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Veteran Red Raiders gear up for Houston opener

Don Williams
Lubbock Avalanche-Journal
Matt Wells starts his third season as Texas Tech coach on Saturday when the Red Raiders take on Houston at NRG Stadium.

Matt Wells recently categorized the Red Raiders' preseason camp as the best of his three-year tenure as Texas Tech football coach.

That's not all that makes him optimistic going into the season opener against Houston on Saturday at NRG Stadium.

"That gives me confidence, certainly," Wells said Tuesday, "but also the thing that gives me confidence is the amount of games played by the guys that we're playing with on both sides of the ball, whether here at Texas Tech or at other schools. 

"I would say we do have an older presence. We have a veteran team. A lot of guys have played in big games and Division I games, and that's what I draw confidence on. That, and it was a really good camp."

The two teams kick off at 6 p.m. Saturday with both head coaches in year three at their schools and each looking for a first winning season: Wells after going 4-8 and 4-6 at Tech, Dana Holgorsen after going 4-8 and 3-5 with Houston.

The NCAA did not dock any player a year of eligibility for the pandemic-disrupted 2020 season, creating the odd circumstance by which last year's seniors could stay in school  and play as seniors again this year. Tech has 12 such players — nine of its own returning seniors, plus three newly arrived transfers — former TCU tackle T.J. Storment, Troy wide receiver Kaylon Geiger and Duke safety Marquis Waters — who were seniors elsewhere last year.

Tech's dozen are the most of any team in the Big 12, according to The Associated Press.

"Now, we're also playing an opponent that Houston's done a nice job of upgrading their roster, and they've gotten older, too," Wells said. "They've got guys that are transfers coming in — at center, at tight end, a wildcat (quarterback) kind of guy — so they've added some experience as well.

"When you're able to do that through the transfer portal, I think those guys need to play well early in the season, and that's what I have confidence in."

Houston's catches from the transfer portal include center Kody Russey, who was a 46-game starter at Louisiana Tech; wide receiver Jaylen Erwin, a 10-game starter two years ago for UCLA; tight end Seth Green from Minnesota and nose guard Latrell Bankston, who logged 3 1/2 sacks last season for Iowa State. 

Among the Cougars back in place is quarterback Clayton Tune, who threw for 2,048 yards and 15 touchdowns in eight games last season.

"He's accurate, throws a good ball, throws different kinds of balls," Wells said. "He's got arm strength to throw it down the field, so I think those are the things that make him good."

Aside from giving players the free year of eligibility, the NCAA also loosened transfer restrictions this off-season. Players now can transfer one time without having to sit out a year, giving those in football and a few other high-profile sports the same freedom athletes in most other NCAA sports already enjoyed.

That's set up another story line to the Tech-Houston opener: Wide receiver KeSean Carter and cornerback Alex Hogan played for the Red Raiders last year and can play against them Saturday night after transferring to Houston. They joined former Tech running back Ta'Zhawn Henry, who left after the 2019 season, on the Cougars' roster.

Carter is listed as a starter on the UH depth chart, whereas Hogan and Henry aren't in the two-deep.

"It's going to be just like going against any other opponent, honestly," Tech nose tackle Tony Bradford said. "There's not much to say to those guys besides, 'Good luck.' I'm not really interested in having a conversation with them until after the game."

Here comes Shaq

Shaquille O'Neal will be the special guest performer at Raider Alley for Tech's Sept. 11 home opener against Stephen F. Austin, the Tech athletics department announced Tuesday.

Raider Alley is expected to open four hours before kickoff along the Engineering Key on the Tech campus, and there is no admission charge.

O'Neal is a member of Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. During a 19-year NBA career, he was a 15-time all-star, four-time NBA champion, three-time NBA Finals MVP and three-time All-Star Game MVP.

In addition to his basketball career, O'Neal has released rap albums, worked as a music producer and as a touring deejay.

Cutdown day

Offensive linemen La'Raven Clark and Jack Anderson and wide receiver Keke Coutee were among former Texas Tech players let go Tuesday, the final cutdown day for NFL teams to finalize their 53-man rosters for the regular season.

The Philadelphia Eagles released Clark, and the Buffalo Bills released Anderson as well as former Tech quarterback Davis Webb. Anderson was a seventh-round draft pick this year. The Houston Texans dropped Coutee. 

Other former Tech players who showed up on cut lists were wide receiver Tony Brown by Washington and defensive lineman Breiden Fehoko by the Los Angeles Chargers.

The Detroit Lions released tight end Brock Wright, son of former Tech center Len Wright, the Carolina Panthers released offensive lineman Sam Tecklenburg, son of former Tech linebacker Kerry Tecklenburg, and Washington released quarterback Steven Montez, son of former Tech quarterback Alfred Montez.

Players who are let go can resurface on teams' practice squads.

The Dallas Cowboys placed former Tech wide receiver T.J. Vasher on the non-football injury list.

Among Tech exes who were fighting for spots and made 53-man rosters were linebacker Dakota Allen with the Jacksonville Jaguars, wide receiver Cameron Batson with the Tennessee Titans, wide receiver Antoine Wesley with the Arizona Cardinals and defensive tackle Broderick Washington with the Baltimore Ravens.

Mum's the word

Now that it's game week, Wells and other coaches tend to give few specifics about the nature of injuries or projected time frames for players returning to the field. That's the case with running back SaRodorick Thompson in his recovery from shoulder surgery in April.

Asked Tuesday what Thompson's latest evaluation showed and to what extent he was participating in closed practices, Wells said, "Everything's healing. Everything's trending the right direction. He's day to day. Nothing's changed from (last week) when I said he was a game-time decision."

Thompson's likely to be limited or out for the opener. At the point of the Red Raiders' last scrimmage open to media 10 days ago, the two-time team rushing leader had gone 4 1/2 months without contact.

It's worth a reminder that in mid-April, Wells said the time frame for Thompson's return could range from the season opener to week three of the season.

That means the load is likely to be shared early in the season among Tahj Brooks, Xavier White and Chadarius Townsend, all returnees from last season. 

Kicking clarity

In the competition for kicker, Wells said Jonathan Garibay will start the season handling placements and Trey Wolff will kick off.

Wells said Garibay was "a little bit more consistent in camp. Trey's been a little bit better on kickoffs in camp."

Garibay made 8 of 11 field goals last year. Wolff is 21 for 27 the past two years, but went from Lou Groza Award semifinalist in 2019 to 1 for 5 last season, which cost him the job.

In new hands

The departures after last season of Luke Rizzo and John Berard, both with eligibility remaining, left Tech with a void at deep snapper. Rizzo handled the duty in 20 games the past two years and Berard in four.

Berard is now at Maryland.

Jackson Knotts, a 5-foot-11, 185-pound freshman from Plant City, Florida, won the competition among three walk-ons.

"Good (snap) times. Very accurate," Wells said. "He's got the ability to cover and can run. He's been good, he's been consistent and won the job."

Staff addition

Texas Tech announced the hire of Kate Shealy as director of football recruiting operations.

Shealy is a daughter of Houston Baptist head coach Vic Shealy, a 2018 HBU graduate and worked four years as an undergraduate for the Huskies' recruiting and football operations.

She spent the past two seasons in the recruiting department at East Carolina. She also has worked at Clemson, in summer roles as an administrative staff assistant and for Dabo Swinney football camps and during the 2018 season as a gameday events manager for the division of student affairs. 

College football

Who: Texas Tech at Houston

When: 6 p.m. Saturday

Where: NRG Stadium, Houston

Records in 2020: Texas Tech 4-6, Houston 3-5

TV: ESPN

Line: Tech by 1