FRISCO — Texas Tech coach Kliff Kingsbury stuck his arm in the air, pointed toward the ceiling and ran after defensive lineman Nick McCann.
After sophomore Lonzell Gilmore deflected a pass at the line of scrimmage, McCann caught it and rumbled in the end zone for an 11-yard touchdown return. Kingsbury was right in the middle of the celebration.
“You usually don’t see a big guy able to track a ball like that, find it, catch it and run it in,” Kingsbury said. “That was an impressive, athletic move.”
While the points didn’t count for anything significant in Saturday’s spring game at The Star in Frisco, it was another positive sign for the Red Raiders’ defense that needs all the good fortune it can get. If Kingsbury and Tech can fix the worst defense in the Football Bowl Subdivision, there’s a good chance the Red Raiders can bounce back from a disappointing 2016 season.
At Saturday’s practice in front of an announced sellout at the Cowboys’ practice facility, McCann’s interception added to a growing total in the last few weeks. In the first nine practices, Kingsbury said the defense has tallied 21 interceptions, a significant improvement from a year ago.
The fifth-year coach said that statistic could indicate Tech will be better on defense after last year’s 5-7 season. In 2016, the Red Raiders were last in the FBS in scoring defense and yards allowed per game. Tech was also one of three teams in the country that allowed more than seven yards per play.
Senior quarterback Nic Shimonek said it’s been good to see the defense flying around this spring, even if their success at times comes at his expense.
“If one side is dominating the other, day-in, day-out, that’s not a good tell-tale sign of what’s going to happen in the fall,” said Shimonek, who practiced with the starters and was 26 of 33 passing for 273 yards and three touchdowns.
Shimonek, who talked with Kingsbury during the week about not throwing risky passes, is in the lead to take over one of the best offenses in college football. Last year, Tech led the country in total offense and was fifth in points scored per game.
But Tech’s defense was on the opposite end of the spectrum.
In February, Tech signed some junior college players to fix the issue. Junior linebacker Tony Jones and junior defensive backs Octavious Morgan and Vaughnte Dorsey all inked with the Red Raiders.
Tech junior defensive back Jah’Shawn Johnson said this year’s unit appears to be more committed to implementing defensive coordinator David Gibbs’ gameplan and opting less for individual improvisation. And this year’s group, Johnson said, is hounding opposing ball carriers, something that didn’t happen in the past.
McCann’s touchdown gave Kingsbury and the defense something to cheer about on Saturday in a practice that was mostly about marketing Tech’s program. It was a good sign for a defense that knows it needs to improve.
“We’ve been in the film room seeing all the wrong things that we did,” Johnson said. “We know that in order to be successful, we can’t do those things.”