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 be taking 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 spirited discussion and debate.
Ra'jon Henley: The dramatic improvement of Texas Tech's defense over the last several games of the 2007 season was crucial to achieving a 9-4 record and a victory in a New Year's Day bowl. The play of defensive tackle Ra'jon Henley, in turn, was critical to the defense's late-season success. The six-foot-three 270-pound junior from Galveston began to blossom in Ruffin McNeill's more aggressive defense, and he contributed strongly to the defense's improved play against the run, in particular.
Henley's signature play, for his entire Tech career really, was his sack and forced fumble against Virginia in the Gator Bowl, which allowed the Red Raiders to score the game-tying touchdown. Indeed, Henley played his best ball against the strongest competition. He tallied eight stops against powerful Missouri, and logged four tackles, two tackles for losses and a sack in Tech's victory over then #3 Oklahoma.
At only 270 pounds, Henley is certainly not one of the largest defensive tackles you'll find in the Big 12. But he is extremely quick, and has a good burst off the line of scrimmage. Henley is also a rugged competitor, has a good football IQ, and is one of the unquestioned leaders of the defense. It has been said that the intangibles-leadership and team chemistry-will go a long way toward determining the ultimate success of the 2008 squad. If this is true, then Henley's positive locker-room presence will be almost as important as his contributions on the field of play.
And speaking of Henley's on-field performance, Tech is hoping that he plays the entirety of the 2008 season at the peak of his potential. If he does, Henley will combine with Freshman All American Colby Whitlock to comprise one of the Big 12's best defensive interior duos.
Key Stat: Henley had 52 stops in 2007. That is pretty good production for a defensive tackle. However, if Henley is able to crack the 70-tackle plateau it will almost certainly indicate that the defensive line is doing a great job against the run. And if the Red Raiders are able to consistently take away the opposition's running game, they will have taken a monster step toward a superlative season.
Where He Fits In: Henley is the starter at defensive tackle and he's not going anywhere.
2008 Expectation: Look for Henley to be a more consistent player from start to finish in 2008. He will hopefully begin to dominate against the puffballs and mediocre teams on the schedule.