A huge number of factors go into the success of any football team. In this series, we will be examining 25 of them. More specifically, we will take a reverse-order look at the 25 players who will be most crucial if the Texas Tech Red Raiders are to have a successful 2008 season, however that may be defined.
This is not, however, a list of the best players on the team. Rather, this series takes into consideration the importance of a given position on the team, depth issues, experience and inexperience, and the historic strengths and weaknesses of Mike Leach's program. The results, therefore, may surprise many readers, and will hopefully spur discussion and debate.
Bront Bird: Texas Tech's starting strongside linebacker has come a long way in a short time. Year before last, Bront Bird was a Tech signee out of Odessa Permian high school who drew little attention. Sure, he was a Rivals three-star recruit, but Tech's primary competition for Bird's services was SMU and TCU. The heavy-weights, in other words, were not exactly beating down the door of the Bird household.
But Bird impressed from the moment he set foot on campus. Defensive coordinator Ruffin McNeill knew he'd gotten a good one from the get-go. Even still, the plan was to redshirt Bird and give him a year to marinate in the Tech system. The travails of then starting strongside linebacker Kellen Tillman, however, changed all that.
Tillman was suspended from the team and suddenly the linebacking corps looked a little thin. McNeill called Bird's name in the Northeast Louisiana contest, the fifth game of the season, and before you knew it he became a key backup for the Red Raiders.
Bird's star has risen even further as the 2008 season approaches. Such is McNeill's confidence in Bird that he moved Brian Duncan, the returning starter at SAM, to the middle and elevated Bird to the starting lineup on the strongside. Keep in mind that Bird is only a true sophomore.
He is also a true steal.
Bird brings a great deal to the table. At six-foot-three and 225 pounds, Bird is a long, rangy linebacker, and is put together solidly enough to stand in against the run. He could easily carry 240 pounds before his Red Raider career is finished. Bird is also fast and athletic as evidenced by the fact that he earned All District honors as a senior at both wide receiver and safety. He uses that speed to close down very quickly on plays to the outside. Bird is also one of the most intelligent players on the team, which allows him, despite his relative inexperience, to diagnose plays accurately and speedily. This ability is most telling on passing plays, which he sniffs out uncannily.
In short, it's not inaccurate to say that Bird has the complete package. With time and steady maturation, he should emerge as a bona fide force.
Key Stat: Bird had 16 tackles in seven games last season. Look for that number to almost quintuple in 2008.
Where He Fits In: Unquestioned starter at strongside linebacker.
2008 Expectation: Few people around the Big 12 know Bront Bird's name right now. By season's end they'll be berating themselves for not recruiting him.
TOP 25 KEY PLAYERS:
19. Linebacker Bront Bird
20. Offensive Lineman Stephen Hamby
21. Linebacker Brian Duncan
22. Safety Daniel Charbonnet
23. Running Back Aaron Crawford
24. H-Back Ryan Hale
25. Right Tackle Marlon Winn