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.
6' 3" 230
For the first time since 1995, Texas Tech may—and I emphasize the conditional—have a great linebacker. Zach Thomas, a possible NFL Hall of Famer, plied his trade for the Red Raiders in 1995. Since then, there has been a linebacker drought on the South Plains. Now comes a thundercloud by the name of Will Smith.
Texas Tech football has had several high-profile JUCO busts over the last several years. Marquis Johnson, Sione Havili, Dan Christian, Ofa Mohetau, Myles Wade and Brandon Sesay are just some of the junior college luminaries who were supposed to be game changers for the Red Raiders. Instead, they either washed out or underwhelmed.
Given this history, there probably weren't too many observers who believed JUCO transfer Will Smith would take the program by storm where the others fizzled.
Now we're still very far away from etching the name "Will Smith" in the Ring of Honor. Smith hasn't played a single down of competitive football for the Red Raiders. But he showed enough in the spring not only to become hands down the team's starting middle linebacker, but also to make himself utterly invaluable. Were Tech to lose Smith, it would hurt the team more than the loss of any other player on the roster.
How did a rank newcomer become so critical so quickly?
Basically, he did it all for a defense that needed everything.
Defensive coordinator Art Kaufman has stated that after two practices Smith was ahead of every other player in terms of mastering the defense Kaufman was installing. We do not know if Smith is a future Rhodes Scholar and Phi Beta Kappa, but we do know he is a football sponge.
Smith's football IQ is so high that he naturally grasps what the coaches are teaching. Even more important, Smith can then impart that knowledge to teammates on the field.
The upshot is that Smith's presence should reduce the number of busted plays on defense dramatically. That contribution alone will make the defense considerably better than it was in 2011.
But Smith is not simply a football Heidegger; he also has excellent physical ability.
At six-foot-three, Smith has the height to see over people and scan the field. And what a linebacker can see he can destroy.
Smith is also very fast and athletic. He can get sideline to sideline, and he can make plays in space. As Tommy Tuberville has stated, Smith is capable of making the sort of athletic plays that can turn a game around, and Tech hitherto didn't have such a game-changer, certainly not during Tuberville's first two seasons. And boy did they need one!
What it all boils down to is the fact that Will Smith is the quarterback of a defense that desperately needs a leader and a point d'appui. So much of the defense's improvement depends on Smith's presence. Now it is simply a matter of Smith living up to the reputation he built in a span of six weeks in the spring.