Big 12: Marcus Herford

Ranking the Big 12's special teams

September, 3, 2009
9/03/09
6:22
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin


I know this makes me sound like a coaches, but I actually think that special teams really does account for a third of a team's success. And I think that solid play in all facets is especially critical in the Big 12 because of the small margin of error in most games.

Here's a look at how I rank the special teams in the conference, giving each team a master rating including all facets of the kicking game.

1. Texas: The best combination kicking game in the league with two-deep talent at both kicker and punter and Jordan Shipley to take care of the returns. The Longhorns always have fast, talented athletes covering kicks as well. And I'm curious to see if Justin Tucker really will be able to produce rugby-style punts with both feet.

2. Oklahoma State:The Cowboys have the best kickoff/punt returners in the conference in Dez Bryant and Perrish Cox. Special-teams coach Joe DeForest always does an outstanding job, although he’ll be in tough spot replacing Matt Fodge as his punter this season.

3. Nebraska: Alex Henery was the best kicker in the conference with a knack for making huge kicks. It's curious that Nebraska coaches would risk that success by having him double up as a punter this season. But he actually came to college as a walk-on punter. Niles Paul will get the start as both punt returner and kick returner. And Adi Kunalic led the nation in touchbacks as a kickoff specialist.

4. Kansas State:I’m basing this as much on past success as anything else -- Ron Prince’s team blocked four punts for touchdowns last season. Brandon Banks is a threat to break a big return on every play and he’ll be doubling as a kick and punt returner this season. Even with Bill Snyder taking over, I’m still thinking this will be a productive unit as they break in new kicker Josh Cherry and new punter Ryan Doerr.

5. Baylor: The Bears have the most consistent punter in the conference with Derek Epperson. Look for improvement from kicker Ben Parks. One key will be boosting punt returns with new returner Krys Buerck after ranking only 118th nationally as a team last season.

6. Iowa State: I think that Jack Trice Stadium might be the toughest facility in the conference because of its swirling winds. Paul Rhoads has some confidence with Grant Mahoney back at kicker and Mike Brandtner at punter. Leonard Johnson is one of the most effective kickoff returners in the conference. But the Cyclones need a boost on punt returns and in covering kicks.

7. Oklahoma: For a team with as many athletes as the Sooners, I was surprised with their difficulties in covering kicks last season. That’s the immediate concern for them. DeMarco Murray was a threat on every return, but I doubt he plays there much because of his recent injury problems. Dominique Franks, Ryan Broyles and Cameron Kenney are expected to contribute in the return game. And Kenney might even push Tress Way for punting duties. Coaches have also been impressed with the improved range of kicker Jimmy Stevens. We’ll see if that holds up when the season starts.

8. Texas Tech: The story about Matt “Lynwood” Williams was one of the best in college football last year as he emerged from an in-game kicking contest to win most of the kicking honors for the Red Raiders. Donnie Carona was a disappointment as a kicker, but may emerge as a punter along with Ryan Erxleben (yeah, he’s the son of former Texas punter Russell Erxleben) as the Red Raiders wait for Jonathan LaCour to come off a Big 12-mandated suspension. Edward Britton and Jamar Wall will be involved in returning kicks, along with many others.

9. Texas A&M: Here’s a stat that shows how far Texas A&M’s once vaunting kicking game has fallen in recent years. The Aggies haven’t converted a field goal of 50 yards or more since 2000. Randy Bullock is back as the kicker and freshman Ryan Epperson and Ken Wood are still battling for the punting job. Christine Michael inherits the kickoff return duties, but look for heralded junior-college cornerback Coryell Judie to be involved some way.

10. Missouri: No Jeremy Maclin and Jeff Wolfert means that the Tigers will rebuild one of their strongest units last season. Their net punting figures to improve after Jake Harry’s strong start. Grant Ressel won the kicking job in a tight battle, but might be pushed this season. Gary Pinkel is sorting through his options in the return game but won’t have anybody nearly as gifted as Maclin. And they need to do a better job covering kicks after allowing a kickoff return for a touchdown for the first time last season.

11. Kansas: The Jayhawks desperately need some improvement in this category. Jacob Branstetter converted 75 percent of his kicks, but his longest was only 34 yards. Punter Alonso Rojas’ net average was only 33.9 yards. And the Jayhawks ranked 118th nationally in kickoff returns as Marcus Herford accounted for most of the returns. They showed some strong improvement late in the season when Dezmon Briscoe took over.

12. Colorado: The Buffaloes had the worst field-goal percentage in the country as they converted only 29 percent last season. They also lose Josh Smith, who set a school record for total kick return yards. Coaches think that Andre Simmons will be able to help here, but I’ll take a wait-and-see attitude before I get too excited.

What to watch at Big 12 spring practices

February, 13, 2009
2/13/09
10:00
AM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin

The Big 12 should again be loaded in 2009. And the spring will feature several key positional battles and holes to fill that will go a long way in determining whether Oklahoma can make history and claim a fourth-straight championship this season.

Here a look at each team and three major items to watch in spring practice.

NORTH DIVISION

Colorado Buffaloes

Spring practice begins: March 31

Spring game: April 25

What to watch:

  • The health of the team: The Buffaloes' players lost a combined total of 121 games to due to illness or injury last season. Some players like tight end Riar Geer, guards Devin Head, Maxwell Tuioti-Mariner and Mike Iltis, linebacker Jon Major and cornerback Jalil Brown will be limited during the spring because of past injuries. But others like tackle Ryan Miller, tailback Rodney Stewart and cornerback Benjamin Burney should be good to go throughout the spring. Coach Dan Hawkins won't push things, but it will be good to have as many regulars as possible practicing again.
  • The return of Darrell Scott: The conference's most publicized running back recruit of 2008 never could get untracked, rushing for disappointing totals of 343 yards and 3.9 yards per carry last season. The spring will give him a chance to show why he was one of the nation's top recruits in the Class of 2008.
  • Settle the kicking game: After Colorado kickers combined to shank 11 of 17 attempts last season, it might be the last chance for Aric Goodman or Jameson Davis to show what they can do after their struggles last season and the arrival of heralded recruit Zach Grossnickle in the fall.

Iowa State Cyclones

Spring practice begins: March 24

Spring game: April 18

What to watch:

  • Paul Rhoads' early assimilation: After his hiring last Dec. 23, Rhoads has concentrated on recruiting and building a coaching staff. Being able to work on the field with his team will likely be a relief for him after such a hectic start.
  • Help in the secondary: The Cyclones lose starters Chris Singleton and Brandon Hunley from a unit that ranked in the bottom 10 nationally in pass efficiency defense and pass defense. Rhoads' specialty is defense, but he'll have his work cut out with his new unit.
  • Finding another starter at wide receiver: Darius Darks is back after an impressive freshman season, but Rhoads needs to find a replacement for 2008 leading receiver R.J. Sumrall. Look for Sedrick Johnson, Marquis Hamilton and Houston Jones all to have their chances at the starting unit during the spring.

Kansas Jayhawks

Spring practice begins: March 9

Spring game: April 11

What to watch:

  • Finding starters at linebackers: The Jayhawks must completely rebuild their linebacking corps as James Holt, Mike Rivera and Joe Mortensen all are gone from last season. Arist Wright and Dakota Lewis are in the mix because of their experience. A bigger wild card could be converted running back Angus Quigley, who turned heads with his defensive instincts and tackling in work before the Jayhawks' bowl game last season.
  • Get a consistent kick returner: The mystifying struggles of Marcus Herford last season resulted in a drop of more than 8 yards per kick return as the Jayhawks fell from seventh in 2007 to 118th nationally last season. Dezmon Briscoe showed flashes of being a productive returner late in the season, but more work from different players will be needed in the spring to shore up the area.
  • Rebuild the center of the offensive line: Losing starting guards Chet Hartley and Adrian Mayes along with center Ryan Cantrell will be the biggest offensive concern this spring for the Jayhawks. Carl Wilson and Sal Kapra should get a long look at guard and Brad Thorson will given the first shot at center.

Kansas State Wildcats:

Spring practice begins: April 6

Spring game: May 2

What to watch:

  • Bill Snyder's return to coaching: The wily Snyder will be facing the biggest challenge of his professional career after returning after a three-year coaching sabbatical. The Wildcats aren't as bad as they were in 1989 when Snyder originally took over, but the Big 12 is a much tougher than the Big Eight was in those days. And it will test the patience and legendary work ethic of Snyder to get the Wildcats back into Big 12 title contention in the immediate future.
  • The quarterback battle: New offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig is one of the conference's most notable hirings after his strong recent work at Utah. Ludwig will be challenged as he looks at Carson Coffman or junior-college transfer Daniel Thomas to replace Josh Freeman as his starting quarterback.
  • Looking for a defensive turnaround: The Wildcats were woeful last season, ranking among the bottom 10 teams nationally in rushing defense, scoring defense and total defense and 106th nationally in pass defense. It will likely try the patience of new coordinator Chris Cosh, who will be looking for replacements along the defensive front for Brandon Balkcom and Ian Campbell. One potential playmaker could be Jeff Fitzgerald, who started 13 games for Virginia in 2007.

Missouri Tigers

Spring practice begins: March 10

Spring game: April 18

What to watch:

  • The changing of the guard on offense -- and then some: Gone are all-time greats like Chase Daniel, Jeremy Maclin and Chase Coffman, along with productive receivers Tommy Saunders and Earl Goldsmith. Offensive coordinator Dave Christensen has left for the Wyoming coaching job, meaning that Dave Yost takes over as the coordinator along with Blaine Gabbert at quarterback, Andrew Jones at tight end and Jerrell Jackson as the featured receiver. Collectively, it will be the largest transformation in Gary Pinkel's coaching tenure at Missouri.
  • Finding a pass rush: Three starters are gone along the defensive front as productive starters Stryker Sulak, Tommy Chavis and Ziggy Hood all are gone from last year. Look for redshirt defensive end Aldon Smith to get in the fight for playing time immediately, along with holdover Brian Coulter at defensive end if he can recover quickly from labrum surgery. Terrell Resonno and Dominique Hamilton will get a long look at defensive tackle before the arrival of heralded "tight end" Sheldon Richardson in the summer.
  • Secondary assistance: The Tigers need help after losing starting safeties Justin Garrett and William Moore and cornerback Tru Vaughns from last year's team. Considering all of the prolific offenses in the Big 12, this will capture much of defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus' attention as newcomers like safety Jarrell Harrison and cornerback Robert Steeples will show what they can do.

Nebraska Cornhuskers

Spring practice begins: March 21

Spring game: April 18

What to watch:

  • The battle for quarterback: One of the nation's most intriguing quarterback battles will play out during the spring. Incoming freshman Cody Green arrived in college early intent to battle for the starting job and become the first four-year starting quarterback for the Cornhuskers since Eric Crouch. Holdovers Patrick Witt, Zac Lee and redshirt freshman Kody Spanos all are in the hunt to replace Joe Ganz. Witt has more experience, but it's not much more than any other contender. It should be interesting to see how offensive coordinator Shawn Watson handles the competition.
  • Find starters at wide receiver: The Cornhuskers lose starters Nate Swift and Todd Peterson who combined for 125 receptions last season as the team's two major receiving threats. Menelik Holt has more experience than any other returner, although coaches are salivating about the chance to work with Antonio Bell, a 2008 recruit who wasn't on the team last season while he got his grades in order.
  • Rebuild the right side of the offensive line: Powerful blockers Matt Slauson at guard and tackle Lydon Murtha both are gone from last season, leaving a huge void for offensive line coach Barney Cotton to fill. Marcel Jones and D.J. Jones should get the first crack at the starting jobs during the spring.

SOUTH DIVISION

Baylor Bears

Spring practice begins: March 3

Spring game: April 4

What to watch:

  • Competition at offensive tackle: The Bears will be looking for two new starting tackles to replace Don Gay and Jason Smith along the offensive line. Sophomore Joe Korbel figures to get a look at one of the positions, but beyond him it's anybody's guess who will replace the talented pair that combined for 73 career starts.
  • New starters on the left side of the defensive line: Starting defensive end Leon Freeman and defensive tackle Vincent Rhodes both will be gone after their eligibility expired. The only holes in Baylor's front seven will be found there as Jameon Hardeman and Zac Scotton will challenge at defensive end and Sam Sledge at defensive tackle.
  • Better production in their pass defense: The Bears struggled mightily last season and could never seem to produce big plays when they needed them, ranking 103rd in pass defense, 84th in sacks and 109th in tackles for losses. Another spring learning the concepts of defensive coordinator Brian Norwood should benefit them and perhaps serve as a catalyst for a bowl berth with significant improvement.

Oklahoma Sooners

Spring practice begins: March 3

Spring game: April 11

What to watch:

  • Help at wide receiver: After losing Juaquin Iglesias, Quentin Chaney and Manuel Johnson from last season's BCS title-game runner-up, the Sooners desperately need some players to emerge this spring. Ryan Broyles assumes the No. 1 position, although junior college receiver Cameron Kenney will help, along with Brandon Caleb from last season's two-deep roster. It will also be noteworthy to watch the work of running back Mossis Madu, who will receive some work at slot receiver.
  • Competition in the offensive line: Trent Williams is the only returning starter from last season for a talented veteran group that will lose four starters who combined for 149 starts during their college career. The Sooners aren't devoid of talent, but it's just untested. It means they need a big lift this spring from players like tackle Cory Brandon, guards Brian Simmons and Alex Williams and center Jason Hannan.
  • New look at safety: Nic Harris and Lendy Holmes seemingly had been at Oklahoma since
    the days of Brian Bosworth. That's a little bit of an exaggeration, but the Sooner duo combined for 83 starts and provided steady, efficient defense throughout their careers. Quinton Carter and Desmond Jackson appear poised to take over for them, although it will be impossible for the Sooners to match their experience.

Oklahoma State Cowboys

Spring practice begins: March 9

Spring game: April 18

What to watch:

  • Bill Young's work: Oklahoma State has the offense to challenge for the Big 12 championship. But the success of the season ultimately will be determined by the defense generated by new defensive coordinator Bill Young. The Cowboys return six starters but must improve drastically after last season's late collapse that saw them blistered for 56, 61 and 42 points among their final three games of the season.
  • Help at safety and defensive tackle: The Cowboys lose starters Tonga Tea and Jeray Chatham at tackle and starting safeties Quinton Moore and Ricky Price. Those key positions in the heart of Oklahoma State's defense will command much of Young's attention. He's particularly excited about the play of Swanson Miller and Shane Jarka and Johnny Thomas at safety. But other players need to step up when they get their chance.
  • Develop depth at wide receiver: Dez Bryant accounted for a larger percentage of completions than any other wide receiver in the Big 12. His absence this spring as he recovers from knee surgery will enable others to have a chance to play and become acclimated with the first-string offense. The Cowboys' depth at the position is aggravated after Bo Bowling was suspended after his arrest earlier this week. It will provide players like Hubert AnyiamJosh Cooper and DeMarcus Conner an opportunity to work with Zac Robinson while Bryant and Bowling are gone.

Texas Longhorns

Spring practice begins: Feb. 27

Spring game: April 5

What to watch:

  • Build consistency in the running game: The Longhorns ranked 41st nationally in rushing last season -- their worst national ranking since 2002 -- and relied on Colt McCoy as their primary running threat. That dangerous strategy has to change this season if the Longhorns have any legitimate national title contenders. Key tasks during the spring will be to build cohesion in an offensive line that loses only starter Cedric Dockery from last season and additional work for Fozzy Whittaker, who struggled with injuries most of his freshman season last year.
  • Rebuild the defensive front: The Longhorns had the nation's most productive pass rush, leading the country with an average of 3.62 sacks per game last season. It will be a challenge to replace key players like Brian Orakpo, Roy Miller and Henry Melton. But defensive coordinator Will Muschamp liked what he saw in limited playing time for players like Sam Acho, Russell Carter, Ben Alexander, Michael Wilcoxson, Kheeston Randall and Eddie Jones. Those players, along with possibly Sergio Kindle getting more playing time at defensive end, will be key to Texas' defensive hopes this season. And incoming freshmen Dominique Jones, Alex Okafor and Kyle Kriegel all arrived at college early to challenge for immediate playing time.
  • Build confidence with young receivers: Leading receiver Quan Cosby graduated and Jordan Shipley will miss spring work after recovering from shoulder surgery. It will give McCoy a chance to build confidence in some of the younger members of his receiving corps, most notably Brandon Collins, Dan Buckner, Malcolm Williams and James Kirkendoll.

Texas A&M

Spring practice begins: March 26

Spring game: April 18

Spring practice ends: April 24

What to watch:

  • Additional development of young talent: The Aggies were one of the nation's youngest teams last season as 10 true freshmen combined to see action in 90 games and start in 41 of them. The spring will provide an additional opportunity for those young players and others on the roster to gain much-needed experience.
  • Improvement of the pass rush: The biggest hole on defense for the Aggies will be at defensive end where Michael Bennett, Amos Gbunblee and Cyril Obiozor accounted for most of the playing time last season from a group that ranked 11th in the Big 12 and 100th nationally in sacks. Paul Freeney is poised to assume one of the starting positions there. The other side looks like a wide-open battle that will play out throughout the spring and into summer camp.
  • Find a running back: Coach Mike Sherman will be looking at Keondra Smith, Cyrus Gray and Bradley Stephens for the role as the Aggies' featured running back -- for a few weeks anyway. Whoever wins that battle may celebrate a kind of pyrrhic victory as heralded running back Christine Michael arrives for fall camp as the Aggies' likely featured back. But Sherman likely will be working on building depth in the spring.

Texas Tech Red Raiders

Spring practice begins: March 25

Spring game: April 18

Spring practice ends: April 20

What to watch:

  • Any passing game regression?: Graham Harrell and Michael Crabtree rewrote the national record book as one of the most prolific pass-and-catch
    combinations in NCAA history. But yet, the Red Raiders always have always had a potent passing attack with Mike Leach in charge. It will be interesting to see Taylor Potts' development at quarterback and the growth of wide receivers like Detron Lewis, Lyle Leong, Edward Britton, Rashad Hawk and Tramain Swindall as they try to fill those big shoes for the Red Raiders.
  • Find a pass-rushing threat: Defensive end Brandon Williams is turning pro after leading the Big 12 with a school-record 12 sacks last season. McKinner Dixon was a big performer in spot duty last season and could be ready to emerge, as is junior-college transfer Daniel Howard.
  • Rebuild the left side of the offensive line: Rylan Reed and Louis Vasquez were the two most decorated linemen in Texas Tech history during their careers. The productive duo will be missed, along with starting center Stephen Hamby. Chris Olson at left tackle and Lonnie Edwards at left guard aren't nearly as big or experienced as Reed and Vasquez. Growth during the spring for the unit will be important as the Red Raiders prepare for a difficult September schedule.
Tags:

Quentin Chaney, Houston Jones, Ian Campbell, Sergio Kindle, Lydon Murtha, Jerrell Jackson, Menelik Holt, Cyril Obiozor, Will Muschamp, Brad Thorson, Ziggy Hood, Nate Swift, Rodney Stewart, Mike Iltis, Brandon Balkcom, Lonnie Edwards, Barney Cotton, Brian Norwood, Riar Geer, Christine Michael, Justin Garrett, Joe Korbel, Don Gay, Ryan Cantrell, Andy Ludwig, Josh Cooper, Aric Goodman, James Kirkendoll, Trent Williams, Chris Cosh, Quan Cosby, Tru Vaughns, Nebraska Cornhuskers, Jameon Hardeman, Joe Ganz, Mike Rivera, Sam Sledge, Ryan Broyles, Roy Miller, Cameron Kenney, Bill Snyder, Kyle Kriegel, Eddie Jones, Sedrick Johnson, Baylor Bears, Chase Coffman, Brandon Williams, Ben Alexander, Leon Freeman, Texas Longhorns, Jeff Fitzgerald, Marcus Herford, Vincent Rhodes, Mossis Madu, Malcolm Williams, Dez Bryant, Oklahoma State Cowboys, Kody Spanos, Jason Smith, Colt McCoy, William Moore, Stryker Sulak, Brandon Caleb, Johnny Thomas, Ryan Miller, Texas Tech Red Raiders, Michael Bennett, Tommy Saunders, Louis Vasquez, Quinton Moore, Cory Brandon, Adrian Mayes, Missouri Tigers, Darrell Scott, Colorado Buffaloes, R.J. Sumrall, Patrick Witt, Jason Hannan, Shane Jarka, Maxwell Tuiot-Mariner, Matt Slauson, Tommy Chavis, Chase Daniel, Cyrus Gray, McKinner Dixon, Zac Scotton, Chet Hartley, Eric Crouch, Devin Head, Dakota Lewis, Zac Lee, Robert Steeples, James Holt, Sal Kapra, Cody Green, Matt Eberflus, Chris Singleton, Dave Christensen, Oklahoma Sooners, Spring what to watch, Andrew Jones, Michael Wilcoxson, Manuel Johnson, Dan Hawkins, Todd Peterson, Mike Leach, Kansas State Wildcats, Tonga Tea, Russell Carter, Edward Britton, Dan Buckner, Darius Darks, Alex Williams, Michael Crabtree, Juaquin Iglesias, Angus Quigley, Shawn Watson, Marquis Hamilton, Carl Wilson, Paul Freeney, Paul Rhoads, Bradley Stephens, Kansas Jayhawks, Jon Major, Joe Mortensen, Stephen Hamby, Brian Coulter, Sheldon Richardson, Detron Lewis, Bo Bowling, Lendy Holmes, Bill Young, Zac Robinson, Hubert Anyiam, Sam Acho, Blaine Gabbert, Brandon Collins, Jameson Davis, Antonio Bell, Taylor Potts, Daniel Thomas, Iowa State Cyclones, Alex Okafor, Desmond Jackson, Graham Harrell, Benjamin Burney, Keondra Smith, Brian Bosworth, Lyle Leong, Cedric Dockery, Dezmon Briscoe, Earl Goldsmith, Fozzy Whittaker, Nic Harris, Henry Melton, Brian Simmons, Amos Gbunblee, Daniel Howard, Dominique Jones, Jordan Shipley, Chris Olson, Rashad Hawk, Jarrell Harrison, D.J. Jones, Dave Yost, Brian Orakpo, Ricky Price, Jeray Chatham, Swanson Miller, Brandon Hunley, Jeremy Maclin, Terrell Resonno, Tremain Swindall, Josh Freeman, Carson Coffman, Gary Pinkel, Zach Grossnickle, DeMarcus Conner, Kheeston Randall, Aldon Smith, Marcel Jones, Dominique Hamilton, Arist Wright, Rylan Reed, Jalil Brown, Quinton Carter, Mike Sherman, Texas A&M Aggies

Pregame report from Norman

October, 18, 2008
10/18/08
2:39
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin

NORMAN, Okla. -- Good afternoon from Owen Field, where the talk-show fodder coming into the stadium concerned the demise of the Sooner dynasty.

Oklahoma twice blew double-digit leads last week before falling to Texas. And the remnants of that collapse are still resonating -- and smoldering -- more than seven days later.

Truthfully, the 5-1 Sooners haven't fallen that far. They are still No. 4 nationally -- the highest ranking of any one-loss team -- and are in good position to make a BCS charge if the national run of upsets continues.

All of that makes today's game against No. 16 Kansas critical for coach Bob Stoops and the Sooners. He's never lost the contest following a Texas game in his previous nine seasons and, he is heavily favored to extend his streak to double digits today.

But he'll be facing a significant challenge in Kansas, which has quietly crept into first place of the North Division after two wins to the start the season. The Jayhawks have won 17 of their last 19 games and will control their own destiny in the North race even if they lose today.

Coach Mark Mangino was an assistant head coach earlier in his coaching career with Stoops. It's always a special day when he returns to his old stomping grounds.

But he likely shouldn't expect much mercy from the Sooners because of his past association here -- especially considering what happened last week.

Here are some things I'll be watching as the game progresses:

Who fills in for Ryan Reynolds at middle linebacker for Oklahoma? Reynolds was the most capable linebacker the Sooners had, a heady playmaker who made the rest of his team better because of his acumen. The defense fell apart last week when he was lost. The easiest solution would be the insert Brandon Crow into the position, but he struggled badly last week. Redshirt freshman Austin Box also might get some snaps, but don't be surprised to see the Sooners spin 230-pound nickelback Nic Harris into the position. It might be the Sooners' best move trying to combat Kansas' air-heavy attack keyed by quarterback Todd Reesing.

Can Jake Sharp continue to run effectively? After barely playing in the first four games, Sharp has blossomed with two big efforts to help spark Kansas' quick start in conference play. Mangino still had to be convinced that the 190-pound Sharp can be more than a complimentary player, but his last two weeks were a pretty good indicator.

What gives in the pillow fight between Oklahoma's kick coverage and Kansas' return game? The Sooners have struggled all year, allowing 25.3 yards per return and two touchdowns. Stoops has promised more starters playing on special teams in order to boost speed and tackling ability.

The Sooners, however, likely won't be challenged by Kansas' sputtering kick return game. The Jayhawks are averaging only 12.38 yards per return to rank last nationally. That average, even with preseason All-Big 12 kick returner Marcus Herford in the mix, is nearly three yards below the next-lowest team in the rankings -- Kent State.

Is Kansas really ready for the big boys? The Jayhawks get their first crack against a ranked South Division foe today. Later in the season, the Jayhawks will host Texas Tech and Texas. Kansas avoided all three teams in a school-record 12-1 season last year that was capped by an Orange Bowl victory. We'll see how the Jayhawks match up with a traditional power from the other division in Saturday's game.

Kansas wide receiver Kerry Meier vs. the young Oklahoma cornerbacks. First-year Oklahoma starters Dominique Franks and Brian Jackson have played well to this point of the season, but will face a big test against Meier, a versatile and experienced player who is still listed as Kansas' backup quarterback. Meier runs exquisite routes and will challenge both players even though he's been hobbled recently.

INJURIES: The biggest for Oklahoma is Reynolds, who was already rehabbing earlier in the week. DeMarco Murray hasn't been the same back as last season, although Sooner coaches say he's in good shape. Defensive tackle DeMarcus Granger was back for the game last week, although he hasn't cracked the two-deep yet.

Kansas doesn't release injuries, although it's been clear in the last several games and during warm-ups that Meier has been hobbled. He missed several plays last week, but still produced nine receptions. Nose tackle Caleb Billingsley left the Colorado game with a leg injury and is questionable. Jamal Green and Darius Parish would fill in if he can't go. And starting guard Adrian Mayes missed the second half with an undisclosed injury, but should be ready to go today, Mangino said.

WEATHER: It's an ideal day for football here with nary a cloud in the sky. Temperatures should be in the mid-70s at kickoff and remain in the 70s during the rest of the afternoon.

Emptying out the Big 12 notebook for this week

October, 17, 2008
10/17/08
6:42
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin

Here are a few tidbits and assorted information at the end of the week.

Enjoy.

WHO'S HOT AND NOT

Sizzling:

Baylor's running game. The Bears have produced 1,237 yards per game this season. Putting that in perspective, the Bears rushed for 1,416 yards during the 2006 and 2007 seasons combined.

Hot:

Missouri tight end Chase Coffman, who needs three catches to become Missouri's all-time receptions leader.

Not:

Oklahoma State, which has produced only six sacks this season


Hot:

Texas' defense, which is the only one in the country not to allow a rushing touchdown this season.

Not:

Nebraska, which is 1-8 in Big 12 games since beating Iowa State last season.


Hot:

Kansas playing on the road. The Jayhawks are 6-5 in their last 11 road games, with all five losses coming by a touchdown or less.

Not:

Kansas' first half performance in Big 12 games. The Jayhawks have scored seven first-half points in their first two conference games.


Hot:

Kansas State's special teams. The Wildcats lead the nation with six blocked kicks - four punts and two extra points - and the punt-return unit has produced five touchdowns this season. To put that in perspective, there have been 10 touchdowns scored via punt returns or punt blocks this season in the Big 12.

Not:

Kansas State's defense. The Wildcats have been gashed for at least 500 yards in each of their last four games.


Hot:

 
Texas A&M quarterback Jerrod Johnson. He set school records for total offense (487 yards) and passing yards (419 yards) in a loss to Kansas State last week. Johnson has completed 53 of 84 passes for 637 yards and four touchdowns in two starts since taking over for injured senior Stephen McGee.

Not:

Colorado freshman tailback Darrell Scott, who has struggled with injuries this season and rushed for only 156 yards and 3.7 yards per carry so far this season.


Hot:

Baylor's offense, which has not committed a turnover in four games. That is the longest streak in the school's modern football history, dating at least to 1946.

Not:

Colorado quarterback Cody Hawkins, who continues to rank last among Big 12 starters in passing efficiency, averaging 9.26 yards per completion.



Hot:

Oklahoma wide receiver Manny Johnson, who has produced seven TD receptions among his 16 grabs over the last three weeks.

Not:

Missouri tailback Derrick Washington, who produced 11 rushing yards last week after averaging 100 in his first five games this season.


Hot:

Missouri wide receiver Tommy Saunders, who is already five yards away from matching his receiving total last season.


Not:

Missouri quarterback Chase Daniel, who had his first three interception game since a loss to Oklahoma in 2006.

Frigid:

Kansas kick returner Marcus Hereford, who led the conference with a 28.6 yard per return average last season. Herford's longest return this season is 26 yards.


CURIOUS FACTOIDS THAT CAUGHT ME AS A LITTLE BIT OUT OF THE ORDINARY ...

  • Colorado's offensive line last week against Kansas marked only the second time this season the Buffaloes have used the same five starters on the offensive line as they used the previous week.
  • Missouri is 0-10 in previous games against No. 1 teams.
  • Nebraska's six opponents so far this season are a combined 29-7.
  • Despite his struggles against Oklahoma State, Chase Daniel completed 25 of his last 27 passes last week.
  • Texas has won at least four straight games after the game against Oklahoma for nine consecutive seasons.
  • Oklahoma hasn't lost back-to-back regular season games since losing to Notre Dame and Texas on Oct. 2, 1999 and Oct. 9, 1999, in Coach Bob Stoops' first season.

THE LIST, PART I

Texas quarterback Colt McCoy needs four touchdowns passing and running to break the school record for most touchdowns accounted for in a career. Here's a list of the school's leaders heading into Saturday's game against Missouri.

Vince Young 81
Colt McCoy 78
Ricky Williams 76
Chris Simms 68
Cedric Benson 67


Source: ESPN.com research

THE LIST, PART II

Several Big 12 teams are among the most explosive offenses in the nation this season. Here's a list of the top teams in the nation with the most 20-plus yard plays this season.

Tulsa 57
Penn State 45
Missouri 44
Texas Tech 43


Source: ESPN research department


The LIST, PART III

Big 12 teams also rank among the nation's most prolific scoring teams, with three ranking among the top four in percentage of touchdown drives this season. Here's a list of the national leaders

Tulsa 51.3 percent
Oklahoma 48.8 percent
Texas Tech 47.4 percent
Texas 43.6 percent

Source: ESPN research department

JAWJACKING

  • " I think they should be the NFC West. Every week you just have to make sure your team and yourself are at the peak of your game. That's the reality of it. You're seeing fantastic players and coaches and teams," Colorado coach Dan Hawkins, on the strength of teams in the Big 12.
  • "Underdogs, overdogs, whatever you want to call it. It doesn't matter to us. We're going to prepare as much as we possibly can and overprepare more than we ever have to get ready for this game," Missouri quarterback Chase Daniel on his team's outlook for this week's game against Texas.
  • "It's a great place to play. The fans are classy, they are loud, but they aren't allowed on the field. They can only send 11 guys out with our 11 guys," Kansas coach Mark Mangino on any homefield advantage enjoyed by Oklahoma, which is 57-2 in home games under Bob Stoops.
  • "It's at a whole new level. It's a blessing for college football. It's my curse that I'm trying to build a program at Iowa Sate," Iowa State coach Gene Chizik on the strength in the Big 12.
  • "It was just bad football," Chizik's description of his team's play at Baylor last week.
  • "We're not nearly as bad as all of you think. And we're probably not as good as people now think this week," Kansas State coach Ron Prince on his team's schizo performance during the last two weeks.
  • "We're going to keep working. There's still six games to play. I'm not going to quit, my coaches aren't going to quit and the players sure aren't going to quit." Hawkins, on his team's readiness for improvement despite a 3-3 start.
  • "If they ai
    n't got a number in front of their name, we ain't playing them," Baylor coach Art Briles, on his team's rough upcoming schedule with several ranking opponents.
  • "Across the board, this team is having a blast. It's the most fun I've ever had playing football," Texas quarterback Colt McCoy, on the Longhorns' 6-0 start.

Kansas believes it can challenge for North title again

August, 5, 2008
8/05/08
8:17
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin

LAWRENCE, Kan. -- What a difference one good season can make.

Expectations are shooting through the roof this season at Kansas, where only a few years ago there were none.

"It used to make me angry," senior linebacker Joe Mortensen said. "We would get behind and people would start chanting 'There's always basketball.' We've changed that around."

But after last year's stunning 12-1 record and a victory over Virginia Tech in the Orange Bowl, the Jayhawks are brimming with confidence about the upcoming season. Even if the Jayhawks' basketball team one-upped them by bringing home the national championship.

Amazingly, Kansas has never made bowl trips in back-to-back seasons in the 119-year history of the program. That challenge and becoming a factor for their first North Division title will be the most pressing challenges goal for this team, which returns six offensive and nine defensive starters from last year.

"I would say the kids' confidence level is very high, much higher than it could have been," Kansas coach Mark Mangino said. "And I think that the confidence factor has been a big part of the windfall of being a BCS team last season."

Mangino remembers how far down the Kansas program has come since he arrived in 2002 after a successful run as Oklahoma's offensive coordinator.

"We should be excited and embrace the high expectations we have," Mangino said. "When I came here there were none. That was a terrible feeling. When nobody expects you to be successful it's not a good feeling."

To get there, the Jayhawks will have to navigate a significantly more difficult schedule.

Kansas trades Baylor, Texas A&M and Oklahoma State from the South for a cross-division group that will include Texas Tech, Texas and Oklahoma. The Jayhawks are a combined 1-11 against those schools in the last eight seasons, allowing an average of 39.3 points in those games.

"We still feel like we're underdogs, even though we supposedly came out of last year as the top dog," wide receiver Marcus Herford said. "We had a lot of battles and talk because of our 'so-called' weak schedule. We're still considered a lower team, and we're going to continue to thrive off that."

Wide receiver/quarterback Kerry Meier said that doubt will help fuel the team this season.

"We had a great season and went 12-1, but we have to prove ourselves again," Meier said. "People around the nation are probably looking at us as the same ol' Jayhawks. We're going to have a big chip on our shoulders to prove ourselves otherwise."


Last season's transformation has excited Mortensen about the possibilities against a tougher slate -- even if most observers aren't giving the Jayhawks much hope for a repeat challenge at the North title.

"I'm excited to play the teams we're playing this year," Mortensen said. "Last year, people said we didn't play anybody, but nobody can discount that we're going against the best of the best. With teams like Oklahoma and Texas it's definitely going to be a great year. I like the challenge of playing teams like that."

Even if doubters are saying otherwise, Kansas players said last year's surprising run makes them expect something similar again.

"That's what I came here to do was to win games," Meier said. "Last year will be something that will be hard to follow, but we're up for the challenge. We want to go out and show it wasn't a fluke."

Mangino smiles when he thinks about that transformation from his arrival.

"I would say these kids confidence level is very high," Mangino said. "Last year's team became more and more confident as the year went on. This year's team showed up that way."

Texas deep in the heart of Big 12 recruiting

July, 28, 2008
7/28/08
12:16
PM ET
Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin

Big 12 recruiting coordinators joke they can throw a rock in Houston and Dallas and find more potential football players within a 20-mile radius than any place in the country. It's why those areas have become the recruiting center for almost every team in the conference.

An ESPN.com survey (see chart below) indicates that 45.4 percent of all players in the conference played at Texas high schools. Every team in the South Division has more Texas players on its roster than those from any other state.

Both Missouri and Kansas have parlayed contributions from lightly-regarded Texas recruits to become North Division powers in recent seasons.

Missouri quarterback Chase Daniel was ranked as a solid prospect at Southlake Carroll in suburban Dallas-Fort Worth, but never turned the heads of national powers when he was recruited as might have been expected after watching his college career play out.

But the Tigers have also hit the jackpot on Texans like wide receiver Danario Alexander (Marlin), defensive tackle Ziggy Hood (Amarillo Palo Duro) and defensive end Stryker Sulak (Rockdale) to become huge producers.

Kansas coach Mark Mangino has employed the same strategy, clicking on players like quarterback Todd Reesing (Austin Lake Travis), wide receivers Dezmon Briscoe (Dallas Cedar Hill), Dexton Fields (Dallas South Oak Cliff) and Marcus Herford (De Soto Cedar Hill) and safety Patrick Resby (Houston Forest Brook) to help fuel last season's trip to the Orange Bowl.

The survey indicates that seven schools have more Texas players on their roster than any other state. Baylor, Kansas, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Texas, Texas A&M and Texas Tech all have rosters tilted to the Lone Star State.

Texas coach Mack Brown realizes that he can't keep every top recruit in the state.

"There are a lot of kids that get out of Texas because there's 350 of them and we can only take 22," Brown said. "So there's about 330 that are mad at me every year."

Such recruiting slights have fueled Daniel, who will make his first trip to Austin in a pivotal Oct. 18 game when he faces the Longhorns. Brown and the Longhorns face those challenges from former Texas high-school players every week in the Big 12.

"That's an exciting thing," Brown said. "They always want to prove we were wrong. We knew [about Daniel], the guy didn't lose one high school game. This doesn't surprise us at all. He's done a great job changing the face of Missouri and turning them into a national power. He's great."

Daniel actually never lost a high school game, but who's counting? He was a great Texas high school player who decided that playing at a Big 12 school away from the state was the best way that his friends and family could watch him.

Just like a bunch of others across the conference have done.

Recruits from Texas playing in the Big 12
SchoolRoster
Size
Texans% from
Texas
Texas
Rank
Other high-producing states
Baylor 111 95 85.6 1st Louisiana 4
Colorado 119 7 5.9 3rd Colorado 40, California 40
Iowa State 109 21 19.3 2nd Iowa 38
Kansas 96 28 29.2 1st Kansas 27
Kansas State 126 13 10.3 T-2nd Kansas 4
9, Missouri 13
Missouri 106 28 26.4 2nd Missouri 60
Nebraska 152 19 12.5 2nd Nebraska 71
Oklahoma 108 41 38.0 1stOklahoma 33
Oklahoma State 102 58 56.9 1stOklahoma 25
Texas 111 104 93.7 1st Colorado 2
Texas A&M 119 108 90.8 1st California 4
Texas Tech 130 109 83.8 1stOklahoma 9
TOTAL1,389 631 45.4    

Source: 2008 Big 12 Media Guide

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