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Kliff Kingsbury's spring at a crossroads

FRISCO, Texas -- Kliff Kingsbury ran down the Ford Center field Saturday afternoon celebrating ... his defense?

Yep, Texas Tech's head coach went wild when defensive end Lonzell Gilmore batted a screen pass into the air and 300-pound defensive tackle Nick McCann plucked it and rumbled away for the score. Kingsbury chased him into the end zone, one arm raised victoriously in the air. He's not even mad about the interception.

"That play was awesome," Kingsbury said later. "Phenomenal."

It was the kind of play the Red Raiders' leader can delight in as he shifts his priorities from offensive mastermind to CEO of the program this offseason. That dynamic was hard to miss Saturday during Tech's spring game in Frisco, Texas, where Kingsbury entrusted his offense to his coaches and tried to give his defense an edge. And it's a change Kingsbury needs in his fifth year of leading a program with a must-win season coming soon.


Tech players boarded charter busses at 6 a.m. Saturday in Lubbock and slept most of the way on their six-hour trip to Ford Center at The Star, the Dallas Cowboys' pristine new indoor practice facility. Those players walked in fully in awe of the 12,000-seat venue.

The Red Raiders were living large on Saturday in Jerry Jones' newest palace and excited to show off their progress to the public. Why Frisco? Texas Tech came out here for their Dallas-Fort Worth fan base, a portion of which actually tailgated in nearby parking lots hours before the scrimmage. The staff rolled out a literal red carpet, too, to win over a group of 300 recruits in attendance.

Not long after arriving, Kingbury is on sideline barking "Black Black," "Empty Empty" and "Arrow Arrow" with a flurry of hand signals to get an offensive walkthrough going. Five minutes later, though, he sprinted over to the opposite end and focused his time on Texas Tech's defense. Kingsbury stood behind scout team QB Colt Garrett and gave props and daps and slaps on the butt when his defensive linemen busted into the backfield.

He believes he can comfortably do this now, leaving Eric Morris in charge of the offense and trusting grad assistant Zach Kittley to help coach up the quarterbacks. Kingsbury is trying to do a better job looking at the whole picture this offseason, giving more of himself to help a defense that ranked dead last in FBS last season get back on track.

"I hope I'm able to make sure they understand I've got their back," Kingsbury said. "When you're over there with the offense all the time, always game-planning and always coaching offense and always talking trash to the defense, I think it may help not to be in that role, to show, 'I'm with y'all as well.'"

Morris, his offensive coordinator since 2013, drew up 100 percent of the offensive script for the scrimmage and made all the calls. Starting QB Nic Shimonek can tell the new arrangement is working.

"I think that was much-needed," he said. "I know I've talked to some guys on defense and they feel a sense of confidence that he has their back."


Kingsbury isn't the only one showing outward change this spring. A logo ban remains in effect as a motivation tactic to display their disappointment in a 5-7 season in 2016. The Double T logos in the middle of the practice jerseys are covered up with tape. Kingsbury and his coaches mostly wear plain black Under Armour shirts and hoodies.

Kingsbury knows what's being said about Texas Tech these days. He understands the hot seat talk after going 24-26 in four seasons as a head coach. He calls it "hard to avoid with as obvious as it is this offseason." He needs to win this fall.

"We all know what we're signing up for when we take this job," Kingsbury said. "The main thing is our team understands who they are and where they're heading and that's all that matters."

He gathered his team outside the locker room for a quick 30-second speech before the scrimmage. He urged them to over-communicate on the field. No penalties. Play clean, play fast. Max effort. Play loose. Have fun.

"Hey we got an awesome atmosphere out there, right?" Kingsbury barked.

"Yes sir."

"We've got the best fans in the world and 12,000 people here. Take advantage of the day."

When it's time to hit the field, through a smoke-filled tunnel, Kingsbury stands silently behind the crowd of amped-up players, peering over the script, making little notes, clicking his pen and pacing. And then it's time to ball.


The ensuing 90 minutes are a blur of high-tempo activity. Shimonek is sharp, hitting 26 of his 33 passes for 273 yards and three scores. His coaches think he'll surprise this fall. As a fifth-year guy who knows the system by heart, Shimonek is reminiscent of the three-year run from 2003 to 2005 when Texas Tech had a new senior starting QB every year in B.J. Symons, Sonny Cumbie and Cody Hodges.

Shimonek can't match the improv ability of Patrick Mahomes II, the likely first-round draft pick, but he can do it all as a passer and teammates have the utmost respect for him. He's got a loaded group of receivers to help out, too.

"You lose Patrick Mahomes and everybody thinks we're not going to be able to score points or do things offensively," Kingsbury said. "That's just not the case."

Morris and defensive coordinator David Gibbs called the game from opposite sidelines. Kingsbury stood on the field at all times, taking it all in from behind the QB. He takes turns jumping into both offensive and defensive huddles. He's not there to micromanage. He's there to motivate and encourage more than anything, keeping the energy up, giving defenders props when they do right. Extracting himself from the offense isn't easy, but he's growing accustomed to the more big-picture role.

They find time for some fun in the second half with a pair of touchdowns by Andrew and Braden, two young Fearless Dream Kids from the Dallas area who provide by far the highlight of the day. Each boy took the field and got the ball on well-designed reverses that sent them dashing into the end zone. Kingsbury and his players went wild, rushing the field and lifting the boys up in the air. Kingsbury even shared his postgame media conference with them.

The Red Raiders wrapped it up soon after with a 49-31 win for the offense and, most important, no injuries. Kingsbury signed autographs and took photos with fans on his way off the field before changing into a black suit for his media conference with his Make-A-Wish stars.


As he walked through the stadium afterward, his long day almost done, Kingsbury is asked how he has grown into this head coaching role at his alma mater. He starts with the errors he has made.

"I just try to own it, because at the end of the day, any decision made ultimately falls on me," he said. "I understand that. There were decisions made -- whether it be the hiring process or recruiting or numbers-wise -- that I screwed up. We paid the cost for that a couple times over the past few years."

When you first get a job like this, he says, you end up making a bunch of mistakes on things you've never controlled in the past. He points to their early recruiting operation, to guys they pursued in the past and how many junior college players they signed early on who eventually busted. The defensive woes are a product of those misfires.

"I can still call plays and we can still score points, but a lot of that stuff, I made mistake after mistake and it cost us the past couple years in some areas on defense," Kingsbury said. "I feel like we're at a place now where we've got our numbers where we want them, we feel like we're recruiting the right players to our system. We feel like we're getting better."

Despite the struggles, he has never made excuses about the challenges that come with trying to build a Big 12 powerhouse in West Texas.

"I came here because I believe in this place. I always have," Kingsbury said. "I know what it can be and I know what I believe it to be. I've heard excuses made before and I just don't buy it. It's a great school. We have the best fans around. We just have to get it done."

He's learned. He's adjusting. He gets it. He just needs to win.