Defensive Coordinator David Gibbs returns sophomore end Eli Howard and junior tackle Broderick Washington to a line that has to replace nose tackle, Mych Thomas. Howard led in sacks with 5.5. The 295lbs Washington notched 36.5 tackles and two sacks. Look for 315lbs sophomore Joseph Wallace to take over at the nose. Ends Tony Jones and Lonzell Gilmore are pass rush specialists while backup tackles Nelson Mbansor and Nick McCann provide depth.
Senior weak-side linebacker Dakota Allen, an NFL prospect who earned second team all-conference, returns after leading in total tackles with 102. He teams with junior middle linebacker Jordyn Brooks who finished with 69.5 tackles and an interception. Backup sophomore Riko Jeffers is a big 6’2 245-pounder who will rotate in after notching 19 tackles.
Four out of five starters return in the secondary led by senior safety Jah’Shawn Johnson who finished second with 97 total tackles. Junior nickel back Justice Parker, second team all-conference, returns after leading in interceptions with four including a game-clincher in an upset win over Texas. Sophomore corner Damarcus Fields, 44.5 tackles and seven pass breakups, teams with junior Desmon Smith, 27 tackles and one interception, who takes over at the other corner. Senior safety Vaughnte Dorsey, 49.5 tackles, and one interception round a unit that must cut down on penalties and yards after allowing 282.2 yards a game, eighth in the conference and 123rd in the country.
New Offensive Coordinator Kevin Johns, formerly of Western Michigan, employs more of a read-option scheme with his offenses finishing 26th or higher in rushing yards the past three seasons. That won’t stop them from passing. The hope is that either junior McLane Carter or sophomore Jett Duffey, two of the most athletic quarterbacks they’ve had in a while, can provide enough of a running threat to make the offense work. Duffey is the fastest of the two but several off-the-field issues hurt his stock. Carter, 259 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions, started the Texas game only to be benched in favor of an injured Nic Shimonek who led the comeback win. Neither one separated themselves in the spring.
The new offense by design should improve a run game that finished sixth in the conference and 94th in the country with 140.9 yards a game. Leading rusher Justin Stockton departs, but senior Tre King is more than capable of being the lead back after running for 623 yards and five touchdowns as a backup. 235lbs junior college transfer Desmond Nisby added 273 yards and seven touchdowns on 62 carries sees an increased role. Sophomore Da’Leon Ward returns after missing last season due to off-field issues. He ran for 428 yards as a true freshman. The ground game is counted on to help score more touchdowns in the red zone after punching it in 69 percent of the time, 126th in the country.
The switch to a slightly balanced offense helps ease the loss of top receivers Keke Coutee, Dylan Cantrell and Cameron Batson who had the game-winning touchdown catch against Texas. Coutee and Cantrell were NFL draft picks. Along with departed Derrick Willies, they lose 70 percent of their receiving yards and 71.4 percent of their receiving touchdowns. 6’6 sophomore TJ Vasher is the leading returning receiver with 29 receptions for 545 yards and six touchdowns on a solid 18.8 yards a catch. 6’5 junior Antoine Wesley is a likely starter finishing with 10 receptions for 137 yards on 11 targets. Oregon State graduate transfer Seth Collins is likely to start along with senior JoJo Robinson who had two receptions last season. Look for 6’5 true freshman early enrollee Myller Royals to see action after a strong spring game.
The line is the strength of the offense returning all five starters who started 11 straight games at the same position. Sophomore guard Jack Anderson was solid as a true freshman and anchors the line. He teams with junior Madison Akamnonu and senior Paul Stawarz at center. A pair of juniors, Travis Bruffy and Terence Steele, return at tackle. If they can improve the run blocking the offense has the potential to surprise people.
Special teams was a sore spot last season after four kickers made 12-23 field goals including critical misses in close losses to West Virginia and Kansas State. Senior Clayton Hatfield, a preseason first team all-conference pick a season ago, is healthy after dealing with nagging injuries last season. Senior punter Dominic Panazzolo averaged 41.4 yards a punt with 16 downed inside the 20-yard line but needs to work on consistency after multiple shanks last season. Senior receiver De’Quan Bowman is likely to replace Coutee and Batson at returner.
After multiple seasons of fast starts, including 4-1 last season, Kingsbury has to find a way to finish a season strong. Facing SEC foe Ole Miss in Houston is an interesting season opener. They beat the last SEC team they played Arkansas 35-24 in 2015. A rough three-game stretch against OSU, West Virginia and TCU does them no favors. The last two games, at Kansas State and Baylor in Arlington, might decide Tech’s season and Kingsbury’s job. They are 51-50 since the end of the Mike Leach era.