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Tuesday, April 26, 2011
The Big 12's surprising spring risers

By David Ubben

Every spring, unheralded players make a name for themselves and give a preview of what's to come in the fall. Two teams in the Big 12 are still practicing, but here's who did it across the league this spring.

Baylor: Ahmad Dixon, DB. Dixon, a big name in Waco and one of the highest-rated recruits in Baylor history, played sparingly as a freshman reserve safety in 2009, finishing with 16 tackles. This year, though, the 6-foot, 200-pounder could be a game-changer at nickelback for Phil Bennett's defense.

Texas' Alex Okafor
Alex Okafor had five sacks during Texas' spring game.
Iowa State: Aaron Horne, WR. Horne only got a scholarship offer from the Cyclones when coaches came to see his teammate, quarterback Steele Jantz, play at a junior college in California. This spring, the 5-foot-9, 167-pounder emerged as a likely major contributor in the passing game, and led all receivers with eight receptions for 124 yards and a touchdown in the spring game.

Kansas: Darrian Miller, RB. Kansas is still practicing, but Miller, a Kansas City native and one of the Jayhawks' highest-rated recruits in the 2011 class, has impressed with his explosiveness and figures to earn plenty of touches next fall in the running game.

Kansas State: Nigel Malone, CB. Malone could be next in line to be one of Bill Snyder's impact juco transfers. He showed up this spring without the memories of last year's struggles by the Wildcats' defense, and is in competition for a starting spot at corner opposite David Garrett.

Missouri: Kony Ealy, DE. Missouri is already loaded at defensive end with Brad Madison and Jacquies Smith, but the Tigers' may have a budding star in Ealy, a redshirt freshman. He was unblockable at times this spring and should be a major contributor in the defensive end rotation next season. If nothing else, he could make an impact in Missouri's "Candy" defensive package, which features four defensive ends.

Oklahoma: Corey Nelson, LB. Nelson was one of the Sooners' top recruits in the 2010 class, and played very little last year, but coach Bob Stoops says he'll have to get Nelson on the field somehow this year. For now he backs up All-Big 12 mainstay Travis Lewis, but you'll see No. 7 plenty this fall. After a recent scrimmage, Stoops called him the best player on the defense this spring.

Oklahoma State: Michael Bowie, OT. The Cowboys bring back all five starters on the offensive line, but there's plenty of buzz that Bowie could steal a starting spot by mid-season if he continues to play like he did in the spring. The juco transfer is a light-footed 6-foot-4 and 294 pounds, and starter or otherwise, gives an already impressive line great depth.

Texas: Alex Okafor, DE. Okafor switched to defensive end just days before the spring, but looks like a budding star at the position after a strong spring. He capped it by a five-sack performance in the Longhorns' spring game.

Texas A&M: Donnie Baggs, LB. Baggs enrolled early this spring for the Aggies, and as a true freshman, could find himself getting a serious look to replace departed starter Michael Hodges, who led the team in tackles last year.

Texas Tech: Blake Dees, LB. Dees is benefiting from a simplified 4-2-5 scheme under new coordinator Chad Glasgow that allows him to use his natural instincts to rush the passer, rather than worry about complex coverage schemes. It's unlikely he'll beat out Sam Fehoko to start at linebacker, but he's very likely to find a spot in the rotation and get some major playing time in his first season.