Texas Tech ‘D’ is Ruffin ready

Photo Texas Tech defensive lineman Chris Perry stops Kansas RB Jocques Crawford.
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The phone will ring Saturday, probably about three hours before kickoff, and Ruffin McNeill Sr. will pick up the handset and talk with his son.

Ruffin Jr. probably doesn’t need Dad’s advice anymore. He’s 50 now and the defensive coordinator at sixth-ranked Texas Tech, which plays host to No. 1 Texas this weekend at Jones AT&T Stadium.

Without a doubt, it’s the highlight of McNeill’s coaching career to date. Flights into town are sold out, hotels are booked and national television crews are en route for what some are calling “the biggest game ever in Lubbock.”

Still, amid all the hoopla, the youngest McNeill won’t forget to flip open his cell phone as he leaves the hotel for the stadium. In 23 years of coaching, he’s never missed a call.

“I’ll be sitting here waiting for that phone to ring,” the elder McNeill said from his home in Lumberton, N.C. “I’m going to tell him to light up (Texas quarterback) Colt McCoy. Light him up!”

The 75-year-old chuckled softly.

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“I’m sure,” he said, “that Ruffin will be like, ‘Don’t worry. I know what to do, Dad. I know what to do.’”

The statement, to be sure, is tough to argue.

The only problem with Texas Tech’s high-scoring, video-game offense is that it continues to overshadow the strides the Red Raiders’ defense is making under McNeill, who’s in his first full year as coordinator after taking over on an interim basis for the final nine games last season.

Texas Tech will enter Saturday’s showdown against Texas ranked third in the Big 12 in total defense and No. 2 in both rush defense and scoring defense. The Red Raiders are allowing just 21.1 points per game.

Among conference schools, only Texas is having a better season defensively than Texas Tech. McNeill hopes that all changes Saturday.

“Our offense has been consistently good,” McNeill said. “Year in and year out, they’ve been productive and prolific and steady. Our defense … if we want to even be mentioned in the same breath as our offense, we have to be consistent over a period of time.

“That’s what we’re striving for: Consistency week in and week out, year in and year out. If we do that, over time, we’ll be mentioned in the same breath as our offense.”

The Red Raiders, 8-0, still have a ways to go. Despite its recent improvement, Texas Tech’s defense is hardly the first thing that comes to mind when folks think of Red Raiders football.

Instead people bring up quarterbacks such as Graham Harrell, Kliff Kingsbury and B.J. Symons or receiving standouts such as Michael Crabtree, Joel Filani, Jarrett Hicks and Danny Amendola.

Darcel McBath? McKinner Dixon? Brandon Williams? Not exactly household names – or at least not yet.

“This is the best group we’ve had yet in terms of listening,” said McNeill, who was at Texas Tech for more than seven years before earning the coordinator job. “They’re ready to make a difference. They’re tired of hearing people say that we don’t play defense (in Lubbock).”

So, too, is McNeill, a former East Carolina player who coached at schools such as Appalachian State, UNLV and Fresno State before Mike Leach hired him at Texas Tech in 2000.

Ruffin McNeill

Perhaps the biggest reason for McNeill’s success is the respect his players have for him as a person. As much as he’s their coach, McNeill is also a role model and a father figure to a large number of guys on the Texas Tech roster. He said his desire to help players off the field was influenced by his dad, a former coach.

“One of the greatest lessons you can learn,” McNeill Sr. said, “is that if you show just a little bit of love, you’ll get it back. He still has to be tough. He still has to let them know that they’re one step away from a peanut butter sandwich and a bus ticket.

“But there’s nothing wrong with showing a little affection.”

McNeill has, and the Red Raiders have responded.

Led by McBath’s five interceptions, Texas Tech leads the Big 12 with a plus-9 turnover margin. The Red Raiders are also playing with a swagger and fire that’s been lacking in previous seasons. Heck, the unit has even assigned itself a nickname: “The Goon Squad.”

“Every kid is different,” McNeill said. “I know the old school way was to treat every kid the same, but every kid isn’t the same. Every kid has a different button you have to push or something different that makes them tick.

“As coaches we have to be wise enough and smart enough to find those buttons. With some players you have to sit down and close the door. You have to talk to them and not at them.”

Texas Tech’s best defensive performance to date came last weekend against Kansas and Davey O’Brien Award semifinalist Todd Reesing, who threw a career-high three interceptions – all by McBath – during a 63-21 loss to the Red Raiders on Homecoming in Lawrence.

Before that game questions swirled about how the Red Raiders would match up with a quality opponent. They had yet to play any of the Big 12 powers, and their best non-conference matchup was against Nevada.

But after shutting down Kansas – which had put up 500 yards against Oklahoma one week earlier – Texas Tech’s defense proved itself legit.

“We were in the locker room at halftime trying to knock down the door to get back out,” McBath said. “We were fired up. We were ready.”

The biggest question now is how ready the Red Raiders will be for Saturday’s game in Lubbock. A victory over McCoy and the No. 1 Longhorns would give Texas Tech a 9-0 record and loads of momentum heading into its final, three-game stretch against Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and Baylor.

It would also move the Red Raiders one step closer to their first Big 12 title in school history – as well as their first appearance in a BCS game.

All week long McNeill has talked about how this game is “no more important than the season opener against Eastern Washington.” Back in Lumberton, N.C., dad said that’s all hogwash.

“Yeah right,” he said. “This is the biggest game I can ever remember, the biggest game in our lifetime. This is a small town. Everyone here knows Ruffin. They know what this means to him.”

Just this once, McNeill Sr. said he might even take a different approach during his son’s pregame phone call.

“I actually don’t think I’ll offer advice this time,” he said. “No strategies or tactics. I’ll just tell him to call a good game and to give it all he’s got.

“And I’ll tell him I’m proud of him.”