Big 12: Kony Ealy

ARLINGTON, Texas -- Missouri players sat and watched the Allstate Sugar Bowl with the bewildered feeling the rest of the nation was experiencing. Oklahoma was imposing its will on SEC power Alabama in the heart of SEC country, going from underdog to the talk of the nation on Thursday night.

“It was crazy, it came down to what team wanted it most,” Missouri receiver Dorial Green-Beckham said of the Sooners' 45-31 win. “You looked at Oklahoma and they wanted to win the game, they wanted to be Sugar Bowl champs, they went out and took what was theirs.”

Thus, Missouri players woke up on Friday morning with the knowledge that the weight of an entire conference was on their shoulders. Missouri needed to grab immediate revenge with a victory over Oklahoma State in the AT&T Cotton Bowl if it wanted to defend its conference’s reputation.

The SEC took a punch from the Big 12 in the Sugar Bowl, but the Tigers punched back Friday night with a 41-31 win over Big 12 foe Oklahoma State at AT&T Stadium.

[+] EnlargeHenry Josey, Blake Webb
Ronald Martinez/Getty ImagesMissouri might be new to the SEC, but the Tigers understood the importance of beating Oklahoma State and keeping the conference's rep.
“I did feel a tad bit of pressure, because I know we represent the SEC,” senior receiver L'Damian Washington said. “I think [OSU cornerback] Justin Gilbert made a statement earlier this week that the Big 12 was better than the SEC and I think we had to go out and prove the SEC is a force to be reckoned with.”

The Tigers used a combination of a relentless pass-rushing defensive line, strong running game and timely plays to earn their school record-tying 12th victory of the season, equaling the win total of the 2007 team.

Led by Cotton Bowl offensive MVP Henry Josey, Missouri rushed for 256 yards and averaged 5.4 yards per carry against a Cowboys’ defense that allowed 132.9 rushing yards and 3.46 per carry during the regular season. OSU quarterback Clint Chelf will have nightmares featuring Tigers pass-rushing duo Michael Sam and Kony Ealy. Missouri got to Chelf for three sacks, but the Cowboys quarterback was constantly flushed out of the pocket and forced to make plays on the move thanks to the Tigers defensive line, which cemented the win when Sam forced a Chelf fumble that was returned 73 yards for a touchdown by Shane Ray to halt OSU’s hopes of a game-winning touchdown in the final minutes.

“First-team All-American makes an All-American play,” Mizzou coach Gary Pinkel said.

SEC teams rejoiced as the conference escaped back-to-back losses to Big 12 opponents.

“We believe we’re the best conference,” said Andrew Wilson, who finished with a game-high 15 tackles. “And if you want to be the best conference you have to prove it, that’s why everyone is rooting for each other in these bowl games for everyone to go out and do what they can do.”

Make no mistake, the Tigers wanted the win for themselves, but they also wanted it for their conference.

“That’s something real big, representing the SEC,” Josey said. “The SEC is such a powerful conference, that’s the conference everybody looks to, that’s where the attention is. Coming into this game, that was in the back of our mind, that is always in the back of our mind that we had to hold up the rep for the SEC.”

Now, with its job done, Missouri passes the mantle to Auburn, which has the opportunity to win the eighth consecutive BCS title for the SEC when it takes on Florida State in the BCS National Championship on Monday night.

“Right now it’s up to Auburn to bring it home,” Ealy said. “We want to keep it in the SEC, that’s the most important thing as far as this conference goes.”
MissouriCal Sport Media/AP ImagesCan Gary Pinkel's squad continue their run of recent success when they move to the SEC?
We introduced Mizzou to the SEC earlier Tuesday, but now it's time to get dirty.

Big 12 blogger David Ubben and Edward Aschoff debate: What awaits Missouri in the SEC?

The decline of one of college football's rising programs? Or new heights in a foreign conference that's college football's toughest?

Let's hash this out.

Edward Aschoff: So, with the Tigers joining the SEC, some are wondering if the Tigers will make more of an impact in basketball, rather than football. After all, the Big 12 hasn't exactly had its way with the SEC lately. But Mizzou does bring back a slew of talent on both sides of the ball and could compete in the SEC East in its first season. David, why should we believe that Missouri will be anything more than just a one-hit wonder?

David Ubben: Gary Pinkel. You'll hear this stat parroted often, but the Tigers are one of just a handful -- six, I believe -- teams in college football to win at least eight games in six consecutive seasons. TCU and Boise State have done it, too, but doing so outside of a power conference is nowhere near as impressive.

The Tigers haven't necessarily won big. The program is still seeking its first BCS bowl appearance but they've won consistently on the back of solid recruiting and even better development. Even in the program's glory years under Dan Devine in the 1960s, it never saw this kind of consistent success.

Players know what is expected of them under Pinkel. He wants to retire at Missouri, a point he's reiterated several times. The fans love him after this six-season stretch that followed some rough years early on, and would love to have him there as long as he wants. He's got the program rolling, and deep enough where a nightmare year of 4-5 wins just isn't going to happen.

Of course, he's done much of this on the back of Texas recruits, a luxury afforded many of the teams in the former Big 12 North after the Southwest Conference merged with the Big 8.

We've already seen them shift some recruiting focus into your neck of the woods, Florida and Atlanta. What does this program have to do to make some recruiting inroads there and continue this success?

[+] EnlargeJames Franklin
Sarah Glenn/Getty ImagesHow will James Franklin fare against more athletic and tougher defenses?
EA: Well, getting into the Florida and Atlanta areas is a good start, but Missouri can't forget about the entire Southeast. There are some other states that can be Missouri's friends as well. One thing going for Missouri is that St. Louis and Kansas City are pretty close. Both are about two hours away from Columbia and kids just love the those big cities! But the bright lights and the big malls can only take Missouri so far. Missouri has to prove that it can really compete on the SEC's level for an entire season and beyond. Winning just comes naturally in this conference, so Missouri will have to prove that it can keep up for years to come. One thing that will really get the athletes' attentions in the Southeast will be starting things off on the right foot. Playing in the SEC East and returning a good amount of starters should help with that. But make no mistake about it, there will be tons of negative recruiting thrown Missouri's way because of the Big 12 past and the fact that those starters will soon be gone after their SEC introduction.

Missouri's coaches are going to have to get very aggressive when it comes to recruiting over here. It's a rough game in the South. There are no unwritten rules about being respectful of committed prospects. SEC coaches play for keeps down here.

Also, Missouri's coaches are going to have to compete with the distance factor. Columbia is almost 700 miles away. There certainly are players who travel away from the Deep South, but most of them stay home. Can Missouri build enough of that family atmosphere to get these players to venture over to its neck of the woods?

We've hit Missouri's returners, but in order to win in the SEC you have to play well up front. Everyone says this a line-of-scrimmage league and from what I've read it sounds like Missouri's defensive line could have/should have played better in 2011. How do the Tigers make sure they're strong and tough enough up front to compete in this league?

DU: Good points on Mizzou's recruiting trying to spread its wings. The problem? They'll try to maintain those ties in Texas and it'll have to make sure they don't get spread too thin.

These are all issues Mizzou's coaching staff will have to figure out. I'm glad I don't have to.

You're right about the defensive line. They were good in 2011, but not as good as people thought. They'll have to be better. Landing a couple of those big defensive tackles down south would serve the Tigers well. For now, they've got great size coming back in a St. Louis kid, Sheldon Richardson. He's a 6-foot-4, 290-pounder with great athleticism who went to junior college before coming back to Mizzou. Monte Kiffin almost got his hands on him out at USC, but the Tigers have him and need him to have a huge season as a senior in Year 1 in the SEC.

The defensive line lost three starters, but they were deep in 2011 and have good pieces to fill the losses of Terrell Resonno and Dominique Hamilton at tackle and Jacquies Smith at defensive end. The time is now for promising ends Michael Sam and Kony Ealy.

Richardson's the biggest piece at tackle. Brad Madison was a Big 12 preseason Defensive Player of the Year candidate at defensive end, but had a disappointing season after playing through a shoulder injury that really limited his effectiveness and flexibility on the line. He'll be hungry as a senior in 2012. Memo to SEC offensive lines: look out for the spin move.

[+] EnlargeGary Pinkel
Jamie Squire/Getty ImagesGary Pinkel's success in coming seasons will hinge on how well Missouri can recruit in the South.
Players like Richardson come down to recruiting, though. The kinds of players Mizzou needs on the defensive lines are much more plentiful in their new recruiting soil. Getting their feet on the ground in junior colleges will be huge.

What about the offense, though? You've seen these SEC defenses up close all season. I'd argue that outside of Alabama, LSU and Georgia, the SEC's defenses were way overrated based on reputation this season.

Will the Tigers' spread offense work in the SEC East? What, if anything, has to change?

EA: Well, you certainly won't make friends down here with that sort of talk. South Carolina fans will surely let you know just how they feel about being left out of the defensive discussion. After all, South Carolina ranked third nationally in total defense and the SEC had six defenses ranked in the top 25, including five in the top eight. But I digress. We've seen the spread work before in the SEC. Florida's 2007 and 2008 offenses were two of the best in the country. The 2009 team put up a good bit of yards too. We've seen elements of the spread in other offenses as well around the SEC and Arkansas does a great job of spreading defenders out with its passing game. Mississippi State also utilized a pretty successful spread offense in 2010.

In order for it to work, the offensive line has to be beefy and athletic. I know, it's an interesting concept, but you won't survive in this league without some real athletes up front. You've said in the past that Missouri's offensive line was a better than average, well that won't cut it in this league.

You also need some elite speed at the wide receiver position and a sound running game. Getting Dorial Green-Beckham out there could be a major get for this offense because of his size and speed. As for running, mobile running backs and commanding the read option are key. Missouri will have to find ways to combat the tremendous speed off the edge from SEC pass rushers every week. That's James Franklin's running ability comes in. Working the option is huge in the spread.

Well, let's wrap this thing up. I think Missouri will be fun to watch next season, but I'm not sure how well the Tigers will do afterward. You've been around Missouri a lot longer, where do you see Missouri stacking up in the next few years in the SEC?

DU: Good point on those SEC defenses being awesome. I know guys like Morgan Newton, Justin Worley and Clint Moseley give defensive coordinators nightmares. Somebody get the Gamecocks a medal for not letting Arkansas score 50 and getting lucky enough to dodge LSU and Alabama on the schedule.

But I'm getting off target here, much like SEC quarterbacks' passes.

As for the Tigers, it's going to be tough when the current players begin to leave. I don't think they'll have as much success recruiting in Texas, but I've got no idea if they'll be able to get a foothold near the SEC East and, like you said, convince some of these kids to come to Missouri.

Neither outcome would surprise me, but I think as the transition happens and the current talent begins to drain out of the program, the Tigers will hit some lean years. Whether they bounce back depends on what everything in college football depends on: recruiting.

Can Mizzou do it? Only time will tell.
Missouri's first two major defensive tests?

Perhaps not failures, but far from successes.

Arizona State's Brock Osweiler threw for three touchdowns and 353 yards and the Sun Devils racked up just under 500 yards of offense.

[+] EnlargeGary Pinkel
Dak DillonAfter back-to-back solid efforts, coach Gary Pinkel's Missouri defense faces another stiff test in Oklahoma State.
Two weeks later, Oklahoma's Landry Jones threw for three more touchdowns and 448 yards. Oklahoma beat the Tigers 38-28 and had almost 600 yards of offense.

Lesser offenses followed, and the Tigers responded, holding Kansas State and Iowa State to a combined 298 yards passing. Iowa State didn't reach 400 yards of offense. Kansas State had fewer than 300.

"We’ve been pretty aggressive. There’s some things we need to learn, but I think experience within the group is improving during the season so far," said linebacker Luke Lambert.

This week?

"We’re going to certainly get tested this week against maybe the best offense in the nation," coach Gary Pinkel said of No. 4 Oklahoma State, "so we’ll see where we go here, but certainly the consistency of play is the thing I’m maybe most concerned about."

He's not exaggerating. The Cowboys, who didn't meet Mizzou last year, come to Columbia rolling up points and yardage just as quickly as they did during last year's 11-win season.

OSU ranks second nationally with more than 550 yards a game and scores an average of 49.2 points a game, more than every team in the FBS but Wisconsin.

That improving Missouri defense meets another big challenge. We'll see Saturday how it measures up.

"I think we’ve done a great job, especially this last week, of when we’re put in a bad situation, how the defense reacts to it," Lambert said. "We don’t pout or have a bad attitude. We can stop people. The first part of the season, maybe we didn’t do so well, but it’s something we’ve definitely built on."

Last year's defensive line was arguably the league's best, and returned every starter. The team's top defensive tackle, Dominique Hamilton, returned after a broken ankle and the line was bolstered by the addition of hyped juco recruit Sheldon Richardson. Sophomore Michael Sam and Kony Ealy figured to offer solid depth to a line looking to help out a new set of cornerbacks.

Missouri is tied for fourth in the Big 12 in sacks but is just one tackle-for-loss behind leader Oklahoma, at 47.

But 3-3 isn't where Missouri envisioned itself at the season's midpoint. For Pinkel, it circles back to the search for consistency.

"If I had an answer for that, I’d fix it. We’ve shuffled some players in and out," he said. "Statistically, we’re pretty decent in relationship to the league in the three games league-wise. We have to coach better and play better."

There won't be any hiding from an offense that will test every bit of the Tigers' improvement on Saturday. Be solid, or be exposed. A climb back above .500 depends on it.

"Plays will happen if everybody’s [focused and emotionally invested], and this last week kind of showed that," Lambert said. "Hopefully, we can build on what we started."

Big MU mistake puts Miami on the board

September, 3, 2011
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James Franklin hadn't made many big plays in today's game against Miami (Ohio), but he hadn't made any big mistakes, either.

Until the second half, anyway.

Franklin forced a pass to the sidelines and threw his first interception of the season. Miami's Dayonne Nunley picked it off and returned it five yards to the Missouri 14-yard line.

Three plays later, the RedHawks cut Missouri's lead to 10-6 in the third quarter after a missed extra-point attempt.

Additionally, Missouri defensive end Jacquies Smith was helped off the field by trainers on the touchdown play. There's no word on his status, but he's a senior and one of the team's best pass-rushers. He left the field and headed to the locker room. The Tigers' defensive line is deep and the best in the league, so look for hyped redshirt freshman Kony Ealy to get some playing time later in the game.

Franklin though, in a tight game, can't afford many more mistakes like that.
We've tackled every other spot, and now we'll wrap up out Big 12 position rankings with the defensive lines across the Big 12.

Here are the rest of the position rankings.
Now that we've finished ranking the complete units, we'll start ranking the top 10 at each position very soon leading into the 2011 season.

This is a decent position for the Big 12 this season, and the top half of the league should feel pretty good about their group. There aren't many studs in this group, but there are a whole lot of solid players.

Brad Madison
AP Photo/Pat SullivanMissouri has one of the Big 12's best pass rushers in Brad Madison.
1. Missouri -- Missouri has the Big 12's best returning pass rusher and a Defensive Player of the Year contender in Brad Madison, but its depth is what lands it on top of the list. Jacquies Smith is solid at the opposite defensive end spot, and Michael Sam and Kony Ealy provide great depth at DE. Dominique Hamilton's absence last season hurt after breaking his ankle against Oklahoma, but he's back, alongside Terrell Resonno. Sheldon Richardson, who may be transferring from junior college, is a wildcard that could be anywhere between a complete game changer, irrelevant or absent.

2. Oklahoma -- Oklahoma's defensive tackles are somewhat suspect, but the defensive end combo of Ronnell Lewis (provided he is eligible come fall camp) and Frank Alexander is on par with the best in the Big 12. Both were preseason All-Big 12 selections, but Jamarkus McFarland needs to make good on his potential. Stacy McGee and Casey Walker should both get time at the other tackle spot.

3. Texas -- Defensive end Jackson Jeffcoat is loaded with potential as the nation's former No. 1 recruit. He had a big impact early last season before being slowed by an ankle injury. Alex Okafor moved outside from defensive tackle just before spring and had five sacks in the spring game. Inside, Kheeston Randall is an All-Big 12 favorite, but Ashton Dorsey had a strong spring and could help out with Reggie Wilson opposite Randall.

4. Texas A&M -- The Aggies have one of the best linemen in the league in Tony Jerod-Eddie, but Jonathan Mathis, Eddie Brown Jr. and Ben Bass have a lot to prove around him after the loss of Lucas Patterson, who was outstanding in 2010.

5. Texas Tech -- Sam Fehoko has moved to defensive end from middle linebacker, and should provide some good speed to the front line. Scott Smith looked on his way to an All-Big 12 campaign last season, but was suspended for the remainder of the season by coach Tommy Tuberville and has yet to be officially reinstated. For now, Dartwan Bush and Aundrey Barr will help out at defensive end, outside of Donald Langley, Kerry Hyder and Pearlie Graves. The Red Raiders did snatch a big pickup from departed UNC signee Delvon Simmons, a defensive tackle that could have an impact immediately.

6. Oklahoma State -- Defensive line is the biggest weak spot for the Cowboys, who have a decent set of ends in Jamie Blatnick and former heralded recruit Richetti Jones, but an even bigger question mark at defensive tackle where Christian Littlehead and Nigel Nicholas enter fall camp as starters.

7. Kansas -- Top rusher turned defensive end Toben Opurum came on strong late last season and should be one of the most exciting Jayhawks to watch in 2011, but the rest of the line leaves a bit to be desired. Keba Agostino has the other starting spot at defensive end ahead of Pat Lewandowski, who had a great spring. Patrick Dorsey and John Williams enter fall camp as starters at defensive tackles.

8. Kansas State -- K-State recruited this position hard in its 2011 class. For now, defensive end Brandon Harold will try to bounce back from a disappointing 2010 after a promising 2009. Lance Dunbar and Taylor Martinez think this group is ranked too high, but Meshak Williams could start opposite Harold, while Ray Kibble and Raphael Guidry should be the tackles inside.

9. Baylor -- Tevin Elliott was limited this spring because of offseason shoulder surgery, and Terrance Lloyd exited spring practice as the starter, but I'd expect Elliott to regain the spot by the time the season arrives. Phil Taylor, a first-round pick, is a big loss, but Gary Mason Jr. will try to fill his spot next to Nicolas Jean-Baptiste.

10. Iowa State -- Having a pair of linebackers combine for 241 tackles is a good and bad thing. They've got outstanding linebackers, but the defensive line was the Big 12's worst last season for a unit that ranked 10th in rush defense and had just 11 sacks. That was the fewest sacks in the Big 12 and more than just three teams in all of college football. The good news is all four starters return, but for now, this is where the Cyclones start. Stephen Ruempolhamer has some promise, but Cleyon Laing, Jake McDonough and ends Patrick Neal and Roosevelt Maggitt have a lot to prove. Jacob Lattimer ran into offseason trouble, but re-appeared atop the depth chart released by the Cyclones on Wednesday.

Assessing the contenders: Missouri

July, 14, 2011
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Heading into the season, I see five teams in the Big 12 with a realistic chance to win the league. I'll be breaking them down in order (which won't be the same as my post-spring power rankings) of their chances to leave the season with the Big 12 title.

No. 1 on the list was the favorite: Oklahoma.

No. 2 was Texas A&M.

Oklahoma State came in at No. 3.

Why the Tigers will win the Big 12

1. Experience. Missouri returns 105 starts on the offensive line, losing only center Tim Barnes. That's the most in the Big 12 and 11th most in the nation on an offensive line that was fantastic in 2010. Just less than 80 percent of its total lettermen return, eighth-most in college football. That's a lot of guys who have been around, and the Tigers knocked over a big wall last year when they toppled the Sooners. Eliminate Mizzou's curious road hiccup at Texas Tech, and the Tigers would have been back in the Big 12 title game instead of sharing the Big 12 North with Nebraska after a third 10-win season in four years.

2. Dave Steckel. The Tigers' defense has steadily improved under Steckel, who previously coached linebackers under Matt Eberflus. Missouri had its best defense under Gary Pinkel last year, and that could continue this year with a great mix of experience and upside at linebacker, with Will Ebner and Zaviar Gooden set to knock around a few folks. Missouri's defense is noticeably tougher under Steckel, and though the Tigers must replace Aldon Smith and both starting corners, don't expect it to take a big jump back. Though Kip Edwards and E.J. Gaines lack the experience of Carl Gettis and Kevin Rutland, they may prove to be better corners very soon.

3. The defensive line. And what's the best way to negate inexperience at corner? How about the Big 12's best defensive line. Brad Madison is arguably the Big 12's best returning pass-rusher, and his counterpart at defensive end, Jacquies Smith, is one of the better ends in the Big 12, too. Missouri also has the best depth of any defensive line, with Michael Sam and Kony Ealy itching to spell Madison and Smith. At defensive tackle, Terrell Resonno could be poised for a breakout year, and blue-chip recruit Sheldon Richardson, if/when he actually makes it to campus, should join Dominique Hamilton at the opposite tackle spot, making sure Missouri's front four are not to be trifled.

Why the Tigers won't win the Big 12

1. The quarterback has never started a game. Sometimes, it's just this simple. James Franklin may blossom into a star at Missouri, but as a first-year starter, he's bound to have a few bad nights. Can Missouri survive them? Its Big 12 title hopes depend on it. If Blaine Gabbert had stayed, Missouri would likely be a top-15 or top-10 team and join Texas A&M and OSU as the chief contenders to knock off Oklahoma. Instead, the Tigers are relegated to a dark horse/wild-card role that depends heavily on how Franklin performs in his first year. The one advantage he has is after Tyler Gabbert's post-spring transfer, fall camp will be more about cementing his role as starter than winning it. Franklin walked in as a true freshman last spring and eventually won the No. 2 job behind Blaine Gabbert. That says a lot, and he earned some playing time last year, but his sophomore season won't be anything like 2010, when he threw all of 14 passes.

2. The passing game is limited. NFL teams knew Blaine Gabbert had a cannon, but he didn't get very many chances to showcase it to college fans last year, and Franklin may be forced to do the same. T.J. Moe and Michael Egnew are a great duo with some of the best hands in the league and a great sense of space, but without a deep threat to keep defenses honest, their production declined late in the season. Danario Alexander and Jeremy Maclin were able to stretch the field for guys like Chase Coffman and Martin Rucker in the past, but Moe and Egnew won't come close to 2010's production if the Tigers can't find someone to haul in a few passes over the top of the secondary.

3. Trips to Norman and College Station are on the schedule. I hear you, Missouri fans. I was there for the destruction of Texas A&M at Kyle Field last year. But that was a very different Texas A&M team than you'll be facing this time around. And the return trip may not be quite as enjoyable. Jerrod Johnson struggled against the Tigers, but the 30-9 loss was his penultimate start and Ryan Tannehill is driving the bus now. Also, don't count on this one being an 11 a.m. kickoff. I'd plan for prime time, and Kyle Field is a very different place at 8 p.m. than at lunch time. Ask Nebraska. Missouri knocked off Oklahoma last year, too, but don't think the Sooners have forgotten the fourth-quarter meltdown in Columbia. Oklahoma gets both of its losses in 2010 -- Missouri and Texas A&M -- in Norman this year, where it carries a 36-game home winning streak, the nation's longest, into 2011.

Finding a Big 12 All-Future Team

June, 8, 2011
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I've mentioned this in the past, but a few Mailbag questions warrant a post all its own. This is one of those posts.

We'll have a Mailbag later today, by the way, so if you'd like to get your two cents in, here's your chance.

David in Austin, Texas asked: Let's say you were the head coach of Ubbeniversity, which sophmores and incoming freshmen would you "recruit" to each position based on the spring games, hype, and single seasons? Bonus: Without taking more 3 players from a single school.

Now, let's not get confused. I named my Big 12 All-Freshman team last year, but those were players who had accomplished something on the field after one season. This team is predicting the future. There are plenty of incoming freshmen who could prove better than their older competition, and other freshmen who have the skill and hype, but lack the opportunity that others got.

So, here we go.

Getting those bonus points might prove difficult, but here's who I'd take:

OFFENSE

QB: James Franklin, Missouri
RB: Malcolm Brown, Texas
RB: Joseph Randle, Oklahoma State
WR: Kenny Stills, Oklahoma
WR: Tevin Reese, Baylor
WR: Mike Davis, Texas
FB: Trey Millard, Oklahoma
OL: Nick Demien, Missouri
OL: Luke Joeckel, Texas A&M
OL: Cyril Richardson, Baylor
OL: Trey Hopkins, Texas
OL: Jake Matthews, Texas A&M

DEFENSE

DL: Damontre Moore, Texas A&M
DL: Kony Ealy, Missouri
DL: Tevin Elliot, Baylor
DL: Jackson Jeffcoat, Texas
LB: Shaun Lewis, Oklahoma State
LB: Corey Nelson, Oklahoma
LB: Jordan Hicks, Texas
CB: Quandre Diggs, Texas
CB: Justin Gilbert, Oklahoma State
S: Tony Jefferson, Oklahoma
S: Ahmad Dixon, Baylor

Well, I couldn't get those bonus points, despite my best efforts, but here's a few thoughts:
  • Kansas, Kansas State, Iowa State and Texas Tech weren't represented in this group, but Kansas State's Ty Zimmerman nearly made it at safety, and Kansas running back James Sims was on my All-Freshman team last year. Additionally, I nearly added a tight end spot, and probably would have put Texas Tech tight end Jace Amaro in it, but I went with a fullback spot, and Trey Millard's value to the Sooners won't be understated any time Bob Stoops talks about him. He touted Millard's perhaps more than any other freshman on his team, and his play made it pretty obvious why.
  • Though this year's crop of Big 12 running backs looks weak, I was surprised to realize just how many good young running backs nearly made this list. Very, very soon, I think the Big 12 could be loaded at the position. Oklahoma's Brandon Williams and Roy Finch just missed the list, as well as Kansas' Darrian Miller and James Sims, Iowa State's Shontrelle Johnson and Texas Tech's Ronnie Daniels. That's a lot of good running backs.
  • Not a good group of young quarterbacks in the league. Franklin leads what is a pretty questionable group. Granted, young quarterbacks who haven't gotten real playing time are always a risk, but anyone have a pick to throw him off? Blake Bell? Case McCoy? Jameill Showers? J.W. Walsh? Scotty Young? Michael Brewer?
  • The biggest unknowns on my team: Ealy, Hopkins, Demien and Diggs.
Our friends in the Big East kicked off this idea, and it'll suit the Big 12 well. The All-Big 12 preseason teams are still a long way away, but which units in the Big 12 are the best entering 2011?

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

Quarterbacks: Oklahoma State

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

Honorable mention: Oklahoma, Baylor

Running backs: Texas A&M

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

Honorable mention: Oklahoma

Receivers: Oklahoma

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

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

Offensive line: Oklahoma State

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

Honorable mention: Texas A&M

Defensive line: Missouri

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

Honorable mention: Texas

Linebackers: Oklahoma

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

Honorable mention: Iowa State

Cornerbacks: Texas A&M

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

Honorable mention: Oklahoma

Safeties: Oklahoma State

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

Honorable mention: Kansas State

Punter: Oklahoma State

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

Kicker: Missouri

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

Best of spring

May, 6, 2011
5/06/11
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Now that spring practice is over, it's time to pass out a few awards.

Best spring game performance: Seth Doege, QB, Texas Tech: The Red Raiders' likely new starting quarterback completed 20 of 35 passes for 317 yards and four touchdowns. That capped a solid spring in which Doege did just about everything he could to cement his status as the next Tech quarterback in the fall.

Best spring camp by a freshman: Kony Ealy, DE, Missouri: Despite losing Aldon Smith (the No. 7 overall pick in the NFL draft), Missouri's already-loaded defensive line looks like it has another budding star. Ealy, a 6-foot-5, 250-pound redshirt freshman, will find his way on the field next year.

Best out-of-the-blue performance: Donnie Baggs, LB, Texas A&M: Baggs wasn't a heralded recruit in the Aggies' 2011 class, but he enrolled early and might be called upon in the fall to replace the team's leading tackler, Michael Hodges.

Biggest rising star: Corey Nelson, LB, Oklahoma: Nelson played sparingly as a freshman in 2010, but one of the nation's top recruits in the 2010 class emerged this spring. His play was so impressive, Sooners coach Bob Stoops called him the best player on the defense this spring. Oklahoma is locked in at linebacker heading into 2011, but he'll find a way on the field next year and become a household name before too long.

Most interesting story: Texas gets acquainted: There hasn't been much change at Texas under Mack Brown, but last season's 5-7 campaign necessitated it. This spring, the Longhorns adjusted to six new coaches, including offensive coordinator Bryan Harsin, who loves trick plays, and a defensive coordinator in Manny Diaz who shows up to practice in cleats and flies around in them like he wants his defense to do.

Best "thanks, but no thanks" moment: The Big 12 had just three players leave early, as some of the league's stars returned for another round of spring camp. Oklahoma's Ryan Broyles and Travis Lewis, Oklahoma State's Justin Blackmon and Brandon Weeden, and Texas A&M's Jeff Fuller all stuck around with big hopes for 2011.

Best quote: "We're looking for a guy that's never been 'it' in a game of tag." -- Baylor coach Art Briles, on the Bears' search for a running back to replace Jay Finley.

Missouri spring wrap

May, 6, 2011
5/06/11
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MISSOURI

2010 overall record: 10-3

2010 conference record: 6-2

Returning starters: Offense (9), Defense (6) P/K (2)

Top returners: DE Brad Madison, WR T.J. Moe, TE Michael Egnew, RB De’Vion Moore, LB Zaviar Gooden, S Kenji Jackson, LB Will Ebner

Key losses: QB Blaine Gabbert, DE Aldon Smith, LB Andrew Gachkar, CB Kevin Rutland, CB Carl Gettis, C Tim Barnes

2010 statistical leaders (*returners)

Rushing: De’Vion Moore* (517 yards)

Passing: Blaine Gabbert (3,186 yards)

Receiving: T.J. Moe (1,045 yards)

Tackles: Andrew Gachkar, Zaviar Gooden* (84)

Sacks: Brad Madison* (7.5)

Interceptions: Kevin Rutland (3)

Three spring answers

1. Primary concern? Not the secondary. Missouri lost both starting corners, Carl Gettis and Kevin Rutland, from last year’s team, but the secondary could be even better in 2011. Kip Edwards played extensively last year and the coaching staff considers him a returning starter. E.J. Gaines, just a sophomore, could be in for a solid year, too. Don’t expect a big dropoff from the Tigers’ secondary.

2. The next Aldon Smith? Missouri already has a solid duo at defensive end with Jacquies Smith and Brad Madison, but the Tigers found another this spring. Kony Ealy, a 6-foot-5, 250-pound redshirt freshman, was unblockable for stretches during the spring and should find a spot in the rotation of a loaded Missouri defensive line next fall.

3. Tigers find a center. Three-year starting center Tim Barnes is gone, and the search for his replacement was on this spring. Missouri’s reserve centers struggled with snaps at times, but Travis Ruth won the job over Justin Britt after the spring. I wouldn’t expect that to change in the fall.

Three fall questions

1. Is the new QB ready? James Franklin will enter fall as the starter, but Tyler Gabbert is right there with him. The Tigers didn’t settle much this spring, but most agree that this is the best team surrounding the quarterback maybe ever under Gary Pinkel. Once the Tigers figure out who’s starting, can he keep up with what should be a solid team?

2. Paging Sheldon Richardson. The defensive tackle is one of the most highly recruited prospects in Missouri history, and has already signed with the Tigers twice, snubbing USC the second time. He was scheduled to arrive this spring, but he hasn’t officially qualified yet. He’s expected to arrive in June, but if we’ve learned one thing throughout this saga, it’s nothing is a given. If he does eventually arrive, will he be the impact player that his athletic, 6-foot-4, 295-pound frame suggests he could be?

3. Can the offense stretch the field? Missouri’s two top receivers, T.J. Moe and Michael Egnew, are possession receivers that don’t often beat defenses deep. Defenders keyed in on them late in the season, and their production waned a bit. Can Missouri find a player like Danario Alexander or Jeremy Maclin this year to stretch the field and open up more space for Egnew, Moe and the running game?
Every spring, unheralded players make a name for themselves and give a preview of what's to come in the fall. Two teams in the Big 12 are still practicing, but here's who did it across the league this spring.

Baylor: Ahmad Dixon, DB. Dixon, a big name in Waco and one of the highest-rated recruits in Baylor history, played sparingly as a freshman reserve safety in 2009, finishing with 16 tackles. This year, though, the 6-foot, 200-pounder could be a game-changer at nickelback for Phil Bennett's defense.

[+] EnlargeTexas' Alex Okafor
Brett Davis/US PRESSWIREAlex Okafor had five sacks during Texas' spring game.
Iowa State: Aaron Horne, WR. Horne only got a scholarship offer from the Cyclones when coaches came to see his teammate, quarterback Steele Jantz, play at a junior college in California. This spring, the 5-foot-9, 167-pounder emerged as a likely major contributor in the passing game, and led all receivers with eight receptions for 124 yards and a touchdown in the spring game.

Kansas: Darrian Miller, RB. Kansas is still practicing, but Miller, a Kansas City native and one of the Jayhawks' highest-rated recruits in the 2011 class, has impressed with his explosiveness and figures to earn plenty of touches next fall in the running game.

Kansas State: Nigel Malone, CB. Malone could be next in line to be one of Bill Snyder's impact juco transfers. He showed up this spring without the memories of last year's struggles by the Wildcats' defense, and is in competition for a starting spot at corner opposite David Garrett.

Missouri: Kony Ealy, DE. Missouri is already loaded at defensive end with Brad Madison and Jacquies Smith, but the Tigers' may have a budding star in Ealy, a redshirt freshman. He was unblockable at times this spring and should be a major contributor in the defensive end rotation next season. If nothing else, he could make an impact in Missouri's "Candy" defensive package, which features four defensive ends.

Oklahoma: Corey Nelson, LB. Nelson was one of the Sooners' top recruits in the 2010 class, and played very little last year, but coach Bob Stoops says he'll have to get Nelson on the field somehow this year. For now he backs up All-Big 12 mainstay Travis Lewis, but you'll see No. 7 plenty this fall. After a recent scrimmage, Stoops called him the best player on the defense this spring.

Oklahoma State: Michael Bowie, OT. The Cowboys bring back all five starters on the offensive line, but there's plenty of buzz that Bowie could steal a starting spot by mid-season if he continues to play like he did in the spring. The juco transfer is a light-footed 6-foot-4 and 294 pounds, and starter or otherwise, gives an already impressive line great depth.

Texas: Alex Okafor, DE. Okafor switched to defensive end just days before the spring, but looks like a budding star at the position after a strong spring. He capped it by a five-sack performance in the Longhorns' spring game.

Texas A&M: Donnie Baggs, LB. Baggs enrolled early this spring for the Aggies, and as a true freshman, could find himself getting a serious look to replace departed starter Michael Hodges, who led the team in tackles last year.

Texas Tech: Blake Dees, LB. Dees is benefiting from a simplified 4-2-5 scheme under new coordinator Chad Glasgow that allows him to use his natural instincts to rush the passer, rather than worry about complex coverage schemes. It's unlikely he'll beat out Sam Fehoko to start at linebacker, but he's very likely to find a spot in the rotation and get some major playing time in his first season.

Big 12 spring game recap: Missouri

April, 18, 2011
4/18/11
1:45
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What happened:

  • James Franklin completed 13-of-21 passes for 116 yards and two touchdowns.
  • Tyler Gabbert completed 8-of-22 passes for 48 yards and an interception.
  • Cornerback E.J. Gaines had the game's lone interception.
  • The Tigers put in a strong case for most ridiculous spring game scoring system. In the first half, the reserves were spotted a 14-0 lead and ended up beating the starters, 21-10. In the second half, once the score was reset, the offense beat the defense, 3-0.
  • A crowd of about 10,000 showed up on a chilly Saturday.
What we learned:
  • Missouri's quarterback race was already almost certain to continue into the fall, but the Tigers' final few practices, including Saturday, only further complicated the race. Gabbert was pretty clearly outperforming Franklin early in spring practice, but after spring break, Franklin outperformed Gabbert in the final scrimmage and pretty clearly outplayed a struggling Gabbert on Saturday. Gabbert was honored at the game as the team's most improved quarterback, but that improvement didn't show up on the spring's biggest stage. Ashton Glaser (14-of-17, 95 yards) had a pretty good day, but this looks like it's trimmed down to a two-man race. Heading into fall, it looks like a complete toss-up between Gabbert and Franklin, who both enrolled early before last spring.
  • As for an improved player who did show up, take a look at Kony Ealy. The freshman defensive end has had a lot of buzz this spring, and finished with four tackles and one of the game's three sacks. At 6-foot-5 and 250 pounds, he's got some rare size, and as part of a loaded Missouri defensive line, he should be fun to watch this fall.
  • Missouri's biggest strength really seems to have shifted to the defensive side of the ball, which is a bit surprising considering how the program has operated under Gary Pinkel. In terms of experience, that's definitely the case. Brad Madison looks likely to blossom into a star next season, and defensive back Kip Edwards might do the same. The defensive line speaks for itself, and Zaviar Gooden is loaded with potential at linebacker. T.J. Moe and Michael Egnew rack up plenty of receptions, but beyond them, the Tigers don't look likely to put another offensive player on the preseason All-Big 12 team. Someone will have to surprise if Missouri's offense is going to put a player on the postseason team.
They said it:

"I don’t like getting involved in the process, I like to let it take care of itself. We have two great competitors. We will see where it goes. There is not a timetable. Let the competition begin." -- Pinkel on the Tigers' quarterback competition.

More Big 12 spring game recaps:

Big 12 weekend scrimmage roundup

April, 11, 2011
4/11/11
9:00
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Time to catch up with a few on-field happenings over the weekend...

Missouri quarterback competition heats up

For most of the spring, the only big mover in Missouri's competition has been Tyler Gabbert. He used the first few weeks of spring to move from the No. 3 quarterback to co-No.1 before taking over the No. 1 spot heading into Saturday's scrimmage.

James Franklin, however, looked like he made a move in Saturday's scrimmage. The competition is close enough that it's highly unlikely that Missouri will have an official starter at the end of spring, but Franklin and Gabbert appear to have made it a two-man race ahead of Ashton Glaser.

Here's how it shook out on Saturday:
  • Franklin: 19-30, 222 yards, TD, INT; 4 carries, 27 yards, TD
  • Gabbert: 14-26, 103 yards, INT

Franklin was the day's leading rusher.

Gabbert's interception was returned 32 yards for a score by new corner E.J. Gaines, and that's exactly the kind of play that can knock you down a peg in competitions like these. All mistakes are not created equal.

Gaines' pick, though, was indicative of a big day for the defense, which won the scrimmage by adding two more touchdowns on an interception and a fumble return and had four interceptions on the day. Defensive end Brad Madison had two of the team's six sacks.

Kony Ealy, who's earned plenty of buzz this spring as a likely contributor at defensive end alongside Madison and Jacquies Smith, had a sack, a fumble recovery and a blocked field goal.

With just one more week for Missouri until Saturday's spring game, it's clear the quarterback position is even more muddled, so don't expect a true starter to emerge until late in fall camp.

Missouri fans have reason to worry about the center spot, though. New starter Travis Ruth, replacing All-Big 12 performer Tim Barnes, had a nice day, but the backups had a difficult time snapping the ball. One of the defensive touchdowns, a 40-yard return by Marcus Malbrough, came off a bad snap.

Young running back steals show for Kansas

Could James Sims have company at the head of the pack among Kansas' running backs? It would seem so.

The practice was closed to fans and the media, but the early enrolling freshman from Kansas City scored four touchdowns, including one run that sounded like a sight to see.

From the team's report on the website:
Miller scored four touchdowns, including a run where he seemed to be surrounded by the defense, but spun out of it and ran to daylight.

But alas, coach Turner Gill brings the video goods via his Twitter account!

That's a heck of a run. I always love seeing quarterbacks hustle to make blocks, too, even if they don't get there.

"[Darrian] definitely had some good runs today and he showed that he has good vision and direction, and showed a good burst of speed," Gill said.

The Jayhawks are pretty deep at running back, with Sims and Darrien Miller being joined by DeShaun Sands, Brandon Bourbon, Rell Lewis and fellow freshmen Dreamius Smith and Anthony Pierson.

I'd still expect Sims to get the bulk of the carries, but Miller is clearly making a case early in his career that he'll be a factor as well.
Missouri's first official scrimmage of the spring was on Saturday, and who was the first quarterback to take snaps?

Redshirt freshman Tyler Gabbert.

All three Missouri quarterbacks wore orange jerseys signifying they could each bit hit above the waist, so the race is close, but Gabbert made the most of his opportunity, turning in the best day among the three passers.

Here's how they finished:
Franklin's day featured a forgettable interception returned 40 yards by Zaviar Gooden (Told you folks to keep an eye on him last week) and Gabbert's biggest highlight was a 64-yard touchdown pass to L'Damian Washington. Franklin's score was a toss across his body to Brandon Gerau in the back corner of the end zone for a 10-yard score.

Washington added a second touchdown and had 83 yards on four catches to lead all receivers.

Franklin obviously wasn't happy with his performance, but this was what it was: A spring scrimmage. By all accounts, Gabbert was the most impressive passer on Saturday, but there's a long way to go before Missouri's season opener in September.

Defensive ends Jacquies Smith and Kony Ealy, who has earned a good amount of buzz early in spring camp after redshirting in 2010, both had sacks in the scrimmage.

Defensive end Brad Madison added a pair of hurries.

The Tigers also left with at least one big concern. All-Big 12 center Tim Barnes is gone, and Travis Ruth and Justin Britt are competing to replace him.

But in Saturday's scrimmage, there were numerous botched snaps, including one on the opening drive that Gabbert was forced to dive on.

"It's very tough on the QBs," coach Gary Pinkel told reporters after the scrimmage. "You've got the QBs battling out there, and the snaps are all over the place. That's very difficult. Obviously, we've got to fix it."

Missouri recruiting capsule

February, 4, 2010
2/04/10
11:45
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Missouri Tigers

Total class: 23

ESPN 150: 0

By position: OT 3, WR 3, S 3, CB 3, RB 2, QB 2, ATH 2, DE 2, TE 1, DT 1, ILB 1.

By state: Texas 9, Missouri 6, Kansas 1, Michigan 1, Arkansas 1, Iowa 1, Oklahoma 1, Florida 1, Illinois 1, North Carolina 1.

Already enrolled in school: 4.

The big ones: Bookend OTs Nick Demien and Mitch Morse both could develop into standout pass-blockers with proper seasoning and development. Demien is a four-star recruit who is the No. 17 offensive tackle in the class. And Morse is the No. 19 tackle in the nation. DE Kony Ealy is a rangy, 6-foot-5, 230-pound pass-rusher who is ranked No. 49 among defensive ends and shows plenty of room for growth. He could blossom into a pass-rushing beast.

Sleeper: Darvin Ruise is a converted high school quarterback who likely will be a running back, receiver or a returner because of his athletic ability. Missouri coaches love his explosive speed and running ability with the ball.

Needs met: The Tigers added three receivers and a couple of athletes who could help bridge the loss of Danario Alexander and Jared Perry. Running back Greg White would appear to have a shot at eventually breaking into the logjam at the position. And Gary Pinkel appears to have addressed next season’s loss in the secondary with quantity as the Tigers attracted three safeties and three cornerbacks.

Analysis: This is the best recruiting class that Pinkel has attracted in his 10 seasons at Missouri. Surprisingly, he almost admitted it at his news conference on Wednesday. It’s a class of depth that answered almost every need for the Tigers, with heavy emphasis at wide receiver and the secondary. The Tigers had the best class in the North Division and should have the personnel to keep them in the mix for the Big 12 North title for the next few years.

What Gary Pinkel said: "I think the consistency of winning in our program and the great results we're having academically make Missouri a place a lot of kids look at now rather than five or six years ago. … “In our evaluation system, this is significantly a higher level of total recruits than we’ve had since we’ve been here. I don't know about anybody else's system, but that's the way ours reads, and we're excited about that."

Scouts Inc. grade/rankings: B-minus, fifth in Big 12.

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