From Phillip Bobo in the early 90’s, to Shawn Tims and Kevin McKenzie on the Rose Bowl team of 1998, to Jerome Riley and Sammy Moore on the Rose Bowl and Holiday Bowl teams of 2003 and 2004, to the record setting Michael Bumpus, the Cougs have always had a productive and ultra reliable slot receiver for their record setting Qb’s. Bledsoe, Leaf, Gesser, Kegel and Brink all benefited in their careers from these sticky fingered guys that could and would go careening over the middle, making the easy catches look good and the difficult catches look easy.
For the Cougs to get back to their winning ways this year multiple somebody’s have to step up and have a real solid year over the middle. There are more than a few candidates at the positions, including the shifty sophomore trio of Isaiah Myers, Henry Eaddy and Blair Bomber, but while I would really like to see one of these guys step up and produce eventually I can’t say that my confidence is high on them to produce or even see the field much right now. Bennett Bontemps and Gino Simone are my darkhorses to create some production with their experience, but they have faltered in the majority of big game situations thus far in their careers, so I don’t see them as factors either.
The guys that will make a difference in the slot are Bobby Ratliff (who really came on late last season), Andrei Lintz (a new found “toy” in the Leach middle attack) and the redshirt freshman Rohmel Dockery (who possesses a lot of speed and football savvy). Ratliff at 6’2, 194 and Lintz at 6’5, 252 have a rare combo of size and attributes for the position, while Dockery is built for darting into open holes and finding open spaces away from safeties, similar to Sammy Moore in his Cougar days. I wouldn’t say any of these 3 need to have an individual breakout year but as a unit they need to have a very steady breakout-type performance for Tuel to stay ahead, as I imagine they will get a bulk of the workload throughout the season. The mantra for this trio from my perspective is “different guy, every week”, because teams always adjust defensively to the hottest hand in the offense that the Cougs are running.
4: Linebackers must stay healthy.
This item would be higher on the list if the top 3 keys didn’t matter so much in the way of numbers. It’s not looking good at linebacker already, and it’s been well documented as all 3 opening day starters from last year are gone for one reason or another, leaving not only a void but a canyon of depth issues facing the linebacking corps going into the year. The coaches were pleasantly surprised with the learning curve and production of the Lb’s in Spring ball, but the Coug’s have had misfortune strike in the way of a big injury for several seasons in a row now at the position. They only have 5 players that are ready to actually contribute in my opinion, with Oertel, Sua and Monroe being the starters while Long and Markle provide different looks and support via experience. That’s already a real serious problem in a 3-4 defense.
3: Gotta keep “Tuel” out of the shed.
It’s imperative that Jeff Tuel stay healthy this year. The support and general fan excitement for Halliday is warranted due to the incredible performances he put together in his first 2 games. But let’s not forget Connor had the incredible luxury of being a complete unknown and having the defenses he faced preparing for another quarterback as well. I believe that had a direct impact on those performances and I don’t think he could throw up the type of total offense numbers Tuel is capable of if the defense was prepared for him, at least not yet. Jeff is still the unquestioned leader of the team and he has proven his playmaking abilities. Now if he could just stay on the field to use them. Slide Jeff, slide!
2: Breske must conquer the numbers 25, 12, 400 & 43.
I mean the defense of course. New D-coordinator Mike Breske has his hands full trying to piece together a defense that finished 100th in the nation in total sacks (17) and 97th in interceptions (8) in 2011. Overall the defense was 81st, giving up 409 yards per game and 49 touchdowns. The talent hasn’t changed much (except the fallout at LB) so the prerequisite thought is that there won’t be big changes in those number this year. Overall with the offenses of the Pac-12 we simply can’t expect a miracle at this point in time. However, if the Cougs want to go Bowlin’ their aspirations need to exceed expectations and bring the sacks and turnovers up, and the yards per game and total touchdowns down. More than 25 sacks and 12 interceptions. Less than 400 yards allowed per game and 43 tds by the opposition. Improve just that much in those areas defensively and the Cougs will win enough games to make the post season.
1: A Leach running game to help score in the “redzone”.
We all know that Mike Leach will throw the ball an unsavory amount of times, but the Cougs need to be able to run the ball too. In fact all of the successful teams under Mike Leach were able to run the ball enough to at least threaten the defense from time to time during any given game. In 2009 (Leach’s last season at Tech), the Red Raiders only ran for just over 1,000 yards, but the running game still supplemented the passing game because it put up 24 touchdowns. That tied for 34th in the nation and is a big reason the Raiders found success.
Not many teams have the personnel to line up wide and small on their defensive goalline and play the run effectively. Likewise, not many teams can bring in an extra backer and play the masterfully designed routes that Leach throws at you. This is why Leach’s teams are so effective at scoring and where the Cougs must be able to tap the run game for a top 40 finish in tds this season. Carl Winston, Ricky Galvin, Marcus Mason and Leon Brooks have to provide 4 to 5 “big runs” of 8 or more yards per game and find the endzone often with all of the space they will be given. 24 is an average of 2 rushing touchdowns per game, which is something you never think about from a Leach offense. Do that and Tuel’s job gets a whole heckuva lot easier.