Big 12: Paul Millard
For the past few weeks, we've taken a closer look at the 2014 Big 12 schedule during our Big 12's Ultimate Road Trip series. This week, we'll wrap up the series with the final stretch of the regular season.
To those unfamiliar with this series, we both pick a game featuring a Big 12 team in every week of the season that we’d cover if the travel budget were unlimited and there were no editors telling us where to go.
We’ll be basing our choices on several factors, including the quality of the matchup and the stakes that could be involved. The only restriction is that each of us can pick only one game per week.
Let’s continue with Week 13.
Kansas State at West Virginia
Oklahoma State at Baylor
Kansas at Oklahoma
Texas Tech at Iowa State
Jake Trotter’s pick: Kansas State at West Virginia
Two years ago at West Virginia, Kansas State proved it was a Big 12 title contender while the Mountaineers showed they were just a pretender. Ever since, these two programs have been going in opposite directions.
This is almost a must-win for West Virginia if it wants to get back to a bowl game, and a must-win for Dana Holgorsen if he wants to show athletic director Oliver Luck he has the Mountaineers back on track. West Virginia has talent in the backfield and at wide receiver, and the defense could be sneaky good under the Tony Gibson/Tom Bradley regime. But the Mountaineers better hope a quarterback has emerged (Clint Trickett? Paul Millard? Skyler Howard? William Crest? Logan Moore?) well before this game comes around.
K-State has an open date before and after this trip to West Virginia, which bodes well. When Bill Snyder has time to prepare, the Wildcats can be tough to beat (just ask Michigan). If K-State can escape Morgantown, that season finale at Baylor could loom large.
You won’t find a prettier drive than the one along the country roads from Pittsburgh to Morgantown. I can’t wait to make it again.
Brandon Chatmon’s pick: Kansas State at West Virginia
A Thursday night game in Morgantown, W. Va.? Yes, please.
Both teams have a bye week before this weekday matchup, meaning the bumps and bruises of the season could have time to heal. This allows both coaching staffs, which feature some of the conference’s most creative minds, some time to come up with new wrinkles for each other as well.
If the Mountaineers’ quarterback situation is not settled by this point, I have little hope for a great game. If it is, I expect a great game. WVU could be fighting for a bowl appearance, and K-State could be fighting for quite a bit more.
To top it off, a potential matchup between WVU cornerback Daryl Worley, who I think is poised for a breakout sophomore season, and KSU receiver Tyler Lockett, who I think is the Big 12’s most dynamic receiver, is enough to make a trip to Milan Puskar.
A great environment, great individual matchups and two hungry teams make this the game of the week.
Week 1: Trotter -- SMU at Baylor; Chatmon -- West Virginia vs. Alabama (in Atlanta)
Week 2: Trotter -- Kansas State at Iowa State; Chatmon -- Kansas State at Iowa State
Week 3: Trotter -- Texas vs. UCLA (in Arlington); Chatmon -- Tennessee at Oklahoma
Week 4: Trotter -- Auburn at Kansas State; Chatmon -- Auburn at Kansas State
Week 5: Trotter -- Texas Tech at Oklahoma State; Chatmon -- Baylor at Iowa State
Week 6: Trotter -- Baylor at Texas; Chatmon -- Baylor at Texas
Week 7: Trotter -- Texas vs. Oklahoma; Chatmon -- TCU at Baylor
Week 8: Trotter -- Kansas State at Oklahoma; Chatmon -- Oklahoma State at TCU
Week 9: Trotter -- Texas Tech at TCU; Chatmon -- Texas at Kansas State
Week 10: Trotter -- Texas at Texas Tech; Chatmon -- TCU at West Virginia
Week 11: Trotter -- Baylor at Oklahoma; Chatmon -- Baylor at Oklahoma
Week 12: Trotter -- Oklahoma at Texas Tech; Chatmon -- Texas at Oklahoma State
1. Baylor (pre-spring ranking: 1): After lighting up Big 12 defenses last fall, Bryce Petty thinks there’s still room for improvement going into his second and final season as Baylor’s starting QB. He spent spring break with QB guru George Whitfield working on pocket presence and completing passes in the face of the blitz. Petty connected on 62 percent of his throws last season while finishing fourth nationally in passing yards. If that completion percentage goes up by even just a little bit, look out.
2. Kansas State (2): Outside Petty, Jake Waters owns the most proven track record in the league. That speaks to the inexperience of the position in the conference, but it also speaks to the way Waters closed out last season. While quarterbacking the Wildcats to wins in six of their seven final games, he actually posted a better Adjusted Total QBR than Petty during that stretch. Even with Tyler Lockett sitting out, Waters still delivered a crisp spring game performance and seems poised for a big final season in the “Little Apple.”
3. Oklahoma (3): Trevor Knight might have been underwhelming in the Sooners’ spring game. But don’t let that be a deception. After recovering from some minor early season injuries in 2013, Knight took a major step forward late in the season, capped with a spectacular MVP performance in the Allstate Sugar Bowl win over Alabama. He’ll have to stay healthy (which was a problem his first season), and he’ll have to become more consistent with his passing accuracy. But the talent and upside is there for Knight to have a monster sophomore campaign. The Sooners still need to iron out who exactly Knight’s backup will be, especially given his penchant for getting nicked up. Cody Thomas and Justice Hansen failed to move the needle much in the spring. Blake Bell is at tight end. And Baker Mayfield, while terrific the entire spring after transferring in from Texas Tech, remains ineligible for 2014.
4. Texas Tech (4): While Knight had a lackluster spring game outing, Davis Webb had a spectacular one. Texas Tech’s lack of QB depth is scary (incoming freshman Patrick Mahomes will be the backup by default), but there’s no getting around how impressive Webb has been dating back to Texas Tech’s dominating win over Arizona State in the National University Holiday Bowl. Including that game and three open scrimmages in the spring, Webb threw 17 touchdowns with no interceptions. This spring, Webb showed more zip on his passes after adding close to 20 pounds of muscle. He hopes to get even stronger this summer, and has plans to train with Whitfield in May. If Webb goes down with injury, the Red Raiders will probably be toast. But if he stays upright, Tech could emerge as a dark-horse contender for the Big 12 title.
5. Oklahoma State (5): After a series of steady performances over the spring, veteran J.W. Walsh will go into the summer as the overwhelming favorite to open as the starter against Florida State. Even though he struggled with his accuracy and decision-making in 2013, the Oklahoma State coaching staff loves Walsh’s leadership, toughness and commitment. If Walsh can revert to completing passes at the rate he did as a redshirt freshman two seasons ago (67 percent), he could enjoy plenty of success. If he doesn’t, the Cowboys have a couple of other interesting options, who both had their moments in the spring. Walk-on Daxx Garman has the strongest arm on the roster. True freshman Mason Rudolph can make all the throws, too, though clearly still has a steep learning curve.
6. TCU (8): The Horned Frogs made the biggest jump on this list with the addition of transfer Matt Joeckel, who after backing up Johnny Manziel the past two seasons should be the odds-on favorite to take over as the starter. Coming from Texas A&M, Joeckel actually has the most experience among TCU’s other QBs operating the offense Doug Meacham and Sonny Cumbie installed during the spring. Joeckel’s arrival gives TCU the luxury to bring talented incoming freshmen Foster Sawyer and Grayson Muehlstein along more slowly. It also allows the Horned Frogs to use Trevone Boykin the way they did last season, as a receiver and situational quarterback. With only one career start, Joeckel, of course, has much to prove. But the same goes for the majority of the league’s QBs.
7. Texas (6): The Longhorns ended spring ball with Tyrone Swoopes as their starting QB. That didn’t go well in the spring game, as Swoopes struggled mightily through most of the scrimmage. Texas could move back up the Big 12 QB rankings if USC transfer Max Wittek announces his intentions to enroll. But until he does, he can’t be counted on. Throw in David Ash’s foot injury and concussion past and true freshman Jerrod Heard’s inexperience, and Charlie Strong’s first summer in Austin figures to include plenty of QB uncertainty.
8. West Virginia (7): With Clint Trickett sitting out the spring after shoulder surgery, juco transfer Skyler Howard had ample opportunity to make a mark. Instead, the Mountaineers exited spring the way they started it -- with Trickett still atop the depth chart. A dearth of options is not coach Dana Holgorsen’s problem. Veteran Paul Millard outplayed Howard in the spring game. Logan Moore emerged after moving from receiver to QB before the spring. And four-star signee William Crest will join the fray this summer. But Holgorsen must get better QB play than he did last fall for the Mountaineers to recover from a disastrous losing season.
9. Iowa State (9): According to coach Paul Rhoads, the Cyclones’ QB competition will linger into mid-August. But Grant Rohach will go into the summer with the clear edge after outperforming Sam B. Richardson and Joel Lanning in the spring game. Rohach showed promise late last season, leading Iowa State to a come-from-behind, overtime victory at West Virginia in the season finale. But after furiously rotating through QBs in recent years, the Cyclones understandably want to give this derby due process to play out.
10. Kansas (10): Six of the league’s teams went into the spring with a quarterback battle. Of those, only the Jayhawks came out with an unequivocal starter. After sophomore Montell Cozart outshined Jake Heaps and UCLA transfer T.J. Millweard in the spring game, coach Charlie Weis wasted little time in declaring Cozart the starter. Cozart still has a long ways to go, especially with his passing. But at least Kansas now has a young dual-threat QB with upside to build around.
So Jayhawks coach Charlie Weis and Mountaineers coach Dana Holgorsen decided to augment their evaluation of the competitors by removing their protective jerseys.
It paid off for both programs. Holgorsen was able to get a more accurate read on his quarterbacks, and Weis was able to select his starter: sophomore Montell Cozart.
“It was fun watching those guys get hit,” Holgorsen said. “They weren’t making the progress we wanted, and about six practices ago, we let them get hit and the sense of urgency picked up.”
At Kansas, new offensive coordinator John Reagan will bring some quarterback runs into play this fall. Cozart took advantage by rushing for 70 yards and two scores in the Jayhawks' spring game. He earned offensive MVP honors.
“In this offense, the quarterback has to be able to be a run threat as well as a passing threat,” Weis said. “If your quarterbacks never get hit, how do you know how they’re going to react when the pressure is on? The only way you can know is if he gets hit.”
There are pros and cons to this stance. Obviously it’s an silly option for a program such as Baylor, which returns the Big 12 offensive player of the year in quarterback Bryce Petty. There’s no reason for an established starter to go live in the spring game. But in certain situations, such as at Kansas and West Virginia, it makes sense. And not just for the quarterbacks in question.
“It’s really been good for our defense to see a lot,” Holgorsen said. “I mean, how many teams do we face that are going to run their quarterbacks a lot? It’s good for our defense to see it and their production picked up.”
Yet, there are still pitfalls.
“The easiest con is you can always get someone hurt,” Weis said. “It’s the last practice of the entire spring, and you’re going full speed with your quarterbacks. You leave yourself open for a lot of scrutiny if all of your quarterbacks get banged up. Fortunately, that didn’t happen with any of them.”
It’s an uncommon trend, but one that Weis didn’t rule out for the future.
“In the past, very seldom would I let the quarterbacks be hit or be touched,” he said. “There’s a risk/reward. The reward greatly outweighs the risk.”
Take 1: Max Olson -- West Virginia’s Paul Millard
If the season started today well, that’s a question Dana Holgorsen doesn’t have to answer, so no way is he going to any time soon.
And the passer who made the best impression this weekend was Millard. Which is understandable, considering this was the senior’s fourth chance at a spring game at WVU.
Millard completed 14 of 19 passes for 129 yards and two touchdowns, with both of those scores coming in the red zone. With Clint Trickett out for the spring and touted freshman William Crest not yet on campus, this was a prime opportunity for Millard to what he can do with the offense.
His competition on this day was junior college transfer Skyler Howard and former Division II transfer Logan Moore, who played receiver last fall. Holgorsen wanted to see his quarterbacks do a better job of getting the ball to playmakers like Mario Alford, but it’s hard to demand that consistency when your quarterback play is ever-changing.
Millard started three games, appeared in four more and finished with 1,122 passing yards and six touchdowns last season. But all three WVU starting QBs threw as many interceptions as they did touchdowns in 2013. He knows as well as anybody it’ll be imperative for the Mountaineers to find their best guy and stick with him.
“We all know it’s a long road ahead,” Millard said after the spring game. “Just got to keep competing.”
Take 2: Jake Trotter – Iowa State’s Grant Rohach
Millard certainly had a sharp spring game. But because Trickett wasn’t on the field Saturday due to the shoulder injury, it was impossible for Millard to distinguish himself from his biggest competition.
Rohach had no such issue in the Cyclones’ spring game. With Sam B. Richardson and Joel Lanning also getting ample opportunity, Rohach outshined them both Saturday while taking a strong step toward locking up the starting job.
Building off how he finished last season, Rohach completed 22 of 38 passes for 171 yards. He also dashed for an 8-yard touchdown off a slick read option, and was behind center on three of the offense’s six scoring drives.
The offense wasn't nearly as crisp when Rohach was off the field. Lanning, a redshirt freshman with a lot of potential, completed only 7 of his 14 attempts with 44 yards. Richardson, who began the 2013 season as the starter before suffering an array of injuries, threw for just 55 yards while completing 8 of 13 passes.
While head coach Paul Rhoads cautioned that the derby wasn’t necessarily over and that a lot could happen until August, he admitted that Rohach was the top spring game performer among the quarterbacks.
“We will come out of spring with two leading candidates,” Rhoads later reiterated.
The Cyclones have good reason to take their time in naming a quarterback. The players are still adapting to new coordinator Mark Mangino’s offensive system. And one spring game is no reason to overreact. Rohach wasn't perfect, either, throwing two late interceptions.
But Rohach has been surging since the end of last season. As a freshman, he was on point in a 34-0 win over Kansas. Then he rallied the Cyclones from a 24-point, second-half deficit to lift them to a triple-overtime victory at West Virginia.
Rohach still has work to do to nail down the job in August. But after his spring game showing, he will head into the summer as the clear front-runner to do so.
Best offensive performance: The other quarterbacks had their moments, but veteran Paul Millard was the steadiest, completing 14 of 19 passes for 129 yards with no turnovers. Millard also threw a pair of 6-yard touchdown passes, the first to Kevin White, the second to Daikiel Shorts. The West Virginia quarterback derby is far from over. Junior-college transfer Skyler Howard is still grasping the offense and will only get more comfortable. Clint Trickett, the favorite to win the job, will be back shortly after undergoing offseason surgery. Hotshot freshman William Crest will also be joining the team in the summer. But after a shaky 2013 campaign, Millard has plenty to build off from his spring game performance.
Best defensive performance: By all accounts, cornerback Daryl Worley has been tremendous all spring, and Saturday was no different. As he has been in practice, Worley shut down wideout Mario Alford in the spring game, holding him to just two catches for 12 yards. “Daryl Worley has had a phenomenal spring,” coach Dana Holgorsen said. “Mario’s confidence is a little down right now because he has had to go against him so much.” With Justin Gilbert, Jason Verrett and Aaron Colvin all gone, Worley could be a contender to earn All-Big 12 honors in his sophomore season.
Best debut: Last year, Logan Moore toiled as a reserve walk-on wide receiver after transferring in from Fairmont State in 2012. But this spring, Moore was moved back to quarterback, the position he played at Fairmont, and in the spring game, he generated some buzz with his athleticism. Moore completed 10 of 21 attempts for 109 yards, and rushed the ball three times for 38 yards with all the quarterbacks stripped of their no-contact jerseys. Moore still remains a long shot to gain playing time in the fall. But he also turned some heads Saturday.
Notable play: Alford took the opening kickoff 99 yards for a touchdown with a couple of gorgeous cutbacks. "I just saw an opening and took it," Alford said. "We have been working real hard this spring on hitting the gaps.” Alford’s return was a promising sign for the Mountaineers, who ranked last in the Big 12 last year in both kickoff and punt returns.
Developing storyline: West Virginia has long been known as a high-scoring program. But the Mountaineers have rapidly progressed defensively this spring under new coordinator Tony Gibson and first-year assistant Tom Bradley. The defense forced the offense to punt on the first four possessions and was assignment sound throughout the scrimmage. The linebacking corps is deep and experienced, Worley is turning into a star, and safeties K.J. Dillon and Karl Joseph are coming into their own. If the defensive line holds up, which remains the biggest question, the Mountaineers could field their best defense in years.
Biggest question answered: Who knows at this point how exactly carries will be divided among West Virginia’s running backs? But this has become clear -- the Mountaineers figure to feature the deepest stable of running backs in the Big 12. Finally healthy again, Dustin Garrison, West Virginia’s leading rusher all the way back in 2011, has enjoyed a renaissance this offseason and rushed for 47 yards in the spring game. Wendell Smallwood, who had 45 yards Saturday, gives the backfield a heavy dose of versatility. Rushel Shell ran for 37 yards in the spring game and has one of the highest ceilings of any back in the league. And none of the above includes Dreamius Smith, who sat out the spring game, but is the front-runner to start. The Mountaineers also welcomed back 2012 leading rusher Andrew Buie during the winter and will welcome in four-star freshman Donte Thomas-Williams in the summer. Don’t forget about Cody Clay, who is one of the best run-blocking fullbacks in the league. West Virginia still has several questions coming out of the spring. Running back depth is not one of them.
Quotable: “The first-team defense played excellent. Once we started taking those guys out, that’s when we started moving the ball a little bit. As a head coach, that’s what you want to see.” -- Holgorsen
When: 1 p.m. ET Saturday
Where: Milan Puskar Stadium, Morgantown, W.Va.
What to watch for:
- The quarterback battle: This is Paul Millard's chance to make his case for why he should be West Virginia's starting quarterback. The senior appeared in seven games last season and has earned good reviews so far in spring ball with Clint Trickett sidelined. The challenger here is Skyler Howard, an undersized (6-foot, 200 pounds) passer who showed off a big arm and scrambling ability at the junior college level but had some ups and downs this spring. He's still learning the offense and needs to show progress.
- New-look defense? When Tony Gibson took over as defensive coordinator this offseason, he vowed he wouldn't make too many changes because his players needed continuity. He is, after all, their fourth defensive coordinator in four years. But how does the promoted safeties coach plan to upgrade a WVU defense that ranked 99th in FBS in scoring defense and 101st in total defense last year? Expect to see some 3-3-5 and 3-4 fronts on Saturday and a major emphasis on getting defenders in the backfield. Gibson and Dana Holgorsen want a simplified scheme that lets their defenders play fast, and that concept will be put to the test.
- Meet the rushers: The battle to replace Charles Sims won't be won by just one person; that much seems certain. West Virginia has a stable of running backs who bring intriguing possibilities for this offense, and the Gold-Blue Game should offer a sample of what's to come. Dreamius Smith proved plenty in his debut season last season, but technically he's not even the most experienced back. That would be junior Andrew Buie, an 850-yard rusher in 2012 who took off the fall semester and redshirted last season. Wendell Smallwood and Dustin Garrison can be difference-makers, and Pitt transfer Rushel Shell could be the most talented member of the bunch. Let's see which ones make a statement on Saturday.
- Worley on the rise: One of the best defensive backs whom nobody is talking about in the Big 12 has to be Daryl Worley, who survived playing on an island last season as a freshman. In this league, if you can keep up with these offenses in your rookie season, you've got a bright future. West Virginia coaches have praised Worley as easily one of their best defenders, even as he's been on campus for less than a year, and much will be expected of him in 2014. On a defense that will have to get takeaways to stay competitive, Worley will be a weapon.
- O-line depth: WVU is pretty set at offensive guard, but the tackles are a bit of a question mark. Marquis Lucas and Adam Pankey are the favorites to land those jobs at the moment, and there are several options behind them, but the depth is an issue that will be tested Saturday. All any coach wants from a spring game is zero injuries, and any hits to this offensive line would cause some real problems and more shifting around.
The West Virginia coach helped coaches' sons Kliff Kingsbury, Graham Harrell and Case Keenum excel at Texas Tech and Houston, affirming his belief that coaches’ sons have a leg up on the competition when it comes to developing into successful quarterbacks.
Yet the search for those quarterback recruits has become a little more difficult for the Holgorsen since his move into the Eastern time zone.
“It’s a little tricker on the East Coast,” Holgorsen said. “I was spoiled for 13 years in the state of Texas, state of Oklahoma. It’s easier to locate those guys, the likes of Kliff Kingsbury, Graham Harrell, Case Keenum, J.W. Walsh. You’re running across those guys quite a bit. In the East Coast, the coaching fraternity is not quite as prevalent as Texas or Oklahoma. It’s a little tougher.”
Holgorsen prefers coaches’ sons mainly because they are immersed in football from a young age. Ultimately, the love of the game is an important trait because the commitment required to be a successful quarterback is not for the light of heart. Physical ability is key as well.
Thus, Holgorsen takes things on a case-by-case basis.
“It’s tricky because each kid is different,” Holgorsen said. “You may get a guy who really understands the game based on being around it his whole life compared to a guy that maybe has physical qualities that are off the charts. Both of them can be successful."
The Mountaineers’ head coach searches for a balance between a strong competitiveness and mental approach and the physical skills to get it done.
“If you lack some of the physical skill, you better make up for it with the mental component and the competitiveness and the will to make you great,” Holgorsen said. “The higher the percentage your skill is, the lower percent your mental makeup can be.”
The Mountaineers added two quarterbacks to the program this spring with Skyler Howard joining William Crest as Class of 2014 quarterback signees. They will join Clint Trickett (another son of a coach) and Paul Millard in the battle to start behind center for WVU this fall.
Howard is a Fort Worth, Texas, native who spent last season as the starting quarterback at Riverside City College in Riverside, Calif. Holgorsen believes he has all the traits to be successful.
Crest, from Baltimore, is a superb talent who doesn’t have the normal background of a Holgorsen protégé, but brings competitiveness and physical traits that could help him insert himself into the quarterback derby this summer.
“He’s a student of the game, but didn’t grow up around it like those Texas kids,” Holgorsen said of Crest. “He’s more of a Geno Smith-type who loves the game and loves to play the game.”
Like with the Cowboys, big-time triplets usually translate to big-time offense. And the Big 12 over the years has showcased several notable ones. Oklahoma’s Jason White, Adrian Peterson and Mark Clayton in 2004. Oklahoma State’s Brandon Weeden, Joseph Randle and Justin Blackmon in 2011. West Virginia’s Geno Smith, Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey in 2012. Even last season, Baylor boasted one of the best triplets in the country in Bryce Petty, Lache Seastrunk and Antwan Goodley.
So which Big 12 teams will feature the most prolific offensive triplets in 2014? We rank them below:
QB Bryce Petty, RB Shock Linwood, WR Antwan Goodley
The Bears remain atop this list, even with Seastrunk bolting early for the NFL draft. Despite being Baylor’s third-string running back last season, Linwood still finished sixth in the Big 12 in rushing and shined as the featured back while Seastrunk and Glasco Martin were injured. After totaling 46 touchdowns throwing and rushing, Petty should be even better in his second season as a starter. Goodley is an All-American-caliber wideout.
QB Trevor Knight, RB Keith Ford, WR Sterling Shepard
Knight finally live up to his preseason billing with a sparkling Sugar Bowl performance against Alabama. Knight has the talent and potential to be one of the best dual-threat QBs in the country. Ford was one of the top running back recruits in 2013, and would have played more as a freshman had the Sooners not also had four senior running backs on the roster. Shepard has been a dependable starter the last two seasons, and he already has 96 career receptions going into his junior season. He seems ready to take over for Jalen Saunders as the go-to receiver.
3. Texas Tech
QB Davis Webb, RB Kenny Williams, WR Jakeem Grant
Webb broke out with a tremendous performance in the National University Holiday Bowl, throwing for 403 yards and four touchdowns in an upset of Arizona State. He had his moments during the regular season, too, and could be in for a monster sophomore campaign in Kliff Kingsbury’s air-it-out offense. Williams is a solid pass-catching running back out of the backfield, and he led the Red Raiders with 497 rushing yards and eight touchdowns last season. Williams has been taking first-team snaps at outside linebacker this spring, so he could wind up deferring carries to DeAndre Washington, who has been a capable backup. Grant is electric with the ball, burning Arizona State with a pair of touchdown catches. Grant was sixth in the Big 12 last season in receiving, and with Jace Amaro and Eric Ward gone, should take on an expanded role offensively.
QB David Ash, RB Malcolm Brown, WR Jaxon Shipley
The possibilities of this threesome hinges heavily on the health of Ash, who missed virtually all of the 2013 season with concussion issues. Ash is back with the team this spring, and he has had moments before of performing at a high level. After Johnathan Gray’s Achilles injury, Brown took over as the starting running back and performed admirably, rushing for more than 100 yards in each of Texas’ final three games. Shipley has sure hands, is a precise route runner and is capable of catching 70-plus passes in the right quarterback situation.
5. Kansas State
QB Jake Waters, RB DeMarcus Robinson, WR Tyler Lockett
The Wildcats would be ranked second here if John Hubert had another season of eligibility. But running back is a major question, with no back on the roster holding much experience. Robinson might be the favorite to win the job, but he’ll have to fend off Jarvis Leverett and incoming freshman Dalvin Warmack. Lockett is the best receiver in the Big 12 and one of the best in the country. Waters improved dramatically in his first season as the starter in 2013. If a running back emerges, the Wildcats could surge up this list.
6. Iowa State
QB Grant Rohach, RB Aaron Wimberly, WR Quenton Bundrage
Rohach first must win the starting quarterback derby this spring over Sam B. Richardson. But he played well down the stretch while leading Iowa State to a pair of wins to finish last year. Wimberly was banged up for much of last season, but he can be dynamic when healthy. Bundrage was third in the Big 12 in receiving touchdowns in 2013, and with a little more consistency, could be an all-league receiver. This could be the best triplet combination coach Paul Rhoads has enjoyed in Ames.
7. Oklahoma State
QB J.W. Walsh, RB Desmond Roland, WR Jhajuan Seales
Walsh was fifth in college football in Adjusted Total QBR as a redshirt freshman, but he took a step back as a sophomore and eventually lost the starting gig back to Clint Chelf. If he plays like he did as a freshman, Walsh could be one of the five-best QBs in the league. If he performs like his sophomore season, he could lose the job again. Roland is a touchdown machine and is as good as any back in the league in short-yardage situations. Seales could be on the verge of breaking out in a big way after starting as a freshman.
8. West Virginia
QB Clint Trickett, RB Dreamius Smith, WR Kevin White
The Mountaineers have plenty of weapons, but they will only score more points with more consistent QB play. Trickett tops the projected depth chart for now, but he’ll have to outperform Paul Millard, Skyler Howard and William Crest to stick there. Smith was very impressive at times last season backing up Charles Sims. He’ll get the first crack at starting, but Pittsburgh transfer Rushel Shell will be looming if Smith sputters. White gets the nod as the No. 1 wideout, but Daikiel Shorts and Mario Alford are not far behind as part of a deep and balanced wide receiving corps.
QB Trevone Boykin, RB B.J. Catalon, WR Josh Doctson
Boykin is back at quarterback again after splitting time at receiver the last two seasons. Boykin struggled as the starting QB last season but got little help from his offensive line or receivers. Reports are that he has been sharp this spring in the new Doug Meacham/Sonny Cumbie offense. Catalon is a solid cog at running back, and he averaged 5.3 yards per carry despite playing in an anemic attack last year. Brandon Carter was supposed to be the No. 1 receiver last season -- and still could be in 2014 -- but he wasn’t reliable on or off the field. In Carter’s stead, Doctson surfaced after transferring in from Wyoming, and led the Horned Frogs with 36 receptions and 440 receiving yards.
QB Jake Heaps, RB Brandon Bourbon, WR Nick Harwell
Harwell should give Kansas what it hasn’t had in a long time -- a go-to receiver. Harwell was the nation’s second-leading receiver in 2011 at Miami (Ohio), and he should give the Kansas offense a much needed shot in the arm. Heaps lost time to freshman Montell Cozart last fall, but he has reasserted himself this spring amid a three-way competition with Cozart and UCLA transfer T.J. Millweard. Bourbon is battling Taylor Cox and Darrian Miller to see who replaces All-Big 12 running back James Sims.
WVU ran five third-down plays in the final 15 minutes of regulation. The Mountaineers turned the ball over on three of those attempts. Quarterback Clint Trickett was intercepted twice by ISU safety Jacques Washington, and Vernon Davis’ fumble accounted for the other WVU miscue as coach Dana Holgorsen watched his team squander a 17-point lead in the final 10 minutes of regulation.
There may be no better representation of the 2013 version of the WVU offense. It averaged 8.7 yards per play during the fourth quarter against the Cyclones but allowed miscues to erase all memories of any positive things it did that night.
Yet its offense could be closer to regaining its explosive reputation.
“That’s not efficient offensive football, that’s not good offensive football,” Holgorsen said. “I think we were decent offensively last year, we just weren’t efficient.”
In other words, WVU came up small when it mattered most. And inconsistent and inefficient quarterback play was at the heart of it all.
“I think we had good players that didn’t understand how to be good offensively,” Holgorsen said. “That’s the challenge this year, to those same guys to understand what it takes to be efficient and it does start with the quarterback position.”
Lackluster quarterback play was an unusual experience for Holgorsen, who has coached the likes of Kliff Kingsbury and Graham Harrell at Texas Tech, Case Keenum at Houston, Brandon Weeden at Oklahoma State and Geno Smith at West Virginia, who each made all-conference teams. His time coaching those signal-callers has been helpful in identifying the traits he looks for in a quarterback.
“You want a kid who, One, football is most important and, Two, [is] tremendously competitive and want[s] to win. All of those guys fit that mold,” Holgorsen said. “If it’s not that important to you and you’re not a competitive person, you’re not going to be that successful.”
Time will tell if WVU will have a quarterback with those traits behind center this fall. Even though Trickett and Paul Millard return after combining to start 10 of WVU’s 12 contests last season, the starting spot in Morgantown, W. Va. is wide open. Skyler Howard, a junior college transfer, is on campus and competing with Millard this spring while Trickett is sidelined with a shoulder injury, but the competition could last deep into preseason camp.
The search for a quarterback to run the offense continues. But, generally speaking, during his searches for quarterback recruits to run his system, Holgorsen tends to lean toward coaches’ kids.
“Typically coaches’ kids say football is the most important thing in my life, so you like that because the work ethic is tremendous,” said Holgorsen who coached Keenum, Kingsbury and Harrell, all sons of football coaches and recruited J.W. Walsh, son of Denton (Texas) Guyer coach John Walsh, to OSU.
““Do you love the game or do you love what the game does for you? That’s the question each kid has to ask,” Holgorsen said. “There are some guys who genuinely love the game and there are certain kids out there that genuinely want to be successful because of what that does for you, socially, ego-wise and all that.
At no point last year did anybody step up and take it, say this is mine, give it to me and go out and earn it. I'm looking forward to when that will happen, because I'm confident it will happen.” West Virginia coach coach Dana Holgorsen on the Mountaineers' ongoing quarterback battle.
“I’ve been fortunate to be around guys who truly love the game, love the competitive nature of the game and the thrill of being able to wake up with the burning desire to be great and win championships. Unfortunately I have been around guys who, and whatever motivates you is fine, [but] would rather be the starting quarterback than be the winning starting quarterback.”
Which one does WVU have?
That’s the unanswered question, but it is an inquiry that Holgorsen hopes to see resolved if the Mountaineers expect to rebound from a disappointing 2013 season. Holgorsen believes Trickett has a much better understanding of the offense than a season ago, Millard is an experienced option but needs to “develop the competitive spirit to go out and take it," Howard “fits the mold” of his previous successful signal callers and freshman QB William Crest has traits similar to Smith as a guy who “loves the game, loves to play the game.”
Those four competitors give Holgorsen multiple options choose from as they try to avoid a repeat of last year when three different quarterbacks (Millard, Trickett and departed Ford Childress) started games at quarterback.
“At no point last year did anybody step up and take it, say this is mine, give it to me and go out and earn it,” he said. “I’m looking forward to when that will happen, because I’m confident it will happen.”
To the ‘bag:
Matt in Dallas writes: With news that Tech RB Kenny Williams is looking to move to OLB, will we be seeing Justin Stockton get carries as a true freshman in 2014?
Trotter: I have a hard time believing this move will stick. I suppose it’s possible Williams could help the Red Raiders in spots at outside linebacker next season. But I don’t believe it will come at the expense of his standing at running back. After Williams and DeAndre Washington, the Red Raiders aren’t exactly experienced at running back, either. Spring is the time for college football teams to experiment. For now, I don’t see this as anything more.
Trotter: The way I see it, the only player who can beat out Clint Trickett to start the season opener is juco transfer Skyler Howard. It’s pretty clear the offense responds better to Trickett than to Millard. But it’s not clear yet how the offense might respond to Howard. With a banner spring followed up with a banner preseason, Howard could warrant a hard look.
Trotter: We’re not to this point with Ash. Sure, the concussion issues might resurface. That’s certainly a possibility. But those issues might be behind him, too. This is something that will be resolved here over the next few months. Either way, Texas is a better team with a healthy Ash. Jerrod Heard and Swoopes have potential, but Ash is the only QB on the roster who has proven he can quarterback Texas to wins in hostile environments.
Trotter: There’s plenty to be excited about in Mahomes, who is a raw prospect for a quarterback that figures only to blossom in Kliff Kingsbury’s system. But Stidham is the No. 1 dual-threat QB recruit in the country for 2015 for a reason. Tech landed Stidham over Alabama, Auburn, Baylor, Florida, Ohio State, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Oregon and Texas, among a host of many other suitors. In other words, snagging Stidham is the most significant recruiting victory for Texas Tech in a long, long time. Armed with Davis Webb, Mahomes and now Stidham, the Red Raiders are going to be very good at quarterback for the next several seasons.
Trotter: Poor Nick Saban. This is the second time this week he has gotten burned by someone from the metro Oklahoma City area.
Trotter: I agree. I actually think the defense is good enough for Kansas to win two or three games in the league. The Jayhawks are actually pretty solid and experienced at linebacker and in the secondary. But the Achilles' heel has been receiver, which has been an utter disaster since Dezmon Briscoe and Kerry Meier left. There is reason for hope, however, things could be better in 2014. Nick Harwell was an all-conference player at Miami (Ohio) before transferring in. If he can become a viable No. 1 option at Kansas, too, that will go a long way in the Jayhawks scoring more points, and thus, being more competitive.
Trotter: I don’t think this is a bad idea at all. I would definitely watch.
After striking down Texas on the road, the Mountaineers stormed into October two seasons ago ranked in the top five of the polls.
But since that moment, West Virginia has been fighting a steady, but furious, backpedal. The Mountaineers have lost eight of their past 12 games in the league, culminating with a triple-overtime collapse to Iowa State in Morgantown to cap a bowl-less 2013 season.
Yet, minus several outgoing key performers, playing for a coach whose seat is getting warmer and a brutal slate awaiting them, the Mountaineers have gone into spring ball dead-set on finally proving their mettle in their new league this fall.
“We have stuff to prove.”
It’s not difficult to pinpoint where exactly it all went wrong for West Virginia.
In their final season in the Big East in 2011, the Mountaineers punched out nine wins, then punched out Clemson in the Orange Bowl with a convincing 70-33 victory.
West Virginia entered its inaugural Big 12 season with three of the best skill-position talents in the country in quarterback Geno Smith, wideout Stedman Bailey and versatile playmaker Tavon Austin, who all made starts in the NFL as rookies last season.
The Mountaineers, however, trotted out one of the worst defenses in the country by every statistical measure. And when the West Virginia offense finally cooled off after the Texas win, the bottom fell out.
Last season, the defense showed early improvement after coach Dana Holgorsen switched coordinators from Joe DeForest to Keith Patterson. But with its trio of offensive stars gone, the Mountaineers struggled to consistently score points. By the time the offense came around, injuries piled up on the other side of the ball, which crippled the West Virginia defense the final month of the season.
“The record [the past two years] has been unacceptable -- every player on this team knows it,” said cornerback Daryl Worley, who emerged as a starter as a true freshman last season. “We have yet to click as a whole, together. The Big 12 has so many complete teams -- teams known for winning, who are productive on both sides of the ball. We definitely understand that to compete in this league, we can’t just depend on the offense or the defense. Both sides have to be better.”
However, there's reason to believe that the Mountaineers could be better on both sides of the ball and field their most complete team since joining the league.
All-Big 12 running back Charles Sims is out of eligibility. All-conference defensive end Will Clarke and safety Darwin Cook are, too.
“The bulk of the team, however, is back. And while injuries devastated West Virginia in the short run last season, they also allowed numerous young players to gain valuable experience for the future. The Mountaineers bring back seven starters on each side of the ball and a host of key rotation players. Despite the on-field struggles, West Virginia also inked a banner recruiting class last month, loaded with potential for instant impact.
The record (the last two years) has been unacceptable -- every player on this team knows it.” -- cornerback Daryl Worley
“We lost some guys, but we were pretty young last year,” Spain said. “I feel like we’ve got more people coming back than ever. So I feel like we could be pretty good.”
That will hinge heavily on the quarterback position, which might not get resolved until the fall. Clint Trickett ended last season as the starter but is out this spring recovering from shoulder surgery that repaired a torn labrum. Paul Millard, junior college transfer Skyler Howard and freshman William Crest, who will arrive on campus in the summer, could make this an intriguing derby.
But if Holgorsen can find his man at quarterback, the rest of the pieces seem to be in place to give the Mountaineers at least a chance of making its third season in the Big 12 the charm.
Pittsburgh transfer Rushel Shell, who was the nation’s third highest-ranked running back recruit in 2012, headlines a backfield that's as deep as any in the Big 12.
Elsewhere, the entire receiving and linebacking corps are basically back. Spain and veteran Mark Glowinski give the Mountaineers arguably the best one-two punch at guard in the league. Cook is the only departing starter in the secondary, which will welcome a potential future cornerstone at cornerback opposite Worley in incoming freshman Dravon Henry, who signed with West Virginia over Alabama, Florida State and Ohio State, among many others.
Off the field, the Mountaineers also made one of the best assistant coaching hires in the Big 12 this cycle, snagging former Penn State defensive coordinator Tom Bradley, who was one of Joe Paterno’s top lieutenants for more than three decades.
Of course, the schedule is completely unforgiving, beginning with a neutral site clash with Alabama in Atlanta. The Mountaineers also have to face Oklahoma and Baylor and have to go to Maryland, Oklahoma State, Texas and Texas Tech -- all games they figure to be underdogs in.
But Spain said his teammates are welcoming the challenging slate. What better way for the Mountaineers to finally prove their Big 12 chops?
“Everybody on this team is hungry for real,” Spain said. “We’re ready to prove ourselves.”
Offensive returner ready to take next step: Going into November last year, Mario Alford had only nine catches, but in his final four games he racked up 18 receptions for a staggering 450 receiving yards and two touchdowns. As a result, he finished second in the league with an average of 20.4 yards per reception. Alford, who was the No. 1 juco athlete in the country last winter, finally seemed to get comfortable in Dana Holgorsen’s offense late in the season. The tools were always there. And if Alford plays like he did last November, he could be in for a huge 2014 campaign.
Defensive returner ready to take the next step: Two years ago, Karl Joseph was West Virginia’s best defensive player as a true freshman safety. With 68 tackles and a team-high four fumble recoveries, Joseph didn’t have a poor sophomore season. But he didn’t turn heads the way he did as a freshman, either. For the West Virginia defense to get over the hump, Joseph needs to be an all-conference performer. He has the talent to get there. And with two years in the starting lineup, the experience to get there, as well.
Redshirt freshman to watch: The answer here would have been wide receiver Shelton Gibson, but he won’t be joining the team in an official capacity until the summer. With Gibson out, the West Virginia redshirt freshman to watch is offensive tackle Marcell Lazard. The former four-star recruit signed with the Mountaineers over Ohio State, Michigan and Florida, and will have a chance to compete for time at a position that is wide open with the graduations of Curtis Feigt and Nick Kindler. Lazard is currently listed as second team at right tackle behind Marquis Lucas, but he’ll have a chance to show what he can do this spring.
Key midterm enrollee: It’s no secret the West Virginia QB spot is there for the taking, and Skyler Howard will have every opportunity to gain ground in the competition with incumbent starter Clint Trickett out this spring recovering from shoulder surgery. Howard was the No. 3 juco QB recruit in the country, and while he doesn’t have prototypical size (6 feet, 205 pounds), he had a productive year at Riverside City (Calif.) College throwing for 3,151 yards and 33 touchdowns. With a banner spring, he has a chance of leading the West Virginia offense onto the field against Alabama in the opener in Atlanta.
Question that could be answered: Whether Shell will be ready to help this offense. Shell had some question marks when he transferred to West Virginia. He had had been suspended during his one season at Pitt, and after leaving the team, was not welcomed back. Shell also showed up in Morgantown out of shape. There’s no denying Shell’s talent, though. And this spring, the Mountaineers will get to see what they have in Shell both physically and mentally, and whether they’ll have a running back ready to make a big impact in the fall.
Question that won’t be answered until fall: Who will play quarterback? Trickett won’t be able to compete for his job this spring; Howard is acclimating to the offense and playing at the FBS level; Millard is spending time on the baseball diamond; and four-star freshman William Crest won’t arrive until the summer. The Mountaineers will get a better feel for the position this spring, particularly with Howard. But this is a competition that will linger well into August.
Here's a team-by-team look at what to watch in the Big 12 this spring:
Spring start: Feb. 28
Spring game: April 5
What to watch: Who will replace Lache Seastrunk? The Bears' running back was the engine that helped keep the Baylor offense balanced and defenses honest. Shock Linwood will step in, but is he ready to handle the burden of keeping the offense balanced? . . . Baylor, the 2013 regular-season champion, has to find key replacements on a defense that is losing half of its starters. But several second-teamers -- including Jamal Palmer, Shawn Oakman, Andrew Billings and Orion Stewart -- are poised to fill the void . . . The Bears need to replace guard Cyril Richardson along the offensive line. Several candidates, including junior college transfer Jarell Broxton, will battle for the job. Baylor has arguably the league's best group of skill position players, but that will mean nothing if its offensive line takes a step backward.
Spring start: March 10
Spring game: April 12
What to watch: New offensive coordinator Mark Mangino arrives in Ames to bring more points and creativity to the Cyclones’ offense. The spring is the first opportunity for Mangino to get a feel for the playmakers and the players to get a feel for Mangino’s expectations . . . The quarterback competition is another thing to keep an eye on. Grant Rohach ended the season as the starter, but Sam B. Richardson could take his job back with a strong spring. And there are other young quarterbacks on campus who could insert themselves into the mix . . . Defensively, the Cyclones need to replace linebacker Jeremiah George and safety Jacques Washington, who finished 1-2 in tackles in the Big 12 in 2013 and finished their careers with 59 career starts combined. Iowa State seems to always have quality linebackers, so finding a replacement for Washington could be the defense’s top priority in the spring.
Spring start: March 4
Spring game: April 12
What to watch: Shuffling the offensive coaching staff has been the theme of the offseason. New offensive coordinator John Reagan, who was a KU assistant from 2005 to 2009, returns to the Jayhawks after running Rice’s offense last season. The spring is Reagan’s first chance to identify the playmakers who will be the foundation of his offense this fall. Expect wide-open competition across the board after KU finished 115th in the FBS in points scored ... The quarterback position will grab the headlines, with T.J. Millweard joining the competition with Jake Heaps and Montell Cozart, who each started games in 2013. Millweard transferred to KU from UCLA before the 2013 season.
Spring start: April 2
Spring game: April 26
What to watch: Finding John Hubert’s replacement sits high on the Wildcats’ priority list. The former running back carried the ground attack for the past three seasons, and there’s no clear favorite to step into his shoes. Will someone step up during spring football? . . . What will happen with quarterback Daniel Sams? The Wildcats have a proven Big 12 playmaker in Sams, a junior, and another proven quarterback in Jake Waters. Sams is an exceptional open-field runner who started two games in 2013, but look for Kansas State to start exploring ways to have both on the field together this spring . . . Replacing Ty Zimmerman’s playmaking and leadership on defense is another key this spring. The defense has to replace several starters in the secondary and at linebacker. Keep an eye on junior college defensive back Danzel McDaniel, who has the versatility to step in at several different spots.
Spring start: March 8
Spring game: April 12
What to watch: With Trevor Knight poised to start at quarterback in 2014, Blake Bell moves to tight end after starting eight games under center in 2013. Bell’s transition to tight end will be the talk of the spring, with the senior’s commitment to the program and OU's need for help at the position . . . The battle to be the starting running back is another storyline, with sophomores Keith Ford and Alex Ross hoping to make a statement this spring before ESPN 300 running backs Joe Mixon and Samaje Perine arrive in the summer. Ford forced his way into the lineup as a freshman before an injury slowed him . . . The Sooners will be looking to shore up the secondary after the departure of All-Big 12 cornerback Aaron Colvin and starting safety Gabe Lynn. Sophomore Stanvon Taylor could be set to replace Colvin, while sophomores Hatari Byrd and Ahmad Thomas will battle to replace Lynn.
Spring start: March 10
Final spring practice: April 5
What to watch: Incoming freshman Mason Rudolph enrolled early to participate in spring football with the hope of replacing quarterback Clint Chelf. J.W. Walsh has won a lot of games in a Cowboys uniform, but will have to hold off stern competition to earn the starting spot as a junior . . . The Cowboys lose seven seniors off one of their best defenses in recent memory. The overall quality might be upgraded, but spring football will be the first chance to see if those talented yet inexperienced defenders are ready to step into the fire. Defensive end Jimmy Bean, linebacker Ryan Simmons and cornerback Kevin Peterson could emerge as the foundation of the defense . . . Who will step up at receiver? The Cowboys lose three of their top four receivers, with Jhajuan Seales as the lone returnee. But several youngsters appear poised to step in, including sophomore Marcell Ateman and redshirt freshman Ra'Shaad Samples.
Spring start: March 1
Final spring practice: April 5
What to watch: Doug Meacham and Sonny Cumbie have arrived to take over as co-offensive coordinators at TCU. The Horned Frogs need a jump start and could get it from the “Air Raid”-style offense the duo will bring to the table. This spring will be an important first step in improving the offense . . . Who will be the quarterback? Trevone Boykin started several games in 2013 but might actually be TCU’s top receiver. Tyler Matthews, a redshirt freshman, also saw time under center, but he faces stiff competition. Don’t expect the battle to end until fall camp . . . TCU needs someone to step up in the secondary, with Jason Verrett NFL-bound after spending the past two seasons as one of the Big 12’s top coverage cornerbacks. Ranthony Texada and Travoskey Garrett are among several young defensive backs who could try to fill the void.
Spring start: March 18
Spring game: April 19
What to watch: David Ash's health will be one of the main storylines of Texas’ first spring under coach Charlie Strong. Ash has the talent to be a key piece of the puzzle, but head injuries are always tough to overcome. If Ash is 100 percent healthy, the Longhorns will feel better about the overall status at quarterback . . . Strong has talked of instilling a tough mindset in Austin since he arrived in January, and spring football will be the first real taste of what the Longhorns’ new coach is trying to bring to the program . . . Where are the playmakers? Texas has a talent-laden roster, but didn’t have the exceptional talent who could consistently change games. This spring gives several returning skill players, including receiver Jaxon Shipley and all-purpose standout Daje Johnson, the chance to become the foundation of the offense in 2014.
Spring start: March 5
Spring game: April 12
What to watch: Davis Webb's health is the No. 1 priority for the Red Raiders, who have seen three quarterbacks leave the program since the beginning of the 2013 season. Coach Kliff Kingsbury could have the toughest job of the spring as he tries to manage the lack of quarterbacks with the desire to have a productive spring for the roster as a whole . . . The Red Raiders have some consistency among the defensive coaching staff, meaning they could improve in 2014 despite losing multiple starters, including defensive tackle Kerry Hyder, linebacker Will Smith and safety Tre' Porter. Tech could start seeing dividends of that continuity . . . The Red Raiders have to replace Jace Amaro and Eric Ward, who combined to catch 189 passes for 2,299 yards and 15 touchdowns last season. Jakeem Grant and Bradley Marquez made a bunch of plays in 2013 and Devin Lauderdale, a junior college transfer and early enrollee, will get the chance to show why he had Texas Tech fans buzzing when he initially signed in February 2013.
Spring start: March 2
Spring game: April 12
What to watch: Finding a quarterback is critical for the Mountaineers, who have talent at the skill positions but won’t transform into an explosive offense without efficient quarterback play. Clint Trickett is recovering from shoulder surgery, meaning Paul Millard, junior college transfer Skyler Howard and former receiver Logan Moore will run the offense this spring . . . Tony Gibson takes over as WVU’s defensive coordinator after coaching the safeties in 2013. His promotion allows some continuity on the defense after former DC Keith Patterson left for Arizona State after the season . . . Replacing defensive tackle Shaq Rowell and defensive end Will Clarke, who started 56 combined career games for WVU, won’t be easy. The Mountaineers will lean heavily on veteran juniors Isaiah Bruce and Karl Joseph, who have started since their freshman seasons.
2. Kansas State: Junior college transfer Jake Waters was one of the most improved players in the league over the course of the season. Waters split time with Daniel Sams through the first half of the year, but eventually took command of the starting position and spearheaded the Wildcats to wins in six of their last seven games to ride a wave of momentum into the offseason. Like Petty, Waters should only get better in his second season as a starter. Sams figures to be moved around this spring, but he has proven he can step in at QB, too.
3. Oklahoma: The Sooners were one of the most inconsistently quarterbacked teams in the league, notably during double-digit losses to Texas and Baylor. But with one game, OU’s situation looks completely different. In just his fifth career start, freshman Trevor Knight torched Alabama in the Allstate Sugar Bowl, leading the Sooners to one of the biggest upsets in BCS bowl history. Insiders in Norman always thought Knight had the talent. The switch just finally flipped in New Orleans. Even with Blake Bell moving to tight end, the Sooners have depth with former four-star QBs Cody Thomas and Justice Hansen.
4. Texas Tech: Davis Webb also delivered one of the best bowl performances of any quarterback. After Baker Mayfield transferred, the plan was for Webb to split snaps with Michael Brewer against Arizona State. But Webb played so well, that plan was scrapped. Webb had the fourth-best QBR of any bowl to lead Tech to the upset. Webb actually played pretty well before the bowl, too, and has a promising future in Lubbock. The Red Raiders, however, are thin here. With Mayfield and Brewer transferring, Patrick Mahomes is Tech’s only other scholarship QB, and he doesn’t arrive until the summer.
5. Oklahoma State: To enjoy success here, the Cowboys will need J.W. Walsh to return to his efficient 2012 form. Or, they will need Mason Rudolph to emerge as a true freshman the way Wes Lunt did two springs ago. Walsh took a step back as a sophomore. He completed 67 percent of his passes in 2012, but just 59 percent last season, and eventually lost his job back to Clint Chelf. Rudolph, the gem of the 2014 recruiting class, had no such issues completing passes in high school, connecting on 72 percent for 64 touchdowns while leading his team to a state championship. If Walsh’s arm strength continues to be a problem, Rudolph could quickly go from QB of the future to QB of the now.
7. West Virginia: The Mountaineers have no fewer than four quarterbacks with a reasonable chance of becoming the starter. Paul Millard and Clint Trickett shared duties last season, though neither seized the position. Millard is playing baseball, and Trickett is still banged up. That could open the door for junior-college transfer Skyler Howard to make a move on the job. Keep an eye on true freshman William Crest, though. Crest, the No. 11 dual-threat QB in the country, won’t arrive until after the spring. But the Mountaineers have had success with mobile freshman quarterbacks before.
8. TCU: The Horned Frogs first must decide what they’re going to do with Trevone Boykin. But they can’t afford to leave him at receiver until another viable option surfaces at QB. Tyler Matthews didn’t look ready in limited action, but the Horned Frogs have a pair of intriguing possibilities in Foster Sawyer and Grayson Muehlstein. Neither, however, will arrive until the summer, meaning TCU’s QB situation will remain unresolved past the spring.
9. Iowa State: The Cyclones have the requisite skill talent to bounce back from a disappointing season. But that won’t happen until they stop playing musical quarterbacks. The answer could be Grant Rohach, who played well late in his redshirt freshman season. Sam B. Richardson will also be in the mix. Richardson was never healthy last year, and had the same kind of promising finish in 2012 that Rohach delivered last season. The darkhorse will be Joel Lanning, who redshirted last year. Lanning, who signed with Iowa State over Nebraska, has the arm to make this a three-way battle.
10. Kansas: The Jayhawks add another player to the Jake Heaps/Montell Cozart timeshare in UCLA transfer T.J. Millweard. Neither Heaps nor Cozart did enough to warrant full-time snaps, so Millweard, a former four-star recruit, will have his chance this spring.
Thursday, the school confirmed that Keith Patterson had "voluntarily left the program," and Friday, Arizona State announced it had hired Patterson.
Patterson served as Sun Devils coach Todd Graham's defensive coordinator at Pittsburgh before taking the job at West Virginia.
“I want to thank Keith for his two years that he spent coaching in our program,” Holgorsen said in a statement. “He was a valuable member of our staff, and we wish him nothing but the best.”
Holgorsen is right. Patterson indeed was a valuable member of the West Virginia staff.
Patterson arrived in Morgantown in 2012 as the co-defensive coordinator under Joe DeForest. After a disastrous season in which the Mountaineers ranked 114th nationally in points allowed, Holgorsen demoted DeForest and made Patterson the lone coordinator.
Patterson didn't exactly turn West Virginia into the '85 Chicago Bears. But the Mountaineers showed improvement, especially early in the season, despite being put in tough situations by a mediocre offense that didn't come alive until the final month of the season. Unfortunately, mild improvement wasn't enough to push West Virginia into a bowl game, as the Mountaineers finished out the season losing six of seven games.
West Virginia already was going to have to replace its two best defensive players in safety Darwin Cook and defensive end Will Clarke. With Patterson gone now, too, Holgorsen faces a monumental task of turning the Mountaineers around in 2014 despite facing major questions at quarterback, a brutal schedule, and, now, a lack of continuity on the defensive staff. West Virginia will have a fourth different defensive coordinator in as many years, unless Holgorsen promotes DeForest back to coordinator, which, after the 2012 debacle, is unlikely.
The degree of difficulty was already going to be significant for West Virginia. The Mountaineers open next season with Alabama. They also have to go to Maryland, Texas, Texas Tech and Oklahoma State. The projected top two teams in the league, Oklahoma and Baylor, go to Morgantown, where the Mountaineers will also likely be underdogs. Yet at the very least, West Virginia will have to win one of those seven games just to get bowl eligible.
Meanwhile, quarterback Clint Trickett is still trying to heal from the battering he took last season. Paul Millard is playing baseball. Ford Childress has reportedly left school for good. And junior-college transfer Skyler Howard, while promising, is unproven.
Even with All-Big 12 running back Charles Sims out of eligibility, the Mountaineers still have skill talent. West Virginia also recruited well there this year, even landing ESPN 300 running back Donte Thomas-Williams over Florida on signing day. Yet unless the Mountaineers get better and more consistent quarterback play, all that skill will amount to little in the win-loss column.
Even with the quarterback and schedule issues, West Virginia's defensive trajectory under Patterson was one reason why West Virginia fans were hopeful the Mountaineers could overcome these obstacles next season.
Now, in his make-or-break season, Holgorsen will have to overcome losing Patterson, too.