Kliff Kingsbury’s first season as coach at Texas Tech featured plenty of superlatives. The Red Raiders got off to a torrid start and jumped into the top 10 of the polls. Then, after opening 7-0, Texas Tech nosedived with five straight losses to close out the regular season.
Nobody is focusing on the losing streak anymore, though. Not after the Red Raiders hammered Arizona State in the National University Holiday Bowl in one of the biggest upsets of the bowl season.
As he prepares for the opening of spring practice, Kingsbury took time to speak with ESPN.com about the impact of that bowl win, his incoming recruiting class and the unexpected departures of quarterbacks Baker Mayfield and Michael Brewer:
What was the biggest need you wanted to fill in this class?
Kingsbury: We felt like with the starters we were losing on defense, we needed immediate help on that side of the ball. This was a defensively heavy class. We have several jucos who can make an impact right away. That was the biggest deal, finding instant impact defensive players, especially defensive linemen to shore up our run defense, which really cost us during that five-game (losing) stretch. I felt like we did that.
How did you get Nigel Bethel II (ESPN 300 cornerback) all the way from Miami?
Kingsbury: It was huge. That was a relationship (cornerbacks coach) Kevin Curtis had worked on. He stayed with it even after Nigel committed to Miami. He was a Miami kid, but when he came out to a game, he loved the atmosphere and enjoyed the visit. We played up the fact that we play in a conference that throws more than anyone. We play a lot of man coverage, where you can do your thing. He was excited about getting a chance to do that in the Big 12.
What drew you to your quarterback in this class, Patrick Mahomes?
Kingsbury: He has that playmaking ability. He’s a winner. When you watch his games, he refuses to lose. If it’s fourth-and-8, he’ll run for a first down. He’s still raw at the position, having played three sports his whole life. He hasn’t just focused on football. But we feel like in our system, his mechanics will improve. He’s just scratching the surface of the quarterback he can be. You can’t teach his playmaking ability and ability to extend the play. He’s a fun player to watch.
Mahomes is also a pretty big baseball prospect. What is the plan if he gets drafted high?
Kingsbury: If he’s that type of prospect, and the money is such, we want him to do what’s best for his family and his career. But I know he wants to play college quarterback, and that’s his intention right now. We’ve brought in some walk-on kids, and we’ve had success with that in the past. I feel like even if we don’t have a bunch of scholarship guys, we have depth at the position.
How was pursuing this recruiting class different from your first one at Tech?
Kingsbury: When we came in late last year, everything was more on blind faith. We had to tell kids what we were going to be, what was coming. At least we had a product this year they could see. They could watch our games, see our coaches, see our stands, see our uniforms. We actually had a product to sell. The reception has been good. They see we’re here with a purpose, that this university is something special to us.
How critical was the bowl win to changing the tenor of the offseason?
Kingsbury: It was huge. We knew during that stretch we didn’t play good football. We had minuses in turnover margin and all the penalties. We didn’t play our game. But for an entire month, we focused on what got us to 7-0. Really got back to the basics. We didn’t let (the players) go home. And they bought into it and worked hard and wanted to win the bowl game. And they did. There’s a different vibe around this facility, and everyone is excited about starting spring ball.
Especially in light of his bowl game performance, how good can Davis Webb be for you?
Kingsbury: The success he had in that bowl game against one of the top defenses showed what he can be. He endured not being named the starter, battled, and worked to be the starter. When his opportunity came, when his name was called, he made the most of it. He has a tremendous skill set, and without having any competition this spring to push him, it’s on him to see how good he can be.
Where can he improve the most?
Kingsbury: The biggest thing with Davis was just the big mistake throughout the game. The three-four plays he made that you just can’t make. You can throw for a bunch of yards, but it’s those three-four catastrophic plays you’ve got to avoid. But he’ll get there. That comes with growing up and being a true freshman.
You’ve had two quarterbacks (Mayfield and Brewer) leave since the end of the regular season. Is there anything you would have done differently with them?
Kingsbury: No, I wouldn’t. I feel like I’ve always had great relationships with all the quarterbacks I’ve coached. Unfortunately those situations didn’t work out. I had great relationships with them. I think if you asked them, they’d say they enjoyed playing for me. For some reason, it didn’t work out. I’ll be pulling for them the rest of their careers. But as far as doing something different -- the season was what it was.
It seemed to me like both times you were surprised by their decisions. Is that accurate?
Kingsbury: In both cases, I didn’t see it coming. It was news to me when it did come. In talking to them both wanted a fresh start. I’m not going to hold it against them if they want to go somewhere else to play. We want kids that want to be here and want to be at Texas Tech.
It seems like Texas Tech fans want to know how you’re going to replace Jace Amaro. Obviously you can’t replace a player like that. But how do you plan to replace his production?
Kingsbury: We’ll just have a different look on offense. He was such a big target, a tough matchup on defense. If you got the ball close to his frame, he’d pull it in. He was great in run-game blocking. You just don’t replace a first-team All-American tight end who broke the (FBS tight end) receiving record. So we’ll be a little smaller, but with more speed. We’ve got a lot of guys coming back who have made a lot of catches here.
Even though he hasn't played much yet, do you think Reginald Davis can be a difference maker for you next season?
Kingsbury: I do. He’s a kid that came from a smaller class in high school. He played quarterback there, so he’s still learning the nuances of playing wide receiver. But his skill set is tremendous. He’s a great athlete; has great football knowledge. He showed flashes all last year. We’re going to find ways to get him the ball. He’s had a great offseason so far, and we’re expecting big things from him next year.
I know you guys have applied for a medical redshirt to get one final season for (starting right tackle) Rashad Fortenberry (who only played in three games in 2012 when he had back issues). Have you heard anything yet?
Kingsbury: Think the date we'll hear back is the beginning of March. That’s when we’ll know.
What about your other tackle, Le'Raven Clark (All-Big 12 as a sophomore) -- can he be an NFL starter down the line?
Kingsbury: He definitely has the potential. He’s a guy that continues to get better. He’s beginning to understand how good he can be. We’re excited about the offensive line we have coming back. We’ve got guys that have played in big games. We’re bringing in some junior college tackles that can play right away. I think we’ll see a big improvement up front. We didn’t run the ball as well as we wanted. We didn’t protect the quarterbacks very well, either.
What were your thoughts on the proposed rule changes to slow down the game?
Kingsbury: I hated it, obviously. I’ve been confused why it was even brought up. To throw it on players’ safety is ridiculous. There’s no data that says anything about high-tempo offenses causing more injuries. I’m baffled by it a bit, but I don’t think it’s going to pass.
Why didn’t you participate in the slam-dunk contest with some of your players at halftime of the basketball game last week?
Kingsbury: I didn’t want to end up on SportsCenter’s Not Top Ten.