Tech's underrated defense readies for Sooner challenge

Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin

An old recruiting adage says that college football is more about the Jimmys and the Joes than the Xs and the Os.

Texas Tech's defense is confounding that notion today, taking a group of unheralded recruits and combining them into one of the Big 12's most productive units.

The Tech defense isn't dotted by four- and five-star recruits. The Red Raiders don't consider internet rankings when they are filling in players for their defense.

"We recruit to fit our system," Texas Tech defensive coordinator Ruffin McNeill said. "Coach Leach has always done that and we as a defense are doing it now, too. We go by film only and how we think guys will help in how we play defense."

Starting defensive end Jake Ratliff was an undersized tight end in high school in Lawton, Okla. Nose tackle Colby Whitlock got more notoriety as a state wrestling champion in Noble, Okla., than he did for football. Making his development even more intriguing is that Noble is only a couple of long touchdown passes away from Norman, where the Red Raiders will be playing for a shot at the Big 12 South title Saturday night against the Sooners.

And defensive end Brandon Williams, the Big 12's leader in sacks, was discovered playing defense and rebounding in a basketball game for his high school in Fort Worth.

"He must have weighed about 215 pounds at the time," McNeill said. "(Safeties coach) Carlos Mainord saw him playing basketball and thought he might be able to eventually help us."

After extensive work in college, Williams has blossomed into a 265-pound sacking specialist who has wreaked havoc on Big 12 offenses throughout his career. He's just another one of Tech's underrated defenders who came to the South Plains and got better.

Daniel Charbonnet arrived at Lubbock as a walk-on, mainly because of his friendship with former Texas Tech wide receiver Danny Amendola. He had started his career at Duke as a freshman starting cornerback who got homesick repeatedly losing with the Blue Devils. Charbonnet wanted to come home and Tech provided him that opportunity.

"I was looking around and Tech looked like the best place for me," said Charbonnet, who has combined with free safety Darcel McBath to contribute 11 interceptions this season. "It's worked out well for me. This is a great situation for me."

The Red Raiders' group of defensive overachievers has been the underrated component of a 10-0 team that is off to the best start for Texas Tech since 1938.

The defense almost was an afterthought in some of coach Mike Leach's early teams. But the installation of McNeill has helped them develop into a cohesive unit that meets the specifications of the coach.

"I think the key is more good, solid, overall defense," Leach said. "Just to not have flaws in your defense. Understand the other guy is going to get some yards, and then just outlast them and keep making plays

The little team that could has blossomed under McNeill's tutelage.

After taking over four games into last season -- after Tech was blistered for 49 points and 610 yards in a loss to Oklahoma State -- McNeill has built a defense in his vision.

His mantra is "fast legs and clear minds" and the Red Raiders are playing like it. He jokes that he took his original playbook of concepts and then cut it in half to enable his players to have a clearer understanding of his philosophy.

Over the last nine games last season, Tech was No. 1 in the Big 12 in total defense. This season, the Red Raiders are second and have been especially effective in recent weeks holding high-powered offenses like Kansas, Texas and Oklahoma State well below their averages for scoring and total offense.

"Their defense is playing with almost an offensive style," Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy said.

But the biggest challenge will come this week against Oklahoma, which leads the nation in scoring offense, is third in passing offense and fourth in total offense. Adding to the difficulty is that Oklahoma is 59-2 at home under Bob Stoops.

"You have a lot of confidence, but going to Norman is a tough place to play," Ratliff said. "This is a completely different team. And I wouldn't expect to see much of what they did last year. This will be two different teams going against each other."

McNeill utilizes one of the most basic philosophies in the Big 12. The Red Raiders like to sit back in a zone defense and make opposing offenses go the length of the field to beat them.

With Tech rarely making turnovers on offense and the Red Raiders' potent attack scoring a high probability of the time, it gives the Tech defense a unique advantage. If they can contribute two or three stops during the course of the game, they should be in good shape.

"It's a very good defense and very solid," Oklahoma quarterback Sam Bradford said. "There's lot of zone coverages they use. They try to force mistakes and end drives with their zone defense and don't make many mistakes. We're going to have to be disciplined and take what they give us within our system if we're going to be successful."