Big 12: Chris Donaldson
Strongest position: Offensive line
Key returnees: Nick Martinez, Levy Adcock, Jonathan Rush, Grant Garner, Lane Taylor
Key losses: None
Analysis: Guys like Brandon Weeden, Justin Blackmon and last year, Kendall Hunter, get all the attention, but I really believe the five guys up front are the real strength for the Cowboys.
Yes, their skill position talent is on par with anyone's in the country, but the five guys up front got very little credit for Dana Holgorsen's offense last year.
Despite throwing the ball 532 times (third-most in the Big 12), the Cowboys gave up just 10 sacks, eight fewer than anyone else in the conference. Most games, quarterback Brandon Weeden's jersey barely caught a stain. Sure, part of that is playing on turf at Boone Pickens Stadium, but you get my point. Those 10 sacks were fewer than only seven teams in college football, and among that group were two teams with NFL quarterbacks (TCU, Stanford) and option offenses that rarely threw the ball (Army, Air Force, Navy) and another (Oregon) that played in the national championship. That's pretty good company.
The Cowboys also ran for more than 5 yards per carry last season, which ranked 20th nationally and third in the Big 12.
All five starters return, and to make things better, juco transfer Michael Bowie may crack the starting lineup at left tackle by midseason just because he's got a chance to be even better than Martinez, the starter. Four current starters are seniors and Taylor, the lone junior, has two years of starting experience where everyone else has just one.
There may be some hiccups in the transition from Holgorsen to new coordinator Todd Monken, but an offensive line like the Cowboys have will make those a lot easier to deal with.
Weakest position: Defensive tackle
Key returnees: Nigel Nicholas
Key losses: Shane Jarka, Chris Donaldson
Analysis: The Cowboys have potential in Nicholas, a junior who played some last season and has drawn rave reviews this spring after notching 13 tackles, four tackles for loss and two sacks last year.
Beyond him, though, Oklahoma State may find it difficult to replace both starters on the interior of the defensive line, especially Jarka.
Christian Littlehead is set to start after the spring, but the freshman redshirted last year and will be trying to learn on the go, rather than be eased into a rotation like Nicholas. Additionally, the Cowboys have no one else on the roster with real experience.
Coach Mike Gundy signed five defensive tackles in his 2011 class, but it may be awhile before those players get a chance to really have an effect on the field.
More spring superlatives:
What’s new: The guy calling the plays, but the Cowboys hope the offense isn't. Todd Monken is back in Stillwater for a second term after serving as receivers coach and passing game coordinator under Les Miles. He says he plans on keeping the same system as departed coordinator Dana Holgorsen, and is getting a lesson on the intricacies from his quarterback, Brandon Weeden.
On the move: Punter Quinn Sharp missed the Alamo Bowl, but his duties may be fairly comprehensive after this spring. He already handles punts and kickoffs, and he'll be battling for the starting placekicker job this spring, too.
Key battle: Oklahoma State returns all five starters from last year's offensive line, but that doesn't mean the same five guys will start the season. Early-enrolling juco transfer Michael Bowie is listed as co-No. 2 at right tackle in the pre-spring depth chart and could make a play for a starting job this spring.
New faces: Freshman quarterback J.W. Walsh enrolled early and should take part in a three-way battle for the No. 2 spot behind All-Big 12 quarterback Brandon Weeden with fellow passers Clint Chelf, last year's backup, and Johnny Deaton.
Breaking out: Running back Joseph Randle was a great compliment to Kendall Hunter last season, but enters the spring before his sophomore year as the starter ahead of the bulkier Jeremy Smith. Randle caught 37 passes last year, second-most among running backs in the Big 12 behind only Oklahoma's DeMarco Murray. He'll see a big boost in his carries this time around. He had just 81 last year.
Question marks: Oklahoma State lost both defensive tackles, Shane Jarka and Chris Donaldson from last year's team, and Nigel Nicholas and Christian Littlehead, among others, will try and fill their voids. Dominant interior defensive line play isn't necessary to win in the Big 12, but teams that have it can be great on a national scale.
Big shoes to fill: Linebacker Caleb Lavey. He enters the spring as the starter at middle linebacker, and is in line to replace Orie Lemon, one of the defense's leaders in 2010 and the Big 12's No. 2 tackler with 133 stops. Lavey was one of the jewels of the Cowboys' 2010 recruiting class, and as a sophomore, it's time for him to make good on that potential.
Don’t forget about: Receiver Hubert Anyiam. He led the team in receptions after Dez Bryant was suspended for the final nine games of 2009, but battled an ankle injury throughout 2010 while teammate Justin Blackmon raced to a Biletnikoff Award-winning season. If he can stay healthy, he could develop as an underrated, but very valuable compliment to Blackmon as a senior.
All eyes on: Quarterback Brandon Weeden. He came out of nowhere last season to become Oklahoma State's first all-conference quarterback since 1932. The 27-year-old went eight years between starts, but looked like he didn't miss a beat from the start. He'll have to try and build off last year with a new coordinator, and him doing so will be necessary for the Cowboys to capture the Big 12 title that narrowly eluded them in 2010.
Spring practice starts: February 28
Spring game: April 2
What to watch:
- Big changes on defense. Baylor brought in Phil Bennett as its new defensive coordinator, and he says his scheme will be multiple, built to fit the Bears' personnel. Considering the Bears' recent recruiting successes in the secondary, look for a 4-2-5 type of look.
- Recruiting stars: time to shine. Both safeties, Tim Atchison and Byron Landor, are gone. Baylor, though, has two former ESPNU 150 recruits at safety who would be well served to start filling their potential. Prince Kent was a reserve last season and at one time, the nation's No. 51 overall recruit who originally signed with Miami. Ahmad Dixon, meanwhile, was the No. 15 overall prospect in the 2010 class. The opportunity is there. Baylor needs big talent at the position. Briles has recruited it. Can they develop into players who make Baylor a contender?
- Running back competition. Jay Finley topped 1,200 yards in 2010, but he's gone. Who steps into his void? Terrance Ganaway is a bowling ball at 5-foot-11, 235 pounds, but the shifty Jarred Salubi could get a good amount of carries, too. They could begin to share carries this spring.
Spring practice starts: March 22
Spring game: April 16
What to watch:
- Quarterback competition. It should be a good one in Ames this spring. Jerome Tiller is the name most recognize after getting lots of meaningful time and starts because of injuries to Austen Arnaud over the past two seasons. But juco transfer Steele Jantz sounds confident he can win the job. Rising sophomore James Capello and redshirt freshman Jared Barnett will compete, too.
- Paging Cyclone receivers. Iowa State had one of the most underwhelming receiving corps in the league during the past season, and three of its top five pass-catchers won't return in 2011. Of those three, however, one is a tight end (Collin Franklin) and another is a running back (Alexander Robinson). The new quarterback will need some help, and Darius Darks and Darius Reynolds will need to provide it as seniors.
- Shontrelle's time or not? Freshman Shontrelle Johnson looked like the running back with the most pop behind Robinson for most of 2010, but two other freshmen running backs jockeyed for carries, too. Paul Rhoads is hardly handing the job over to Johnson, but spring could be the time when he really separates himself from the pack.
Spring practice starts: April 1
Spring game: April 30
What to watch:
- What are they doing behind center? Kansas never got much consistent play out of the quarterback position last year, but freshman Brock Berglund is one of the 2011 class' top recruits, and enrolled early to compete in the spring with Jordan Webb and Quinn Mecham. With a building program like Kansas, there's perhaps some value in handing the program to a younger player like Webb or Berglund, but they'll have to earn it. Doing so will start in the spring, but don't expect the Jayhawks to have a set-in-stone starter by spring's end.
- Top linebacker back on the field. Huldon Tharp missed all of 2010 with a foot injury, but he says he's 100 percent and ready to get back on the field. As a freshman in 2009, he was fifth on the team in tackles, with 59, and looked like one of the league's possible budding stars. Now, he'll get his chance to join fellow linebacker Steven Johnson as one of the team's top tacklers, and he'll do it as a sophomore after redshirting in 2010.
- Toben rising? Turner Gill raised plenty of eyebrows when he moved his team's leading rusher in 2009, Toben Opurum, to linebacker in fall camp, and eventually slid him up to defensive end. But toward the end of 2010, Opurum started showing some major signs of growth at the position. We'll get a better idea this spring if he's one of the league's most unlikely new stars at defensive end.
Spring practice starts: April 6
Spring game: April 30
What to watch:
- Prodigal Kansan sons come home. There's no doubt that the Wichita native Brown brothers are the main attraction at Kansas State this spring, a season after transferring back home. Bryce Brown, the running back, was the nation's No. 8 prospect in the 2009 class. Arthur Brown, the linebacker, was the nation's No. 6 prospect in the 2008 class. Bryce transferred from Tennessee and Arthur from Miami. The Wildcats are pinning much of their hopes on the duo, and we'll get a good sense of what they can provide soon.
- Quarterback competition. Carson Coffman is gone, and two new faces will challenge for the job: juco transfer Justin Tuggle and Daniel Sams. Sammuel Lamur is also up for the gig. Collin Klein may or may not be; Bill Snyder hasn't explicitly confirmed a past comment from Sams saying Klein had moved to receiver. Don't expect a starter to be named by spring's end, but a general order could start to form.
- Can the defense show improvement? Kansas State had the Big 12's worst overall defense last year, and the worst rushing defense in college football, giving up 3,008 yards on the ground. Coordinator Chris Cosh looks like he'll still be around in 2011, and defensive backs David Garrett and Tysyn Hartman are solid pieces to try and build around. But this young maturing defense must get better to make a bowl game again with so many questions on offense. That starts in the spring.
Spring practice starts: March 8
Spring game: April 16
What to watch:
- Franklin comes alive! Blaine Gabbert bolted to the NFL early, and Missouri has a gaping hole a quarterback. The position, however, is surrounded by a lot of quality talent that likely makes the Tigers a Top 25 team. There's no understating the importance of the position for the Tigers, and that will begin to be decided in the spring. James Franklin, a rising sophomore, saw spot duty in 2010 as more of a runner, and may have the inside track on the job, but Tyler Gabbert, Blaine's younger brother, and Ashton Glaser should make it an interesting competition in the spring. If neither of them impress early, don't count out incoming freshman Corbin Berkstresser.
- Here is the new secondary. Same as the old secondary? After years of pass defense being one of the Tigers' biggest weaknesses, it became a strength in 2010 behind the leadership of senior corners Kevin Rutland and Carl Gettis. But the Tigers lose them and safety Jarrell Harrison. Rutland emerged as one of the team's most impressive players last spring, but was Missouri's success in the secondary a one-time thing or the beginning of a welcome trend?
- Time to dominate the trenches? Missouri played without likely first-round pick Aldon Smith for much of the previous season, but the defensive and offensive lines for the Tigers were as good as ever in 2010. How will they look in 2011? Impact juco transfer Sheldon Richardson won't be enrolled by the spring, but the four returning starters on the offensive line should get some solid work against Brad Madison, Jacquies Smith and Terrell Resonno.
Spring practice starts: March 21
Spring game: April 16
What to watch:
- Freshmen on display. Coach Bob Stoops hasn't been shy about saying his 2010 recruiting class was his best ever, but it could look even better after this spring. Two of his best emerging recruits, Justin McCay and Geneo Grissom, didn't even play in 2010, and could start to make an impact. The same goes for Corey Nelson, who will try to earn some more time somewhere backing up star Travis Lewis.
- Is there a golden boot in Norman? Jimmy Stevens was much more accurate in 2010, finishing 19-for-23, but his attempts outside 45 yards were sparse. The good news is he missed none of his 53 extra points. Field goals have been a bit of an adventure for the past couple years, but continuing in the spring what he started last year would be a good sign for Oklahoma. The Sooners are strong everywhere and need good special teams play to reach their lofty title goals.
- Are the Sooners' backs back? Roy Finch missed the Fiesta Bowl with a stress fracture, and his durability is certainly questionable entering 2011. When he's healthy, he looks like the next star in the Sooners' backfield, but they'll need some depth behind the 5-foot-8, 173-pounder. Jermie Calhoun, Jonathan Miller and Brennan Clay have all looked good at times, but there should be some good competition from newcomers Brandon Wegher, an Iowa transfer who'll be in camp this spring and eligible next season, and blue-chip recruit Brandon Williams, who enrolled early.
Spring practice starts: March 7
Spring game: April 16
What to watch:
- Every piece of the offense. The spring in Stillwater is all about keeping or improving upon the status quo. Had it kept Dana Holgorsen, there'd be little doubt that would happen, but Oklahoma State must make the most of its five returning offensive linemen, quarterback Brandon Weeden and receiver Justin Blackmon. The opportunity for a historic season is there, but they'll have to pick up the nuances of the new offense quickly in the spring like they did last year.
- What about the kicker? Dan Bailey won the Lou Groza Award as the nation's top kicker in 2010, but he's gone. Oklahoma State needs to fill that role quickly, and we'll likely know who will get the nod after the spring.
- Who steps up on the defensive line? The Cowboys lose three starters up front on defense, including All-Big 12 performer Ugo Chinasa and tackles Chris Donaldson and Shane Jarka. Can senior Richetti Jones become a star in the Big 12? We'll have a good idea if he, or any of the Cowboys' other defensive linemen, can by the end of April.
Spring practice starts: February 24
Spring game: April 3
What to watch:
- New coaches and their students/players. Texas has five new coaches. Although it's hard to get a good read early on, how they relate with the players on the field, in the film room and around the facilities will have a big impact on how the 2011 season plays out in Austin. The young-blooded coordinators could serve themselves well by relating to players and the players will need to spend plenty of extra time learning new schemes and plays.
- Quarterback competition ... or not? Mack Brown says the gig is open and it is, for now. Garrett Gilbert can close it with a strong spring. If Garrett struggles on the field or has difficulty grasping the new system, the door will be wide open for Connor Wood or Case McCoy to step in and close it. Gilbert didn't get much help, but he did very little in 2010 to inspire a lot of breathing room with McCoy and Wood clamoring for playing time.
- And you've got to defend the pass, too. Texas loses its top three cornerbacks to the NFL, and only Carrington Byndom and A.J. White got much meaningful playing time last season. Younger players can earn some rare early playing time with a strong spring. Will anyone step up?
Spring practice starts: March 22
Spring game: April 16
What to watch:
- New linebackers in the running. Spring isn't so scary when you bring back nine defensive starters, but the two Texas A&M lost were the heart of its defense. Linebackers Michael Hodges and Von Miller are gone. Kyle Mangan didn't look fantastic when forced into action during the Cotton Bowl, but the time is now for Damontre Moore and Dominique Patterson, a pair of sophomores, to make their impact.
- Tannehill's tuning things up. Quarterback Ryan Tannehill played about as well as anyone could have hoped late last season, but he'll need it to continue his performance with a solid spring nailing down the timing with his receivers, who all return. He's already got a leg up on last year's quarterback, Jerrod Johnson, who was held out of team drills last spring after shoulder surgery that eventually derailed his senior season.
- Christine's back. Christine Michael missed the second half of the season with a broken leg, giving way to Cyrus Gray's rise among Big 12 backs. It should make Texas A&M's depth at the position even more impressive, but we'll see how Michael looks coming back from the injury.
Spring practice starts: February 19
Spring game: March 26
What to watch:
- Past defending that pass defense. Texas Tech had the Big 12's worst pass defense last season, but has a pair of big potential players at cornerback in rising sophomores Tre Porter and Jarvis Phillips. Starters LaRon Moore and Franklin Mitchem are gone, but if returning starters Cody Davis and Will Ford can continue to mature, the defense should improve in the area most important for success in the Big 12.
- And they're off! There's a four-man quarterback derby set in Lubbock this spring between Seth Doege, Jacob Karam, Michael Brewer and Scotty Young. I don't expect it to be settled until midway through fall camp, similar to last season, but there should be a solid front-runner and more clarity after spring. Coach Tommy Tuberville was extremely impressed with Doege and Karam last spring after Taylor Potts and Steven Sheffield went down with injuries.
- Time to find new stars. Most of the big names on Texas Tech's defense are gone. Colby Whitlock, Bront Bird, Brian Duncan will all continue their careers elsewhere. The leaders on the defense will have to begin to emerge in the spring. Is it Scott Smith? Cody Davis? A younger, unexpected player? We'll find out. Sometimes these types of situations aren't as easy to predict as they might seem, like Missouri's strength in 2010 emerging in the secondary.
Some schools have addressed these needs with their current class. Some haven't. Others are still trying.
Here's our look at the South, after running down the Big 12 North earlier this morning.
Defensive tackle: The Bears are loaded on offense and have a ton coming back, but anyone who watched Baylor in 2010 knows the big problems are on defense, starting with the front four. Phil Taylor is headed to the NFL and Nicolas Jean-Baptiste will be a senior next year. Reserve Chris Buford is gone, too. The Bears need to fill out some depth up front to avoid a repeat of their Texas Bowl debacle defending the run against Illinois.
Punter: Derek Epperson was rock solid as a four-year starter for the Bears, averaging near 44 yards a punt for his past three seasons. He's gone now, and the Bears will need a replacement. The good news is Baylor's offense with Robert Griffin III doesn't make the position nearly as important as it used to be.
Receiver: Ryan Broyles, a senior, and Kenny Stills look ready for big years in 2011, but senior Cameron Kenney is gone. Trey Franks, Dejuan Miller and Joe Powell could contribute in 2011, but beyond that, another big-time threat across from Stills would certainly help. One of the Sooners' top 2011 commits, Trey Metoyer, could become that player.
Safety: Both starters, Quinton Carter and Jonathan Nelson, have graduated, and the Sooners will try to replace them with Sam Proctor, who has started plenty of games, and Javon Harris. The Sooners are pretty well-stocked about everywhere, but more depth in the secondary is always welcome.
Defensive line: Three of the Cowboys' four starters are gone, and it's always necessary to fill in some depth behind them. Shane Jarka, Chris Donaldson and Ugo Chinasa all had good years in 2010.
Offensive line: Oklahoma State brings back all five starters for 2011, but four will be seniors. That means replacing them in 2012, which will be a lot easier if those replacements don't end up being true freshmen. Oklahoma State kept offensive line coach Joe Wickline, a candidate for the same job at Texas, and his development of the line last year with four new starters was a big reason for the Cowboys' success. He'll need to do it again in 2012.
Running back: Fozzy Whittaker and Cody Johnson will both be seniors in 2011, and Tre Newton's career is over because of issues with concussions. Texas would be well-served if its top 2011 commit, Malcolm Brown, can come in and be effective immediately as a true freshman.
Cornerback: Aaron Williams left early. Curtis and Chykie Brown graduated. Texas needs help at corner and will have big problems in the near future if they don't get it.
Linebacker: Emmanuel Acho and Keenan Robinson will be seniors in 2011, and Dustin Earnest and Jared Norton already graduated. New talent behind them will help prevent a drop-off in 2012 after Acho and Robinson split.
Kicker: Randy Bullock will be a senior in 2011, but Texas A&M is already hoping his spot is filled by incoming freshman Taylor Bertolet, the nation's No. 2 kicker who won the Under Armour All-American game with a last-second field goal earlier this month.
Linebacker: Michael Hodges and Von Miller have graduated, and Garrick Williams will follow them in 2011. The Wrecking Crew was pretty stout for most of 2010, but filling those holes in a four-linebacker front will be key in ensuring things stay that way.
Secondary: LaRon Moore and Franklin Mitchem are gone, so Texas Tech will be breaking in some new blood in the secondary for new coordinator Chad Glasgow and cornerbacks coach Otis Mounds. Freshmen cornerbacks Jarvis Phillips and Tre Porter made plays in 2010, but they also allowed offenses to make a few of their own. Stopping that will be a big step in Texas Tech getting things rolling under Tommy Tuberville.
Receiver: Texas Tech already needs to replace Detron Lewis and Lyle Leong, and Tramain Swindall and Jacoby Franks will follow suit after 2011. Alex Torres was hampered by a back injury all year, but the Red Raiders will need some depth around him at receiver to keep the offense humming.
Defensive line: After losing starters Jason Lamb and Trey Bryant and having Phil Taylor and Earl Patin entering their senior seasons, the Bears need to add immediate depth. Xavier Ruben and Anthony Gonzales will help shore up the deficiencies and the Bears still are in the hunt for top prospects like Carlos Thompson and Byran Jones.
Secondary: Starters Jordan Lake and Jeremy Williams have graduated and four juniors in the two-deep roster will start their senior seasons. Coach Art Briles has already lured surprising strength in the defensive backfield with Ahmad Dixon, Tyler Stephenson and Prince Kent. That trio makes it one of the finest positional groupings for Baylor in recent history.
Robert Griffin’s redshirt season has lessened the immediate need at quarterback: With Griffin now having three years of eligibility remaining, recruits now see only a two-season window to play. But another Robert Griffin should help the Bears as well. Baylor coaches see the other Griffin, a junior college transfer from Coriscana Junior College, being able to contend for the starting position at right tackle from his first day in the program.
Running back: With Chris Brown graduating and DeMarco Murray entering his senior season, the Sooners need some producers at the position. Bob Stoops has never hesitated to playing top freshman players in the past if they can help. Don’t be surprised if top recruits like Brennan Clay and Roy Finch get an early chance in 2010 with the Sooners.
Receiver: Ryan Broyles is entrenched in the slot, but the Sooners are looking all over for pass catchers who can challenge existing players. Recruits Kenny Stills, Joe Powell, Julian Wilson and Sheldon McClain all should challenge this summer to battle their way into the rotation.
Defensive tackle: Injuries and NFL declarations have riddled the Sooners’ depth at the postion. Gerald McCoy will leave early for the NFL draft with JaMarkus McFarland ready to take over. Adrian Taylor was set at the other position, but his nasty ankle injury sustained in the Sun Bowl has depleted the Sooners’ depth. Redshirt sophomore Casey Walker and four incoming freshmen are all that is in place as far as depth at the critical position.
Offensive line: The Cowboys lose four senior starting offensive linemen from the Cotton Bowl team, including the left side of their offensive line in tackle Russell Okung, guard Noah Franklin and center Andrew Lewis, as well as right tackle Brady Bond. Mike Gundy needs some immediate help at the position, both from existing players and incoming ones.
Defensive tackle: Starters Swanson Miller and Derek Burton both will graduate and top backups Shane Jarka and Chris Donaldson both will be senior this season. Defensive coordinator Bill Young needs to find some defensive linemen who can challenge for playing next season.
Linebackers: Young also will have to rebuild this group after the underrated group of Andre Sexton, Donald Booker and Patrick Lavine helped sparked the Cowboys’ surprising defensive growth last season. All will be gone this season, putting pressure to add some more contributors to add to the returning mix of players including James Thomas, Tolu Moala and Justin Gent.
Defensive end: With Sergio Kindle graduating and Sam Acho and Eddie Jones both entering their senior season, the Longhorns need a talent boost here. It also just happens to be the position where top target Jackson Jeffcoat would immediately fill the rather sizable hole.
The left side of the offensive line: Tackle Adam Ulatoski, guard Charlie Tanner and center Chris Hall combined for 114 starts during their careers.The Longhorns has some strong arriving talent, but they’ll still miss the leadership and savvy that this trio provided over the years.
Quarterback: Even with Garrett Gilbert seemingly entrenched as the Longhorns’ quarterback of the future, the Longhorns added depth with the commitments of Connor Wood and Colt’s little brother Case McCoy. It will make for some interesting competition this spring and fall as the rotation sorts itself out.
Defensive end: The Aggies received a huge boost when Von Miller announced he would return for his senior season, but A&M needs to prepare for his departure -- particularly after losing starting defensive end Matt Moss and Miller’s backup Matt Featherston as departing seniors from 2009.
Tight end: Starter Jamie McCoy graduated and top replacements Kenny Brown and Craig Raschke both will be seniors next season. Adding at least one player would be beneficial as the Aggie coaches hope they can find a combination blocker/receiving threat at the position like McCoy was.
Offensive tackle: The Aggies lose bookend senior starters Michael Shumard and Lee Grimes. They do have Stephen Barrera and Danny Baker in the depth chart but would like more depth to help the line develop.
Defensive line: The Red Raiders’ biggest need is at defensive end where all three players in the two-deep roster -- Brandon Sharpe, Ra’Jon Henley and Daniel Howard were seniors. At defensive tackle, Richard Jones departs as a senior and Colby Whitlock will be a senior next season. New coordinator James Willis needs to find some productive players in the trenches quickly.
Linebackers: Starters Bront Bird and Brian Duncan will be back as seniors next season, but Tech loses departing starter Marlon Williams on the other side. They need some depth to help build for the future at the position.
Quarterback: Taylor Potts and Steven Sheffield will wage one of the closest-watched battles for playing time in the nation during the spring and summer. But both will be seniors, meaning the Red Raiders need to prepare for their departure by grooming some young talent like Scotty Young, a recent commitment at the position.
Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin
Sometimes the spring provides a chance for personnel holes to be filled. Sometimes it doesn't.
Here are some of the notable positions around the Big 12 that picked up some assistance during the spring.
Baylor: The quick development of defensive tackle Phil Taylor, a heralded transfer from Penn State, should turn a traditional position of weakness for the Bears into a strength. Joining him at the position will be Jason Lamb, who showed some promise after moving over from defensive end before spring practice.
Colorado: The emergence of hulking 260-pound middle linebacker Marcus Burton and B.J. Beatty at outside linebacker have helped transform the Buffaloes' defense. Burton led the team in tackles and was a prime playmaker in the spring game with eight tackles, two sacks and a fumble recovery. He had eight tackles in 10 games last season.
Iowa State: Redshirt freshman quarterback Jerome Tiller outplayed starter Austen Arnaud in the spring game, passing for 210 yards and getting free for a 65-yard touchdown run. I'm not sure that Tiller will be starting come September, but he'll make Arnaud work harder to earn his job.
Kansas: The Jayhawks had questions in the defensive line before the spring, even with the return of all-Big 12 honorable mention selections Caleb Blakesley and Jake Laptad and late season starting defensive tackles Richard Johnson and Jamal Greene. The development of tackle Darius Parish and end Max Onyegbule should add to the depth. And that doesn't even account for the arrival of heralded junior college transfer Quintin Woods, who originally signed with Michigan out of high school before heading to Bakersfield (Cal.) Community College to get his grades in order.
Kansas State: The emergence of linebackers like Alex Hrebec, Ulla Pomele and John Houlik has helped turn the position into the strength of the defense, even as the Wildcats are transforming to a 4-2-5 alignment. Hrebec, a former walk-on, contributed 19 tackles in the spring game and Houlik is a huge hitter despite his 5-foot-11, 219-pound size.
Missouri: Redshirt freshman Aldon Smith has only added to the Tigers' depth at defensive end, which already featured Brian Coulter and Jacquies Smith in front of him. Smith was voted as the team's most improved player in the spring. Throw in converted offensive tackle Brad Madison and redshirt freshman Marcus Marlbrough and you'll see why Gary Pinkel considers it his best collection of defensive ends at Missouri.
Nebraska: The Cornhuskers had serious questions at quarterback, particularly after the departure of projected starting challenger Patrick Witt before spring practice and Kody Spano's knee injury. But the strong spring by Zac Lee and the surprising development of converted linebacker LaTravis Washington eased some of offensive coordinator Shawn Watson's concerns. Their strong spring work also should mean that heralded freshman Cody Green likely won't be thrown into action perhaps as quickly as Watson might have feared before the spring.
Oklahoma: After losing starters Nic Harris and Lendy Holmes, safety was the only position without returning starters for the Sooners on defense. Quinton Carter nailed down one starting position and Sam Proctor and Joseph Ibiloye are poised to fight for the other job beside him. Emmanuel Jones and Desmond Jackson also had strong spring efforts to challenge for playing time.
Oklahoma State: Defensive tackle was enough of a question that new coordinator Bill Young moved Derek Burton inside from defensive end to help bolster depth at the position. Burton and Swanson Miller appear to have won starting jobs with redshirt freshman Nigel Nicholas and junior Chris Donaldson providing strong depth. Their strong play helped the Cowboys rack up seven sacks in the spring game - more than half of their 2008 season total of 13.
Texas: The Longhorns were concerned about defensive end after the departure of NFL draft picks Brian Orakpo and Henry Melton from last season. Those fears appear to be assuaged after the seamless transition of Sergio Kindle to the position from linebacker and the quick assimilation by freshman Alex Okafor. Toss in Sam Acho and Russell Carter and the return injured pass-rushing threat Eddie Jones and the Longhorns appear stacked at the position.
Texas A&M: Safety was a question mark before spring camp after the loss of Devin Gregg and Alton Dixon and the move of 2008 starting free safety Jordan Peterson to cornerback. But the strong return to safety by converted cornerback Jordan Pugh and the noticeable development by Trent Hunter helped solidify the position during the spring. And the Aggies' depth at the position was improved after the move of wide receiver Chris Caflisch to the position along with strong play from DeMaurier Thompson.
Texas Tech: The departure of two-time Biletnikoff Award winner Michael Crabtree and underrated Eric Morris was supposed to cripple the Red Raiders' receiving corps. Mike Leach appears to have found several serviceable replacements after Tramain Swindall, Lyle Leong, Detron Lewis and walk-on flanker Adam Torres all emerged during the spring. And that doesn't include Edward Britton, who was in Leach's doghouse much of the spring after falling behind in the classroom but still is perhaps their most athletic force on the field.
Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin
Ah. Sitting in a Kansas City airport with my trusty wireless stick as I rifle through Big 12 media sources looking for the best of today's conference information.
It couldn't get much better as I start my North Division swing.
Here a few stories to tide you over until the real stuff starts tomorrow.
- Lubbock business owners aren't happy about Texas Tech moving the Baylor game to Dallas later this season, Joshua Hall of the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal reports.
- After spending the last 3½ months with the Baylor basketball team, inside receiver Kendall Wright is back for the last two weeks of the Bears' spring football practice, the Waco Tribune-Herald's John Werner reports.
- Newsday blogger Adam Abramson ranks the Big 12's quarterbacks heading into spring practice.
- The Austin American-Statesman's Suzanne Halliburton reports a couple of interesting tidbits from Texas' pro day. Defensive end Henry Melton ran a 40 in the high 4.5 range and defensive tackle Roy Miller has boosted his weight to 313 -- up 23 pounds since the Fiesta Bowl. And American-Statesman columnist Cedric Golden opines about how Quan Cosby hopes to ascend in the draft despite being one of the oldest and smallest draft-eligible players.
- Lincoln Journal-Star columnist Steve Sipple writes that it appears that the starting quarterback job is Zac Lee's for the taking after Nebraska's first spring practice.
- B.G. Brooks of In Denver Times reports that Colorado coach Dan Hawkins isn't backing away from his "10 wins and no excuses" mantra for the upcoming season. But Sporting News blogger Spencer Hall wonders how far that confidence will carry the Buffaloes against tough Big 12 South opponents.
- Oklahoman beat writer and new papa Scott Wright writes of the development of Oklahoma State's defensive line, particularly junior defensive tackle Chris Donaldson and redshirt freshman Nigel Nicholas.
Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin
Most observers are expecting a lot of points Saturday night at Faurot Field -- a game that could resemble an Arena Football League shootout considering the explosive offenses of Missouri and Oklahoma State.
It's understandable why, considering some of the numbers coming into the game. The Tigers rank second in scoring and the Cowboys are third. Missouri's defense is 83rd overall in total defense and 114th in pass defense. Oklahoma State's is 114th in sacks and 116th in tackles for losses.
Even with those daunting indicators, OSU linebacker Patrick Lavine says he doesn't care what dire defensive predictions are floating around days before the game.
"That doesn't bother us. The defense is going to go out there and play as hard as we can regardless of what is being said," Lavine said. "We've progressed so much from day 1 to where we are now. We're building some confidence and I think we'll show it when we get our chance."
The Cowboys' improved defensive work has been one of the biggest surprises in OSU's 5-0 start that's its best since 2004.
The OSU defense went into a feeding frenzy in its 56-28 victory over Texas A&M, providing five first-half turnovers and three three-and-outs to spark the early knockout.
"Our staff has really done a good job in the last nine months of building on the success we had in the bowl game and bringing the team together and really making [sure] they understood what we were trying to accomplish Xs and Os wise," OSU coach Mike Gundy said. "The players have rallied together in running to the football."
Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin
|AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki|
|The biggest challenge for the Cowboys? Keeping QB Zac Robinson healthy.|
Coach Mike Gundy's 2007 season was marked by a celebrated rant that came after one of his team's biggest victories over Texas Tech.
A more sedate Gundy returns this season facing some big challenges in order to improve on his team's 7-6 record. The Cowboys finished with a victory in the Insight.com Bowl -- their second-straight bowl triumph in as many years -- and will be challenged to match that production.
Talented QB Zac Robinson is one of the nation's most underrated players. And the Cowboys should improve defensively with the addition of six junior-college players. But it remains to be seen how much of a step forward can be made in the rugged Big 12 South Division.
Heading into the season, here are five pressing questions that are facing the Cowboys as they prepare for their Aug. 30 opener in Seattle against Washington State.
1. Can Robinson remain healthy? This will be the major concern for Gundy all season. It remains to be seen if the Cowboys will be able to protect their quarterback, which will be no easy task considering his sometimes reckless running abilities. If backups Brandon Weeden or Alex Cate are counted on to take extended snaps, it will be a long season for the Cowboys.
2. Who will emerge at running back? Dantrell Savage led the Big 12 in rushing in conference games and his contributions can't be dismissed. But the Cowboys might not drop off as much as expected with a three-pronged rotation involving Beau Johnson, Kendall "Spud" Hunter and Keith Toston.
3. How will the offense develop without Larry Fedora? The Cowboys were one of the nation's most balanced and productive attacks under Fedora, the Cowboys' former coordinator who left for the head-coaching job at Southern Mississippi. Gundy and new coordinator Gunter Brewer will be challenged to do the same.
4. Will the junior-college arrivals really boost defensive production? Defensive coordinator Tim Beckman has six junior-college players he hopes can crack the two-deep roster: tackles Swanson Miller and Chris Donaldson, end Jeremiah Price, defensive backs Lucien Antoine and Maurice Gray and linebacker Donald Booker. Their development will be one of the biggest factors shaping Oklahoma State's season.
5. Can the Cowboys improve their special teams? Oklahoma State has traditionally been one of the nation's strongest teams under special-teams coach Joe DeForest, although a couple of disturbing trends were seen last season that demand immediate attention. Sophomore walk-on Dan Bailey beat back the challenge of heralded freshman Quinn Sharp for the starting kicker position. Whoever plays has to do better than OSU did last season (1 for 8 in attempts longer than 30 yards). And Oklahoma State will be challenged for better production from its punt-return and punt-coverage teams after a minus 6.1 yard-per-return difference in 2007.
Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin
Oklahoma State will be the first team to begin fall practice as the Cowboys start work late this afternoon to improve on last season's 7-6 record.
Last season was highlighted by Mike Gundy's rant at an Oklahoma City newspaper columnist as much as anything the Cowboys achieved on the field. Even after finishing with an impressive 49-33 victory over Indiana in the Insight.com Bowl, the season was marked as much with close divisional losses against Texas and Texas A&M that ultimately kept them out of title contention.
Gundy has his work cut out this summer. Here are some of questions as the Cowboys start work.
1. How will the new combination of offensive coordinators replace Larry Fedora?
The Cowboys' former offensive coordinator left for the head coaching job at Southern Mississippi after last season. He will be replaced by Gunter Brewer and Trooper Taylor. Gundy promises no major changes in offensive philosophy. It will be interesting if the Cowboys can maintain their proficiency that enabled them to average 200 yards rushing and passing in each of the last two seasons.
2. Who will emerge as the featured running threat?
Dantrell Savage is gone, but Kendall Hunter is back as the leading returning rusher. Will Savage be able to withstand a charge from heralded junior-college transfer Beau Johnson for the starting job?
3. Can a backup quarterback be found? - Zac Robinson is one of the nation's most productive players, one of only tthree players along with Heisman Trophy winner Tim Tebow and Central Michigan's Dan LeFevour to pass for more than 2,800 yards and rush for 800 yards last season. But the Cowboys are sunk if Robinson is injured, unless either Alex Cate or Brandon Weeden really emeges during training camp.
4. Can playmakers be found to replace Adarius Bowman and Savage? - The Cowboys will be missing their top rushing and receiving threats. It will be important for Dez Bryant to emerge as a go-to receiving threat without Bowman. And whoever emerges at running back will struggle to replace Savage, who led the Big 12 in rushing in conference games and finished with 1,272 rushing yards last season.
5. Will six junior-college transfers really make a difference on defense? DE Jeremiah Price, DT Swanson Miller, DT Chris Donaldson, LB Daniel Booker, FS Lucien Antoine and CB Maurice Gray are counted to crack the two-deep roster. All but Booker participated in spring drills. If some step up it will vindicate the gamble that Gundy made in the heavy infusion of junior-college players.