Big 12: Aaron Ross

ESPN draft expert Mel Kiper has two Big 12 players -- Oklahoma’s Lane Johnson and Texas’ Kenny Vaccaro -- potentially going in the first round of this year’s NFL draft.

Fellow expert Todd McShay has the same two as Kiper and also is optimistic about the chances of West Virginia’s Geno Smith and Tavon Austin.

So let’s split the difference and label the potential Big 12 first-round picks as an optimistic three, with Johnson being the only absolute first-round lock.

Those three would represent the fewest Big 12 players taken in the first round of the NFL draft since 2008. Even if four went, the Big 12 still would have the fewest since 2008.

That year, only Kansas -- yep, the Jayhawks -- managed a first-rounder, Aqib Talib to Tampa Bay with the 20th pick. In the four drafts that followed, the Big 12 has always put at least five players into the first round, including the first four overall picks in 2010.

How well this year’s group of first-round picks will fare might not be known for years. What is known, though, is how well Big 12 players have done when they are selected in the first round. With that in mind, here is a ranking -- from worst to best -- of the Big 12’s best first-round draft classes over the past 10 years.

2008: It’s all about quantity, and a little bit of quality. In 2008, the Big 12 only produced one first-round pick, Talib. He has not produced dramatic returns in the NFL. In the past two years, he has only started nine games. He was somewhat productive for Tampa Bay in the previous three seasons, starting 41 games and playing in 53. But, again, he was the only Big 12 player taken in the first round in 2008.

2006: Vince Young is working out at Texas’ pro day at the end of March. Enough said. Davin Joseph and Michael Huff have been solid producers. But when the No. 3 overall pick is out of the league and having to work out at his alma mater's pro day, it means it was a bad year for the Big 12 in the first round of the NFL draft.

2004: Tommie Harris and Marcus Tubbs, the two defensive tackles taken in the first round, were productive for a few years, with Harris selected to Pro Bowls in 2005, '06 and ’07 before he was beset by injuries. Tubbs lasted four seasons in the NFL. Roy Williams had 5,715 receiving yards but never lived up to the hype he generated coming out of Texas. Rashaun Woods played only two years and had seven career catches.

2005: The lack of numbers might be what hurts this group the most. Cedric Benson, Jammal Brown, Derrick Johnson, Mark Clayton and Fabian Washington all proved they could play at the NFL level. Benson has had three 1,000-yard-plus seasons. Johnson is one of the top linebackers in the game. Brown remains a solid option on the offensive line. Clayton played seven NFL seasons; Washington played six. But there were only five guys selected and that isn't enough to push 2005 to the top of the list.

[+] EnlargeAdrian Peterson
Andy Clayton King/Getty ImagesThe Big 12's 2007 draft class wasn't huge, but did feature 2012 NFL MVP Adrian Peterson.
2009: Every Big 12 player selected in the first round in 2009 has produced and appears to be poised to continue to do so. Only Jason Smith didn’t have a start last year. But the offensive lineman still played in all 16 games for the New York Jets. Michael Crabtree, Brian Orakpo, Josh Freeman, Jeremy Maclin, Brandon Pettigrew and Ziggy Hood are all starters for their respective teams.

2007: It wasn’t the biggest group, but it did include Adrian Peterson, so there could be some quibbling that maybe 2007 should be higher in the rankings. Throw in Aaron Ross and Michael Griffin and the debate could get even more heated. Adam Carriker was also taken this year. He started his career strong but suffered an injury and only played in two games last season.

2003: Kevin Williams has been the standout of this group. The defensive tackle has started every game but four in his 10-year career. Terence Newman has been effective as a defensive back, first in Dallas and last season in Cincinnati. Tyler Brayton played at least 15 games on the defensive line in a nine-year career. Ty Warren played eight solid seasons for New England but tailed off last season with Denver. Andre Woolfolk lasted four seasons, mostly as a reserve.

2011: Von Miller, who was the highest pick among Big 12 players this year, has proved to be the top player so far. Aldon Smith is not far behind. Add in Prince Amukamara, Phillip Taylor, who when healthy is a starter at defensive tackle, a somewhat productive Blaine Gabbert and Nate Solder as well as reliable backups Danny Watkins and Jimmy Smith and this proved to be a successful year for Big 12 first-round selections.

2012: Three quarterbacks, and all were not only starters as rookies but also made huge differences for their respective squads. Clearly, Robert Griffin III made the most dramatic impact, but Ryan Tannehill, with the Dolphins, and Brandon Weeden, with Cleveland, were both solid. Kendall Wright and Justin Blackmon each had 64 catches, for Tennessee and Jacksonville, respectively. Blackmon was targeted more (133 to 104) and had 200 more receiving yards.

2010: This list maybe doesn’t have the star power and is not littered with offensive playmakers, but six of the nine players picked were selected for the 2013 NFL Pro Bowl: Gerald McCoy, Trent Williams, Ndamukong Suh, Earl Thomas, Russell Okung and Jermaine Gresham. And the other three players -- Dez Bryant, Sam Bradford and Sean Weatherspoon -- were vital pieces for their respective teams.

The All-Big 12 NFL Team: Defense

May, 31, 2012
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Yesterday, we tackled the Big 12's best offensive players in the NFL, but today, it's time for the other side of the ball.

The rules:
  • Players must be active
  • Players are judged by their current skills
  • The 2012 draft class is not eligible
  • Only players from the 2011 configuration of the Big 12 (No Nebraska, Colorado. Mizzou, Texas A&M are included.) are eligible

Let's get to it.

DE: Justin Smith, San Francisco 49ers (Missouri)

Smith has made Pro Bowls in each of the past three seasons and emerged as one of the NFL's premier pass rushers, nearly winning Defensive Player of the Year in 2011. He's forced 14 career fumbles and had 72.5 career sacks.

DT: Phil Taylor, Cleveland Browns (Baylor)

Taylor snuck into the first round of the 2011 draft and started every game for the Browns in 2011, making 59 tackles and four sacks, as well as forcing a fumble.

DT: Casey Hampton, Pittsburgh Steelers (Texas)

Hampton's career has peaked, but the 2001 first-rounder is still effective. He's won two Super Bowls and made five Pro Bowls, the last coming in 2009. He has 350 career tackles with nine sacks and four forced fumbles.

DE: Antonio Smith, Houston Texans (Oklahoma State)

Smith earned his first trip to the Pro Bowl last season, even though it was as an alternate. He has 29.5 career sacks and seven forced fumbles.

LB: Aldon Smith, San Francisco 49ers (Missouri)

Smith was one of the NFL's best pass rushers as a rookie in 2011. He didn't start a single game, yet came within a half sack of Jevon Kearse's rookie record for sacks, with 14 sacks. That broke the team record, and the Pro Football Writers of America named him the Defensive Rookie of the Year.

LB: Brian Orakpo, Washington Redskins (Texas)

Orakpo edges out Derrick Johnson for this spot, though Johnson was better in 2011. Orakpo was an alternate on this year's Pro Bowl team, but made the squad as a rookie in 2009 and in 2010.

LB: Von Miller, Denver Broncos (Texas A&M)

Miller earned NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year honors and a trip to the Pro Bowl after notching 11.5 sacks and making 64 tackles. He forced a fumble on the first snap of his career, too.

CB: Terence Newman, Cincinnati Bengals (Kansas State)

Newman's taken his fair share of knocks as a Cowboy before being released, but he made the Pro Bowl in 2007 and 2009 and has 32 career interceptions. The Wildcats' former Thorpe Award winner is moving on to the next phase in his career after an up and down career in Dallas.

CB: Aaron Ross, Jacksonville Jaguars (Texas)

Ross won two Super Bowls as a New York Giant, but he's moving on to warmer climates this offseason. He's made 200 career tackles and intercepted 10 passes in five seasons as a Giant before the former Thorpe Award winner signed a new deal with the Jags.

S: Michael Griffin, Tennessee Titans (Texas)

Griffin was a first-round pick in 2007 and made Pro Bowls in 2008 and 2010. He earned an All-Pro selection in 2010 and has 17 career interceptions and seven forced fumbles with his 389 tackles.

S: Earl Thomas, Seattle Seahawks (Texas)

Thomas gives the Longhorns a third member of the All-Big 12 NFL secondary after a Pro Bowl season in his second year, 2011. Thomas was arguably the Seahawks' top defender and has seven career interceptions.

The Big 12 and NFL draft history

April, 27, 2011
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For just the second time ever, the first round of the NFL draft will be the only part of the draft's first day, set for primetime on Thursday night.

This year, the Big 12 could have as many as five first-round picks, and five players from the league are in New York for the draft.

So, let's take a look back. Since the first NFL draft of the Big 12 era, who has the most first-rounders?

Texas: 16
Oklahoma: 12
Oklahoma State: 6
Missouri: 4
Kansas State: 3
Texas A&M: 2
  • 2003: DT Ty Warren, 13th overall, New England Patriots
  • 2003: DB Sammy Davis, 30th overall, San Diego Chargers
Texas Tech: 1
Kansas: 1
  • 2008: CB Aqib Talib, 20th overall, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Baylor: 1
Iowa State: none since 1973 (George Amundson)

A few thoughts and observations:
  • I doubt many would be surprised that this list is also a reasonably accurate reflection of overall success since the Big 12's inception in 1996. Obviously, Texas and Oklahoma have dominated. Since 2000, Texas has the nation's fourth-most first-rounders. Oklahoma is No. 6. Their success has paralleled that, along with recruiting rankings.
  • In that same breath, it's impossible to look at this list and not once again be impressed with what Mike Leach did. He obviously has the reputation as an overachiever, but looking big picture, he was able to do it with one first-round pick. Nobody beat Texas and Oklahoma more and Leach helped put together what is still the Big 12's longest bowl streak.
  • Texas' consistency sticks out, too. Since just 2001, Texas has had two first-rounders in six different seasons. If you've got two first-rounders on your team, you're probably going to be pretty good. The Longhorns, if you haven't noticed, have been. Those two first-rounders in six seasons are more or as many as half the league has in the history of the Big 12. What else you should note? Texas is unlikely to have a first rounder this year, and after Aaron Williams is drafted, Sam Acho probably will be the next to go, which won't be until the third or fourth round.
  • Oklahoma State and Missouri's rise over the past three seasons has paid off in the NFL draft. Missouri had three first-rounders in the last two seasons and figures to add two more this year after having just one in the 12-year history of the league before 2009. That's quite a streak, and even more proof of what Gary Pinkel has built at Missouri. One more piece of evidence? Despite losing those two first-rounders, Missouri should be back in the preseason polls next year after losing two of its top players. That's definitely something new in Columbia. The Cowboys figure to add more soon with Justin Blackmon at least. As long as Pinkel and Gundy are at the helm for their respective programs, expect them to continue to rise.
  • Don't be surprised by Texas A&M's swoon following R.C. Slocum's departure. From 1990-1998, the Aggies won nine games every season but one. From 1990-96, the Aggies had eight first-round picks. Since 1998? Two seasons with at least nine wins and just two first-round picks.
  • More evidence you can't underestimate the importance of having first-round picks? None for Baylor in the history of the Big 12 before Art Briles. In just three years, Briles may have three if the Bears add two more this year with Phil Taylor and Danny Watkins. Taylor and Watkins both came from unlikely sources. Taylor was a Penn State transfer and Watkins a juco transfer that formerly worked as a fireman in Canada.

Lunch links: Big 12's top priorities

March, 16, 2011
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One more day to sign up. Here's the page to join the Big 12 blog bracket pool. We've got a pretty good group, but there's always room for more. Here's what you can win. Also, I trust you're all taking a moment to regulate today.

Duane Akina looks headed back to Texas

February, 14, 2011
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The revolving door that is Texas' defensive backs coaching job continues to spin.

Arizona athletic director Greg Byrne announced via his Twitter feed on Monday morning that Wildcats defensive backs coach Duane Akina told Byrne and Arizona coach Mike Stoops that he would be leaving Arizona to return to Texas.

"Although disappointed because of the commitment we had made we respect Coach Akina’s decision based on family," Byrne wrote.

Akina announced his move from Texas to Arizona on January 16.

Texas hired Jerry Gray, a Texas alum, the next day. On Saturday, Gray announced he was leaving Texas to become the defensive coordinator for the Tennessee Titans.

Now, after a month of transition, the Longhorns are back where they started at defensive backs coach, though a raise for Akina seems likely.

Akina, who coached at Arizona from 1992-2002 before coming to Texas from 2003-10, made $318,509 in 2009. The Longhorns had planned to pay Gray $425,000.

Akina had been one of Texas' best position coaches, helping two Longhorns, Michael Huff and Aaron Ross, win the Thorpe Award as the nation's best defensive back during his tenure.

His apparent hire makes seven total coaching hires for Mack Brown and Texas since its 5-7 season ended in November.

Big 12 weekend roundup

January, 18, 2011
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Lots to talk about after the long weekend. Let's get to it.

More turnover for the Longhorns

Just when Mack Brown thought he was almost done filling his staff, he ended up with a bit more work to do. Defensive backs coach Duane Akina resigned to take the same position at Arizona.

His departure after an impressive tenure at Texas to take what was a lateral move at best raised all kinds of red flags, but a quick hire from Brown helped lower them a bit. The Longhorns went with Manny Diaz at defensive coordinator over Seattle Seahawks defensive backs coach Jerry Gray, but Brown convinced Gray to make a move of his own to fill Akina's void.

That's a great move for Texas, who could have inspired some panic with Akina's departure. He was arguably Texas' best position coach, and you don't need to look much further than the staggering list of DBs he's sent to the NFL as proof. He's also coached a pair of Thorpe Award winners at Texas in Michael Huff and Aaron Ross.

Now, he's headed back to Arizona, where he coached from 1992-2002.

"We've been talking about getting back there over the years, but it never seemed to be the right time. When this opportunity came up, I felt like the window was there and that it was the right fit," Akina said in a release. "...going back to Arizona was an opportunity I couldn't pass up. It allows me to get closer to a lot of friends and family, and to hopefully help a program that has been such a big part of my life in any little way I can."

Well, that sounds nice and all, but you have to wonder if he didn't fully mesh with Diaz, either personally or philosophically, contributing to the move. Gray's arrival helps silence similar talk, but the Longhorns will be fascinating next seaon.

Six coaches are gone from last season's staff. Just four remain. That's a heck of a lot of turnover for one season.

Fuller sticks around for his senior year

[+] EnlargeJeff Fuller
AP Photo/Dave EinselTexas A&M received good news when receiver Jeff Fuller opted to return for another season rather than enter the NFL draft.
We'll have more on the trend later today, but Texas A&M receiver Jeff Fuller announced he would return to College Station for his senior year, which is fantastic news for the Aggies. Texas A&M has a great receiving corps, but it doesn't have anyone capable of replacing Fuller's size and production. He just finished the first 1,000-yard season in the history of Texas A&M football, and there's no reason to think he won't kick off the second next September.

Simply put, there aren't many receivers with Fuller's size, and he'll be a much better route runner and probably a little bit faster this time next year. His draft projection from the NFL advisory committee was outside the first two rounds, and a year ago, teammate and linebacker Von Miller received a similar report.

Miller now looks like a mid-to-late first rounder, and Fuller admitted Miller's experience had an influence on him.

"I'm excited about our team and the guys I came into school with. There are a lot of areas I need to work on, and another year will put me closer to earning my degree and that is important to my family," Fuller said in a release. "I had a great example in Von. He decided to come back and he really helped our team improve and I believe he improved his position in the upcoming draft, and he is only a few hours short of his degree."

Thanks to Fuller, A&M is losing just one offensive starter -- center Matt Allen -- and three defensive starters.

Sooners fill out staff

Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops announced his promotion of Bruce Kittle from on-campus recruiting coordinator to tight ends and tackles coach, replacing the void left by offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson. Wilson left Oklahoma to take the head coaching job at Indiana.

Kittle will finally get a chance to prove himself, after a short coaching career and a long relationship with Stoops. The two played at Iowa together, and Kittle is also an ordained minister and lawyer.

That won't satisfy the contingent of Sooners fans who wanted to see Stoops hire a special teams coordinator, but if Oklahoma can get some consistency out of its placekickers and stop giving up long kick returns, those complaints will go away. Certainly, it might be easier to do those things with a special teams coordinator, but Oklahoma, with its eight BCS bowls under Stoops, seems to have done OK for itself without a special teams coordinator thus far.

Mailbag: Best games and scariest players

August, 13, 2010
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Big G in Western Nebraska writes: The Expendables comes out Friday. If you had to make a team of elite warriors using Big 12 players, who would you put on it? Not necessarily an All-Star team, but the toughest, baddest dudes in the conference.

David Ubben: First off, no matter what my friends tell me, that movie looks like garbage. But this question is interesting. I'd invite you all to make your own lists, but here's mine.

1) Nate Solder, left tackle, Colorado: First off, at 6-foot-9 and 310 pounds, he's probably the biggest player in the entire league. But he also hang cleans 470 pounds, runs a 4.88 40-yard dash and has a 32-inch vertical leap. He's very high on my list of guys I wouldn't want to face in a jungle death match. And yes, that list exists.

2) Ronnell Lewis, linebacker, Oklahoma: Defensive coordinator Brent Venables has coached some big hitters in his day like Rocky Calmus and Roy Williams. He says Lewis, just a sophomore, hits the hardest. And he hails from tiny Dewar, Oklahoma. Everybody knows you don't mess with country boys.

3) Cody Johnson, running back, Texas: Anybody want to try and tackle him? The Longhorns' 5-foot-11, 250-pound goal-line back is the closest thing to a bowling ball in the Big 12. Steer clear. I know I will.

Who's on your list?


Craig in Wichita, Kan. writes: Two years ago, the Big XII was known for lighting up the scoreboard. Last seasonit was the defenses that took the spotlight. What's going to be the Big XII's signature in 2010?

DU: A conference takes on the identity of its top teams. There's a ton of other great offenses across the Big 12, but look at the top three teams in the league: Nebraska, Texas and Oklahoma. All three should field top-10 defenses in 2010. So even though there are offenses like Texas A&M, Texas Tech and Missouri, the league's going to be known for defense once again. If that's not enough, look around at the Big 12 representatives on any All-American team. Very few offensive players, but lots of defensive guys like Jared Crick at Nebraska, Aaron Williams at Texas or Travis Lewis at Oklahoma.


Cord in College Station, Texas, writes: As a longhorn living in College Station, I've already heard plenty of "noise" from the A&M faithful about this being their year. I know you're an Aggie, too, and I'm just wondering what you're non-biased prediction for the Aggie season is. Hook'em.

DU: I'm afraid you're mistaken. I've never gigged anything or anyone, but nine wins for the Aggies is probably about right. If I had to pick it, they knock off Nebraska at home, but lose to Texas, Oklahoma and Arkansas. They'll need to spring some upsets to win the South.


Craig in Ames, Iowa, writes: Do you think the recent flooding will help or hurt the Cyclones? Will the team-uniting fight against the adversity help, or will the routine-destroying distraction keep ISU from being ready for the first game against NIU?

DU: I don't think it hurts all that much, but if Paul Rhoads' team isn't already one of the league's closest, this sealed it. Some of the guys on that team have been through three coaching staffs, but finally got to experience some real success last season. Really, Iowa State only missed one practice, and though I'm sure there's some family troubles for a few of the players and some difficulty getting around still, I don't see the floods having much of an effect on the on-field product. But it's definitely a memorable experience that should change the way a lot of those guys see the world.


Tony in Lincoln, Neb., writes: Hey Dave, Just curious. What's the best game you've ever seen/been to?

DU: Of the games I've ever seen, it's pretty close between the Texas-Southern Cal Rose Bowl and the Boise State-Oklahoma Fiesta Bowl. I probably said this about 100 times in the weeks following the game, but the best part of that is the hook-and-ladder never works. Ever. It's a great play in theory, but the execution and timing has such a small margin of error required for success, plus it needs a little luck from the defense's call. That makes it impossible to execute. Except that one time.

I also love the big-time clashes. There was just an unfair amount of talent on the field in that national title game between Texas and USC, two teams who 100 percent earned the right to be there. You don't get that with every national championship.

Matt Leinart, Vince Young, Reggie Bush, Jamaal Charles, Lendale White, Steve Smith, Fred Davis, Selvin Young and Limas Sweed are all factors in the NFL now, most of whom I've started on my fantasy teams at least once. And that's just the offenses. Can't forget Aaron Ross, Michael Griffin and Michael Huff in the Longhorns secondary alone. Brian Orakpo and Roy Miller also played down in front. It just doesn't get much better than two premiere programs and NFL factories going at it in a game of that magnitude that delivered the drama, even if you could see that final drive coming the whole time.

Of the game's I've covered, I'd probably go with the Kansas-Missouri Border Showdown at the end of the 2008 season. Gotta love rivalry games, and Kansas-Missouri has been one of the most dramatic in recent seasons. That game was no exception. A ton of offensive talent on the field during a blizzard at Arrowhead Stadium. It included four go-ahead touchdowns in the final seven minutes, and finished with a Todd Reesing floater over Kerry Meier's shoulder on -- what else -- a broken play. Classic game with a classic finish.

Texas secondary back for bigger things

April, 8, 2010
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AUSTIN, Texas -- Mack Brown knows what an NFL defensive back looks like. He's coached plenty. From Michael Huff and Cedric Griffin in 2006, to Michael Griffin and Aaron Ross in 2007 to Earl Thomas in 2009; the Longhorns' secondary has been home to a handful of early draft picks in just the last few years.

That hasn't kept Brown from heaping praise on his 2010 defensive backfield.

"We feel like we’re as good at corner right now, potentially, as we’ve ever been," Brown said.

[+] EnlargeAaron Williams
Brett Davis/US PresswireTexas cornerback Aaron Williams had three interceptions last season, including this one in the Big 12 title game.
His three reasons for smiling at the thought of that potential are Curtis and Chykie Brown, along with Aaron Williams.

"We’re really fortunate right now," Brown said. "All three are potential NFL guys to me."

That means trouble for Big 12 quarterbacks. Though Texas loses Thomas, a safety and finalist for the Jim Thorpe Award as the nation's best defensive back, the Big 12's second-best pass defense a season ago plans to challenge for the top spot in 2010. If Brown's senses are correct, they should be able to do it, and improve on their NO. 19 national ranking at defending the pass.

"We’re more comfortable with [defensive coordinator Will] Muschamp’s scheme; I know I am," Williams said. "A lot of guys are returning guys who are coming back and are more knowledgeable about what he wants to do."

Blake Gideon returns at safety, and Kenny Vaccaro and Nolan Brewster will compete for Thomas' freed-up spot.

"We had high expectations last year, but we’re probably going to have more expectations this year," Williams said. "Our goal right now is to be physical, we’re trying to be one of the most physical DB corps in the nation."

In the Texas spring game to close practice on Sunday, Williams and Vaccaro took steps to establishing that identity. Williams broke up a deep pass early by going over the intended receiver to swat the ball away. Vaccaro unleashed the biggest hit of the exhibition on running back Tre Newton, driving through his teammate on a short pass in the flats.

"We don’t want a team to be like 'Okay, well he’s that one physical person.' We want a team to be like 'Whoa, we’ve got that team coming through,'" Williams said. "As a team, we want to be more physical."

But even in praising them, in the same breath, their coach can't help but think like a coach.

"We’re really pleased with those corners, we just have to find the younger ones, because two of those are seniors and they’ll be gone," Brown said.

Not to mention Williams, a junior who enters 2010 with a legitimate case as the Big 12's top defender and whose future could includes an early entry into the 2011 NFL draft. That would leave Brown without any of his three future pro corners. But he's already picked out a few successors, including A.J. White and Eryon Barnett.

"We’ve got to find somebody to step up," Brown said.

Texas' all-decade team

January, 21, 2010
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Mack Brown revived the glory at Texas in the last decade, claiming at least 10 victories in each of the last nine seasons, including a 25-2 record in the last two seasons. The Longhorns have finished in the top 10 in five of the last six seasons.

Darrell K. Royal/Texas Memorial Stadium now has more than 100,00 seats. The Longhorns have a designated successor for Brown in place with rising star Will Muschamp. And that pesky problem with Bob Stoops has been alleviated recently with four victories in the last five seasons over the Sooners.

Times are good for Brown.

Here's a look at the Longhorns’ all-decade team during that time.

OFFENSE

QB: Vince Young

RB: Jamaal Charles

RB: Cedric Benson

WR: Jordan Shipley

WR: Roy Williams

TE: David Thomas

OL: Justin Blalock

OL: Jonathan Scott

OL: Derrick Dockery

OL: Leonard Davis

C: Lyle Sendlein

DEFENSE

DL: Brian Orakpo

DL: Cory Redding

DL: Shaun Rogers

DL: Casey Hampton

LB: Sergio Kindle

LB: Derrick Johnson

LB: Roddrick Muckelroy

DB: Earl Thomas

DB: Michael Huff

DB: Nathan Vasher

DB: Aaron Ross

P: Richmond McGee

K: Hunter Lawrence

KR: Quan Cosby

Offensive player of the decade: QB Vince Young. The most electrifying player of the decade capped his career by scoring the game-winning touchdown to lead his team to the national championship in his final drive. Brown finished with a 30-2 record, 6.040 passing yards and 3,127 rushing yards.

Defensive player of the decade: LB Derrick Johnson. He wasn’t around when the Longhorns won the national championship, but was perhaps the best player at his position at the school since Tommy Nobis. He capped his career with the Nagurski and Butkus Awards after earning All-America honors in each of his last two seasons.

Coach of the decade: Mack Brown. Remember when people used to joke about his inability to win big games or how he coddled his players. That all changed as the decade progressed. Brown got tougher and made some astute moves at defensive coordinator to help his program take the next step with the addition of coaches like Gene Chizik and Will Muschamp.

Moment of the decade: Vince Young’s run leads comeback victory to the 2005 national championship. Young’s game-winning 8-yard TD run with 19 seconds left boosted the Longhorns to a 41-38 victory over USC in the 2006 Rose Bowl, providing the margin of victory in one of the greatest college football games in history. Michael Huff’s fourth-down stop of LenDale White on the preceding drive set up Young’s heroics to snap the Trojans’ 34-game winning streak.

Departure of UT's Thomas isn't a shock

January, 9, 2010
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It’s not really a surprise that Texas sophomore safety Earl Thomas declared Friday night for the NFL draft.

[+] EnlargeEarl Thomas
AP Photo/Sue OgrockiTexas' Earl Thomas set a team record with eight interceptions this season.
Thomas is coming off one of the best seasons for a Texas defensive back in school history in 2009. The redshirt sophomore had eight interceptions, which broke Noble Doss’ mark of seven interceptions that was set in 1940. Thomas ran two of them back for touchdowns to set another record.

If there’s such a thing as “The Natural” among defensive backs, it's Thomas. He isn’t overly big or physical (5-foot-10, 197 pounds) but he has the uncanny instincts to stick with any receiver. His skills definitely will translate well to the next level.

Thomas isn't as physically gifted as either Eric Berry of Tennessee or USC’s Taylor Mays. Both figure to be picked ahead of Thomas unless he has an off-the-charts workout for NFL scouts later this spring.

Thomas was a finalist for the Thorpe Award in 2009 and would have been the favorite for the award if he had remained for his junior season in 2010.

If he had stayed for another season and had another productive year, it’s not out of the question that Thomas could have developed into the greatest defensive back in Texas football history.

As it is, he’ll be in the conversation with players like Tarell Brown, Cedric and Michael Griffin, Michael Huff, Quentin Jammer, Aaron Ross and Nathan Vasher. All left Texas for a career as a starting defensive back in the NFL. Huff and Ross left with Thorpe awards in back-to-back seasons in 2005 and 2006.

With Thomas leaving, sophomore Nolan Brewster could move into the starting job when spring practice begins for the Longhorns late next month.

A more likely scenario might be to move Blake Gideon to the tight safety position to make room for game-breaking defensive back Christian Scott at Gideon’s current position at free safety.

Scott was giving Gideon a serious challenge in fall camp this year before he was academically suspended. His ferocious hits would provide an intimidating presence to the secondary that was missing this year.

But whoever takes over Thomas' spot will be attempting to fill a sizable void that makes Texas’ rebuilding job a little more daunting.

How Texas compares with 2005 title team

November, 10, 2009
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Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin

As Texas streaks to its second 9-0 start since 1983, it’s understandable that some are already comparing this year’s team to the other team that started that fast.

Texas’ 2005 national championship team is the benchmark for all of the other Texas teams coached by Mack Brown. And this team appears to be the closest to the national championship squad in many respects.

While Brown says such comparisons are premature, he does say his current team’s fast start makes for some inevitable comparisons.
Brendan Maloney/US Presswire
Colt McCoy and the Longhorns have drawn comparisons to the 2005 national championship team.

“I would think you could compare them because there’s been only one close game for this team and for that team in 2005,” Brown said. “It was the Ohio State game in 2005 and the Oklahoma game this year that was in question late in the ballgame.”

But in order to meet the challenge of matching the 2005 team, Colt McCoy’s team will have to match the finishing kick of Vince Young’s team.

“At this time, they’ve earned the right to be in conversation with the 2005 team,” Brown said. “But they haven’t earned the right to be considered as good because they have to finish like that bunch did.”

The 2005 national championship led the conference in 11 statistical categories; the current team leads it in five. The 2005 team was the nation’s leading scoring team and led the nation in pass efficiency. The current team is more defensively oriented as it leads the nation in rushing defense and scoring defense and ranks second in kickoff returns.

The 2005 title team ranked 10th or better in 10 of the 17 team statistical categories tracked by the NCAA. The 2009 team ranked 10th or better in eight of those team statistical groups.

Here's a position-by-position comparison of the two teams:

Quarterbacks: Both teams featured quarterbacks who were involved in the Heisman Trophy race. The 2005 team had Vince Young, a multi-purpose player who accounted for 3,036 passing yards and 26 touchdown passes. Most importantly, he provided leadership for a team that had never won a Big 12 title under Brown. McCoy redshirted on that team, earning the opportunity to soak up lessons watching Young’s leadership. He’s capping the most productive statistical career for a Texas quarterback by passing for 2,447 yards and 17 touchdowns with at least three games remaining -- not counting a potential Big 12 championship game and a bowl. And his leadership skills are comparable with Young’s in guiding his team to an undefeated season so far.

Edge: Even

Rushing game: The 2005 team relied on Young, who rushed for a team-high 1,050 yards and scored 12 touchdowns and also had a strong starter in Jamaal Charles and an outstanding change-of-pace player in Ramonce Taylor. That team produced 55 rushing touchdowns and had five different backs with eight rushing touchdowns or more. The current team’s rushing game might be its major weakness without a featured rushing threat, as no current back has rushed for more than 275 yards. Depending on game situations, the team has utilized any of three starters, but its most consistent producer has been Cody Johnson, who will become its fourth starter this week against Baylor.
Mark J. Rebilas/US Presswire
Vince Young quarterbacked the 2005 Texas team to the national title.
Edge: 2005 Texas

Receivers/Tight end: The 2005 team had a stacked collection of receivers led by top deep threat Billy Pittman and Limas Sweed. But the most consistent receiving threat for Young was tight end David Thomas, who produced 50 receptions, including a career-best 10 in the BCS title game victory over USC. But that team had no receiving threat to match Jordan Shipley, who has already produced 75 catches, four double-figure reception games and broken the school single-game receiving yardage record. Dan Buckner developed early into a receiving threat at flex end and Malcolm Williams, James Kirkendoll and John Chiles all have been strong in an offense that has lived by short passes. But Shipley has been the focal point of a passing game that features short, quick passes as its primary offensive weapon.

Edge: 2009 Texas

Offensive line: The 2005 team featured three-first team All-Big 12 picks in Justin Blalock, Jonathan Scott and Will Allen. Because of Young's mobility, that team allowed only 14 sacks and produced 5.9 yards per carry and 55 rushing touchdowns. The current team is nearly as strong with key players like Adam Ulatoski, Charlie Tanner and Chris Hall, who have currently combined for 99 career starts and should be peaking as the season continues. The current team is producing 3.9 yards per carry, 16 sacks and 20 rushing touchdowns.

Edge: 2005 Texas

Defensive line: The 2005 team featured first-team All-Big 12 players like Rodrique Wright and Tim Crowder and pass-rushing specialist Brian Robison, a converted linebacker who led the team with sacks. But that team didn’t feature anybody as proficient as Sergio Kindle or a run-stuffing tackle like Lamarr Houston. It’s the main reason the current Texas team leads the nation in rush defense (55.33 yards per game), total defense (230.78 yards per game) and ranks in the top 20 in both sacks and tackles for losses. The 2005 team was 39th nationally in sacks and 29th in tackles for losses.

Edge: 2009 Texas

Linebackers: The 2005 unit was at its weakest at linebacker where no players earned All-Big 12 first-team or second-team designation. Robert Killebrew was that team’s only player to earn honorable mention. The current team features an anchor in the middle in senior linebacker Roddrick Muckelroy, flanked by Keenan Robinson and Emmanuel Acho. Will Muschamp’s unit seldom uses three linebackers except in run-stuffing situations, preferring to use a nickel formation. But his current group still has the edge at linebacker over the championship team.

Edge: 2009 Texas

Secondary: The 2005 team might be one of the great college units of all time. That team featured the Thorpe Award winner in Michael Huff and another all-league player in Cedric Griffin. Huff, Cedric Griffin, Michael Griffin, Aaron Ross and Tarell Brown all were drafted in the NFL and had eventual pro careers. The unit was nearly impermeable as it broke up 85 passes and permitted only two teams to pass for more than 200 yards against them. The current group is young and skilled and might develop into as strong of a group with experience.

Earl Thomas has played like the best defensive back in the country this season with six interceptions, including two touchdown returns. Curtis Brown, Chykie Brown, Aaron Williams and Blake Gideon have already helped the defense combine for 16 interceptions. And the group is playing with swagger as the season continues.

The current group could match the eventual production of the 2005 team, but it still has to get there.

Edge: 2005 Texas

Special teams: Neither team had to punt very often, but Hunter Lawrence has a narrow edge over David Pino at kicker for his consistency and range. The biggest difference is in the return game. The current team features two threats with D.J. Monroe (two TDs, 36.5 yards kick return average) and Shipley (14.5 punt return average, two TDs), giving it an edge over Ramonce Taylor and Aaron Ross (14.7 punt return average, two TDs).

Edge: 2009 Texas

Coaching: With largely the same cast of coaches, the 2009 team appears to be better coached. In 2005, Brown was trying for his first Big 12 title and utilized defensive co-coordinators with Gene Chizik and Duane Akina. It often seemed that the individual talents of Young took over the game during that championship season. But this team features a better job by Greg Davis as he compensates for his team’s lack of a consistent running game by developing a crafty passing game utilizing quick short passes. And the defense has taken big steps this season in its second season under Muschamp.

Edge:2009 Texas

Intangibles: The 2005 team was trying to become Brown’s first Big 12 title team and played well throughout. It started with a dramatic comeback victory over Ohio State and continued with a run through the Big 12 that featured no victory less than 11 points. The 2005 team needed a comeback over Oklahoma State, but Young helped the team peak as the Longhorns scored at least 40 points in 12 games. The team rolled to victories of 62, 52 and 11 points in November before notching a record-breaking 70-3 triumph over Colorado in the Big 12 title game and the 41-38 BCS title game victory over USC.

This team hasn’t faced many tests, although it did handle Oklahoma in a 16-13 triumph that ranks as its closest margin. Other than that game, the 2009 Longhorns have rolled up at least 34 points in every game and allowed more than 20 points on only two occasions. But it still has its chance to finish strongly in November like the 2005 team did.

Edge: 2005 Texas

If they met: The 2005 team still would merit a slight edge, mainly because this team doesn’t have a transcendent talent like Young. But the current team is developing and could have a chance to match the championship with a strong finish.

Edge: 2005 Texas

Tim's mailbag: Texas should be Defensive Back U

March, 27, 2009
3/27/09
4:00
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin

Spring practice has sparked an outpouring of letters and e-mails about the events taking place across the Big 12. Here are some of the more notable missives I received this week.

Jonny from Chicago writes: Hey, Tim. Are any Big 12 schools known for the type of NFL positions prospects they have produced over the years. For instance, Penn State is commonly referred to as "Linebacker U" and USC has the nickname of "Tailback U". Any in the Big 12 you can think of?

Tim Griffin: Good question. There aren't any as notable as the ones you mentioned, but here are a few of the most notable trends I could find when I thought about the Big 12 and the NFL draft.

Colorado: Wide receivers. The Buffaloes have had four first-round selections since 1991, although none since 1997. Included in the list are Rae Carruth, Charles Johnson, Michael Westbrook and Mike Pritchard.

Texas: Defensive backs. This is the conference's most consistent factory at any position. The Longhorns have six first-round selections at the position since 1991 -- Stanley Richard, Bryant Westbrook, Quentin Jammer, Michael Huff, Michael Griffin and Aaron Ross. It's almost like a machine turning out No. 1 picks under defensive backs coach Duane Akina.

Nebraska: Defensive ends. The Cornhuskers have had six defensive ends picked in the first two rounds of the NFL draft since 1997. That's included key producers like Grant Wistrom, Adam Carriker, Mike Rucker, Kyle Vanden Bosch and Chris Kelsay.

Oklahoma: It's more quantity for the Sooners than top-round quality, with nine defensive backs picked since Bob Stoops took over. That list has included only two first-round selections -- Roy Williams and Andre Woolfolk.


Steve from Overland Park, Kan., writes: Tim, if you were starting an NFL team and you could have your choice of any Big 12 player who is on a college roster this spring, who would you pick.

Tim Griffin: Given the choice, I think Oklahoma quarterback Sam Bradford would look awfully good on my team. I like his size and arm a little better than Colt McCoy, and I also think Bradford will hold up better in the NFL. Among others I would strongly consider include Oklahoma tight end Jermaine Gresham, Oklahoma defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, Oklahoma State wide receiver Dez Bryant, Texas defensive end/linebacker Sergio Kindle and Baylor defensive tackle Phil Taylor.


G from Gering, Neb., writes: Will you be attending any of Nebraska's spring practices this year? And what are you specifically looking for?

Tim Griffin: G, I'm headed up there to watch on Saturday morning if I don't get snowed out along the way. I know most coaches have vanilla workouts when the media is around. But I'll be curious if Zac Lee's arm is really as good as I've heard. I'm also going to be looking at Nebraska's receivers as they replace the sizable hole created by the departure of Nate Swift and Todd Peterson. And I'll be curious to see what kind of attitude the Cornhuskers have on defense. They need to be more aggressive in terms of creating turnovers. And if I know Bo Pelini, he's probably coaching that into them from their first spring practice.


Jason from Fort Collins, Colo., writes: Tim: In an offensive conference like the Big 12, who do you see as having the top defenses for this upcoming season?

Tim Griffin: I would expect the conference's top two defenses to be Oklahoma and Texas, who I also think will have the conference's two best teams.

I like Oklahoma's just a little bit more because of the return of players like McCoy, Jeremy Beal, Travis Lewis and Dominique Franks. If the Sooners can find a couple of safeties, they'll be one of the best in the country.

And linebackers Austin Box and Ryan Reynolds and defensive end Auston English could be among the best players in the conference at their best position if they can come back from injuries. Their return will only boost the production of Brent Venables' unit.

I also like Texas if they can find some help for Kindle along the defensive front. I expect some of the younger players in the secondary to challenge existing starters for playing time.

And I think Nebraska can be very good as the Cornhuskers work for the second season under Pelini. They need for Barry Turner to come back healthy at defensive end. And it will be interesting to see if Jared Crick is as good as I'm hearing at defensive tackle next to Ndamukong Suh.

Not coincedentially, those three teams should be among the best in the Big 12 this year. I think the teams with the best defenses will have a huge advantage in a conference like the Big 12 where the offenses will be so potent.


N. Hodgin from Alpharetta, Ga., writes: Tim, Where did Patrick Witt transfer to?

Tim Griffin: It still is undetermined, although I hear he's considering UCLA, Stanford, Duke and Yale.

Obviously, the question for him will be whether he wants to play immediately, which he could do if he went to an FCS school. Recent Big 12 transfers like Rhett Bomar and Bobby Reid were able to do that.

If Witt wants to play at another FBS school, he'll have to sit out a year.

His family has hinted to several Nebraska newspapers that he might move and give up his football career.

But I frankly don't see that happening. I would look for him to end up at another FBS school, getting a year to learn the offense before playing again 2010.


Zeyad from Tulsa writes: Oklahoma has a good chance at going undefeated this year as long as they get by Texas. But with the Sooners' soft schedule and their recent letdowns in big games do you think there's a chance they will get voted out of the national championship game if they finish undefeated? Especially if it would end up being a rematch of last season?

Tim Griffin: Zeyad, I think that any team that goes undefeated in the Big 12 is going to have a great shot at playing for the national championship. And I would also argue about Oklahoma having a soft schedule. The Sooners will be playing bowl teams like BYU and Tulsa and also have a trip to Miami among their nonconference games. That's in addition to playing all of the schools in the Big 12 South along with road games at projected Big 12 North title contenders Kansas and Nebraska and a potential Big 12 championship game. The Sooners won't have to apologize for that schedule.

Thanks again for all of the e-mails and letters and please keep them coming. We'll check back again next week.

Palmer develops as leader in Texas secondary

November, 13, 2008
11/13/08
10:38
AM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin

Experience does matter. Just look at the Texas secondary if you don't believe it.

With all of the young talent roaming the field on the Longhorns' talented secondary, there still needs to be an emotional anchor. And senior cornerback Ryan Palmer has provided that for his team.

Palmer has become an ex-officio member of the Texas coaching staff this season as he has helped guide a group of six freshmen defensive backs to grow up quickly.

"It's been fun being around with all of the young guys," Palmer said. "It's kind of like I'm the big brother around here. It's a challenge to make sure that we are doing the right thing."

Despite struggling with an assortment of injuries this season, Palmer has been a key producer for the Longhorns when he's been able to play. And he's served in a bigger role with his leadership and versatility, playing a variety of positions thanks to his experience with Texas' defensive philosophy.

The secondary was expected to be Texas' weak link this season but Palmer -- a connection to the program's storied past that featured back-to-back Thorpe Award winners in Michael Huff and Aaron Ross earlier in his career -- is helping them get there.

"Ryan has been a solid piece for us," Texas secondary coach Duane Akina said. "He's had a chance to see all of those guys before him. It's been nice to see him emerge and to pass on the things that were passed on to him. This young group has a chance to be really good down the line because of their talent and what he's helped them with."

And he's provided some key plays in the process. Palmer produced a pivotal interception in last week's game against Baylor.

After jumping to a quick 14-0 lead, the Bears stormed back with two quick touchdowns and appeared to have snatched momentum away after a missed Texas field goal early in the second quarter.

"We were sitting on the bench wondering if somebody could step up and give us a play," Akina said. "We needed somebody to give us a spark."

That's when Palmer stepped up. On the next play from scrimmage, Palmer grabbed a ball that was deflected off the hands of Baylor receiver Kendall Wright and scooted untouched 22 yards for the touchdown. The Longhorns never trailed after that and went on to claim a definitive victory to keep their BCS hopes alive.

"It was fitting for him to make that play," Texas coach Mack Brown said. "He had helped Duane Akina hold that secondary together this season. It's been hard, but he's done everything right. He's been here after overcoming knee operations, a pulled hamstring and his dislocated elbow. And he's played well for us."

Palmer and the young secondary will face another challenge Saturday at Kansas. The Jayhawks' aerial attack, featuring Todd Reesing and Dezmon Briscoe, will test them again.

It's just another week in the Big 12 with the Longhorns still harboring serious national championship hopes if they can keep winning.

"We just have to be focused every week because we're still in it," Palmer said. "If we win out, we'll be fine. That's just how we have to approach it."

Orakpo's boxing work trains him for monster senior season

October, 2, 2008
10/02/08
2:20
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin

 
 Brian Bahr/Getty Images
 Texas' Brian Orakpo is second in the nation with 5.5 sacks.

Continued work with jabs, uppercuts and roundhouse punches this summer have helped spark Texas defensive end Brian Orakpo's monster senior season so far.

Orakpo and Texas defensive tackle Lamarr Houston pulled out the speed bags and labored in a boxing regimen that helped both build explosiveness and endurance.

The work has paid off handsomely so far as Texas leads the nation with 16 sacks and Orakpo is second nationally with 5.5 sacks.

"When I first started, I didn't know how hard it was," Orakpo told reporters earlier this week. "Street fighting and boxing are two different things."

And although they never had a full sparring session, Houston was impressed with Orakpo's talent in the ring.

"Rak is a big, strong guy," he said.

That he is. The 6-foot-4, 260-pounder has made a successful comeback from knee surgery that caused him to miss much of last season to emerge as one of the nation's most dominant pass-rushing threats.

"I really feel like I'm at the top of my game and where I've always wanted to be," Orakpo said. "The setback put me back for a long time. I worked really hard to push myself to get back into condition in a lot of different ways. I think I'm even more stronger and flexible than I was before."

(Read full post)

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