It's all about finesse, huh?
Texas Tech coach Mike Leach hates the F-word. It grinds on him that all these years of work in Lubbock have been compartmentalized into a label. His typical team is involved in yard-gobbling on both sides of the ball, which is good for his offense, rather embarrassing for his defense.
|Rylan Reed and his O-line mates are often left to fend for themselves in pass protection. (Getty Images)|
"Obviously," the 315-pound offensive tackle said, "we're some of the best pass blockers in the nation."
Welcome to Texas Tech's little corner of the Big 12, which has become the WAC on steroids. If you can't score, you can't win. Six teams finished 2007 in the top 13 nationally in total offense (Texas Tech was No. 2). Four teams finished 83rd or worse in total defense; three of those (Oklahoma State, Baylor and Nebraska) were No. 101 or worse. Last one in the end zone please turn out the lights.
If you don't believe the league has adopted Leach's offense-first philosophy, then you must admit it is trying to catch up to it. This is Leach's best team, one expected to challenge for second place in the Big 12 South. At least. But there is also a solid, manly, macho infrastructure in place.
Reed is proud because he and those best pass blockers in the nation allowed only 18 sacks in 763 pass attempts last season. Reed himself gave up one. Leach's outrageously wide splits for his linemen mean they are fighting one-on-one battles on every snap.
"We don't rely on help much," Reed said. "It's mano-a-mano."
After all that beating, jabbing, sticking and moving, please, don't talk to him about guile. Talk to him about stoning All-American Chris Long of Virginia in last year's Gator Bowl (three tackles, no sacks). Talk to him about breaking his ankle in that game and being on crutches for five months. Talk to him about learning to lift weights balanced on one leg. Talk to him about changing himself from a minor league pitcher who once got Barry Bonds out, to a preseason All-Big 12 left tackle.
Talk to Rylan Reed about getting by on guts. Check that, getting by on less guts.
Almost five years ago, Reed came home from the gym, took a couple of bites of food and felt his stomach knot up. Something wasn't right. Doctors probed, tested, stuck a camera into his abdomen through his belly button. And they took their time -- five days -- doing it.
"I didn't get any sleep," Reed said.
Finally, it was decided there would be exploratory surgery. Reed woke up a few hours later and quickly knew two things: 1) Doctors had removed three feet of his small intestine; 2) He had cancer.
|WR||Michael Crabtree||So.||Texas Tech|
|OL||Rylan Reed||Sr.||Texas Tech|
|DL||Ian Campbell||Sr.||Kansas State|
|P||Justin Brantly||Sr.||Texas A&M|
Actually, it was non-Hodgkin's lymphoma and, fortunately, they got it in time. The chemo and recovery gave him time to think. Rylan and his dad Robert had a plan. When Rylan signed that baseball contract, they decided to give it four years and reassess. A mid-90s fastball can carry you only so far if you can't control it.
Coming out of Crossett, Ark., Reed had signed with Arkansas but decided at the last minute to sign with the White Sox. He never rose above Class A ball as a 245-pound pitcher; never gave much thought, either, to that spring training when he got Bonds to pop out.
"There's a pretty big moment," the 26-year-old Reed said. "At the time, I didn't enjoy it as much as I probably should have."
The 2004 season would be Reed's last as a minor leaguer, such as it was. There was little of it left after he beat his illness.
Football was always an option. Before setting off on his baseball journey, Reed had made the White Sox promise they would pay for his college tuition if he ever decided to enroll. It might have been the smartest thing he ever did because right now, Reed might be the nation's most valuable walk-on.
"Basically," one Texas Tech official said, "he's a gift."
Reed came to Lubbock after baseball because it was an up-and-coming program. By that time Arkansas wasn't an option. Neither were bigger, glossier Lone Star programs like Texas and Texas A&M, not for a 23-year-old, 260-pound freshman tight end with a sense of adventure.
"Listen," Leach quickly told him, "you can be a slow tight end or an athletic, fast lineman."
Done. His weight and confidence grew to the point that Reed was dominating as a junior starter. The broken ankle was only a detour. Strength coach Bennie Wylie devised a system where Reed was bench pressing 500 pounds with that one good leg.
In late July, the school put out a press release announcing that Reed had bench pressed 625 pounds, breaking his own record of 565. No records are kept for such things but it seems to be one of the best college benches ever for a football player. It has been an amazing recovery. At pro day in March, Reed threw up 225 pounds 35 times -- again, balanced on that one leg. The NFL combine benchmark is 25.
They gathered around on July 28 -- teammates, coaches -- to root Reed on to the 625. Wylie had been there as an assistant strength coach with the Cowboys when Larry Allen put up 700 pounds. Emmitt Smith thanked him in his Hall of Fame speech. This, though, was something special.
"He is one of the most dedicated guys I've ever been around," Wylie said.
Please, then, don't mention finesse.
|2008 Conference Previews|
|Mountain West||Big 12|
"That put a lot of questions to rest," Reed said. "I'm going to be better than OK. I'm going to be better than last year."
Will the rest of the Raiders?
Offensive Player of the Year
Chase Daniel, QB, Missouri: He sits back there seven yards behind the line of scrimmage and dares defenders to reach him. It doesn't happen much. The Big 12's smartest quarterback and 2007 Heisman finalist returns to go for the whole enchilada. If anything, his weapons are better than they were last year. Jeremy Maclin is a year older and Missouri is three-deep at running back.
Defensive Player of the year
Auston English, DE, Oklahoma: Still getting back from having his appendix surgery, English should be ready for the opener. We'll stick with the league's best pass rusher until injuries knock him out. In nine games -- he missed three with a broken ankle -- English led the league with 9½ sacks last season.
Predicted order of finish (North)
1. Missouri: Bad news for the rest of the league -- the defense is dominating the early drills. You know Jeremy Maclin and Chase Daniel. You will get to know linebacker Sean Weatherspoon and safety William Moore. This is the best Mizzou team ever. Now it's just a matter of how the Tigers handle that fact. It could all turn to dust if Missouri doesn't beat Illinois in the opener. For now, call it 11-1 and a berth against Oklahoma in the Big 12 title game.
2. Kansas: Sure, the schedule is tougher with Oklahoma, Texas and Texas Tech. So what? If I'm Texas, I'm not counting Nov. 15 in Lawrence as a win. The same for Texas Tech on Oct. 25. Point is, Kansas is being dismissed nationally. Better for the Jayhawks, who will finish 9-3 at worst. The linebackers are the best in the Big 12. Quarterback Todd Reesing will be able to run around to make plays in compensating for a rebuilt offensive line.
3. Colorado: The 2007 record (6-7) could be about the same, but the Buffs will be a better team. Freshman Darrell Scott eventually will take over at tailback. George Hypolite could be an All-American on the defensive line. Cody Hawkins needs to see over the line to complete more passes. Last I heard, the 5-foot-11 quarterback hadn't grown.
4. Nebraska: A porous defense doesn't get better overnight just because of a coaching change. Nebraska might be the most overvalued team in the league. Bo Pelini will do great things, just not this year. The season swings on a Sept. 27 home game against Virginia Tech. If Nebraska wins that, swap the Huskers and Buffs on this list.
5. Kansas State: It's like the '07 late-season crash-and-burn never happened. Coach Ron Prince got an extension. Quarterback Josh Freeman is rated one of the top draft choices of '09. There's too much work to do in '08. The Great Juco Experiment (19 signees) is under the microscope. The 'Cats will do well to match last season's 5-7 record.
Who will win the Big 12?
Look for an upset
Total Votes: 20,540
6. Iowa State: The Cyclones showed some spark at the end of the season, but this conference is too good to expect much progress from Iowa State. A case can be made for a winless season. Four games will be the most the Cyclones can win. In an offensive league, the Iowa State O will struggle.
Predicted order of finish (South)
1. Oklahoma: Three key juniors left for the NFL and the Sooners are still the team to beat. The question is, will their heads be into it when it counts? The loss at Colorado (after blowing a 17-point lead) and the blowout in the Fiesta Bowl still are inexplicable. What might be the best offensive line in the country is protecting the nation's most efficient passer (Sam Bradford). There are slight issues with the linebackers but overall there are no excuses. Oklahoma should play in the national championship game.
2. Texas: It seems no one is talking about Texas this year. The 'Horns have embraced the no-respect stance. That's strange at a program with a budget bigger than Lithuania and more talent than Las Vegas. Will Muschamp will take a year (or two) to get his defense to the fearsome level. The offense will have to carry the team if it is going to win the division. Backup quarterback John Chiles will get significant snaps.
3. Texas Tech: This is the nature of the beast in the South. Texas Tech could go 10-2 and finish third. That's exactly what is expected to happen, if only because the Red Raiders don't have a history. They've never won the division. They have to prove it. It's all on Ruffin McNeil's defense, which led the league in pass defense. History tells me there is a clunker coming that will keep Mike Leach from finishing second (or first). Watch out at Kansas State (Oct. 4), Texas A&M (Oct. 18) and Kansas (Oct. 25).
4. Oklahoma State: Mike Gundy is still a man but he is no longer 40. The more mature Cowboys coach recently turned 41. His braying perhaps overshadowed the fact that Okie State has won consecutive bowl games for the first time in 20 years. Still, this is Texas Tech Jr. The Cowboys aren't going to get better unless the defense does. The offense finished in the top 10. The defense was No. 101.
5. Texas A&M: I'm not saying Texas A&M can't finish higher but please tell me how. Mike Sherman is a nice guy and an experienced coach. His hiring still seems kind of strange. Sherman inherits what is perhaps the conference's best backfield -- quarterback Stephen McGee, fullback Jorvorskie Lane and Mike Goodson.
6. Baylor: Art Briles is a great guy and a capable coach. Art Briles should have stayed at Houston and maybe waited a year or two until a better job came along. Baylor is a coach killer. The school had to do something after going winless in the conference. If Briles can pull a surprise or two, maybe the Bears can become respectable, but all that means is he'll be gone in a few years for a better job. By the way, if you're wondering if Kirby Freeman is still alive, the former Miami quarterback transferred to Baylor.