Big 12: Johnny Thomas

Fresh faces: Oklahoma State

August, 24, 2012
Today we continue our look across the league at few players from each team who had low profiles last year, but you'd better get to know before 2012. They just might be household names by season's end.

More fresh faces:

Next up: Oklahoma State.

Josh Stewart, WR: You probably remember a bit from Stewart last year, who broke out and caught 19 passes for 291 yards and two touchdowns, but the time is now for Stewart to become a star. OSU needs him after losing Justin Blackmon, Josh Cooper and Michael Harrison. He had a huge spring, and coach Mike Gundy predicted running back Joseph Randle would lead the team in receptions, though it might be Stewart, too. The 5-foot-10, 178-pound Denton, Texas native is as shifty as you might expect, and could emerge as freshman Wes Lunt's favorite new target.

Parker Graham, OT: I knew OSU was going to be replacing starters along the offensive line this year, and at last year's Fiesta Bowl, asked around the Cowboys' line for the young guys who were the most impressive. The same name kept popping up over and over: Parker Graham. He started five games last year and became the team's starting right tackle by season's end after having almost no experience. Now, he's a junior loaded with potential. The 6-foot-7, 315-pounder is now the starter at left tackle and had 20 knockdowns last season, though he did give up two of the 12 sacks given up by OSU's line last season.

Shamiel Gary, S: Gary had no profile last year because he was sitting out after transferring in from Wyoming. Now, he's a co-starter alongside Lavocheya Cooper at strong safety, looking to replace Markelle Martin. Losing Johnny Thomas hurt this squad, but Gary has been a big reason why it won't be a huge issue this fall. He's got prototype safety size at 6-foot, 210 pounds and could challenge for Big 12 Newcomer of the Year honors by season's end.

Results from the NFL combine's final day

February, 29, 2012

The NFL combine wrapped on Tuesday, but here's a quick look at how the defensive backs did on the final day of workouts.

Jamell Fleming, CB, Oklahoma
  • 40-yard dash: 4.53 seconds (12th among CBs)
  • 225-pound bench press: 23 reps (second among CBs)
Markelle Martin, S, Oklahoma State
  • 225-pound bench press: 19 reps (T-6 among safeties)
Johnny Thomas, S, Oklahoma State
  • 40-yard dash: 4.63 seconds (12th among safeties)
  • 225-pound bench press: 20 reps (T-4 among safeties)

One quick Insider thought from our scout, Steve Muench:
  • At 5-10 and 206, former Oklahoma State S Johnny Thomas appeared to be in excellent shape despite missing the 2011 season because of an eligibility issue, and he moved well in space. He also flashed above-average ball skills and even made a nice one-handed catch with his right hand, but he appeared to lose focus and dropped a pass late. In addition, he had to restart a drill.

Mailbag: TCU future, underrated D, OSU

October, 14, 2011
Thanks for all the questions. Didn't get yours answered? Try again with a better one.

Colin in Tulsa, Okla.: Is Johnny Thomas being ineligible a blessing in disguise like Orie Lemon getting hurt? OSU had a serviceable backup (Donald Booker) and would've been left to have Caleb Lavey be the day 1 starter last year. So, this year Dawtawion Lowe comes in and plays well enough next to Markelle and Johnny Thomas can come back next year? That way OSU isn't left to start some random safety next to Daytawion next year.

David Ubben: That's maybe a little harsh and perhaps insensitive, but I must say: I think I agree. It's an interesting point. There's no doubt that Oklahoma State's defense in 2010 benefited from having Lemon out there, and Booker was outstanding in 2009.

This year, we've seen a guy in Lowe that had huge potential really step into that role and not see much fall off. You never like to see guys deal with academic issues or have serious injuries like Lemon had, but Oklahoma State has been fortunate to have players behind defensive leaders step up and do well. Credit Mike Gundy and his staff for recruiting well and having a much deeper team than when he arrived. The difference is unbelievable.

Next year, when Thomas joins Lowe, you'll see another good group of safeties at OSU.

Ryan in Arlington, Texas, asked: Sean Porter for Texas A&M has 6.5 sacks this year (3rd in the nation), while the entire Longhorn defense has 7.0 (91st in the nation). Does this stat say more about Sean Porter, the effectiveness of Manny Diaz's or Tim DeRuyter's blitzes (who are both very aggressive), or the Longhorn defensive personnel?

DU: I'll say Porter. He's been outstanding, and has done an outstanding job of being everywhere. The combination of a) big leads early in games and b) defenses seeing they can beat A&M through the air has resulted in the Aggies defending 244 passes this year, which is 47 more than Texas and twice as many as Texas Tech, which has faced the fewest in the Big 12, with 122. Only Louisiana Tech has faced more pass attempts this season. So, take your pick, there. Texas A&M is racking up sacks but giving up yards by the bunches.

Neither DeRuyter nor Diaz has been outstanding so far this year. Diaz's defense got worked by the first real offense -- albeit one of the nation's best -- in its first real test. DeRuyter's defense has taken a huge step back.

Meanwhile, Porter has undoubtedly taken a big step forward. Kudos to him.

John in Oklahoma City asked: Everyone is down on OSU's defense still this year. About half of our games so far our 2nd or 3rd stringers were playing in the 4th. The Cowboys are only allowing 14.6 ppg through 3 quarters. Plus we are 6th in the nation in creating turnovers. We are much more improved defensively with a better offense to go with it. Big (X)II title here we come!!!!!

DU: Your persuasiveness is surpassed only by your unbridled enthusiasm, John.

That said, you're right, and its a point that's perhaps been overlooked in the defensive statistics for Oklahoma State. Its backups have given up gobs of points this year, but the first team defense has done really well. For those unaware, allow me to point it out:

OSU led its opener 44-13 before giving up a pick six and two garbage-time touchdowns in a 61-34 win.

OSU led Arizona 34-7 before giving up a 54-yard touchdown pass to Texas transfer Dan Buckner.

In a game that kicked off after midnight, OSU led Tulsa 45-6 midway through the third quarter before giving up two quick scores and winning, 59-33.

Finally, last week, OSU led 70-14 with 12:45 left before Kansas' first-teamers scored on a 68-yard touchdown pass and a 31-yard run to make it a 70-28 final.

So, there you go. Take from that what you will. Is OSU's defense great? No. But it's a lot better than the numbers suggest.

Chris J. in Houston asked: You have to give me props next week for this, I'm calling it: Texas beats Oklahoma State this week in a big way.

DU: K. What do I get if you're wrong?

Scott in Oklahoma asked: David, with tcu coming into the fold next year, is the big 12 just going to give them the a&m schedule or will they redo them all together and give osu another catered home game vs. Ou as they have the these last two years? Or will it be another team? Also, will they change next years ou tcu game to a conference game or will it stay as a non conference game ala the colorado cal game this year?

DU: All valid administrative questions that haven't been addressed in this space. Let's change that.

For now, when the Big 12 moves on as a ten-team league in 2012, the schedule is being reworked. TCU won't just slide into Texas A&M's spot. That means they likely won't be the Longhorns' Thanksgiving opponent, a tradition Texas would like to continue. UT president Bill Powers says "a lot of teams are in the mix" for a new opponent. There's lots of talk about Texas Tech filling that role, but it's very much in the air for now. The Big 12 isn't worried about that currently. You've got to know your configuration next year and beyond before you get too concerned about scheduling. That issue will be pushed to the forefront more during the offseason.

As of now, TCU-OU is up in the air, too. It might be kept as an early season game, but like I mentioned earlier, that's up in the air. TCU doesn't have anything to worry about. With a 10-team league and nine-game schedule, they just slide OU in as a conference game and keep their nonconference games with Grambling State, Virginia and SMU. That's a decent set of games. TCU-OU won't be an awkward conference nonconference game like Colorado-Cal this year.

For Oklahoma? Things are a little more complicated. TCU is a good secondary game, but the Sooners already have a home-and-home with Notre Dame (!) on the schedule for 2012 and 2013, but Oklahoma is reportedly looking at replacing the TCU game with Arkansas. That's one heck of a nonconference schedule for the Sooners if it happens. That's nothing new. Oklahoma is the most ambitious scheduling program in the Big 12, and that's a stated goal of the school: to put a compelling product on the field for its fans and schedule to get an edge in the BCS rankings.

Jordan Marshall in Hutchinson, Kan., asked: What do you think is going to happen to the BCS this year when there are going to be 4 undefeated teams at the end of the year (LSU/Alabama, OU/OSU, Wisconsin, and Boise State)? Clemson has a long shot of staying undefeated but that is just another team that could throw the whole system out of whack. Do you think that the BCS will just see this year as a fluke year or do you think that they will finally open their eyes to a playoff system?

DU: It could happen, but if it does, I don't think there's any question that the SEC and Big 12 champ would play each other. I could envision a scenario in which Wisconsin gets in over Oklahoma State, but hopping over Oklahoma or one of the SEC teams sounds impossible.

Jumping Oklahoma State is highly unlikely. We can talk conference strength, but simpler than that, just look at their past and future schedules.

OSU has a road win against a top 10 team, and four more top 25 teams on its schedule, closing with the crescendo of hosting Oklahoma.

The Big Ten is clearly down this season. Nebraska and Ohio State aren't great teams and will lose again. Michigan looks a bit overrated at No. 11. Wisconsin is a legitimate title contender, but even if Bucky runs the table, its weak nonconference schedule and the Big 12's depth and strength across the conference will push an undefeated Oklahoma or Oklahoma State team into the title game to face off with the SEC once again.

Midseason review: Oklahoma State

October, 11, 2011

Record: 5-0 (2-0 Big 12)

The trajectory of Oklahoma State's entire season swung in 30 minutes. Down 20-3 at Kyle Field, Oklahoma State looked headed for the bleachers to watch Texas A&M and Oklahoma decide the Big 12 title later this season. The offense rallied, though, taking the lead before the fourth quarter even began, prompting OSU fans everywhere to say, "Dana who?" The loss of offensive coordinator Dana Holgorsen was a major question mark entering the season, but it's become an afterthought as the offensive line has kept Brandon Weeden's ever-changing, brand-new jersey clean. The Cowboys rank second nationally in total offense while leading the nation in scoring offense after a 70-point day against Kansas that featured 35 first-quarter points in under nine minutes. Joseph Randle has emerged as a big-time running back, and though the defense ranks outside the national top 100, if there's a team in the country that can outscore anyone, it's these guys. OSU should be favored in every game the rest of this season until what looks like a near toss-up at season's end against Oklahoma. Both teams could be undefeated and it could serve as a national semifinal between two undefeated, top 3 teams for a spot in the national title game, in lieu of the defunct Big 12 title game.

Offensive MVP: Brandon Weeden, QB. Justin Blackmon's physical skills are clear, but the Cowboys have showed off their depth at receiver throughout the season, and Weeden's been the guy making it happen. Through five games, nine players have at least 100 yards receiving and five players have at least 15 catches. Weeden is completing just under 76 percent of his passes and his 1,880 yards lead the Big 12 and are fourth-most nationally. He's also thrown 15 touchdowns. He was at his best when it counted most and the Cowboys were down, too.

Defensive MVP: The defensive ends. No big standouts for the Cowboys, though safeties Daytawion Lowe and Markelle Martin have been solid, despite losing Johnny Thomas for the season with an eligibility issue. But ends Richetti Jones and Jamie Blatnick have been solid, along with linebacker Shaun Lewis. You really could give this to any of those groups. Jones and Blatnick have been consistently disruptive and combined for five sacks.
STILLWATER, Okla. -- Oklahoma State's offense has gotten plenty of attention tonight, and it's well-deserved.

Brandon Weeden is 22-of-23 and the Cowboys lead 21-0 late in the second quarter.

But don't forget the other side of the ball, which has been very impressive, too.

Sure, Arizona is missing one of the nation's best receivers in Juron Criner, but Nick Foles has completed 14 of 18 passes and Arizona is still hanging a zero on the scoreboard.

That's thanks to a fourth-down stop near the goal line on Arizona's last possession, courtesy of a pass breakup by Daytawion Lowe, who is stepping in for ineligible starter Johnny Thomas.

Arizona running back Keola Antolin has just 12 yards on seven carries, and daylight near the line of scrimmage has been at a premium.

OSU's offense will get plenty of credit if this ends up a runaway win, but the defense deserves a good bit as well.

Arizona has just six first downs to Oklahoma State's 12, and the Wildcats have established some momentum on a couple drives so far.

Each time, though, the Cowboys have held before it cost them points.

What to watch in the Big 12: Week 2

September, 8, 2011
Here's what I'm watching in this week's slate of games:

1. Oklahoma State's secondary. Starting safety Johnny Thomas is ineligible for the entire season, so it's up to senior Markelle Martin to lead a very young group of cornerbacks and promising safety Daytawion Lowe, to try to fill the void left by Thomas. They're going up against a difficult passing offense in Arizona and a fantastic receiver in Juron Criner. Criner reportedly may miss tonight's game, but the secondary still better learn fast.

2. Texas' running backs. Foswhitt Whittaker is the starter, but Malcolm Brown got hot in the second half and took over, leading the team in yardage and carries. Joe Bergeron may be a factor, too, but how does this situation look on and after Saturday's game against BYU?

3. Missouri's offensive line. Center Travis Ruth isn't back yet, and senior left tackle and captain Elvis Fisher is out for the season. They'll face a tough test at Arizona State, highlighted by linebacker Vontaze Burfict, who had three sacks in the Sun Devils' season opener.

4. Justin Blackmon. By his standards, he actually had kind of a quiet night (8 receptions, 144 yards) while his offense racked up 60 points in its season opener. He'll need another big game in a matchup with Arizona that looks like it will be extremely high scoring. Watch for him to get as many as 20 targets in Oklahoma State's passing game, which tore up the Wildcats in the Alamo Bowl.

5. Iowa State's linebackers. Marcus Coker looked fantastic against Missouri in his debut in last year's Insight Bowl. In Iowa's opener? Not so much. Iowa State struggled to stop the run last year, but Jake Knott and A.J. Klein will need to slow Coker down if Iowa State is going to take home the Cy-Hawk trophy.

6. Kansas' receivers. Daymond Patterson may not play against Northern Illinois, but somebody's got to step up. True freshman JaCorey Shepherd caught three passes for 107 yards and two scores last week, but no other Kansas receiver had a catch. The Jayhawks will lean on their running game again this week, but their receivers have to be better in Week 2.

7. Second-time starters at quarterback. Missouri's James Franklin and Iowa State's Steele Jantz didn't have fantastic first starts, but both showed some promise. Jantz did it with two big drives late in the game to get the win. Franklin played well outside of one big pick that cost the Tigers seven points and a couple near interceptions. Both will have to continue their development for their teams to pull upsets this week.

8. Texas' secondary. I put them "On the Spot" this week. Of course, I put Baylor wide receiver Kendall Wright on the spot last week, and he had a huge game. Jake Heaps was unimpressive against Ole Miss last week, but don't count him out this week. His potential is enormous. Texas has to slow him down or prepare for a long day in Austin.
Oklahoma State starting safety Johnny Thomas and receiver Michael Harrison will be ineligible for the season opener.

The team did not announce further details or disclose a timeline for either player's return.

The loss hurts the Cowboys, but it's hardly a huge hit.

Thomas was a first-year starter in 2010, finishing fourth on the team with 63 tackles and three interceptions

The Cowboys will need him in Week 2 against Arizona's high-flying pass offense which features one of the nation's best pass-catch combos in Nick Foles and Juron Criner. If Thomas cannot go against Arizona, it's not all bad for Oklahoma State.

Thomas' likely replacement, Daytawion Lowe, has long been one of the team's budding stars, but has been prevented from breaking out because of the experience ahead of him. He could start for a few teams in the league, but now it looks like he'll get a chance with his current team.

Lowe missed all of last season with a knee injury, but he'll get a chance to prove he's officially back with a debut on Saturday night against Louisiana-Lafayette.

Harrison's biggest moment of 2010 came in Justin Blackmon's absence in a game against Kansas State. Harrison caught a jump ball to help the Cowboys beat the Wildcats, 24-14.

This time around, though? Blackmon's on the field and Oklahoma State's deep receiving corps should be fine without his 14 catches for 135 yards and three scores.

His absence hurts, but for now, the Ragin' Cajuns don't have enough to pose a serious threat.

If Thomas and Harrison are ineligible into next week or longer? The impact will grow.

Ranking the Big 12's top 10 safeties

August, 25, 2011
Safeties are a good group in the Big 12. Not outstanding, but good.

I didn't know what to do with the league's nickel backs, so here's what I came up with. It makes sense to me. For the position rankings, I grouped them with linebackers, because that's where they fit in each team's scheme.

As individuals, however? I lumped them with safeties, because their skill sets are most comparable with those type of players. Make sense? That's how it's going to be.

I see lots and lots of potential with young guys I think will be on this list a year from now, but didn't have the experience to land there just yet.

Aaron Colvin, Ahmad Dixon, Terrance Bullitt? I'm looking at you three.

Here's the top 10s you've missed so far: 1. Markelle Martin, Oklahoma State: Martin is the Big 12's most ferocious hitter, and one of its most enjoyable players to watch. His coverage skills improved greatly in 2010 -- intercepting three passes and breaking up 10 more -- and should continue in 2011.

2. Tony Jefferson, Oklahoma: Jefferson already established himself as a force in this league, but one could argue he has the most upside of any player in the league after a strong freshman year in 2010. Drawing comparisons to Roy Williams is one thing. Having them not seem ridiculous is another. Jefferson's natural football instincts have allowed him to at least do that. He'll do plenty more as his experience grows.

3. Trent Hunter, Texas A&M: Hunter took the second safety spot on my All-Big 12 team, and he's probably got the best speed in my top three. At 5-foot-10 and 190 pounds, he's a bit undersized, but he's a big playmaker. He made 62 tackles and intercepted two passes for a vastly improved A&M defense.

4. Blake Gideon, Texas: Gideon is approaching his fourth year as a starter for the Longhorns, and should be a huge leader on for a young group of corners that will need him when the season kicks off. Gideon made 63 tackles and picked off one pass, while forcing a fumble and breaking up three passes.

5. Kenji Jackson, Missouri: Like Gideon, Jackson is loaded with experience. He finally got some help from his corners last season in what used to be a struggling secondary, but he'll need to be at his best as the Tigers break in a pair of new ones this season. Jackson has 22 career starts and has played in 38 games, and as a senior, he'll try to build on his career-high 66 tackles, five broken up passes and two picks from 2010.

6. Cody Davis, Texas Tech: The Red Raiders 118th-ranked pass defense (admittedly handcuffed by injuries) didn't have many bright spots in 2010, but Davis was one of them. He was second on the team with 87 stops (68 solo), made 6.5 tackles for loss and intercepted a pass.

7. Johnny Thomas, Oklahoma State: Thomas emerged as a solid option opposite Martin for the Cowboys, and one of the most underrated players in the league. He was a first-year starter at free safety and finished fourth on the team with 63 tackles, adding four interceptions.

8. Tysyn Hartman, Kansas State: Hartman will be one of the team's leaders as one of its most experienced talents and the league's best safeties. The hulking 6-foot-3, 206-pounder is imposing for opposing receivers and made 86 tackles with a pair of interceptions last season.

9. Ty Zimmerman, Kansas State: Zimmerman's claim to fame is picking off Garrett Gilbert twice in one game, but he was pretty good in all the other games, too. He was second in the Big 12 in tackles among freshmen (74 stops, 4 TFL) and did it all as a freshman. Big things ahead for Zimmerman.

10. Kenny Vaccaro, Texas: Vaccaro will challenge Martin as the league's biggest hitter, but he may move around a lot this year. Vaccaro spent plenty of time at nickel back, and may be there or at one of the traditional safety spots in Manny Diaz's new defense. He was a part-time starter in 2010 and made 75 tackles with eight passes broken up and one interception. The junior will try to add to his four tackles for loss and two forced fumbles, too.

Big 12 position ranking: Safeties

June, 30, 2011
We'll move on to the safeties today in our position rankings across the Big 12.

Here's what we've covered so far:
The group of safeties across the Big 12 isn't fantastic, without any truly elite groups, but it's decent. There aren't any teams that look really hopeless at the position in the immediate future.

I haven't given it real close examination so far on the positions we haven't covered yet, but this is by far the closest gap between 1-10 of any position so far.

Here's how I ranked them. (Remember, I lumped in nickel backs with linebackers, so Ahmad Dixon and Tony Jefferson won't be found anywhere in this post.)

[+] EnlargeOklahoma State's Markelle Martin
John Rieger/US PRESSWIREOklahoma State's Markelle Martin is the Big 12's best overall safety.
1. Oklahoma State -- The Cowboys have Markelle Martin, the Big 12's best overall safety who's a big talent but a much better hitter than he is a cover man. Johnny Thomas is solid and both safeties got a lot better as the 2010 season progressed. OSU's depth lands them here, though. Daytawion Lowe could start for a few Big 12 teams and is slightly better than A&M and Texas' reserves, the other two teams with the deepest group of safeties.

2. Texas -- Blake Gideon takes his share of criticism, a good deal of it fair, but there's a reason he's starting for Texas for a fourth season this fall. He knows what he's doing. Kenny Vaccaro will challenge OSU's Martin, among others, for the title of the Big 12's biggest hitter and Nolan Brewster and Christian Scott are strong reserves at the position. The Longhorns lose a lot at corner, but all the safeties are back from a defense that allowed just over 170 yards a game through the air in conference play last season.

3. Texas A&M -- The Aggies' Steven Terrell and Trent Hunter are solid, and Hunter is a big playmaker who made 62 stops and picked off two passes last year. Toney Hurd Jr. is the backup and was one of the most impressive freshmen in fall camp last year, joined by Steven Campbell in the rotation.

4. Kansas State -- Tysyn Hartman has loads of experience and is one of the Wildcats that Bill Snyder loves to rave about. Ty Zimmerman was one of the Big 12's best freshman last year, and picked off three passes. They should be solid again next year, and for as much criticism as K-State's defense faced last year, they were fifth in the Big 12 in pass defense. Logan Dold should be in the rotation, too.

5. Oklahoma -- Reserve Sam Proctor has starting experience, but Javon Harris and Aaron Colvin enter fall camp as starters. That says plenty about how Bob Stoops and Brent Venables feel about them. In a word: confident. Colvin has the most potential in the group, but the two starters will have to learn on the go. Proctor, a senior, should be able to help. James Haynes will also be in the rotation.

6. Missouri -- Jasper Simmons is gone, but Missouri's safeties might be a bit underrated in this spot. Kenji Jackson has loads of experience and should be solid, and Tavon Bolden and Matt White are a pair of promising sophomores who should compete at free safety. Kenronte Walker should be in the rotation, too.

7. Texas Tech -- Injuries were a problem last year for the Tech secondary, but Cody Davis and D.J. Johnson will hold down the traditional safety spots away from the line of scrimmage in new coordinator Chad Glasgow's 4-2-5. The unit gave up lots of big plays in 2010 (151 over 10 yards, 46 over 20, and 25 over 30, all the most in the Big 12), but I'd expect that number to drop under Glasgow if the secondary stays healthy. Davis is the team's leading returning tackler, with 87 stops. Brett Dewhurst and Giorgio Durham should be in the rotation.

8. Kansas -- Keeston Terry and Bradley McDougald give Kansas a lot of speed and athletic ability at the position, but both of the team's safeties from 2010 graduated and Terry and McDougald are short on experience. Lubbock Smith should add some solid depth to the position.

9. Iowa State -- Iowa State loses their top playmaker at the position, David Sims, but returns starter Ter'Ran Benton. He'll be helped out by some combination of Jacques Washington, Earl Brooks and Deon Broomfield once the season starts. Iowa State's biggest weakness is on the defensive line, so it's hard to get a good read on how good the safeties really are with such a poor pass rush up front.

10. Baylor -- This group might move up the list during the year under Phil Bennett, but the two best raw athletes (Ahmad Dixon, Prince Kent) at the position moved to nickel back and linebacker, respectively. The team's leading tackler, Byron Landor, graduated, and that left Mike Hicks as the other starter. He'll be helped out at safety by Sam Holl, Josh Wilson and K.J. Morton. Last year, the Bears ranked last in the Big 12 in pass defense in conference play, giving up over 300 yards a game. That'll have to change or Baylor won't get past seven wins.
Our friends in the Big East kicked off this idea, and it'll suit the Big 12 well. The All-Big 12 preseason teams are still a long way away, but which units in the Big 12 are the best entering 2011?

Here are my votes, and I feel pretty good about all of them. Which would you pick?

Quarterbacks: Oklahoma State

The Cowboys return All-Big 12 first-teamer Brandon Weeden, and the senior will have his top target back, Biletnikoff Award winner Justin Blackmon. He threw for 4,277 yards last season and his quarterback rating of 154.11 was eight points higher than any passer in the Big 12.

Honorable mention: Oklahoma, Baylor

Running backs: Texas A&M

Cyrus Gray was the Big 12's best back late in the conference season, and his running mate re-joins him in the backfield this year after breaking his leg midway through 2010. Christine Michael and Gray form perhaps the best backfield duo in the nation, but by far the best in the Big 12.

Honorable mention: Oklahoma

Receivers: Oklahoma

This one's close, but Oklahoma's depth gives them the edge. Ryan Broyles is narrowly the Big 12's No. 2 receiver and a Biletnikoff finalist in his own right, but Kenny Stills could sneak up on a 1,000-yard season as a sophomore in 2011. Dejuan Miller and Trey Franks are two more solid options, and the Sooners could add a pair of talented freshmen to the rotation in Trey Metoyer and Justin McCay.

Honorable mention: Oklahoma State, Texas A&M, Baylor

Offensive line: Oklahoma State

The line helped running back Kendall Hunter finish second in the Big 12 with 1,548 yards last season, and all five starters return from the unit that gave up the fewest sacks in the Big 12. That's aided by the quick-release approach in the Air Raid offense, but the line boasts the Big 12's best returning lineman, tackle Levy Adcock.

Honorable mention: Texas A&M

Defensive line: Missouri

The Tigers have the Big 12's returning leader in sacks, defensive end Brad Madison, but the unit is deep and talented and could get even more so next season. DT Terrell Resonno, DE Jacquies Smith and DT Dominique Hamilton are all experienced, and defensive ends Michael Sam and Kony Ealy should provide very little dropoff when they're on the field as part of the rotation. The Tigers also welcome a possible game-changer in Sheldon Richardson, a light-footed 6-foot-4, 296-pound defensive tackle and St. Louis native who is the nation's No. 3 juco recruit.

Honorable mention: Texas

Linebackers: Oklahoma

The Sooners have one of the favorites for Big 12 Preseason Defensive Player of the Year in senior linebacker Travis Lewis, who is likely to be joined by some combination of Tom Wort, Corey Nelson and Jaydan Bird. Nickel back Tony Jefferson could be poised for a break out year on a national scale after sharing Defensive Freshman of the Year honors last season.

Honorable mention: Iowa State

Cornerbacks: Texas A&M

The Aggies have two of the Big 12's best in Dustin Harris and Coryell Judie, who doubles as perhaps the Big 12's most dangerous return man. The pair combined for eight interceptions last season and 21 passes defended. Terrence Frederick defended 10 passes of his own. Health was a concern for this group in the spring, but they should be ready come fall.

Honorable mention: Oklahoma

Safeties: Oklahoma State

Markelle Martin is a future draft pick and one of the Big 12's hardest hitters, but Johnny Thomas played some of his best football late last season. They combined for 118 tackles last season, and 100 of those were solo stops.

Honorable mention: Kansas State

Punter: Oklahoma State

Quinn Sharp has been one of the Big 12's best punters for the past two seasons, and led the league in punting average at 46.2 yards in 2010.

Kicker: Missouri

Grant Ressel has made 43 of 46 field goals over the past two seasons, and the former walk-on should be a contender for the Lou Groza Award as a junior in 2011.

Sizing up the Big 12's returning tacklers

April, 26, 2011
You can size up Big 12 defenses any way you want, but here's how the Big 12 ranks in terms of experienced tacklers coming back in 2011.

1. Kansas State: The Wildcats bring back all five of their top tacklers, led by senior cornerback David Garrett, who made 92 tackles last year. Cornerback Terrance Sweeney is the only loss for the defense, which struggled last year, but will return eight of its top nine tacklers.

2. Texas: Five of the Longhorns six top tacklers return, led by a pair of linebackers among the best in the Big 12. Keenan Robinson and Emmanuel Acho combined for 187 tackles last year and should be the leaders of a Longhorns defense that lost defensive lineman Sam Acho, who turned in an All-American-caliber season as a senior in 2010. Blake Gideon, Kenny Vaccaro and Christian Scott give the Longhorns good experience at safety, too.

3. Iowa State: Linebacker Jake Knott is the Big 12's leading returning tackler after making 131 stops a year ago. The Cyclones return four of their top five tacklers, including junior linebacker A.J. Klein, who made 111 tackles of his own. Middle linebacker Matt Tau'fo'ou missed the second half of the season with a broken leg, but he'll be back on the field this year. Safety David Sims will be tough to replace.

4. Texas A&M: The Aggies return eight of 11 starters on defense, but two of the three losses (linebackers Michael Hodges and Von Miller) were among the top four tacklers. The other two starting linebackers, Garrick Willams and Sean Porter, will be counted on as more experienced backers this year.

5. Missouri: The Tigers lose two of their top three tacklers, but speedy linebacker Zaviar Gooden, who tied Andrew Gachkar for the team lead with 84 tackles, is back for a Missouri defense that should be one of the Big 12's best next year. Experienced safety Kenji Jackson, a senior who will enter his fourth year on the field as a major contributor, should be one of the team's leaders next year.

6. Oklahoma State: The Cowboys lose two of their three top tacklers, but bring back a pair of solid safeties in Markelle Martin and Johnny Thomas. Leading tackler Orie Lemon made 133 stops last year, and replacing his leadership might be harder than replacing his production on the field. Sophomore Shaun Lewis is the Big 12's reigning co-Defensive Freshman of the Year and looks poised for a huge encore at the Cowboys' "star" linebacker spot.

7. Oklahoma: Three of Oklahoma's top five tacklers, including both starting safeties, are gone. It could have been worse, but linebacker Travis Lewis decided to stick around for his senior season and chase a national title. All-Big 12 corner Jamell Fleming was fourth on the team in tackles, and currently isn't enrolled. Coach Bob Stoops has been cryptic about Fleming's status in the future, and it's hard to tell if he'll be back or not after a reported academic misconduct incident.

8. Texas Tech: Injuries forced that Red Raiders to play a lot of young talent too early last year, but three of their top six tacklers won't be back in 2011. Linebackers Bront Bird (106 tackles) and Brian Duncan are the most notable absences, along with defensive tackle Colby Whitlock. Sam Fehoko and Blake Dees should anchor the middle of the defense this year, and the secondary has lots of quality young talent returning. Cody Davis, Tre Porter, D.J. Johnson and Jarvis Phillips are all back.

9. Kansas: Steven Johnson, the team's leading tackler last season, returns after making 95 stops last year, but Kansas loses all four of its next top tacklers. That includes linebacker Justin Springer, but my guess? Huldon Tharp, who missed all of last season with a foot injury, will lead the Jayhawks in stops this year.

10. Baylor: The Bears take the biggest hit in the Big 12 when it comes to returning tacklers. The team's top five in stops last season were all seniors. Six of the top seven are gone, and senior linebacker Elliot Coffey is the leading returner. He made 61 tackles last year, and missed three games with a sprained ankle.

Tallying the Big 12 South returning starters

January, 27, 2011
God bless you, Phil Steele.

I wasn't planning to tally up the returning starters across the Big 12 until next week, but the college football guru put together a ranking of every team's total returning starters.

For better or worse, this number has quite a bit of impact on people's perceptions of teams entering 2011, so there's no doubt that each team's bottom line has a big influence heading into next year.

We'll close it up with the Big 12 South after taking a look at the North earlier this afternoon. A star signifies that the team's starting quarterback will return.

1. Texas A&M - 19 starters* (9 offense, 8 defense, 2 specialists)

Top returners: QB Ryan Tannehill, WR Jeff Fuller, RB Cyrus Gray/Christine Michael, LB Garrick Williams

2. Oklahoma - 17 starters* (8 offense, 7 defense, 2 specialists)

Top returners: QB Landry Jones, WR Ryan Broyles, LB Travis Lewis, CB Jamell Fleming

3. Oklahoma State - 15 starters* (9 offense, 5 defense, 1 specialist)

Top returners: QB Brandon Weeden, WR Justin Blackmon, S Johnny Thomas, S Markelle Martin

3. Texas - 15 starters* (8 offense, 6 defense, 1 specialist)

Top returners: LB Emmanuel Acho, LB Keenan Robinson, QB Garrett Gilbert, WR Mike Davis

5. Baylor - 14 starters* (8 offense, 5 defense, 1 specialist)

Top returners: QB Robert Griffin III, WR Kendall Wright, DB Chance Casey, LB Elliot Coffey

6. Texas Tech - 13 starters (5 offense, 8 defense, 0 specialists)

Top returners: WR Alex Torres, DB Cody Davis, DB Tre Porter, DB Jarvis Phillips

Are those numbers deceiving for any team on the list?

Any team have a high number of starters that could be overrated entering 2011?

Mailbag: Fuller, 2011 title, new defenses

January, 14, 2011
Justin Wendling in Canton, Ga., asks: Do you think the Oklahoma Sooners will beat Oklahoma State and Texas again this year?

David Ubben: Neither is a given. Oklahoma has a tough schedule; the Sooners could have as many as seven top 25 teams on their schedule. Texas is never a sure thing for Oklahoma. Far from it. Just look at this year. The Longhorns went 5-7. Oklahoma had a good year by their standards and were a legitimate top 10 team. Yet Texas came within a couple plays of beating the Sooners.

The catch for Oklahoma in Bedlam this year is they have to go back to Stillwater for a second consecutive year because of the nine-game scheduling. That's one of a few kinks in the transition to a round-robin schedule. That's not a good thing for a team bent on a national title. Oklahoma State will have learned from last year's experience, could be playing for a Big 12 title and will have Justin Blackmon and Brandon Weeden back to do it.

Outside of Florida State in Tallahassee early in the season, that trip to Stillwater will be Oklahoma's toughest road game in 2011.

Derek Kane in Albuquerque, N.M., asks: I Know that technically Nebraska is out of the Big Twelve (Or Should I say Big Ten) but how do you think the are going to fair this year?

DU: It's going to be tough for them with that schedule. The offense clearly has to be better, and Big Ten teams are better equipped to neutralize Nebraska's strength in the secondary simply by running the ball downhill with power. Teams like Missouri could never really do that against the Huskers, and their offensive strengths played right into Nebraska's defensive strength. Based on the way Nebraska defended Washington, they'll have to get better defending power running games in a hurry.

Jared Crick's return will be valuable in stopping those running games, but I'm interested to see how an undersized linebacker like Lavonte David does. Clearly the talent and instinct for the position is there, but can he handle offensive linemen getting into the second level of the defense and consistently tackle bigger running backs? I don't expect Nebraska to keep recruiting 210-pound linebackers like him, so he could be one of the last of his kind at Nebraska. But, if he has a lot of success next year, that might not be the case.

Eric in Houston asks: What are your predictions for Baylor's defense next year?

DU: You'd have to figure they'd be better. New coordinator Phil Bennett made it clear he's excited, and sounds confident that he can have a satisfying level of success. Replacing Phil Taylor and his size will be tough, but the departure of Tim Atchison should open up one of the safety spots and give blue-chip recruit Ahmad Dixon a chance to prove his worth on the field. The Bears defense doesn't need to be great with the way the offense played, but if it's significantly better like Texas A&M's became this year, you could see Baylor win eight, nine, even 10 games. The Bears defense last year was a lot better than Texas A&M's in 2009, but they don't quite have the same amount of raw talent. But do big little things like win the turnover battle (Baylor forced just 20 turnovers last year, No. 9 in the Big 12. It also turned it over just 20 times, No. 6 in the Big 12) and quit giving up big plays and they might be surprised at just how much that fixes immediately.

Mark Fiegener in Stillwater, Okla., asks: What will it take for Oklahoma State's defense to reach the level of success that the offense has had this past season? More talent? Some new coaches to back up Bill Young? The '09 version looked close to this goal.

DU: It's not a talent issue, although they're boosting that lately, too. I don't think you're going to see OSU's defense suddenly become the best in the country, but they got a lot better last year. Guys like Shaun Lewis, Johnny Thomas and Brodrick Brown have really bright futures, but next year, the big challenge is going to be replacing Orie Lemon. Ugo Chinasa probably had a little bit more raw talent, but Lemon made that whole thing run and got guys doing what they needed to be doing. Experience is tough to replace at linebacker.

Shane in Rushville, NE asks: David you still haven't answered my question. Will you come with us (Nebraska) to the Big Ten? Your blog will be missed.

DU: Sorry, man. No can do. I promised myself after college that I'd never live north of Missouri. Too cold for my taste. You're stuck with my man Adam Rittenberg, braving the annual arctic winds of Chicago. I'll take my 50-degree Januaries down here in Dallas.

Robert in Houston, Texas, asks: I think the Big 12 might have made a mistake going to a 9 game, round robin schedule rather than keeping an 8 game conference schedule. The difference between the two doesn't matter for the top half of the conference, but will make it very difficult for Iowa State, Kansas, etc. to get to bowl games. Even the Pac 10 thought about moving away from the round robin two years ago, since it has a hard time fulfilling bowl commitments, having teams ranked highly in polls, and this year aside, getting two teams to the BCS. The weakened Big 12 is almost making itself weaker with this move and will further hurt its perception with its teams carrying more losses than other conferences.

DU: It's absolutely true. The addition of the ninth game is automatically five more losses for the conference, and plenty of people don't realize that. Ask Ted Miller, our man out in the Pac-10 about it. He's constantly reminding people of that. Nobody gets hurt worse than the teams in the middle who traditionally would qualify for a bowl, i.e. a Kansas State, but usually wouldn't be a 10-game winner. All of a sudden, if you don't show up one or two weeks and don't spring an upset, you're staying 5-7 in the face. The Big 12 will experience some of that for the first time next year. I'm sure I'll spend time here explaining why people (except those in the conference formerly known as the Pac-10) don't understand that. I know I never really did until the last few years.

Stephen in Corpus Christi, Texas, asks: Still waiting to hear whether or not Jeff Fuller is staying at Texas A&M next season. If you had to make the decision for him, what would you advise him to do?

DU: Well, I was told his report from the NFL Draft advisory committee told him he would be drafted outside the top two rounds, and maybe that changes in pre-draft workouts, but I doubt it. He needs to say. A year ago, his teammate Von Miller was a mid-round draft pick and stayed. Now, he's probably a first rounder. With guys like Justin Blackmon and Ryan Broyles staying, I'm not saying that will for sure be the case for Fuller, but he certainly has a chance. And he can get a lot better. And leaving without a degree if you're not a first-round pick is never a prudent decision, regardless of family background.

Mark L in St. Louis, Mo., asks: Is Missouri NOT a threat next year? Personally i think alot of people are sleeping on Mizzou. Dubbs Be honest is Missouri a contenter or a pretender in the 2011-2012 season? Also who do you see as our impact player next year?

DU: Well, they are, but certainly behind Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and Texas A&M. Maybe that changes when the season starts, but look around the league over the past decade or so. You win in the Big 12 with quarterbacks. James Franklin (or whoever ends up replacing Blaine Gabbert) should be good, but there's going to be growing pains--bad games. Even the best Missouri's had lately, Gabbert and Chase Daniel, couldn't win more than eight games as first-year starters. That won't even come close to winning the Big 12. Missouri has a more complete team than it did in 2006 and to a lesser extent, 2009, with a defense that should be solid, but Franklin is going to have to play big if the Tigers are going to make a serious run at the Big 12 title.

As for Missouri's impact player: Obviously T.J. Moe has proven to be one of the Big 12's most difficult covers. Brad Madison should be fun to watch at defensive end. A deep threat would open up Missouri's offense and make some more room for Moe, but even if a younger guy like Jimmie Hunt emerges, Franklin has to be able to get it to him. Will he be able to do it with enough consistency in Year 1 as a starter? Maybe, but history isn't on his side until next year.

Alamo Bowl: Three keys for Oklahoma State

December, 28, 2010
1. Keep Arizona from YAC-ing all over the place. Oklahoma State fans will recognize Arizona's offense quickly. It's a close relative of the Air Raid at Texas Tech, not entirely unlike the Cowboys' own offense. Short, quick passes get the ball in the hands of playmakers who try to break a tackle or make a defender miss to move the ball down the field. If Oklahoma State's secondary, corners Brodrick Brown and Andrew McGee and safeties Johnny Thomas and Markelle Martin, and even the linebackers can get receivers and running backs down quickly, they'll stymie the offense and prevent the big play. Forcing Nick Foles to complete as many passes as possible to win is a solid recipe for a win.

2. Seriously, give Kendall Hunter the ball. Oklahoma State's offense has struggled most when Hunter has gotten the ball the least. Most notably, it happened in the first half against Texas A&M and the entire game against Oklahoma. The Cowboys scored 41 against the Sooners, but 14 of those points were non-offensive touchdowns and Hunter got just 13 carries. Oklahoma State ran only 66 plays in that game to Oklahoma's 107 (most in the FBS in 2010), but Hunter needed to have the ball in his hands for more than 13 of those 66. If that happens against Arizona, the Cowboys, favored by about a touchdown, should be fine.

3. No special teams mistakes. Kicker Dan Bailey won the Lou Groza Award as the nation's top kicker, but he also missed four kicks in the three games before the loss to Oklahoma, including one from inside 40 yards against Baylor. Additionally, punter Quinn Sharp and his long snapper Marc Yerry are ineligible for the game. Bailey might end up with punting duty with a freshman snapping to him. Certainly, the potential for disaster is there. Prevent it, and the Cowboys can keep from giving away points that could come back to hurt them later.

Big 12 on the spot: Alamo Bowl

December, 20, 2010
Oklahoma State looked like the favorites to win the Big 12 in the final month of the season, but a loss to Oklahoma landed them in the Alamo Bowl. Disappointing for the Cowboys, sure, but all things considered, a pretty good finish. Oklahoma State has a chance to win 11 games for the first time in school history when they play against Arizona in San Antonio.

So, who needs to step up for them to get that 11th win?

The secondary. Arizona's Nick Foles missed two games in 2010, but still averaged more than 290 yards a game in 10 starts, up from just more than 200 last season. The Wildcats have eight -- yes, eight -- players with at least 20 catches this season. None were more productive than junior Juron Criner (big points for the top-notch name), a 6-foot-4, 210-pound target who caught 74 passes for 1,197 yards and 10 touchdowns to lead the Pac-10 in receptions and receiving yardage.

Arizona loves the screen game, and Oklahoma State corners Brodrick Brown and Andrew McGee need to shed blocks and make stops to shut down the dangerous Wildcats offense.

The offense is reminiscent of Texas Tech's Air Raid. In fact, Texas Tech is on the only team in the Big 12 to equal Arizona's feat of eight receivers with 20 catches. Baylor is the league's only other team with more than five receivers with 20 receptions.

McGee led the Big 12 in interceptions, with five, but he's not likely to grab one in this game. That's no problem. McGee or Brown racking up tackles typically wouldn't be a good thing, but it might be in this game, depending on how reliant the Wildcats decide to be on those screens.

Safeties Johnny Thomas and Markelle Martin have to prevent the big play. If receivers start reaching the second level of the defense on underneath routes and screens and the safeties are the ones racking up tackles, this could turn into a shootout that takes 40 points to win.