Like any football team, good, mediocre or bad, Texas Tech
has several players whose play will be particularly critical to the squad’s
success. These players, whether by virtue experience, leadership ability, importance
of the position played, depth concerns, or sheer talent, are especially
crucial. They may or not be the best players on the club, but they would be
very conspicuous were they to be absent for any reason. In fact, that may be
the best way to conceive of the critical players—they are the performers
the team could least afford to lose.
With this series, we will take a reverse order look at the
Red Raider football players we consider most invaluable.
5’ 8” 195
Under normal circumstances, running back Eric Stephens would
much higher on this list than No. 14. But the situation in the Texas Tech
backfield is anything but normal.
Stephens, the team’s starter a year ago, is working his way
back from a devastating knee injury sustained against Texas A&M last
season. Stephens’ backup, DeAndre Washington, is
likewise recovering from a knee injury. And Kenny Williams, the team’s power
back, is waiting to hear from the Lubbock DA’s office before knowing his status
for the upcoming season.
The odds are good that all three will be available for the
season opener. But the great unknown is how soon they will return to 100
At the very least, Stephens and Washington will have to
knock off a deep layer of rust. One doesn’t return to Big 12 football at full
stride after almost a year’s worth of inactivity. The physicality and speed of
the game will shock both in the early going.
Then there is the psychological component to contend with.
You don’t just forget traumatic injuries. And the natural response to them is
to avoid the activity in which the injury occurred to begin with.
For some time, Stephens and Washington will fear contact.
They will also not trust their reconstructed knees in the early going. It all
adds up to tentativeness and timidity for some time. And tentative, timid
running backs don’t cut the mustard.
For these reasons, Texas Tech’s ground game probably won’t
be up to par early in the season. Indeed, Seth Doege and the passing attack
will probably have to carry more then their usual load until Stephens and
Washington return to form. The point at which Stephens regains his full
abilities will determine his actual contributions to the team.
Stephens’ abilities, however, are tremendous. Prior to his
injury, he was on pace to rush for well over 1,000 yards. (Texas Tech’s last
1,000-yard rusher was Ricky Williams in 1998.) A healthy Stephens is as good as
any back in the Big 12. His vision and ability to cut sharply without scrubbing
any speed make him a dangerous broken-field runner.
If Stephens can regain his form quickly, not only will he
provide Tech’s offense with a different dimension, he will give himself an
excellent chance of being selected in the NFL draft.