Big 12: Ben Parks
Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin
I know this makes me sound like a coaches, but I actually think that special teams really does account for a third of a team's success. And I think that solid play in all facets is especially critical in the Big 12 because of the small margin of error in most games.
Here's a look at how I rank the special teams in the conference, giving each team a master rating including all facets of the kicking game.
1. Texas: The best combination kicking game in the league with two-deep talent at both kicker and punter and Jordan Shipley to take care of the returns. The Longhorns always have fast, talented athletes covering kicks as well. And I'm curious to see if Justin Tucker really will be able to produce rugby-style punts with both feet.
2. Oklahoma State:The Cowboys have the best kickoff/punt returners in the conference in Dez Bryant and Perrish Cox. Special-teams coach Joe DeForest always does an outstanding job, although he’ll be in tough spot replacing Matt Fodge as his punter this season.
3. Nebraska: Alex Henery was the best kicker in the conference with a knack for making huge kicks. It's curious that Nebraska coaches would risk that success by having him double up as a punter this season. But he actually came to college as a walk-on punter. Niles Paul will get the start as both punt returner and kick returner. And Adi Kunalic led the nation in touchbacks as a kickoff specialist.
4. Kansas State:I’m basing this as much on past success as anything else -- Ron Prince’s team blocked four punts for touchdowns last season. Brandon Banks is a threat to break a big return on every play and he’ll be doubling as a kick and punt returner this season. Even with Bill Snyder taking over, I’m still thinking this will be a productive unit as they break in new kicker Josh Cherry and new punter Ryan Doerr.
5. Baylor: The Bears have the most consistent punter in the conference with Derek Epperson. Look for improvement from kicker Ben Parks. One key will be boosting punt returns with new returner Krys Buerck after ranking only 118th nationally as a team last season.
6. Iowa State: I think that Jack Trice Stadium might be the toughest facility in the conference because of its swirling winds. Paul Rhoads has some confidence with Grant Mahoney back at kicker and Mike Brandtner at punter. Leonard Johnson is one of the most effective kickoff returners in the conference. But the Cyclones need a boost on punt returns and in covering kicks.
7. Oklahoma: For a team with as many athletes as the Sooners, I was surprised with their difficulties in covering kicks last season. That’s the immediate concern for them. DeMarco Murray was a threat on every return, but I doubt he plays there much because of his recent injury problems. Dominique Franks, Ryan Broyles and Cameron Kenney are expected to contribute in the return game. And Kenney might even push Tress Way for punting duties. Coaches have also been impressed with the improved range of kicker Jimmy Stevens. We’ll see if that holds up when the season starts.
8. Texas Tech: The story about Matt “Lynwood” Williams was one of the best in college football last year as he emerged from an in-game kicking contest to win most of the kicking honors for the Red Raiders. Donnie Carona was a disappointment as a kicker, but may emerge as a punter along with Ryan Erxleben (yeah, he’s the son of former Texas punter Russell Erxleben) as the Red Raiders wait for Jonathan LaCour to come off a Big 12-mandated suspension. Edward Britton and Jamar Wall will be involved in returning kicks, along with many others.
9. Texas A&M: Here’s a stat that shows how far Texas A&M’s once vaunting kicking game has fallen in recent years. The Aggies haven’t converted a field goal of 50 yards or more since 2000. Randy Bullock is back as the kicker and freshman Ryan Epperson and Ken Wood are still battling for the punting job. Christine Michael inherits the kickoff return duties, but look for heralded junior-college cornerback Coryell Judie to be involved some way.
10. Missouri: No Jeremy Maclin and Jeff Wolfert means that the Tigers will rebuild one of their strongest units last season. Their net punting figures to improve after Jake Harry’s strong start. Grant Ressel won the kicking job in a tight battle, but might be pushed this season. Gary Pinkel is sorting through his options in the return game but won’t have anybody nearly as gifted as Maclin. And they need to do a better job covering kicks after allowing a kickoff return for a touchdown for the first time last season.
11. Kansas: The Jayhawks desperately need some improvement in this category. Jacob Branstetter converted 75 percent of his kicks, but his longest was only 34 yards. Punter Alonso Rojas’ net average was only 33.9 yards. And the Jayhawks ranked 118th nationally in kickoff returns as Marcus Herford accounted for most of the returns. They showed some strong improvement late in the season when Dezmon Briscoe took over.
12. Colorado: The Buffaloes had the worst field-goal percentage in the country as they converted only 29 percent last season. They also lose Josh Smith, who set a school record for total kick return yards. Coaches think that Andre Simmons will be able to help here, but I’ll take a wait-and-see attitude before I get too excited.
Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin
Cornerback Antareis Bryan produced two interceptions and Justin Fenty starred as a receiver and kick returner in Baylor's scrimmage Saturday in Waco.
Fenty snagged a 45-yard touchdown reception from backup quarterback Blake Szymanski and also produced a long kickoff return. And quarterback Robert Griffin rifled a pair of touchdown passes at the Bears' 12th practice of the spring.
Other highlights included a pair of short touchdowns by running back Jared Salubi, a 47-yard field goal by Ben Parks and a forced fumble by defensive end Gary Mason Jr.
The Bears will conclude spring work Thursday with a controlled scrimmage at the school's new Highers Athletic Complex.
Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin
Here's a collection of tidbits, notes and quotes I've been saving for Friday afternoon. Enjoy them.
WHO'S HOT AND NOT
Hot: Kansas State receiver Ernie Pierce, who produced 11 catches for 176 yards last week against Oklahoma. He had six catches all season before last week.
Not: Colorado, which fumbled on two of its first four snaps and went downhill from there in a 58-0 shellacking at Missouri.
Hot: Baylor quarterbacks, who have gone seven straight games without throwing an interception.
Not: Baylor kicker Ben Parks, who shanked a 19-yard field goal and had an extra point blocked last week against Nebraska.
Hot: Kansas wide receiver Kerry Meier, who needs seven receptions to set the school's single-season record of 70 set by Richard Estell in 1985.
Not: Kansas punt returner Daymond Patterson, who has four muffs in his last four games.
Hot: Missouri defensive end Stryker Sulak, who has forced five fumbles in his last eight games.
Not: Nebraska's defense, which allowed plays of 43, 40, 47, 34 and 44 yards against Baylor last week.
Hot: Texas A&M quarterback Jerrod Johnson, who has combined for 1,083 passing yards and six touchdowns in his last three games.
Not: Kansas quarterback Todd Reesing, who had less than 200 yards passing last week for the first time in 13 games.
Hot: Nebraska quarterback Joe Ganz. When the final three games of last season are included, Ganz has fired 30 touchdown passes in his last 11 games.
Not: Oklahoma State's offensive line, which allowed five sacks last week against Texas after allowing seven in the previous seven games of the season.
Frigid: Colorado's offense. The Buffaloes are averaging 10.5 points per game in conference games. The next lowest team, Baylor, is averaging 20.2 points per game.
Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin
Nebraska's punishing ground attack historically has been as big a part of the Cornhuskers' storied program as Herbie Husker, sellout crowds at Memorial Stadium and Academic All-Americans.
Consider that between 1977 and 2003, Nebraska ranked at least seventh or higher every season in the national rushing rankings. That's right: seventh or better. And in 13 of those seasons the Cornhuskers led the nation in rushing.
That's why the rankings during the four seasons of Bill Callahan's tenure -- 34th, 107th, 23rd and 66th -- were so disappointing. Two of the four teams even threw the ball more than it ran. How un-Nebraskalike, even in this age of spread passing offenses.
Most observers are expecting Nebraska to more effectively run the ball this season. Some are even predicting a smash-mouth running attack keyed by an experienced offensive line and four strong I-backs led by Big 12 returning rushing leader Marlon Lucky.
Running the ball would also provide a way for new coach Bo Pelini to keep his defense off the field, dominating time of possession and lessening the time his defensive unit will have to make plays.
Senior Nebraska offensive guard Matt Slauson told the Omaha World-Herald it would be noticeable compared to his previous seasons.
"We're going to line up and smash guys, and if it works, we're going to keep doing it," Slauson told the newspaper.
Which tells me one thing. Simple dives and off-tackle smashes won't be nearly as unpopular among Nebraska fans as they might be at other places across the Big 12 this season.
And speaking of traditional, hearty fare, how about this lip-smacking collection of links this morning? It's good for what ails you.
- Former Penn State DT Phil Taylor has enrolled at Baylor and begun practicing with the team. Taylor was dismissed from the Nittany Lions after his involvement in an on-campus fight last season. Freshman K Ben Parks has won the starting job for the Bears' opener Thursday night against Wake Forest.
- Boulder Daily Camera coulumnist Neill Woelk said Colorado fans are providing a form of corporate welfare to Colorado State, buying tickets this week that weren't scarfed up by the Rams' fans.
- Colorado TE Riar Geer avoided jail Monday after his friends and family members pleaded to a judge that his role in an off-campus fight was out of character. But he'll miss the first two games of the season as he recovers from knee surgery.
- Heralded Colorado freshman TB Darrell Scott is trying to keep up with the other demands than just playing.
- Iowa State will have 27 freshmen in its two-deep roster Thursday night against South Dakota State. But Des Moines Register columnist Sean Keeler writes that Iowa State coach Gene Chizik needs to choose a starting quarterback soon and stick with him.
- Kansas State list four newcomers on its starting lineup for Saturday's game against North Texas. Three are from junior colleges -- RB Keithen Valentine, CB Blair Irvin and LB Ulla Pomele - and LB Olu Hall is arrives from Virginia.
- Jeff Martin of the Kansas City Star/Wichita Eagle provides a few nuggets from Kansas State's press conference, including Coach Ron Prince uttering the word "confirmed" 14 times during a 30-minute stint at the podium.
- Kansas State officials learned that top returning receiver and punt returner Deon Murphy has an extra year of eligibility. He will be considered a junior in the upcoming season.
- Kansas has 10 freshmen and 15 sophomores in its two-deep roster, including PR Daymond Patterson as a starter.
- The Lawrence Journal-World's Matt Tait writes about Kansas rebuilding its secondary without All-American CB Aqib Talib.
- Dugan Arnett of the Lawrence Journal World wonders who would be the bigger chick magnet in downtown Lawrence -- Michael Phelps or Todd Reesing?
- Manhattan Mercury beat writer Mark Janssen breaks down the ABC's of Kansas State football.
- Dave Matter of the Columbia Tribune's Big 12 notebook leads with Florida Atlantic coach Howard Schnellenberger's comments about Texas.
- Kansas City Star college columnist Blair Kerkhoff has Oklahoma ranked No. 5 in his top 25 countdown. Kerkhoff also expects faster play and shorter games with the new clock rules.
- Missouri WR Jared Perry gave Dave Matter the quote of the day about how he hopes to impress the Illinois defense after struggling with injuries. "It's a big motivation," Perry said, "because people are just sleeping on me. So, I have to wake them up."
- Nebraska coach Bo Pelini says he's not any more excited about Saturday's game against Western Michigan than any other. "My level of excitement really isn't any different than it was last year," said Pelini, who spent the last three seasons as defensive coordinator at Louisiana State. "I treat them all the same. I think we'll be prepared come Saturday and let it all hang out. It'll be a fun time, but at the same time I've got to keep my emotions in check, as does the team."
- Lee Barfknecht of the Omaha World-Herald says that Kansas State QB Josh Freeman has provided the best quotes of the preseason -- particularly those that threw Kansas State's seniors last seasons under the bus for their lack of leadership. Barfknecht also gives his preseason Big 12 rankings.
- Omaha World-Herald columnist Tom Shatel wonders if ESPN analyst Kirk Herbstreit really likes Nebraska as much as he's saying - or if he's only try to throw a bone to his old Ohio State teammate and current Nebraska coach Bo Pelini.
- The Lincoln Journal-Star's Curt McKeever doesn't expect any suprise teams from the Big 12 because of the conference's depth at the top.
- Pelini met with the media for about two minutes Monday after an intense practice on the first day of classes. Former Nebraska coach Bill Callahan never practiced his team on the first day of classes.
- Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy will be back calling plays for the Cowboys this season after delegating that job to assistants in recent years.
- Oklahoman columnist John Rohde is expecting Saturday's Oklahoma State-Washington State game to be fun on Saturday.
- Jake Trotter of the Oklahoman writes that Oklahoma's non-conference schedule shouldn't be a liability to their national title hopes - even as the Sooners start the season Saturday against Chattanooga, a 2-9 team last season.
- Oklahoma State WR Damian Davis has been suspended for the Cowboys' opener against Washington State for an undisclosed violation of team rules.
- Oklahoma State's Kendall Hunter has set a goal of rushing for 1,000 yards this season according to Bill Haisten of the Tulsa World.
- Tulsa World columnist John Klein said that Mike Gundy should have more talent at his disposal this season than any previous season when he was Oklahoma State's head coach.
- Jimmie Tramel of the Tulsa World writes about Texas A&M's water balloon fight in his weekly Big 12 notepad, also providing a quotepad and his rankings.
- Eleven positions remain up for grabs on Texas' depth chart, heading into Saturday's game against Florida Atlantic.
- Kirk Bohls of the Austin American Statesman writes of Texas' new slogan worn on their orange wristbands: "Consistently good to be great."
- Depth at tailback could produce Texas A&M's first 1,000-yard rusher since 2003, according to Randy Riggs of the Austin American-Statesman.
- Freshman WR Jeff Fuller is listed as a starter for Texas A&M's opener. And QB Stephen McGee told the San Antonio Express-News that backup QBs Jerrod Johnson and Ryan Tannehill are "two of our four top guys" at receiver.
- Texas Tech CB Darcel McBath is determined that Eastern Washington won't sneak up on his team on Saturday night - particularly as Coach Mike Leach has repeatedly talked about Michigan's upset losos to Appalachian State last season. "I definitely don't want to make Sports Center for that," McBath told the Lubbock Avalanche-ournal. "We can't let that happen."
Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin
While scanning the Omaha World-Herald's Web site this morning looking for something new from Tom Shatel, I came across a very cool feature that was buried deep on the newspaper's site.
The World-Herald has done a laborious job archiving game stories and pictures from each of the Cornhuskers' 44 bowl games.
My favorite was reading about Nebraska's trip to the 1941 Rose Bowl led by Coach Biff Jones. Game reporter Gregg McBride referred to the coach as "The Biffer" in his game notes. I also enjoyed reading about how the Cornhuskers met with film star Robert Taylor, a native of Filley, Neb., after the game.
For Cornhusker fans who want to remember how much fun it is to spend late December away from the frigid Midwest, it's probably the next best thing to a trip to San Antonio or Shreveport.
And it's a pretty good reminder of what will be expected on a regular basis from Bo Pelini.
But before we look forward to December bowl trips, let's serve up some morning links from around the Big 12. Happy munching.
My take: Rock-star greetings are fine in July, but Gundy would prefer fans cheering for him like that in December or January -- after bowl games.
- Tulsa World columnist Dave Sittler tracked down Bob Stoops in Jackson, Miss., where he was attending the New Orleans Saints practice. Interestingly, Stoops spent much of his time studying the defense of Saints coordinator Gary Gibbs, one of his predecessors as Oklahoma's coach.
My take: So much for fishing or golf. Stoops is already in football-mode when many other coaches are squeezing in their last couple of days of vacation.
- Campussqueeze.com ranks Iowa State among the 11 schools with the worst uniforms in college football.
My take: The Cyclones are ripped for their gold pants, which the Web site compares to those worn by M.C. Hammer. I'm sure Gene Chizik is more old school than that, aiming more to clothing worn by the Pittsburgh Steelers.
- The Bleacher Report compares Bo Pelini to Pete Townshend as it likens the once- mighty Cornhuskers to the historically great but recently struggling band The Who.
My take: Both the Cornhuskers and The Who have had Hall of Fame production in the past but have fallen on hard times. But I'll know there's something to the comparison if Pelini starts smashing Gatorade coolers after games like Townshend does with his guitars.
- Foxsports.com isn't buying the early preseason hype that Texas Tech is receiving and doesn't think Texas A&M will be as bad as most prognosticators predict.
My take: Funny, most predictions are going the other way on this. The Foxsports.com guys are going to look awfully smart or awfully foolish on this one.
- Baylor-bound K Ben Parks' 41-yard field goal with 25 seconds left boosted the North to a 16-15 victory over the South in the Texas High School Coaches' Association All-Star Game last night in San Antonio. Texas signee D.J. Monroe earned offensive MVP honors after rushing for 107 yards and a touchdown.
My take: I can only hope to see a few games as exciting as this one later this season. The North scored three times in the final 98 seconds to win the game. And the South's chances were snuffed out when Drew Nelson's 45-yard field goal with time expiring was blocked.
- No more "Mr. Nice Guy?" Kirk Bohls of the Austin American-Statesman says that a hard-edged Mack Brown might be what Texas needs this season.
My take: It seems the Longhorns responded better to Brown's boot than his former Kumbaya-singing ways -- at least if the Holiday Bowl is any indication.
- Dugan Arnett of the Lawrence Journal-World spells out a multitude of reasons why the Big 12 has the nation's best collection of quarterbacks.
My take: I enjoyed Arnett's story, but I really thought the illustration that accompanied the story was neat. It showed quarterbacks Chase Daniel, Sam Bradford, Graham Harrell and Todd Reesing as the four faces of "Mount Passmore," a takeoff of the historical site Mount Rushmore. Good idea, but where was Colt McCoy?
- Boulder Daily Camera reporter Kyle Ringo said that Colorado needs improvement from WR Patrick Williams, CB Gardner McKay, DE Maurice Lucas and massive 6-foot-8, 298-pound TE Nate Solder for a big season.
My take: I think Ringo forgot about the most obvious player on the roster. As QB Cody Hawkins plays, so will go the Buffaloes.
- Senior Iowa State RB J.J. Bass remains indefinitely suspended as the Cyclones prepare for their first day of practice.
My take: The best indicator about Bass' status can be found in the Big 12's media guide. He's not listed on Iowa State's roster.
- Terrance Harris' Texas A&M blog in the Houston Chronicle gives an early look at Mike Sherman's 2009 recruiting class.
My take: So much for those thoughts about teaching an older dog new tricks. Sherman appears to have gravitated to recruiting -- at least if 25 commitments is any indication.
- Chuck Carlton of the Dallas Morning News details Art Briles' efforts to change the culture at Baylor.
My take: Briles is a proven winner, but he'll be facing the challenge of his career at his new job.
- Former Texas A&M coach Jackie Sherrill had some high praise for Texas-bound QB Garrett Gilbert of Lake Travis, Texas, saying he's the best quarterback prospect he's seen since Dan Marino.
My take: I know Sherril
l is a media member now, but hyperbole has never been part of his schtick. This kid must be pretty good.
- Mack Brown and Mike Sherman give their thoughts on how the new 40/25 clock rules will affect play once the season begins.
My take: I know the television networks love the rule, but I don't. I'd rather savor and celebrate college football's differences from the NFL rather than make it more like the "No Fun League."