Tech's McNeill excited about leading defense

Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin

Texas Tech is a fashionable choice to emerge as a potential BCS buster as the Red Raiders contend for their first Big 12 championship.

With most of the Red Raiders' offensive weapons back from last season, points shouldn't be a problem. Their hopes to contend will depend on the growth of a defense that struggled in previous seasons.

Tech coach Mike Leach addressed his team's defensive struggles after an early 49-45 loss to Oklahoma State when he fired veteran defensive coordinator Lyle Setencich and replaced him with Ruffin McNeill on an interim basis. The Red Raiders responded to the change by ranking third in the conference in pass defense and leading the conference in pass defense in Big 12 games last season.

After the season, Leach hired McNeill on a full-time basis after the Red Raiders' victory over Virginia in the Gator Bowl. He's begun working with his new philosophy with 10 returning defensive starters and a boatload of impressive junior-college transfers.

Most observers expect the play of McNeill's defense will ultimately determine whether the Red Raiders measure up to their early hype. We caught up with him for a few minutes after he got back from a recent vacation to talk about his plans for his unit.

Your defense showed some great improvement over the last have of the season. What are you expecting from them after a full spring and fall training camp to work with them?

RM: The thing we wanted to do in the spring was to prepare to get us ready for the first two weeks of fall practice. It will still revolve on us playing with sound fundamentals. We're going to be making sure we keep improving on that aspect. And we're also going to keep trying to install some new things. The kids did a good job last season of grasping the things we wanted them to. We kept adding some things. The biggest thing for us will be to keep the kids geared in and focused.

How did the spring go as far in building on what you learned last season?

RM: The kids are comfortable in what we're asking them to do. The spring gave us a chance to slow down and put the concepts in that we wanted. I'm excited after seeing how comfortable they looked in the spring. They had some big eyes and ears and wanted to learn what we wanted them to learn and what we were tossing them. I'm looking forward to continuing it.

Your defense seemed to peak late last season with the season-ending victories over Oklahoma and Virginia in the bowl game. Did that success give you a natural progression to keep building into the spring and the fall?

RM: I think the way we finished really sparked our confidence and it really showed in the offseason. When I took over [as interim coordinator] we wanted to install confidence where they would believe in themselves. I wanted them believe in what we do. There will always be ups and downs, especially in the Big 12. But I was very pleased that we never lost our confidence. We fought through adversity and I was really pleased with that. We've got lots of guys back and after what we accomplished gives us something to build on for this season.

Texas Tech is getting some unprecedented national attention this summer coming into the season. Most prognosticators believe the team's biggest question mark will be the defense. Do you like the feeling of being in the crosshairs as your team tries to capture its first Big 12 title?

RM: I've heard that pretty often (laughing) and we've told the kids about. But there are a couple of things to consider. One is that you hope after you've been here for awhile that there should be some expectations put on us. Secondly, we're not close to being what we could be with our program. We have high expectations we place on ourselves and it works within our program. The crosshairs are not intimidating. I appreciate them. It tells us we have a chance to do some special things if we believe and can focus on the task at hand.

Tell us about the growth of your defensive line, which could potentially be your deepest group you've had since you've been at Tech.

RM: All of our development always starts from the inside [at defensive tackle] and we have a good group there with Colby Whitlock, Rajon Henley, Richard Jones and Chris Perry, who's a transfer from Miami. At the ends, we've got Jake Ratliff back, Brandon Williams. Daniel Howard did a good job. McKinner Dixon came back to us and had a good spring. The depth will help us. I'm very pleased with their progress. It's a young group, but they've really developed. I'm looking forward to seeing how far they've come.

What about the work of Dixon, who was a standout as a freshman in 2005, before he became academically ineligible and had to go back to junior college before he came back?

RM: I can tell a difference in him since he's come back. He's always been a good kid, but coming out with as much publicity as he had [from high school] made for some early challenges. Now, he's making sure everything is settled in his life. Junior college helped him reprioritize his life. It kind of humbled him a little. Not that he was cocky, but he's got things in order now. And he can be a big help for us. He did a good job of bonding with his teammates after he came back. And he did a great job of picking up where he left off on the football field.

And how about Brandon Sesay, who was highly regarded at College of the Sequoias. Will he be a part of your team this year?

RM: He's ready to go. He's in a class this summer and should be ready to go at the end of the semester.

You've been a defensive coordinator twice before with stints at Appalachian State and UNLV. How did those opportunities change how you will get ready for your opportunity at Tech?

RM: I'm very fortunate to have my staff intact. Most of us have been together for four, five or six years and that's really comforting. Knowing we've had a chance to watch film and study together over the years gives us a better comfort level. And these kids know what to expect as a group. Having the staff together, having that continuity and then going through the spring will help us.

Are you approaching this opportunity this season any differently than before? Are you more excited because of all of the high expectations on the program?

RM: The one thing I learned early is to always be myself. I feel comfortable in my situation after being a coordinator two previous times before. I'm really looking forward to it. There's a different excitement that I've got now than I've had in a long time. I'm looking forward to the opportunity.