Big 12: Quentin Castille

Burkhead and the Cornhuskers: A match made in blue-collar heaven

December, 1, 2009
12/01/09
3:44
PM ET
So much for the glitz and glamour of being a college running back.

When Rex Burkhead started lining up his potential choices of where to play college football, he knew hard work would be an important factor in reaching his potential as a player.


Marc Piscotty/Icon SMINebraska running back Rex Burkhead didn't expect to start as a freshman, but has excelled.
And after meeting Nebraska’s Bo Pelini and learning of his determined, tenacious, blue-collar approach as a football coach, it was a match with Burkhead’s hopes for a program.

“I wanted to be at a place where the guys that surround me had drive and a work ethic,” Burkhead said. “It brings out positive atmosphere. When I noticed what they had at Nebraska, it was a big impact on me coming here.”

Burkhead’s early drive has helped him become a capable weapon for the Cornhuskers as a freshman. After missing five games midway through the season with a with a broken foot, he returned last week to rush for a career-best 100 yards against Colorado and was the Cornhuskers’ leading rusher.

His emergence has provided a capable compliment to leading Nebraska rusher Roy Helu Jr. Together, they have developed into the Cornhuskers’ biggest offensive threat going into the Big 12 Championship Game Saturday night against Texas.

“It’s nice to have multiple options,” Pelini said. “To have Helu and then what Rex brings to the table adds even more to what we have. You need guys who can come in and help. It’s developed some depth and getting Rex back helps us.”

Burkhead’s development into a rushing threat has come a little earlier than he expected. He wasn’t sure he would even play this season. But a late charge in training camp, coupled with the dismissal of Quentin Castille created a position for him in the Cornhuskers’ rotation.

After some strong early work, Burkhead appeared to be hitting his stride before he was injured in practice four days after the Cornhuskers’ victory over Missouri. While taking part in a routine drill, he sustained a hairline fracture in his right foot.

After the injury to Burkhead, the offense slid into a funk. The Cornhuskers scored only 17 points in losses to Tech and Iowa State. But they’ve rebounded from there to claim their last five games, entering the championship game with some growing offensive confidence as prepare for the No. 3 Longhorns.

Against Colorado, Burkhead provided a 7-yard touchdown run that helped ice the Cornhuskers’ victory. On the 13-play scoring drive, the gritty 5-foot-11, 200-pounder accounted for nine carries for 55 yards in his most consistent usage this season.

“It was a great drive,” said Burkhead, who had 12 of his 18 carries in the fourth quarter. “The offensive line did a tremendous job of opening up holes left and right. I felt like I was in high school, getting into rhythm. It felt good.”

The biggest transformation for Burkhead has come in areas other than carrying the ball. The 5-foot-11, 200-pounder has learned about pass blocking, gradually picking up other areas of Nebraska offensive coordinator Shawn Watson’s multi-faceted offense.

"It was about the same, but grasping all the other details was the biggest transition,” said Burkhead, who has accounted for 235 rushing yards in his injury-curtailed season. "I had to learn all of the other details about blocking like picking up the blitzers and reading the blitzes. It’s coming along.”

During his career at Plano High School in the suburbs of Dallas, Burkhead was one of the most celebrated high school players in the state of Texas. He rushed for 1,762 yards and 28 touchdowns as a senior, also adding 42 receptions for 594 yards and five touchdowns and excelled at returns.

Those big numbers earned him the Dallas Morning News’ All-Area Class 5A Offensive Player of the Year, joining recent standouts like Chase Daniel, Graham Harrell and Matthew Stafford who have won the award. And it earned Burkhead the nickname of “Superman” because of his exploits in football and basketball.

“Rex is a pretty special young man,” Pelini said. “You look at what he did as a high-school athlete. He’s done it for a long time when he did it in a competitive high-school area. He’s tough, hard-working and is a leader. He exemplifies everything I want to bring into this program.”

Big 12 mailbag: Don't expect UT's Whaley to play

October, 16, 2009
10/16/09
3:25
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin


It wouldn’t be a Friday without a few letters from my readers. Here’s a representative sample of those I received this week:

Beau from Vidor, Texas, writes: What happened to Texas' freshman running back Chris Whaley. He was supposed to be all-world and most thought he would help us out this season. Any news?

Tim Griffin: Whaley arrived at fall camp out of shape and has had trouble picking up some of Texas' offensive philosophy. And since he hasn't seen action yet, I don't think we’ll see him play this year. He’ll be more likely to sit as a redshirt, while he gets into better shape and learns Texas’ offensive scheme better. But if he would ever play, this might be the week, considering the iffy condition of Tre’ Newton and Vondrell McGee. The Longhorns would have room for him, although I would sincerely doubt if Mack Brown put him in his first game against Oklahoma in the Red River Rivalry. That's too far-fetched to believe.

I look for Whaley to get better acclimated and in better shape for next season.


Robert Northrop from Superior, Colo., writes: Tim, thanks for covering the Big 12. I only wish Colorado was more relevant so you could write more frequently about the Buffs. Colorado struggles moving the ball using walk-ons at wide receiver. What is it about a Hawkins' psyche that makes him stubbornly refuse to modify his offense so that he can get the ball to his fastest players (Brian Lockridge, Darrell Scott, Andre Simmons, Anthony Wright) hands? Why are two players with starting experience (Blake Behrens, Matt Bahr) sitting while the rest of the CU offensive line struggles? And don't get me started about the QB situation. I think something smells fishy up in Boulder. Thanks again.

Tim Griffin: It’s been a challenging season for Hawkins and the Buffaloes, particularly on offense. I also have wondered why Brian Lockridge and Darrell Scott haven’t become more of a focal point in the Buffaloes’ offense. I would think that with Hawkins actually coaching the wide receivers as a position coach that he would have the best idea of who can help make his offense more productive.

It will be interesting to see what they can do against a Kansas defense that has struggled the last two weeks. I’m thinking Colorado might play this game a little bit closer than most. Maybe this is the week that the Buffaloes get their offense going. I certainly know they are due.


Steve Strom of Lubbock, Texas, writes: What do you think about Texas Tech’s chances Saturday in Nebraska? Is there any way we can steal a win from a Nebraska team that might be a little flat after beating Missouri last week?

Tim Griffin: Steve, I don’t think so. I really like Nebraska’s defensive line keyed by Ndamukong Suh to put pressure on whomever Tech has playing quarterback. Mike Leach has been successful in recent seasons against the Cornhuskers and has even won in Lincoln before. But this is a different Nebraska team coached by Bo Pelini than in previous seasons. Because of that, I'm thinking it will be tough for the Red Raiders to win tomorrow in Lincoln.


Chris from Lawrence, Kan., writes: Tim, I see that you are very high on Jordan Shipley and have him on your Heisman board. He's definitely a good player, but I'm curious why you don't have Dezmon Briscoe ranked above him? Briscoe averages more yards per catch than Shipley and has an equal number of TD's, despite missing the first game of the season. He's done this while having 17 fewer receptions than Shipley. If you were to average Briscoe's current stats to account for the missed game, he would have more yards, yards per catch and touchdowns than Shipley, and would still have less receptions. I'm not saying that Shipley isn't a good player, but I don't understand why Briscoe isn't considered better (and more deserving of Heisman talk)?

Tim Griffin: Shipley has had a knack for making big plays in big games and his bigger receiver numbers grab you. He's had double-figure reception games in his last three contests, which is something that no player in Texas' history has been able to accomplish. Look at his punt return for a touchdown reception and his big catch last week against Colorado that helped turned the game around. Briscoe has had some nice games, but he needs to stand out even on his own team. I think many would think that he’s been overshadowed by Kerry Meier on the Jayhawks so far this season.

Briscoe will have the chance to show what he can do over the next several weeks as the Jayhawks’ schedule will get tougher. If he can produce those numbers against Texas, Kansas and Nebraska, I would think that Heisman voters will start taking notice of him.


Donald Ashburn from Houston writes: My condolences to you, Tim. The Aggie bloggers complained earlier this year when you didn't think they would win. Now, they say you have put the kiss of death on them by picking A&M over K-State. I hope you can do a better job in the future! Good luck!

Tim Griffin: Donald, I’ve had a difficult time reading the Aggies so far this season. I thought they would beat Arkansas and I also thought they would beat Oklahoma State last week. They looked strong for the first 10 minutes against Arkansas in a game that turned on Jerrod Johnson’s fumble that was returned for a touchdown by Jerry Franklin midway through the second quarter. And the Oklahoma State game changed when A&M was held without scoring at the OSU 1 late in the first half.

But because of Johnson and all of his offensive talent around him, I’m picking the young Aggies to win again this week at Kansas State.

Is the third time finally the charm for me? I don’t know, I guess we’ll see.


Kyle Kvasnicka from Irvine, Calif., writes: Do you think Nebraska's defense this year will give it a chance to make it to the Big 12 Title game and if so, be competitive with the Big 12 South Champion? How close does Bo Pelini have this team to being a player again nationally?

Tim Griffin: Kyle, I think that because of the play of the Nebraska defense, especially compared with Kansas’ recent defensive struggles, is the major reason I’ve elevated the Cornhuskers into the favorite role in the Big 12 North. There are still some things I don’t like about the Cornhuskers. Zac Lee is too streaky for my taste and the Cornhuskers’ depth at running back isn’t very good with proven players with Quentin Castille gone and Rex Burkhead injured.

But I think Nebraska’s defensive play is the reason they are above the other teams in the North at this point of the season. It will be interesting to see if that makes them more competitive against the South’s powers when we see them play in the next several weeks.

I would also hope we would see Cody Green being used in the next week or two. The Cornhuskers have had some time to work on a package with their talented freshman quarterback. I’m just saying that bringing him into the game for a couple of series could change the momentum and make Nebraska that much more difficult to beat with a shot of offensive diversity that's missing right now. And with the questions about their running backs, developing another running threat could be huge for them.

I still think Pelini is a couple of recruiting classes from having the Cornhuskers back among the contenders who will challenge for national titles. It will be interesting to see if he gets them there.

Thanks again for all of the good questions. We’ll check back again next week.

Nebraska's Burkhead out with foot injury

October, 13, 2009
10/13/09
8:36
PM ET
Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin

Nebraska freshman running back Rex Burkhead will be sidelined indefinitely with a foot injury that was sustained in practice on Monday.

Nebraska coach Bo Pelini told reporters Tuesday that Burkhead will be sidelined "for awhile" and offered no other specifics.

Burkhead is Nebraska's second-leading rusher with 23 carries for 118 yards and has also added eight receptions for 66 yards. He has been a key contributor on offense and special teams.

“Any time you have a football player out, you're going to miss him," Pelini said. Tuesday "I feel worse for the kid. He's a prideful, tough competitive guy."

The emergence of Burkhead helped fill the spot on Nebraska's roster where Quentin Castille played before he was kicked off the team before the season started.

The injury could be significant for the Cornhuskers as they prepare for Saturday's game against Texas Tech.

Leading rusher Roy Helu Jr. appeared to be dinged at the end of the Cornhuskers' 27-10 victory over Missouri last week, wearing a bag of ice strapped around his neck as he limped to the team bus. Helu has returned to practice with the Cornhuskers.

With Burkhead's injury, other players will be featured in Nebraska's running game. Among those mentioned by Pelini at the press conference included Austin Jones, Lester Ward, Collins Okafor, Marcus Mendoza and Dontrayevous Robinson. His special teams use could be filled by freshmen wide receivers Antonio Bell and Tim Marlowe.

10 things to watch in the Big 12, Week 4

September, 24, 2009
9/24/09
7:41
AM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin


Here are 10 things I'm looking forward to watching across the Big 12 this weekend:

1. Taylor Potts vs. Case Keenum in the weekend’s best aerial battle. Texas Tech travels to cozy Robertson Stadium on the campus of the University of Houston to meet up with the Cougars, who at No. 17, are ranked highest in the Associated Press poll since they were No. 10 on Sept. 12, 1991. Saturday’s game should be an aerial circus featuring two of the nation’s top-four passers. Their individual battle underscores the matchup between their two teams, who will be meeting for the first time since 1995 -- the last season of Southwest Conference play.

2. Blaine Gabbert’s first true road game: Missouri’s sophomore quarterback has his first start away from the state of Missouri as the Tigers travel to winless Nevada. Veteran Nevada coach Chris Ault will likely pack the box and force Gabbert to beat him with his arm. When the Tigers are balanced, Gabbert is extremely effective, leading the conference and ranking 11th nationally in passing efficiency. The Missouri defense ranks a pedestrian 86th nationally in pass defense and will be challenged by multi-talented Nevada quarterback Colin Kaepernick.

3. Kansas' stout run defense against Southern Mississippi’s Damion Fletcher: The improving Jayhawks defense will receive its biggest test of the preseason in the conference’s only battle of unbeaten teams. Kansas will be challenged by Southern Mississippi running back Damion Fletcher, who ranks 11th nationally in rushing (114.7 yards per game). The Jayhawks' defense ranks fourth nationally in sacks, sixth in scoring defense and eighth in rush defense, but will be facing its biggest challenge of the season so far.

4. Can Colt McCoy break his recent first-half slumps? Texas’ Heisman Trophy candidate has struggled through difficult first halves and has been victimized by four interceptions in his first three games after throwing only eight picks in 433 pass attempts last season. McCoy’s first halves so far this season have produced a pedestrian quarterback rating of 122.57, compared to 177.64 in the second half. He’ll be challenged by UTEP’s defense, which ranks 92nd in total defense. The game seems like a perfect salve for McCoy’s recent struggles.

5. Battle of the running attacks as Iowa State faces Army's option attack: The most consistent part of Iowa State’s offense has been its running game, which is averaging a potent 209 yards per game. Underrated Alexander Robinson has been the key with an average of 108.7 yards per game to rank second in the conference behind Roy Helu Jr. The Cyclones’ power will be countered by Army's traditional running attack, which ranks seventh nationally in rushing and features four backs who average at least 44 yards per game.

6. A Nebraska celebration of football: The Cornhuskers’ disappointing loss at Virginia Tech last week will be forgotten as the team returns for a big weekend to celebrate the school’s fanatical support. Saturday’s game will be the 300th consecutive home sellout in a remarkable streak that dates back to 1962. The Cornhuskers will be wearing some cool throwback uniforms and will be looking to win against Louisiana-Lafayette -- a team that has already notched one upset over a Big 12 team this season after beating Kansas State two weeks ago.

7. What will Uzoma Nwachukwu do for an encore? Texas A&M’s scintillating freshman wide receiver had a remarkable game last week against Utah State, touching the ball four times and scoring four touchdowns to set a school freshman one-game scoring record. With top receiver Jeff Fuller out up to six weeks with a cracked fibula, Nwachukwu will need to become a bigger part of the offense. The Aggies’ chances should be bolstered against 1-2 UAB, which has lost its last two games in a row and is allowing 333.7 passing yards a game to rank 118th nationally. Jerrod Johnson has to be excited about playing that leaky pass defense.

8. Can Brandon Banks return to Kansas State’s offense? The Wildcats have had trouble getting Banks open for the big gains that marked him last season as a junior. Banks ranks among the nation’s top 50 receivers with an average of 5.3 grabs per game. But his yard-per-catch average has dropped significantly from 15.7 last season to 8.3 this season. And he could be facing a bigger challenge than expected from FCS challenger Tennessee Tech, which is allowing only 128 yards passing per game. It's important to get Banks back and producing to balance Kansas State's offense.

9. Robert Griffin’s chance at redemption: The Baylor quarterback struggled through the worst game of his career last week, producing just 139 yards of total offense in the Bears' loss to Connecticut. If the Bears have any legitimate hopes of rebounding for a bowl trip, they need to get the production of their playmaker back. They start their comeback Saturday against Northwestern State, which has been singed in three straight losses to Houston, Grambling and North Dakota. It will also represent the return of Quentin Castille against Big 12 opponents. Castille, formerly of Nebraska, is Northwestern State’s second-leading rusher at 51.3 yards per game.

10. What Bill Young will do with Oklahoma State's struggling defense: After a strong effort in a season-opening victory over Georgia, Oklahoma State’s pass defense has disappeared in its last two games. The Cowboys have allowed their last two foes to complete an average of 30 passes for 333.5 yards per game. The slump has dropped Oklahoma State to 90th in total defense and 108th in pass defense. Grambling isn’t known for its passing attack as quarterback Greg Dillon has thrown for an average of 101.5 yards per game. But wily Oklahoma State coordinator Bill Young still needs to get the Cowboys back and productive for the beginning of conference play in two weeks.

Big 12 spectators' guide, Week 4

September, 23, 2009
9/23/09
9:51
AM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin


Here’s a spectator’s guide for this weekend’s games. A ranking of four stars indicates must-see football. Three-star games are definitely worth an extensive investment in time. Two-star games bear a quick glimpse or two for occasional score updates, but little more. And one-star games mean you might be better off watching your kids’ soccer games or taking care of some yardwork than hunkering down in front of the television.

Check out this list and plan your Saturday schedules accordingly. All times are for Saturday games unless otherwise noted.

Four-star games

Texas Tech at Houston (ESPN2, 9:15 p.m. ET): Stay up late for this offensive battle between underrated Case Keenum of Houston and Texas Tech’s Taylor Potts, who showed much moxie last week in his national coming-out party against Texas. The Cougars lead the nation in scoring and rank fourth in passing. Texas Tech leads the nation in passing.

Three-star games

Southern Mississippi at Kansas (noon): The streaking Jayhawks will be tested against Southern Mississippi, whose eight-game winning streak is tied with Mississippi behind only Florida’s 13-game streak. The Golden Eagles bring a lot of firepower with Damion Fletcher (11th nationally in rushing) and 6-foot-6 wide receiver DeAndre Brown, who Kansas coach Mark Mangino says will be the toughest receiver his team will face this season. Kansas will hope to continue building with a balanced offense that is the only team nationally to rank among the top 16 in rushing, scoring, passing offense and total offense.

Missouri at Nevada (ESPN, 9 p.m. Friday): The Tigers will face their first road challenge of the season against the 0-2 Wolf Pack, who have been an early disappointment after losing at Notre Dame and Colorado State. Sophomore quarterback Blaine Gabbert leads the Big 12 in passing efficiency, but will be challenged to match multitalented Nevada quarterback Colin Kaepernick. Nevada will try to dictate tempo with Vai Taua, who is tied for 21st nationally in rushing.

Two-star games

UTEP at Texas (3:30 p.m.): Emerging Longhorns should receive a break this week against the Miners, who lost twice at home before winning last week at New Mexico State. Texas should dictate the game against a UTEP offense that ranks 97th or worst in scoring offense, total offense and rushing and tied for 101st in sacks allowed. The Longhorns have won all three previous games in the series by a combined 92-13 margin.

Army at Iowa State (7 p.m.): Iowa State’s confidence will be tested by Army’s option-based ground attack which ranks seventh nationally with an average of 257.7 rushing yards per game. Iowa State will counter with Alexander Robinson, who ranks 15th nationally and has rushed for back-to-back 100-yard games. One item to watch will be Iowa State’s short defensive backs against 6-foot-10, 285-pound Army wide receiver Ali Villanueva, who is tied for his team's lead in receiving.

Louisiana-Lafayette at Nebraska (7 p.m.): This will be a celebration of all things Nebraska football as the Cornhuskers’ program celebrates its 300th consecutive sellout in a streak that dates to 1962. The Cornhuskers will wear throwback uniforms as they hope to rebound from last week’s disappointing loss at Virginia Tech. The Ragin’ Cajuns will be gunning for their second victory over a Big 12 school in three weeks with an offense that has not allowed a sack this season.

UAB at Texas A&M (7 p.m.): The Aggies should have another breather after easy victories over New Mexico and Utah State. Aggie linebacker Von Miller leads the nation in sacks and Jerrod Johnson is third in total offense. The Aggies shouldn’t be challenged by a Blazers team that has lost two straight and ranks 110th in total defense and 118th in pass defense.

One-star games

Tennessee Tech at Kansas State (1 p.m.): Kansas State hopes to stem a two-game losing streak against the Golden Eagles, coached by Watson Brown, older brother of Texas coach Mack Brown. Tennessee Tech created three turnovers and blocked a kick last week against Eastern Kentucky. But they’ll be challenged by the Wildcats, who will be facing their second FCS challenge after beating Massachusetts in the opener. Kansas State ranks among the bottom five teams nationally in sacks (118th) and tackles for losses (116th).

Northwestern State at Baylor (7 p.m.): Coach Art Briles’ team was shaken after the upset home loss against Connecticut last week. Robert Griffin is coming off his worst college game after producing a career-low 139 total yards against Connecticut. Northwestern State has lost its first three games, including a home loss to North Dakota last week. The Demons have struggled defensively, allowing 40 points per game. And Quentin Castille, formerly of Nebraska, is averaging 51.3 yards rushing per game.

Grambling State at Oklahoma State (7 p.m.): Oklahoma State hopes for more continuity in its final nonconference game. Their struggling pass defense (108th nationally) will be challenged by Grambling State quarterback Greg Dillon. Grambling has won two straight games but will be facing its only FBS challenge of the season in this game.

Big 12 links: McCoy still in the Heisman race despite slow start

September, 22, 2009
9/22/09
1:00
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin


Here are some Big 12 links from across the conference for your lunchtime dining pleasure.

Enjoy them.
  • The Austin American-Statesman’s Kirk Bohls writes that Colt McCoy remains solidly in the Heisman race, despite his early struggles.
  • Baylor was mashed at the point of attack in Connecticut’s ground-based victory, the Waco Tribune Herald’s John Werner reports.
  • The Boulder Daily Camera’s Kyle Ringo writes about the emergence of new stars across the Big 12.
  • The Des Moines Register’s Gary Peterson wonders whatever happened to Beau Williams as Alexander Robinson guns to become the first Iowa State player to rush for three-straight 100-yard games.
  • The Bryan Eagle’s Robert Cessna analyzes Texas A&M’s receiving situation without Jeff Fuller for the next four to six weeks. And the Topeka Capital-Journal’s Kevin Haskin analyzes the Aggies’ youth -- particularly at wide receiver.
  • Despite averaging 537 yards of total offense and leading the Big 12 in touchdowns, the Lawrence Journal-World’s Tom Keegan writes that Kansas’ offense needs to show improvement against Southern Mississippi on Saturday.
  • Linebacker Mike Balogun’s appeal to play for Oklahoma appears to be over, the Tulsa World’s John Hoover reports.
  • After more than 50,000 have been attracted to Boone Pickens Stadium for each of Oklahoma State’s first three home games, the Oklahoman’s Berry Tramel writes that Oklahoma State athletic director Mike Holder's controversial season-ticket policy appears to be working.
  • The Omaha World-Herald's Tom Shatel wonders if Nebraska could have used Quentin Castille around the goal line in Saturday’s tough loss to Virginia Tech.
  • Wide receiver Danario Alexander’s importance to Missouri offense is analyzed by the Omaha World-Herald’s Lee Barfknecht.

What to watch in the Big 12 this week

September, 3, 2009
9/03/09
8:02
AM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin


Here are some things I'm watching across the Big 12 this week, starting with Iowa State's season opener against North Dakota State tonight in Ames, Iowa.

1. Can Oklahoma State prove it belongs among the national powers? Oklahoma State started 8-1 before collapsing with four losses in its final six games in 2008, including struggling defensive performances against Texas Tech, Oklahoma and Oregon. The Cowboys will be depleted without MLB Orie Lemon and will be facing a Georgia team that shouldn’t be intimidated by the crowd at Boone Pickens Stadium. The Bulldogs are 30-4 on the road since Mark Richt took over in 2001 -- a better winning percentage than for their home games. Georgia is 10-2 on the road against ranked teams on the road under Richt, including 3-1 against top-10 foes. So it will be a huge challenge for the Cowboys to counter those trends, particularly with a roster that has been dotted with defections this week.

2. Oklahoma’s retooled offensive line: The Sooners’ offensive line has been the team’s biggest question coming into the season as they try for an unprecedented fourth straight Big 12 title. Four offensive line starters are gone from last season’s team, leaving only left tackle Trent Williams back to protect Heisman Trophy winner Sam Bradford. The Sooners’ line was called out before spring practice because of their lack of dedication by coach Bob Stoops, but has received recent praise after working with the Sooners’ monstrous defensive line in recent weeks. The Sooners shouldn’t be tested very much by a BYU defense that ranked 60th in rushing defense and 59th in total defense last season.

3. Does Baylor deserve its early hype? The Bears started last season with a 28-point home loss to Wake Forest. This season, they are a slight underdog on the road against the Demon Deacons. Can Robert Griffin continue his mercurial development and lead the Bears to an upset against the Demon Deacons, who have qualified for three straight bowl games? The Bears have lost 13 of their last 14 road games and have never won away from Waco with Art Briles coaching them. Does an improved, senior-laden team have what it takes to win -- especially with two new tackles protecting Griffin’s flanks?

4. Blaine Gabbert’s first career start for Missouri: All the sophomore quarterback has to do is pick up the reins from Chase Daniel, who piloted the Tigers to back-to-back trips to the Big 12 title game and arguably was the best quarterback in school history. Gabbert was a higher regarded prospect coming into school than Daniel and will be able to prove those ratings, but he’ll be facing the challenge of playing in his home area against arch-rival Illinois.

5. Vondrell McGee’s chance as Texas’ featured running back: McGee took advantage of an injury to Fozzy Whittaker to claim the starting position and an opportunity to work as Texas’ featured running back in the Longhorns’ opener against Louisiana-Monroe. McGee should be able to play on most downs when the Longhorns’ starting team is in the game. How will he hold up -- particularly considering he’s had double-figure carries in only five games in his career and never rushed for more than 80 yards in any game? The opportunity to claim the role is there against a Louisiana-Monroe team that ranked 109th nationally against the run.

6. Colorado’s starting quarterback: Will Dan Hawkins opt for a quiet dinner table at home by starting backup Tyler Hansen or stick with his family ties by giving his son Cody the nod in the Buffaloes’ Sunday night opener against Colorado State? Both should play, although the Colorado coach remains adamant he’s not making the call until shortly before kickoff Sunday night.

7. Bill Snyder’s emotional return to the sideline: Is the Kansas State coach bigger than his program? Snyder will travel to the stadium Saturday on a highway named in his honor before arriving at a stadium named for him and his family as he ends a three-year sabbatical to return to coaching Saturday night against Massachusetts. The moment should be even more poignant for him and the program as the largest athletic reunion in the school’s history will coincide with the game.

8. Nebraska’s new-look offense: Bo Pelini starts his second season with the Cornhuskers facing a massive turnover as he looks for a new quarterback, two new wide receivers and help in his running game. The Cornhuskers must try to build on last season’s 9-4 record with new quarterback Zac Lee, new featured receivers and a heavy reliance on Roy Helu Jr. after Quentin Castille’s dismissal late in training camp. Nebraska players say that Lee will provide more of a vertical passing game than was featured last year with Joe Ganz. He shouldn’t face much of a challenge against a Florida Atlantic University team that ranked 81st or lower in every major team statistic, tied for 112th in sacks and returns only three defensive starters.

9. Will Kansas show much mercy against outmanned Northern Colorado? The Bears come into Lawrence coached by former Nebraska assistant Scott Downing. It will be interesting to see how much that association causes Mark Mangino to step off the accelerator if the Jayhawks jump ahead early against an opponent that was 1-10 last season and ranked among the bottom 20 FCS teams in pass defense and pass efficiency defense. I’m looking for extended target practice for Todd Reesing, Dezmon Briscoe, Kerry Meier and the rest of the Jayhawks’ talented pass-and-catch combo against the outclassed Bears.

10. The tackling of Iowa State’s defense: The Cyclones have had a total makeover defensively by new coach Paul Rhoads and defensive coordinator Wally Burnham, who have been critical of the Cyclones’ tackling techniques they inherited from the staff of former coach Gene Chizik. Rhoads even admitted that the lack of technique “frustrated” him. Iowa State shouldn’t face too many challenges tonight against North Dakota State, although the Bison have won three of their last five games against FBS teams. Rhoads and his new program can’t afford such a slow start.

OSU ranks as Big 12's most productive offense

September, 1, 2009
9/01/09
6:23
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin

Here's a look at how I rank the Big 12 offenses heading into the season.


1. Oklahoma State
– The conference’s most balanced offense also features the best rushing/receiving combination in Kendall Hunter and Dez Bryant and one of the Big 12's best offensive linemen in Russell Okung. Zac Robinson still has meltdown moments, but he’s gotten much better with experience. The big questions will be finding a No. 2 receiver and a tight end to replace Brandon Pettigrew.


2. Oklahoma:
The Sooners have the most productive quarterback in school history in Sam Bradford with the conference’s best backfield combination in Chris Brown and DeMarco Murray and college football’s best tight end in Jermaine Gresham. The offensive line, however, isn’t nearly as good as some from the program's past. The line's development will largely determine if the Sooners can claim four-straight Big 12 titles.


3. Texas:
Colt McCoy is back for his fourth season as starter and Jordan Shipley seemingly has been around long enough to collect a pension. That’s a great start. Vondrell McGee has emerged as a steady back who might end up earning the majority of carries running behind a deep offensive line. It will be interesting to see if they can find a tight end who will block consistently enough to keep the team from running multiple wide-receiver sets down the stretch. Developing that bruising running game will be the biggest challenge for the Longhorns.


4. Kansas:
Todd Reesing might be the nation’s most underrated quarterback and the development of a tandem backfield in Jake Sharp and Toben Opurum will provide balance to the conference’s best receiving corps. It will be interesting to see how much better Kerry Meier can become by concentrating on offense. He adds with top deep threat Dezmon Briscoe, the underrated Jonathan Wilson and freshman addition Bradley McDougald. The Jayhawks’ title hopes will hinge on better pass blocking, particularly from new left tackle Tanner Hawkinson, a converted high school tight end.


5. Texas Tech:
There are more questions with the loss of Graham Harrell and Michael Crabtree, although Mike Leach seems very happy with Taylor Potts and his current group. The Red Raiders might be deeper at wide receiver with a collection of players than when Crabtree commandeered most of the catches. Baron Batch’s recovery from an elbow injury will be critical, but the Red Raiders have a big nasty offensive front keyed by All-Big 12 candidate Brandon Carter and the underrated Marlon Winn.


6. Baylor:
Robert Griffin makes these guys go and he should be even more comfortable in his second season as a starter. Jay Finley might be one of the least-appreciated backs in the league and a deep collection of wide receivers will help boost production. The biggest concern will be the play of tackles Danny Watkins and Phillip Blake, who will be replacing decorated former starters Jason Smith and Dan Gay.


7. Missouri:
This offense will be different from the attack in the Chase Daniel era. Look for new coordinator David Yost to utilize a strong running game keyed by Derrick Washington, who is finally healthy after being hurt most of the second half of 2008. New quarterback Blaine Gabbert obviously doesn’t have the experience in the Tigers’ offense as Daniel, but he might have a better deep arm which will give Yost more chances to attack with long passes. It’s a typically deep collection of receivers with Danario Alexander poised for a breakout season if he can stay healthy.


8. Colorado:
Other than the fact that Dan Hawkins can’t decide on a starting quarterback, this unit might be a little underrated and ready to blossom. I really like their collection of running backs with Darrell Scott poised to fulfill his recruiting promise. Rodney Stewart and Demetrius Sumler add different running styles behind a nice line keyed by Ryan Miller, Nate Solder and Mike Iltis. The passing game might sputter early as Markques Simas misses the first two games and Andre Simmons plays his way into the rotation after missing most of fall practice. But it might be surprisingly productive by the time conference play rolls around.


9. Nebraska:
Lack of an experienced quarterback and tested running backs behind Roy Helu Jr. cause them to drop a little after Quentin Castille’s dismissal. I’m hearing the Cornhuskers will feature more deep passing with Zac Lee, which might allow receivers Menelik Holt and Niles Paul a chance to go deep. The best part of their offense is their five-headed monster at tight end keyed by Mike McNeill and Dreu Young. Ricky Henry’s emergence at right guard has enabled Jacob Hickman to stay at center where he’ll anchor a developing line.


10. Texas A&M:
Jerrod Johnson won the starting quarterback job this summer, but I was surprised that Ryan Tannehill will remain behind him as a backup rather than a wide receiver where he was the team’s leading receiver this season. Jeff Fuller might be one of the Big 12’s most underrated wide receivers and Jamie McCoy is a productive, pass-catching tight end. A bigger, stronger Cyrus Gray will get the start at tailback, although heralded freshman Christine Michael will push him for playing time. The biggest question remains an offensive line that struggled with injuries and produced only 89 yards rushing and 39 sacks. If they are healthy, they might be a surprise after last year’s consistent struggles.


11. Iowa State:
New coordinator Tom Herman will attempt to retrofit his no-huddle attack that was so successful at Rice for the Cyclones. He has a tough, savvy quarterback in Austen Arnaud and a multi-talented running back in Alexander Robinson. Keep an eye out for Darius Reynolds who has emerged as the team’s slot receiver as Darius Darks overcomes a training-camp injury. The largest offensive line in FBS will be protecting Arnaud, but needs to do a better job of dominating at the point of attack.


12. Kansas State:
Carson Coffman and Daniel Thomas were named as starters today by Bill Snyder. Coffman was effective at times last season as Josh Freeman’s backup, but remains a question mark as he takes over the starting job. The position changes of Lamark Brown and Logan Dold opened up the running back job in training camp and the 227-pound Thomas took advantage. Brandon Banks is a strong player who belies his size as a receiver and kick returner. The offensive line remains a question after a season-ending injury to Brock Unruh leaves only Nick Stringer and a cast of unknowns to share playing time.

Helu excited about increased rushing workload

August, 31, 2009
8/31/09
4:13
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin


Nebraska I-back Roy Helu Jr. already was prepared to shoulder his share of trying to make the Cornhuskers’ offense productive heading into this season.

As the Cornhuskers attempt to break in a new starting quarterback and two new wide receivers, Helu and the backfield were expected to be the integral part of the team’s offense.

But that preparation for Helu intensified Aug. 22 when Quentin Castille was dismissed from the team because of an undisclosed violation of team rules. The move means that a Cornhuskers offense that was already expected to lean on Helu will likely be depending on him even more when Nebraska starts the season Saturday against Florida Atlantic.

“As a unit, I don’t know how it will affect us,” Helu said. “I think it’s inevitable with me and the other I-backs that we’ll get more work. And absolutely, I’m ready for it.”

Helu and converted wide receiver Marcus Mendoza are the only Nebraska backs with previous college carries.

“Practice is already a lot different now,” Helu said. “I’m excited to see what happens for us this year. It will definitely be a challenge. But I’m looking forward to it."

Helu rushed for 803 yards last season to lead the Cornhuskers, averaging 6.42 yards per carry to lead the team’s primary ball carriers.

And he really came on late in the season, producing three games with at least 100 yards in his final four regular-season games, topped with career-best totals of 25 carries and 166 yards in the Cornhuskers’ victory over Colorado.

With the 235-pound Castille, Helu was expected to contribute to a bruising running style that had earned them the nickname “Thunder and Lightning.”

Now, Helu is bracing for additional work that he had hoped for when he chose Nebraska over BYU, California and Oregon after playing high school football in Danville, Calif.

“It’s been a blessing to come to school here,” Helu said. “They have a strong appreciation for the I-back here and I thank the Lord that I’ve chosen a place where I can run the ball.”

Whether he’s still feeling that way after 30 or 35 carries every Saturday still is to be determined. But Helu is excited about the chance to help his team.

Nebraska offensive coordinator Shawn Watson vowed that Castille’s departure won’t affect his plans for the Cornhuskers’ offense.

“We have a philosophy and we just plug players in,” Watson said. “It won’t change. We’ll do what we would have done with Quentin here, but we have younger players we are developing and move on. We don’t feel sorry for ourselves. We just move forward.”

The move will be helped by having Helu, who has bulked up to about 218 pounds after playing below 200 pounds late last season, physically ready for an increased workload.

“He’s just an awesome back for us,” Watson said. “He’s one of those kids you point to and tell the others that’s what you want them to be like. The tempo he brings to our practices is incredible and he’s just a phenomenal practice player. He’s been a great example for us and we break the new backs in.”

Helu actually told reporters late in the Cornhuskers’ training camp, only a couple of days before Castille was jettisoned, that Castille was at that point the best running back on the Nebraska football team.

“He’s a better player than me right now, and he has been for awhile,” Helu said.

Helu and Castille have developed a close friendship during their time at Nebraska. Castille discussed his playing opportunities with Helu after he left the Cornhuskers until he finally landed at Northwestern State, where he will be eligible immediately and could see action in the Demons’ opener against Houston on Saturday.

“A decision was made from Quentin’s standpoint that affected our team,” Helu said. “Collectively, we as a team talked about it. It [his dismissal] was the best thing for him and for us. We have moved on and wish good things for him as well. I communicate with him nearly every day and hope he’s going to do well with his new school.”

The Cornhuskers were chosen by the Big 12 media as the preseason favorites in the North Division. But that selection obviously was made before Castille’s dismissal and led some to back off on their earlier predictions.

For his part, Helu said he doesn’t care where the Cornhuskers are picked.

“Nothing matters at all to us,” Helu said. “It’s the preseason. It doesn’t mean much one way or the other. Of course, it’s flattering, but in no means is it final or will it decide if we’ve won or lost. We just have to go out and play strong.”

The Cornhuskers are a confident bunch after last season, when they claimed their final four games, capped by the Gator Bowl to finish with a four-game winning streak. That late charge helped the Cornhuskers claim a share of the Big 12 North Division championship and catapults them into 2009 tied with Texas for the longest winning streak in the conference.

“Once we won those games, we had so much confidence and momentum to finish up,” Helu said. “It rolled right in to a great spring and we looked like a new team. Then we went out and developed in fall camp, learning as we went. It’s a process and we’re pushing to keep things going once the season starts.”

Big 12 mailbag: Why I flip-flopped to Kansas this week

August, 28, 2009
8/28/09
5:04
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin


Here's a group of the best letters I received this week. Thanks again to all who contributed.

Matt from Orlando, Fla., writes: Tim, I love your blogs, especially during the off season reading them religiously. My question is, a few months ago you gave Nebraska the edge over Kansas. Yes you said you reserve the right to change your mind which is totally understandable. But I find it funny how you change your mind on Nebraska winning the North and saying that Kansas will all because of one player leaving Nebraska.

Yes, Quentin Castille was a big feature in Nebraska's offense. However, one player should not make or break a team. Don't count out Roy Helu Jr., who happens to be our STARTING RB. Plus our nasty defensive line that kept pressure on Kansas QB Todd Reesing (who couldn't handle it last year). Could you tell me why one player leaving made you change your mind on a great prediction?

Tim Griffin: I figured I would be answering this question, considering I got it in one form or another from about 40 people this week. Heck, one of my favorite members of the media in Omaha compared me to John Kerry earlier this week because of my late change.

Let me first say that my edge for Nebraska over Kansas wasn't ever that large to start with. I favored Nebraska as much for Kansas' tough cross-divisional schedule as anything else. It's going to be a bear for the Jayhawks to win any of those three games against Texas, Oklahoma and Texas Tech. It still will.

But I also think Castille's dismissal will affect the way that Nebraska plays offense. With Castille and Helu, they had the best combination of backs in the North Division. They would be able to dictate the tempo for the Cornhuskers. It would take off pressure from an iffy passing game led by untested junior-college transfer Zac Lee.

Also, Helu is bigger and stronger this season. But he also appears to be more susceptible to muscle pulls - he's already missed a few days of fall practice - and the depth at the position has contracted with Castille's dismissal. They have only other back with college experience as a running back in Marcus Mendoza.

As anybody who reads this blog on a regular basis knows, I have a lot of respect for the job that Nebraska offensive coordinator Shawn Watson does. He was able to put together an explosive offense in Colorado for the Buffaloes' 2001 Big 12 championship that was remarkably like this Nebraska team. He had journeyman quarterbacks in Bobby Pesavento and Craig Ochs, a three-pronged rushing attack in Chris Brown, Bobby Purify and Cortlen Johnson and a stud tight end (to borrow a description from Bo Pelini) in Daniel Graham. The Cornhuskers were similar when Helu and Castille were both on the roster and the five-headed monster they have a tight end probably comes close to matching what Graham meant to the Buffaloes.

But this conference is a lot different in 2009 than it was in 2001. You're going to need to score points in bunches to win. And I think the Cornhuskers need some help at wide receiver to be more explosive to boost the contributions of Menelik Holt, Niles Paul and the rest.

The Cornhusker defense will be just as fearsome as before. Their defensive line might be the conference's best this side of Oklahoma. But losing Castille will tweak how they are able to play offense. And it will make things more difficult for Watson to control games with his young inexperienced quarterback and his lack of explosive playmakers at wide receiver.

It might only mean one game during the course of the season. But as close as I figure the North to be, the Cornhuskers will need that game at the end of the season.


Jamie Cabela of Midland, Texas, writes: Tim, quick question for you. Who is going to be your surprise player in the Big 12 this season?

Tim Griffin: I'll actually go with two of them. My first will be Markques Simas of Colorado, once he is eligible. I think he's got a great opportunity to become a top receiver immediately for the Buffaloes. And my other choice will Missouri freshman tailback Kendial Lawrence. I've heard some good things about him, even if he is third-string on the Tigers' roster. Look for him to contribute for the Tigers as the season goes on.


Jim from Grand Junction, Colo., writes: Ignoring the good, competitive games for a minute, which of the "cupcakes" has a chance to pull off an upset against the Big 12 teams in the first two weeks of the season? Any at all? Thanks for your insight.

Tim Griffin: Jim, I don't know exactly what your definition of a cupcake would be, but I'm going to presume you mean a school from outside the BCS-affiliated conferences.

If that's the case, don't look for anything in the first week of the season. But it wouldn't surprise me if two Big 12 teams have troubles in the second week of the season in road games.

I think Kansas State might be tested at Louisiana-Lafayette. I saw a Texas A&M team lose there in 1996 and weird things can happen down at "The Swamp" for unintiated teams that aren't prepared. Also keep an eye on Kansas' trip to UTEP on the same date. The Jayhawks have lost three-straight non-conference regular-season road games. They haven't won a non-conference road game during the regular season since beating Wyoming in 2003. And I think UTEP quarterback Trevor Vittatoe might provide the Kansas defense with some problems.


Matt Strohm from Parkersburg, Iowa, writes: Tim, with the start of the season only eight days away, I was wondering if you would rank all the Big 12 schools in terms of team entrances.

Tim Griffin: Matt, I don't think I can do justice to them all, but I'll give you a few of my favorites.

Let me say that I'm not usually all that enraptured by the cookie-cutter entrances around college football these days. It reminds me of something you might see in the NBA.

But there's still something about the Nebraska Tunnel Walk that gets me pumped up, although the ones used at the end of the Callahan tenure were pretty lame. I also like the "Running of the Bulls" in Austin for Texas games and the "There's Only One Oklahoma " video that plays at Owen Field before Sooner games.

But for sheer intimidation factor, my all-time favorite still has to be the old-school Iowa entrance when the Hawkeyes used to take the field in a slow walk while holding hands when they were coached by Hayden Fry. I could only imagine what that would look like for an opposing team on the other side of the field.


David L. Stoudt writes: I'm glad that the Pac-10 officials have deemed "San Antonio a marvelous post-season destination and the Valero Alamo Bowl as one of the nation's elite bowl games."

But I'm wondering did anyone consider asking the fans where they'd rather go. We love heading south to San Diego every year for a fantastic bowl matchup. Who in Hades wants to go to San Antonio in December?

I think this is a huge mistake in judgment and we won't b
e attending those games, regardless of who's playing.

Tim Griffin: I'm also curious about how this affiliation switch will change the dynamics of the Big 12's bowls.

It sounds like the Holiday Bowl's matchup basically will be switching to San Antonio and the Valero Alamo Bowl. Those Holiday Bowls have always been exciting, high-offense games. I think the Pac-10/Big 12 matchup is a good one because both conferences have reputations for offensive football. You see those kind of games in bowls anyway, but I think this makes it even more attractive with those two conferences involved.

It's going to be interesting because the Pac-10 always had a homefield advantage in San Diego. This will switch over when the game moves to the Alamo City.

I realize I'm probably the wrong person to ask about this, but I suggest coming to San Antonio before you make any snap judgments. But I suggest that you take a walk through Southtown. Try the carne guisada tacos with cheese at Taco Haven once or sip a margarita at Rio Rio Cantina on the Riverwalk and tell me that San Antonio isn't a good place for a bowl game.

I'll bet you'll come back with a different answer.


(Read full post)

Castille appears headed to Northwestern State

August, 28, 2009
8/28/09
12:09
PM ET
Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin

The "Peveto Promise" apparently has picked up a little steam after former Nebraska I-back Quentin Castille appears ready to head to Division I-AA Northwestern State.

The Demons' athletic department has come up with something called "The Peveto Promise" that pledges to give fans their money back if they aren't entertained at the Demons' first two home games under new coach Bradley Dale Peveto against North Dakota on Sept. 19 and Central Arkansas on Oct. 10.

Castille's arrival could save the Demons' department a lot of money.

The Lincoln Journal-Star reported Friday that Castille's mother said he plans to enroll at Northwestern State in Natchitoches, La., which is about four hours from Castille

Confident Jayhawks aiming for their first North title

August, 27, 2009
8/27/09
12:33
PM ET
Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin

These are heady times around Kansas football.

Not many years ago, the fall was thought to be a time to work on rotations for the upcoming basketball season at nearby Allen Fieldhouse. There was little interest directed to the doings at Memorial Stadium.

But that all changed with the arrival of Mark Mangino to the program. The first back-to-back bowl trips in school history and a couple of strong recruiting classes have people excited about football in the Sunflower State.

The signs of growing confidence could be seen Wednesday at the Jayhawks' Fan Appreciation Day as several hundred fans turned out despite rainy conditions to watch a rare open practice for the Jayhawks.

It wasn't just the reporters who were intently following the depth charts for the Jayhawks. Fans are now interested.

Mangino openly talked about making the stadium more intimidating for rivals.

"We're trying to make this a hostile place," Mangino told the fans. "A lot of [opponents] come in here and say, 'This place is pretty.' We don't want pretty. We want hostile."

Then he paused for a couple of seconds.

"You make it hostile."

And quarterback Todd Reesing made the kind of prediction guaranteed to excite fans, but one that was rarely -- if ever -- uttered around the Jayhawk program before he arrived.

"We're looking forward to bringing back that Big 12 North title to Lawrence," Reesing told the cheering fans.

Considering the Jayhawks haven't won a conference championship since 1968, those are some pretty bold words.

Such confident proclamations are coming at a time when hype around the Kansas football program is at an all-time high. The Jayhawks are a fashionable pick to contend for their first Big 12 North title. And the dismissal of Nebraska I-back Quentin Castille last week only has improved their chances.

With Reesing and the conference's best collection of receivers, the Jayhawks will be able to score with anybody in the country.

But the determining factor in their title hopes will be improvement in a defense that ranked in the bottom third nationally in total defense and scoring defense and 114th nationally in pass defense.

The Jayhawks still face a brutal cross-divisional schedule with trips to Texas, Texas Tech and a home game against Oklahoma. They were outscored 133-59 by those three teams combined last season.

But at least in late August, with more excitement pumping through the program than at any time in Mangino's tenure, it's obvious that football is on the rise at Kansas.

Now, the Jayhawks just have to fulfill those lofty expectations on the field.

Give me Kansas in the North after Castille's abrupt departure

August, 24, 2009
8/24/09
7:45
PM ET
Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin

Nebraska was my early favorite to win the North Division, mainly because of its improving defense working under Bo Pelini and the Cornhuskers' formidable depth in the backfield.

I've also always said I would reserve a chance to change my mind depending on what happens throughout preseason camp.

Nebraska's abrupt dismissal of Quentin Castille over the weekend for an undisclosed violation of team rules is that big of a hit for the Cornhuskers.

Now, I'm barely slightly toward Kansas, despite the Jayhawks' fearful cross-divisional schedule and that rebuilt defense that has always given me pause.

Castille would have been an important weapon for the Cornhuskers, mainly because he provides depth and a bruising nature to a team looking for that identity.

He was a revelation in the Gator Bowl when he barreled over and through Clemson for 125 yards and nearly 7 yards per carry. More of the same was expected this season, particularly as he kept his weight down and appeared ready to take off where he finished the 2008 season.

Roy Helu Jr. still might be one of the best running backs in the North Division. But the Cornhuskers are going to be asking a lot out of him. He's bulked up from his playing weight from last season and appears to be susceptible to hamstring pulls because of the added weight and muscle. That's not a good sign for a Cornhusker team that doesn't feature an experienced back behind him now.

Even more, he and Helu would have been an ideal tandem. They would have reminded fans of Nebraska's glory days, bringing a physical presence to the Cornhuskers in a league where offense has been marked by passing in recent years.

But as much as anything, the bruising 235-pound Castille offered a nice change of pace from Helu and the other back. He could come in and plow through defenders for a few series while Helu was resting on the sideline. The fact that he is such a physical back would have made him ideal for the Cornhuskers' ball-control offense -- even with his past reputation as a fumbler.

The Cornhuskers will be asking for a huge contribution from Rex Burkhead, a talented freshman from Plano, Texas. They also have sophomore walk-on Austin Jones, the half-brother of Nebraska wide receiver Melenik Holt. Also in the mix will be redshirt freshmen Collins Okafor and Lester Ward and freshman Dontrayevous Robinson. Wide receiver Marcus Mendoza has also moved back to running back as well.

Whether that's enough to get the Cornhuskers through an extended injury in the backfield is anybody's question. But it's definitely sliced into Nebraska's slim margin of error that I gave them when I made them my preseason favorite.

The North Division was going to be tight anyway. And it's just gotten tighter. You can make a point that any of four teams -- Nebraska, Kansas, Missouri and Colorado -- could win it with enough breaks. The Cornhuskers just sustained the biggest early hit of the preseason.

The loss puts some pressure on Nebraska offensive coordinator Shawn Watson, who in my mind, is one of the best coordinators in the nation.

Watson saw a lot of his 2001 Colorado team in what he had with the C
ornhuskers when Castille was there. That Buffaloes' squad won the Big 12 title with journeyman quarterback Bobby Pesavento starting. They were able to win -- claiming huge upset victories down the stretch against Nebraska and Texas -- thanks to a similar power running game keyed by Chris Brown and Bobby Purify.

Now, the Cornhuskers are going to be asking a lot out junior-college transfer Zac Lee. I know some will say he's started junior college football games before. But he still has never faced a hostile crowd like the one he will be facing in his first two road games when the Cornhuskers visit Virginia Tech on Sept. 19 or in their Oct. 8 conference opener at Missouri.

It will be a huge task, particularly without one of his biggest offensive weapons.

Big 12 lunch links: Can Cornhuskers overcome loss of Castille?

August, 24, 2009
8/24/09
3:50
PM ET
Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin

Here are some lunch links from a busy weekend across the Big 12.

The Omaha World-Herald's Tom Shatel explains why the dismissal of Quentin Castille by Nebraska coach Bo Pelini hurts the Cornhuskers so much. And Lincoln Journal-Star columnist Steve Sipple discusses Nebraska's I-back void as Castille leaves.


How does Texas stack up with the last four national championship teams? The Austin American-Statesman's Kirk Bohls makes the comparisons.


Baylor center J.D. Walton promises to the Sporting News' Dave Curtis that this year's offense with Robert Griffin will be "amazing."


The Denver Post's John Henderson ruminates on his 1,300-mile road trip across the Great Plains to check out Big 12 preseason practices. I'm surprised we didn't see any references to Sonic Drive-Ins.


Kansas coach Mark Mangino is optimistic about his current team, but still a little edgy as the Jayhawks approach the upcoming season, Tully Corcoran of the Topeka Capital-Journal reports.


The Tulsa World's Bill Haisten wonders why Mike Gundy locked the gates of his program to the outside world for the next week.


Bob Stoops (as a defensive back) and Mack Brown (as a running back) were selected to Richard Cirminiello of the College Football News' All-Coaches playing team.


New Iowa State offensive coordinator Tom Herman tells the Waterloo and Cedar Falls Courier's Kelly Beaton how his "underdog offense" could thrive in the Big 12.


New Kansas State co-defensive coordinators Chris Cosh and Vic Koenning are bracing for the challenge of their careers as they prepare for the pass-happy Big 12 Conference, Cole Manbeck of the Manhattan Mercury reports.


The Oklahoman's Jake Trotter breaks down Oklahoma's lack of depth at middle linebacker after Tom Wort's season-ending knee injury and Mike Balogun's iffy status in the future.


The Charlotte Observer's J.P. Giglio explains why he was one of two AP voters who thinks that Texas will be hoisting the AFCA Coaches' Trophy at the end of the season.


Nebraska, Colorado and Texas A&M are among Big 12 teams that are listed "at the crossroads" by Associated Press national college football writer Ralph Russo.

Castille's departure could be huge loss for Cornhuskers

August, 22, 2009
8/22/09
6:24
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin

The announcement earlier today by Nebraska coach Bo Pelini that junior I-back Quentin Castille was kicked off the team sent shock waves shooting through the Nebraska program.

The move is potentially very big for the Cornhuskers.

Castille had come on strongly late in his freshman season and was expected to be a big contributor for Nebraska this season. While I doubt he would have beaten out Roy Helu Jr. for the starting job, Castille still would have provided depth and accentuated the team's biggest offensive strength.

It wasn't out of realm of possibility that Castille could have provided 700 or 800 yards from his back-up position. And his departure places further pressure on untested Nebraska starting quarterback Zac Lee.

Castille had been a headache for Pelini in terms of discipline problems throughout his time at Nebraska. He left the program for several weeks earlier in the summer and returned to his home in Texas, professing that the move had made him ready to play under Pelini's rules when he returned.

Also, an arrest warrant was issued for Castille earlier this year after he failed to appear in court on traffic violations. He was later fined for a missing license plate.

"It's pretty black and white, my expectations and what we lay out as a staff," Pelini told reporters when he made the announcement. "And if someone doesn't follow those policies and guidelines, they're no longer going to be with the football team. And that's the case with Quentin."

His departure means there's an immediate opening behind Helu as the Cornhuskers' No. 2 I-back. Freshman Rex Burkhead has looked good in early practices and will inherit the role.

Austin Jones, Dontrayevous Robinson, Lester Ward and Collins Okafor all will be in the mix at running back. None of the backs behind Helu have a carry at the college level.

Also, look for Marcus Mendoza to immediately surface back in the mix at running back after spending the previous time at camp at wide receiver in a move that Pelini claimed was unrelated to Castille's ouster.

"We were moving Marcus back there anyway," Pelini said. "It was more of his choice."

Now, he's got a shot at immediate playing time in the Huskers' backfield -- along with a lot of other players.

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