both Bradford and Hutchings wildly running themselves out of the play thinking that it’s an outside run, only for the back to make a small cut inside and not have to deal with them.
- :14 – Here’s the off-tackle version of the same concept, washing the entire line down by using their momentum against them, which multiple offenses, particularly K-State, used effectively last year. There’s a missed exchange here between Pierre, the other ILB, and the DB stacked over him - someone has to take this lane.
- :29 – This play shows how much the nickel gets used in the run game – here he’s the end man on the line – and what can go wrong if he’s not schematically sound by widening properly on the keep.
In pass defense, there were two main questions I was interested in for how Texas Tech might have changed over the offseason: first, how they replaced departing essential starters Wilson off the edge, inside backers Eldridge and Merriweather in intermediate coverage, and strong safety Reggie Pearson and nickelback Marquis Waters from the secondary, all of whom graded out very well on my tally sheet last year and contributed to Texas Tech’s 54% defensive efficiency rate against designed passing plays last year. The opener provided the answers to those; the secondary got San Diego State transfer #9 DB Baskerville and true freshman 4-star #27 DB Jordan to replace Waters at nickel and moved their dime package player #18 DB Owens into Pearson’s strong safety spot, and I’ve already discussed the front.
The second question was how the cornerback room might evolve. Last year the starters, #24 CB Dunlap and #0 CB R. Williams, had me incredibly puzzled, as every time I thought I had them figured out one way or the other, they’d have a spectacular play – good or bad – and I’d go right back to being stumped. Both of them return, but their backups, Adrian Frye and Kobee Minor, have left the team. Texas Tech has taken two transfers, #12 CB Lux (a former walk-on from Fresno State I’d actually studied before) and #19 CB McCarty who had apparently been dismissed from Baylor; Lux played against Wyoming and indeed got the first snap as Dunlap was dinged up a bit, while Macon told me that McCarty’s transfer has been held up by the NCAA for some reason.
Unfortunately the Wyoming game didn’t provide great answers for that second question. The Pokes didn’t throw a single sideline route against the corners in single coverage, which was the primary area I wanted to see if Dunlap or Williams had gotten better at or Lux had bolstered the unit, and Macon agreed with me that their QB didn’t have the arm talent to really test them on the deep ball at any rate. Improving explosive pass defense is essential to Texas Tech having an improved record compared to last year, in my opinion, since while they did well on an efficiency basis, when passes did connect they tended to go big against these corners – allowing 8.7 adjusted YPA with over 21% of passes gaining 15+ yards. To me, this is the biggest single unknown about the team for the year.
The pass defense we did see against Wyoming went pretty much as expected, with good interior pressure from Bradford and Hutchings and good deep middle presence from returning free safety #1 DB Taylor-Demerson, plus all the exotic blitzing and complex backer drops I’ve enjoyed watching DeRuyter empty the playbook of. Some examples:
- :00 – Here’s a bear front, and the blitz has both the OLBs drop with the ILBs crashing. The QB holds this way too long, more than enough time for Taylor-Demerson to get over and attempt an interception, which Williams breaks up.
- :16 – I don’t know why the QB is locked onto this bomb, Owens has it well in hand. The replay has a nice high angle of the entire coverage structure.
- :34 – This is how DeRuyter’s flexible backer system is supposed to work. The field end wins and forces the early throw, the field ILB as a late insert protects against a draw or scramble, and when the QB goes to the checkdown the boundary end has backed out and is there to make the TFL.
- :42 – Here’s Bradford on the hunt for the QB, forcing an errant throw which Lux breaks up.
There were a few persistent issues in pass defense — besides the cornerback question which is genuinely up in the air for me – from 2022 which I noticed last Saturday against Wyoming. The first is that late last year Wilson was injured and he sat out the remainder of the season to prep for the NFL draft, and in those games Pierre stepped up to help keep the edge rush strong, but there was quite a fall off behind him … so far Cole and Linton haven’t been as productive (the latter’s been playing with a club on his hand), and when the rush isn’t getting home the rest of the defense can be vulnerable to getting picked apart, even when dropping eight into coverage. The other persistent issue is on scrambles, where a wild pass rush will often flush the QB with multiple guys getting through, but a lack of lane discipline frequently lets him out the back door for a conversion – that happened multiple times against the Pokes. Some examples:
- :00 – The QB is showing some happy feet here as there’s no real pressure – Cole and Linton are both having trouble with their bends around the tackles and get shoved to the ground, something that happened all night – but once he takes his eyes down and starts running around the defense should have him. The problem is that they don’t shut the back door, which I saw over and over again last year.
- :16 – This blitz brings both the nickel and free safety, which DeRuyter loves doing, with Linton carrying the back on the wheel down the sideline. That leaves Matthews and Pierre to catch the motion man who becomes the check down, and neither of them have the footspeed for it.
- :33 – No pressure here until Bradford arrives, but that’s relatively late in the down and the ball’s out at that point. Lux tries for the pass breakup against the much bigger tight end, something he was doing way back in 2020 when I was watching his Fresno St tape, and with about the same success.
- :46 – At this point in the game Wyoming is regularly in 12-pers but Texas Tech is staying in nickel and is sending increasingly heavy and interesting blitz patterns at them. Most of them, like this one, didn’t really get through any better than just rushing four, and it left fewer guys in underneath coverage. Dunlap’s beat off the break and has no help underneath, and Taylor-Demerson takes a bad angle on the play.