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Spring practice primer: Texas Tech

Spring drills get underway at Texas Tech on Saturday.

The Red Raiders have plenty of reasons for optimism after a return to a bowl game and a stellar sophomore season from Patrick Mahomes, who has elected to focus on football this spring rather than rejoin the school's baseball team as he did his freshman year. Yet plenty of work remains for Kliff Kingsbury’s program, which needs to see its defense take a step forward if Big 12 title contention is to be in the cards.

As Texas Tech starts its spring, here are some key storylines to keep an eye on.

Offensive returnee ready to take next step: With Devin Lauderdale's future in doubt, receiver Ian Sadler opens spring football as the Red Raiders’ top returning pass-catcher. Nobody is expecting Sadler to replace the explosiveness of Jakeem Grant, but he should be ready for an increased role in the offense as he enters his junior season. Sadler is a third-down threat (16 receptions for 263 yards, three touchdowns on third-down plays), which provides peace of mind for Mahomes, and is relatively consistent, having made at least two receptions in every game he played in 2015. Avoiding injury could be his biggest key.

Defensive returnee ready to take the next step: Safety Jah'Shawn Johnson was one of the Red Raiders’ top defenders in 2015. This season, he could be poised to secure a spot among the Big 12’s best as a sophomore. Johnson set the tone in the Red Raiders’ secondary, finishing with 85 tackles (45 solo) including 4.5 tackles for loss, four fumble recoveries and two forced fumbles in 2015. Tech’s defense isn’t overflowing with proven playmakers, but Johnson is a crucial one to build around and a player who should be even better after his first full season as a starter.

Redshirt freshman to watch: Running back Corey Dauphine may make life without DeAndre Washington a little easier after watching the Red Raiders’ All-Big 12 running back excel from the sideline in 2015. Dauphine was one of Tech’s scout-team stars while redshirting during his first semester on campus and should be ready to battle for some carries this spring. He brings a terrific combination of size (6-foot-1, 194) and speed to the table.

Most significant position battle: The actual battle to become Tech’s primary running back is extremely intriguing. Dauphine has terrific speed and created a buzz during his redshirt season. Justin Stockton has shown he can make game-changing plays, and Demarcus Felton showed his potential with a 53-yard touchdown gallop against Iowa State. Mahomes figures to be even better as a junior, but it is crucial for the Red Raiders to continue to have a strong running game to complement the high-powered passing attack. Don't be surprised if as many as three running backs end up in different roles in the offense.

Key midterm enrollee: WR Derrick Willies had a long list of suitors before enrolling at Texas Tech as the No. 3 player in the ESPN JC50. Mahomes needs more playmaking targets with Grant moving on, and Willies might be ready to step right into the offense to become a difference-maker on the outside. If Mahomes and Willies start developing a terrific quarterback-receiver relationship, that would be a nightmare for Big 12 secondaries.

Question that could be answered: Who is poised to be a quality backup for Mahomes? Nic Shimonek, the Iowa transfer, could lock down the spot behind Mahomes after Davis Webb announced plans to transfer to Colorado after the 2015 season. Or incoming freshman Jett Duffey could surprise and put his name into the mix at quarterback. Either way, if Texas Tech solidifies that No. 2 spot, it would take one thing off Kingsbury’s list of concerns heading into the preseason -- something that should not be overlooked after the coach was able to count on Webb and Mahomes manning the position during the past two seasons.

Question that won't be answered until fall: Don’t expect the Red Raiders to finalize their defensive-line rotation during the spring. With seven defensive lineman signed in the Class of 2016, and expected to arrive in the summer, there is minimal chance that David Gibbs' defense will have locked down a two-deep defensive front before the preseason. Even if the current defensive linemen on campus take a huge leap forward, Texas Tech will want to give its newcomers a chance to earn a role in the preseason.