Big 12: Drew Dudley

Moving on in our rankings of the top 10 at each position in the Big 12 entering 2011.

[+] EnlargeTravis Lewis
Matthew Emmons/US PresswireOklahoma's Travis Lewis is among the Big 12's top linebackers entering the season.
Here are the top 10s you've missed so far:
The Big 12 is really, really strong at linebacker, just as it is at receiver. Running back and defensive line are two of the Big 12's weakest positions, but linebacker might prove to be a true strength by season's end.

If you're curious, here's how I ranked the units by team.

We might even see big, young talents like Corey Nelson, Tom Wort, Arthur Brown, Jordan Hicks and Huldon Tharp fight for spots on this list by season's end, but overall inexperience keeps them off for now.

Here are the top 10.

1. Travis Lewis, Oklahoma: Lewis took home the Big 12's preseason Defensive Player of the Year Award (as much as someone can take home an award with no actual hardware, anyway), but he'll be the easy favorite for the award entering the season. Of my postseason top 25 Big 12 players, Lewis is the only returning defensive player. He's made 100 tackles in each of his first three seasons at Oklahoma, and eschewed the NFL draft to try and win a title at Oklahoma.

2. Jake Knott, Iowa State: Knott doesn't get the national pub of some other guys on this list, but he should. In just his first year as a starter, Knott made 130 tackles, the most of any returning Big 12 starter. Just a junior, Knott should make even more improvement in 2011.

3. Keenan Robinson, Texas: Robinson has all the physical tools, and should be set loose in new coordinator Manny Diaz's aggressive scheme. Robinson made 106 tackles in 2010, but look for his sack totals (two in 2010) to get a big boost from spending more time in offensive backfields.

4. Shaun Lewis, Oklahoma State: Lewis exploded into the Big 12 fan's consciousness as a true freshman in 2010, sharing Big 12 Defensive Freshman of the Year honors with Oklahoma's Tony Jefferson after making 58 tackles with eight tackles for loss, despite not officially being a starter until the second half of the season. He's a bit faster than you might expect him to be at 5-foot-11 and 220 pounds, but he should be due for a big encore.

5. Emmanuel Acho, Texas: Acho joins Robinson in one of the best linebacker groups in the league, and will likely be a team captain alongside his fellow linebacker. Acho made 81 tackles to rank second on the team, and added 10.5 tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks for an underrated Texas defense in 2010.

6. Zaviar Gooden, Missouri: Gooden is easily the fastest guy out of this group, and should be due for a breakout year on the national stage if Missouri gets the ball rolling with James Franklin at quarterback and becomes a top 25 mainstay. He tied for the team lead in tackles last season (84, 49 solo) during his first year as a starter, and could see that number jump as a junior in 2011.

7. A.J. Klein, Iowa State: As little respect nationally as Klein's teammate, Knott, gets, Klein gets even less. Which is a shame. Klein, like Knott, was a first-year starter but became one of just 11 players in the Big 12 with more than 100 tackles. Was that number (111, 49 solo) aided by a weak defensive line? Sure, but somebody made those stops. And it was Klein. He'll get plenty more chances to further prove himself.

8. Garrick Williams, Texas A&M: Williams returns as one of the leaders of the Wrecking Crew after making 112 tackles in 2011, including five tackles for loss and a forced fumble. The Aggies need him to play well at inside linebacker in Tim DeRuyter's 3-4 scheme, if for no other reason than because of the uncertainty and likely inexperience at the inside linebacker spot.

9. Elliot Coffey, Baylor: Coffey should be one of the lynchpins of a maturing Baylor defense with lots of work to do under new coordinator Phil Bennett. Though there's no formal depth chart just yet, Art Briles admitted that if anyone has solidified a starting spot, it's Coffey. The 6-foot, 230-pounder made 61 tackles (34 solo) and 4.5 tackles for loss as a junior in 2010.

10. Steven Johnson, Kansas: Johnson emerged out of a good group of linebackers last season to lead the team in tackles, with 95 stops (62 solo). He loses fellow linebackers Justin Springer and Drew Dudley, but will get help with the return of Huldon Tharp. Johnson was a former walk-on, but in his first year as a starter in 2010, rewarded the Jayhawks' decision to put him on scholarship.

Just missed: Will Ebner, Missouri; Sean Porter, Texas A&M
We've taken a look at the Big 12 offensive skill positions in our position rankings, and we'll circle back along to the lines eventually. For now, though, we'll flip to the defensive side of the ball, starting with linebackers.

There's a lot of turnover in this space, and the bottom half was pretty hard to sort out. We haven't seen a lot of these new faces on the field for extended periods of time, so it's somewhat of a crapshoot. I don't feel like there's a wide gap between teams 7-10, and each of those squads have at least one linebacker who could be due for a huge year and shoot them up this list.

I see Nos. 1-3 possibly being great, with dropoffs before the No. 4 and No. 7 teams.

Also, if you missed them, here are the other position rankings we've done so far.
So, without further ado, here's how I ranked the linebackers. (Nickel backs are included in this list, hybrid DE/LBs will be with defensive lines)

[+] EnlargeTravis Lewis
Matthew Emmons/US PresswireOklahoma's Travis Lewis is the Big 12's top returning defender.
1. Oklahoma -- The Sooners boast the Big 12's top returning defender in Travis Lewis, who has notched at least 100 tackles in each of the past three seasons, and he'll be joined by the Big 12's co-Defensive Freshman of the Year, Tony Jefferson. Tom Wort and Corey Nelson are both loaded with potential, and will fill out the rotation, after the starter at middle linebacker, Austin Box, died on May 19.

2. Iowa State -- The Cyclones boast two of the Big 12's best in Jake Knott and A.J. Klein, who combined for more tackles than any two teammates in the Big 12 last season. They had 241 stops, and, after healing from a broken leg suffered midseason last year, Matt Tau'fo'ou should join them at middle linebacker.

3. Texas -- Texas' offense may be lacking, but the defense will be strong once again, led by two others likely to earn spots as some of the Big 12's best. Keenan Robinson and Emmanuel Acho were Texas' top two tacklers last year with 187 stops, and return as likely captains come fall camp. Texas' depth chart is wide open, but look for former blue-chip recruit Jordan Hicks to emerge as another star this year, despite being forced to sit out spring camp with a broken foot. Dravannti Johnson played some defensive end last year at the Buck position for the Longhorns, but may find his way back to linebacker. Tevin Jackson was ineligible last year, but he's ready for 2011, and could make an impact.

4. Oklahoma State -- The Cowboys "Star" linebacker is occupied by co-Defensive Freshman of the Year Shaun Lewis, and sophomore Caleb Lavey is charged with replacing Orie Lemon, the leader of last year's defense. Oklahoma State has questions on the weak side, but LeRon Furr and Chris Dinkins will compete next fall. Kris Catlin could be a factor, too.

5. Texas A&M -- The Aggies must replace their leading tackler, Michael Hodges, and don't have a clear replacement heading into fall camp. The good news: They've got two others with lots of experience in the linebacking corps that look like budding stars. Garrick Williams should be one of the defense's leaders and Sean Porter returns after making 74 tackles last year to rank third on the team.

6. Missouri -- The Tigers have lots of experience at middle linebacker, where a pair of seniors (albeit frequently injured seniors) Will Ebner and Luke Lambert will be on the field a lot. One of the Big 12's most exciting players, junior Zaviar Gooden, will hold down the weakside and perhaps become a household name by season's end. Sophomores Andrew Wilson and Donovan Bonner, who missed all of last season with a knee injury, will likely compete for strongside duties in fall camp. Andrew Gachkar, the team's leading tackler, is gone, but here's guessing Gooden emerges as the defense's top playmaker.

7. Kansas -- The Jayhawks linebackers were solid last year, and could be pretty good again, despite losing Drew Dudley and Justin Springer, two of the team's top four tacklers. Steven Johnson, the team's leading tackler in 2010, is back and he'll be joined by possible star Huldon Tharp, who missed all of last season with a leg injury. Fellow sophomore Darius Willis earned a starting role after spring.

8. Kansas State -- K-State's front seven struggled last year, but will get a big boost from Arthur Brown. One man won't be enough to totally fix the Wildcats rush defense problems, though. K-State gave up 26 more yards on the ground per game than any other team in the Big 12 (more than 231 per game) but Brown may be playing in a 4-3 next fall rather than the 4-2-5 the Wildcats have employed since Snyder's return. Alex Hrebec, Emmanuel Lamur, Tre Walker and Blake Slaughter will likely fill the rotation along with Brown.

9. Baylor -- Baylor's defensive depth chart, like Texas', is a bit amorphous after bringing in a new coordinator, but Elliot Coffey figures to be the Bears biggest playmaker at linebacker. Chris McAllister should be solid and Ahmad Dixon is promising at nickelback, too. Brody Trahan is a great story, but him going from third-string quarterback to starting linebacker isn't a ringing endorsement for Baylor's depth at the position.

10. Texas Tech -- Tech will be moving to a 4-2-5 this year under new coordinator Chad Glasgow, and could rise up this list, but the Red Raiders lose a lot of talent from last season's team, which ran the 3-4. Bront Bird and Brian Duncan are both gone, and youth will be a big factor with this group. Cqulin Hubert's outstanding potential is matched by his more outstanding first name, and freshman Blake Dees showed promise after arriving early this spring. They'll likely be the rotation at middle linebacker spot alongside Daniel Cobb and Zach Winbush. Terrance Bullitt could be a playmaker at his new safety spot, listed as a strong safety but with plans to spend lots of time near the line of scrimmage, a la nickelback.

The Revolving Door: Kansas

June, 2, 2011
6/02/11
3:00
PM ET
I've done it. You've done it.

"Hey, is that guy still around?"

Even with two fewer teams, it's hard to keep track. Our next series, which we did last year, too, takes a look at two key players for every team in the league who are taking their talents elsewhere, returning to campus, or arriving to try to write a legacy of their own.

So really, this series isn't so much for the fans of the teams in the posts, but more for everyone else. It wouldn't be a bad idea to bookmark these.

Next up: Kansas

Going:

Justin Springer and Drew Dudley, LBs

Springer and Dudley anchored the Jayhawks defense in 2010, combining for 149 tackles as the team's No. 2 and 4 tacklers. Dudley was an All-Big 12 performer in 2009 for his 88-tackle season, and was named to the Big 12's All-Academic team in each of his final three seasons. He also had 13.5 tackles for loss in his final two seasons, including 8.5 in 2009.

Springer had 25 tackles in 2009, but emerged as one of the defense's leaders in 2010, making 85 tackles as a team captain. In Kansas' big win early in the season against Georgia Tech, Springer earned Big 12 Player of the Week honors for his 15-tackle performance.

Jake Laptad, DE

Laptad was a constant on the defensive line for the Jayhawks during each of his four years in Lawrence, beginning with the Orange Bowl season in 2007. Laptad finished his career with 145 tackles, 33 tackles for loss and was a three-time All-Big 12 honoree. Of those 33 tackles for loss, 20.5 came in the last two seasons, when he led the Jayhawks.

Staying:

Daymond Patterson, WR

Patterson, a former wide receiver turned cornerback turned receiver again, emerged as Kansas' best playmaker in 2010 and could hold the title once again in 2011. He made his presence known in a big way when he broke a handful of tackles and made one of the biggest plays of the Jayhawks' season: a 32-yard, catch-and-run touchdown to put Kansas over the top against defending ACC champion Georgia Tech. Patterson led the team with 60 catches last season for 487 yards and a pair of touchdowns.

Steven Johnson, LB

Johnson is a former walk-on, but his recent efforts have been rewarded when the Pennsylvania native was offered a scholarship. Johnson led the Jayhawks in tackles last season with 95 stops, ranking 15th in the Big 12. Johnson hardly played in his first two seasons, but after coach Turner Gill designated him a starter before the start of the 2010 season, Johnson blossomed. He had just nine tackles in 2009, but in 2010, he had four games with as many stops.

Coming:

Darrian Miller, RB

Miller was one of the top players in the Kansas City area. Gill nabbed him and he's made a huge impact early. A shifty, speedy, 5-foot-10, 190-pound back, Miller showed his skills this spring after enrolling early. He was the nation's No. 18 running back, and already figures to be a factor in the backfield along with the team's leading returning rusher, James Sims.

Brock Berglund, QB

Berglund had planned to join Miller this spring, but after enrolling in classes during the spring semester, Berglund went back to his home in Colorado. Berglund was the top quarterback in Colorado and originally committed to the Buffs, but after Dan Hawkins was fired, signed with Kansas. A dual-threat quarterback who describes his skill set as "Tim Tebow, Michael Vick and Peyton Manning kind of all put together," Berglund could be the long-term solution to Kansas' struggles at quarterback.

Click here for more from The Revolving Door.

Kansas spring wrap

May, 6, 2011
5/06/11
9:30
AM ET
KANSAS

2010 overall record: 3-9

2010 conference record: 1-7

Returning starters: Offense (8), Defense (6) P/K (0)

Top returners: RB James Sims, WR Daymond Patterson, QB Jordan Webb, LB Steven Johnson, OL Tanner Hawkinson, DB Isiah Barfield, LB Huldon Tharp

Key losses: CB Chris Harris, LB Justin Springer, DL Jake Laptad, LB Drew Dudley, S Olaitan Oguntodu, WR Johnathan Wilson

2010 statistical leaders (*returners)

Rushing: James Sims* (742 yards)

Passing: Jordan Webb (1,195 yards)

Receiving: Daymond Patterson* (487 yards)

Tackles: Steven Johnson (95)

Sacks: Jake Laptad (4.5)

Interceptions: Tyler Patmon*, Isiah Barfield* (2)

Three spring answers

1. Sudden strength up front. Pat Lewandowski redshirted last season, and former running back Toben Opurum tried to learn the intricacies of the defensive line. This spring though? Both were standouts and could be impact players up front for a Jayhawks defense that needs it badly. Kansas may have a couple solid athletes who underwent position changes at the back of the defense, too. Former receivers Keeston Terry and Bradley McDougald look like the Jayhawks' starting safeties.

2. Lightning to Sims' thunder. Leading rusher Sims returns and figures to log plenty of carries, but freshman Darrian Miller showed a burst that no other Jayhawks running back had previously. He enrolled early and started making plays immediately, which should land him on the field next season.

3. Add another receiver to the mix. Kale Pick is another Jayhawks player who dealt with a position change last year. He had little impact as a receiver after making the switch from quarterback, but he showed great hands all spring and led the team in receptions at the spring game. He looks like he’s got a natural understanding of the position and is following in the footsteps of another Jayhawks great: Kerry Meier.

Three fall questions

1. Can they be competitive? No amount of scrimmaging will give Kansas the answer to this question. The Jayhawks were blown out often last year, losing five games by more than 20 points. Is the program back to being one that can at least flirt with more than three wins in 2011? Kansas must show progress.

2. Who’s the QB? Webb has the edge ahead of Quinn Mecham after the spring, but the wild card shows up to campus this fall. Brock Berglund, the top prospect in Colorado, enrolled early before heading back home before practice began. He plans to be back this fall and could throw a wrench into the quarterback competition if he grasps the offense quickly.

3. Is Tharp back to 100 percent? Linebacker Tharp showed the makings of an All-Big 12 talent as a freshman in 2009. A leg injury kept him off the field in 2010, and he was limited this spring. Once he’s back on the field next fall, can he continue his development and look at least like his old self?

Kansas Jayhawks season recap

December, 7, 2010
12/07/10
11:00
AM ET
After losing seven consecutive games to end the 2009 season, which resulted in coach Mark Mangino being fired, few expected much from the Jayhawks in their first season under Turner Gill.

Early on, that was about right. Kansas began its season with a loss to an FCS team, but followed it up with a win over the defending ACC champions. For the next month, though, it looked mostly inept.

The Jayhawks were outscored 159-24 in their first three league games, and the prospect of an 0-8 season in Big 12 play looked like a possibility. That was until they put together one of the Big 12's signature moments with a comeback that ranks among the best in college football history.

Trailing 45-17 to Colorado with just over 11 minutes to play, the Jayhawks rallied to win 52-45, a win that cost Buffaloes coach Dan Hawkins his job. Kansas took advantage of its best chance to win a Big 12 game, and looked competitive more often than not, which is a good sign for seasons to come under Gill.

Offensive MVP: James Sims, RB. Sims didn't play in the Jayhawks opener, but took over the starting job against Georgia Tech and kept it after Kansas pulled the upset. He had three 100-yard games in scored four touchdowns in the win over Colorado. Best of all, he's a true freshman.

Defensive MVP: Jake Laptad, DE. He's probably capable of better numbers if the talent around him were a bit better -- i.e., solid cover corners -- but Laptad managed 4.5 sacks and 8.5 tackles to earn the Jayhawks only All-Big 12 non-special teams selection. That includes honorable mention. By contrast, Texas A&M had 23 players earn all-Big 12 honors.

Turning point: The season opener. I wasn't sure if I should be shocked or not, but the Jayhawks 6-3 loss to North Dakota State prompted personnel changes on the field and made it obvious that the football fans in Lawrence were in for a stormy maiden voyage on the U.S.S. Gill.

What's next: I've said it before, I'll say it again: What Turner Gill does over the next nine months before the 2011 season is infinitely more important than anything that happened on the field in the last three. Simply put, Kansas didn't have the talent to compete on a week-to-week basis in the Big 12, and if that's going to change, he's going to have to reel in a few recruits who can contribute immediately. Huldon Tharp will be back next year after missing the entire season with an injury, and James Sims looks like a solid four-year starter at running back, but Kansas never settled its issues at quarterback, and will be losing senior defensive leaders Chris Harris, Drew Dudley and Justin Springer. More pieces to build around like Tharp, Sims will have to show up and make themselves known in fall camp next year. Receiver Daymond Patterson and tight end Tim Biere should offer good complements on offense after making major contributions in 2010.

15 from Big 12 are Academic All-District

November, 4, 2010
11/04/10
4:00
PM ET
The Big 12 has nine representatives on the Academic All-District team for District 6 and six from District 7, meaning they're now eligible to become ESPN Academic All-Americans.

Here's who made the midseason list.

District 6
  • Derek Epperson, P, Baylor (3.62, Management & Management Information Systems)
  • Robert Griffin III, QB, Baylor (3.64, Political Science)
  • Ryan Tannehill, QB, Texas A&M (3.59, Biology)
  • Terrance Ganaway, RB, Baylor (3.80, General Studies)
  • Brian Lepak, OL, Oklahoma (3.86, Finance)
  • Demontre Hurst, CB, Oklahoma (3.32, University College)
  • Michael Hodges, LB, Texas A&M (3.82, magna cum laude graduate, studying Sports Management)
  • Jamarkus McFarland, DT, Oklahoma (3.32, Health and Exercise Science)
  • Sam Acho, DT, Texas (3.55, honors Business)
District 7
  • Nate Solder, OL, Colorado (3.52, Biology)
  • Brad Thorson, OL, Kansas (3.58, Economics, Master's degree)
  • Grant Ressel, K, Missouri (3.64, Biological Sciences)
  • Austin Cassidy, S, Nebraska (3.88, Psychology)
  • Tysyn Hartman, S, Kansas State (3.59)
  • Drew Dudley, LB, Kansas (3.73, Civil Engineering)

Mailbag: Kansas edition

August, 11, 2010
8/11/10
4:00
PM ET
Time to answer some Jayhawks questions. Here's the team-themed mailbags we've already gotten around to:


Austin in Houston asks: Unlike last year, Kansas is lacking in the star power this season. With the departures of Reesing, Meier, Briscoe and Stuckey, who has the potential to be a household name by the end of the season?

DU: Keep an eye out for cornerback Chris Harris or tight end Tim Biere. The talent level at the tight end position across the Big 12 is pretty weak, but Biere is going to get a lot of looks with a young quarteback. If he takes advantage of them, he could become one of the league's best by season's end.


Marcus in Topeka, Kan., asks: Since you are not so high on the Jayhawks this year, but Mangino left a good foundation, how long will it take for Coach Gill to have the Hawks competitive in conference?

DU: It's tough to say one certain year, but it's all going to depend on recruiting and development. We have no idea how good Gill will be at those things just yet. This isn't basketball, where one transcendent player can carry you to the Sweet 16 for a year. They've got some nice building blocks in Toben Opurum and offensive tackle Tanner Hawkinson. Huldon Tharp looked like another before the injury that will cost him the 2010 season. But starting next season, it's going to depend on who they surround them with.

Kansas has 15 commitments for its 2011 class, which is a nice number, but none of those guys look like game changers. They're going to need at least a few to be a major threat in the Big 12 by 2012 or 2013.

Gill did a great job rebuilding the Buffalo program, so he's faced steeper odds than he faces now, bringing up a program that won the Orange Bowl after the 2007 season. But it's not going to be easy, especially with a tougher, nine-game round-robin schedule that's probably going to kick in before the 2011 season.


Shawn in Muskogee, Okla., asks: What do you think of the Jayhawks running game, and do you think Rell Lewis will get an chance to produce this season?

DU: It sounds like a mess. When your top runner is a sixth-year senior who played linebacker last year, that's not a good sign. Not to discount Angus Quigley, but they've got to figure out who they can count on during camp. Surely, Lewis will get his chances, but so will last year's leading rusher, Opurum, and incoming freshman Brandon Bourbon. The same goes for redshirt freshman DeShaun Sands. Kansas has some guys -- the ones I just listed -- who look like they might have some talent, but one or more of them has to produce for me to really feel good about the Jayhawks moving into conference play.


Brennan in GC, Kan., asks: Now with Huldon Tharp injured and out for the season who do you see stepping in and filling his role?

DU: Good question, and I'm not sure it has an answer just yet. Freshman Josh Richardson was listed behind Tharp on the depth chart, but it's probably more likely that Drew Dudley retakes his spot in the middle, and the Jayhawks move senior Justin Springer to the weak side, opposite junior Steven Johnson. That's really just a hunch, and practice will decide exactly what they do, but they've got too much depth at the other linebacking spots not to move guys around.


Buddha in OP, Kan., asks: Would the Jayhawks look better in the Big East if things deteriorate with the B12?

DU: Well, it'd be easier for them. That obviously won't happen for awhile, but the Big East was discussing bringing in the four North teams that would have been left behind had a 16-team Pac-10 become a reality. There would definitely be an upside to replacing Texas and Oklahoma with Pitt and Cincinnati. The biggest beneficiary would probably be Turner Gill's career record. But for now, they're in the soon-to-be-10-team Big 12, so they better figure out a way to beat Texas, OU and all the other teams they've got to go up against every year.

Missing starters, stickers and ESPN beef

August, 10, 2010
8/10/10
9:00
AM ET
Enjoyed the time off, and I hope you guys enjoyed the quick camp previews that ran while I was gone. No, I'm absolutely not doing away with lunch links, those of you who e-mailed me. But there won't be any when I'm away from the blog.

Thanks for the e-mails. The wedding was fun, but I'm back and 100 percent ready to go for the season, which is more than a few players around the Big 12 can say. Here's a few things we missed on the blog over the long weekend:

This is any fan of football's least favorite thing about the sport, but it happens every year. Always unfortunate, but a few players' 2010 seasons are over before they've begun.
  • Kansas coach Turner Gill announced on Monday that linebacker Huldon Tharp will miss the entire season with a foot injury. He was ready to join Drew Dudley as the stars of what could have been one of the Jayhawks best units. Now, his encore to his 59-tackle freshman debut will have to wait 12 months.
  • Another linebacker, Missouri's Donovan Bonner, will miss the year with a torn ACL. Though his tweet in response was admirable, his injury could be a big deal for the Tigers. Bonner was likely the top backup to weakside linebacker Andrew Gachkar, but now his absence could give a player like juco transfer and former USC Trojan Josh Tatum a chance to shine. Freshman Michael Brennan is listed behind Bonner on the depth chart.
  • Another notable backup won't be on the field this season, but not because of injury. Texas backup QB Sherrod Harris has left the team to focus on his degree, leaving freshmen Case McCoy and Connor Wood to backup sophomore starter Garrett Gilbert. It's worth noting that Harris says he'll stick around to help the young arms along when he can. Good to see that.
Buffs adding receivers

No receiving corps in the conference has seen more turnover this offseason than Colorado. The Buffaloes lost Andre Simmons to ineligibility and Markques Simas left the school after a suspension.

Stepping in: Two new players via California schools in the Buffaloes soon-to-be new conference. Paul Richardson was kicked off the UCLA team in June, but he'll join USC transfer Travon Patterson as the two newest targets for Tyler Hansen or Cody Hawkins. Richardson, a 6-foot-2, 185-pound freshman should be a nice addition along with Patterson, a speedy 5-foot-9, 170-pound slot receiver.

Also at Colorado, I enjoyed coach Dan Hawkins somewhat-gimmicky approach to fall camp. He's taken away his team's Buffalo logos on their helmets, forcing them to earn the insignia instead.

"You got to earn your Buff," Hawkins told local reporters last week. "That's part of it. I respect the heck out of this tradition and our guys do too. I just want them to earn it."

Freshmen safeties on display

Ahmad Dixon was the prize of Art Briles' 2010 class as the nation's No. 3 safety. Early in camp, he's impressed, according to the Waco Tribune-Herald:
After moving to the indoor practice facility for the second half of practice, Dixon delivered some turf-shaking tackles on Baylor's receivers. Imagine how Dixon will hit when they get to full pads.
That has to be a good sign for Bears fans. I'd be surprised if Dixon's doesn't log at least a couple starts this season.

Meanwhile, a few hours up I-35, Oklahoma's Tony Jefferson may start early in his freshman season.

"If we started today we would play Tony Jefferson as our starting nickel back," defensive coordinator Brent Venables told The Oklahoman.

That position is somewhat of a hybrid linebacker/safety spot a la former Sooner Roy Williams. He'll have to beat out Joseph Ibiloye, who made 15 tackles as a freshman, in camp to win the job.

Tech's Sheffield has beef with ESPN

Chalk this one up as by far my favorite story of the weekend.

When Texas Tech quarterback Steven Sheffield showed up to campus, his nickname of "Sticks" was pretty accurate for a 6-foot-4, 160-pounder. But like he told me at media days last week, he's up over 200 now, and he'd like people to take notice. Namely, his player profile on ESPN, which still lists him at 175 pounds.

"It kind of fluctuates, but that's a big difference from what I was playing at last season at 185 – or 180, some people had me 175. I was probably 175 but I didn't want to tell anybody that.

"If y'all can, tell ESPN to change their little thing, it says 175," Sheffield told the Dallas Morning News.

Sheffield's broken the same foot twice, and there's been some concern that his lanky frame could cause him to be injury prone--especially since he's more apt to run than his competition, fellow senior Taylor Potts.

"I'm still fluctuating quite a bit," he told the paper. "If I don't stay on it, I'll drop back to the high 190s, mid 190s. I've got to keep eating and if you keep working out through the weight gaining process you transition pretty well. So I think it's going pretty good."

The Big 12's top 10 linebackers

August, 4, 2010
8/04/10
10:15
AM ET
We've already looked at the conference's best quarterbacks, running backs and wide receivers. Let's flip across the other side of the ball and take a look at the conference's top 10 linebackers.

Part two will be up this afternoon.

6. Emmanuel Acho, Texas

The slightly lesser-known half of the Acho brothers, Emmanuel Acho should join his brother Sam as two of the key cogs in one of the nation’s best defenses. He made just two starts last season, but 36 of his 45 tackles were solo and he also added 9.5 tackles for loss, two sacks, two forced fumbles and an interception. He’ll have a bigger role for the Longhorns in 2010, and will be itching for it after being held out of the spring game after offseason surgery. Expect him to move up from the All-Big 12 honorable mention he earned as a sophomore.

7. Will Ebner, Missouri

Ebner is one of the hardest hitters on this list, and he’ll have a chance to deliver plenty of said hits after taking over the starting job at middle linebacker last season for the injured Luke Lambert. His 78 tackles earned him an All-Big 12 honorable mention. He earned the respect of the coaches for his hard hitting from the first day he arrived on campus, and he’ll use a stout 6-foot-1, 230-pound frame to do it this season.

8. Drew Dudley, Kansas

Dudley hasn’t had a chance to showcase his talent for the new Kansas coaching staff after being forced to sit out of contact drills during the spring. He left the spring as the backup to Justin Springer in the middle of the defense, but once he’s back in camp this fall and healthy, he should reclaim his spot and help the Jayhawks defense once again. With 88 tackles in 2009, he begins his senior season as the team’s leading returning tackler.

9. Bront Bird, Texas Tech

Bird has to deal with a position change -- a move from the outside to the inside of defensive coordinator James Willis’ 3-4 -- but has the talent to make the adjustment. He also has the size; he gained 12 pounds to move to 252 pounds on his 6-foot-3 frame. He should surpass his 56 tackles from a year ago and solidify his status as one of the best linebackers in the Big 12.

10. Huldon Tharp, Kansas

Tharp earned Freshman All-American honors after making 59 tackles as a true freshman in 2009. At 6-foot, 217 pounds, he'll be one of the most talented players on the Kansas defense and will anchor the weak side.

No breaks for Turner Gill

July, 13, 2010
7/13/10
1:45
PM ET
Turner Gill already has a difficult task ahead of him, trying to rebuild a program at Kansas from a team that lost its three best players from a 5-7 team in 2009 in quarterback Todd Reesing and receivers Dezmon Briscoe and Kerry Meier.

Those three, along with coach Mark Mangino, saw one of the highest moments in program history, winning the Orange Bowl to cap a 12-1 2007 season. But it also saw one of its lows, a seven-game losing streak to close 2009, capped by Mangino's contract being bought out by the school.

The road back for Gill wasn't made easier this spring, when his two best defenders, linebacker Drew Dudley and defensive end Jake Laptad, had to be held out of contact because of shoulder injuries.

Now, his job's gotten tougher.

The offensive line brought back all five starters from a season ago and was expected to be one of the positions of strength for the Jayhawks. But they'll have to do it without junior tackle Jeff Spikes, who injured his Achilles tendon and will miss the entire 2010 season, according to the Lawrence-Journal World. Spikes started 23 games over the past two seasons -- 10 last season -- and earned third-team All-American status in the 2009 preseason from pundit Phil Steele.

This comes a week after another offensive line starter, tackle Brad Thorson, suffered a broken foot. He's expected to be back for the start of fall camp on Aug. 3., but we'll see how much contact he'll be able to take part in when preseason camp begins.

The good news for Spikes is he'll likely be granted a medical redshirt, and come back next season with two more years of eligibility remaining.

Gill knows how to rebuild, eventually winning a MAC title over No. 12 Ball State in 2008 at Buffalo in his third season at a school that won six games in four seasons before his arrival.

He'll face another tough rebuilding project at Kansas in a much tougher league. He's got a mild quarterback controversy led by Kale Pick and his 2009 leading rusher, Toben Opurum, didn't show up on the post-spring depth chart after battling injuries throughout the spring.

Spikes injury assures the rebuilding job won't get any easier for Gill.

A few who just missed the top 25

July, 7, 2010
7/07/10
10:45
AM ET
We finished off our countdown of the conference's top 25 players on Tuesday, but trimming the bottom of the list was extremely difficult. Plenty of players got left off who you'll hear from often when the season arrives. Here's eight of them in no particular order:

Baron Batch, RB, Texas Tech

Batch scored 14 rushing touchdowns last season, more than any other back in the conference, and was fifth in rushing yards, with 884. He also had the second-highest yards per carry average of backs with at least 100 carries. As you'd expect from a Red Raider running back, he also established himself as a top target in the passing game, catching 57 passes for 395 yards and a touchdown.

Kyle Hix, OT, Texas

Hix earned All-Big 12 honorable mention as the Longhorns' right tackle in 2009, his second year as starter. This season, with the Longhorns leaning a bit more heavily on the running game, he'll be counted on to help pave the way for teammates Tre' Newton and Fozzy Whittaker.

Niles Paul, WR, Nebraska

One of the bright spots of Nebraska's offense last season, Paul caught 40 passes for 796 yards and four touchdowns. If Zac Lee (or whoever becomes Nebraska's quarterback in the fall) can get him the ball more effectively, he's easily capable of hitting the 1,000-yard mark.

Kelechi Osemele, LT, Iowa State

Osemele earned second-team All-Big 12 honors in 2009 and protected the blind side of Austen Arnaud, who was sacked just 16 times. He and his fellow linemen, including center Ben Lamaak, also helped Alexander Robinson rush for 1,195 yards last season and the 17 total sacks were third fewest in the conference. Preparing for his second full season as starter, Osemele could make the postseason list with another solid effort.

Quinton Carter, S, Oklahoma

One of the Big 12's hardest hitters, Carter intercepted four passes, broke up five more and made 88 tackles in 2009. He earned All-Big 12 second-team honors in his first year as full-time starter, and was the Sooners' second-leading tackler.

Alex Torres and Detron Lewis, WRs, Texas Tech

Torres and Lewis put up almost identical numbers in 2009 and should be due for two more big years in 2010. The pair both caught six touchdown passes, topping 64 catches and 800 yards apiece.

Drew Dudley, LB, Kansas

Dudley should be solid in the Jayhawks' deepest group: linebacker. Kansas needs to be better on defense to win games, and doing that starts with Dudley. Last season, he made 88 stops, 8.5 tackles for loss and had three sacks.

Defensive roads to recovery

May, 19, 2010
5/19/10
4:18
PM ET
Tuesday, we identified the three defenses who need the most improvement in 2010. Wednesday, we'll see who will have the easiest time doing it.

Roads to recovery

1. Texas A&M

The Aggies have by far the most talent returning of the three teams, but they'll have to make it work in new coordinator Tim DeRuyter's 3-4 scheme to get better. Von Miller has to be the key to the pass rush once again, nose tackle Lucas Patterson will have to muck up opponents' running games and Trent Hunter will have to be everywhere in the secondary for the Aggies to see real success. No amount of offense will offset the defense if it struggles like it did last season. If Texas A&M can find some more solid players around those three, it should get better. Look for defensive back Lionel Smith to make an impact early.

2. Baylor

We've talked about Baylor's competition in the secondary this spring that will only intensify in the fall, but it still has to replace linebackers Antonio Jones and Joe Pawelek, along with defensive lineman Jason Lamb. I probably would have pointed to Baylor as the most "talented" of these three teams in 2009, but it lost most of that talent. Four of its top five tacklers from last year's team graduated. Bouncing back will prove difficult, and if the Bears do it well enough to claw into a bowl game, Art Briles' legend in the Lone Star State will only grow.

3. Kansas

Senior defensive lineman Jake Laptad is probably the only Jayhawk defender with a chance to make a preseason All-Big 12 team. Kansas' linebackers will probably be one of the team's quiet strengths, and perhaps its deepest position. Defensive coordinator Carl Torbush said his backers wowed him in spring practice, even without the team's leading tackler, Drew Dudley. Justin Springer, Huldon Tharp and Steven Johnson are among a handful that will battle in two-a-days for playing time in Turner Gill's first season in Lawrence. But like Baylor, Kansas lost talent like Darrell Stuckey and Justin Thornton from a defense that still struggled last season.

Surprises on Kansas' new depth chart

May, 7, 2010
5/07/10
3:00
PM ET
Coach Turner Gill released his first depth chart, and though it's early, he's made good on his promise to give players a head start. Here's a few thoughts:

  • Toben Opurum? Nowhere to be found. He was banged up this spring and wasn't full available, but thinking back on my trip this spring, I can't say I'm shocked to see senior Angus Quigley and freshman DeShaun Sands above him. I went to Lawrence with every intention of writing about Opurum, but I asked Gill about how Opurum would fit into the new offense, and if he felt comfortable relying on him as a power runner for carries to help break in a new quarterback. His answer on April 12: "He’s in the hunt. He’s in there at this point. He’s definitely in the hunt. He’s gotten a little banged up, but it's good to see we have some competition at the position. There is no clear-cut guy, but there’s nothing clear cut at any position at this point in time, at running back or wherever. We’re going to keep this thing competitive. We do have some competitiveness at the running back spot and a lot of different areas." Opurum was the team's leading rusher from a season ago and even with senior Jake Sharp on the team, he's still my bet to lead the team in rushing again, but look for plenty of Jayhawks running backs to get touches this season, including incoming freshman Brandon Bourbon.
  • Kale Pick and Jordan Webb are listed as co-No.1 quarterbacks with, for what it's worth, Pick's name is listed first. That might be alphabetical or it might be that Pick has a slight edge, but they're the only two players sharing a position on the chart. That's a little surprising, but my guess is Gill is spurning the "Embrace Leader Position" button over the summer in favor of the "Spur Improvement Via Competition" button. Both good options, but Gill talked about competition at positions a lot all spring. It doesn't look like that's changing.
  • The team's leading tackler from 2009, linebacker Drew Dudley, is listed as a second-teamer, but he was playing through a shoulder injury throughout the entire spring. He was able to participate in pass skeleton drills and other team work, but was held out of contact. My guess is he'll be right back at starter once he's healthy next fall. Junior Steven Johnson is starting at strongside linebacker, senior Justin Springer is starting at middle linebacker and sophomore Huldon Tharp is starting at weakside linebacker. Defensive coordinator Carl Torbush sees linebacker as one of his more surprising positions in terms of depth, so look for at least a couple more guys to slide into the rotation like junior Chea Peterman, who isn't listed on the depth chart.
  • Freshman Christian Matthews began the spring as a quarterback, but moved to receiver late in the 15 workouts. His performance was good enough to earn him a second-team receiver nod. That's pretty impressive, but he did make a nice game-winning catch in the spring game.
  • Junior fullback Steven Foster is behind Justin Puthoff on the chart. Foster came to Kansas as the nation's No. 4 fullback. Puthoff is a walk-on still lacking a headshot. Not exactly an endorsement of Foster's skills, but Gill isn't kidding around when he says everyone got a fresh start. We'll find out in the fall if Puthoff was that impressive, or if Gill just wanted Foster to have to stare at that all summer.

Kansas spring wrap

May, 6, 2010
5/06/10
10:00
AM ET
2009 overall record: 5-7

2009 conference record: 1-7

Returning starters: Offense (7), Defense (7) P/K (2)

Top returners: RB Toben Opurum, OL Brad Thorson, OL Jeremiah Hatch, LB Drew Dudley, WR Johnathan Wilson, LB Huldon Tharp, DE Jake Laptad

Key losses: WR Dezmon Briscoe, QB Todd Reesing, WR Kerry Meier, S Darrell Stuckey, RB Jake Sharp, S Justin Thornton, Coach Mark Mangino

2009 statistical leaders (*returners)

Rushing: Toben Opurum* (554 yards)

Passing: Todd Reesing (3,616 yards)

Receiving: Dezmon Briscoe (1,337 yards)

Tackles: Darrell Stuckey (93)

Sacks: Jake Laptad* (6.5)

Interceptions: Ryan Murphy* (2)

Three spring answers

1. This is how we do things. Coach Turner Gill set the tone for his program early, speaking out about his curse-free zone at practices and other team functions. That goes for coaches and players. Practices are slightly uptempo, and Gill gave each position a fresh start. Everyone wanted to know how Gill would run his program when spring began, and he gave a good look in his first 15 practices.

2. Pick leads the way. Kale Pick was the only one of Kansas’ six quarterbacks with past experience and looked like the front-runner to win the job. He and Jordan Webb emerged as the front-runners in the final week of practice before Pick took a firm hold of the job with his performance in the spring game. He threw a pair of touchdowns, including a game-winner to Christian Matthews—who he also beat out for the job.

3. Linebackers ready to play. Kansas entered the spring with way more questions on defense than offense. The linebackers answered those early on. Defensive coordinator Carl Torbush feels like he has six or seven linebackers ready to see action in the Big 12, led by Drew Dudley, the Jayhawks leading returning tackler.

Three fall questions

1. Can Gill compete in the Big 12? Gill accomplished a remarkable turnaround at Buffalo, but Kansas isn’t looking to rebuild and get back to winning eight games, Gill’s previous career high for wins in a season. Gill hasn’t competed in the Big 12 since coaching Nebraska’s wide receivers in 2004. Kansas likely won’t compete for any serious titles in 2010, but can he take a step toward doing it in the future?

2. Are the wide receivers ready? Pick is replacing record-holding quarterback Todd Reesing, but he won’t have two NFL draft picks, Dezmon Briscoe and Kerry Meier catching his passes. In their place, senior Johnathan Wilson and sophomore Bradley McDougald. McDougald has moved outside, but both will be counted on for major production this season.

3. Can Kansas find a defense? The Jayhawks finished 2009 on a seven-game losing streak, finishing at 1-7 in conference. During that span, they gave up an average of almost 36 points per game. With no major defensive stars taking the field this season, can Kansas find playmakers and make that number shrink? If they don’t, year one of the Turner Gill era won’t be much fun.

Kansas leaning on linebackers

April, 26, 2010
4/26/10
10:30
AM ET
LAWRENCE, Kan. -- Kansas entered the spring with plenty of questions as Turner Gill took over for Mark Mangino.

Defensive coordinator Carl Torbush feels like he answered at least one this spring. Or narrowed down the possible answers, at least.

"I thought going into spring we had a lack of depth at linebacker, but as they’ve improved, I feel pretty good there right now," Torbush said. "I think we’ve got more guys that have a chance to play than I anticipated coming in."

Though Torbush admits cornerback is his deepest position, he envisions at least six linebackers making serious contributions in the fall and jockeying for starting positions during camp.

Among them are Steven Johnson, Huldon Tharp, Justin Springer and Chea Peterman.

Johnson and Dakota Lewis led all tacklers in Saturday's spring game with five stops, and Johnson added two for losses. But the anchor of the unit, Drew Dudley, was missing in contact for the spring.

"I don’t have any doubt that Drew will be a leader when that time comes," Torbush said.

Dudley has been practicing with a shoulder injury for the spring, but has been held out of contact as a precaution. Johnson, a former walk-on who saw playing time as a true freshman, is now a junior trying to find a spot at one of the three linebacker spots.

"I’ve been switching positions," Johnson said. "Played a little Will, played Mike, played Sam. It’s a little difficult. I got reached a few times, hey, I even got pancaked. But you know, you gotta get up and keep on going. You’ve got to forget about the play and move on."

Attitudes like Johnson's leave Torbush encouraged by his linebackers. He doesn't need perfection in April.

"I like the effort, the learning curve they had. The willingness to learn and please the coaches," Torbush said. "We haven’t played a real game. As long as you’re practicing against each other, it really doesn’t matter until you get into a real game situation and see how they’re going to respond in front of all those fans."

SPONSORED HEADLINES