Kliff Kingsbury’s turnaround job in 2017 just got a whole lot harder.
After a disappointing 5-7 record this season, Kingsbury finds himself in a position that many thought he never would: a seat that is heating up and in need of a good season to assuage the doubt surrounding the Texas Tech program and his head coaching abilities. Now he will have to search for improvement without his best player.
When star quarterback Patrick Mahomes announced Tuesday morning that he will forego his senior season to enter the NFL draft, it left a gaping hole in the center of the Red Raiders offense. To his credit, Kingsbury was all positive about his pupil after the announcement.
“Our staff is excited for Patrick’s future in the NFL,” Kingsbury said in a statement. “He is a tremendous talent and the sky is the limit for him moving forward. We wish him nothing but the best.”
But one has to wonder if Kingsbury privately wanted Mahomes to come back. Without him, Kingsbury will likely build his offense around senior Nic Shimonek, the Iowa transfer who impressed in limited action backing up Mahomes in 2016.
Shimonek is known as a free-spirited gunslinger around Lubbock, and considering Kingsbury’s offensive history and the slew of playmakers coming back next year, the Red Raiders offense will be plenty productive. However, Kingsbury might have to adjust his play calling tendencies if he wants to keep his team competitive in a Big 12 that is going to be very tough in 2017.
Shimonek threw for 464 yards and six touchdowns in four games as Mahomes' backup in 2016.
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Running back De’Leon Ward flashed promise in his freshman season and Demarcus Felton will also return to the backfield for his junior year, giving Tech two quality running options. If Kingsbury can shore up the offensive line and open up some holes for the two rushers, the Red Raiders might be able to enjoy a more balanced attack than in year’s past. That would not only keep opposing defenses off balance, it would also potentially allow the Red Raiders to sustain longer drives and thus giving their defense more time to rest.
Ah, the defense — Tech’s Achilles heel for the entirety of Kingsbury’s four-year tenure. The Red Raiders were expected to make strides in defensive coordinator David Gibbs’ second year, but it didn’t go as planned. Tech was shredded repeatedly to the tune of 43.5 points and 554 yards allowed per game, both good for last in all the FBS.
They couldn’t stop the run or the pass, they couldn’t force turnovers and they couldn’t get off the field on third down. That isn't a good combination, and the fact of the matter is that they are either going to have to show at least modest improvement on that side of the ball or they aren’t going to win many games no matter how awesome their offense is.
After all, even when Mahomes was doing his thing this past season and leading the nation in total yards and touchdowns, the Red Raiders limped to a 5-7 finish.
Kingsbury and Mahomes were quite the coach/QB duo for the past three seasons.
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So heading into 2017, Kingsbury has his work cut out for him. Even if Shimonek fills in nicely behind center and manages to operate a productive offense, he simply won’t be Mahomes. He won’t repeatedly make Houdini-like improvisational highlights like Mahomes did and he won’t be able to put up more yards and points than the 2016 Red Raiders did.
In other words thanks to Mahomes, there’s nowhere to go but down for the Red Raider offense.
But conversely, there’s nowhere to go but up for the defense. And they must do just that if they want to make a bowl in 2017 and cool Kingsbury’s seat. Linebacker Dakota Allen, who made an impact as a freshman in 2015, is back with the team after being suspended last year. He should pair nicely with Jordyn Brooks, who led the team in tackles as a freshman this season, to form a stout linebacking corps.
The unit will lose several seniors to graduation ¬— including six of the top 10 tacklers in 2016 — but also has a defensive-heavy recruiting class coming in to theoretically fill those slots.
So ultimately, Texas Tech’s 2017 success will come down to if the defense can make strides and if Gibbs can finally teach his players to create turnovers at a high level, which was supposed to be his forte when he came to Kingsbury’s staff from the University of Houston.
The defense was already under some pressure after last season’s futility, and now it will be needed even more with Mahomes’ exit.
Because with Mahomes, the Red Raiders could make only three stops throughout the game and still have a chance to win.