Big 12: K.J. Morton

Season report card: Baylor

January, 6, 2014
Jan 6
Baylor had one of the best seasons in school history, winning 11 games for the first time, making its first BCS bowl and winning the Big 12 for the first time. Those accomplishments easily could have been forgotten with the Bears' horrible showing in their 52-42 loss to UCF in the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl, but this season will be remembered fondly in Waco, Texas.

Offense: A+

[+] EnlargePetty
Ronald Martinez/Getty ImagesBryce Petty led Baylor to a nation's-best 52.4 points per game.
Is there anything higher than an A-plus? What more could Bryce Petty & Co. do? The Bears averaged 52.4 points per game, 618.8 yards per game and 7.49 yards per play as their offense led the Big 12 in nearly every offensive category. During his first season as the starting quarterback for Baylor, Petty earned Big 12 offensive player of the year honors and was the driving force behind the Bears' title run.

The running backs were superb, with Lache Seastrunk, Shock Linwood and Glasco Martin each finishing with at least 500 rushing yards, helping Baylor lead the conference in rushing. The receivers were just as good, with Antwan Goodley and Tevin Reese ranking among the Big 12’s top receivers and Levi Norwood, Corey Coleman and Clay Fuller providing quality depth.

The foundation was the offensive line, led by Lombardi Award finalist Cyril Richardson. Their offensive front allowed Petty’s accuracy to draw praise, Seastrunk’s shiftiness to frustrate defenders and Reese’s deep speed to scare Big 12 secondaries.

Defense: A-

The defense was the biggest reason the Bears won their first Big 12 title. In recent history, the Baylor offense has been good consistently, always explosive. This season, the defense held up its end of the bargain, finishing among the top 10 nationally in yards per play at 4.75, ranking ninth among FBS teams.

Safety Ahmad Dixon was the emotional leader of the defense and set a tone for its aggressive approach with his physical presence in the secondary. Cornerback K.J. Morton was a playmaker on the outside and linebackers Eddie Lackey and Bryce Hager were versatile tackling machines in the middle of the field.

The defensive line did its part as well, leading the Big 12 with 99 tackles for loss and recording 31 sacks. Defensive ends Shawn Oakman and Chris McAllister were active throughout the season and defensive tackle Beau Blackshear was an underrated presence in the middle.

The lone reason the Bears don’t get an A-plus was their performance in Baylor’s two losses. They allowed 594 yards to Oklahoma State and 556 yards to UCF. As good as Baylor's defense was in 2013, it took a step backward on the big stage against the Cowboys and Knights.

Special teams: C

Baylor’s special teams weren’t special; they were average. The Bears finished ninth in the Big 12 in field goal percentage, seventh in kickoff returns and eighth in punt returns. Baylor did have two punt returns and one kickoff return for touchdowns this season, but its special teams units didn’t win games. But the Bears didn’t need their special teams do to anything but operate efficiently and allow their offense and defense to perform.

Overall: A+

The Bears will receive rings that say "Big 12 champions" on them. What more could you ask for from a team that opened the season picked to finish fifth in the conference?

Big 12 weekend rewind: Week 15

December, 9, 2013
Taking stock of Week 15 in the Big 12:

Team of the week: Baylor was unranked to begin the season and picked to finish fifth in the Big 12. Instead, with a convincing 30-10 victory over Texas, the Bears won 11 games for the first time in school history to capture the program’s first outright conference title in 33 years. Baylor will cap its magical season against Central Florida in the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl.

Disappointment of the week: Oklahoma State had a chance at a second Big 12 title and BCS bowl berth in three years. And all the Cowboys had to do was beat Oklahoma in Stillwater as 10-point favorites. Instead, despite shuffling through three quarterbacks and not scoring an offensive touchdown until 19 seconds left in the game, the Sooners knocked off their instate rival yet again. The Cowboys have lost 10 of 11 to Oklahoma, but given the circumstance and the ending, this one hurt worst of all.

[+] EnlargeJalen Saunders
Brett Deering/Getty ImagesJalen Saunders had another memorable day against Oklahoma State.
Big (offensive) man on campus: Jalen Saunders is to the Cowboys what kryptonite is to Kryptonians. A year after sparking Oklahoma’s Bedlam fourth-quarter comeback with a punt return touchdown, Saunders gashed Oklahoma State again, having a hand in Oklahoma’s first three touchdowns. He returned another punt for a score in the first quarter. He took a double reverse 37 yards to set up the fake field goal touchdown. Then, with 19 seconds remaining, he hauled in the game-winning touchdown from Blake Bell in the corner of the end zone from 7 yards out. Saunders will finish his two-year career in Norman with four Bedlam touchdowns.

Big (defensive) man on campus: Cornerback K.J. Morton returned from an abdominal strain to deliver the exclamation point to Baylor’s season. Morton picked off Texas quarterback Case McCoy twice, returning the second 57 yards in the fourth quarter for an apparent touchdown. The score was nullified on his celebration penalty. But by then, the party had already begun in Waco.

Special teams players of the week: The field goal tandem of Grant Bothun and Michael Hunnicutt converted Bob Stoops’ first successful fake field goal attempt in 11 years. After their drive stalled at the Oklahoma State 8-yard line, the Sooners lined up for a field goal. Instead, Bothun, the holder, took off running with the ball left and threw the ball to Hunnicutt, the kicker. Hunnicutt backed into the end zone before getting belted by two Cowboys, tying the score 17-17.

Play of the week: Cornerback Justin Gilbert appeared to have ended Bedlam with an Oklahoma State victory, as he came down with an apparent interception on a jump ball to Lacoltan Bester. But instead of landing on the turf, Gilbert landed on Bester, who tapped the ball out of Gilbert’s hands at the last moment. Officials ruled it an incompletion, and Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy inexplicably didn’t challenge the call. Five plays later, Bell hit Saunders for the game-winning score.

Stat of the week: As Oklahoma State’s head coach, Gundy’s record against Oklahoma is 1-8. Gundy’s record against the rest of the Big 12: 44-22

Quote of the week: “A defining moment for our program and one I think we'll be able to repeat many times." -- Baylor coach Art Briles, after the school’s first Big 12 championship

Big 12 helmet stickers: Week 15

December, 8, 2013
Recognizing the best of the best from the Big 12 in Week 15:

CB K.J. Morton, Baylor: After sitting out last week’s game against TCU with an abdominal strain, Morton came back big against Texas. He picked off Case McCoy twice, returning one for a touchdown that ended up being called back on a penalty. That fourth-quarter INT, on an errant screen pass, ended up finishing off Texas and securing the Bears’ Big 12 championship and Tostitos Fiesta Bowl bid. Morton also had two pass breakups and three tackles on the day.

K Michael Hunnicutt, Oklahoma: Hunnicutt was 2-for-2 on field goals and hit all three of his extra-point attempts. But his performance in this Bedlam game won’t be remembered for those makes. It’ll be for the 8-yard touchdown pass he caught from Grant Bothun on a third-quarter trick play that tied the game at 17-17 and helped swing momentum considerably.

QB Blake Bell, Oklahoma: What a comeback and a moment for Bell, whose junior season had highs and lows, but it closes with a remarkable high. With Trevor Knight knocked out of the game, Bell came off the bench as the third-string option and threw for 140 yards on 10-of-16 passing, capped by the 7-yard game-winning touchdown to Jalen Saunders. He ran a near-perfect two-minute drive to knock off a hated rival and perhaps send the Sooners to a BCS bowl. Doesn’t get much better than that.

RB Glasco Martin, Baylor: Bears WR Antwan Goodley put up big numbers too, as usual, but Martin’s contribution was critical in the second half. A Baylor run game that was limited to 62 yards on 19 rushes in the first half finally got rolling late, thanks to the bruising senior. Martin gained 102 yards on 22 carries and sealed the victory with an 18-yard touchdown.

K Ben Grogan, Oklahoma State: I know, I know, how can two kickers earn Helmet Stickers? What about Goodley, Desmond Roland, Jalen Saunders, Eddie Lackey or lots of other deserving candidates? Well let’s talk about Grogan, who achieved as ridiculous a feat on Saturday as we saw in the Big 12 this season: He nailed a 41-yard field goal in the middle of an earthquake. A 4.5-magnitude earthquake, in fact. Even with the loss, it’s an accomplishment he’ll get to talk about it for the rest of his life. And he’ll always have the shaky camera footage to prove it.

Big 12 unsung heroes: Week 11

November, 11, 2013
Here are the Big 12’s unsung heroes for Week 11:

[+] EnlargeK.J. Morton, Jordan Najvar
Tim Heitman/USA TODAY SportsK.J. Morton and Baylor's defense made it a difficult night for Oklahoma's offense last Thursday.
Baylor cornerback K.J. Morton: The senior was active and physical in Baylor’s 41-12 win over Oklahoma last Thursday. Morton’s hit on Sooners receiver Sterling Shepard set an aggressive tone for the Bears’ defense early. He finished with seven tackles, including 1.5 tackles for loss, and was one of the reasons the Bears' defense has surpassed expectations this season.

Iowa State tight end E.J. Bibbs: The junior was the Cyclones' leading receiver with seven catches for 63 yards in ISU’s 21-17 loss to TCU. Bibbs provides a solid athletic target, particularly on third downs. He had three receptions for 28 yards (two first downs) on third down against the Horned Frogs.

Kansas linebacker Darius Willis: The senior was productive in spot duty for the Jayhawks in their 42-6 loss to Oklahoma State. He had a season-high six tackles, including four solo stops, and looked like one of the few KU players who was engaged and excited to compete against the Cowboys.

Kansas State cornerback Randall Evans: Playing alongside Ryan Mueller, who had three sacks, and Ty Zimmerman, who returned an interception for a touchdown, it was easy to overlook Evans’ performance. He had 10 tackles, one pass breakup and one interception in KSU’s 49-26 win over Texas Tech.

Oklahoma linebacker Dominique Alexander: Corey Nelson’s replacement has been growing into his role during his first four games as a starter. Even though he still shows his inexperience at times, he flashes the upside that had OU’s coaches raving about his ability earlier this season. He finished with 11 tackles, including eight solo stops, one sack and one forced fumble in OU’s 41-12 loss to Baylor.

Oklahoma State receiver David Glidden: The sophomore was terrific after standout receiver Josh Stewart left with an injury. Glidden finished with six receptions for 73 yards in OSU’s 42-6 win over Kansas. He entered the game with eight career receptions but filled in admirably against the Jayhawks. Three of his six receptions came on third down.

Texas defensive tackle Desmond Jackson: The junior stepped right in for the injured Chris Whaley with little drop off in the Longhorns’ 47-40 overtime win over West Virginia. He had eight tackles, including 2.5 tackles for loss, with two sacks and one forced fumble. It’s rare to lose a player like Whaley without taking a step backward, but Jackson seamlessly filled in to help UT remain undefeated in the Big 12.

Texas Tech running back Kenny Williams: The junior is a solid threat as a running back in the Red Raiders’ offense. Kansas State took control of the game and limited Williams’ opportunities, but he finished with 15 carries for 66 yards, averaging 4.4 yards per play. He hasn’t had a 100-yard rushing game this season, but he is a quality running and receiving threat in coach Kliff Kingsbury’s attack.

TCU linebacker Paul Dawson: The junior quietly has been playing as well as any linebacker in the Big 12 during the past month. He’s recorded double-digit tackles in four of his past five games, including the past three. Dawson had 14 tackles, including eight solo stops and two tackles for loss, in TCU’s 21-17 win over Iowa State.

West Virginia receiver Mario Alford: The junior had arguably the most explosive game by a Mountaineers’ receiver this season. He finished with 205 all-purpose yards, including 97 receiving yards, 88 kick-return yards and 20 rushing yards. His 72-yard touchdown catch and run in the fourth quarter looked like last season's WVU offense.

Baylor defense makes statement against OU

November, 8, 2013

WACO, Texas -- The Phil Bennett who held court with reporters late Thursday night was telling stories and laughing and glad-handing anyone who approached.

He looked like a proud papa, and not just because of his bright yellow V-neck sweater.

"I told the kids today: This is a validating game," Bennett said. "Validation of who we are and who we want to be."

The only thing that shocked the veteran defensive coordinator about his Baylor defense on Thursday night, in a 41-12 victory over No. 10 Oklahoma, might've been the ice-cold bath safety Ahmad Dixon and his teammates dumped on Bennett's head in the game's final minute.

He reacted with stunned, wide-eyed silence as Dixon and the rest of the Bears defenders jumped and screamed. But Bennett at least can appreciate their affection.

"After the way I work 'em, it's amazing they even speak to me," he joked later.

But he has people talking about his defense. The Bears aced their first serious test of this 8-0 season.

The game could've swung in the opposite direction quickly on this night. Baylor's offense got off to an uncharacteristically slow start, and its defense was put in some tough spots early.

[+] EnlargeBlake Bell
Tim Heitman/USA TODAY SportsThe Baylor defense hounded Oklahoma's Blake Bell into 15-for-35 passing with two interceptions.
The Sooners had four chances to score from 7 yards out after three Baylor personal-foul penalties. Blake Bell was stuffed on fourth and goal at the 1.

They got another opportunity for six points minutes later, with first and 10 at the 12, and settled for a field goal.

And on their next possession, the Sooners got three plays from the Baylor 31. Three incompletions and another field-goal attempt, this one missed.

When this Baylor team gives an opponent those kinds of chances, especially at home, touchdowns are a must. Oklahoma could've gone up 17-3 midway through the second quarter, putting real pressure on a team that doesn't have much experience playing from behind.

"You're not going to come here, get one touchdown and think you're going to win," OU coach Bob Stoops said.

Those goal-line stops proved to be the game-changer. Baylor put up 21 points in the second quarter and was never tested the rest of the way.

"I feel like that really set the tone," Baylor cornerback K.J. Morton said. "I feel like we had our back against the wall. We went out there on third down and were like, 'Come on. Everybody come together and do their job.'

"We practice really hard on the goal line, so everything we saw we'd worked on in practice. We already knew what they were going to do before they did it."

That's the kind of confidence Bennett has instilled in this defense. The starters have given up only nine touchdowns in eight games. They stopped the Sooners run game from the start, allowing 87 yards on 34 rushes. Oklahoma went 4-for-17 on third downs.

And this was not another cupcake opponent for Baylor. It wasn't a top-50 offense entering the night, but it was one that had nearly two weeks to prepare an attack that would expose this much-improved unit. Didn't happen.

"I think we just showed we can play defense and compete with any team in this conference and the nation," BU defensive end Chris McAllister said.

Bennett believes his defense really bought into that belief after a 35-25 win at Kansas State, perhaps the unit's worst defensive showing of the season. A new standard was set for what his players were willing to accept.

"We're taking it one game at a time," Bennett said. "If you do that, every game gets better and bigger. I do believe we can play with anybody in the country. Time will tell."

This is his third year in Waco. The first two, he said, required some of the best coaching he's ever done in a career that began in 1979. And that was just to build a foundation, to build trust and experience and develop leaders.

Now eight of his starters are juniors or seniors, and the depth behind them has never been better. Now Baylor is really playing some defense.

"We're not a tradition," Bennett said, "but we're going to be here awhile, the way this thing is going."

They had the attention of the nation on Thursday night, of folks skeptical that their improvements would hold up against a top-10 team.

"Keep doubting us," Dixon said. "We'll earn your respect sooner or later."

They might not convince everyone else until later, but on Thursday they at least got the Sooners.
Thanks for all the mail this week. Here's where you can reach me if you've got more to say.

Mulley in Cleveland, OH writes: For the Playoff Committee, not that anyone would go for this, but wouldn't a Committee consisting of smaller schools (ie, AD's from old Non-BCS schools) work nice? That way the Big Boys would have to play nice with the little guys, as not to make them angry and give them a reason to not vote them into a playoff.

David Ubben: That's definitely an interesting idea, Mulley. Hadn't heard that one before. That said, I think you might run into some snags if some of those guys are angling for jobs at the bigger schools. A lot of major school ADs come from those smaller schools, so it's not a bad idea at all, but you're not going to find any suggestion for selection committee members that don't have some appearance of bias.

Interesting suggestion, though. I could be on board.

Bobby in Portland, Ore. writes: At Kansas State, this coming year reminds me A LOT of the 2001 season. Bill Snyder was deciding between a potentially dynamic running quarterback (Ell Roberson/Daniel Sams) and a highly touted juco transfer (Marc Dunn/Jake Waters). He was also trying to replace several defensive stars (Beisel, Fatefehi, Cooper and Butler were all drafted). That year resulted in a see-saw battle between the quarterbacks that lasted all year, and a 6-6 record (3-5 Big 12) with a loss to Syracuse in the bowl. I fear that the 2013 Wildcats can expect a similar result this year.

DU: Decent comparison, Bobby. That 2001 team, though, was sandwiched between a pair of 11-win seasons. If that means enduring a six-win season this year, I'm betting K-State folk would take that one.

Ryan in Austin writes: I have this scary feeling Baylor is going to be really good and people are sleeping on them. I flipped on that K-State game last year and didn't recognize Baylor. So I decided to watch the Bowl game. Again, that team looked incredible. And I can't believe Wright, Williams, Gordon and RG III were all on the same team at one time. I feel weird about this Art Briles guy. He knows something.

DU: His eye for offensive talent is just absurd. I agree with you on the Bears, but I would say this: The Bears have never had a better chance to win the Big 12 title than they do this season. That's the case for a couple reasons. For as much attention as offenses get, everybody in the Big 12 knows you can't win league titles without a good defense. Time will tell how good Baylor's truly is, but that spurt last year was good enough to win Baylor a Big 12 title in a number of seasons. They completely shut down UCLA and K-State. We'll see if it carries over, but I know this: They aren't short on athletes. Guys like Javonte Magee and Ahmad Dixon and Bryce Hager along with K.J. Morton and Demetri Goodson give Baylor a great shot athletically to have a fantastic defense. That hasn't been the case in the past. RG III was a transcendent player, but Baylor has a better shot to win a title this year than in any year Griffin was on campus. This is simply a more complete team. Briles has that crazy eye for offensive talent, but his development on the team defensively is what has Baylor in position to do some special things this year.

Nathan Nely in Kansas City, Kan. writes: I get the sense from the blogs that it kind of bothers you that Bill Snyder is not more forthcoming when dealing with the media. I'm always wondering, would you feel more at ease if he gave up all his secrets about where his team is at and what direction the Wildcat's are moving in for their upcoming season? I know from being a K-State fan for many years now, it takes time but you get used to not knowing what kind of football team is going to show up on opening day. I guess for most of us, it's part of the magic!

DU: No, not really. Coaches are CEOs, and they've got a right to handle programs however they see fit. Is it easier and more fun for me to do my job if they open up practice and answer questions directly? Definitely. But I'm not going to blame a coach if he doesn't want to do things that way.

It's not really about me feeling at ease, though. I'm not nervous. I just like to be more informed, and that's hard to do when programs lock it up so tight. If I was a coach, I'd probably handle it more like Snyder than I would coaches who operate programs with a lot of openness.

Bill in Orange County, Calif. writes: Geno Smith and Justin Blackmon could wind up teammates in the Arena League before you know it. When you're their age, you don't always see clearly how tenuous that link to your brilliant future can be. Here's hoping they both get a clue before it's too late.

DU: This is so, so misguided. Terrible comparison that's not even close to the same thing. Blackmon has gotten into trouble twice on alcohol-related offenses and now violated the NFL's substance-abuse policy. Geno Smith is battling anonymous reports with vague critiques that don't really fall in line with what his college coaches say and the reputation he had in college.

Both should be great players, though the deck is stacked against both with no offensive weapons in New York for Geno, and no quarterback in Jacksonville for Blackmon.

Blackmon's choices have gotten him suspended four games in the NFL and one game in college. They've put charges on his record.

The stories about Smith are reports people think will affect his ability to succeed at the next level. They might. They might not. If he plays well, they largely go away. He can also defeat them by being a good teammate and going about his business with the Jets whether he plays or not.

Neither of these guys will be in the Arena league anytime soon, but they're not even close to the same level of issues. That's silly.

janorman74 in Fort Worth, Texas writes: In your recent post on the 2014 draft you mentioned that you were surprised not to see Jeffcoat as the biggest surprise -- what about Casey Pachall? No one is talking about this guy in terms of the 2014 draft despite his prototypical height and arm -- is his past really weighing him down so much? If he has a solid season and stays clean don't you think he'll run up the draft board?

DU: He has to prove he can play. He's got NFL-type size, and if he has a huge season, he'll definitely get a lot of NFL attention. His past is obviously a red flag, and those kinds of struggles are never 100 percent behind you. It's a daily battle. It sounds harsh, but it's the truth. For now, though, Pachall is a player whose troubles with alcohol and the law are more recent than his success on the field. He's got to change that this season.

If he does, you can bet he'll show up on NFL teams' draft boards.
WACO, Texas -- It's been almost five years since Baylor hasn't had Robert Griffin III on its roster, but later tonight, Art Briles begins his first season at Baylor without last year's Heisman winner.

The Bears have plenty of offensive talent returning, though the Big 12's rushing champ (Terrance Ganaway) and receiving champ (Kendall Wright) are gone, too.

What will the new faces look like? We'll find out tonight. Kickoff is set for 6:30 p.m. ET on Fox Sports, and this should be a fun one between two teams that love to open up their offenses and let it fly.

That's what I'm watching today. We know Nick Florence can do it in spots. We saw it last year in the win over Texas Tech, and we saw flashes of it back in 2009 when he filled in for RG3 following his torn ACL early in the season.

Can he do it every week? That starts today. I'm a believer in Florence, in part because of the solid guys in front of him, headlined by center Ivory Wade and tackle Cyril Richardson, who are both All-Big 12-caliber guys. His backs should have plenty of holes and receivers like Tevin Reese and Terrance Williams are speedy, with plenty of experience playing with Griffin the past couple of seasons.

How will the defense handle SMU? The Bears made some strides late in the season in the turnover department, but the last time we saw the Bears, they were giving up 56 points to Washington in the bowl game ... and still finding a way to win. Florence is good, but the loss of RG3 no doubt trims the margin of error for this defense.

Baylor's got to be careful. Cornerbacks K.J. Morton, Demetri Goodson and Joe Williams need to play well against June Jones' run-and-shoot attack, but the bigger concern might be Zach Line up front. Baylor won't face many running backs like him in the Big 12.

Curious Big 12 fans can get a their first look at former Longhorn Garrett Gilbert in his new surroundings. He's a good fit for Jones' scheme, and despite his obvious failures at Texas, there's no denying his physical skills and resume as one of the greatest high school players in Texas history. This is a completely different offense and a completely different challenge. Should be interesting to see how he responds.

I expect the Bears to hang enough points to win this one, but the Mustangs will light up the scoreboard, too, and make it interesting. Either way, this should be a fun one. Let's get started. Stay right here for coverage throughout the night.
Not everybody gets their just deserts in college football, but it's time to do my part to change that. Sometimes, it's the team they play for. Sometimes, it's an underappreciated position. Other times, it's a combination of several things. Either way, here are the Big 12's most underrated players heading into 2012.

Tevin Reese, WR, Baylor: Reese is undersized at 5-foot-10, 165 pounds, sure. Who cares? He's productive, and should only be more so without Kendall Wright in Waco this season. Reese will likely be the second option behind Terrance Williams, but the speedster at inside receiver managed to rack up 877 receiving yards, eighth-most in school history, as the third option for RG3 last season.

[+] EnlargeTrey Millard
Matthew Emmons/US PresswireKeep an eye out for Sooners fullback Trey Millard this season.
Toben Opurum, DE/LB, Kansas: Opurum used to be a running back, but he's learned his new position well, playing the "Buck" spot last year for the Jayhawks. Opurum's a high-motor type of player, and ranked 10th in the Big 12 last season with 10.5 tackles for loss and made four sacks.

Trey Millard, FB/TE, Oklahoma: Millard is a jack of all trades for the Sooners, and played three positions last year. He's invaluable for the Sooners, and may be even more so this season. Look for him to grab some touches at tailback this season, probably in short yardage situations that require a power back.

Alex Elkins, LB, Oklahoma State: Elkins was second on the team with 90 stops, including five tackles for loss. The 6-foot-3, 230-pounder is a solid tackler, but too often, the former walk-on who didn't play football until junior college gets written off as one of the league's top linebackers.

James White, RB, Iowa State: White looked like a non-factor last season, but after Shontrelle Johnson went down with a neck injury, White ascended to starter status. He finished with 743 yards and eight scores, including the game-winner against Iowa in triple overtime.

Seth Doege, QB, Texas Tech: Doege's offense put up big numbers last year, but he didn't have much of a chance to win big last season. Doege's name never comes up among the league's best passers, but despite having no running game and tons of injuries on the offensive line, Doege topped 4,000 yards and threw for 28 touchdowns with just 10 picks. If Tech starts winning (which wasn't much of Doege's fault in 2011), his name might come up in the debate for the Big 12's best passer.

Jaxon Shipley, WR, Texas: Shipley's instincts and great hands are two things you simply can't coach. Now, he'll only get better as a sophomore, and his numbers will balloon if his quarterback improves and Shipley can stay healthy. Even with the revolving door at QB last year and an injury that caused him to miss three games, he finished with 607 yards and three scores on 44 catches.

K.J. Morton, CB, Baylor: Baylor's defense caught big criticism last year, but Morton was a big bright spot late in the season. The Bears were +10 in turnover margin over the last six games, and Morton was a big reason why. All four of his interceptions came in the final three games of the regular season. Now, he's got to improve his coverage skills.

Tanner Hawkinson, OT, Kansas: Hawkinson's been a constant in a turbulent period for Kansas football, starting 36 consecutive games in Lawrence under two different coaches. Expect the 6-foot-5, 300-pounder to make it 48 starts for three coaches after this year. Hawkinson was a Freshman All-American, but Kansas' struggles have kept him from getting his proper due in the years since. That's a shame. He's a big talent with a bright future.

John Hubert, RB, Kansas State: You know about Collin Klein, but it seems like nobody's paying attention to Hubert, who just so happens to be the Big 12's No. 3 returning rusher with 970 yards on just 200 carries.

Eric Ward, WR, Texas Tech: Texas Tech's 2011 season was rough, but Ward emerged as the most consistent target for a receiving corps racked by injuries. It wasn't fun last year, but now, the Red Raiders have some serious depth, and Ward gets no attention, despite catching 84 balls for 800 yards and 11 touchdowns.

Opening camp: Baylor Bears

August, 8, 2012
Camp is open down in Waco. Before we get too deep in sweltering hot practices, I'll offer up a quick preview of what you need to know heading into the season.

See more fall camp previews.

First up: Baylor.

Media's predicted finish: Seventh

Biggest story line: Can Nick Florence fill RG3's legendary cleats? Florence is a much, much different player, but he's mobile and has plenty of experience for what's essentially still a first-year starter. Better yet, he's got a fantastic offensive line headlined by Ivory Wade and Cyril Richardson. He'll have two of the league's best receivers in Terrance Williams and Tevin Reese, and be supported by an outstanding trio of backs in Jarred Salubi, Lache Seastrunk and Glasco Martin.

Biggest question mark: The defense. Baylor won't have a Heisman winner to outweigh a rough season from the defense. The Bears were the first team in FBS history last season to win four consecutive games in a single season while also giving up at least 30 points in each win. Phil Bennett is ready for Year 2, and his defense has a lot to prove after finishing ahead of only Kansas in total defense. The Bears forced lots of turnovers late in the season, helping them finish strong, but will that continue?

Fun fact: The Bears' six-game win streak is the longest of any team in one of college football's six major conference. The MAC's Northern Illinois (9) is the only team who has won more consecutive games entering 2012.

Who needs to step up: Williams and the backfield. Baylor had the Big 12's leading rusher in Terrance Ganaway and leading receiver in Kendall Wright last season. Those losses are big, too. Williams and the backfield trio have the potential to be great replacements for the Bears, who have had 1,200-yard rushers in each of the past two seasons. Who knows if a featured back will emerge, but this group has to be productive if Baylor's going to reach a third consecutive bowl.

Don't forget about: S Ahmad Dixon and CB K.J. Morton. Neither get the same recognition as guys who earned a reputation as the league's best at their position, but after really strong finishes to 2011, Dixon and Morton might make a run in 2012 that proves they deserve a place in the conversation as one of the Big 12's best defensive backs.

Under the radar: Baylor Bears

June, 4, 2012
Today, we'll kick off a new series on the Big 12 examining one player who will enter 2012 with a profile that doesn't quite match their worth to the team.

In other words, they're coming in under the radar.

First up, the Baylor Bears.

Under the radar: CB K.J. Morton

Baylor is starved for a true defensive star, and while it may not have one yet, Morton could be due for a breakout year in 2012. His name doesn't come up on anyone's short list for the conference's best corner, but he proved he has an ability to be a playmaker late in the season.

He became the starter in the Bears' third game of the season, and by season's end, had earned honorable mention All-Big 12 status. In the regular season's final three games, he intercepted four passes, moving him to fourth in the conference. That included interceptions against Oklahoma's Landry Jones and Texas Tech's Seth Doege. Both of his interceptions against Texas in the season finale gave Baylor's offense the ball in the red zone.

What's the biggest reason he could make a jump in Year 2? The opportunity for offseason growth. Morton didn't transfer to Baylor until late August, and had to rush to learn the new defense under Phil Bennett. Bennett's system is in its second year, and Morton should have a much greater understanding of the position by now. Additionally, he faces top-tier talent at receiver in practice every day against an offense that puts a lot of stress on defensive backs.

Morton doesn't command the same respect as guys like OSU's Brodrick Brown, Texas' Carrington Byndom or Oklahoma's Demontre Hurst.

Don't be shocked if that has changed by December.
If you've missed our look back at the projections from 2011, here's what you've missed.

Predicting interceptions is near impossible, so we don't even try. Don't believe me?

Of the Big 12's seven leading returning ball hawks in 2011, only Iowa State LB Jake Knott (No. 1) and Kansas State safety Ty Zimmerman (No. 7) had more than one interception that season.

Sometimes players disappoint or suffer injuries. Sometimes quarterbacks refuse to throw their way.

Want a fun stat from 2011 that'll give you hope for Big 12 defenses? Of the league's top 10 interception leaders, nine return. We'll break down the top six right here. Each of the players have at least four interceptions. Newcomers TCU and West Virginia don't have a single player with more than two picks.

So what do we know from this list? We'll find out soon. Either way, here are the Big 12's best returning ball hawks in 2012.

[+] EnlargeNigel Malone
AP Photo/J Pat CarterNigel Malone has been a defensive force since coming to Kansas State.
1. Nigel Malone, CB, Kansas State: Don't act like you're not impressed. Malone walked in last spring as a junior college transfer and earned a starting spot. Try to restrain your shock, but he had a huge year under Bill Snyder, who's got as good of a nose for jucos as anyone in college football. Malone's seven interceptions were two more than any other player in the Big 12 and ranked third nationally.

2. Justin Gilbert, CB, Oklahoma State: Gilbert was already a physical freak, one of the fastest players in the league and a lethal kick returner. Like Malone, Gilbert was a first-year starter and finished his first year in huge fashion. Gilbert picked off five passes and returns as a junior with sky-high expectations and NFL scouts peering in his direction.

3. Brodrick Brown, CB, Oklahoma State: They call him the Bulldog around Stillwater, and for good reason. While the speedy, 6-foot, 194-pound Gilbert has all the measurables, Brown is all heart at 5-foot-8, 183 pounds. Every week, he goes up against bigger, physical receivers and he still ended the season with five picks, just like Gilbert. OSU and Texas both have arguments as the league's best set of corners, and Brown, who will be a senior, is half the reason why.

4. K.J. Morton, CB, Baylor: Morton is one of four Big 12 talents with four picks in 2011. The juco transfer came on late in 2011, picking off all four of his passes in Baylor's final three regular-season games. There's plenty of excitement for what he could do in 2012, too.

5. Tony Jefferson, S, Oklahoma: Jefferson's four picks feel a bit unfair, considering that he picked off three of them in three consecutive possessions in a 62-6 shellacking of Ball State. His fourth came a week later. Jefferson was quiet late in the season on the interception front, but made plenty of plays elsewhere for the defense. Look for him to pick off passes with more consistency as a traditional safety in 2012 in Mike Stoops' defense, as opposed to playing linebacker last season in Brent Venables' defense.

6. Quandre Diggs, CB, Texas: Diggs is the only freshman on this list, and that says a whole lot. Diggs showed big promise as an early enrollee this time last spring and validated it in the fall, earning a starting job and leading the team in interceptions. Diggs picked off passes in comeback wins over BYU and Texas A&M, and grabbed his fourth in the bowl win over Cal. I'd venture to say Diggs has more upside than any player on this list. His sophomore season should be really fun to watch.
We're moving on with our 2011 postseason position rankings. Today, it's time for cornerbacks. If you missed it, here's how I ranked them in the preseason.

Here are the other position rankings we've done so far:
Depth is somewhat of a factor here, but I weighted it heavily toward the top two starters at the position.

[+] EnlargeCarrington Byndom
John Albright/Icon SMICarrington Byndom went up against some of the Big 12's top receivers and held his own.
1. Texas — The Longhorns duo of Carrington Byndom and Quandre Diggs were by far the league's best at limiting the big play. Both are physical. Both return. Beware, Big 12 offenses. In just their first year as starters, they helped the Longhorns lead the league in pass defense. Diggs, a true freshman, led the team with four interceptions. Until the regular-season finale against Baylor, Texas and Alabama were the only teams that hadn't given up a touchdown pass longer than 20 yards. Obviously, that's way, way more impressive in the Big 12.

2. Kansas State — K-State overachieved in a lot of ways this year, and perhaps nowhere more than at cornerback. Juco transfer Nigel Malone led the league with seven interceptions. Known entity David Garrett was even more solid, making 88 tackles and 6.5 tackles for loss. I ranked this unit 10th in the Big 12 before the season. They finished second. I was wrong.

3. Oklahoma — The Sooners' corners were good, but not great, and underachieved slightly. Jamell Fleming and Demontre Hurst are supremely talented, but were susceptible to big plays this year. Granted, everybody in the Big 12 was, but the Sooners ranked fourth in pass defense. Fleming broke up 10 passes and intercepted two more. Hurst broke up 11 and had an interception.

4. Oklahoma State — At times, Oklahoma State's Brodrick Brown was a legitimate shutdown corner. Justin Gilbert turned in a solid effort in his first year as a starter, which was much more important after a season-ending injury to Devin Hedgepeth in September. Gilbert picked off five passes, second-most in the Big 12.

5. Iowa StateLeonard Johnson was quietly an NFL prospect that put together a huge year. He was a big reason for ISU's upset of No. 2 Oklahoma State, and helped shut down Justin Blackmon. He finished with 71 tackles, eight pass breakups and a pick. Jeremy Reeves added two picks and seven pass breakups.

6. MissouriE.J. Gaines led the Big 12 with 16 pass breakups, and the Tigers ranked fifth in the Big 12 in pass defense. Fellow first-year starter Kip Edwards added a pick and three pass breakups.

7. Texas A&M — The team's top corner, Coryell Judie, was hampered by a hamstring injury all season, but production is production. It wasn't there for Judie, one of the league's top corners in 2010. Terrence Frederick had a good year with 13 pass breakups and a pick, but the Aggies were susceptible through the air all year. Lionel Smith and Dustin Harris filled in well in Judie's absence, but not well enough. A&M finished eighth in pass defense and helped five QBs set career highs for passing yardage in 2011.

8. BaylorK.J. Morton played well down the stretch for Baylor, but the Bears defense left a lot to be desired almost everywhere. They finished last in the Big 12 in pass defense, giving up over 290 yards a game. Morton picked off four passes and broke up six more. All four of his picks came in the final three games of 2011. Chance Casey broke up six passes and made 48 stops.

9. Texas Tech — How's this for irony? The Red Raiders actually finished second in the Big 12 in pass defense. It doesn't matter much. Tre' Porter had the only interception for a cornerback all season, and broke up two passes. Injuries were a problem all season. Cornelius Douglas, Derrick Mays, Jarvis Phillips and Sawyer Vest filled the unit, but Tech faced 61 fewer pass attempts than Kansas and 111 fewer than the next team in the Big 12. That's what happens when you can't stop the run. Doesn't mean the corners played well.

10. KansasGreg Brown picked off two passes and broke up three more. Isiah Barfield made 35 tackles and broke up five passes. The Jayhawks ranked ninth in the Big 12 in pass defense. They didn't get much of a pass rush to help the corners, but the corners were very poor in 2011.

Offseason to-do list: Baylor

February, 17, 2012
We're taking a look at what each program in the Big 12 needs to deal with during the offseason, whether it be in the spring, summer or fall preseason camp. Maybe all three! Who knows?

Next up: The Baylor Bears.

1. Invest in Nick Florence as RG3's replacement. Don't look for a quarterback competition in Waco this spring. Bryce Petty could maybe steal this job, but every indication is Florence is the assumed starter heading into spring, and it'll take a meltdown for him to lose the job and cede it to the younger player. Florence already started nine games in 2009 with mixed results, but looked a lot better in a win over Texas Tech this year when Robert Griffin III suffered concussion-like symptoms. Florence is no RG3, but he's probably a well-above average QB for next year, and he'll have one of the league's best receiving corps returning, even without Kendall Wright.

2. Study, study, study and keep learning Phil Bennett's system. The defense has to get better at everything. Baylor's invested in its veteran defensive coordinator, and the program believes in him. The team has the athletes -- these Bears are big enough and fast enough - -to see success, but last year was a mess. Keep at it, and it may turn around. Only two of the team's top 13 tacklers are gone. Cornerback K.J. Morton showed some promise late in the year and Ahmad Dixon is solid at nickel back.

3. Sort out the running backs. Is next year the Lache Seastrunk show in the Baylor backfield? Jay Finley and Terrance Ganaway both cleared 1,200 yards rushing the past two seasons. But the Bears need a new feature back, and the Oregon transfer will vie for the job. Glasco Martin has been in the program longer, but Seastrunk's got the higher upside. And what about senior Jarred Salubi? It's a bit jumbled back there, but there's lots of talent and the spring should provide some clarity.

More offseason to-do lists.

Baylor loses its starting corner

September, 2, 2011
WACO, Texas -- Baylor's new-look defense was in for a test against TCU's offense, but it looks like new coordinator Phil Bennett's side of the ball took an early blow.

On a 38-yard pass from Casey Pachall to Josh Boyce, Baylor cornerback Tyler Stephenson fell down behind the play and looked to be in serious pain.

Trainers attended to him for a couple minutes before helping him off the field. He was unable to put any weight on his left leg.

Stephenson, a sophomore, is the Bears' starting corner. Sophomore K.J. Morton is behind him on the depth chart.

On the play after Stephenson's injury, TCU's Matthew Tucker ran for a 4-yard touchdown and put the Horned Frogs up, 13-7 with 5:46 to play in the first quarter.