The Texas Tech football team added a Big 12 champion and a first-team all-American to the defensive line on Saturday, the second day of preseason practice.
There’s a catch: The much-decorated Gabriel Oladipo achieved those distinctions with the Red Raiders’ track and field team. But when he exhausted his eligibility in his primary sport in June, Oladipo decided to give football a try.
It’s not as if Tech is hurting for someone to play defensive tackle with Jaylon Hutchings, Tony Bradford and Philip Blidi all being key returnees. But Oladipo is 6-foot-3, 290 pounds, has bench pressed 440 pounds and squat lifted 875. And he’s spent five college seasons honing his footwork and explosion.
“You’re talking about a big human being that’s really, really strong and really athletic,” Tech coach Joey McGuire said. “That just adds another person, no matter what (his role) is. Whether it’s in field-goal block or field goal or how many snaps he gets in the game, any time you can add big people that can really, really run … .”
Oladipo hasn’t played football since high school at Fort Bend Hightower. He also was a pitcher in baseball.
He received an NCAA waiver to play on Friday, suited up Saturday and spent time doing individual work with graduate assistant coach Kirby Ennis.
Since transferring to Tech from Texas A&M before the 2020 indoor season, Oladipo was runner-up in the weight throw and then champion each of the past two years at the Big 12 indoor championships. He finished 12th and third, respectively, in that event the past two years at the NCAA championships, good for second-team and then first-team all-America status. Outdoor, he won the Big 12 title in the discus in 2021 and was first-team all-Big 12 in the discus, the shot put and the hammer throw each of the past two years.
McGuire said Oladipo expressed interest in the spring about joining the football team when he was finished with track season. It was a matter of receiving a waiver; his already being a Tech athlete simplified the process.
McGuire said Oladipo’s conditioning won’t be an issue “because he’s in great shape.”
“He’s an athlete. He’s a Division I athlete,” McGuire said. “With him, it’s just going to be technique. He’s got the best technician in the game in (Tech defensive line coach) Zarnell Fitch. I think he’s an elite coach. He’s a great teacher, so it’s good for him to be in that room with somebody like that to get him going.”
In addition to Hutchings, Bradford and Blidi, the other primary players in the Red Raiders’ pool at defensive tackle are new transfers Myles Cole from Louisiana-Monroe and Vidal Scott from Arkansas State.
■ With Oladipo joining the defensive line, third-year sophomore Larry Moore returned to the offensive line and switched jerseys from No. 94 to No. 78. Moore spent his first two seasons as an offensive lineman before training as a defensive lineman during spring practice.
■ McGuire recently projected newcomer Cole Spencer to start at left guard, but the January transfer from Western Kentucky has yet to get on the field as he continues rehabilitation from knee surgery that kept him out of spring practice.
Spencer continues to spend most of his time under the supervision of head athletic trainer Drew Krueger. He’ll be reevaluated in two weeks, McGuire said, to see if he can progress to individual drills. That makes his availability for the start of the season questionable, McGuire acknowledged, given that he’ll need full-contact work and reps in the offense to prepare.
Tech coaches have expected Spencer to be an immediate starter: He started 44 games at WKU, including the entire 2021 season with the same offensive coordinator (Zach Kittley) and offensive line coach (Stephen Hamby) he now has at Tech. Pro Football Focus gave him the highest pass-blocking grade of any offensive lineman in Conference USA last season.
McGuire said the circumstances are not a surprise. Krueger told him how long Spencer’s rehab would take and they knew he would not be ready for the start of preseason practice.
With Spencer not being available, returning right-guard starter Weston Wright has shifted to left guard and top backup Landon Peterson is getting first-team work at right guard.
■ Marquis “Muddy” Waters has been out with a sickness since the team’s local media day on Thursday. He’s the first-team Star, a safety/outside linebacker/slot corner, so Wyoming transfer Keyon Blankenbaker is first-string while Waters is out.
Weak-side linebackers Derrick Lewis and Tavares “B.J.” Elston and safety Jett Whitfield also worked there Saturday. McGuire said Lewis will go back to linebacker, but he wants to give Elston a longer look at Star. The 5-10, 200-pound true freshman can handle the increased pass coverage, McGuire believes, and being a smaller linebacker, the position switch gets him out of the box.
“We’ll keep him out there,” McGuire said, “and I think it’s going to end up being a good move, because you’ve got two really old guys (Waters and Blankenbaker) in that spot. So you always look ahead as a coach. … Muddy’s got a lot better man (coverage) skills, but they’re both very explosive.”
■ Among the players who caught McGuire’s eye during Friday’s first practice was freshman defensive lineman Syncere Massey — so much so that McGuire sent a text message Saturday morning to new Mesquite coach DeMarcus Harris. McGuire said he was impressed by how well the 6-5, 330-pound Massey was moving.
Harris was the defensive coordinator at Cedar Hill, where Massey was a senior last season and where McGuire was head coach from 2003 through 2016.
■ Saturday was McGuire’s 51st birthday. At the end of the morning practice, he climbed atop a dunk tank, allowing players and family members to throw at the target. McGuire dropped into the water twice.
“(Wife) Debbie went up there and pushed the button, because she missed,” McGuire said. “but TK’s the one that hit the target and knocked me out, (receiver) Tyler King.”
Given that his early August birthday always falls at the start of preseason practice, McGuire was asked his favorite experience from birthdays past spent around his team.
“Honestly, probably that one,” he said, “just as far as I don’t know if I’ve ever been in a dunk tank. Debbie’s really good about making sure we have cupcakes for the team and it’s always been a good deal, but I don’t know if I’ve ever been in a dunk tank on my birthday, so that was fun.”
Several current and former Tech coaches have birthdays in early August. Gerald Myers turned 86 on Friday, Sonny Cumbie turns 41 on Monday, Kliff Kingsbury turns 43 on Tuesday and Matt Wells turns 49 on Wednesday.