Big 12: Johnny Jefferson

With spring ball a month away, we're ranking position groups in the Big 12. These evaluations are based on past performance, future potential and quality depth. Our outlooks will likely look different after the spring. But this is how we see them now. We continue this series with running back:

1. Oklahoma: Samaje Perine led the Big 12 in rushing and touchdowns as a true freshman, and heads into 2015 as the league's best Heisman chance after TCU QB Trevone Boykin. Perine, however, isn't a one-man show in the Sooner backfield. Alex Ross averaged 6.8 yards per carry, and while Keith Ford endured fumbling issues, he has shown he can be effective. The wildcard is Joe Mixon, who was the gem of OU's 2014 signing class before getting suspended for the season. He's back with the team, and possesses enough talent to give the Sooners one of the nation's premier one-two punches at running back.

2. Baylor: Shock Linwood quietly rushed for 1,252 yards and 16 touchdowns in his first season as the full-time starter. With a new QB, the Bears could lean on him even more, but he won't have to shoulder the load alone. Johnny Jefferson is back after totaling 524 yards and six touchdowns, and power back Devin Chafin rounds out a versatile three-man rotation, which could easily extend to five in a pinch with Terence Williams and ESPN 300 signee Ja'Mycal Hasty.

3. TCU: The Horned Frogs boast a deep running back corps, even with B.J. Catalon bolting early for the draft. Aaron Green wound up fourth in the league in rushing despite backing up Catalon for half the year. The former Nebraska transfer averaged a whopping 7.1 yards per carry, including 6.5 as a starter. Kyle Hicks and Trevorris Johnson, who contributed 99 carries last year, and freshman Shaun Nixon, who is expected back after missing last season with a knee injury, give the Horned Frogs plenty of options after Green.

4. West Virginia: After Perine, Rushel Shell was as good as any Big 12 runner between the tackles last season. When healthy, he's a load. Wendell Smallwood also returns as the change of pace back. Together, they formed the only running back tandem to both finish in the top 10 in rushing in the conference last year. Dontae Thomas-Williams, a former ESPN 300 signee, should add to the rotation after redshirting last year.

5. Texas Tech: DeAndre Washington was a revelation last season, becoming the first Tech rusher to break the 1,000-yard barrier in 16 years. He'll be flanked again by Justin Stockton, who showed flashes as a true freshman. The Red Raiders added more talent to the position by inking ESPN 300 runner Corey Dauphine, who operated out of a similar offense in high school.

6. Texas: Coming off the Achilles tear, Johnathan Gray wasn't the same explosive runner he was as a sophomore. Maybe another year away from the injury will help. Running back was a huge need in Charlie Strong's first full recruiting class, and he delivered in signing three backs last week, including ESPN 300 runners Chris Warren III and Tristian Houston. The Longhorns will need at least one to contribute to a backfield that also includes Donald Catalon and D'Onta Foreman, who are both still green.

7. Kansas: Corey Avery was one of the top true freshmen in the conference last year, rushing for 631 yards and five touchdowns. Newcomer De'Andre Mann was effective, as well, with an average of 4.7 yards per carry. Juco addition Ke'aun Kinner should give the Jayhawks more depth than they had in 2014.

8. Oklahoma State: After losing Desmond Roland to graduation and Tyreek Hill to an off-the-field incident, the Cowboys were desperate to sign a running back ready to contribute. The weekend leading into signing day, Oklahoma State landed that back, getting juco four-star Chris Carson to flip from Georgia. Carson could be the starter from Day 1, and should stabilize the biggest question mark of the offense. Besides Carson, the Cowboys still have Rennie Childs, who has been a solid, albeit-injury prone backup the last two years.

9. Kansas State: The running game was the Wildcats' weakness last year. With Jake Waters and Tyler Lockett gone, it will have to be much better for K-State to have any chance of sticking in the upper half of the Big 12. Charles Jones scored 14 touchdowns and will inherit a larger role in the offense, but the Wildcats need one of their younger backs to emerge. Dalvin Warmack, who redshirted last season, is an intriguing possibility. He rushed for more than 4,500 yards and 77 touchdowns his final two seasons of high school. Alex Barnes, who was one of the top additions in the 2015 recruiting class, has the physical maturity to bring help, too.

10. Iowa State: The Cyclones are hurting here with projected starter DeVondrick Nealy no longer with the team. Without Nealy, the Cyclones have little experience returning. Tyler Brown, Martinez Syria and incoming freshmen Joshua Thomas and Sheldon Croney will be vying for the job.

Big 12 stat check: Week 7

October, 8, 2014
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A closer look at one statistic worth keeping an eye on for each Big 12 team entering Week 6:

Baylor: When its passing game wasn't rolling like usual against Texas, Baylor resorted to running the ball 60 times in a 28-7 win. The Bears are 13-1 since the start of 2012 when they've surpassed 50 rushing attempts. The Shock Linwood-Johnny Jefferson duo combined for eight rushes of 10-plus yards against UT.

Iowa State: You can see why athletic director Jamie Pollard was upset about the end of the second half of ISU-OSU. According to ESPN win percentage data, that Pokes' odds of winning went from 57 percent to nearly 80 percent during the drive set up by the botched sky kick recovery. Tyreek Hill's kick return touchdown to start the third quarter put OSU's odds at 90.5 percent. Game over. But the truth is, the sky kick (13.4 percent) had a far greater impact on OSU's odds of winning than Desmond Roland's TD (7.7 percent).

Kansas: One obvious reason for Kansas' ineptitude on offense: its now-reopened quarterback situation. Kansas' quarterback play and production -- measured in opponent-adjusted QBR -- ranks No. 117 nationally. Only Vanderbilt and Wake Forest have worse quarterback play among Power 5 conference schools. KU's team adjusted QBR of of 26.1 is nearly 30 points below the national average.

Kansas State: The Jake Waters-to-Curry Sexton rapport has made this Kansas State offense even more dangerous. Waters is completing 77.7 percent of his passes to Sexton (28-of-36) and has a QBR of 95.9 on his pass attempts to Sexton. Waters still targets Tyler Lockett on nearly one-third of his pass attempts, but Sexton is getting one-fourth and doing a lot with it.

Oklahoma: Trevor Knight has not been very reliable when the pressure gets turned up on third down. He's completing 41.8 percent of his passes (18-of-43) on third downs and is converting for first downs on just 32.5 percent of those attempts (14-of-43).

Oklahoma State: The Cowboys have now scored 20 or more points in 57 consecutive games dating back to the start of the 2010 season. According to OSU, that streak is the longest active streak in the nation and second-longest in FBS since 1978. OSU is 45-12 and averaging 44 points per game during the streak.

TCU: In addition to ranking seventh nationally in both scoring defense and total defense, the Horned Frogs have the No. 3 efficiency defense in the country according to ESPN Stats & Info. Throw in the fact the Frogs are sixth in QBR defense and you can make a strong case that nobody is playing better defense in this conference right now.

Texas: According to the efficiency data, Texas' offense isn't its only problem. The Longhorns' special teams play ranks No. 124 nationally in efficiency and second-worst among all Power 5 conference teams behind West Virginia. The opponent-adjusted data shows Texas' special teams is worth minus-3 points on its scoring margin. That's a problem going into this big game against Oklahoma.

Texas Tech: The Red Raiders now have a minus-22 turnover margin since the start of the 2013 season. They've had a positive turnover margin in just one game under Kliff Kingsbury: plus-three against Kansas last year. In the past decade, only Iowa State has had a longer stretch (14 games in 2006-07) among Big 12 teams when it comes to not winning the turnover battle. Tech is now at 13 straight games.

West Virginia: Not a big fan of on-pace numbers, but Kevin White could be in for one of the all-time great statistical seasons by a Big 12 receiver. His current rate of 153 receiving yards per game ranks No. 1 among Big 12 wideouts in the past decade, just ahead of Michael Crabtree's 150.9 per game in the 2007 season. It'll be hard for White to sustain this rate of production, but he's been excellent through five games.

All-Big 12 ballot roundtable

July, 9, 2014
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Earlier this morning we gave you our preseason All-Big 12 picks. Here are some additional thoughts:

The other player I most considered for Offensive Player of the Year?

Chatmon: Tyler Lockett was tough to leave in Bryce Petty's wake. The Kansas State receiver means as much to the Wildcats' attack as anyone in the conference. He's unstoppable in one-on-one situations and transforms the Wildcats offense when he's on the field. He's able to single-handedly take over games from the receiver position in ways very few receivers have done in the Big 12.

Olson: Petty is the undisputed king for this honor, but Lockett is the clear runner-up. His game against Michigan in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl was terrific, but that was just a cherry on top after epic performances against Oklahoma (12 catches for 278 yards and 3 TDs) and Texas (13-237). He's a no-doubt All-American if you ask me.

Trotter: Lockett was the only other player deserving of consideration. He's going to have another monster year, and the biggest reason why K-State could be a darkhorse Big 12 title contender. But Petty is the reigning Big 12 Offensive Player of the Year, and there's no reason to believe he won't be even better in his second year as a starter.

[+] EnlargeTyler Lockett
Christian Petersen/Getty ImagesKansas State receiver Tyler Lockett was next in line for Offensive Player of the Year behind Baylor QB Bryce Petty according to all three voters.
The other player I most considered for Defensive Player of the Year?

Olson: While I thought he was a tad overhyped last year, you just know defensive end Ryan Mueller is going to be in the DPOY conversation at the end of November. He's already tied Kansas State's single-season sacks record (11.5) and will probably break that this fall, even with opposing linemen paying more attention to him.

Chatmon: Even though I eventually settled on Devonte Fields, Oklahoma's Eric Striker is destined to cause havoc this fall. His Allstate Sugar Bowl performance is a glimpse at his pass-rush ability and the Sooners are going to spend much of the year trying to find ways to allow Striker to do what he does best. Quite frankly the main reason I settled on Fields is the fact Striker will have to beat offensive tackles AND teammates Charles Tapper and Geneo Grissom to the quarterback to rack up sacks in 2014.

Trotter: You could make a viable case for a half-dozen different defenders here. But the only other player I really considered was Striker. He's the Lawrence Taylor of the Big 12, and is going to be in the nightmares of opposing quarterbacks this year. The Sooners are loaded up front, which will give Striker plenty of opportunities to rush the passer without double teams. But right now, Striker seems to be a little too one-dimensional to pick as the conference's Defensive Player of the Year. Fields, meanwhile, is the total package -- when he's healthy.

The other player I most considered for Newcomer of the Year?

Olson: No disrespect to Harwell, who should be quite productive at Kansas, but I did give some consideration to Oklahoma's Joe Mixon. The freshman running back is capable of emerging as an elite playmaker from the get-go. Of course, if we knew he was eligible in 2014, Dorial Green-Beckham would be the runaway choice for this preseason honor.

Chatmon: It wouldn't surprise me in the least if Oklahoma State's Tyreek Hill beats out Harwell for the award. Hill will consistently be the fastest player on the field and has the quickness and change of direction skills to give teams fits. Harwell got the nod because KU has fewer playmaking options than the Cowboys, who also feature Jhajuan Seales, Desmond Roland, Rennie Childs and Marcell Ateman as potential playmakers.

Trotter: If I knew running back Rushel Shell was going to get the lion's share of West Virginia's carries, he would have received stronger consideration. But at the moment, Dreamius Smith sits atop the Mountaineers' depth chart, and West Virginia has other capable backs in Wendell Smallwood and Dustin Garrison, to boot. While Shell is an immense talent, it's unclear just how big a part he'll be of the West Virginia attack. There's no doubt Hill is going to be a focal point of the Oklahoma State offense. And after dazzling in the spring, there's little doubt Hill is in for big year thanks to his world-class speed.

What was the most difficult position to figure out?

Olson: I had to crunch the numbers on Malcolm Brown vs. Johnathan Gray, since Gray did have the superior YPG average when healthy. The tiebreaker went to Brown for his receiving production and TDs. I do think the discussion at cornerback will be interesting this year, too. I chose Zack Sanchez over Kevin White and Daryl Worley, but several others could step up in 2014.

Chatmon: The defensive line spot was easily the toughest with Brown and Baylor's Shawn Oakman finding themselves on the outside looking in. Both players got left off my first team but I wouldn't be surprised if either guy emerges as the Big 12's most dominant defensive lineman this fall, surpassing Tapper, Mueller, Reed and Fields. Defensive back was another tough spot with Oklahoma's Zack Sanchez, TCU's Chris Hackett and Kansas State's Dante Barnett each getting strong consideration.

Trotter: Defensive end was the most difficult position to sort out, because let's face it, there are actually five first-team All-Big 12 caliber players there. I ultimately went with Oakman alongside Fields because of the upside. But Reed, Mueller and Tapper are right there, and more deserving of being All-Big 12 than some of the other players that made my team at other positions.

The toughest omission from the All-Big 12 team was?

Olson: Because I am a man of honor and integrity, I selected two ends and two tackles for my All-Big 12 defensive line, even though this was not required. That made excluding Mueller and Shawn Oakman or Tapper a difficult but necessary call. But I stand by my admirable self-restraint.

Chatmon: Malcom Brown is going to make me regret leaving him off my list. The Texas defensive tackle could emerge as a nightmare in the middle for Charlie Strong's Longhorns. As much as I wanted to include him on my first team, I had to go with a few proven veterans ahead of him.

Trotter: Besides Mueller, Reed and Tapper, the toughest omissions were Baylor running back Shock Linwood and Oklahoma offensive tackle Daryl Williams. Linwood had a big two-game stretch last year that flashed his talent. But I also think he's going to share carries with Devin Chafin and Johnny Jefferson, which could drive down his individual numbers. Williams is the best of a terrific Sooners offensive line, which is tops in the league. But Oklahoma's strength up front lies in its depth, not just the talent of any one individual player.

Best case, worst case: Baylor

June, 16, 2014
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One of my favorite annual sports pieces to read is Bill Simmons’ NBA Draft Diary. I also always have to read Mel Kiper’s yearly NFL Draft grades as well as the annual unveiling of Keith Law’s top 100 baseball prospects.

Another one of my favorites is Pat Forde’s dream and nightmare scenario for every team going into college basketball’s NCAA tournament.

With that in mind, we’ve come up with the best- and worst-case scenarios for every Big 12 team going into the 2014 season. Of course, the reality will fall somewhere in between. But this will forecast what a season would look like if every single imaginable domino fell into place. And likewise, if everything that could go wrong, well, did.

We begin this series with the defending Big 12 champs -- the Baylor Bears:

BEST CASE

[+] EnlargePetty
Ronald Martinez/Getty ImagesThere will be a lot of celebrating if things go swimmingly for Bryce Petty and Baylor.
Thanks to his work on pocket awareness with QB guru George Whitfield and a season of experience in his belt, Bryce Petty comes out looking better than ever. He throws for seven touchdowns in the christening of McLane Stadium and never looks back on his way to giving Baylor its second Heisman Trophy quarterback (Jameis who?) in four years. With USC still struggling, people everywhere begin dubbing Baylor college football’s next “QBU.”

Of course, Petty can’t win a Heisman without his supporting cast showing up, and they do just that and more. Antwan Goodley matches his 2013 totals and earns first-team All-American honors. Corey Coleman has a breakout campaign, setting the stage to become the next in the ever-growing line of big-time Baylor wide receivers. Redshirt freshman running back Johnny Jefferson lives up to the spring hype, leading Baylor’s running back stable with 1,100 yards on the ground. Left tackle Spencer Drango doesn’t surrender a sack all season to win the Outland Trophy. And led by mammoth defensive end Shawn Oakman, the defensive line makes good on Art Briles’ spring proclamation, and leads the nation in tackles for loss.

With the team firing on more cylinders than ever, Baylor empties Darrell K. Royal Stadium by the third quarter then obliterates TCU, leaving Gary Patterson speechless in his postgame news conference.

The undefeated Bears march into Norman on Nov. 8 and edge the Sooners in one of the all-time great games in Big 12 history, catapulting Baylor to No. 1 in the polls, and to No. 1 in the minds of the playoff committee.

The Bears coast through the rest of the Big 12 season unscathed, securing them a spot in the inaugural four-team playoff. They squeak through in the first game, setting up a clash with the SEC champ in AT&T Stadium, just a hundred miles from Waco’s campus. With plenty of green on hand, the Bears capture their first national championship on a fourth-quarter bomb from Petty to Goodley, reminiscent of James Street’s heave to Cotton Speyrer that handed Texas the national championship in the Cotton Bowl Classic 34 years before.

In his postgame news conference, Briles tells the nation he plans to retire in Waco, and days later signs another extension to keep him there for life.

Fresh off the national title, Baylor lands a top 10 recruiting class, and with confidence swelling about the state of the program, athletic director Ian McCaw beefs up the nonconference schedule by ringing up Alabama and immediately agreeing to fill the Crimson Tide’s vacant slot in 2015.

Without Johnny Football, the Aggies finish with a losing record, and the Longhorns get drilled in the Heart of Dallas Bowl. In the NFL draft, the Dallas Cowboys trade up to get Petty in the first round to be their heir apparent to Tony Romo.

WORST CASE

In his second year as the starter, Petty succumbs to the dreaded sophomore slump. He throws three picks in the opener, as Baylor just barely survives SMU in a sluggish unveiling of McLane Stadium.

The defensive line falls way below Briles’ expectation, the new secondary turns out to be a disaster, and the Bears wind up ranking in the bottom 10 nationally in pass defense.

Baylor also desperately misses the consistency of Lache Seastrunk and Tevin Reese, as the offense becomes too dependent on Petty and Goodley to make plays. Drango’s back issues flare up and, and right tackle Troy Baker never really returns to form from last year’s knee injury. In turn, Petty is under duress all season, and the Baylor offense doubles last season's turnover total.

The Bears survive the Ponies. But they can’t escape Ames, as the giant killers of the Big 12 upset Baylor after Petty fumbles on the first play of double overtime.

The stunning defeat sends the Bears into a mini-tailspin. They get battered by the Longhorns the following week in the game of Texas linebacker Steve Edmond’s career. TCU’s defense smothers Baylor the following week, handing the Bears a third straight loss. At 4-3, the Bears hobble into Norman and put up a gutty performance but can’t stop Trevor Knight, who all but locks up All-Big 12 quarterback honors.

Baylor rebounds to take down Clemson in the Russell Athletic Bowl, which gets other schools interested in Briles to be their coach again.

Edmond is named Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year. Petty slips to the second round. McCaw adds Old Dominion to the schedule.
The college football offseason is way too long. But we’re here to help with your suffering. With spring ball done and gone and the season still months away, we’re giving you a taste of the 2014 season, with the long-awaited Big 12 Ultimate Road Trip series.

To those unfamiliar with this series, we both pick a game featuring a Big 12 team in every week of the season that we’d cover if the travel budget was unlimited and there were no editors telling us where to go.

We’ll be basing our choices on a number of factors, including the quality of the matchup and the stakes that could be involved. The only restriction is that both of us can only pick one game per week.

Let's begin with Week 1.

Here's the schedule:

Aug. 30-31

Central Arkansas at Texas Tech
Stephen F. Austin at Kansas State
North Dakota State at Iowa State
North Texas at Texas
Louisiana Tech at Oklahoma
Samford at TCU
West Virginia vs. Alabama (Atlanta)
Oklahoma State vs. Florida State (Arlington, Texas)
SMU at Baylor

Jake Trotter’s pick: SMU at Baylor

It was tempting to go with either Florida State-Oklahoma State or West Virginia-Alabama. But with both Big 12 teams being heavy underdogs in those games, I settled on seeing the debut of the Jewel of the Brazos.

The $266 million McLane Stadium could be a game-changer for Baylor, which has had to overcome playing in (and recruiting to) an archaic, off-campus Floyd Casey Stadium. Now, Baylor will be armed with one of the finest stadiums in the entire Big 12, with the individuality of being located along the Brazos River. If only I can hook up with a “sailgate” party before heading up to the press box.

The opportunity to check out the defending Big 12 champs is another reason to head to Waco on Week 1.

We all know about quarterback Bryce Petty and wideout Antwan Goodley. But I’m intrigued to see Baylor’s array of young talent in person, including running back Johnny Jefferson, receivers Corey Coleman, K.D. Cannon and defensive tackle Andrew Billings.

Plus, since the Baylor-SMU game is on a Sunday, I’ll be able to watch the entire opening Saturday of college football -- including Florida State-Oklahoma State and West Virginia-Alabama -- on the tube.

Brandon Chatmon’s pick: West Virginia vs. Alabama (Atlanta)

I strongly considered a trip to Arlington, Texas, to check out Florida State-Oklahoma State but instead a trip to The ATL gets the nod.

Dana Holgorsen vs. Nick Saban? Sign me up.

Seeing how Holgorsen’s squad opens the season against a Crimson Tide team looking send a message after a surprising Sugar Bowl loss to Oklahoma is an intriguing prospect. It’s the Mountaineers first chance to state their intent to force themselves into the Big 12 title conversation against a team that has been in the national title race for the past few seasons.

The amount of talent on the field at the Georgia Dome will be astronomical with Alabama’s roster full of NFL talent and West Virginia’s group of young, yet talented playmakers.

Running backs Wendell Smallwood and Dreamius Smith should be fun to watch, while cornerback Daryl Worley and safety Karl Joseph could make highlight plays in the secondary. And the Mountaineers have a class full of potential impact newcomers who could see the field for the first time.

The Mountaineers have the skill position talent to hold their own against the Crimson Tide, but their offensive and defensive lines will decide their success. I won’t be heading to this game expecting an upset but, if the Mountaineers find a quarterback, stranger things have happened.

While Trotter heads to Waco, Texas, I’d gladly be Georgia-bound as the combination of talent, upset potential and coaching storylines make this is the marquee game in the Big 12 during opening weekend.
Days after last season ended, we released a Way-Too-Early 2014 Big 12 power poll. Following the many developments of signing day and spring practice, we’ve updated the poll:

1. Oklahoma Sooners (previous rank – 1): With the bulk of its defense coming back and the league’s most experienced offensive line, Oklahoma gets the top spot. Yet despite the preseason hype coming off the trouncing of Alabama in the Allstate Sugar Bowl, this is not a team without questions. No returning running back had more than 23 carries last year. No returning receiver (outside Sterling Shepard) had more than 13 catches. And though he torched the Crimson Tide, quarterback Trevor Knight has only five career starts and has been prone to getting nicked. That said, there’s plenty of young talent at the skill positions. If a few of those players emerge, and Knight builds off his Sugar Bowl performance, this could be a team that contends for a spot in the inaugural College Football Playoff.

2. Baylor Bears (2): Baylor won the 2013 Big 12 title without a player selected in the first four rounds of the NFL draft over the weekend. That speaks to the talent the Bears have back in quarterback Bryce Petty, wideout Antwan Goodley and left tackle Spencer Drango. It’s also not unthinkable that Baylor could lead the nation in scoring again. Petty should be even sharper in his second season as the starter. And running back Johnny Jefferson and receiver Corey Coleman seem primed to make an impact as the next wave of prolific Baylor playmakers. The defense will ultimately determine whether the Bears can defend their crown. The back seven is a work in progress. But Art Briles believes he will have a dominating defensive line. If so, Baylor could become the league’s first repeat champ since 2008.

3. Kansas State Wildcats (3): After rebounding to win six of its final seven games to end last season -- including destroying Michigan in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl, K-State carried plenty of momentum into the offseason. With only 10 returning starters, there are some holes that need to be filled. But the Wildcats feature some of the best returning standouts in the league in quarterback Jake Waters, wideout Tyler Lockett and defensive end Ryan Mueller. If highly touted juco transfers Terrell Clinkscales, D'Vonta Derricott and Danzel McDaniel successfully step into some of those voids defensively, and an adequate successor to outgoing running back John Hubert surfaces, the Wildcats will have a say in the conference race.

4. Texas Longhorns (4): Discerning what team to rank fourth was the most difficult part of putting this list together. A case could be made here for Texas Tech, Oklahoma State or even TCU with its returning defense. But I couldn’t shake the memory of Texas obliterating both the Red Raiders and Horned Frogs last year while starting Case McCoy at quarterback. Given all the turnover Oklahoma State has, the Longhorns ultimately got the slight nod at fourth. With veterans littering the roster, Texas is solid pretty much everywhere -- well, everywhere except quarterback. But if the Longhorns can get anything out of the position -- David Ash? Max Wittek? Jerrod Heard? -- they could be a load in Charlie Strong’s debut season.

5. Texas Tech Red Raiders (6): The Red Raiders climbed a spot thanks to the rapid development of sophomore quarterback Davis Webb. Including the National University Holiday Bowl and Tech’s three open spring scrimmages, Webb tossed 17 touchdowns with no interceptions. With added weight and swelling confidence, Webb has been performing like an all-conference-caliber quarterback since the bowl game. Webb will have plenty of big-play weapons to operate with and his protection should be better, as well, with 75 career starts returning along the offensive line. Whether Tech truly emerges as a dark-horse contender, though, hinges on whether its four juco defensive linemen can remedy an ailing run defense that ranked ninth in the league last year.

6. Oklahoma State Cowboys (5): After getting picked in 2010 by some to finish last in the Big 12 South, Oklahoma State reeled off 11 wins. Two years ago, the Cowboys got no love in the preseason again, and won eight games with three different quarterbacks. The recent track record in Stillwater suggests this is not a team to overlook in 2014. But if the Cowboys are going to surprise again, they’ll have to do so with a host of new faces. One reason for optimism is junior quarterback J.W. Walsh, who this spring rekindled his freshman form, when he led the entire Big 12 in Adjusted QBR. The Cowboys love Walsh’s toughness and leadership. If he can recapture the throwing accuracy that escaped him last season, Oklahoma State could be a factor.

7. TCU Horned Frogs (7): The biggest development for the Horned Frogs this offseason occurred after the spring when they added Matt Joeckel. The Texas A&M quarterback transfer, who will be eligible this season, is familiar with the offense new coordinators Doug Meacham and Sonny Cumbie installed this spring, and could give TCU just the jolt it needs at quarterback. The other big development this spring was the reemergence of 2012 AP Big 12 Defensive Player of Year Devonte Fields, who had a nightmare 2013 season. If Fields returns to wreaking havoc off the edge defensively, and Joeckel gives the offense above average quarterback play, TCU could finally be a force in its third year in the Big 12.

8. West Virginia Mountaineers (9): Dana Holgorsen is not lacking offensive firepower, with the league’s deepest running back stable and the entire receiving corps returning. With seven starters back on the other side, the defense has a chance to be much improved in the new Tony Gibson/Tom Bradley regime, too. West Virginia, however, gained little clarity about the quarterback position this spring, with Clint Trickett recovering from shoulder surgery and the other contenders failing to make a move up the depth chart. To challenge to finish in the top half of the Big 12, the Mountaineers will have to get more out of their quarterback than they did last year -- regardless of the other pieces.

9. Iowa State Cyclones (8): Buoyed by a new play-caller and 10 returning starters, Iowa State could boast its best offense since Seneca Wallace was behind center over a decade ago. Mark Mangino has a proven track record as a coordinator, and plenty of weapons to utilize in running back Aaron Wimberly, wideout Quenton Bundrage and tight end E.J. Bibbs. The offensive line is seasoned, and sophomore Grant Rohach might finally be Iowa State’s long-term answer at quarterback following a strong spring. The defense, however, is an even bigger question mark coming out of the spring. Projected starting linemen Rodney Coe and David Irving were dismissed and safety Devron Moore left after getting homesick. The Cyclones had been stout defensively under Paul Rhoads and coordinator Wally Burnham up until last season, when they ranked last in the league.

10. Kansas Jayhawks (10): Coming out of the spring, the Jayhawks have some definite strengths they can point to, notably linebacker Ben Heeney and cornerback Dexter McDonald. Elsewhere, Kansas still has catching up to do before breaking out of the cellar. At least now the Jayhawks have a long-term quarterback to build around in sophomore Montell Cozart, who was named the starter after shining in the spring game.

Baylor spring wrap

May, 1, 2014
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A recap of what we learned about Baylor this spring as the program prepares to defend its Big 12 conference title.

Three things we learned in the spring:

1. The nation’s No. 1 offense is ready to reload. There’s no replacing guys such Lache Seastrunk and Tevin Reese, but Bryce Petty is fired up about the new weapons he gets to work with. RB Johnny Jefferson, TE Tre'Von Armstead and WRs Corey Coleman, Robbie Rhodes and Jay Lee were a few of the many who stepped up this spring.

2. Art Briles loves this defensive line. The Baylor coach says he’ll put his D-line up against any in the nation, and with good reason. Even after losing some key seniors, a unit that features ends Shawn Oakman and Jamal Palmer, tackles Andrew Billings, Beau Blackshear, Byron Bonds and the versatile Javonte Magee should frustrate opposing offenses.

3. A historic season ending in heartbreak left the Bears with plenty of motivation this spring. The Tostitos Fiesta Bowl loss to UCF left a sting that troubled Baylor’s players and coaches in the winter, and there's a stronger sense that there’s unfinished business entering 2014.

Three questions for the fall:

1. Can Baylor’s defense play up to the level of its stellar 2013 unit? DC Phil Bennett is optimistic about the caliber of his new starters, and the depth that BU’s strength program is fortifying. But you can’t just assume the new guys will immediately match the quality play of Ahmad Dixon, Eddie Lackey, Sam Holl and so many other departed starters.

2. How will the Bears’ offensive line hold up? Losing left tackle Spencer Drango midseason was a major blow to this group last season, and while he’s back, All-America guard Cyril Richardson was one of three senior starters who graduated. Baylor needs LaQuan McGowan, Kyle Fuller and several others to step up.

3. What can the newcomers bring to the table? Briles brags that he signed the best wide receiver class in the country, but it’s not as if Baylor needed much help at that position. You know the junior college additions will play early on, but what can the rest of the Bears’ incoming class contribute?

One way-too-early prediction:

Calling Baylor a lock for a top-10 spot in the polls requires a lot of confidence in a defense that must replace 10 seniors on the two-deep, but the staff believes its talent evaluation and development will pay off big in 2014. But the Petty-led offense is absolutely loaded, and the Bears’ sights should be squarely set on fighting for a playoff bid.

Big 12 post-spring breakdown: RBs

April, 29, 2014
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With spring ball done, we’re reexamining and reranking the positional situations of every Big 12 team, continuing Tuesday with running backs. These outlooks will look different in August. But here’s how we see them post-spring:


1. West Virginia (pre-spring ranking: 4): West Virginia running backs coach JaJuan Seider has one of the best and most difficult jobs in the Big 12. Seider has an embarrassment of riches at his position in Dreamius Smith (the No. 1 juco back in 2013), Wendell Smallwood (who played last year as a true freshman), Rushel Shell (who before transferring from Pitt set the Pennsylvania state high school rushing record), Andrew Buie (the team’s leading rusher in 2012) and Dustin Garrison, West Virginia’s leading rusher from 2011, who, finally healthy again, enjoyed a resurgent spring. The Mountaineers also will add four-star signee Donte Thomas-Williams in the summer. The difficult part for Seider will be divvying up carries to so many capable backs. But if the Mountaineers can keep everyone happy and find the right combination, this could become a devastating and versatile running back stable.

2. Texas (1): Coach Charlie Strong delivered promising news on Monday in San Antonio, suggesting Johnathan Gray could be cleared from his Achilles injury by mid-June. Strong also said that Joe Bergeron will be rejoining the team shortly, too, after sitting out the spring to focus on academics. When healthy and eligible, the trio of Malcolm Brown, Gray and Bergeron is a formidable bunch and the backbone of the Texas offense.

3. Baylor (3): Shock Linwood and Devin Chafin exited spring as the co-starters, but Johnny Jefferson left the biggest impression in the spring game. The Bears have a track record of spreading carries around, which means Big 12 fans will become very acquainted with the talented redshirt freshman next season.

4. Oklahoma State (5): One of the biggest surprises of the spring was how much the Cowboys used Tyreek Hill at running back. Oklahoma State is planning to utilize the nation’s top juco playmaker the way West Virginia did Tavon Austin two years ago. In other words, Hill could line up in the backfield one play then slot receiver the next. Either way, arguably the fastest player in college football gives the Cowboys a dynamic lightning component to complement the thunderous running of senior Desmond Roland, who led all Big 12 backs in touchdowns last season.

5. Oklahoma (3): There might not be a Big 12 backfield with more upside than Oklahoma’s. Of course, with that upside comes little experience. Sophomore Keith Ford has the potential to be a punishing inside runner, but he had fumbling issues last season as a freshman that re-emerged during the spring. If he can’t hang onto the ball, he won’t play, no matter how tough he runs between the tackles. After getting passed by Ford on the depth chart last year, Alex Ross bounced back with an impressive spring. Early enrollee Dimitri Flowers was a revelation this spring as a powerful run-blocking fullback in the mold of Trey Millard. If fellow incoming freshman Joe Mixon lives up to his recruiting hype, the Sooners could feature their most potent rushing attack in years.

6. Iowa State (8): The most underrated one-two punch at running back in the league resides in Ames. According to first-year offensive coordinator Mark Mangino, Aaron Wimberly and DeVondrick Nealy were sharp all spring and will spearhead an offense that could surprise in 2014. The key will be keeping the slight but explosive Wimberly relatively healthy, which he never really was before and after rushing for 137 and 117 yards back to back against Tulsa and Texas. Wimberly, however, was 100 percent all spring, and it showed, as he racked up 68 yards on just nine touches in the spring game.

7. TCU (7): TCU had to make do without its three top backs in the spring due to injuries. Aaron Green suffered a broken collarbone, Kyle Hicks had a shoulder bruise, and returning leading rusher B.J. Catalon dealt with a nagging hamstring injury. All three, however, should be fine for the fall, and could form a reliable rotation at running back. Four-star recruit Shaun Nixon could help out, too, once he arrives on campus.

8. Texas Tech (6): The Red Raiders dropped two spots, largely because returning starter Kenny Williams played outside linebacker all spring and could remain there for good. But even if Williams becomes a full-time linebacker, Tech still could be solid at running back with veteran DeAndre Washington, sophomore Quinton White and incoming four-star freshman Justin Stockton, whom the Texas Tech coaching staff is very high on. Head coach and offensive play-caller Kliff Kingsbury wouldn’t have given Williams the go-ahead to move to defense if he didn’t feel optimistic about what remained in the backfield.

9. Kansas (9): Though they come in ninth here, running back could be a position of strength for the Jayhawks next season. Brandon Bourbon, the favorite to start, rushed for 96 yards on 12 carries in the spring game, but Taylor Cox (63 yards on 15 carries) and Darrian Miller (50 yards on seven carries) had nice outings, as well. The Jayhawks also will welcome De’Andre Mann, the nation’s fifth-best juco running back, in the summer, as well as four-star freshmen Traevohn Wrench and Corey Avery. Until they start winning more games, it’s difficult to give the Jayhawks the benefit of the doubt in these position rankings. But with this collection of runners, they might not miss All-Big 12 performer James Sims as much as first thought.

10. Kansas State (10): The spring brought little clarity about who John Hubert’s primary replacement will be. Jarvis Leverett and Charles Jones both ran hard in K-State’s spring game, though neither broke a run for longer than 11 yards. Meanwhile, DeMarcus Robinson, who has the most experience of the three, sat out the scrimmage with an injury. As a result, incoming freshman Dalvin Warmack, who rushed for 4,500 yards and 70 touchdowns while averaging almost 9 yards per carry his final two years in high school, will have an opportunity to be a factor once he joins the team this summer.
Over the next two weeks, we’ll be analyzing the depth charts of every Big 12 team coming out of the spring. We start with Baylor, which released an official two-deep shortly after concluding spring ball in early April.

OFFENSE

[+] EnlargeBryce Petty
Matthew Emmons/USA TODAY SportsCan Bryce Petty be even better this season?
QB: Bryce Petty (Sr.), Seth Russell (So.)

The Bears have one of the top returning quarterbacks in college football in Petty, who was phenomenal last year in his first season as a starter. With a year of experience under his belt, there’s no reason to believe he won’t be better in 2014. Russell performed well in limited duty last year, suggesting the Bears could survive at least a minor injury to Petty.

RB: Shock Linwood (So.) or Devin Chafin (So.), Johnny Jefferson (RFr.), Terence Williams (Fr.)

The Bears boast four potentially outstanding runners who all have at least three seasons of eligibility remaining. Linwood finished sixth in the Big 12 in rushing last season, despite backing up Lache Seastrunk and Glasco Martin. Jefferson, however, was the back who created the most buzz during the spring. The 5-foot-11, 200-pounder looks poised to give the Bears a dynamic home-run threat to complement the rest of the backfield. It’s not often a program can lose two talents like Seastrunk and Martin and remain loaded.

WR: Antwan Goodley (Sr.), Davion Hall (Fr.)

WR: Jay Lee (Jr.) or Robbie Rhodes (So.), Quan Jones (RFr.)

IR: Corey Coleman (So.) or Clay Fuller (Sr.), Cal Spangler (Jr.)

IR: Levi Norwood (Sr.), Lynx Hawthorne (So.)

TE: Tre’von Armstead (So.) or Gus Penning (Jr.), Jordan Feuerbacher (Fr.)

Despite graduating all-conference performer Tevin Reese, the Bears should easily have the deepest collection of pass-catchers in the Big 12. Coleman was tremendous all spring, capped by a 47-yard receiving effort in the spring game. He and Rhodes could have breakout campaigns in their second years in the rotation. Goodley is one of the two best wideouts in the league along with Kansas State’s Tyler Lockett, and Lee, Fuller and Norwood are all proven commodities. More firepower is on the way this summer, including hotshot freshman K.D. Cannon, who looks like a virtual lock to crack the rotation somewhere.

LT: Spencer Drango (Jr.), Pat Colbert (Jr.)

LG: LaQuan McGowan (Jr.) or Blake Muir (Jr.)

C: Kyle Fuller (So.), Tyler Edwards (Sr.)

RG: Desmine Hilliard (Jr.), Jarell Broxton (Jr.)

RT: Troy Baker (Sr.), Tyler Edwards (Sr.)

The Bears lose unanimous All-American guard Cyril Richardson, but will get a huge boost if Drango makes a full recovery from a back injury he suffered late last season. With Drango out, Baylor’s blindside pass protection also suffered the final month of the season. When healthy, Drango is one of the best pass-protecting left tackles in the country. Baker, who started as a sophomore, returned late last season after tearing his ACL last spring to reclaim his starting job, which he held through the spring. With Hilliard returning at guard, Fuller locking down the starting job at center and other quality depth inside, the Bears should be very solid on the offensive line -- provided Drango can get healthy and Baker can stay healthy at the bookends.

DEFENSE

[+] EnlargeShawn Oakman
Matthew Emmons/USA TODAY SportsShawn Oakman has elevated his game.
RE: Shawn Oakman (Jr.), K.J. Smith (RFr.)

NT: Andrew Billings (So.), Suleiman Masumbuko (Jr.)

DT: Beau Blackshear (Jr.) or Javonte Magee (So.), Byron Bonds (So.)

LE: Jamal Palmer (Jr.), Sam Ukwuachu (Jr.)

Last week, Baylor coach Art Briles said he’d put his top-seven defensive linemen against any other top seven in college football. The unit still has a lot to prove to reach that level, but there’s no denying the potential. Oakman elevated his game to another level this spring, and was basically unblockable. He’s a candidate to be an All-Big 12 performer even in a league that’s stocked at defensive end. The fact that Magee is listed as a co-starter with Blackshear -- a starter last season -- underscores what the coaching staff thinks of Magee, who before taking last year off due to personal matters was among the most highly touted recruits Briles had ever signed. This group is high on ability, and has the capability to prove their coach right in the fall.

WLB: Aiavion Edwards (So.), Taylor Young (RFr.) or Raaquan Davis(RFr.)

MLB: Bryce Hager (Sr.), Grant Campbell (Jr.) or Kendall Ehrlich (So.)

Hager missed the final four games of last season due to a groin injury, which also kept him out this spring. But Hager is about as reliable as it gets in the Big 12, having earned second-team all-conference honors the last two years. Edwards is the one to watch. He was given the first nod on the weak side, after playing in the middle last season and in the spring in place of Hager. But he’ll have to perform to fend off the competition, including Young, who impressed defensive coordinator Phil Bennett during the spring with his nose for the ball.

NB: Collin Brence (Sr.), Pat Levels (So.)

CB: Terrence Singleton (So.), Ryan Reid (So.)

CB: Xavien Howard (So.) or Chris Sanders (Jr.)

DS: Orion Stewart (So.), Alfred Pullom (RFr.)

CS: Terrell Burt (Jr.), Taion Sells (So.)

This unit comprises by far the biggest question mark on the team. The Bears should be in good shape at safety. Burt, the only returning starter in the group, will be back shortly from offseason shoulder surgery that kept him out of a spring ball. Briles also singled out Stewart for having a very promising spring as the replacement for All-American Ahmad Dixon. After a series of injury setbacks early in his career, Singleton returned to win a starting job at corner, at least for now. Howard also showed a ton of promise during the spring, but he’ll have competition from Sanders, one of the top juco corners in the country, who had a shoulder injury this spring. Brence, a walk-on, was the biggest surprise in the secondary, and is listed as the starter at nickelback. How this untested unit comes together could ultimately determine whether the Bears repeat as Big 12 champs.
WACO, Texas -- Art Briles always wears sleeves. Go ahead, run a Google search. Try to find those forearms. Good luck.

You won't have any more luck getting Briles to reveal what's up his sleeve when it comes his newest offensive strategies. This future of the Baylor offense, and specifically how it intends to tear up opposing defenses in 2014, isn’t something he's looking to gab about this spring or any spring.

“Not publicly, no,” Briles said. “I like my job. I’m going to keep it.”

There's no need to give up any secrets about the Bears’ scheme, not when defensive coordinators have surely been scrutinizing it throughout this offseason in search of hints on how to stop it. Yet when you have the nation’s No. 1 scoring offense and No. 1 total offense, when you rank first in FBS in yards per attempt and 20-plus yard plays, how can you get any better? What’s the next step?

[+] EnlargeArt Briles
Ron Jenkins/Fort Worth Star-Telegram/MCT/Getty ImagesWhat's up Baylor coach Art Briles' ever-present sleeves for his offense this fall? Don't bother asking, becuase he's not telling.
Bryce Petty has to pause and think a moment when he hears that question, not because he seeks a calculating answer. It’s just a tricky thing to sum up when, really, the goal isn’t changing.

“The next level is not just being able to stretch out a defense. The next level for us is to perfect it,” Petty said. “It’s to say there’s honestly not a formation you can do that works. To me, that’s the next step, and that’s where we’re getting to.”

Innovation is the name of the game in Waco this offseason, as usual. This high-powered offense still needs new wrinkles, the latest tweaks and tricks, to stay ahead of the game.

And Briles knows this is a copycat game. This fall, you’ll see offenses all over the country run the packaged run/pass option plays that Baylor mastered long ago. And that means defenses all over the country will have answers for it, too, which is all the more reason for Briles and his staff to cook up new recipes for scoring.

There’s motivation in how Baylor closed out the season, too. It’s not just the Fiesta Bowl loss to UCF. Briles knows there was a dip in consistency, that his offense wasn’t the same in November and December.

“Honestly, we found that out last year,” he said. “Through eight games last year, there’s not a team playing better than us in the United States of America. It’s hard to stay at that level that long.

He brings up this year’s NCAA tournament. You’re going to have teams that rise early and slide late, such as Syracuse. You’re going to have the ones such as Kentucky that figure it out late in the season. There’s just no room for that in college football, not when you’re judged on a 12-game sample.

“You can’t be a Kentucky (basketball) in football, because you’ll never get there,” Briles said. “You have to do it every week you step on the field. That’s just the way it is.”

What makes the job even trickier, as Petty points out, are the games like Kansas State last season. Baylor came to Manhattan fresh off a 73-42 beatdown of West Virginia and had a concrete plan on how to attack the Wildcats.

The plan got crumpled up and tossed aside quickly once K-State rolled out defensive looks the Bears had never seen on film.

“It was nothing like what we saw,” Petty said. “That’s the chess match of it. That’s what’s fun for me, it’s a challenge to say, ‘All of our game plan? Throw it out!’”

There will be aspects of the Bears’ record-setting 2013 offense that gets thrown out because Briles knows the rest of the Big 12 will have caught up. Baylor has to be different.

“That’s the cat-and-mouse game that I love,” Briles said with a grin.

He’ll have some speedy new cats to work with this fall with true home-run threats such as Johnny Jefferson at running back and K.D. Cannon at receiver. He’ll even work in a few physical freaks like Tre'Von Armstead, a 6-foot-5, 280-pound tight end with 4.8 40-yard-dash speed.

They’re all pieces to an ever-changing puzzle that will only get more challenging to solve.

“Trying to be perfect? Trying to be innovative? We’re not trying,” Briles said. “We’re being perfect, we’re being innovative, being fearless, not trying to open the book and play by what the book says. We’re willing to think outside the box. That, to me, is the biggest challenge we have. Because the bar is set so high that it’s really hard to maintain that level for an extended period of time.”

For a perfectionist such as Briles, and for an offense that aims to score on every single snap, this is the fun part. He can say with pride Baylor was the nation’s best for eight games, but in his book, that’s not nearly enough.

“We still feel like we really haven’t played a season here yet,” Briles said. “We’re just getting this thing going. We’re on the ground floor. So to me, that’s very inspirational.”

Spring game review: Baylor

April, 7, 2014
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In front of more than 3,000 fans, Baylor held its final spring practice on Saturday and wrapped up with a 51-play scrimmage at the on-campus Highers Athletics Complex practice field. Here’s a recap of what happened:

Best offensive performance: The Big 12’s best quarterback went out and did what he usually does. Bryce Petty spread the ball around to his many, many weapons -- including a few new ones -- and finished the day with a fine stat line: 10-of-15 passing for 135 yards and two touchdowns. One TD was to Jay Lee, on a short sideline route that he broke for a 40-yard score. The second was a 38-yard laser to Robbie Rhodes. Petty hit the practice field this month with the mentality that he must prove he deserves his job, even if nobody was taking it from him, and will get even better.

Best defensive performance: No surprise here. Shawn Oakman gave a sample of what he could achieve as a full-time starter in 2014 with two of the Bears’ five sacks. The 6-foot-9, 275-pound defensive end racked up 12.5 tackles for loss in a part-time role last season and is poised to take his game to the next level as a junior, on a defensive line that coach Art Briles believes can be good as any in the country. “We can’t block him,” Briles said, “and I don’t think anyone else will, either.”

Best debut: Baylor stashed some solid rookie talent on the bench last season, and spring ball brought a chance for those redshirt freshmen to break out. The best of the bunch might be Johnny Jefferson, a 5-11, 200-pound running back from nearby Killeen, Texas. With Shock Linwood out for the scrimmage and Devin Chafin getting just one carry, Jefferson had an opportunity to show what he can do. He rushed for 30 yards on five carries. Jefferson doesn’t have the experience of Linwood and Chafin, but Baylor coaches say he can be their next great home-run threat out of the backfield.

Notable play: Corey Coleman could be the next big name to come out of “WRU.” He hauled in five catches for a game-high 47 yards, the best of a bunch a 20-yard reception from Petty that he hauled in with one arm along the sideline against tight coverage from Terrence Singleton.

[+] EnlargeArt Briles
AP Photo/LM OteroBaylor coach Art Briles was excited to see about 3,750 fans show up for the Bears' final practice of the spring.
Developing storyline: After the scrimmage, Briles expressed concern about the state of his running backs heading into the summer. Baylor will likely go with a committee approach to replacing Lache Seastrunk and Glasco Martin, and the head coach isn’t ready to heap praise on that situation just yet. Jefferson and early enrollee freshman Terence Williams got the bulk of the work Saturday and will have to chip in to make this group succeed. “That's not a situation we're proud of; it's just the reality of where we're at,” Briles said. “And one of them is a true freshman. It's a concern right now, without question. But they can play. That's a good thing. Every one of them can play and help us win."

Biggest question answered: Briles wanted to know how his fan base would show up for a scrimmage on a Saturday morning, at a practice field that didn’t offer too much seating, and he was wowed by the answer. An estimated 3,750 fans showed up. “I’m just tickled to death with the crowd, because we didn’t really promote it,” Briles said. “And all of a sudden, you look up, there are people everywhere. It’s certainly evidence of how they respect what our players have done and how they feel about the direction of Baylor football.” That turnout has to be encouraging as the Bears prepare to open McLane Stadium in less than 150 days.

Quotable: "I have to be honest with you. It was OK ... just OK. It wasn't as good as I wanted it. But the whole thing about spring is staying healthy and getting guys looks that haven't had looks, and we've done that. Overall, I thought spring was really productive, maybe not today. We missed some throws here and there, but it's kind of hard when you're going against the same people every day. You try not to game plan too much, but you kind of have to. Guys got looks, and that's what we wanted." -- Petty on the Bears' final spring practice.
On Saturday, Baylor will hold its spring game, Oklahoma State will hold its “Orange Blitz” and TCU will hold its final practice of the spring -- all three of which are open to the public.

Here’s a closer look at all three events:

BAYLOR

When: 11 a.m.

Where: Highers Complex practice fields

What to watch for:
  • Young receivers: Wideout Tevin Reese is gone, but the Bears have a stable of dynamic, young options primed to take his place. Corey Coleman and Robbie Rhodes were both highly recruited players and should have expanded roles in 2014.
  • Defensive line: In Andrew Billings, Beau Blackshear and Shawn Oakman, the Bears believe this will be the best defensive line they’ve had in the Art Briles era. If the defense is to have any chance of slowing down their offensive teammates on Saturday, the D-line has to dominate, especially with left tackle Spencer Drango still recovering from a back injury.
  • RB Johnny Jefferson: Jefferson is one of the most intriguing players in the league who redshirted last year. The Bears didn’t need Jefferson in 2013 because they had Lache Seastrun, Glasco Martin and Shock Linwood. But Jefferson, who had offers from the likes of Ohio State and Notre Dame coming out of high school, has the talent to play a major role in the Baylor offensive machine alongside Linwood and Devin Chafin next season.
OKLAHOMA STATE

When: 1:30 p.m.

Where: Boone Pickens Stadium

What to watch for:
  • Quarterback battle: For the third straight spring, the Cowboys have a quarterback derby, this time featuring veteran J.W. Walsh, walk-on Daxx Garman and true freshman Mason Rudolph. Walsh still appears to have the edge, but Garman, who possesses a cannon for an arm, has been creating some buzz this spring. He’ll have a chance to create more Saturday.
  • RB/WR Tyreek Hill: Speaking of buzz, no player in the Big 12 has created more than Hill, who might be the fastest player in college football next season. Hill has been devoting some of his spring to a phenomenal track season. But when he has had the football in his hands, he is phenomenal, too. Hill appears to be the real deal.
  • New defensive faces: With seven starters and six all-conference performers gone, Oklahoma State is in rebuild mode defensively. Cowboys fans who show up on Saturday will get a chance to examine the bevy of Oklahoma State newcomers to the two-deep defense, including safeties Jordan Sterns and Deric Robertson, linebackers Devante Averette and Seth Jacobs and defensive linemen Ben Hughes, Vincent Taylor and Vili Leveni.
TCU

When: 11 a.m.

Where: Amon G. Carter Stadium

What to watch for:
  • New offense: Gary Patterson completely revamped his offense this offseason by bringing in spread gurus Doug Meacham and Sonny Cumbie. How far along are the Horned Frogs with this new hurry-up, no-huddle approach? Saturday will provide the answer.
  • DE Devonte Fields: After earning Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year recognition as a freshman, Fields flopped as a sophomore because of suspension, shape and injury. Patterson said earlier this spring that Fields is back to playing the way he did as a freshman, which would be a huge boost for a program also looking for a bounce-back year.
  • QB Trevone Boykin: Boykin has been only a part-time quarterback the last two seasons, but he has practiced the position full time this spring while learning the new spread offense. Boykin has distanced himself from the other quarterbacks on campus this spring, but is he the long-term answer or just the short-term placeholder for one of the two incoming freshman quarterbacks?
It’s Take Two Tuesday, when we give our takes on a burning question in the league.

Today's Take Two topic: Which Big 12 freshman that redshirted last season will have the biggest breakout season in 2014?

Take 1: Brandon Chatmon

Bryce Petty was the Big 12 offensive player of the year as Baylor earned its first conference title.

Yet, the argument could be made that Lache Seastrunk was the MVP of the Bears’ offense. His game-breaking ability kept defenses honest, allowing Petty and the Bears’ receivers to put up eye-popping numbers in 2013.

Now Seastrunk is NFL-bound, and Baylor is looking to replace his big-play ability.

Johnny Jefferson, a redshirt freshman running back, could be ready to step into the void.

Don’t expect Jefferson to unseat Shock Linwood as the Bears’ starting running back, but Jefferson should have an impact on Baylor running attack. A former Texas A&M pledge who redshirted during his first season in Waco, Texas, Jefferson appears ready to contribute, and the Bears are going to need to replace the quality depth that left the program when Seastrunk and Glasco Martin moved on.

He’s already making a strong early impression this spring, compiling 12 carries for 65 yards in the Bears’ first scrimmage. At 5-foot-11, 200 pounds, Jefferson brings a combination of speed and size that could help spread the carries and make sure that fresh legs are always alongside Petty in Baylor’s backfield this fall.

[+] EnlargeRa'Shaad Samples
Tom Hauck/ESPNRa'Shaad Samples has the speed to make an impact at wide receiver for Oklahoma State as a redshirt freshman.
Three different running backs had at least 120 carries for Baylor in 2013, meaning Jefferson should have the opportunity to secure a role in the Bears’ offense this spring despite the return of Linwood, who finished seventh in the Big 12 in rushing yards (881).

Linwood might provide a roadblock in Jefferson’s road to a starting spot, but the redshirt freshman running back has the skills and versatility to be a key contributor and breakout performer on one of the Big 12’s most explosive offenses in 2014.

Take 2: Jake Trotter

With leading receivers Josh Stewart, Tracy Moore and Charlie Moore all gone, Oklahoma State will need someone to step into one of those primary receiving roles in its spread attack.

Enter Ra'Shaad Samples.

Samples was the Cowboys’ highest-rated recruit in the 2013 class and had offers from everyone in the Big 12, along with offers from the likes of Notre Dame, Ohio State and USC.

Because they had Stewart in the slot, the Cowboys didn’t need Samples last season. That redshirt season allowed the once extremely slight Samples to fill out a bit.

His speed, however, still appears to be alive and well.

In fact, outside track star Tyreek Hill, Samples might be the fastest player on the roster (he reportedly ran a 4.32-second 40 last summer).

Even without the Moores, the Cowboys are set at outside receiver with sophomores Jhajuan Seales (39 receptions, 571 yards, three TDs) and Marcell Ateman (22 receptions, 276 yards).

But Oklahoma State will be leaning on Samples to become one of the go-to guys inside. He has the talent to become a big-time playmaker for the Cowboys there.

Spring primer: Baylor Bears

March, 3, 2014
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Baylor is already on the practice field, set to begin its Big 12 title defense. Below is a preview of what to look for from the Bears during their spring practices:

Offensive returner ready to take next step: Playing time was hard to come by last season for freshman wideout Robbie Rhodes. On top of competing in a loaded rotation, Rhodes injured his knee early in the season and gradually drifted out of the rotation. But Rhodes, the nation’s No. 3 WR in the Class of 2013, has the talent to be an elite pass-catcher in the Big 12, and he should have opportunities in his second season.

[+] EnlargeRobbie Rhodes
Tim Heitman/USA TODAY SportsA healthy Robbie Rhodes should be able to play a significant role in Baylor's passing attack.
Defensive returner ready to take the next step: DT Andrew Billings. Last season, Billings signed with the Bears despite a strong recruitment by Texas, and immediately contributed as a freshman. With the bulk of Baylor’s defense gone, the time has come for him to elevate his game. And all signs point to Billings, who has the talent to be the best defensive tackle in the entire league, being ready for the challenge.

Redshirt freshman to watch: Even though the Bears lost their top two running backs in Lache Seastrunk and Glasco Martin, they bring back a clear-cut starter in Shock Linwood. The coaching staff, however, has been waiting in delighted anticipation to see what Johnny Jefferson can do on the field after redshirting last season. Jefferson had offers from the likes of Ohio State, Notre Dame and UCLA coming out of high school, and he has the blend of speed and power to command a role in the offense.

Most significant position battle: With four of five starters gone from its secondary -- and that one starter back (Terrell Burt) out for the spring with shoulder surgery -- the battle for time in the defensive backfield is wide open. The spotlight will be on cornerbacks Tyler Stephenson, Xavien Howard, Ryan Reid and Tion Wright, as well as Orion Stewart, Taion Sells, Terrence Singleton, Alfred Pullom and Patrick Levels at safety.

Key midterm enrollee: The Bears face the task of replacing All-Big 12 linebacker Eddie Lackey, but they’re hoping Bakersfield College transfer Grant Campbell can step in and take his place. Other than Bryce Hager, who is out this spring with a groin injury, the Bears have little experience at linebacker. Campbell filling a major hole will be a huge step forward in coordinator Phil Bennett retooling his defense.

Question that could be answered: The Bears should have a feel after this spring about who will be their primary playmakers. Even with Seastrunk and receiver Tevin Reese gone, the Bears should boast plenty of offensive firepower next season to surround All-Big 12 quarterback Bryce Petty with. Rhodes, Jay Lee and Corey Coleman should be able to fill out Reese’s production, while Linwood, Jefferson and Devin Chafin could give the Bears another prolific combination at running back.

Question that won’t be answered until fall: The Bears had one of the best defenses in the Big 12 last season, but it could be a while before Baylor discovers what it has defensively in 2014. Billings, Beau Blackshear and Shawn Oakman have the talent to field the best defensive line Baylor has had in years. But the back seven is a major question mark, with Hager and Burt being the only incumbents.

Big 12 pre-spring breakdown: RBs

February, 19, 2014
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As we wait for the start of spring ball, we're examining and ranking the positional situations of every team, continuing Wednesday with running backs. Some of these outlooks will look different after the spring. But here’s how they compare at the moment:

1. Texas: The three-headed monster of Johnathan Gray, Malcolm Brown and Joe Bergeron gives Texas the best 1-2-3 punch in the league. Whether this group goes from good to great hinges on a healthy return for Gray, who is coming back from an Achilles injury and will sit out spring drills. Either way, this will be the backbone of Charlie Strong’s first offense.

[+] EnlargeShock Linwood
Matthew Emmons/USA TODAY SportsShock Linwood showed breakaway ability as a Baylor reserve in 2013.
2. Baylor: Shock Linwood takes over in the backfield after a dynamic freshman season in which he finished seventh in the league in rushing despite being a third-team running back. The competition for carries after Linwood will be interesting. Devin Chafin is the favorite to be Linwood’s wing man, but he could be pressed by Johnny Jefferson and/or incoming four-star freshman Terence Williams, who is already on campus.

3. Oklahoma: The potential of this running back crop has no bounds. But it will be young and inexperienced after seniors Brennan Clay, Roy Finch and Damien Williams (until he was kicked off the team) hoarded the carries last season. Keith Ford, who was the nation’s No. 3 running back recruit in the 2013 class, will take over the starting role. Joe Mixon, this year’s No. 6 RB recruit, won’t get to Norman until the summer, but he should supply the lightning to Ford’s thunder. Alex Ross, who was the nation’s No. 7 RB recruit in the 2012 class, rounds out a fearsome threesome with tremendous pedigree.

4. West Virginia: The Mountaineers lose All-Big 12 performer Charles Sims, but still claim a glut of capable rushers. Dreamius Smith and Wendell Smallwood thrived playing behind Sims last year. West Virginia also has Dustin Garrison and Andrew Buie, its leading rushers from 2011 and 2012, respectively. (Buie is back after leaving school for a semester.) On top of all that, Pittsburgh transfer Rushel Shell figures to be in the mix. Shell was the No. 26 overall recruit in the country coming out of high school after becoming the all-time leading rusher in Pennsylvania high school history. If that weren’t enough, the gem of the incoming recruiting class, Donte Thomas-Williams, is also a running back. Suffice to say, the competition for carries will be fierce in the league’s deepest backfield.

5. Oklahoma State: Desmond Roland helped fuel Oklahoma State’s midseason turnaround after seizing a starting role. Roland was great in short yardage and led the Big 12 with 13 touchdowns, but he wasn’t a big-play runner, with an average of only 4.6 yards per carry (14th in the league). The Cowboys are banking that Rennie Childs can complement Roland as the breakaway back. Childs showed flashes as a true freshman. Roland and Childs can form a solid combo, but four-star freshman Devon Thomas, who is enrolled for the spring, should not be discounted, nor should Sione Palelei, who has the good hands that past Oklahoma State running backs also possessed.

6. Texas Tech: The returning duo of Kenny Williams and DeAndre Washington won’t do much damage between the tackles. Both, however, are excellent pass-catchers, making them supreme fits for Kliff Kingsbury’s spread attack. Together they combined for 64 receptions, and that number should go up in 2014 as quarterback Davis Webb settles in as a sophomore.

7. TCU: The Horned Frogs were a disaster offensively last year, but the potential at running back is a reason why TCU could be equipped for a bounce-back season. Aaron Green, Kyle Hicks and incoming freshman Shaun Nixon were all ESPN 300 recruits. That doesn’t include B.J. Catalon, either, who led the Frogs with 569 yards and six touchdowns last season. With a new regime making the play calls, there’s reason to believe this could become one of the better units in the league.

[+] EnlargeDalton Santos
David Purdy/Getty ImagesIf Aaron Wimberly can stay healthy, Iowa State has a potentially dynamic returning running back.
8. Iowa State: When healthy, Aaron Wimberly can be a game-breaker. He torched Texas for 137 yards as the Cyclones nearly pulled off a Thursday night upset. Wimberly, however, was never really healthy the rest of the season, and never had the same impact. After Wimberly, though, the Cyclones don’t have much returning firepower. Firepower, however, could be on the way. Oklahoma native Michael Warren went overlooked in recruiting, but he can fly; he rushed for more than 2,500 yards as a high school senior.

9. Kansas: The Jayhawks gradated their heart and soul in James Sims, who was an all-conference selection even though Kansas won only one Big 12 game. Tony Pierson returns as an electric playmaker, but he has never been a full-time running back, often flexing out as a receiver. It will be interesting to see who emerges in Sims’ shoes. Brandon Bourbon (191 yards) will have the first crack in the spring, but newcomers De'Andre Mann and Traevohn Wrench could vie for time once they arrive in the summer.

10. Kansas State: It’s difficult to believe K-State will be at the bottom here once the season starts, but running back is a major hole for the Wildcats going into the spring. That’s because longtime starter John Hubert is gone. Hubert, senior backup Robert Rose and QBs Jake Waters and Daniel Sams combined for 492 carries last season. Nobody else had more than five. Rising senior DeMarcus Robinson, who has only 11 career carries, will probably be atop the depth chart going into the spring. It’s also possible that Sams will get a look at running back with Waters having nailed down the full-time QB job. But the player to watch here is freshman Dalvin Warmack, who rushed for more than 4,500 yards and 70 touchdowns his final two seasons in Blue Springs, Mo. Warmack isn’t big at 5-foot-8 and 185 pounds. But his size fits the mold of past K-State running backs Hubert and Darren Sproles.

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