time to develop a cohesive unit in time for Saturday night's game against
No. 5-ranked Tennessee and he doesn't hide the fact that several key starting
positions are up for grabs this fall.
The unranked Red Raiders head into their season opener an unknown commodity.
Dykes begins his 11th season at the helm of the Red Raiders with a squad
high on potential, but somewhat low in experience at key areas.
The early departures of tailback Byron Hanspard and defensive end Tony
Daniels to the NFL have left Tech searching frantically for capable replacements.
Hanspard, the 1996 Doak Walker Award winner, is proving to be especially
difficult to replace. The man who "earned" a 0.0 grade point
average last year, also managed to run for 2,084 yards in his spare time,
becoming only the sixth back ever to break the 2,000-yard mark.
Dykes is having a difficult time searching for a successor to Hanspard.
But the wily coach from West Texas pulls no punches in assessing his squad
for the upcoming season.
"The tailback position is wide open," he says. "Anthony
Malbrough and James Easterling are the two front-runners going into the
season. We will just have to see what happens in a game situation."
Tailback, however, is not Dykes' only backfield concern.
"We don't have an experienced fullback," he said, "so
that is an area of concern for us."
One position set in stone is quarterback, where smooth senior Zebbie
Lethridge returns to direct the offense.
Lethridge is on pace to become Tech's most prolific passer in history.
The second-team all-Big 12 signal caller is arguably the top returning
quarterback in the conference. Dykes doesn't beat around the bush in his
glowing evaluation of Lethridge.
"He has had a great career here at Texas Tech and, I think, the
best is yet to come," Dykes said. "Zebbie is the most fierce
competitor I have ever coached. The quarterback position is definitely
the strength of our football team."
Luckily for Dykes, Lethridge will be throwing to a solid group of receivers.
Donnie Hart, Sheldon Bass and Malcolm McKenzie will be depended upon to
have big seasons for the Red Raiders.
Hart is the leading returning receiver for Tech, grabbing a team-leading
four touchdown passes.
Offensive line also is an area of concern for Tech, where only two,
albeit solid, starters return. Center Jay Pugh and guard Chris Whitney
will be charged with protecting Lethridge and helping the running game
"Offensive line is where the big question mark is," Dykes
said. "People like Jonathan Gray and Steve McFadden have been here
for a year, are very talented, but don't have any experience. We'll have
to see how they do."
Meanwhile, on the defensive side of the ball, things look a little
brighter for Tech.
While the loss of Daniels leaves a large hole to be filled on one end
of the line, junior Montae Reagor, the team's leading returning tackler,
anchors the other end. Seniors Corey Chandler and Cody McGuire are veterans
in the line's interior.
Only Eric Butler returns as a starting linebacker, but there is a good
deal of depth and experience at the position. It's a good thing too, because
departed seniors Robert Johnson (100 tackles in '96) and Ryan Donohue (58)
will not be easily replaced.
Junior cornerback Tony Darden leads three returning starters in the
secondary. The multi-talented Darden has caught, run for and passed for
touchdowns in his career at Tech and, now, has finally settled into the
cornerback spot after originally arriving in Lubbock as a quarterback.
Cornerback Corey Turner and free safety Dane Johnson are solid returning
starters for Dykes.
On special teams, Jaret Greaser will handle placekicking duties and
Jeremy Hernandez returns as the regular punter.
But the key to the Red Raiders' season will be the development of the
running game. Tech returns just nine yards rushing at the tailback position
and the man who collected those yards, Clint Robertson, is still recovering
from a knee injury suffered during spring drills. He also was the conference's
No. 2 kickoff return man last season.
It would not be a surprise if Lethridge ends up as the team's leading
rusher early in the season if the running game falters, a scenario that
Dykes surely would not want to see play out.
One certainty is that Texas Tech will have its hands full Saturday
night in Neyland Stadium.
"We will be decisive underdogs," Dykes said. "We have
everything to gain and nothing to lose."
A realistic approach from a realistic coach.
--> Jamal Lewis, No. 31, incoming freshman and one of the
top contenders for the position of fullback, prepares for the Texas Tech
game. Jeff Oberg
Potential-laden Tech has its hands full
Published: Wed Aug 27, 1997 | Modified: Sat Aug 06, 2005 01:17 p.m.