Big 12: Cyril Richardson

WACO, Texas – As the story goes, and Phil Bennett likes telling this one, Baylor’s coaching staff held a meeting in the fall of 2011 to discuss bringing in a junior college linebacker.

They pulled up the film from Riverside City College in California. This juco squad had three studs at linebacker.

[+] EnlargePhil Bennett
Jerome Miron/USA TODAY SportsBaylor defensive coordinator Phil Bennett and the Bears staff take pride in finding under-the-radar gems.
The heavily recruited member of the unit, Zaire Anderson, would sign with Nebraska. Will Smith landed at Texas Tech, where he’d start 24 games and win Holiday Bowl defensive MVP.

But Bennett, Baylor's defensive coordinator, had his eyes on the other guy. When he asked the staff to raise their hands for which one they’d take, the vote was unanimous. They wanted No. 10.

That was Eddie Lackey, a former Division II player whose only offers were Hawaii and New Mexico State. So, naturally, he’d verbally committed to Hawaii. Bennett made him a Bear that December.

“I told him, ‘You better be 6-foot or we’re gonna send your ass home,’” Bennett joked last week. “And how good a player was Eddie Lackey?”

A first-team All-Big 12 player, in fact. Nine other Baylor players earned that honor in 2013, including a former Hurricane Katrina refugee whose only offer was BU (Cyril Richardson), a receiver who weighed 138 pounds in high school (Tevin Reese) and a quarterback who’d been dumped by Tennessee (Bryce Petty).

If that’s not enough proof of Baylor’s impressive knack for evaluating talent, Bennett can tell plenty more stories. Like the time his brother tipped him off to go after running back Shock Linwood, the No. 176-rated athlete from a Class 2A school in Linden, Texas, who eventually flipped from TCU and will likely start for Baylor this fall.

Coach Art Briles says he isn’t one for telling these recruiting tales, but he’s proud of plenty of these finds. When he arrived in Waco in 2008, there was no doubt the job of building the doormat Bears back up would require taking chances on kids in recruiting.

“Those guys are out there,” Briles said last week. “This is a big state with a lot of great football players.”

In those early years of rebuilding, Briles leaned on the relationships built from 20-plus years of coaching Texas high school ball. He has now been a college coach in this state for 15 years. Those bonds can pay off big when he and his coaches go hunting for undiscovered talent.

“We know the state of Texas and the state of Texas knows us,” he said. “They know we’re not going anywhere. I’m not trying to cross the border and not come back. I’m home.”

And while Texas, Texas A&M and the state’s recruiting powers cherry-picked from the best of the best, scooping up the big-name kids on the top-100 lists before the summer had even begun, Baylor was forced to take a different approach. You’ve got to be willing to turn over a lot of rocks, in locales near and far, if the blue-chippers aren’t returning your calls.

In seeking kids who fit their high-speed scheme, Briles and his assistants did lots of projecting. They found the quarterbacks (example: Kendall Wright) who could move to receiver or defensive back, the linebackers who could grow into defensive end, the linemen with developing bodies. They had to take gambles.

“The farther you get away from the center and nose tackle, the harder the prediction gets,” Briles said. “Once you get to the skill people on both sides, it’s tough. We just try to find the guys that fit what we’re looking for. If they have an interest in us and vice versa, we’re all in.”

[+] EnlargeEddie Lackey
Tim Heitman/USA TODAY SportsLinebacker Eddie Lackey, who committed to Hawaii before signing with Baylor, was a key member of the Bears' defense in 2013.
But that’s not enough. Briles says he focuses closely on a kid’s commitment and passion, on the kind of stuff that makes good teammates. And he loves the chip on the shoulder.

“I like a guy that, when you look in his eyes, you can see the steely determination to him,” Briles said. “A guy who really wants to do something.”

They’ve found those kinds of kids from Amarillo to Refugio, from Midland to Texarkana. This spring, nearly 30 percent of Baylor’s players came from the always-fertile Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex. A fifth of the spring roster hailed from the Central Texas territory that includes Waco and Austin. Greater Houston-area kids made up a little more than 10 percent.

As for the other 40 percent of the squad? There are more than a dozen transfers, five players from out-of-state schools and, of course, a melting pot of guys from all over Texas. A couple were four-star recruits, but more of them are the sleepers and projects that have fueled Baylor’s rise.

The game changed in 2011 thanks to Robert Griffin III. McLane Stadium and a Big 12 title have made Briles’ pitch even easier today. Petty signed in 2009 and can’t help but marvel at how the roster has transformed since then.

“I’m pretty sure I was the last class that had that problem of saying, ‘Baylor was my only offer. I had to go here,’” he joked. “It’s not that way anymore.”

Now that the big-name recruits are visiting Waco, the staff’s approach will have to change.

“It’s a whole different deal,” Briles said. “Our calls are getting answered, and we’ve got to be careful who we ask now -- 'cause there’s a good chance they might say yes. Got to make sure we’re asking the right ones.”

Still, three of Baylor’s six verbal commitments for 2015 are true athletes who could play a variety of positions next season. It’ll be a smaller-than-usual class, but one that will still feature a few three-star recruits few schools wanted. Those kind of kids made Baylor what it is today.

“Has the door opened for us, and are we getting more of the quote-unquote four- and five-stars? Absolutely,” Bennett said. “We’ll look at them. But the thing I’m proud of is, you’ve got to be a player here.

“If you come here, you’ve got to be a player.”

Reviewing the Big 12 pro days

March, 31, 2014
Mar 31
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Pro day season has come and gone. Draft-eligible players returned to school this month and hit the weight room and practice field to give NFL scouts a taste of their potential. Here’s a rundown of how the Big 12’s top draft prospects fared as well as a few who surprised.

TCU (March 6)
Big name: CB Jason Verrett. A total of 26 NFL teams had reps at the Horned Frogs’ pro day, and you know many of them came for Verrett. He didn’t look to improve his 40 time from the NFL combine (4.38), but he did show off a 39 ˝-inch vertical and benched 19 reps.
Sleeper: QB Casey Pachall. While he’ll have to answer lots of questions about his off-field issues, Pachall’s on-field work at pro day was encouraging. He checked in at 6-foot-3˝ and 216 pounds, ran his 40 in the mid-4.9s and completed 62 of 72 passes, according to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

Kansas State (March 11)
Big name: S Ty Zimmerman. Though 20 Kansas State players worked out at pro day, Zimmerman was not one of them. He’s still recovering from labrum surgery and reportedly plans to hold a workout next month to show his progress.
Sleeper: OT Cornelius Lucas. Hard to project how things will play out for Lucas, a mammoth tackle at 6-8 and 316 pounds, after he discovered a stress fracture in his left foot at the NFL combine. He’s supposed to be out up to eight weeks but plans to work out along with Zimmerman on April 28.

Oklahoma (March 12)
Big name: CB Aaron Colvin. The Sooners had 28 NFL organization represented at their pro day, but a few key players were still on the mend. Colvin, who suffered a torn ACL at the Senior Bowl, did not work out but hopes to be running again by late April and vowed his recovery is ahead of schedule.
Sleeper: C Gabe Ikard. While Ikard elected to stand by his combine numbers, which were strong for his position group, he did use the pro day to show in position drills just how athletic an interior lineman he can be for an NFL club. Running back Damien Williams also made a solid impression, and receiver Jalen Saunders drew mixed reviews after poor shuttle times.

Oklahoma State (March 13)
Big name: CB Justin Gilbert. The Steelers have the No. 15 pick, so it made sense that Mike Tomlin and his GM were among the many coaches in Stillwater to scout Gilbert. He stood by his 4.37 in the 40 from the NFL combine but did agility drills and reportedly wowed in his position drills. He’s a first-rounder, no doubt.
Sleeper: WR Josh Stewart. Well, OK, he’s not much of a sleeper. But Stewart had work to do to raise his stock, and pro day should’ve helped. He improved his 40 slightly, from 4.69 at the combine to 4.59 at pro day, and showed what he can do as a receiver and returner. Safety Daytawion Lowe also made a good impression.

Texas Tech (March 14)
Big name: TE Jace Amaro. The All-America tight end tried to secure a spot in the first round with improvements in the 40 (4.68) and vertical, and at 6-5 and 266 pounds he evoked comparisons to Vernon Davis from one 49ers scout.
Sleeper: CB Bruce Jones. He’s undersized at 5-7 and 183 pounds, but Jones did grab some attention at pro day with a run of a 4.5-second 40 time and team-best vertical of 41 inches.

Kansas (March 14)
Big name: RB James Sims. A dozen scouts showed up for the Jayhawks’ pro day, and the highlight was probably Sims busting off a run of 4.56 seconds in the 40. The 6-foot, 205-pound back was not invited to the NFL combine and told the Lawrence Journal-World he felt good about the numbers he put up.

Baylor (March 19)
Big names: OT Cyril Richardson, RB Lache Seastrunk, S Ahmad Dixon. Richardson shed 20 pounds after his senior season, which had to encourage NFL scouts, and he did nothing at his pro day to diminish his chances of being a top-50 pick. Seastrunk was as explosive as expected, with a time of 4.37 in the 40 and a 4.36 second shuttle, and tried to show off his pass-catching ability. Dixon ran a 4.64 in the 40 at the NFL combine and improved that to 4.48 at pro day.
Sleeper: TE Jordan Najvar. At nearly 6-6 and 280 pounds, Najvar certainly has the size to make the NFL. His speed had been a question mark, but his reported best for pro day was 4.86 seconds in the 40.

West Virginia (March 21)
Big name: RB Charles Sims. A nice showing at the NFL combine (40 time: 4.48) meant Sims needed only to do positional drills, and he drew good reviews for his pass-catching ability despite small hands.
Sleeper: DE Will Clarke. Knowing it’s possible he’ll be asked to play outside linebacker in an NFL scheme, Clarke worked out at both end and linebacker on pro day and tried to show what he can bring to pass coverage as a nearly 6-6, 268-pound defender.

Iowa State (March 25)
Big name: LB Jeremiah George. After a subpar showing at the combine, George had a nice day in front of 30 NFL officials. He hit 4.69 in the 40-yard dash, posted a big improvement in his broad jump and was solid in positional work.
Sleeper: CB Jeremy Reeves. How’s this for a success story? Reeves played at ISU from 2010-12, missed last season with a pectoral injury and showed up to pro day to prove he’s still got it. He had a crazy good day: 4.29-second 40, 43-inch vertical, 11˝-foot broad jump. The New York Jets signed him on Friday.

Texas (March 26)
Big name: DE Jackson Jeffcoat. Like most other top prospects, Jeffcoat stuck with his NFL combine testing numbers. The 6-3, 253-pound end demonstrated his coverage ability in position drills amid talk that he might have to be a 3-4 outside linebacker at the next level.
Sleeper: CB Carrington Byndom. Questions about the three-year starter’s speed were put to rest when he ran his 40 in 4.37 seconds. Byndom was happy with his positional drills and is starting to line up meetings.

Spring preview capsules: Big 12

February, 24, 2014
Feb 24
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Spring football is rapidly approaching.

Here's a team-by-team look at what to watch in the Big 12 this spring:

Baylor

Spring start: Feb. 28

Spring game: April 5

What to watch: Who will replace Lache Seastrunk? The Bears' running back was the engine that helped keep the Baylor offense balanced and defenses honest. Shock Linwood will step in, but is he ready to handle the burden of keeping the offense balanced? . . . Baylor, the 2013 regular-season champion, has to find key replacements on a defense that is losing half of its starters. But several second-teamers -- including Jamal Palmer, Shawn Oakman, Andrew Billings and Orion Stewart -- are poised to fill the void . . . The Bears need to replace guard Cyril Richardson along the offensive line. Several candidates, including junior college transfer Jarell Broxton, will battle for the job. Baylor has arguably the league's best group of skill position players, but that will mean nothing if its offensive line takes a step backward.

Iowa State

Spring start: March 10

Spring game: April 12

What to watch: New offensive coordinator Mark Mangino arrives in Ames to bring more points and creativity to the Cyclones’ offense. The spring is the first opportunity for Mangino to get a feel for the playmakers and the players to get a feel for Mangino’s expectations . . . The quarterback competition is another thing to keep an eye on. Grant Rohach ended the season as the starter, but Sam B. Richardson could take his job back with a strong spring. And there are other young quarterbacks on campus who could insert themselves into the mix . . . Defensively, the Cyclones need to replace linebacker Jeremiah George and safety Jacques Washington, who finished 1-2 in tackles in the Big 12 in 2013 and finished their careers with 59 career starts combined. Iowa State seems to always have quality linebackers, so finding a replacement for Washington could be the defense’s top priority in the spring.

Kansas

Spring start: March 4

Spring game: April 12

What to watch: Shuffling the offensive coaching staff has been the theme of the offseason. New offensive coordinator John Reagan, who was a KU assistant from 2005 to 2009, returns to the Jayhawks after running Rice’s offense last season. The spring is Reagan’s first chance to identify the playmakers who will be the foundation of his offense this fall. Expect wide-open competition across the board after KU finished 115th in the FBS in points scored ... The quarterback position will grab the headlines, with T.J. Millweard joining the competition with Jake Heaps and Montell Cozart, who each started games in 2013. Millweard transferred to KU from UCLA before the 2013 season.

Kansas State

Spring start: April 2

Spring game: April 26

What to watch: Finding John Hubert’s replacement sits high on the Wildcats’ priority list. The former running back carried the ground attack for the past three seasons, and there’s no clear favorite to step into his shoes. Will someone step up during spring football? . . . What will happen with quarterback Daniel Sams? The Wildcats have a proven Big 12 playmaker in Sams, a junior, and another proven quarterback in Jake Waters. Sams is an exceptional open-field runner who started two games in 2013, but look for Kansas State to start exploring ways to have both on the field together this spring . . . Replacing Ty Zimmerman’s playmaking and leadership on defense is another key this spring. The defense has to replace several starters in the secondary and at linebacker. Keep an eye on junior college defensive back Danzel McDaniel, who has the versatility to step in at several different spots.

Oklahoma

Spring start: March 8

Spring game: April 12

What to watch: With Trevor Knight poised to start at quarterback in 2014, Blake Bell moves to tight end after starting eight games under center in 2013. Bell’s transition to tight end will be the talk of the spring, with the senior’s commitment to the program and OU's need for help at the position . . . The battle to be the starting running back is another storyline, with sophomores Keith Ford and Alex Ross hoping to make a statement this spring before ESPN 300 running backs Joe Mixon and Samaje Perine arrive in the summer. Ford forced his way into the lineup as a freshman before an injury slowed him . . . The Sooners will be looking to shore up the secondary after the departure of All-Big 12 cornerback Aaron Colvin and starting safety Gabe Lynn. Sophomore Stanvon Taylor could be set to replace Colvin, while sophomores Hatari Byrd and Ahmad Thomas will battle to replace Lynn.

Oklahoma State

Spring start: March 10

Final spring practice: April 5

What to watch: Incoming freshman Mason Rudolph enrolled early to participate in spring football with the hope of replacing quarterback Clint Chelf. J.W. Walsh has won a lot of games in a Cowboys uniform, but will have to hold off stern competition to earn the starting spot as a junior . . . The Cowboys lose seven seniors off one of their best defenses in recent memory. The overall quality might be upgraded, but spring football will be the first chance to see if those talented yet inexperienced defenders are ready to step into the fire. Defensive end Jimmy Bean, linebacker Ryan Simmons and cornerback Kevin Peterson could emerge as the foundation of the defense . . . Who will step up at receiver? The Cowboys lose three of their top four receivers, with Jhajuan Seales as the lone returnee. But several youngsters appear poised to step in, including sophomore Marcell Ateman and redshirt freshman Ra'Shaad Samples.

TCU

Spring start: March 1

Final spring practice: April 5

What to watch: Doug Meacham and Sonny Cumbie have arrived to take over as co-offensive coordinators at TCU. The Horned Frogs need a jump start and could get it from the “Air Raid”-style offense the duo will bring to the table. This spring will be an important first step in improving the offense . . . Who will be the quarterback? Trevone Boykin started several games in 2013 but might actually be TCU’s top receiver. Tyler Matthews, a redshirt freshman, also saw time under center, but he faces stiff competition. Don’t expect the battle to end until fall camp . . . TCU needs someone to step up in the secondary, with Jason Verrett NFL-bound after spending the past two seasons as one of the Big 12’s top coverage cornerbacks. Ranthony Texada and Travoskey Garrett are among several young defensive backs who could try to fill the void.

Texas

Spring start: March 18

Spring game: April 19

What to watch: David Ash's health will be one of the main storylines of Texas’ first spring under coach Charlie Strong. Ash has the talent to be a key piece of the puzzle, but head injuries are always tough to overcome. If Ash is 100 percent healthy, the Longhorns will feel better about the overall status at quarterback . . . Strong has talked of instilling a tough mindset in Austin since he arrived in January, and spring football will be the first real taste of what the Longhorns’ new coach is trying to bring to the program . . . Where are the playmakers? Texas has a talent-laden roster, but didn’t have the exceptional talent who could consistently change games. This spring gives several returning skill players, including receiver Jaxon Shipley and all-purpose standout Daje Johnson, the chance to become the foundation of the offense in 2014.

Texas Tech

Spring start: March 5

Spring game: April 12

What to watch: Davis Webb's health is the No. 1 priority for the Red Raiders, who have seen three quarterbacks leave the program since the beginning of the 2013 season. Coach Kliff Kingsbury could have the toughest job of the spring as he tries to manage the lack of quarterbacks with the desire to have a productive spring for the roster as a whole . . . The Red Raiders have some consistency among the defensive coaching staff, meaning they could improve in 2014 despite losing multiple starters, including defensive tackle Kerry Hyder, linebacker Will Smith and safety Tre' Porter. Tech could start seeing dividends of that continuity . . . The Red Raiders have to replace Jace Amaro and Eric Ward, who combined to catch 189 passes for 2,299 yards and 15 touchdowns last season. Jakeem Grant and Bradley Marquez made a bunch of plays in 2013 and Devin Lauderdale, a junior college transfer and early enrollee, will get the chance to show why he had Texas Tech fans buzzing when he initially signed in February 2013.

West Virginia

Spring start: March 2

Spring game: April 12

What to watch: Finding a quarterback is critical for the Mountaineers, who have talent at the skill positions but won’t transform into an explosive offense without efficient quarterback play. Clint Trickett is recovering from shoulder surgery, meaning Paul Millard, junior college transfer Skyler Howard and former receiver Logan Moore will run the offense this spring . . . Tony Gibson takes over as WVU’s defensive coordinator after coaching the safeties in 2013. His promotion allows some continuity on the defense after former DC Keith Patterson left for Arizona State after the season . . . Replacing defensive tackle Shaq Rowell and defensive end Will Clarke, who started 56 combined career games for WVU, won’t be easy. The Mountaineers will lean heavily on veteran juniors Isaiah Bruce and Karl Joseph, who have started since their freshman seasons.
There's money to be made this weekend.

The NFL combine is underway with on-field workouts beginning on Saturday. The Big 12 has 25 participants in the combine, and several former conference standouts can make themselves some money. Here are eight former Big 12 playmakers that could help themselves with strong performances at the combine.

[+] EnlargeAhmad Dixon
John Rivera/Icon SMIFormer Baylor safety Ahmad Dixon needs to show his coverage skills at the NFL combine.
Ahmad Dixon, Baylor safety: Dixon’s ability to impact games with his aggressiveness and physicality is not in question. But his ability to cover is a concern, and in this era of football, safeties are often asked to cover like cornerbacks and hold their own in one-on-one situations with receivers. Dixon will need to have a strong performance and potentially surprise NFL general managers and scouts with his coverage abilities when combine participants take the field for defensive back drills on Tuesday. Dixon is projected as an early Day 3 selection.

Cyril Richardson, Baylor guard: The anchor of the Bears’ offensive line, Richardson is aiming to prove his Senior Bowl performance was an aberration. The combine gives him the opportunity to show his body of work at Baylor is more representative of his NFL future than a week which saw him struggle in Mobile. He has the talent to make an impact on Sundays so it will be a key week for Richardson from the interviews to the on-field work. Richardson is projected as an early Day 3 selection.

Gabe Ikard, Oklahoma center: One of the most productive offensive linemen in OU history, Ikard needs to show he can overcome physical limitations to earn a spot on an NFL roster. Questions about his athleticism surround Ikard so Saturday’s on-field drills for the offensive linemen are key. He has the intelligence and versatility to become a valuable asset for an NFL team but he will have to prove his assets are more important than his weaknesses during the combine. Ikard is projected as a potential Day 3 pick.

Josh Stewart, Oklahoma State receiver: The combine provides Stewart the opportunity to prove his decision to leave school a year early was a good one. Questions about his size and speed have hurt his draft stock and, while he’s not going to grow taller in Indianapolis, he can show he’s faster and stronger than NFL scouts think. Stewart is projected as a Day 3 selection.

Jason Verrett, TCU cornerback: Much like Stewart, size limitations sit upon the shoulders’ of Verrett. Nobody questions his competitiveness, production or coverage skills, but if he wows NFL scouts with his athleticism and impresses them during the interview process, he could prove himself too talented to ignore and spark a rise up NFL draft boards. Verrett is projected as a Day 2 pick that could slip into the first-round conversation.

Mike Davis, Texas receiver: Davis has the physical skills to be an impact NFL receiver but he needs to use the combine to show scouts their concerns about his production, mindset and commitment are unwarranted. If he comes out focused and tries to dominate during on-field workouts on Sunday, Davis could help earn himself some money. If not, he will have even more obstacles to overcome before draft day. Davis is projected as a Day 3 selection.

Jace Amaro, Texas Tech tight end: It’s a big week for Amaro. ESPN.com draft expert Todd McShay included Amaro in his list of prospects with the most riding on the combine Insider. Amaro needs to perform well in drills and show he has unique athleticism to combine with his size (6-foot-5, 265 pounds). Saturday’s drills and on-field work will be critical for the most productive tight end in college football in 2013. Amaro is projected as a first- or second-round pick.

Charles Sims, West Virginia running back: Sims could really boost his draft stock with a fast 40-yard dash time and strong performance in other drills. When the running backs hit the field on Sunday, Sims needs to excel. He’s likely to stand out during receiving drills but if he runs a bad time it could erase all the good work he does during the receiving drills. Sims is projected to be an early pick on Day 3.
Every school in the Big 12 turned to the junior college ranks to help fill its 2014 recruiting class. While some of those signees won’t arrive until the summer, several junior college players are already preparing to make an impression during spring football. Here’s a look at five Big 12 junior college signees to keep an eye on this spring.

Baylor guard Jarell Broxton: Departed All-American Cyril Richardson was an anchor of the offensive line for several seasons in Waco, Texas. Broxton could step in to help replace the All-Big 12 guard. At 6-foot-5 and 326 pounds, Broxton brings superb size and athleticism to the Bears. The No. 32 player in the ESPN JC 50 has the talent to make an immediate impact and the opportunity with Richardson’s departure.

“We think he can play either inside or possibly outside,” coach Art Briles said. “He’s athletic, powerful and is a guy who is going to come in here this spring and compete to get on the field.”

Kansas State defensive back Danzel McDaniel: The Wildcats have Dante Barnett as the lone returning starter in the secondary and McDaniel has the versatility to fill one of those spots. At 6-1, 205 pounds, McDaniel can play several different positions in the secondary and brings good coverage skills combined with a physical mindset.

The No. 45 player in the ESPN JC 50, McDaniel should start making an impact this spring as the Wildcats start to understand how to use his versatility to help slow Big 12 offenses. He has the talent to bring an upgrade in size to the cornerback position or an upgrade in coverage skills to the safety spot. It’s just a matter of finding the right fit.

Oklahoma State receiver Tyreek Hill: Speed. Speed. Speed. That’s what Hill will bring to the Cowboys. It is going to be tough for OSU to replace Josh Stewart, who seemed to make game-changing play after game-changing play during his final two seasons.

Hill has the speed and big play ability to change games, just as Stewart did. Yet, the Cowboys’ roster is littered with potential playmakers including redshirt freshman Ra’Shaad Samples. This spring will be Hill’s chance to show he can step in as a playmaker at the receiver spot, even with other talented options on campus.

“He has been very successful when he has the ball in his hands,” OSU coach Mike Gundy said of Hill. “I don’t think it’s any secret for all of us, certainly from a coaching standpoint, if you have a player that can make plays then he has to touch the football.”

Texas Tech receiver Devin Lauderdale: The Red Raiders need playmakers to help offset the loss of tight end Jace Amaro and receiver Eric Ward. Lauderdale, who initially signed with the Red Raiders in 2013, joins the program after one season at Navarro (Texas) junior college.

Lauderdale should play immediately and this spring will be the Red Raiders’ first opportunity to figure out what the 5-11, 170-pound receiver can do best. Don’t be surprised if Lauderdale ensures himself a key role in Kliff Kingsbury’s attack before summer.

“Fast. Fast. Fast,” Texas Tech receivers coach Eric Morris said. “Has big play potential any time the ball in his hands.”

West Virginia quarterback Skyler Howard: The search for Geno Smith’s replacement continues. And Howard has as good a chance as anyone to step into that role this fall. Spring football provides Howard the chance to show Mountaineers coach Dana Holgorsen that he can run the WVU offense with efficiency after he watched his offense struggle at various times during 2013. If Howard hopes to insert his name into the quarterback race it will start in the spring.

“Howard is here and is studying hard, is throwing with the guys and is here a lot,” Holgorsen said. “The film supports what we think he can be. The good news is that his idol is Russell Wilson, and that’s good for a number of obvious reasons. He believes that he’s got the skill set to be able to be successful. I’m really excited about coaching him.”

Signing day was kind to the Oklahoma Sooners.

A strong finish to its 2014 recruiting class has helped OU land at No. 5 in the ESPN.com Post-Signing Day Way-Too-Early Top 25. The Sooners are the Big 12’s top team, with Baylor and Texas joining them on the list. The Bears are ranked No. 10 and the Longhorns No. 22.

Florida State, Alabama, Oregon and Michigan State are the top four teams, in that order.

OU skyrocketing to the top five shows just how quickly things can change. In mid-November the Sooners were reeling after a 41-12 thrashing at the hands of the eventual Big 12 champion Bears. Almost three months later, the Sooners find themselves projected to be among the nation’s top five teams after four straight wins to end the season, including a 45-31 Allstate Sugar Bowl triumph over Alabama led by sophomore quarterback Trevor Knight. The Sooners used that momentum to land several top recruits, including running back Joe Mixon, athlete Michiah Quick and safety Steven Parker II.

Baylor will have to overcome the loss of running back Lache Seastrunk and defensive leader Ahmad Dixon, but running back Shock Linwood and safety Orion Stewart both made game-changing plays as backups. Linwood finished with 881 rushing yards and Stewart had a critical interception return for touchdown against TCU. Art Briles' team appears ready to handle those departures -- and the loss of All-American guard Cyril Richardson -- while adding a recruiting class full of talented athletes, including elite receiver K.D. Cannon, to its roster to earn a preseason top-10 ranking.

Texas is the wildcard team with a new coach in Charlie Strong but uncertainty at the quarterback position due to David Ash’s health concerns. But a solid finish to its recruiting class, including the late addition of ESPN 300 defensive tackle Poona Ford, combined with an exceptional coaching staff landed Texas in the Top 25. The Longhorns have the talent to rise into the top 10 or, if their struggles at the quarterback position continue, could tumble out of the rankings completely.

Oklahoma State could have a strong case for inclusion in the Way-Too-Early Top 25, but Kansas State has the strongest case of the Big 12 squads that find themselves left outside. The Wildcats have quarterback Jake Waters returning to man the offense, and receiver Tyler Lockett could be the Big 12’s top returning offensive playmaker. Add in several impact junior college signees and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see the Wildcats consistently ranked among the top 25 teams in college football this fall.
Twenty-five Big 12 players have been invited to the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis Feb. 19-24. The NFL released the invite list Thursday afternoon. The Big 12 players are below:

Quarterbacks
  • None
Running backs
Fullbacks
Tight ends
Wide receivers
Offensive linemen
Defensive linemen
Linebackers
Defensive backs
Long snapper
Kicker
Punter
  • None
Notable omissions:

Big 12 mailbag

January, 31, 2014
Jan 31
4:05
PM ET
In today's mailbag, we exclusively discuss our Big 12 Top 25 player countdown of 2013, which concluded earlier today. No matter how rational or irrational, all grievances were heard.

To the 'bag:

Jon D. in Davis, Calif., writes: You wrote in your Top 25 Big 12 player countdown that no defense figured out how to stop Jace Amaro. Well, he only had four catches for 55 yards in the Baylor game. Yeah, I would say Baylor stopped him. Those aren't exactly eye-popping numbers for the No. 1 player in the Big 12.

Jake Trotter: You conveniently leave out the fact that Amaro had two touchdown catches in that game. Or that Baylor safety Ahmad Dixon sent him to the locker room late in the first half with a hit up high. Sure, Amaro eventually came back, but he wasn’t the same after that hit. So if you count injuring Amaro as a means of stopping him, then yeah, I guess you’re technically right.


Brandon Thompson in Fort Worth, Texas, writes: How is the Big 12 Player of the Year No. 2 on this list? That makes no sense.

Jake Trotter: This is actually a very good question. And I agree, a compelling case could be made for Petty atop the list. But to me, “player of the year” and “best player” are two different things. A player of the year award has a team element to it. In other words, what effect, tangibly and intangibly, did that player have on his team, and in turn, how did that team perform as a result? That’s why I felt like Oklahoma State linebacker Caleb Lavey should have been in the discussion for the Big 12 defensive player of the year. By no means was Lavey even close to being the “best” player in the Big 12. But he was the glue and emotional leader of Oklahoma State’s stark defensive turnaround. Likewise, Petty was the engine of the Baylor scoring machine, and Baylor winning its first Big 12 championship was no small feat. Petty was also a better player than Lavey, and pretty much everyone else in the league. But Petty was surrounded with other big-time players, including three other players in our top 12 (running back Lache Seastrunk, wideout Antwan Goodley and guard Cyril Richardson). Amaro produced despite playing with a pair of rotating true freshman quarterbacks. We believed, in a vacuum, Amaro was the more dominating force – and the “best” player in the league.


Josh in Dallas writes: I saw that you put Petty at No. 2. I am a Baylor fan and have enjoyed this past season. But I was not impressed with Petty when the competition stepped up. The first half of the season his receivers were wide open, but in the final five games, it looked like he was still looking for Tevin Reese to be out there. Am I being too harsh?

Jake Trotter: If we had done this countdown in early November, there’s no doubt Petty would have been No. 1. But in his last three games, Petty produced Adjusted QBRs (scale 0-to-100) of 70.5, 75.8 and 62.1 -- far below what his season average had been. That doesn’t even include his Oklahoma State performance, in which he put up big stats after the final score was no longer in doubt to salvage a QBR of 89.3. Petty still had a tremendous season. But when Baylor was missing key offensive players because of injury, his production dipped.


Jake in Dallas writes: Jake, since it’s widely accepted that the two best defensive ends in the Big 12 were the Texas duo of Cedric Reed and Jackson Jeffcoat, you'll understand everyone dismissing your top 25 big list. Ryan Mueller ahead of Reed?

Jake Trotter: It couldn’t have been that widely accepted. Mueller was a coaches first-team All-Big 12 selection, along with three other defensive ends. Reed was not one of them.


James in Houston writes: Hey guys, I was a little surprised you didn't have Texas Tech LB Will Smith in your Top 25 players list. At No. 23 you have Eric Striker from Oklahoma, who only had 49 tackles and seven sacks. Smith had 120 tackles and five sacks. The other linebackers on that list definitely deserved to be on there. But 120 tackles to 49? Come on!

Jake Trotter: If we only went by stats, this list would have been easy to put together. Smith was a very fine player who had a great season, even if the Texas Tech defense itself struggled at times. But examining Striker’s tackle statistics alone doesn’t tell the whole story. Striker was deployed almost exclusively as a blitzing linebacker, and was the best in the Big 12 in that role -- as Alabama found out in the Allstate Sugar Bowl. We liked Smith, but we liked Texas Tech DT Kerry Hyder even more. Hyder was one of the first players to miss the cut.


Alan in Austin, Texas, writes: Was your ranking and description of Cyril Richardson written before or after the recent Senior Bowl? I think he was ranked too high, based upon his performance against NFL-quality defensive linemen.

Jake Trotter: The 2013 season ended when the final Big 12 bowl game was concluded. We didn’t account for anything that’s happened since. Richardson had a phenomenal final season at Baylor, and we only evaluated him -- and every other player -- in that context.

Top 25 players in the Big 12: No. 5

January, 30, 2014
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With signing day quickly approaching, it’s time to close the chapter on the 2013 season. We’re counting down the top 25 players in the Big 12 in 2013 with a list collaboratively selected by Jake Trotter, Brandon Chatmon and Max Olson. We continue the postseason countdown with the No. 5 player in the Big 12.

[+] EnlargeCyril Richardson
Tim Heitman/USA TODAY SportsGuard Cyril Richardson was the muscle behind a Baylor offense that was virtually unstoppable in 2013.
No. 5: Cyril Richardson, OG, Baylor

Previous ranking: Richardson was ranked No. 2 in the blog’s preseason list of the Big 12’s top 25 players.

Making the case for Richardson: Unanimous All-American, undisputed best lineman in the Big 12, unapologetic monster.

Richardson came into his senior season with great expectations and once again raised his game. The conference's Offensive Lineman of the Year for a second straight season, he led Baylor with 89 knockdown blocks and got the job done nearly 90 percent of the time according to BU coaches.

He was the leader of an offensive line that protected the nation's No. 1 scoring and total offense and a key figure in keeping new starting quarterback Bryce Petty clean and thriving. The mammoth 6-foot-5, 340-pound lineman is as dominant a player as the Big 12 has had in recent years, and his impact on these Bears shouldn't be underestimated.

Now he's the No. 1-ranked guard prospect in the NFL draft. Whoever selects Richardson is getting a road grader with a mean streak and an impeccable résumé.

The rest of the list:
The Big 12 had nine players participate in the Reese's Senior Bowl over the weekend, but the group's impact on the actual game in Mobile, Ala., was negligible.

West Virginia running back Charles Sims, who drew rave reviews in practice throughout the week, had just eight yards rushing on three carries. Sims, however, definitely improved his draft stock. Scouts Inc. recognized Sims as a Senior Bowl week standout, calling him the "most versatile" running back in camp Insider.

Texas wide receiver Mike Davis had a decent game with 20 yards receiving on three catches. So did Oklahoma's Jalen Saunders, who had two receptions and a 14-yard punt return.

Defensively, Baylor safety Ahmad Dixon was tied for fourth on the North side with four tackles. West Virginia defensive end Will Clarke added one tackle for the North.

The player that had perhaps the biggest impact on the Senior Bowl was Iowa State punter Kirby Van Der Kamp. On eight punts, Van Der Kamp averaged 46.9 yards with a long of 54.

Baylor guard Cyril Richardson, Oklahoma center Gabe Ikard and Kansas State long snapper Marcus Heit each played in the game. While Sims seemed to help his stock at the Senior Bowl, Richardson apparently hurt his.

Oklahoma cornerback Aaron Colvin also started out the week in Mobile, but he suffered a torn ACL during practice last Tuesday.

2013 Big 12 Super Seniors

January, 27, 2014
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Before we wrap up our review of the 2013 season, it’s time to pay homage to the Big 12’s top seniors.

After much deliberation, we’ve selected the best 12 seniors in the league, period. These players all raised their game this season with their on-field production, leadership and impact to their respective teams.

[+] EnlargeJustin Gilbert
J.P. Wilson/Icon SMIOklahoma State cornerback Justin Gilbert had 12 career interceptions.
This wasn’t easy, and a lot of talented and deserving seniors did not make the cut. This was a particularly challenging season, with more than 30 seniors earning All-Big 12 honors from the league’s coaches. We looked closely at how these players fared in conference play, their consistency and whether they were able to make it through the full season.

Here are our 2013 Big 12 Super Seniors, listed in alphabetical order:

Aaron Colvin, CB, Oklahoma: His senior-year stats weren’t stunning -- Colvin recorded 55 tackles, an interception and three pass breakups -- but it’s not as if opposing quarterbacks were interested in throwing his way. The three-year starter was a longtime leader of this Sooners defense and now has a long road to recovery ahead after suffering a torn ACL at the Senior Bowl.

Ahmad Dixon, S, Baylor: Love him or hate him, the All-American is one of the best playmakers in the Big 12. The hard-hitting safety racked up 81 tackles, six pass breakups and one interception and served as the enforcer over the middle of a much-improved Bears defense.

Justin Gilbert, CB, Oklahoma State: After an unsatisfying junior season, Gilbert stepped up big again for the Cowboys with a Big 12-leading seven interceptions along with seven pass breakups and 42 tackles. He’ll go down as both a lockdown corner and elite kick returner in his time at OSU.

Gabe Ikard, C, Oklahoma: No player is more deserving of making this list than Ikard, an All-America lineman on the field and Capital One Academic All-American of the Year in the classroom. He won the Wuerffel Trophy for his combination of athletic, academic and community service success. He was one of the nation’s best at his position and brought off-the-charts leadership to the Sooners.

Jackson Jeffcoat, DE, Texas: Finally injury-free for a full season, Jeffcoat shined in his last year as a Longhorn and led the Big 12 in sacks (13) and tackles for loss (19) to earn consensus All-America honors. When Texas lost its defensive coordinator and two of its first three games, Jeffcoat stepped up and played a big role in turning Texas’ season around.

Eddie Lackey, LB, Baylor: The Bears found one heck of a steal in Lackey, a junior college transfer who finished with 108 tackles (13 for loss), 4.5 sacks and three INTs in his senior season. He earned All-Big 12 honors for his play and probably deserved more than that for what he brought to this unit.

Caleb Lavey, LB, Oklahoma State: Sure seems like this guy was a little too underrated during the 2013 season. Lavey led the Pokes in tackles with 93 and a team-high 13 tackles for loss, and he chipped in four interceptions, three pass breakups and 2.5 sacks. Oklahoma State’s defense emerged as the league’s best for much of the season and Lavey was a big reason why with his play over the middle.

[+] EnlargeBlake Bell
Tim Heitman/USA TODAY SportsBaylor linebacker Eddie Lackey was a big part of the Bears' improved defense.
Cyril Richardson, OG, Baylor: The unanimous All-American entered the season with considerable hype and managed to surpass expectations. He paved the way for the No. 1 offense with 89 knockdown blocks and, at 6-foot-5 and 340 pounds, is the kind of menacing guard any coach would love to have leading a line.

Charles Sims, RB, West Virginia: In his only season with the Mountaineers, the Houston transfer was a do-everything workhorse who had no trouble adjusting his game to Big 12 competition. He led the league with 1,496 yards from scrimmage (1,095 rushing, 401 receiving) and scored 14 total touchdowns. The guy wanted to make a name for himself and did just that.

James Sims, RB, Kansas: Sims was quietly one of the best running backs in the Big 12 over the past four years, finishing his career with 3,592 rushing yards after surpassing 1,000 for the second straight year. Though he played for struggling offenses, he made a bigger impact on this program than most realize.

Jason Verrett, CB, TCU: In his only two seasons in the Big 12, Verrett earned All-America honors in back-to-back seasons and was one of the league’s most feared defenders in his final year. The former junior college transfer broke up 14 passes and picked off two, and he didn’t see many more thrown his way.

Ty Zimmerman, S, Kansas State: He dealt with some injury issues in his final season, but the few games he missed made clear just how important Zimmerman was to this K-State defense throughout his career. He finished with 74 tackles, three interceptions and four pass breakups as a senior and started nearly every game of the past four seasons.

Big 12 lunchtime links

January, 24, 2014
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Hold on, is this C-Webb vs. Kenny, Part II?

Big 12's lunch links

January, 23, 2014
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Now this is a dead-on impression of Tom Brady throwing a touchdown.

Big 12's lunch links

January, 21, 2014
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In case you missed it, Richard Sherman discusses going toe-to-toe with Michael Crabtree.
Images and highlights of Big 12 football are often filled with high-flying catches, deep throws and pass-happy spread offenses. Yet, Big 12 title hopes were rooted in the ability to run the ball in 2013.

[+] EnlargeShock Linwood
Ronald Martinez/Getty ImagesWith Lache Seastrunk off to the NFL, Shock Linwood will find a more prominent role in Baylor's rushing attack.
Baylor and Oklahoma were the lone 11-win teams and BCS bowl participants and that duo finished atop the Big 12 in several rushing categories. With the help of ESPN Stats and Information, let’s take a closer look at some revealing Big 12 rushing statistics, how they impacted 2013 and what it could mean for 2014.

OU and Baylor each rushed for over 1,900 yards before contact in 2012

The Bears and Sooners were consistently winning the battle in the trenches with a pair of quality offensive lines. OU rushed for 1,949 yards before contact (3.81 ypc), and BU rushed for 1,909 yards before contact (3.33 ypc) in 2013.

Impact on 2013: For Baylor, it meant the Bears could put multiple running backs in the backfield without missing a beat. Lache Seastrunk, Glasco Martin and Shock Linwood had plenty of success thanks to BU’s offensive line. For Oklahoma, it meant the Sooners were able to overcome inconsistency at the quarterback position. Seastrunk (720 yards before contact) and OU’s Brennan Clay (682) finished 1-2 in yards before contact in the conference.

What it means for 2014: Both offensive lines lose their anchors (BU’s Cyril Richardson, OU’s Gabe Ikard). The two teams will have to find quality replacements for those players but BU returns quarterback Bryce Petty to keep defenses honest, and OU returns some quality, experienced linemen who can step in to do the job.

Baylor led the Big 12 with 1,995 yards inside the tackles, averaging 5.4 yards per carry on designed run plays

In other words, the Bears spread you out, make you cover every inch of the field and then run the football right at you. It makes BU’s offense extremely difficult to stop as defenses have to account for everything and everyone without making mistakes.

Impact on 2013: Linwood’s 7.4 yards per carry inside the tackles led the Big 12, and he was joined in the top five by Seastrunk (6.1). They helped the Bears lead the league in rushing with 259.69 rushing yards per game.

What it means for 2014: Baylor’s offense won’t change. Art Briles and Co. will still force defenses to cover the entire field while aiming to run the ball down the defense’s throat. Even with Seastrunk and Richardson off to the NFL, it’s unlikely the Bears' rushing attack will become much easier to stop.

Oklahoma led the Big 12 with 1,625 rushing yards outside the tackles

The Sooners averaged six yards per carry on runs outside the tackles. With OU adding more quarterback zone-read plays to its offense, the Sooners used their quickness and speed at running back to test defenses.

What it meant in 2013: The Sooners aimed to use Clay, Damien Williams and Roy Finch to challenge defenses with their athleticism, while also utilizing the quickness of quarterback Trevor Knight to get on the edge during the eight games (five starts) the redshirt freshman was under center. The approach helped OU win 11 games and finish with 223.92 rushing yards per game, second in the Big 12, despite an inconsistent passing game that averaged 199.08 yards per outing.

What it means for 2014: Don’t be surprised if this number increases in 2014. If Knight locks down the job and plays consistently, he provides a running threat on the perimeter from the quarterback position. And OU has some quality young options at running back, led by sophomore Keith Ford, to replace Clay, Finch and Williams.

Other notable numbers

Texas Tech led the Big 12 in rushing yards against a five-man box with 102 carries for 508 yards, five yards per carry. Baylor’s 6.5 yard average paced the conference… Baylor led the Big 12 in rushing yards against a six-man box with 323 carries for 2,095 yards, 6.5 yards per carry … Kansas State led the Big 12 in rushing yards against a seven-man box with 196 carries for 1,103 yards and 5.6 yards per carry. OU led the conference with 6.1 yards per carry against a seven-man box.

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