Big 12: Jordan Hicks

The college football award watch lists continued to roll out Monday with the unveiling of the Lombardi Trophy and Butkus Award watch lists. The Lombardi goes to the nation's best lineman or linebacker. The Butkus is awarded to the top linebacker. Here are the Big 12 players that made the watch list for each award:

Lombardi
Butkus
The 2014 season could be a critical one for several Big 12 seniors.

It’s their final chance to maximize their potential, show off for NFL scouts and push their teams to higher heights. In other words, it’s now or never for several Big 12 players who are poised to play the final 12 games of their college careers. Last week we looked at five offensive players who are facing now-or-never seasons. Here’s a look at five seniors on the defensive side of the ball who could have a major impact on their teams' success or hamper those chances for success if they struggle as individuals.

[+] EnlargeJordan Hicks
Cooper Neill/Getty ImagesTexas linebacker Jordan Hicks has been productive when healthy.
Linebacker Jordan Hicks, Texas

Why he might excel: Talent and production have never been the issue for Hicks. He was poised to become a star until back-to-back season-ending injures derailed his junior and redshirt junior seasons. If he returns to full health and remains healthy, he should be one of the Big 12’s top defenders. The Ohio native had 40 tackles in four games in 2013. If he's productive and healthy, Texas' defense is better and more experienced.

Why he might struggle: Much like teammate David Ash, Hicks' injury history makes it tough to build around him. Hicks has played in seven games in the past two seasons, with a hip injury in 2012 and a Achilles injury in 2013. There’s no guarantee he can return to be the active, productive player who was donned the burnt orange No. 3 during the past few seasons.

Cornerback Kevin White, TCU

Why he might excel: White has quietly performed at a high level for the past two seasons but has remained relatively unnoticed while being overshadowed by the excellence of fellow cornerback Jason Verrett, the San Diego Chargers’ 2014 first-round draft pick. White has started in 24 games in the past two seasons and earned honorable mention All-Big 12 honors as a junior. His senior season offers a chance for him to cement himself as one of the top defenders in the conference, particularly as TCU’s top cover man.

Why he might struggle: He will be asked to be the man in the secondary. While lining up opposite Verrett, White was tested plenty during the past two seasons. But can he hold his own when consistently asked to cover the Big 12’s top receivers? If he stumbles, there aren't a lot of experienced options to turn to in the Horned Frogs' secondary.

Defensive tackle James Castleman, Oklahoma State

Why he might excel: Castleman has been productive for the Cowboys during the past two seasons and has all-conference potential. This season is his last opportunity to fulfill that potential. He enters the season with 70 tackles, including 11.5 tackles for loss and two sacks in his first three seasons. If Castleman is a disruptive force in the middle, he would help the Cowboys' inexperienced secondary greatly.

Why he might struggle: Castleman has seemed like a guy who could have a breakout season since his sophomore year. Yet it hasn’t really happened during his first three seasons. With Calvin Barnett moving on, Oklahoma State will lean on Castleman to fill the void and take his game to another level. He has supreme talent, but needs to finally maximize his potential during his final season.

[+] EnlargeGeneo Grissom
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesIf Geneo Grissom finds a home on Oklahoma's defense, look out.
Defensive end Geneo Grissom, Oklahoma

Why he might excel: He’s an NFL-level talent with unique physical gifts. Grissom finally began to show his ability to be a dominant player in the final stretch of the 2013 season, particularly the Allstate Sugar Bowl victory over Alabama. His junior season was easily his most productive with 40 tackles, including nine tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks, two fumble recoveries and an interception. The Sooners clearly view him as a critical piece in the defense and he could be a guy who helps Eric Striker and Charles Tapper create havoc for opponents.

Why he might struggle: Grissom’s exceptional athleticism has been an anchor during his career in some ways. Recruited as a defensive end, Grissom moved to tight end at one point during his career and he even practiced at linebacker during the spring. The constant moving might be one reason for inconsistency in his play. If he consistently plays his best football, he can be an All-Big 12 performer and rise up NFL draft boards. If he doesn't maintain his Cotton Bowl production, Oklahoma's defense would take a step backward.

Linebacker Kenny Williams, Texas Tech

Why he might excel: He’s a terrific team player and is very versatile. He’s proved he can be a quality Big 12 running back and appears poised to start at linebacker during his final season at Texas Tech. Williams has a unique ability to play several roles and make an impact. If he can excel at linebacker, it gives the Red Raiders a little more piece of mind about a defense that will have to improve greatly for Tech to make a Big 12 title run.

Why he might struggle: He’s listed as a starter at a position he hasn’t called home during his time as a Red Raider. He enters the season as Tech’s most productive returning running back, but his move to linebacker is the best move for the team. It could take him a while to adjust and become productive.
There can be various signs of success in the Big 12.

Last week we took a look at potential stats from various offensive players in the conference that could be a sign of success for their respective teams. This week, we look at a stat from one defensive player per school that could be a sign of success this fall.

Here's a look at one stat from a defensive player on each Big 12 team that could be a sign of success for their teams.

Baylor defensive end Shawn Oakman's total sacks: The Penn State transfer has freakish ability. At 6-foot-9, 275 pounds, Oakman moves like someone half his size and was ultra-productive as a sophomore, compiling 12.5 tackles for loss in 13 games. But he only managed two sacks as a sophomore, although he was deployed in a backup role for most of the season. If Oakman can approach double-digit sacks with increased playing time as a junior, he could help Baylor’s young secondary overcome the mistakes they are certain to make as they gain experience.

Tackles recorded by Iowa State defensive tackle Brandon Jensen: The Cyclones have a potential hole in the middle of their defense with attrition since the end of the season destroying ISU’s depth. Jensen, who quit football after the 2013 season, returned to the team shortly after spring football. His return was much needed and if he’s able to match his production while starting all 12 games a year ago, it will give Paul Rhoads a foundation for his defense that he didn’t have during spring football. If he can raise his tackle total from 18 in 2013 to around 30 in 2014, it could be a sign he’s become a disruptive force in the middle of ISU’s defense.

Kansas linebacker/defensive end Ben Goodman's tackles for loss: The junior is a versatile talent who has moved closer to the line of scrimmage to make more of an impact with his ability to be disruptive and get into the backfield. He finished with 7.5 tackles for loss and three sacks in 2013. If he can at least double those numbers, his disruptive nature could combine with a talented secondary to make the Jayhawks defense better than expected this fall.

Kansas State linebacker Mike Moore's total tackles: The junior looks like he could be poised for a breakthrough season with the Wildcats. He’s an active and energetic linebacker who could pair with Jonathan Truman to give KSU one of the conference’s most productive linebacking duos. Moore only had seven tackles in 2013 but finished strong with two tackles, a sack and a forced fumble against Michigan in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl. If he can match or exceed Blake Slaughter's 110 tackles in 2013 it will be a good sign that the Wildcats’ defense won’t have a major drop off in 2014.

Oklahoma defensive tackle Jordan Phillips total tackles: If the junior exceeds his tackle total from 2013, that’s a great sign for OU’s defense. Phillips played in just four games as a sophomore, recording seven tackles before a back injury forced him to miss the rest of the season. Anything higher than seven tackles likely means Phillips has returned to the lineup and is healthy and productive. If he does return, he has the potential to take OU’s defense to another level.

Oklahoma State cornerback Ashton Lampkin's pass breakups: The likely replacement for Justin Gilbert will be tested early and often in 2014. If Lampkin responds to the challenge and ends up with double-digit pass breakups, it means he has made a seamless move into the starting lineup. That would be terrific news for the Cowboys because if he can join Kevin Peterson to help lock down the perimeter, OSU won’t have to count on its young and inexperienced safeties to make as many plays in the passing game.

Sack total from TCU defensive end Devonte Fields: If Fields returns to his 2012 form, he’s a game-changing talent. He managed three tackles, including two tackles for loss, before a foot injury ended his 2013 season. In 2012, Fields had 10 sacks and 18.5 tackles for loss. If he’s healthy and focused, Fields has the ability to put up career-high numbers in sacks and tackles for loss in 2014. If he does, he can transform TCU’s defense and take the unit to another level.

Texas linebacker Jordan Hicks' total tackles: The senior had 40 tackles in four games last season, so the Longhorns would love to see a full, healthy season from Hicks. If he surpasses 40 tackles in 2014, it’s a great sign for Charlie Strong’s defense. The 2011 season was the last time Hicks played in double-digit games, but he's in impact player when healthy. But he’s spent as much time on the sidelines as he has making plays during the past two seasons.

Texas Tech defensive end Branden Jackson's sack total: The Red Raiders will really need to lean on Jackson, who finished the 2013 season with 44 tackles, including nine tackles for loss, and four sacks. He’s a proven commodity along Tech’s defensive front so it will be critical for him to, at the very least, match those numbers this fall. If he struggles to be productive, the Red Raiders defensive line could be the weak link of the defense and hamper the team as a whole.

Tackles for loss by West Virginia defensive end Shaquille Riddick: The Gardner-Webb transfer has the talent to make a major impact. While it would be great for the Mountaineers if Riddick can register between 5-10 sacks, he could be a difference maker if he can record 15-20 tackles for loss. If he is consistently disruptive and getting into opponents' backfields, the Mountaineers’ talented secondary could take advantage of any mistakes by the quarterback with key turnovers. If Riddick is a matchup nightmare, he will change the future of WVU’s defense.
With spring ball done, we’re re-examining and re-ranking the positional situations of every Big 12 team, continuing Tuesday with linebackers. These outlooks will look different in August. But here’s how we see them post-spring:

1. Oklahoma (pre-spring ranking: 1): While the future of inside linebacker Frank Shannon remains unclear, the Sooners have a tailor-made replacement in Jordan Evans ready to go. Shannon was OU’s leading tackler a year ago, but Evans was the defensive MVP of the spring game in his place. Blitzing outside linebacker Eric Striker had a huge spring coming off his three-sack performance in the Allstate Sugar Bowl. And the Sooners had another blitzing linebacker in juco transfer Devante Bond emerge in March, which could give them flexibility to move Striker around. Dominique Alexander, the reigning Big 12 Defensive Freshman of the Year, solidifies OU’s perch atop this positional ranking, even with Shannon’s future in limbo.

2. Texas (2): Steve Edmond sparked controversy with his Baylor comments, but he also impressed coach Charlie Strong this spring with his knack for making tackles. Edmond and Dalton Santos team up to give the Longhorns a reliable combination on the inside. Athletic sophomore Timothy Cole took advantage of his opportunities with the first-team defense during the spring but should fall back into a spot role once Jordan Hicks returns this summer from a second consecutive season-ending injury. This will be a good group of linebackers, but Hicks playing up to his five-star potential is what could make it great.

3. West Virginia (3): After struggling at the “Spur” linebacker spot in 2013, Isaiah Bruce moved back inside this spring, where he starred as a freshman All-American two years ago. Bruce said he didn’t feel as comfortable playing outside and that showed, as he didn’t record a sack last season despite playing off the edge. Taking over in the Spur is converted safety K.J. Dillon, who was as impressive as any West Virginia defender this spring. With the ability to drop back in coverage, attack the run and rush the quarterback, Dillon seems to be a much better fit at the Spur. If he continues to progress at his new spot and Bruce gets back to his old self playing alongside tackling machine Nick Kwiatkoski inside, the Mountaineers will be stout at the second level.

4. Kansas (5): If the Jayhawks finally climb out of the Big 12 cellar for the first time in six years, it will be on the back of Ben Heeney and a Kansas defense that returns nine starters. One of those nine returners is Heeney’s linebacker wingman, Jake Love, who delivered a strong spring game with a scrimmage-high 10 tackles. The Jayhawks have several weaknesses, but the tackling of their linebackers is not one of them.

5. TCU (6): They get overshadowed by the units in front of and behind them, but linebackers Paul Dawson and Marcus Mallet simply fulfill what’s asked of them. The Horned Frogs were surprisingly solid at linebacker last year. They should be even better in 2014.

6. Texas Tech (7): The Red Raiders received a huge boost in the spring from Kenny Williams, who made a seamless -- and voluntary -- position switch from running back to the “Raider” linebacker position. With honorable mention All-Big 12 pick Pete Robertson on the other outside spot and veterans Sam Eguavoen and Micah Awe and Utah transfer V.J. Fehoko manning the middle, the Red Raiders have a solid foundation. Ex-Ohio State linebacker Mike Mitchell, who attended Tech’s spring game, could give the unit another boost in the summer. He was an ESPN 300 recruit last year and could be eligible immediately at his next school.

7. Kansas State (8): Coach Bill Snyder seemed to be reasonably pleased with returners Jonathan Truman and Will Davis, who have locked up two of the linebacker spots. If D'Vonta Derricott, who was in the ESPN Junior College 50 and had offers from Miami, Wisconsin, Arizona State and a host of Big 12 programs, can make an impact at the third linebacker spot, the Wildcats could quickly solidify their biggest question spot defensively.

8. Baylor (4): Middle linebacker Bryce Hager will be fine once he finally recovers from a groin injury. That means Aiavion Edwards, who exited spring as the starter on the weak side, will be the key as the Bears attempt to overcome the graduation of All-Big 12 performer Eddie Lackey. Baylor, though, still has big expectations for juco transfer Grant Campbell, even though he finished spring as a backup on the depth chart. After a shaky first few practices, Campbell began to come on late in spring drills.

9. Oklahoma State (9): The Cowboys picked up a valuable transfer during the spring in former Michigan safety Josh Furman, who will be eligible immediately after getting his degree. Furman isn’t a star, but he has plenty of experience and could be a real asset teamed with juco transfer D'Nerius Antoine at Oklahoma State’s “Star” linebacker spot. On the weak side, fellow juco transfer Devante Averette really shined before suffering some mild injuries at the end of spring ball. The Cowboys will be even better there if 2012 four-star signee Seth Jacobs emerges.

10. Iowa State (10): The Cyclones remain in transition mode at linebacker while working to replace the production of departed All-Big 12 performer Jeremiah George. Redshirt freshman and former QB Alton Meeks was one of the defensive surprises of the spring; he currently sits atop the depth chart at middle linebacker. The other big defensive surprise was walk-on senior Drake Ferch, who beat out returning starter Jared Brackens on the strong side. Jevohn Miller is the third starting linebacker, but he figures to be a placeholder on the weak side until Luke Knott returns from last year’s season-ending hip injury.

Depth chart analysis: Texas

May, 1, 2014
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Over the next two weeks, we’ll be analyzing the depth charts of every Big 12 team coming out of the spring, continuing Thursday with Texas. New coach Charlie Strong has yet to release an official depth chart, so this is only a projection:

OFFENSE (projected starter in bold)

QB: David Ash (Jr.), Tyrone Swoopes (So.)

David Ash
Max Olson/ESPNDavid Ash (left) and Tyrone Swoopes did little to answer Texas' QB questions this spring.
Texas had reason for optimism entering the spring when Ash returned with two years of eligibility and no signs of post-concussion issues. The foot fracture he suffered in April will sideline him for several months, and Strong hopes to have him back sometime in July. Swoopes showed flashes in the spring game. This group will look a lot better in June when Jerrod Heard enrolls, and Texas is still waiting on a decision from ex-USC QB Max Wittek.

RB: Malcolm Brown (Sr.), Johnathan Gray (Jr.), Joe Bergeron (Sr.), Jalen Overstreet (So.)

This group could end up being one of the Big 12’s best this fall, but there’s still work to be done this summer. Gray is still recovering from a torn Achilles but should be cleared in time for the season opener. When he’s back, he could be one of the conference’s most versatile rushers. Bergeron was held out of the end of spring practice to work on academics but is expected to rejoin the team this summer. Brown is in the best shape of his career and will be the workhorse as a senior. Overstreet thrived on outside runs in the spring game and could become a factor in the fall. Texas adds three freshmen to the mix this summer.

WR: Jaxon Shipley (Sr.), Daje Johnson (Jr.)

WR: Marcus Johnson (Jr.), Jacorey Warrick (RFr.), Jake Oliver (RFr.)

WR: Kendall Sanders (Jr.), Montrel Meander (RFr.), John Harris (Sr.)

TE: Geoff Swaim (Sr.), M.J. McFarland (Jr.), Blake Whiteley (So.)

The trio of Shipley, Marcus Johnson and Sanders received strong praise from Texas coaches this spring. Marcus Johnson and Sanders are both big-play threats and Shipley will be a four-year starter who’s one of the league’s best possession receivers. After disciplinary issues in his first two years, Daje Johnson is doing everything asked of him and will get the ball in a variety of ways. The depth behind them is young, with three second-year wideouts and five incoming freshmen fighting for playing time. Texas might not have a game-changing tight end, but Swaim had a great spring, McFarland reemerged as a pass-catching threat and Greg Daniels, who missed the spring, can set the edge as a blocker.

LT: Desmond Harrison (Sr.), Darius James (RFr.)

LG: Sedrick Flowers (Jr.), Alex Anderson (Fr.)

C: Dominic Espinosa (Sr.), Jake Raulerson (RFr.)

RG: Taylor Doyle (Jr.), Rami Hammad (RFr.)

RT: Kennedy Estelle (Jr.), Kent Perkins (So.)

After having one of the nation’s most experienced lines in 2013, Texas could roll with two seniors and three juniors this fall. There still could be lots of changes to this lineup, but Espinosa is a lock to start and the left side of the line is fairly established too. The 6-foot-8 Harrison disappointed last year but showed his potential this spring. Doyle was the surprise of the spring after playing in only two career games, but he still has to hold off Hammad, who has big potential. Curtis Riser could also be in the mix at guard, and Perkins -- who missed the end of spring ball with a knee injury -- is good enough to play anywhere on the line after working at guard this spring.

[+] EnlargeShiro Davis
John Albright/Icon SMIShiro Davis looks to have found a spot on Texas' starting defensive line.
DEFENSE

DE: Cedric Reed (Sr.), Caleb Bluiett (So.)

DT: Malcom Brown (Jr.), Alex Norman (So.)

DT: Desmond Jackson (Sr.), Hassan Ridgeway (So.)

DE: Shiro Davis (Jr.), Bryce Cottrell (So.)

Baylor has the Big 12’s best defensive line, but Texas’ starting four could challenge for that crown this fall. Reed and Brown are two of the Longhorns’ best players. Davis emerged to take over for Jackson Jeffcoat. The depth behind them is young and inexperienced, especially at defensive tackle, but Bluiett and Ridgeway should play prominent roles. Don’t be surprised if true freshmen Poona Ford and Derick Roberson enter the rotation right away, and Ford will need to fortify the depth up the middle.

OLB: Jordan Hicks (Sr.), Timothy Cole (So.), Demarco Cobbs (Sr.)

MLB: Steve Edmond (Sr.), Dalton Santos (Jr.)

OLB: Peter Jinkens (Jr.), Naashon Hughes (RFr.)

With nearly all of Texas’ veteran linebackers dealing with injuries this spring, there’s still plenty of uncertainty about this group. Edmond made a big impression on the new staff and his teammates and should hold down the middle with help from Santos. Hicks is expected to be healthy in June and is hungry to make up for two lost seasons. Cole made the most of his opportunities this spring and worked with the first team defense, while Cobbs was a spring game revelation after missing the entire 2013 season with knee issues. Jinkens and Hughes showed they can be dangerous as pass rushers off the edge. Kendall Thompson and Tevin Jackson will provide depth when they get healthy.

CB: Quandre Diggs (Sr.), Bryson Echols (So.)

CB: Duke Thomas (Jr.), Sheroid Evans (Sr.), Antwuan Davis (RFr.)

S: Mykkele Thompson (Sr.), Adrian Colbert (So.)

S: Josh Turner (Sr.), Chevoski Collins (RFr.)

Seems like these starting jobs are fairly locked in coming out of spring ball. Diggs and Thomas are clearly the best option at cornerback. Behind them, the trio of Evans, Davis and Echols has big potential. Evans is coming back from a torn ACL and missed the spring, giving the two younger DBs an opportunity to get a lot of second-team reps. There’s confidence in the play of Thompson and Turner so far, though they’ve had up-and-down careers thus far. Colbert and Collins are very young but will get their chances this fall. Texas brings in four freshmen this summer and several could make an early impact.

Top-10 player spring update: Texas

March, 27, 2014
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During the next two weeks, we’ll be breaking down the 10 best players at the moment on every team in the Big 12.

These lists won’t include junior college or freshman signees who haven’t arrived on campus yet. Rather, they will include only the players on their teams this spring. Some of these rankings might look different after the spring, but this is how we see them now.

On Thursday, we continue with the Texas Longhorns.

[+] EnlargeCedric Reed
John Albright/Icon SMIAfter a huge 2013 season, Cedric Reed will be the focus of the Longhorns' defense this fall.
1. Defensive end Cedric Reed: This is the guy Charlie Strong will build his defense around, a 6-foot-6, 258-pound senior who took his game to another level in 2013. During his monstrous junior campaign -- 79 tackles, 10 sacks, 19 tackles for loss and five forced fumbles -- Reed often played just as well as Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year Jackson Jeffcoat, and sometimes better. Reed elected to return for his final season to not only earn his degree, but also to make a run at all the awards Jeffcoat collected and get Texas back to its winning ways.

2. Defensive tackle Malcom Brown: Brown has looked like a future NFL player from the day he first stepped foot on campus, and he started playing like it in 2013. In his first season as a starter, Brown racked up 68 tackles, 12 tackles for loss, two sacks and five pass breakups. He'll be a menace for opposing Big 12 linemen, and the former top-15 recruit has a chance to get even better under new defensive line coach Chris Rumph.

3. Running back Malcolm Brown: Texas is going to run the ball plenty under new coordinators Joe Wickline and Shawn Watson, and Brown enters his senior season with a chance to become one of the Big 12's premier backs. He finished sixth in the league in total rushing and surpassed 125 yards in each of his final three games. Brown is in even better shape today physically and has a chance to do big things in 2014.

4. Defensive back Quandre Diggs: Entering his fourth season as a starter, Diggs has the potential to make a huge impact in the new defense that Strong and DC Vance Bedford construct. He led the Longhorns with 10 pass breakups from his nickel spot and added 2.5 sacks, but no interceptions, in 2013. Whether he ends up at corner, safety or back in the nickel, Diggs is hungry and out to prove he's one of the nation's best at his position.

5. Running back Johnathan Gray: The big question mark is, when will Gray get back on the field? He's still recovering from a torn Achilles suffered last November and is hoping to be full strength by the start of fall camp. Even if Gray misses a nonconference game or two, Texas will have big plans for him upon his return. He's one of the conference's most dynamic backs and a critical cog in the Longhorns offense. Don't be surprised if Gray, a freaky athlete, is back in pads earlier than expected.

6. Wide receiver Jaxon Shipley: Shipley is probably underrated at this point, even if his 2013 season wasn't too sparkling from a statistical standpoint (team-high 56 catches, 589 yards, 1 TD). But no matter who's starting at quarterback this season, Shipley is going to be the go-to guy. He's been a starter since he first arrived in Austin, and Texas' new offensive attack will find ways to get him in space.

7. Quarterback David Ash: Should Ash be higher on this list? When he's fully healthy, yes, he's one of this program's most important pieces. The junior is back on the field this spring but won't take any contact. His early efforts have been encouraging, but he still has some rust to shake off, and Strong has been somewhat noncommittal when it comes to calling Ash his starter. If USC transfer Max Wittek joins the program this summer, Ash will have to fight to hold down the job. But when he was healthy in 2012, Ash was a top-25 passer in several key metrics and still has a bright future if he can avoid another concussion.

8. Linebacker Steve Edmond: We finally saw Edmond take a big step forward in 2013, with 73 tackles and two interceptions, but his junior season ended early because of a ruptured spleen. In this multiple defense, it will be interesting to see if Strong and Bedford experiment with playing Edmond down at defensive end or in some hybrid roles. Dalton Santos will push Edmond, too, but expect the senior to play a major role in Texas' new-look defense.

9. Linebacker Jordan Hicks: It's hard to justify ranking Hicks any higher after he's missed 19 games in his past two seasons. He is not competing in spring practice right now while he completes his recovery from a torn Achilles, but once he's ready to go, Hicks should be one of Texas' best linebackers and one of its leaders on defense. He only has one season left to play up to his five-star potential, but staying on the field is more important.

10.Wide receiver Kendall Sanders: Several other Longhorns could take this spot on the list and have more playing experience, but Sanders is definitely worth keeping an eye on this fall. A smooth, speedy athlete capable of game-changing plays, Sanders has one year of game experience under his belt and a chance to take over as Texas' top deep threat.

On the spot: Texas LB Jordan Hicks

March, 21, 2014
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This week, we're featuring five Big 12 players on the spot this spring. Maybe they're coming back from injury. Maybe they have much to prove after a disappointing 2013 season. Maybe they're embroiled in a key position battle. Whatever the case, this spring is big for them. Today’s player on the spot: Texas linebacker Jordan Hicks.

[+] EnlargeHicks
Cooper Neill/Getty ImagesJordan Hicks is hoping for an injury-free season for a change.
After what he has been through these past two years, Hicks should have a simple goal for 2014: 13 games. He just wants to play.

The Texas linebacker won’t get much opportunity for that this spring, but that should only add to the urgency. He’s been standing on the sidelines for far too long.

There have been flashes, a few moments, when we’ve seen just how good Hicks can be. When he’s playing up to his considerable potential, he looks like an All-Big 12 caliber linebacker. Entering his junior year in 2012, former defensive coordinator Manny Diaz considered Hicks one of his de facto seniors, a veteran who brought leadership and big-play potential.

Ever since then, the former five-star recruit has had a rough time. Hicks’ 2012 season ended after three games, with a hip injury at Ole Miss that would lead to a medical redshirt. Texas badly missed his contributions after he went down.

But 2013 was supposed to be the do-over, another junior season to make up for the year missed. And it started well, with a team-high 41 tackles through four games. But it ended with a freak accident, a torn Achilles suffered while running in coverage against Kansas State. Another season ended too soon.

So now Hicks is a senior, entering his fifth year in the program, and much has changed. He’s playing for his third linebackers coach in less than 12 months, for a new head coach and defensive coordinator who plan to design a scheme around their personnel.

Hicks will be a part of the plan, but he’ll take in spring practice from the sidelines and try his best to master what Charlie Strong, Vance Bedford and Brian Jean-Mary ask of him.

During the 19 games he’s missed, Texas coaches have tried all sorts of lineups of linebackers, plugging in new starters until something fit or another injury hit. Because of that, Jean-Mary has lots of options when it comes to experienced linebackers, and a few young ones who could push to see the field.

There will be competition, and Hicks will have to earn his spot back this summer. The next few months will get challenging, and no doubt he’ll do whatever he can to shed the label of “injury-prone” and start making up for lost time.

If he can put it all together in his final year, this Texas defense will be one significant step closer to becoming one of the Big 12’s best. All that potential and promise Hicks has shown is about to turn into pressure.

Big 12 pre-spring breakdown: LBs

February, 25, 2014
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As we await the start of spring ball, we’re examining and ranking the positional situations of every team in the Big 12, continuing Tuesday with linebackers. Some of these outlooks will look different after the spring. But here’s how we see the linebacking corps going into the spring:

[+] EnlargeDominique Alexander
William Purnell/Icon SMIDominique Alexander was a star as a true freshman and leads a loaded Oklahoma linebacking corps.
1. Oklahoma: After a couple of lean years, the Sooners are loaded at linebacker again. Dominique Alexander was the Big 12 Defensive Freshman of the Year, Frank Shannon led the defense in tackles as a sophomore, and Eric Striker is budding into the most ferocious blitzing linebacker in the country (just ask Alabama). Jordan Evans played extensively as a true freshman, too. This is an athletic group that can cover, stop the run and get to the quarterback.

2. Texas: This will be as deep as any linebacking corps in the league, with starters Peter Jinkens, Dalton Santos and Steve Edmond all returning off a unit that improved dramatically after the rocky nonconference start. After allowing a school-record 550 yards rushing to BYU, Texas had the Big 12’s fourth-best rush defense in conference games. Whether this group can take another step up will depend on what happens with Jordan Hicks, who enters his fifth year in the program after suffering season-ending injuries in back-to-back years. Hicks was the No. 1 linebacker in the country coming out of high school and has played well when healthy.

3. West Virginia: This will be the strength of the defense, as Brandon Golson, Isaiah Bruce, Jared Barber and Nick Kwiatkoski all return with significant starting experience. Kwiatkoski was West Virginia’s leading tackler last season, and Bruce was a freshman All-American the season before. Wes Tonkery and Jewone Snow also have starting experience, and Shaq Petteway, who missed last season with a knee injury, was a key rotation player the previous year. This level of experience and production with give the new defensive regime of Tony Gibson and Tom Bradley a foundation to build around.

4. Baylor: Bryce Hager is one of the best returning linebackers in the league. He was a second-team all-conference pick two years ago and would have earned similar honors last season had he not missed the final three games of the regular season with a groin injury. Grant Campbell, a three-star juco signee, is already on campus and will vie for the vacancy of departing All-Big 12 linebacker Eddie Lackey. Kendall Ehrlich and Aiavion Edwards are the only other players at the position with any meaningful experience, but Raaquan Davis, a former four-star recruit who redshirted last season, could be a factor.

5. Kansas: Middle linebacker Ben Heeney was a second-team All-Big 12 selection after finishing fourth in the league in tackles per game. His wingman, Jake Love, got beat out by juco transfer Samson Faifili during the preseason but took over when Faifili suffered an injury and was solid. As long as Heeney remains healthy, the Jayhawks will be solid here.

6. TCU: Projected to be the Achilles’ heel of the TCU defense last season, Paul Dawson, Marcus Mallet and Jonathan Anderson actually gave the position stability. Dawson led the Horned Frogs with 91 tackles, Mallet was third with 70 and Anderson was fourth with 66. All three will be seniors in 2014 and should give the Horned Frogs a solid, reliable linebacking unit again.

7. Texas Tech: The Red Raiders and their 3-4 scheme graduate two very productive players in Will Smith and Terrance Bullitt. Smith was second in the Big 12 in tackles, and Bullitt led all Big 12 linebackers in pass breakups. Austin Stewart and Micah Awe go into the spring as the favorites to replace Bullitt and Smith, respectively. Two starters do return in Sam Eguavoen and Pete Robertson, who was honorable mention All-Big 12 thanks to his impact off the edge. Tech also has several intriguing young players, including Jacarthy Mack, Malik Jenkins and Kahlee Woods, who will all be second-year players.

8. Kansas State: The Wildcats lose two stalwarts to graduation in captains Blake Slaughter and Tre Walker. The only returner is former walk-on Jonathan Truman, who was second on the team in tackles from the weak side. The Wildcats will be hoping for big things from D'Vonta Derricott, an ESPN JC 50 signee who had offers from Miami and Wisconsin, among many others. Will Davis, who was Slaughter’s backup as a freshman last season, could thrive if he secures the starting role in the middle.

9. Oklahoma State: The Cowboys are somewhat decimated here with the graduations of all-conference veterans Shaun Lewis and Caleb Lavey. The only returning starter, Ryan Simmons, could move inside, which would open the door for hard-hitting jucos D'Nerius Antoine and Devante Averette to start on either side of him. Seth Jacobs, who was a four-star recruit two years ago, should jump into the rotation, and the Cowboys could get an instant boost from freshman Gyasi Akem, who was an ESPN 300 signee. The potential ascension of this group, though, hinges on what Antonie and Averette accomplish.

10. Iowa State: The Cyclones graduate their defensive cornerstone in Jeremiah George, who was a first-team all-conference performer after leading the Big 12 with 133 tackles. Replacing George won’t come easy. But there’s reason to believe that Luke Knott can become Iowa State’s next cornerstone at the position. The younger brother of Cyclone LB great Jake Knott, Luke Knott started five games as a freshman and quickly racked up 45 tackles before suffering a season-ending hip injury, which required surgery. If he makes a full recovery, Knott has the talent to become the next in a growing line of All-Big 12 Iowa State linebackers. Seniors Jevohn Miller and Jared Brackens, who combined for 19 starts last season, flank Knott with experience.
As we close in on national signing day, it’s an appropriate time to look back at how the top Big 12 recruits from four years ago performed.

2010 was a banner year for the Big 12 in recruiting, as the league collectively landed 23 from the ESPN 150.

A few, such as Jackson Jeffcoat, Ahmad Dixon and Shaun Lewis, became stars. Others washed out before their careers ever got off the ground.

[+] EnlargeSterling Shepard and Jackson Jeffcoat
Matthew Emmons/USA TODAY SportsFormer five-star prospect Jackson Jeffcoat finished his career as the best defensive end in the Big 12.
Below is a closer look at what happened to ESPN 150 players who signed with Big 12 schools:

No. 2: Jackson Jeffcoat, DE, Texas – Though he never reached a high level of team success, Jeffcoat had a great individual end to his career, earning Big 12 co-Defensive Player of the Year honors and leading the league with 13 sacks.

No. 4: Jordan Hicks, LB, Texas – Hicks has been good when he has played. Because of multiple injuries, that hasn’t been often. Hicks missed most of last season with a torn Achilles, just a year after also being knocked out with a hip flexor injury. After getting a medical redshirt from his 2012 season, Hicks has one more year of eligibility remaining.

No. 13: Mike Davis, WR, Texas – Davis finished in the Big 12’s top 10 in receiving the last two seasons, compiling 200 career catches and 18 touchdown receptions.

No. 14: Taylor Bible, DT, Texas – Bible never played a down at Texas, leaving after his redshirt freshman season because of issues with grades. Bible ended up at Carson-Newman.

No. 15: Ahmad Dixon, S, Baylor – Dixon had a tremendous tenure with his hometown school, earning All-Big 12 and All-American honors as a senior as Baylor captured its first Big 12 title in 2013.

No. 18: Demarco Cobbs, ATH, Texas – The Tulsa, Okla., native has appeared in 29 games on special teams and as a defensive reserve. He missed all of the 2013 season with a knee injury.

No. 20: Darius White, WR, Texas – After making just six catches his first two seasons, White transferred to Missouri. He caught just seven passes this season for the Tigers, but has another year of eligibility left.

No. 21: Tony Jefferson, S, Oklahoma – In his first season, Jefferson was the Big 12 co-Defensive Freshman of the year, and he was a three-year starter before leaving early to go pro.

No. 46: Ashton Dorsey, DT, Texas – After serving as a reserve throughout his career, Dorsey was projected to start this season, but he transferred out days before Texas’ season opener.

No. 48: Austin Haywood, TE, Oklahoma – After getting playing time as a third tight end early in his career, Haywood unexpectedly quit in the middle of the season, tried to earn his way back on the team, failed and ended up transferring to Central Arkansas. After getting suspended there, Haywood gave up football.

No. 62: Corey Nelson, LB, Oklahoma – Nelson shined early this season after finally getting a chance to be a full-time starter. That, however, was short-lived, as Nelson tore his pectoral muscle in an early October win over TCU and sat out the rest of his final season.

No. 65: Blake Bell, QB, Oklahoma – The “Belldozer” starred his first two seasons as a situational, short-yardage QB. But in the preseason, Bell was beaten out by Trevor Knight for the starting job. Bell, however, still had his moments this season because of injuries to Knight. He led OU to a win at Notre Dame, then quarterbacked OU’s game-winning touchdown drive at Oklahoma State.

No. 72: Reggie Wilson, DE, Texas – He appeared in 51 games as a defensive reserve. Wilson had 19 tackles and a sack as a senior.

No. 73: Chris Jones, WR, Texas – Jones transferred out after one year, and never played.

No. 75: Shaun Lewis, LB, Oklahoma State – Lewis made an immediate impact, earning Big 12 co-Defensive Freshman of the Year honors along with Tony Jefferson. Lewis was a four-year starter and a big piece in Oklahoma State’s defensive turnaround this season.

[+] EnlargeBrennan Clay
Jasen Vinlove/USA TODAY SportsFormer ESPN 150 recruit Brennan Clay was a solid, not spectacular, tailback for the Sooners.
No. 77: Quentin Hayes, S, Oklahoma – After serving a year-long suspension, Hayes returned to win a starting job this past season. He has another year left.

No. 86: Tevin Jackson, LB, Texas – Jackson has been a backup linebacker for the Longhorns and will be part of the team’s great depth there in 2014.

No. 103: Adrian White, CB, Texas – Played in 17 games, then joined the mass transfer exodus from this Texas class.

No. 109: Ivan McCartney, WR, West Virginia – McCartney never became a No. 1 receiver, though he did contribute on West Virginia’s explosive offenses in 2011-12. He only had 12 catches this past season as a senior, however.

No. 114: Aaron Benson, LB, Texas – The cousin of former Texas running back great Cedric Benson has only been a contributor on special teams.

No. 122: Carrington Byndom, S, Texas – One of the few players from this Texas class to pan out. Byndom made 39 career starts and was a second-team All-Big 12 selection this past season.

No. 129: Brennan Clay, RB, Oklahoma – Clay proved to be a reliable and steady force in the OU backfield. He finished his career with 1,913 rushing yards, including 957 in 2013.

No. 134: Adrian Philips, ATH, Texas – Phillips settled in the Texas secondary, collecting 28 career starts there. He was second on the team this past season with 82 tackles.

No. 141: Trey Hopkins, OG, Texas – Hopkins became a stalwart up front, making 42 career starts along the offensive line. He was a two-time, second-team All-Big 12 selection.

No. 142: Justin McCay, ATH, Oklahoma – McCay transferred to Kansas after two years in Norman. He had nine receptions and a touchdown, which also was the first scoring catch by a Kansas wide receiver in almost two full seasons.

Injury impact: Big 12

October, 24, 2013
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Injuries have played a major role in the Big 12 through the first half of the season and they’ll continue to impact the conference title race down the stretch. Baylor is the lone squad in the top half of the Big 12 that has escaped the injury bug relatively unscathed.

1. TCU: The Horned Frogs have watched quarterback Casey Pachall and defensive end Devonte Fields, arguably their top players on each side of the ball, go down. Pachall (forearm) could return soon but Fields (foot) is lost for the season. It’s easy to imagine the Horned Frogs offense, which has looked lost and has averaged just 97.4 yards in the first half in the past five games, as much improved with Pachall under center.

2. Texas: Another team that has lost a major contributor on both sides of the ball, the Longhorns hope to get quarterback David Ash (head) back at some point this season and have lost defensive leader Jordan Hicks (Achilles) for the season. Add in nicks and bruises to playmakers Daje Johnson and Mike Davis and success has been much harder to come by for Texas.

3. Oklahoma: The Sooners lost linebacker Corey Nelson (pectoral) and defensive tackle Jordan Phillips (back), two of their top defenders, in back-to-back weeks. Nelson's leadership is sorely missed and Phillips' strength in the middle is hard to replace. OU is still scrambling to replace the duo, which is a scary thought with Texas Tech and Baylor set to test the defense.

Injuries keep piling up for Longhorns

October, 7, 2013
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AUSTIN, Texas -- In a no-excuses kind of season for Texas football, one fairly legitimate one is starting to emerge.

These Longhorns are, quite frankly, banged up. David Ash is certainly not the only injured player whose absence has ailed Texas in its 3-2 start to the season.

The quarterback's lingering concussion symptoms will keep him sidelined against Oklahoma, and if he returns to the lineup for the team's next game at TCU on Oct. 26, he will have missed more than full month of starts. But he's just one name on a long list of Longhorns who have dealt with injuries since fall camp began.

[+] EnlargeDavid Ash
George Frey/Getty ImagesQuarterback David Ash is one of several Texas players who have missed considerable time to injury.
"Still got a lot of injuries we have to overcome," Texas coach Mack Brown said last month, as the team entered Big 12 play. "Seem to be mounting on us. Doesn't matter. Part of the game."

That long list includes top linebacker Jordan Hicks, whose season is over after he suffered a ruptured Achilles against Kansas State last month. Texas lost another defender for the season last Thursday at Iowa State, when cornerback Sheroid Evans' potential breakout season was cut short by a torn ACL.

Then there are two of the most important cogs in the Texas offense: Receiver Mike Davis and receiver/running back Daje Johnson. Both gave it a go at ISU despite ankle injuries. The one Johnson suffered had kept him sidelined for nearly three full games.

Let's run down the list of players who've dealt with injuries since August, a list that may well be missing a name or two:
That doesn't include players with lingering injuries coming into the season. Former starting linebacker Demarco Cobbs and freshmen Deoundrei Davis and Erik Huhn continue to recover from knee injuries suffered a year ago, for example.

The list likely grows much longer, too, once you include players, such as running back Malcolm Brown, who are banged up but continue to play. Many of the aforementioned players have not missed games despite their ailments. But this does give a better indication of just how many Longhorns have recovered from injuries in the past two months or are still dealing with them.

To Texas' credit, its coaching staff and trainers have been transparent throughout these struggles. The school typically releases an injury report on the evening before game days and before kickoff. Many college coaches stubbornly treat this kind of information as classified, but Brown doesn't avoid questions about who's injured or how long a player will be sidelined.

What he can't answer is why this keeps happening to Texas. This offseason, he tried to dig up some possible explanations and solutions. But Texas doesn't practice any differently than its peers. There's nothing controversial about how the Longhorns train and lift. Often times, it's simply a matter of bad luck.

"We had a little bit of an injury bug early in the season," Walters said last week. "Hopefully that doesn't continue. I really think it gives some young guys an opportunity to step up and earn some trust from the coaches."

The burden has fallen primarily on second-year players. Sophomore Kennedy Estelle has filled in for Cochran at right tackle. Three members of his class are trying to fill the void left by Hicks at linebacker. Sanders and Johnson have stepped up at receiver, and Evans going down could mean more even work for sophomore starting corner Duke Thomas.

Brown talked up the amount of quality depth Texas has in the preseason. Now that talk is being put to the test, and Texas won't stand a chance against Oklahoma unless several of the fill-ins make major contributions.

While Brown has acknowledged the "perfect storm" of adversity that's shaken up his depth chart, he's not wasting any time griping about it. He knows that one thing hasn't changed: This is still a no-excuses season for the Longhorns, no matter who's on the mend.

Iowa State a real trap game for Texas

October, 3, 2013
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AUSTIN, Texas -- This is a trap game. But in fairness, so are most Big 12 games this season.

Let’s lay out all the reasons why Iowa State can beat Texas on Thursday (6:30 p.m. CT, ESPN). It’s an exercise that’s easier than expected.

[+] EnlargeJosh Lenz, Christian Scott
AP Photo/Darren AbateIowa State is no stranger to upsetting Texas, as the Cyclones went into Austin and toppled the Longhorns in 2010.
Assume that Texas will roll the Cyclones with ease, as it has the past two years, if you please. Step back, though, and you’ll see this game has the elements you’d look for in a trap game.

Texas is playing without quarterback David Ash, who didn’t make the trip to Ames while he continues to recover from a concussion. Texas is 1-6 when Ash’s replacement, Case McCoy, attempts 16 or more passes.

Texas is coming off a bye week, and the high-pressure Oklahoma game is a week away. A close victory over Kansas State has this team confident it’s about to turn the corner, but losing two of their first three games means the Longhorns don’t have the luxury of expecting easy victories from any foe.

“I think after our second and third game, we’re not going to overlook anybody,” Texas coach Mack Brown said. “Our coaches aren’t going to allow that.”

Texas must also play without perhaps the most important cog of its defense, linebacker Jordan Hicks, after another season-ending injury. The defense never struggled more last season than in the first few games it played without him, and the Longhorns already had the seventh-worst run defense in the country statistically.

Iowa State, meanwhile, has a track record of winning these kinds of games. Paul Rhoads-led teams pull off one substantial upset every season like clockwork. Last year, it was a No. 15 TCU squad that would go on to beat Texas. ISU also notched a home win over Baylor, which ended the 2012 season as perhaps the Big 12’s best team.

In 2010, Rhoads bested Texas at home, which only furthered the Longhorns’ downward spiral toward 5-7. In 2011, No. 2 Oklahoma State came to Ames on a Friday night and went home stunned.

They’ve done this enough times to know that spending time talking about upsetting Texas won’t help much.

“Any kid in our program knows we’re capable of winning on any given Thursday, any given Saturday, any given et cetera,” Rhoads said. “They also know that a lot of hard work and preparation goes into that to lead to game-day execution.

“Those aren’t fairy-tale victories. Those aren’t games that are won just because it was time for a Cinderella team to do it. Those are games that are won because we played well and prepared well.”

And the Cyclones traditionally fare well in this setting. They’re 7-2 in Thursday and Friday games since 2008. ISU isn’t dealing with a short week this time, either, after playing another Thursday night game last week.

Add all that up and, well, Iowa State at least has a shot, right?

Brown and Rhoads both recognize that anything can happen in a year when the Big 12 is as wide open as ever. It’s a safe bet that each coach talked up the lessons learned from West Virginia’s upset win over Oklahoma State to his team.

That’s the Big 12 in 2013: Expect the unexpected. Doesn’t matter if Texas is 2-2, Rhoads and his players are respecting this opponent as if UT were 4-0.

“They’re probably hitting stride right now, and with 12 days of preparation, they’re a very scary outfit for us to prepare and play,” he said.

Texas senior lineman Trey Hopkins was on the 2010 team that lost to ISU. He’s helped defeat the Cyclones the past two seasons.

He fully recognizes that this season can be a different story, as it might be throughout the league. Hopkins has enough respect for what Iowa State does that he isn’t calling this a trap game.

“I think we all know that they’re a talented team,” he said. “They’ve come in here and played us tough every time. It’s a tough place to play and their fans are always in it and very loud and electric. Especially being a Thursday game, they’re going to be pumped. We really have to come prepared.”

Texas embracing next man up mentality

September, 23, 2013
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AUSTIN, Texas -- The best teams in college football aren’t the ones that got lucky and avoided injuries.

In 2012, Alabama lost five players to season-ending injuries by the end of September. Notre Dame lost two starters in its secondary for the year early on. Two of Oregon’s best senior starters went down before Week 3. It happens.

The best teams in college football are usually deep enough to replace any missing pieces. Mack Brown knows this. He’s preached the need for depth in each of the past two years, insisting the starting 22 listed on the depth chart don’t matter as much as having 22 more good men.

Now it’s time to walk the walk. By the end of Texas’ 31-21 win over Kansas State, six key starters were injured. Linebacker Jordan Hicks is done for the year with a torn Achilles. Running back Daje Johnson is out indefinitely and hasn’t played in two weeks. An ankle issue kept receiver Mike Davis out of the KSU game.

And then there’s quarterback David Ash, who earned the start and didn’t come back from the locker room at halftime. Concussion-related symptoms are the issue, but the details and severity are mostly unknown.

A case can be made that they’re four of the most important players on this 2013 team, the guys most capable of deciding whether Texas ends up winning 10 games or five.

Against Kansas State, the guys tasked with replacing those game-changers took care of business. In this must-win game, embracing a next man up mentality paid dividends.

Kendall Sanders and Marcus Johnson are a shining example of that. The sophomore receivers both earned starts and did plenty to make up for the absence of Davis.

Sanders did what David does best: He ran a deep post route and hauled in a bomb on a play-action pass from Ash for a 63-yard touchdown, the first of his career.

“I was really nervous, but I’ve been working my tail off so I was kind of calmed down,” Sanders said. “I just treated it like practice. I’ve been working my tail off for this long so might as well show everybody.”

Johnson added 70 yards on five catches, including two long receptions on third downs to help set up scores. Brown lauded him for playing like he’d been around a long time, when in fact he entered the night with one career reception.

Texas went with another sophomore, Kennedy Estelle, to replace right tackle Josh Cochran. Dalton Santos, whose injury status was questionable entering the game, recovered the tide-turning Jake Waters fumble in the fourth quarter as K-State was about to cut the deficit to 31-28.

He’s likely set to play a major role now that Hicks’ season is over. The guy Santos will help replace was a key cog, but his teammates know they have to move on and trust Texas’ depth.

“If he is [out], he is,” cornerback Carrington Byndom said. “We have to continue to go forward. We have to have people step up and fill that role.”

There was no better example of that mentality on Saturday than when Case McCoy took over for Ash. Longhorn players were surprised by the news that Ash was out, but they’ve been down that road before.

He played the role of reliever well and led two scoring drives. He didn’t need to do much – McCoy handed the ball off on three-fourths of his snaps – but he did just enough. More important, his teammates didn’t flinch. They were unfazed by the sudden change of plans.

“We play behind all our quarterbacks,” running back Johnathan Gray said. “When one is down and the other one comes in, we rally around whoever is in the game. That’s what we did tonight and it was a plus for us.

“I didn’t know David was out. It changed nothing. We kept what we were going to do for our offense. We stayed with it.”

As the injuries continue to pile up, that’s precisely the mentality Texas players plan to maintain. And that’s got to last more than one night, especially if Texas wants to get back to playing like one of the nation’s best.

Big 12 Power Rankings: Week 4

September, 23, 2013
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Texas moves back up in this week's Power Rankings, West Virginia moves back down and the top four remain steady:

1. Oklahoma State (3-0, 0-0 Big 12; last week: 1): When he was the coordinator in Stillwater, Dana Holgorsen recruited quarterback J.W. Walsh to Oklahoma State. This Saturday, Holgorsen's Mountaineers must deal with stopping Walsh, who’s been terrific since taking over the starting quarterback job in the opener. Walsh ranks sixth in the country in QBR and is a major reason why the Cowboys are three-touchdown favorites for their game in Morgantown.

2. Baylor (3-0, 0-0 Big 12; last week: 2): The Baylor-hasn’t-beaten-anybody argument only holds so much water. Who in the Big 12 has really beaten anybody? Oklahoma State over Mississippi State? Texas Tech over TCU? Oklahoma over West Virginia? The fact is, even against three doldrums, Baylor has been as impressive as any team in the league. This offense has a chance to be as prolific as the 2011 Oklahoma State Cowboys or the 2008 Oklahoma Sooners.

3. Oklahoma (3-0, 1-0 Big 12; last week: 3): After opening with three home victories, the Sooners will finally find out about their team during a road trip to South Bend, Ind., this weekend. They should find out a lot about quarterback Blake Bell, too -- he was marvelous after replacing Trevor Knight two weeks ago against Tulsa. But that was against Tulsa in Norman. This is Notre Dame in South Bend. If OU wins this game, people will begin to mention the under-the-radar Sooners as a possible dark horse national title contender.

4. Texas Tech (4-0, 1-0 Big 12; last week: 4): The Texas Tech defense continues to play well, but the offense was sluggish again in a 33-7 victory over Texas State. Kliff Kingsbury has to decide whether he’s going to stick with Baker Mayfield as his starting quarterback or go with Davis Webb, who has made plays the last two weeks in relief of Mayfield. Kingsbury might secretly and anxiously be waiting on the return of Michael Brewer, who’s been injured since the summer with a bad back but is close to rejoining the team on the practice field.

5. Texas (2-2, 1-0 Big 12; last week: 8): After winning their Big 12 opener 31-21 over Kansas State, the Longhorns still have plenty to play for. But they are also beaten up. Linebacker Jordan Hicks is out for the season again with a ruptured Achilles tendon, quarterback David Ash continues to deal with concussion issues and offensive playmaker Daje Johnson remains out with an ankle injury. The game with Oklahoma (Oct. 12) looms, too. A victory in Dallas is about the only thing that can save Mack Brown’s job and completely reverse momentum in Austin.

6. TCU (1-2, 0-1 Big 12; last week: 5): Gary Patterson was not pleased with his team during the off week. Patterson told reporters last week the Horned Frogs were “feeling sorry for themselves” after the 20-10 loss at Tech. “If we don’t grow up,” Patterson said, “we’re not going to win any more ballgames.” The Frogs had better grow up quickly if they want to avoid letting this season turn into a catastrophe. TCU faces road trips at Oklahoma and Oklahoma State in October.

7. Kansas State (2-2, 0-1 Big 12; last week: 7): Even though Texas had been a sieve stopping opposing quarterbacks on the ground, Bill Snyder elected to use Daniel Sams sparingly in Austin. Sams averaged 6 yards a carry but got only eight carries as Jake Waters again took the bulk of the snaps at quarterback. Even though wideout Tyler Lockett is having a monster season, the Wildcats with Waters behind center have been just average offensively, which is flirting with disaster in the Big 12. Especially when the defense is just average, too.

8. West Virginia (2-2, 0-1 Big 12; last week: 6): So much for the idea that the Mountaineers could just replace Geno Smith, Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey. West Virginia looked completely inept offensively in a 37-0 loss to Maryland, which is a good team, but not that good. The Mountaineers, who had one of the best passing attacks in the country last year, suddenly can’t pass. Quarterback Ford Childress threw for just 62 yards with two interceptions Saturday, not that Paul Millard fared any better in West Virginia’s first two games. Holgorsen said he’s sticking with Childress at quarterback, which is a sign the Mountaineers are building for the future. The present is not a pretty sight.

9. Kansas (2-1, 0-0 Big 12; last week: 9): With the bottom half of the Big 12 struggling so much, the Jayhawks have the opportunity to win a couple of games in the league. But Kansas has its own problems. An offense that was supposed to be improved actually has been worse so far this season. After scoring just a field goal over three quarters against Louisiana Tech, the Jayhawks had to scramble late to escape with a 13-10 win. Jake Heaps owns the worst Total QBR (32.2) in the league and the Kansas wide receivers so far have been a disappointment. There is some talent on Charlie Weis’ offense, especially in the backfield. But it has yet to manifest on the field.

10. Iowa State (0-2, 0-0 Big 12; last week: 10): The Cyclones have back-to-back Thursday night games on deck: at Tulsa and at home against Texas. If Iowa State can’t prevail in either, this will end up being the worst season of the Paul Rhoads era. The only way the Cyclones can avoid that fate is by conjuring something in the run game, which has been abysmal so far this season.

What losing Hicks means for Texas

September, 22, 2013
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AUSTIN, Texas -- The good vibes and positive momentum Texas got from a much-needed win on Saturday just took a big hit.

Texas beat Kansas State 31-21, but the cost of that victory was significant. Starting linebacker Jordan Hicks will have surgery to repair a ruptured left Achilles tendon and is done for the year.

[+] EnlargeJordan Hicks
Cooper Neill/Getty ImagesTexas linebacker Jordan Hicks has been productive when healthy.
Of all the starters Texas has sidelined with injuries right now, this was the guy the Longhorns could not lose, especially when you think back to the effect that losing Hicks in 2012 had on the defense.

Last year, Hicks went down with a hip injury that supposed to keep him out a few weeks. He missed the rest of the season, and Texas missed him badly.

That injury, suffered in the nonconference finale against Ole Miss, came before a four-game gantlet of Oklahoma State, West Virginia, Oklahoma and Baylor. The results for Texas’ defense were ugly.

In those first four games without Hicks, Texas gave up 197 points and 2,320 yards. The defense lost its confidence and couldn’t stop the run, allowing 266 yards per game on the ground. By the end of that stretch, Texas had a Big 12-leading 76 missed tackles.

This year could be a different story for a few reasons. The imminent schedule is a bit more favorable now -- 11 days off, then a road trip to play an 0-2 Iowa State team, then eight more days to prepare for Oklahoma.

Plus, losing Hicks last year meant former defensive coordinator Manny Diaz had to throw several linebackers into the lineup. A total of seven earned starts on the year, which means that group is now more experienced and better prepared for Hicks’ absence this time.

Now that Texas is getting into its Big 12 schedule, where it will face many more spread offenses, defensive coordinator Greg Robinson can get away with playing two linebackers in most games.

Some combination of Steve Edmond, Peter Jinkens and Dalton Santos would likely make the most sense right now, though Edmond can’t play in the first half of the Iowa State game due to a second-half targeting ejection against KSU. Texas likes the experience it has in veteran backups Tevin Jackson and Kendall Thompson.

Missing Hicks for 10 games last season means Texas will be ready for this scenario, but that doesn’t make it any less of a big loss. Hicks was one of the respected leaders of Texas’ defense and established himself as the team’s best linebacker.

He was playing some of the best ball of his career on Saturday, with seven tackles and 2.5 tackles for loss against the Wildcats. It appears Hicks could be eligible to apply for a medical redshirt and a sixth season of eligibility.

Texas played the run better against Kansas State, holding KSU to 115 yards on the ground, but it’s still one of this defense’s weaknesses and Big 12 foes will surely try to exploit it.

Another lapse in confidence and execution like the one the Longhorn defense had without Hicks a year ago would spell trouble. There’s not much margin for error right now with a team that’s already lost two games.

Simply put, Texas is better prepared to play without Hicks than it was a year ago. But that doesn’t mean this will be easy.

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