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.
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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 percent effectiveness.
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.