December 21, 2008

Notebook: Rebels' DL presents a challenge

It's becoming a recurring theme for the Red Raiders, go to a bowl game, face a
top-flight defensive front full of future NFL players. In the 2006 Cotton Bowl,
Texas Tech faced off against DeMeco Ryans, Mark Anderson and Alabama. Last
year's Gator Bowl was a showdown between left tackle Rylan Reed and Virginia's
Chris Long.

This year, the Red Raiders' offensive line will have their hands full with
defensive end Greg Hardy and defensive tackle Peria Jerry, both of whom project
to be first-round draft picks in the 2009 NFL Draft.

"They're pretty big guys and, for their size, they're really quick," said Texas
Tech right guard Brandon Carter. "They're good with their hands and they look
pretty strong. I think the best thing about them is that they play really hard,
and there's no better credit than to tell someone that they play hard. We have
our eyes on everybody, but yeah, those two guys are really good and we're
preparing for those guys"

Hardy and Jerry have combined for 14.5 sacks on the season, which is an
astonishing total considering the fact that, between the two of them, they have
missed five games. Thanks in large part to their efforts, Ole Miss ranks first
nationally in tackles for loss and fifth in sacks.

"I've watched some defensive tape on them and their defensive line is really
good," said inside receiver Eric Morris. "They pride themselves on defense down
there in the SEC. They're the only team to beat Florida this year, which is a
great offense, and you know their defensive line is really good. That's what
stands out the most. Our offensive line has a huge challenge, but luckily we
have one of the best offensive lines in the nation and they're up to it."

The Red Raiders' offensive line, which returned all of its starters this season,
fared well against a talented Cavaliers front in January, allowing only three
sacks on 69 passing attempts; Long, who would go on to be picked second overall
in the 2008 NFL Draft, was limited to two and a half tackles.

"There's always that tension we have when we're about to play a good defensive
line," said Carter. "We always practice harder, you know? Really, you have to
bring your A-game. You can't mess up because these are the kind of guys that
will show your weaknesses if you let them.

"We've got to go out there and we've got to prepare for the next two weeks for
these guys and go out there and play our best. These are the kinds of guys that
you can't let up on."

Texas Tech quarterback Graham Harrell, whose success against Ole Miss will
depend a great deal on the performance of his offensive line, has every confidence
in his teammates.

"They've got a great defensive line," said Harrell. "But we have one of the best
offensive lines in the country. They've done a great job the whole season and
the past few seasons protecting me. It'll be a great matchup, that great
defensive line there at Ole Miss and our great offensive line. It'll be a
challenge and it'll be exciting."


While the Red Raiders' 2008 season won't officially end until sometime around
four o'clock on January 2, for most of them, the 15 extra practices allotted by
the NCAA to bowl-bound teams present an opportunity to get a jump start on the
2009 season.

"I think it's a great opportunity for the young kids to get some reps early,"
said Morris. "We've split practices last week and I think it's a time for young
players to get reps and us to kind of see where they're headed into spring and
how they develop their first year here."

What makes these extra practices so valuable for the younger players?

"Just getting more reps," explained linebacker Marlon Williams. "Getting sharper
on their skills and just getting better and developing as a player. I mean, they
get to see reps a lot slower, they get to see more reps and the get to fill out
what they need to work on and get better."

For the program, having underclassmen maximize this opportunity is extremely
important, as in many cases the player in front of them on the depth chart will
be gone next year.

"I think it's a great chance for those guys to mature and to get ready for the
time that they're going to be able to play," said Carter. "It's a time to watch
us and to learn from as many guys as they can because some of these guys are
going to be gone here in about two weeks. So you try to learn what you can and
you work and try to earn your starting position [for next year]."


Offense has been the name of the game in the Big 12 this season, with five teams
ranked in the top ten nationally in both total and scoring offense. And while
Ole Miss is ranked in the thirties in both categories, they present a challenge
offensively that Texas Tech has not seen much at all this year.

"They've got a special run package that we haven't seen from anybody else," said
Williams. "They put like three running backs in the backfield or the running
back as the quarterback and it gives them more options in what they do."

Originally called the Wildcat formation, it is called the Wild Rebel at Ole
Miss. Essentially based on the Wing-T, it features a player (in this case Dexter McCluster) receiving a direct snap and either handing the ball off on a receiver
sweep, faking the hand-off and running off-tackle or faking the hand-off and
passing to one of three receivers.

"It just changes up the game scheme, and just getting different fits for what
they do," added Williams.

Texas Tech's defenders have actually seen a few live snaps of the Wildcat this
season, against Kansas State, as the Wildcats (ironically enough) ran a few
plays out of the formation in the fourth quarter.


Perhaps it is the month-long layoff between the final game of the regular season
and the bowl game, or maybe it is just a testament to the quality of opponents
that they have faced, but Texas Tech has trailed at halftime in their last three
bowl games. While they have come back to win two of them, including the largest
comeback in bowl history in 2006 against Minnesota, fans are certainly hoping
that the Red Raiders shed this trend.

"We focus on starting fast the whole year," said Williams. "That's something we
always focus on. It's been a point to every game, so this game it's the same
deal. Start fast, finish fast. It's up to us as players to make sure that we're
excited, we're ready, we're focused and we come out there and we start full

Though Texas Tech's defense has been much-maligned in the past, it has typically
been the offense that has struggled early on in postseason play. Indeed, in
their last three bowl games, the Air Raid has scored a combined total of 17
first-half points, an average of less than six points (5.67) per contest.

"I think our maturity is going to help us out a lot," explained Carter. "In the
past, bowl games have been seen as vacations and a time for us to go out and
have fun. But with a lot of guys who have had a lot of games under their belt,
they're looking to go out with a win and I think that's all we're really focused
on this year."


"Honestly, I think there's a little bit of conference pride between both of our
conferences. Everyone wants to be the best conference in the nation and it'll be
a credit for whichever team comes out on top. It's been all year long, back and
forth, 'The Big 12 is the best conference,' 'The SEC is the best conference.'
We're going to try to defend our conference because we strongly feel that the
Big 12 is the best conference. But we'll have to find out after the game." -
Brandon Carter, on whether the Cotton Bowl is a Big 12/SEC referendum

"To get to meet President Bush was really special. He's just a laid back, good
ol' Texas boy. It was fun. He's very down to Earth, just glad to be from Texas,
like Mr. Texas. He was fun to be around. He talked about Texas Tech football, he
talked about Ennis football. He knew a lot about where we're from and where
we've been, and he's very knowledgeable." - Graham Harrell, on getting to meet
President George W. Bush last week.

"There's a lot of fun things that go on at bowl games and a lot of activities
that can get you sidetracked, get you off of what you're there ultimately to do.
Coach [Mike] Leach does a great job of keeping us focused and our minds in the right
place. It's something that we'll harp on going down there, that we need to be
flying around, that we need to be excited. We have one goal when we're down
there in Dallas, and that's to win the Cotton Bowl, and we really could care
less about anything else." - Eric Morris, on the excitement surrounding the
Cotton Bowl.

Joe Yeager contributed to this report.

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