Big 12: Antonio Johnson
Strongest position: Wide receiver
Key returnees: Kendall Wright, Josh Gordon, Terrance Williams, Tevin Reese, Lanear Sampson
Key losses: None, although tight end Brad Taylor graduated after catching 20 passes for 269 yards last year.
Analysis: Quarterback Robert Griffin III keys Baylor's offense, but he's got plenty of targets to throw to, and last year he distributed the ball well. All five of his top receivers had at least 40 receptions and 390 yards, and Wright led the group with 79 receptions for 952 yards and seven scores. Wright is already one of the Big 12's best receivers. Gordon could become one this year after emerging as a big red-zone target at 6-foot-4 and 220 pounds. Former blue-chip recruit Darius Jones also looked impressive during my visit to Waco for spring practice last week. Because Griffin has so many targets and isn't forced to rely on just one, none of the five may ascend to the Big 12's absolute elite, but Gordon and Wright both have that potential. At worst, all five will be solid and keep Baylor's passing game a huge boost to the Bears hopes at being a Big 12 title contender.
Weakest position: Linebacker
Key returnees: Elliot Coffey, Chris McAllister
Key losses: Antonio Johnson, Chris Francis, Earl Patin
Analysis: Baylor already ranked ninth in the Big 12 in rush defense last season, and loses Francis and Johnson, two of four Bears to make at least 70 tackles last season. Johnson was also one of the defense's leaders. The Bears' D has had problems stopping the run early in spring practice, and needs someone to help solidify the defense's second line. McAllister has plenty of potential after a strong freshman season in 2010, but he'll need to turn that potential into production to help the linebackers eliminate their status as a weakness before the season. Baylor loses both safeties -- the team's two leading tacklers from last season. Though the depth chart is still very much in flux, there's plenty of talent on the back line, as Ahmad Dixon and Mike Hicks that could be ready to replace Tim Atchison and Byron Landor.
First up: the Baylor Bears.
Art Briles' 7-5 team is in the postseason for the first time in 1994, ready to face Illinois in the Texas Bowl in Houston. The bowl drought is over, now comes the next step: winning it.
So, who's on the spot?
Defensive tackle Phil Taylor. The Penn State transfer goes by "Big Phil" and for good reason: He's a very NFL-like 6-foot-4 and 340 pounds in the middle of Baylor's defense. He had an underwhelming debut season in 2009, but earned All-Big 12 honors in 2010 after making seven tackles for loss and 52 tackles as a senior. He also forced a fumble and broke up a pair of passes.
That's nice, but the Bears need Taylor to be at his best clogging up the middle and pushing the interior of the Illinois offensive line into its backfield. The Fighting Illini's 569 rushing attempts were the most in the Big Ten and running back Mikel Leshoure led the league's running backs in rushing, with 1,522 yards. That's almost 400 yards more than his closest competition at the position. His highlight was a 330-yard day against Northwestern earlier this year, the highest total of any FBS player this season. Illinois loves to run it with LeShoure and quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase, but Taylor could put the kibosh on a repeat performance from LeShoure with a big day himself. He can't do it by himself, of course; linebacker Antonio Johnson and defensive end Tevin Elliott could help with big games, too, but Taylor is the first line of defense.
At the very least, if Taylor's not in the backfield, he could serve the defense well by getting all the stops he can against the running attack. LeShoure averaged six yards a carry this season; if Taylor is within arm's reach of a ballcarrier, any tackle that limits an Illini player to just a couple yards is a big play for the Bears.
LeShoure averaged over 183 yards in his final four games of 2010 with eight touchdowns, and Paul Petrino's offense will be intent on heading for a fifth consecutive game of at least 100 yards for the back.
Prevent that, force redshirt fresman Scheelhaase to throw the ball more than the gameplan calls for, and Baylor will be well on its way to a bowl win.
I'm headed to Columbia this weekend for Missouri and Oklahoma, and I'll be milling around "College GameDay" on Saturday. Last week was another good week of picks for the Big 12 blog, even if my margins of victory were maybe the most off of any week this season. Texas' win over Nebraska was my only whiff of the week.
Texas (UCLA, Nebraska) joined Kansas (North Dakota State, Georgia Tech) and Texas Tech (Baylor, Iowa State) as the only three teams whose games I've picked incorrectly more than once this season.
Last week: 5-1 (.833)
Overall: 51-8 (.864)
No. 19 Texas 31, Iowa State 7: Iowa State hasn't looked like the improved team I thought they'd be this year, and Texas' defense looks like its back to its old ways. As for Paul Rhoads' preseason comments, we're seeing the worse record. I'm not so sure about the better team.
No. 16 Nebraska 38, No. 14 Oklahoma State 27: This is my pick of the week. Come back later today for a video of me explaining my pick.
Baylor 34, No. 22 Kansas State 21: Kansas State's defense looked pretty slow against Nebraska. Get ready for more of that when Baylor has the ball with speedsters like Kendall Wright and Robert Griffin making plenty of plays. Up front, defensive tackle Phil Taylor wins the battle on the line of scrimmage and gives way to a big game from lineback Antonio Johnson, who limits Daniel Thomas' effectiveness. Throw the Oasis' "Wonderwall" single in the tape deck and whip out your VHS of "Forrest Gump," Baylor fans. We're back in 1994 again.
Texas Tech 34, Colorado 24: I almost picked an upset special in this one, but Colorado's offense won't be able to keep up with the Red Raiders.
Texas A&M 44, Kansas 7: I've picked Kansas to lose close the last two times they've played. Not this week. The Aggies take their anger out on the Jayhawks, who don't have the talent on defense to keep up with the Aggies' weapons in every facet of the game on offense.
No. 1 Oklahoma 31, No. 11 Missouri 27: The emotion of the team and atmosphere helps the Tigers jump out to an early lead, but Oklahoma's too strong. Missouri's corners have looked good so far, but they haven't covered a receiver this year as difficult to blanket as Ryan Broyles. Breaking up passes on jump balls to Jeff Fuller is a lot different than trying to keep the league leader in receptions from getting open.
Record: 4-2 (1-1 Big 12)
The goal for Baylor is clear: Bowl or bust. Through six games, the Bears are right on track for the former, even with a tough loss to Texas Tech in the Cotton Bowl on Saturday. The Bears were dominant in their first three wins and dominated in their first loss to TCU, but crunch time for the Bears is right now. They travel to Colorado on Saturday and host Kansas State next weekend for two very winnable games, two games that would officially give the Bears bowl eligibility. Drop either game, and the Bears would have to steal an upset on a four-game gauntlet of Big 12 South teams (at Texas, at Oklahoma State, Texas A&M and Oklahoma), four games which should all feature Baylor in a clear underdog role. The Bears beat Texas A&M solidly in Waco, 41-21, the last time the two teams played and Baylor had Robert Griffin. The Bears have a much-improved defense that ranks third in the Big 12 in scoring defense. To knock off Colorado and Kansas State and relieve some of the pressure down the stretch, they'll have to continue that.
Offensive MVP: QB Robert Griffin – Griffin has returned and been better than ever, and is a dark-horse candidate as Big 12 Offensive Player of the Year. He's set career highs in two consecutive weeks with 380 and 384 passing yards and has shown off an improved deep ball, throwing touchdowns of 34 and 62 yards against Texas Tech. He's also run for 239 yards on 55 carries, including a 30-yard touchdown among his six scores on the ground. Griffin is every bit the franchise player he once was, maturing as a passer and refining his skills through the air, while still possessing the elusiveness and speed that garnered him so much attention as a freshman.
Defensive MVP: DE Tevin Elliott – Baylor has discovered a star in the freshman defensive end, who already has five sacks and seven tackles for loss in his first five games on the field. He has 20 tackles and has also forced a fumble and broken up a pair of passes. Linebacker Antonio Johnson and safety Byron Landor, who's earning a reputation as one of the conference's hardest hitters, also deserve mention as key contributors on a unit that's helped Baylor get off to a hot start early. In the four wins this year, the defense has given up just two touchdowns.
What’s new: Baylor wants to stray from its recent status as a guaranteed win for teams across the Big 12 -- at least according to the fans of those teams. The Bears have won just three conference games in two years, but coach Art Briles says this is his most talented and deepest team since taking over in 2008.
Key battle: Byron Landor will have to fight off incoming freshman Ahmad Dixon, one of the program's most heavily recruited signees, to earn one of the starting safety positions, and Tim Atchison left the spring as the other starter on the defense's back line. Briles says the young players will play, but also says he needs a big year from Landor, who he tabbed as one of the leaders of his defense.
New on the scene: Running back Jarred Salubi will back up senior starter Jay Finley, but as a freshman, Salubi averaged just under 6 yards per carry on his 50 carries, second-most in the Big 12. He'll try to keep that average with more touches in 2010.
Breaking out: Senior linebacker Antonio Johnson had 77 tackles last season and is the Bears' leading returning tackler, but Briles complained at last week's media days that players like him deserve more attention, and he's one of the reasons star quarterback Robert Griffin stayed home, away from a day in front of the cameras. Big 12 ball carriers will get a chance to know the man the Bears call "Cuddy" well in 2010.
Don’t forget about: Defensive tackle Phil Taylor. Taylor has dropped some weight and Briles is hopeful Taylor, a transfer from Penn State, can fulfill more of the potential that made him the 2009 Preseason Newcomer of the Year. Taylor made 13 tackles in Baylor's first three games, but just 12 for the remainder of the season.
All eyes on: Griffin. The big question for the Bears is how Griffin will respond after missing the final nine games of 2009 with a torn ACL. The answer will decide the legitimacy of the Bears' hopes for the their first bowl game since 1994.
Quoting: "We're physically the best football team we've been from just as far as the talent standpoint. You know, the guys -- I mean, they have a very determined attitude, which we have to have. I mean, that's -- we understand what we have to do. We know we have to become a bowl-eligible football team, first and foremost, and then we'll go from there. From that standpoint also, it's very inspiring. It's a great place for a lot of people to have a lot of inspiration, and that's why I'm proud that I'm right in the middle of it." -- Baylor coach Art Briles
More opening camps:
The team marketed its 2009 campaign around the star, and brought him to media days as a sophomore in 2009.
"I talked to Robert about coming today," coach Art Briles said. "You know, there's a lot of really good football players at Baylor University. Everybody knows Robert Griffin. A lot of people don't know [linebacker] Antonio Johnson -- that his nickname's 'Cuddy.' They don't know Danny Watkins, that he was a firefighter and a hockey player before he ever played football. They may not know about Phil Taylor, that he's a transfer from Penn State and that he's transformed himself into what we think he needs to be as a football player to contribute to our football team."
Taylor was voted Big 12 preseason Newcomer of the Year in 2009, an honor given to Colorado receiver Toney Clemons before this season. Taylor proved inconsistent and overweight, but he's lost 25 pounds this offseason and Briles hopes his defensive tackle can plug the middle of the defense more efficiently.
"He really didn't do the things he needed to do," Briles said. "So I told him this year, we're going to pass judgment after six ballgames. After six games, we'll see where he's at. I think I know where he's at, but I thought I knew a year ago, too, and I found out I wasn't as smart as I thought I was."
Watkins, the Bears' starting left tackle, had to turn down an offer from the Canadian Football League's British Columbia Lions, who drafted the lineman in May.
"Quite honestly, I wasn't concerned about him going to the CFL, even though he is from Canada," Briles said. "He understands where his potential could lead him, and that's going to be in the NFL. But first of all, being a great player for Baylor this fall."
- Big 12 commissioner Dan Beebe says the odds on a legal fight over Nebraska's withdrawal fee are "zero," writes Lee Barfknecht of the Omaha World-Herald.
- Baylor linebacker Antonio Johnson guaranteed a win over Oklahoma and/or Texas this season, reports Jake Trotter of The Oklahoman.
- Nebraska's players showed up to media days with bracelets that read ":01" and "Finish."
- Colorado leaving the Big 12 in 2011 is inching closer toward reality from formality, reports Kyle Ringo of the Boulder Daily Camera.
- Nebraska RB signee Braylon Heard likely won't be enrolled for camp this fall, reports Brian Christopherson of the Lincoln Journal Star.
- Todd Reesing's career is being made into a book for release very soon, according to Kansas' website.
- If asked, Nebraska AD Tom Osborne will speak at Big Ten media days.
- Nebraska receiver Niles Paul held a team meeting, apologized, collected a few hugs and moved on from his legal issues this offseason, writes Jon Nyatawa of the Omaha World-Herald.
- One of Oklahoma State's top safeties, Victor Johnson, was arrested and will be charged with possession of marijuana, reports Bill Haisten of the Tulsa World.
- Iowa State's Rashawn Parker and Alexander Robinson took part in a pancake-eating contest on Sunday night in Dallas, writes Bobby La Gesse of the Ames Tribune.
One quick note, defensive tackle Jared Crick has replaced Prince Amukamara as the Huskers representative. Amukamara stayed in Lincoln so he could take an exam, according to the Lincoln Journal Star.
Here's your full guide to media days.
And here's who'll be up first on Day 1. (all times ET)
2:00 Nebraska: Coach Bo Pelini, WR Niles Paul, DE Pierre Allen, DT Jared Crick
2:45 Baylor: Coach Art Briles, LB Antonio Johnson, OT Danny Watkins, DT Phil Taylor
3:30 Iowa State: Coach Paul Rhoads, QB Austen Arnaud, RB Alexander Robinson, DE Rashawn Parker
4:15 Texas A&M: Coach Mike Sherman, QB Jerrod Johnson, LB Von Miller, DT Lucas Patterson
Remember, you can watch each team's time on the podium live at Big12Sports.com.
What should you expect?
- Nebraska will obviously be asked plenty about the coaches and players' perspective on leaving the Big 12, along with the intensified rivalry with Texas. On the field, the situation at quarterback is the obvious conversation piece, but expect coach Bo Pelini to elaborate on why this year's defense could be better than the Huskers' top-ranked unit last season, as well as sophomore Rex Burkhead's role in the offense.
- Baylor QB Robert Griffin III won't be making the trip, but that won't stop the room full of reporters from asking coach Art Briles about Griffin's progress, both physically and mentally from last season's knee injury. Also, expect the words "bowl drought" to surface early.
- For Iowa State, it's continuing to progress from last year's success in the face of one of the toughest schedules in the Big 12. The Cyclones return just four starters on defense, so the new guys should be discussed at length. Parker should be one of that defense's stars. Good money says some reporter will try to bait coach Paul Rhoads into making some quotable comment about being picked last in the North, but I wouldn't expect any Sabanesque one-liners. Iowa State's been the subject of one of the biggest news stories in the Big 12 in the past week, the investigation surrounding an incident involving the Big 12 Newcomer of the Year, defensive back David Sims. Depending on how much Rhoads knows -- or can disclose -- about the case, expect an update there. At the very least, he should be able to update those in attendance on Sims' status with the team.
- Lofty expectations, thy name is Aggie. This should be an entertaining session. Both Jerrod Johnson and Von Miller can be funny and insightful, and at the end of the day, the room will thank them if the bright lights don't change that. Texas A&M wasn't shying away from the league's expectations of them this spring, and there's no reason to think that'll change.
- Barring breaking news between now and this afternoon, agents won't be making headlines like they did at SEC Media Days last week, considering no Big 12 schools are currently being investigated for sketchy contact (that's a technical term) with agents by the NCAA. But the issue will surely come up several times during the week.
- Don't expect fireworks. The coaches and players didn't have a ton of pull in the decisions that were made this summer, and I'd be surprised if anyone spoke candidly on the record about their thoughts surrounding this summer's realignment, especially after Texas Tech coach Tommy Tuberville's public reprimand and possible fines looming for future violators. Like I said then, there's little for coaches to gain from brutal honesty on the issue. I expect everyone to play nice.
First thing I noticed: Nebraska (first) and Texas (last) are as far away as possible. Though I don't think the week is going to be as conducive to fireworks as some believe, it should still be plenty entertaining.
Media Days run July 26-28, and here's when to look for who on your team. (all times ET)
Monday, July 26
2:00 Nebraska: Coach Bo Pelini, WR Niles Paul, DE Pierre Allen, CB Prince Amukamara
2:45 Baylor: Coach Art Briles, LB Antonio Johnson, OT Danny Watkins
3:30 Iowa State: Coach Paul Rhoads, QB Austen Arnaud, RB Alexander Robinson, DE Rashawn Parker
4:15 Texas A&M: Coach Mike Sherman, QB Jerrod Johnson, LB Von Miller, DT Lucas Patterson
Tuesday, July 27
10:00 Missouri: Coach Gary Pinkel, QB Blaine Gabbert, RB Derrick Washington, CB Kevin Rutland
10:45 Oklahoma State: Coach Mike Gundy, QB Brandon Weeden, LB Orie Lemon, DE Jamie Blatnick
11:30 Kansas State: Coach Bill Snyder, RB Daniel Thomas, S Tysyn Hartman, OL Zach Kendall
12:15 Texas Tech: Coach Tommy Tuberville, QB Taylor Potts, QB Steven Sheffield, DL Colby Whitlock
Wednesday, July 28
10:00 Kansas: Coach Turner Gill, DE Jake Laptad, CB Chris Harris, OL Brad Thorson
10:45 Oklahoma: Coach Bob Stoops, DE Jeremy Beal, LB Travis Lewis, WR Ryan Broyles
11:30 Colorado: Coach Dan Hawkins, CB Jalil Brown, WR Scotty McKnight, OL Nate Solder
12:15 Texas: Coach Mack Brown, QB Garrett Gilbert, OT Kyle Hix, DE Sam Acho, DT Kheeston Randall
A few quick thoughts:
- Definitely surprised that Texas' Garrett Gilbert will be making the trip. I saw firsthand how well-spoken he was this spring on my visit to Austin, but I'm still surprised Brown would trot out his first-year starting quarterback for the media horde outside Dallas. Although his presence guarantees there should be plenty to talk about with the Longhorns.
- Tommy Tuberville probably had to bring two or none of his quarterbacks, lest he tip his undecided hand at his starter and get people talking about a nonexistent decision. He chose the former. Interesting to note that Colorado's Dan Hawkins went with the latter.
- Not sure why DE Jamie Blatnick will be one of Oklahoma's State's representatives instead of DE Ugo Chinasa or S Markelle Martin. Chinasa is a senior two-year starter heading into his third, while Blatnick is a junior who started only part-time last season. Martin is one of the conference's rising stars.
- Baylor is the only team in the league bringing just a three-man contingent, and in Waco, they're the closest team to Media Days. A little surprised that Robert Griffin III won't be making the short drive, but at least that forces everyone to ask questions not about Griffin's knee. For that, I thank you, Art. But throwing WR Kendall Wright in the car at the last minute wouldn't be a terrible idea.
- Meanwhile, Texas is the only team with a five-man crew. Everything's bigger.
- Pretty good representation elsewhere, no real complaints. What do you think?
2009 conference record: 1-7
Returning starters: Offense (6), Defense (6) P/K (2)
Top returners: QB Robert Griffin III, WR Kendall Wright, RB Jay Finley, OT Danny Watkins, LB Antonio Johnson, DT Phil Taylor, P Derek Epperson
Key losses: C J.D. Walton, WR David Gettis, LB Antonio Jones, LB Joe Pawelek, S Jordan Lake, DL Jason Lamb
2009 statistical leaders (*returners)
Rushing: Jay Finley* (370 yards)
Passing: Nick Florence* (1,786 yards)
Receiving: Kendall Wright* (740 yards)
Tackles: Joe Pawelek (109)
Sacks: Tracy Robertson*, Jason Lamb (3)
Interceptions: Chance Casey* (2)
Three spring answers
1. The return of RG3. He does still exist. And though he was only a partial participant in spring practice, fans got to see him back on the field for the first time since September. Griffin unsuccessfully campaigned with Baylor coach Art Briles to let him play in the spring game, but says he’s about 80-90 percent recovered from knee surgery.
2. Deeper and deeper. Briles finally feels like his team has a quality two-deep full of players who won’t have a significant dropoff if forced into action. It’s something he didn’t have in the team’s first two seasons under Briles, and now his focus shifts to becoming as deep as some of the teams who routinely finish above them in the Big 12 South.
3. Patching together the O-Line. Baylor is replacing All-American J.D. Walton, among others on the offensive line, and the spring was the first step to filling those holes. Briles says offensive tackle Danny Watkins could be one of the best in the conference, and juco transfer Robert T. Griffin will compete for time at guard in the fall after recovering from shoulder surgery in the middle of this spring.
Three fall questions
1. Is Robert Griffin really back? He’ll be back on the field, but will he be the same Griffin? There isn’t a lot of reason to think he won’t be, but you never know until he takes the field. Whether it’s in his mind or in his legs and arms, a layoff from live action for almost a year could be tough to come back from.
2. Competition in the secondary? Baylor brings in two talented recruits in Prince Kent and Ahmad Dixon in the secondary, along with a few others, but the Bears have three seniors and sophomore Chance Casey leaving the spring with starting positions. The fall camp could play host to heated competition from the talented youngsters.
3. Bowl-bound Bears? This season, not unlike the last, begins with plenty of optimism and legitimate hopes of reaching the program’s first bowl game since 1994. By turning down Texas Tech in the offseason, Briles re-affirmed his commitment to doing it, and he’ll get a chance to prove it when the season arrives.
Szymanski has responded with a big effort that has helped boost the Bears to a 10-3 halftime lead over Texas Tech.
He's thrown for 152 yards, keeping Texas Tech's defense flummoxed.
Baylor's defense has been the other big story, limiting the Red Raiders to three points on two red-zone possessions.
Baylor cornerback Antonio Johnson snuffed out the first drive with an interception in the first quarter.
And shortly before the half, the Bears turned away three plays from the 2-yard line, forcing Mike Leach to settle for an 18-yard field goal with 4 seconds left.
Szymanski has outplayed Tech starter Taylor Potts, who has completed only 14 of 26 passes in the first half.
The Bears said all week they were approaching the game at the Dallas Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas, like it was their bowl game.
They've played loose and confident in the first half.
Now, will they be able to continue it for 30 more minutes?
Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin
Big 12 defenses are nearly as proficient as their offensive counterparts. But the best teams in terms of defense will likely end up as the conference’s best teams because stopping the high-powered offenses in the conference is so rare.
Here’s a look at how I rank them:
1. Oklahoma: The Sooners return nine starters and are among the nation’s very best defenses. It starts with three-deep talent along the defensive line keyed by Gerald McCoy and Auston English, who was the conference’s preseason player of the year last season before spraining his knee. They might be a little lacking in depth at middle linebacker behind Ryan Reynolds with the injury to freshman standout Tom Wort and Mike Balogun’s iffy status. The only new starters are strong safety Sam Proctor and free safety Quinton Carter, who have both been impressive in fall camp. The Sooners’ substitutes might be better collectively than most Big 12 units.
2. Texas: The Longhorns have arguably the conference’s best back seven, particularly a developing secondary led by Earl Thomas and corners Chykie Brown and Aaron Williams. Sergio Kindle and Alex Okafor are poised to become the primary pass-rushing specialists. Lamarr Houston has developed into an anchor at defensive tackle, but the Longhorns need to find another player at the other defensive tackle position to juice production for their biggest defensive weakness. Will Muschamp’s unit must do a better job after producing only 16 turnovers last season to rank tied for 104th nationally.
3. Nebraska: It all starts with the defensive line, which is among the best in the nation with Outland Candidate Ndamukong Suh and defensive ends Pierre Allen and Barry Turner. The Cornhuskers are young at linebacker where they might start two linebackers, although coaches really like 6-foot-6, 230-pound buck linebacker Sean Fisher and Will Compton. Coaches say the secondary is playing with more confidence, but the group produced only 12 interceptions last season. Boosting that turnover production will be critical in the Cornhuskers’ division title hopes.
4. Texas Tech: This is where the big drop-off starts from the top three teams. The Red Raiders will miss pass-rushing threats McKinner Dixon and Brandon Williams from last season, but have an experienced unit back. Rajon Henley and Brandon Sharpe are set to fill in as the pass-rushing threats and Colby Whitlock can be a terror at times -- particularly against Texas. Brian Duncan is a producer and the team’s leading tackler at middle linebacker. Jamar Wall is one of the better cover corners in the league. But the unit will depend on the improvement of two projected starters: redshirt freshman free safety Cody Davis and strong safety Franklin Mitchem.
5. Oklahoma State: The development by veteran defensive coordinator Bill Young will determine whether this unit has the goods to lead the Cowboys to their first South title and a potential maiden BCS bowl appearance. The biggest key will be producing more sacks from a defensive front that notched only 15 last season. Young has been concentrating on push from his defensive tackles and thinks he has an underrated pair in seniors Swanson Miller and Derek Burton. The loss of Orie Lemon at middle linebacker will hurt, although Donald Booker has been a producer in limited playing time. The secondary will be playing new starters with only Perrish Cox returning. But keep an eye out for senior free safety Lucien “The Punisher” Antoine who was turning heads last season before blowing out his ACL in the second game last season.
6. Colorado: The Buffaloes are faster this season and that should help them cope with the high-powered offenses in the Big 12. The linebackers are deep with Shaun Mohler and Jeff Smart as the prime producers. And I really like the secondary, with Jimmy Smith and Cha’pelle Brown among the best pair of cornerbacks in the conference. The biggest concern is along the defensive line, particularly after the injury of heralded freshman Nick Kasa that may idle him for the season. One area to note will be at right defensive end, where sophomore Lagrone Shields and freshman Forrest West are in the two-deep. Shields has played four snaps in his career.
7. Kansas: The Jayhawks need defensive improvement if they are going to fulfill their hopes of making their first championship game. The Jayhawks were crippled last season without a consistent pass rush. They hope junior-college transfer Quintin Woods, Caleb Blakesley and 304-pound Jamal Greene up front along with sack leader Jake Laptad. After losing three starting linebackers from last season, the Jayhawks will retool. I look for them to play two linebackers and a nickel look in many cases. Look for freshman Huldon Tharp to become a producer at linebacker. The secondary is the strength of the defense with All-Big 12 candidate Darrell Stuckey at strong safety and Phillip Strozier poised to continue his late-season development.
8. Baylor: Up the middle, the Bears might be among the strongest defenses in the conference with heralded transfer defensive tackle Phil Taylor, linebacker Joe Pawelek and hard-hitting safety Jordan Lake. Baylor coordinator Brian Norwood knows he needs more production from a defensive line that collected only 21 sacks and allowed opponents to complete 67 percent of passes for 3,063 yards. Antonio Jones and Antonio Johnson sometimes get overshadowed by Pawelek at linebacker. Junior cornerbacks Tim Atchison, Clifton Odom and Antareis Bryan need to improve or it could be a long season for the secondary.
9. Missouri: Any defense that starts with All-American candidate Sean Weatherspoon won’t be too bad. The Tigers could be a surprise considering that Gary Pinkel has been raving about the speed his unit possesses -- particularly at defensive end and at cornerback. Look for a three-man rotation at defensive end with Brian Coulter, Jacquies Smith and Aldon Smith to boost production in the pass rush. The secondary was a huge liability last season ranking 118th in pass defense. Kevin Rutland has shown a physical style at cornerback and Kenji Jackson and Hardy Ricks might be ready to help at safety.
10. Kansas State: New coordinators Chris Cosh and Vic Koenning plan to run a 4-2-5 defense. Their first concern is developing a rush with 2008 first-team freshman All-America pick Brandon Harold out with an injury. While he’s gone, the Wildcats need Eric Childs and Jeffrey Fitzgerald to emerge up front. John Houlik and Alex Hrebec apparently have earned the starting jobs at linebacker. Three junior college players -- David Garrett, Troy Butler and Emmanuel Lamur -- have apparently earned starting jobs for a secondary that desperately needs to improve after ranking 106th nationally in pass defense. The defense ranked tied for 110th in scoring defense and 117th in total defense, so the new coordinators better boost improvement or it will be another long season.
11. Texas A&M: Whatever happened to the Wrecking Crew defenses from the past? The best indication of the concern that Mike Sherman has for his defensive unit came when he transferred projected starting left tackle Lucas Patterson move back to defensive tackle late in preseason practice to boost production inside. Von Miller was impressive at the “jack” position, but he’ll need some good fortune to hold up consistently rushing against the huge offensive lines in the conference. The Aggies need to improve after yielding 461 yards and 37 points per game and earning the ignominy of being one of three FBS teams to allow opponents to average 200 yards rushing and passing last season. Coaches say the unit is faster and more athletic, but they have to play much better to get the Aggies back into bowl contention.
12. Iowa State: Veteran defensive Wally Burnham has a great reputation and most recently flummoxed the spread defenses of the Big East while at South Florida. The Big 12, however, will be a different story. The Cyclones ranked tied for 110th in scoring defense and 112th in total defense. Coach Paul Rhoads says he’s been frustrated by his team’s lack of tackling techniques. They have a building block in cornerback Leonard Johnson. Burnham and Rhoads know what they are talking about defensively as both were coordinators for top 30 defenses last year. But it will take a lot of patience to help rebuild this unit that needs so much improvement.
Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin
WACO, Texas -- Baylor's facilities have undergone a dramatic transformation in the past several months. The Bears christened their new Allison Training Center for indoor work during the final hour of practice Thursday.
Considering the Bears were sweltering through temperatures of 102 degrees at the start of practice outside, moving into the air-conditioned facility was a popular choice for the end of the 2-hour, 10-minute workout.
"It was like heaven," Baylor junior linebacker Antonio Johnson said. "It was the opposite outside because it was really hot. I felt like it made a difference when we came in. The tempo picked up."
Baylor coach Art Briles said that the traditionalist in him made him wonder about moving practice inside, but he believes his team would benefit from the work inside. He also said that working inside would help preserve the team's grass practice fields.
"I'm changing from a tough old school coach to a smart old man," Briles said. "The old coach tells me to don't, don't, don't. But if you have something that can keep you stay fresh, why not use it? Let's be smart and fresh rather than tired and worn down."
Briles said he doesn't worry about his team's conditioning for its Sept. 5 opener at Wake Forest because of its extensive summer conditioning work with strength coach Kaz Kazadi.
"We don't need to go outside and sweat for two and a half hours to get everybody ready," Briles said. "We're in shape."
The indoor work also provided the Bears with a practice change that was welcome after the sweltering early work outside.
"It's a different environment outside because the ball travels differently inside," Briles said. "In confined space, the ball moves a little faster. It gives us the best of both worlds. It makes us adjust and that's what football is all about."
- Quarterback Robert Griffin looked strong in his passing and scrambling abilities. Backup Blake Szymanski also looked sharp with several throws he rocketed into tight coverage for completions.
Wide receiver David Gettis struggled with a couple of dropped passes early, but came along later in the practice with a couple of strong late catches. But sophomore receiver Kendall Wright provided several circus catches that enlivened the action on the field.
- The Bears were missing one player for practice. Junior college transfer Byron Landor was not present but is expected to arrive in time for practice on Friday.
Landor, who played at Blinn (Texas) College last season, is being counted on to boost the Bears' depth in the secondary.
Briles was tinkering with that as he worked wide receiver Mikail Baker at both cornerback and safety during practice.
Baker was enthusiastic about the move, Briles said.
"We're looking at him over there because we have a need there and it fits his skills and talents," Briles said. "We're pretty deep at receiver and pretty thin back there in the secondary. He's a guy who has the ability to help us."
- Former offensive lineman Courtney Green was switched to defensive tackle for parts of the practice.
"We certainly think he'll help us there or we wouldn't have done it," Briles said about the move of Green, a 265-pound sophomore. "We think it fits his body a little better. He's pretty quick and aggressive. He's a good size for a defensive lineman and kind of small for an offensive lineman. And we have a need there."
- Heralded transfer defensive tackle Phil Taylor has chosen to wear No. 11, a move he says signifies his new beginning with the Baylor program.
Taylor arrived at Baylor after he was kicked off the Penn State team several weeks before the start of the 2008 season for his role in an on-campus brawl at the school's student union. Taylor pleaded guilty to two misdemeanor charges and transferred to Baylor before last season.
After sitting out the 2008 season, Taylor is counted to provide a talent infusion to a Baylor defensive unit that is already returning nine starters.
"This is a new place, new life and a different number," Taylor said. "And I've always liked it."
Briles was bemused when he learned of Taylor's request, but was happy to comply.
"If Phil says he wants 11, he gets 11," Briles said. "We get him what he wants to wear."
- Running back Andre Pierce has returned to the program as a walk-on player after earlier leaving the program.
"He's coming as a walk-on player," Briles said. "He's doing a good job and taking care of his grades."
Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin