Big 12: Kevin Dixon
Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin
After three tune-ups earlier this season, Nebraska defensive end Zach Potter can't wait for the Huskers' first real test of the season.
The Cornhuskers rank 18th in rush defense and 22nd in scoring defense after facing a less-than-imposing early schedule that featured victories over Western Michigan, San Jose State and New Mexico State. Despite that early success, Potter is gearing up for controlling Virginia Tech and talented running quarterback Tyrod Taylor.
"We'll probably need some Advil to get ready," Potter said, chuckling. "He's a good quarterback and we're going to have our hands full trying to containing him. But we're up for the challenge."
Virginia Tech has struggled offensively, averaging only 21.5 points per game so far this season. The Hokies have not scored more than 24 points in any single game in their 3-1 start.
The biggest key for Nebraska to keep those offensive struggles from happening will be to contain Taylor, Virginia Tech's leading rusher. Passing has been a different story as the Hokies rank 114th nationally in passing offense.
"You just have to really play your technique," Potter said. "If you're doing that, your technique shouldn't allow him to be able to run. We have to make sure in the passing situations that we stay in our lanes and give him some trouble that way so he can't scramble and come out. We have our hands full."
But Nebraska defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh said he's relieved to finally be playing a more conventional offensive team after facing pass-heavy teams in the first three games.
"We're going to see a team similar to our offense, but they like to run the ball," Suh said. "I'm very excited for that."
The Cornhuskers' depth along the defense front will improve with return to the lineup of defensive end Pierre Allen, who missed much of the New Mexico State game with a foot injury. His return will help boost depth for a depleted Nebraska defensive front already reeling after losing 2007 leading sack producer Barry Turner to a season-ending broken leg and Kevin Dixon, who was was kicked off the team before preseason practice because of legal issues.
"It'll definitely be big for us to get him back," Potter said. "It was bad losing him against New Mexico State, but Cam (Meredith) and Clayton (Sievers) stepped up. But Pierre is a different kind of player because he's so athletic. It will be good having him back. We can sure use him."
Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin
|Bruce Thorson/US Presswire|
|Nobody knows how Bo Pelini will handle adversity as a head coach yet.|
After an embarrassing defensive skid last season, Nebraska coach Bill Callahan was fired and replaced by Bo Pelini, a one-time Nebraska defensive coordinator who went on to greater fame and fortune as the defensive coordinator for LSU's national championship team last season.
Pelini's expertise is defense and he's got his work cut out with a unit that was blistered for more yards than any Nebraska unit in history last season. His old-school, no-nonsense approach appears to be ideal for the Cornhuskers' program heading into the season -- particularly after hiring several familiar assistants from Frank Solich's old staff to bring a sense of normalcy back to the program.
The Cornhuskers should have a punishing offensive attack that should allow them to dictate the clock and keep that defense off the field. A bruising offensive line, several potential I-backs and QB Joe Ganz gives them a nice offensive start.
But the ultimate litmus test for Nebraska this season will be how much their defense improves. It will determine how competitive they will be heading into Saturday's opener against Western Michigan.
Here are five pressing questions that will dog Pelini heading into the season.
1. Can Pelini bring some life back to the moribund defense? The Cornhuskers' defense was so bad last season that they took their Blackshirts away from the starters. Pelini still hasn't given them back. Maybe he's heard too much about producing a Big 12-low 11 turnovers last season or how they allowed 172 points in their final three games. But the unit has to improve and make more big plays or it could be a long year for the new coach.
2. Do they have enough depth at defensive tackle? After Kevin Dixon was kicked off the squad before camp began, it left Pelini scrambling for inside players. Pelini needs to light a fire under Ndamukong Suh, who badly tailed off last season. Ty Steinkuhler's back injury has been a concern. Perhaps the biggest show of panic at the position came when little brother Baker Steinkuhler was switched to defense. He was expected to be one of the Big 12's premier young offensive linemen. Oh well.
3. Who will emerge at I-back? The Cornhuskers have some of the best depth in the conference with Big 12 returning rushing leader Marlon Lucky sharing his No. 1 position with Roy Helu and Quentin Castille. Offensive coordinator Shawn Watson has called Lucky his starter, but watch for Helu and Castille to also get a lot of early work.
4. Can Joe Ganz cut down on his turnovers? Ganz posted pinball-like numbers in his three starts, rolling up 1,399 yards and 15 touchdown passes. But he was also victimized by seven interceptions and can't afford to be nearly as reckless this season. Keeping the ball away from the other team will be Nebraska's most important task offensively.
5. How will Pelini handle an extended period of losing? It's all good now for Pelini, who's the nearest thing to a rock star that can be found in Nebraska. He's even bigger than "Larry the Cable Guy."
Books have already been written about Pelini before his first game. But how would these fans handle a slump or a couple of surprise losses? More importantly, how would Pelini react to it? I still remember him going after Bill Snyder following a 2003 loss against Kansas State. And that was back when he had some good defensive players. Imagine this year's defense after facing teams like Missouri, Oklahoma, Kansas or Texas Tech. Bo might have an aneurism, unless he's learned a lot of patience over the last five years.
Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin
Times are changing around Oklahoma, where Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy has opened up some practices this summer while Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops has thrown up a "Crimson and Cream" curtain around his preseason work this fall.
Tulsa World columnist Dave Sittler has as good of a handle on the inner workings of the Sooner program as anybody around. He said that some Oklahoma insiders are telling him that Stoops is closing his practices because he's still miffed from 2005.
It seems that Stoops believes that some "friends of the TCU program" tipped off the Horned Frogs with secrets they had learned by watching the Sooners' open scrimmages. The result was a 17-10 upset victory for TCU.
Sittler also said that former Oklahoma State coach Pat Jones, now a radio talk show in Tulsa and Oklahoma City, was turned down to watch the Oklahoma scrimmage because he's now considered a member of the media.
I'm sure the Sooners would be pretty vanilla in those scrimmages if they knew that we prying minds -- or even fans -- were watching.
Because you never know what those "friends" might be saying to your upcoming opponents.
Particularly when Oklahoma's first game will be against that vaunted defense of the Chattanooga Moccasins, which ranked 102nd in rushing defense, 75th in pass efficiency defense, 84th in total defense and 93rd in scoring defense in the Football Championship Subdivision last year.
Until then, we'll have to wait to hear what the players and coaches have to say after their scrimmage today at Owen Field. Because Stoops has made sure that nobody else will be watching.
And if Oklahoma-area fans really have to watch football today, they can drive up to watch Oklahoma State's open scrimmage this afternoon.
Sure, Gundy might scream at reporters when's he not happy. But he still knows that he needs us to help sell a bunch of seats for the Cowboys' home opener on Sept. 6 against Houston.
Until then, here a few other links to whet your appetite this weekend.
- It appears that Texas Tech DE McKinner Dixon still might be eligible after all, according to Don Williams of the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal.
- The Lincoln Journal-Star will be conducting a contest for the best Nebraska fan video this season. But Larry the Cable Guy can't participate, can he?
- Nebraska DT Jared Crick emerged as a potential starter this week. His development will be important after Kevin Dixon's dismissal and Ty Steinkuhler battling through a back injury.
- Austin American-Statesman columnist Cedric Golden predicts that Vondrell McGee and Fozzy Whittaker will eventually emerge as Texas' primary running backs.
- New Texas A&M coach Mike Sherman is in no hurry to name a starting quarterback as Jerrod Johnson and Stephen McGee battle for the No. 1 position. "Why close the door on competition," Sherman told Robert Cessna of the Bryan-College Station Eagle. "That's not me. I want to keep them competing."
- Ron Prince's new contract amounts to a one-year extension, according to the Wichita Eagle's Bob Lutz. But for Prince, it's still one more season -- at a big salary hike to boot.
- Colorado LB Lynn Katoa is trying to find the right path back into the program's good graces. Katoa, who pleaded guilty to a felony charge and received a deferred sentence, is practicing with the team this season with hopes of returning to the team in 2009.
- The Kansas City Star's Blair Kerhoff writes about Missouri's underrated defense. I still think the Tigers' defensive improvement will be the key to their Big 12 title hopes.
- Iowa State football recruiting coordinator Scott Fountain joined the cacophony of Cyclone coaches who blasted the NCAA's ban on text messaging in a story in the Ames Tribune.
- Sittler reports flames are licking at the backsides of former Oklahoma assistants Chuck Long and Mike Stoops at their new jobs as head coaches.
- Chad Conine of the Waco Tribune-Herald said that increased depth inside will mean Baylor defensive tackles won't be playing nearly as much as last season. I'm guessing that Baylor's starting defensive tackles played as much as any in the Big 12 last season.
- The development of oft-injured Oklahoma MLB Ryan Reynolds, replacement for Curtis Lofton, will be critical for the Sooners' Big 12 three-peat hopes.
Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin
As we continue our trip through the North Division, I figured today would be a good time to catch up with some of the correspondence that's piled up between preview stories and traveling across the highways of the Midwest, looking for the Big 12's next great player and a Runza Restaurant between stops.
Here a look at a few of the most recent missives directed my way.
Juan from Austin writes: Puhleeze! I've said it before and I'll say it again. How can you even think about mentioning Colt McCoy in the same breath as the others for Heisman consideration?
Tim Griffin: I still see what McCoy was able to do two seasons ago when he tied the NCAA freshman record for touchdown passes (which was broken last season by Oklahoma's Sam Bradford). McCoy showed me a new maturity when I talked to him in Kansas City last month at the Big 12's Media Days. He'll be asked to do more with an inexperienced group of skill-position players.
But remember something about how the Texas program shapes national perceptions. If McCoy has a big season and the Longhorns are in South Division contention, he'll get most of the credit for it. And as such, it's not out of the realm of possibility that he's a Heisman contender. Admittedly he's fifth of the "Big Five" Big 12 quarterbacks, but he still has a shot.
Willis from Overland Park, KS writes: The complete and ongoing lack of mention of Kansas State QB Josh Freeman is absurd. What kind of stats does a true sophomore like him have to put up to be considers as good as "cough, cough" Todd Reesing.
Tim Griffin: Willis, how about 12-1, which is the record that Reesing led the Jayhawks to last season, compared to KSU's 5-7 mark. That would be a start. And also how about Reesing's 33-7 touchdown-to-interception ratio last season, compared to Freeman's 18-11 ratio.
Dakota from San Antonio writes: Will Art Briles do the unthinkable and turn around a miserable Baylor program? And if so, when can we expect it to happen?
Tim Griffin: This is going to be the biggest challenge of Briles' coaching career -- one that obviously isn't for the faint-hearted. For Baylor to emerge as a bowl threat, they are going to have to schedule down a little. While playing games against Wake Forest and Connecticut will be good for the program's exposure, they are going to have do something in those games. Like Briles said earlier this summer, his team needs to provide a victory or two that makes people stop for a minute the following day as they are looking at their sports page or reading the computer.
For Baylor to ever become a consistent power, somebody in the South Division is going to have to step back. I just don't see it at this time with strong coaching and facility growth across the conference. If Briles can turn around the Bears, it will make what Grant Teaff did in the old Southwest Conference appear rather small.
The Chief from Savannah, Ga., writes - Tim, I love your blog. I really believe Texas A&M will beat Miami this season? Am I wrong?
Tim Griffin: I think that the Aggies have a great shot. Particularly with A&M president Elsa Murano telling new A&M coach Mike Sherman how much she'd love to see him beat her old hometown team. Nothing like a little pressure from your boss to keep you up late at night, working on diagramming some new plays or blocking schemes.
And it also won't hurt that the game is at Kyle Field and that Miami is a shell of the national contender it used to be.
Tony from Kansas writes: Tommie Frazier from Nebraska absolutely wouldn't lose. Why didn't you include him on your clutch list?
Tim Griffin: It's a good choice, but I was limited to players who had seen action in the Big 12. Or else, I could have included Ed Hargett, Bobby Layne or even Darrell Royal -- as a player or as a coach.
Steve from Duncanville writes: Hey Tim, I loved your story about how the Big 12 recruits so heavily in Texas. Is there any way you can break those figures down to show all of the different states that are included. Many thanks.
Tim Griffin: Steve, I'll be glad to do that. Thanks for the idea. Although it sounds vaguely like something a recruiting service would do, doesn't it?
Mr. Unknown writes: Texas Tech defensive coordinator Ruffin McNeill didn't charge anything, his stats weren't that good, that is a myth started by Mike Leach. And how can Nolan Cromwell, the wide receiver coach for Mike Holmgren the last 8 or 9 years and Tom Rossley, Brett Favre's quarterback coach and offensive coordinator for seven years at Green Bay. How can those guys not be in the top five? Your list was ridiculous.
Tim Griffin: I think you're wrong on this. The Tech defense was noticeable better down the stretch, peaking in impressive victories over Oklahoma and Virginia in the Gator Bowl. And you have a point about Rossley, although Cromwell has never been a college coach before. I'll withhold my opinion about his work until he coaches a few games at this level. That's why I didn't include him on my list.
Shadowman from Kansas City writes: Now I know everyone in the Big 12 (especially the North) hates the Huskers. Does this mean that every site has to claim we will be horrible (losing season) for Pelini's first season? Marlon Lucky is returning for his senior year and some are mentioning him as a possible preseason Heisman candidate, Joe Ganz coming in with a bit of experience from the last season, a solid defensive line, and Pelini who has a tendency to work with kids to shut down the pass, how do we not have the chance to succeed and maybe challenge for the Big 12 North?
Tim Griffin: Lucky is going to be pushed to start this year by Roy Helu Jr. And that defensive line took a hit when top back Kevin Dixon was kicked off the team Monday for a violation of team rules.
I think Bo Pelini will have the Cornhuskers flying around the ball this season. But the talent he inherited leads me to believe he should be up for Coach of the Year honors if he can win eight or nine games with this team.
Roger from Sulphur, La., writes: Tim, if you're going to cover college sports in this manner, you should've stayed covering the Big 12. Please, what kind of BS is this? Granted, the Big 12 has some quality teams, but top to bottom - no comparison with the SEC.
Tim Griffin: Roger, I appreciate your sentiments, but I couldn't help but detect your hometown and wonder if it was tinged just a bit with a touch of hometown jambalaya. And I wonder if you noticed the Big 12 had five teams ranked in the top 14 in the USA Today coaches' poll last week.
But I agree with your sentiments about the SEC's up-and-down strength. I think the Big 12 is stronger at the top, but the SEC might have the nod when you include all 12 teams.
And please tell me that my colleague Chris Low didn't put you up to that.
That's all for this time. Keep the letters coming.
Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin
Daily Oklahoman columnist John Rohde might have found the secret for Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy's vigor. And it doesn't come from his excitement about being around his players.
Rohde details Gundy's three Red Bull energy drink-a-day habit in his column Tuesday. I know that Gundy has long enjoyed the drink, stocking a refrigerator in his office with the product. He even offered me one during a visit to Stillwater earlier this year.
The combination of taurine, caffeine, glucose and B12 appears to get Gundy's juices flowing -- almost as much as a negative newspaper column.
He could joke about his habit in Rohde's column. After showing up at a recent press conference, he wondered what soft drink that Oklahoma State had a sponsorship deal with.
When somebody answered "Red Bull," Gundy had a quick answer.
"You've got that right," he said.
And he later joked that he wasn't showing the signs of a Red Bull addict, despite playfully twitching his head several times in quick succession after the question.
I hope all of the Big 12 readers out there are similarly charged with the early-morning lift that these morning links are meant to provide as Gundy is with his favorite drink.
If so, maybe I should bottle them.
- Kirk Bohls of the Austin American-Statesman provided the scoop that former Texas A&M coach Dennis Franchione will be doing color for ESPN Radio broadcasts this season. His first game will be Alabama-Clemson from Atlanta on Aug. 30. Let's hope the Tide fans don't taunt the former coach with those once-popular cutouts that were defacing as he left for the A&M job.
- Blast-furnace conditions greeted Missouri on its first day of practice. But even with the heat index climbing to 110 degrees, 56-year-old coach Gary Pinkel joined the Tigers in a run before starting practice.
- Texas A&M QB Stephen McGee will be pushed by backups Jarrod Johnson and Ryan Tannehill for the starting job in fall camp. "These three could all be starters in the Big 12, in my opinion," A&M quarterbacks coach Tom Rossley told Randy Riggs of the Austin American-Statesman.
- Texas coach Mack Brown said that the school will be seeking a sixth season of eligibility for injury-plagued WR Jordan Shipley.
- Biletnikoff winner Michael Crabtree will be featured more in Texas Tech's return game. Interesting that Tech coach Mike Leach would willingly risk potential injury for his All-American by playing him in those situations.
- The Lubbock Avalanche-Journal's Don Williams says it's been a long time between truly memorable seasons for Texas Tech. Williams, the little brother of a Tech Saddle Tramp, said he turned 12 in 1976 -- the year the Red Raiders were ranked in the top 5 in early November. Now, he says he's sometimes mistaken for a grandfather.
- Colorado will begin fall camp without designated captains. Coach Dan Hawkins wants to see how the leadership will develop for his team without them in training camp.
- Lincoln Journal-Star columnist Steve Sipple said that selflessness should keep the close competition for the starting I-back from becoming a distraction. I'm still surprised that coach Bo Pelini listed Marlon Lucky, the conference's only returning 1,000-yard back, as co-No. 1 with Roy Helu Jr. Nebraska QB Joe Ganz thinks it won't hurt the team. "Marlon and Roy are really good friends," Ganz told Sipple. "Marlon knows he's not going to get every carry in the fall anyway. In the Big 12, you need at least two running backs."
- Omaha World-Herald columnist Tom Shatel says that "Bo Law" doesn't leave much gray area for interpretation after the Nebraska coach's decision to dismiss DT Kevin Dixon. Of course, it's easier to make those kind of calls when a coach is new and expectations for his team aren't at title levels -- yet.
- Oklahoman beat writer Jake Trotter spells out the options for former Oklahoma WR Josh Jarboe after he was kicked off the Sooners' roster late last week. Trotter speculates that Jarboe could end up at a Football Championship Subdivision school like Savannah State or Georgia Southern, or perhaps Central Florida. I still think that coach Bob Stoops' decision to kick off Jarboe will hurt the Sooners more next year than this season. And it's placed finding a tall, rangy receiver at a priority during the Sooners' upcoming recruiting class.
- Texas' student newspaper is throwing some brickbats at Stoops on his decision to dismiss Jarboe. Daily Texan columnist David R. Henry says that Stoops showed a double-standard by purging himself of Jarboe and keeping players like DeMarcus Granger on his roster.
- Texas A&M coach Mike Sherman told the San Antonio Express-News' Brent Zwerneman that FB Jorvorskie Lane needs to lose about 25-30 pounds to get where he wants him to be. Sherman said after Monday's practice that Lane weighs in the "290 category." As someone who is fighting a "battle of the bulge," I can only suggest that nagging wives serve a similarly inspirational role for sportswriters as coaches do for football players.
- The Oklahoman wonders if the stars are falling in line for Oklahoma's first national championship since 2000?
- Iowa State coach Gene Chizik said competition for the Cyclones' starting quarterback job between Austen Arnaud and Phillip Bates is very close. "It's 50-50," Chizik told the Ames Tribune. "May the best man win."
- Starting Colorado TE Riar Geer has been reinstated to the team after he was suspended over the spring for his role in an off-campus scuffle. "It feels good to have this all behind me," Geer told the Boulder Daily Camera. "It was a great lesson, and hopefully everybody else can learn from my mistake."
- A pair of players converted from other positions h
ave emerged atop Baylor's depth chart as the Bears' starting cornerbacks. Former WR Krys Buerck and former starting S Dwain Crawford both are showing strong instincts at the new position. "It was a matter of need," Baylor coach Art Briles told the Waco Tribune-Herald. "One of the first meetings I had with the cornerbacks in my office, I saw we had two guys on scholarship. At any university, much less a Big 12 university, you need more players than that in the room."