Big 12: Jordan Hicks

AUSTIN, Texas -- Did Iowa State get robbed against Texas a year ago? Jordan Hicks couldn't help but crack a sly grin after hearing the question.

"No," Texas' senior linebacker said. "No, we won that game."

You won't hear Paul Rhoads delving into that topic this week. It's a safe bet that Cyclones AD Jamie Pollard, already out $25,000 this season, isn't touching it either. They've already said plenty in the past, and a full 12 months have now passed.

But it's clear, based on Pollard's comments earlier this month, that there's still somewhat of a scar. Don't expect the Cyclones to forgive and forget when it comes to the controversial goal-line fumble in Ames last season.

"We've been on the short end of several controversial calls," Pollard said on Oct. 4, "and it's hard to sit idle and watch ESPN, Fox, other announcers not debate but feel sorry for Iowa State because maybe there will be another apology for a call."

The play on a Thursday night in Ames on Oct. 3, 2013, was high up on Pollard's list of grievances. Iowa State fans will tell you that Jeremiah George clearly stripped Johnathan Gray at the goal line before he went down, forcing a fumble that could've sealed the deal for Iowa State and its 30-24 lead in the final minute.

Gray will tell you his forward progress was halted, and he was down before the ball came out. That's the story the game officials were sticking to, and replay upheld the call due to a lack of indisputable evidence. Case McCoy stuck in the go-ahead score on the next play, and Jackson Jeffcoat clinched victory with a game-ending interception.

The Gray play rightfully evoked fire from Rhoads in his postgame comments. He expressed his outrage over having his potential game-winning play "taken away" when a fumble should've been "clear to everybody." Rhoads also took a not-too-veiled shot at game officials for the number of penalties (10 for 118 yards) his team received. He later received a public reprimand from the Big 12.

Another source of frustration that week: the cut block by former Texas receiver Mike Davis on ISU's Deon Broomfield also elicited a few days of controversy and, eventually, an apology delivered via one uncomfortable video.

So, yeah, the Cyclones have reason to want a little revenge on Saturday.

"I think they're going to come in here with a chip on their shoulder," Hicks said. "I know their coach is probably preaching that right now, that we shouldn't have won last year and this and that. Whatever it may be, we've got to be ready to match their intensity and exceed that."

Iowa State players have not taken the bait this week when it comes to that questionable call. They've moved on and recognize that the 31-30 game wasn't decided on just that one play.

"You can talk about that [controversial play]," Cyclones defensive end Cory Morrissey said, "but there were plays throughout the game we should have won the game with."

He's right about that. Had the Cyclones not settled for a field goal on their previous possession, after driving all the way down to the Texas 6-yard line, they could've led 34-24 and taken control of the game for good. But, again, that's the past now.

The stakes are much different this time around -- both teams are currently 2-4 -- but this much hasn't changed: Iowa State gave Texas a four-quarter fight in 2013 that UT didn't see coming. They can do so again this weekend.

"Those guys are going to come out and play their tails off. They have a phenomenal coach," Texas cornerback Quandre Diggs said. "I have a lot of respect for him because he gets the most out of those guys.

"They're going to try to upset us and try to beat us. It's going to be a fun game, because those guys are always coming to play us, and it's always been like that since I've been here."
AUSTIN, Texas -- Charlie Strong and Vance Bedford knew they’d have to rebuild a defense before Texas would be ready to win and win big. Six games in, construction is unquestionably ahead of schedule.

Signs of how dramatically this group’s production has been overhauled are all over the place. Even with two more losses, Texas’ defense through six games this season has exceeded the midseason production of its 2013 counterpart in every way.

[+] EnlargeCharlie Strong
AP Photo/Michael ThomasThe Longhorns' record may not reflect it -- yet -- but Texas coach Charlie Strong has dramatically improved the defense in his first season.
This year’s group has given up nearly 700 fewer yards and cut its yardage rate down a full 1.3 yards per play. The Longhorns rank No. 3 nationally in pass defense, No. 4 in yards per play, No. 2 in QBR defense and No. 3 in sack rate. And they’ve done it against a far tougher schedule.

Throw out two special-teams scores and two offensive turnovers for touchdowns and you get this: Texas’ defense is responsible for giving up 99 points in six games, a 16.5 points-per-game average that would rank top 10 nationally.

In the three greatest tests of his tenure, Strong’s defenders held the loaded offenses of UCLA, Baylor and Oklahoma to 20, 21 and 17 points. All three were losses. When the day comes that Strong can pair this D with a reliable offense and decent special-teams play, Texas could be poised to shake up the Big 12.

Still, ever since the 41-7 loss to BYU, a game in which a third-quarter implosion wiped out an otherwise fine day for this defense, they've been dominant. Yet that’s not how Strong and his defensive coordinator, Bedford, want to perceive things.

“If we had been dominating,” Bedford said last week, “right now we would be undefeated. We're not.”

A variety of factors have coalesced to make this group great. It’s a veteran-heavy unit. Texas has a midseason All-American in Malcom Brown setting the tone up front. Linebackers Jordan Hicks and Steve Edmond are playing the best football of their lives. The secondary hasn’t had many busts, despite relying on three first-time starters at safety.

But there’s plenty more to be said for how Strong and his staff have transformed Texas’ work on weekdays. It’s clear they value schematic versatility when it comes to coverage and defensive line fronts, and the blueprint can change on any given week depending on the opponent.

“You never know what to expect from our coaching staff,” defensive back Mykkele Thompson said.

What they expect from the players has changed dramatically. Hicks credits the staff’s insistence on an open-door policy in the coaches’ office. Players are stopping by now more than ever to talk ball and delve deeper into the game plan.

“They’re just so real about everything,” Hicks said. “We trust them. They know we trust them. They’ve built that along this entire process. They explain things in our terms, tell us the purpose and context behind why they’re doing things. It’s not surface level.”

When the staff’s plan against Baylor called for dialing up major pressure from Edmond, he was in the office every day, working to further master what was being asked. He responded with a career-best 19 tackles and two sacks against the Bears.

Cornerback Quandre Diggs has been wowed by the buy-in from players this season. It’s the concentration on weekday preparation that’s creating the success on Saturdays.

“We prepare at a totally different level than everybody is accustomed to around here,” Diggs said. “The way we prepare, it’s crazy how all guys are on board with it. We have tremendous respect for the staff. Those guys love us to death. We’ll be up here watching film on those iPads. When you go in there, they always have good tip sheets and a lot of stuff about tendencies. Those tendencies, they show up in the games and we take advantage.”

Meanwhile, back at Louisville, the defense Strong and Bedford constructed hasn’t slipped either. Their knack for talent evaluation and development continues to pay off: The Cardinals’ defense, now led by Todd Grantham, ranks No. 1 nationally in total defense, rushing defense and QBR defense and No. 2 in yards per play.

Rebuilding Texas’ defense on the same principles of preparation and information that made Louisville great is creating confidence that, when these crucial veterans -- Diggs, Edmond, Thompson, Cedric Reed, and possibly Brown and Hicks -- are gone next year, a younger defense won’t take much of a step back in 2015 and beyond.

“I think the young guys are going to see the example that we’ve set,” Hicks said. “This is the standard.”

ESPN.com midseason All-Big 12 team

October, 14, 2014
Oct 14
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We're halfway through the season, which means it's time for our midseason All-Big 12 team. There's plenty of football still to play. And this midseason team might be very different from the end-of-season one. But this list recognizes the players who have distinguished themselves thus far.

After careful consideration and friendly debate, our midseason All-Big 12 team:

Offense

QB: Clint Trickett, West Virginia: Baylor's Bryce Petty had the Big 12's best game last weekend, but Trickett has had the better season so far. He leads the Big 12 in QBR and completion percentage and is third nationally in passing, fueling the Mountaineers' surprising 4-2 start.

RB: Shock Linwood, Baylor: The Big 12's top rusher has 326 rushing yards over Baylor's last two games, including 104 in the fourth quarter of the Bears' monumental comeback win against TCU.

RB: Samaje Perine, Oklahoma: This true freshman is second in the league in rushing, first in rushing touchdowns and delivered an historic performance at West Virginia with 242 yards and four scores.

WR: Kevin White, West Virginia: White has been as dominant as any player in the league. He easily leads the country with an average of 148 yards receiving per game, and has come up with a hundred yards receiving in every game.

WR: Sterling Shepard, Oklahoma: It's hard to imagine where the Oklahoma passing game would be without Shepard. He has accounted for 48 percent of Trevor Knight's passing yards.

WR: K.D. Cannon, Baylor: The true freshman might already be the most dangerous big-play receiver in the league, averaging 62.5 yards per catch on his six touchdowns.

TE: E.J. Bibbs, Iowa State: The senior has been a big part of the Cyclones' offense with 22 receptions for 190 yards and four touchdowns, including a one-handed scoring grab at Oklahoma State.

OL: Spencer Drango, Baylor: The Bears' franchise left tackle is thriving again after a return from a season-ending back injury. He has graded out the highest on the offensive line of the nation's top scoring offense.

OL: Joey Hunt, TCU: Hunt is the best offensive lineman on the Big 12's most improved offense, which is second in the league in scoring with almost 46 points per game.

OL: B.J. Finney, Kansas State: Finney is well on his way to a third consecutive All-Big 12 season as the lynchpin of the K-State offensive line.

OL: Quinton Spain, West Virginia: He and Mark Glowinski form one of the top guard duos in the country for the league's second-best passing offense.

OL: Le'Raven Clark, Texas Tech: Arkansas coach Bret Bielema singled out Clark's prowess after facing him. Despite throwing the ball on almost every down, Tech leads the league in fewest sacks allowed with Clark protecting Davis Webb's blindside.

AP: Tyreek Hill, Oklahoma State: The speedy Hill has kick return touchdowns the past two weeks, and has proven to be tough and durable as well as really fast.

Defense

DE: Shawn Oakman, Baylor: The freaky 6-foot-9 end is second in the league with five sacks and fourth with eight tackles for loss.

DT: Chucky Hunter, TCU: Hunter has been the anchor of the TCU defensive line, joining Davion Pierson to give Gary Patterson's squad one disruptive duo up front.

DT: Malcom Brown, Texas: This 320-pound monster has been unblockable, and the most disruptive defensive player in the league.

DE: Emmanuel Ogbah, Oklahoma State: Ogbah has broken out with five sacks, including two on defending Heisman winner Jameis Winston in the opener. In addition to being tied for second in the Big 12 in sacks, he's also second with 9.5 tackles for loss.

LB: Eric Striker, Oklahoma: Striker has 4.5 sacks and 8.5 tackles for loss, and his relentless pass-rushing ability makes him the primary focus of opposing offensive coordinators.

LB: Jordan Hicks, Texas: The Longhorns' fifth-year senior is racking up 10 tackles per game, and is bringing leadership to the Texas defense after an injury-plagued career.

LB: Paul Dawson, TCU: The Big 12's leading tackler is on pace for the most single-season tackles in the Gary Patterson era. He also had the game-winning pick-six to upset the Sooners.

CB: Zack Sanchez, Oklahoma: Sanchez has given up some big plays, but he's countered with big plays of his own. He's second nationally with five interceptions, including a pick-six against Texas.

CB: Danzel McDaniel, Kansas State: McDaniel hits more like a linebacker than a cornerback. He's been another impressive junior-college find for Bill Snyder.

S: Sam Carter, TCU: Carter doesn't have eye-popping numbers, but he's once again been the heart of the TCU defense.

S: Karl Joseph, West Virginia: The enforcer of the West Virginia secondary is second among Big 12 defensive backs with 45 tackles.

Special teams

K: Josh Lambert, West Virginia: All he's done is nail two game-winning field goals as time has expired to beat Maryland (47 yards) and Texas Tech (55 yards) on the road.

P: Trevor Pardula, Kansas: He's gotten plenty of chances, but he's made the most of them, averaging 44.8 yards per punt, while putting 37.8 percent of them inside the opponents' 20.

PR: Tyler Lockett, Kansas State: Lockett, who is second in the nation in punt returns, once again has been an electric all-around playmaker. He's also sixth in the league in receiving.

KR: Alex Ross, Oklahoma: Ross leads the nation in kickoff returns, taking two of his nine kick returns to the house for touchdowns.
AUSTIN, Texas -- Charlie Strong has an honest tendency when it comes to his postgame interview. He walks right up to the lectern and instantly begins to speak. No hesitation or pretense.

[+] EnlargeTexas coach Charlie Strong
AP Photo/Eric GayCharlie Strong has to change the mentality of his players, and that's easier said than done.
 After a 28-7 loss to Baylor on Saturday, he got right to the core of the Longhorns’ greatest weakness.

“We just have to learn how to win,” Strong said. “We don’t know how to win yet.”

His comments encourage a difficult question: Why doesn’t Texas expect to win?

The seniors on this team signed with Texas to win championships. They came from winning high school programs, and they came because of the lofty expectations. They knew the standard is winning and winning big.

For a variety of reasons, Texas has not done that in the past five years. This senior class has already endured 17 losses since 2011. The few remaining fifth-year seniors, veterans who witnessed the debacle of the 2010 season, are one loss away from a .500 record (19-19) in Big 12 games. They've had no 10-win seasons, no big-time bowl games, no trophies of real importance.

“Of course none of us anticipated losing this much,” senior defensive back Mykkele Thompson said.

The leaders of Strong’s first Texas team were signed to fuel the rebuild program Mack Brown began in 2011. This group, raised under fire and turmoil, has been asked to dig deep over and over again.

They’ve yet to run out of optimism. Fifth-year linebacker Jordan Hicks repeated Monday what his teammates have been saying for years: “I know we have a good team. We have a really good team. We just have to put it together.” But three losses in Texas’ first five games have brought clarity about Strong’s undertaking: He was brought in to rebuild the rebuild.

Strong will continue to trim branches off this troubled tree, but at some point, he must wonder about its roots. How did these Longhorns forget how to win?

Strong and his coaches can attack that question from so many different angles.

There is the talent aspect. Texas isn’t winning like it used to because it hasn’t had a championship-level quarterback play in five years. Strong has a nationally elite defense and not much else at the moment. A roster with more than 50 former four- and five-star recruits still has depth needs in recruiting at nearly every position.

Then there’s the mental aspect. Strong’s much-hyped crusade on discipline is really only one brick in the wall that stands in Texas’ way to a return to dominance. Hicks has spotted a fundamental flaw on the field: Some players seem like they’re just waiting for something to go wrong.

“They wait for it,” Hicks said, “instead of going with the mindset of, ‘We’re going to completely demolish this team.’”

At some point during those 17 losses, you stop believing you’re going to destroy your foe. Resignation, even in its smallest doses, can come with those scars.

“You can get kind of numb to it, over time,” fifth-year senior receiver John Harris said. “I’m not saying you want to get used to losing. I’m not saying that we have got used to losing, because that’s definitely not where we’re going. But we want to change it.”

That’s not just confidence or “swagger.” That’s about work, too. After a loss to BYU, for example, Strong shouldn’t have had to urge players to spend more time in the film room. They should’ve been embarrassed enough to do so without being asked. Strong needs players with the day-by-day mentality, seeping into everything they do, that Texas demands excellence.

Senior cornerback Quandre Diggs speaks with sentimentality about players needing to have “that dog in ‘em.” He doesn’t see enough of them in his locker room.

 “I expect to go out and win,” Diggs said, “but I don’t think we’ve got all the guys expecting to go out and win. I know some guys are young, but that’s no excuse.”

Diggs’ dogma hits on a real concern, and his past frustration about Texas’ entitlement culture plays into it: Where’s the sense of pride? Where’d the deep hatred for losing?

“It upsets me. You’re out here playing a man’s game,” Diggs said. “If you’re a man, you’re going to go out and try to beat the other man. That’s really what it is. I have too much pride to let guys score touchdowns all over me. That’s totally out of my character. I want guys to have that mentality -- it’s one-on-one and this guy’s not going to beat me -- because that’s your livelihood.”

This is a problem Strong must diagnose and conquer. The head coach, at least publicly, focuses on the functional. When Texas loses, he looks for the tiny details and mistakes that were costly. It’s all about what we do to them, he’ll say, not what they do to us.

Attention to detail and a finer appreciation for consistency. Those are his building blocks, just like at Louisville, for regaining Texas’ winning culture.

This isn’t simply a roster-building job for Strong. The Longhorns were in need of a mental remodel. A win over No. 11 Oklahoma might be just what Texas needs to jump-start this process.

This is a long-haul issue for Strong’s success, but his veteran players want change now.

“I can’t accept that. I don’t think anybody on this team is used to or is OK with losing,” Hicks said. “We’ve got to bounce back. There’s got to be a turning point in our season. There has to be. We’re running out of time. What better opportunity than OU weekend? There’s no better opportunity than this weekend.”
AUSTIN, Texas -- If it were up to Texas linebacker Jordan Hicks, Oklahoma would still be undefeated and sitting comfortably in the Top 5 in the polls.

His reasoning? Simple: “So we could go out there and completely shock the world.”

Had the Sooners escaped this bracket-buster of a weekend unscathed, they’d probably be ranked No. 3. The fact they’re now 11th shouldn’t make much of a difference for Texas, though.

[+] EnlargeTyrone Swoopes
AP Photo/Eric GayA victory over Oklahoma would surely help with the growth of Texas sophomore QB Tyrone Swoopes.
A Texas win in the Cotton Bowl on Saturday in the latest Red River Showdown would be plenty shocking regardless of OU’s standing. These Longhorns, fresh off their third loss in the past four games, are in dire need of a season-changing victory.

“We can’t fall to 2-4,” cornerback Quandre Diggs said. “You’ve got to go out and give everything you’ve got this week. I don’t want to say it’s a make-or-break game, but at the same time you know there’s a lot of pressure going into this game.”

Texas coach Charlie Strong hasn’t hesitated to remind his players that, when it comes to a mid-season turnaround, they’ve done it before and they can do it again.

Not only did Texas’ 36-20 upset of the then-No. 12 Sooners in 2013 represent one of this rivalry’s most unpredictable results; the win helped propel Texas on a six-game win streak fueled by a potent us-against-the-world mentality.

Beating OU was the spark. Texas players hope to rediscover it this week. They almost found it in a close-call loss to UCLA and a closer-than-expected loss to Baylor.

“I think we have an amazing opportunity ahead of us with OU,” Hicks said. “They’re going to come out with a vengeance, ready to smack us in the mouth. We’ve got to come out with that same aggression, if not more, to be able to take the first hit or throw the first punch and make sure we’re coming out swinging and attacking them over and over for the whole game.”

He’s right about this: Texas was the far more physical team in the Cotton Bowl one year ago, pounding Oklahoma for 255 yards on the ground while its defense didn’t allow any OU running back to surpass 35 rushing yards.

That Texas team won in all three phases -- two 100-yard rushers, two Case McCoy TD passes, a pick-six by Chris Whaley, a punt return TD from Daje Johnson, a defense that allowed 13 points and won on 11 of its 13 third-down tests.

“It felt great. It felt like we were on top of the world that day,” receiver John Harris said. “That was probably one of the best feelings I’ve ever had, and I didn’t even play that much. I had more fun playing than I had in any other game.

“I’d love to have that feeling again. Hopefully we can relive that feeling.”

Harris says he wants it even more for Tyrone Swoopes, knowing a win over Oklahoma would provide the sophomore quarterback’s development and confidence with a major injection of momentum.

Swoopes says Strong’s address to the team on Sunday focused on just what you’d expect. Big game, big crowd, bigger opportunity.

“Probably, like the Baylor game, nobody is going to think we’re gonna be able to play with them,” Swoopes said. “But he knows what we can do and this week in practice he’ll push us and try to get it out of us so we can perform on Saturday.”

BYU upset was program-changer for Texas

September, 4, 2014
Sep 4
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Mack BrownAP Photo/Rick BowmerThe blowout loss to BYU racheted up the pressure on Mack Brown, who resigned after the season.
AUSTIN, Texas -- The dam broke just before 8 p.m. What ensued stunned Texas to its core and set in motion the downfall of a regime.

At that precise moment, one hour and six minutes in, Taysom Hill ran right up the middle. Five Texas defenders cleared a clean path with diving missing tackles and half-speed effort.

Hill's second touchdown dash, a 20-yarder, gave BYU a 17-14 lead. There was 7:48 left in the first half, but the game was almost over.

The Longhorns didn’t just go on to lose 40-21 that night. They’d lose their quarterback, their defensive coordinator, their next game and eventually their coaching staff. And if you ask Texas players today, they lost some dignity that fateful night in Provo, Utah.

“That’s probably the most embarrassed I’ve ever been,” cornerback Quandre Diggs said.

As receiver John Harris solemnly put it: “I think that was one of the all-time lows for us as a team in general.”

What will motivate Texas on Saturday night, when Hill and BYU visit Austin for a rematch, won’t be payback so much as pride. Charlie Strong’s staff didn’t hesitate this summer to remind players about the butt-whooping the then-No. 15 Longhorns received on Sept. 7, 2013.

“Oh man. That’s all we hear,” defensive end Cedric Reed said in July. “That’s all we hear is BYU. We’re ready to play BYU this year.”

Imagine how Strong, a defensive guru, must’ve felt the first time he popped in the game tape and watched Texas’ defense permit the school-record-torching 550 rushing yards, the 679 total yards on 99 plays, the 17 missed tackles, the 233 yards after contact.

Last month, Texas defensive tackle Desmond Jackson denounced the belief that Texas had a “soft” defense in 2013. This was the game that bolstered that reputation.

Hill’s first touchdown, a 68-yard run late in the first quarter in which three Texas defensive backs whiffed at stopping a quarterback with a knee brace, set the tone early.

“At that point, we knew we were going to win this football game,” Hill said Wednesday. “We were so geared-in and having fun. Everything just became pretty easy.”

By the time Hill crossed the 30-yard line, Mack Brown had already spiked his headset.

But Texas hung in there for the first hour. Then, finally, the fracture. A roughing the punter penalty gave BYU the ball back. Four plays later, Hill scrambled. Steve Edmond could’ve stopped him after 6 yards but dove and missed. Hill split right between Josh Turner and Mykkele Thompson. Carrington Byndom and Adrian Phillips slowed up as Hill neared the goal line.

“Give him a little space and he showed everybody what he’ll do with it,” Thompson said. “I have no idea how many times I’ve watched that film from last year.”

While BYU celebrated, Manny Diaz walked past Brown. The head coach shook his head.

Soon after, Brown pulled Diaz and secondary coach Duane Akina aside. Their conference lasted no longer than 20 seconds. The head coach enumerated his complaints. Akina threw up his hands and shouted. Diaz just nodded.

Maybe he knew, from there on out, his job was on the line. But BYU was just getting started: 404 total yards on 57 snaps came after Mack’s meeting.

David Ash
AP Photo/Rick BowmerThe Longhorns lost starting quarterback David Ash after he suffered a concussion.
Midway through the fourth quarter, more disaster. A helmet-to-helmet hit left David Ash squinting and down on one knee. The yearlong struggle initiated by that concussion has sidelined Ash again, perhaps for good.

The mood in the locker room afterward? Uncomfortable. The overwhelming sentiment, Harris said, was clear: Did we really just get beat this bad?

“The morning after, waking up that Sunday, you’re asking yourself, ‘Did that really just happen?” Thompson said.

At 3:30 p.m. that Sunday, Brown told the team they had a new defensive coordinator.

“We laid an egg and we lost a guy’s job. Plain and simple,” Diggs said this week. “We let those guys down. We let ourselves down.”

One year later, Texas defenders stand by a compelling belief: They liked the game plan.

“It was a good scheme,” linebacker Jordan Hicks said. “The big thing was missed assignments.”

Strong agreed. On BYU’s biggest gains, a Texas player freelanced, didn’t respect gaps or didn’t trust a teammate to do his own job.

“If we just eliminate those mental errors, then you have a chance to go stop them,” Strong said.

Those simple fixes made Greg Robinson successful in Diaz’s place, but the Ole Miss game was a lost cause. You can’t fly in a new coordinator from California, ask him to install his brand of defense and expect winning results in six days.

A 1-2 start raised the stakes for Brown to the point that only a Big 12 title might’ve sufficed to save his job. Now Texas has a new coach with new answers for stopping BYU.

When Hill, the No. 3 rusher among all FBS quarterbacks last year, thinks back on his breakthrough night, he says he was “in the zone.” He didn’t plan on running 17 times for 259 yards. But Texas’ ends kept crashing on the read options to stuff the back. So he kept taking his easy outside lanes. Hill knows not to expect such permissive defense Saturday.

“They’ll come out with a revenge attitude,” Hill said. “We’re prepared for that and prepared to come in and match their energy.”

New DC Vance Bedford watched last year’s game live on TV. As a former Texas defensive back, he was offended. But revenge isn’t what he seeks.

“If you need motivation to go out there and get fired up, you shouldn’t be here,” he said. “If you’ve got to get amped up because something happened in the past, something’s wrong with you.”

The burden of shutting down BYU got heavier when Texas lost Ash and three starting offensive linemen. A redemptive performance is now a must.

Last year’s BYU game was Texas’ first treacherous step toward reconstruction. This year’s game can be the first step toward a revival.

“It’s a new year, new day, new team, new coaches,” Diggs said. “We’re going to go out, have a new attitude and we’re going to have fun.”
AUSTIN, Texas -- Jordan Hicks had to pause last week when the question that has no perfect answer was broached.

“What’s been the highlight of your career?”

“Umm…”

[+] EnlargeHicks
Cooper Neill/Getty ImagesJordan Hicks hasn't been able to suit up much the last two seasons, as injuries have detoured his career path.
He’s started 15 games at Texas and played in 17 more. But he’s also been injured and sidelined for 19 of his team’s last 23 games.

“You know, it’s kind of hard to say,” Hicks said. “I think my best moment was that A&M game. I think everyone who experienced that game would say the same. But personally, it’s tough. I haven’t been out there in a long time. It’s hard.”

He’s referring to the win in 2011, but the senior linebacker is one of two Longhorns left who actually played against the Aggies twice. He jokes that he’s been around so long, he even played for Will Muschamp.

After the two years he just got through, after the crutches and boots and the many games spent on a couch or a sideline, Hicks is smiling again. The two-season detour that could've derailed his playing career is over, and he’s still standing.

Hicks came to Texas as a five-star gem from Ohio with immense promise. This is Year Five. Had his career gone according to plan, he’d be gone by now.

“It’s been very, very difficult. Very emotional,” Hicks said. “But I’ve learned a ton about myself and who I am, what I bring to the table. If I go back and think about those times, it makes this year that much more precious to me.”

He played as a true freshman on that Muschamp-coached defense in 2010 and showed flashes of potential. He played through hamstring issues for much of 2011 but capped the season with a Holiday Bowl performance against California (eight tackles, two TFLs, a sack and a pass breakup) that suggested his big break was next.

Three games into 2012, Hicks’ progress halted with one painful pop. Doctors were hopeful the groin and hip injury he suffered at Ole Miss would only keep him out a few weeks, maybe a month.

He didn’t play another snap, and worse, he watched Texas’ defense give up the most yards in school history without him. But he rallied back, received a medical redshirt for his time lost and saw 2013 as a chance for a do-over.

Then came chaos. The BYU game. The Manny Diaz firing. The 1-2 start. And, soon after, more heartbreak.

His season-ending injury in Texas’ Big 12 opener against Kansas State was as random and inexplicable as they come. While running to cover a K-State tight end, he felt another pop.

“I do it every day in practice,” Hicks said of the play that caused his torn Achilles. “I do it every day in a game. It just happens. It’s something you can’t control.”

When his mother, Kelly Justice, told him she was coming down from Cincinnati for the surgery that following week, Hicks said no thanks.

“He’s like, ‘I’m fine, mom, you don’t need to come down,’” she said. “And I said, ‘Are you kidding?’”

The physical pain wasn’t really what bothered Hicks. Sure, he hated the crutches and vows he’ll never touch them again. But it was the mental aspect -- the task of trying to understand why -- that got to him.

“I’d never had an injury before I got here,” Hicks said. “I don’t know what it is, don’t know what happened to me. Maybe one thing led to another. Honestly, I have no clue. Achilles is one of those deals where it just happens. What are you supposed to do about that? I did everything I could to stay healthy. The year before, my groin, I did everything I could.

"I think about it all the time. What else could you have done?”

He was in a boot for more than four months, a spectator for the wild ride that ended in Mack Brown’s ousting. He couldn’t affect anything he was witnessing. He could only heal and wait.

“There was a period when he was pretty down and frustrated,” Justice said. “Anybody in that situation gets kind of angry. It’s out of your control, nothing you can do. You have to accept it and get busy getting better.”

As unfathomable as Hicks’ injuries have been, so is the constant state of change around him. He’s now on his fourth defensive coordinator and his fourth linebackers coach at Texas.

“When we talked to Coach Brown and Coach Muschamp way back during the recruiting days, it seemed like they were a very stable kind of program,” Justice said.

That was 2009, when Texas was chasing a national title. How much has Hicks’ world changed since? Well, during his senior year at Lakota West High School, he took an official visit to Florida.

He came away surprised and impressed by their defensive coordinator, Charlie Strong.

“We both really liked him,” Justice said. “Jordan even said, ‘I’d like playing for him.’ They had an instant connection.”

Strong still sees plenty of potential in Hicks. He’s confident everyone else will if he can just stay on the field. Vance Bedford, the fourth defensive coordinator, says Hicks can be one of the Big 12’s best linebackers this fall. He’s playing like it so far in fall camp.

“You can tell that he’s hungry,” new linebackers coach Brian Jean-Mary said. “You can just tell by the way he carries himself and the way he’s practicing.”

Hicks shed 10 pounds to get to 235 and vows his speed and strength are back. He already got his first few hits out of the way in practice and sees no reason to play with any hesitation.

If he wants it, Hicks can push the NCAA for a sixth year of eligibility in 2015. But he’s already working towards his Master’s in advertising. Most of the guys he signed with in 2010 are gone. When he’s back in Cincinnati, he says some folks are surprised to learn he’s still playing. Mom is trying her best to not be nervous.

“He definitely has that passion again. He has a fire burning,” Justice said. “I honestly don’t know what the future holds. We’re just hoping and praying for a healthy season.”

Hicks is ready for another redo. This time, he just wants to go out with a few good memories. He still needs an answer for that career highlight.

“I understand the pressure I’m under,” he said. “I’ve got to go out and handle my business. I plan on doing that."
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.

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