Big 12: Quintin Woods
Robert Griffin III, QB, Baylor: This one's pretty simple. Griffin means more to his team than any player in the conference. The 2008 Big 12 Newcomer of the Year helped the Bears win their 2009 season opener at Wake Forest before a season-ending knee injury in the third game. He'll come back for 2010 still a sophomore. But his injury last season now means his backup, Nick Florence, is surprisingly experienced.
Alexander Robinson, RB, Iowa State: Robinson rushed for 1,195 yards in 2009 and is by far the Cyclones' best player. His yards per carry average is almost 1.5 yards higher than his backup last season. This year, the battle for No. 2 is ongoing, with Beau Blankenship and freshmen James White and Jeff Woody trying to earn any spare carries not soaked up by Robinson.
Nate Solder, OT, Colorado: This season will be Solder's third as starting left tackle, the key position on the offensive line. He's proven to be one of college football's premier linemen, but his durability and experience have meant very little playing time for backup Ryan Dannewitz, a redshirt freshman.
Jake Laptad, DE, Kansas: Laptad is a force in the backfield and racked up 6.5 sacks and 12 tackles for loss last season. His backup is junior college transfer Quintin Woods, but with just four career tackles, there's a clear dropoff in both production and talent.
Blaine Gabbert, QB, Missouri: In just his second year as starter, Gabbert could be poised for a big jump like his predecessor, Chase Daniel. The Tigers earned a North title in Daniel's second season and No. 1 ranking after the regular season. But Gabbert needs to stay healthy. His backup is former walk-on Jimmy Costello, who's never played a meaningful snap, but behind him are a group of untested freshmen with potential in Ashton Glaser, James Franklin and Gabbert's younger brother, Tyler Gabbert.
Eric Hagg, S/LB, Nebraska: The central figure of the Huskers' Peso defensive scheme (Hey! Remember that?) gives the Husker defense the teeth that helped them nearly upset Texas and blow out Arizona. His backup is Austin Cassidy, who has plenty of on-field experience after appearing in all 13 games last season. Like Hagg, Cassidy has the ideal size for the position at 6-foot-1 and 210 pounds, and notched nine tackles as a sophomore in 2009.
Markelle Martin, S, Oklahoma State: Martin's sophomore season was overshadowed by big-hitting senior Lucien Antoine, but he'll be one of the team's leaders as a junior in 2010. He's the team's leading returning tackler, and should join Orie Lemon and Ugo Chinasa as the anchors of a defense replacing its four leading tacklers from 2009. His backup, Mathies Long, played in the last six games of 2009, but has just three career tackles.
Sam Acho DE, Texas: The better known of Texas' Acho brothers, he played in 24 games before taking over as starter last season. He notched 63 tackles and four fumble recoveries, tied for most in college football. He was also a semifinalist for the Lott Trophy. But at Texas, there's always a pretty narrow gap between starter and backup. Acho's backup should be either Russell Carter or Alex Okafor, who will also play behind opposite defensive end Eddie Jones. Carter played in nine games last season and notched five tackles. Okafor played in all 14 games last season and tallied 22 tackles.
Jerrod Johnson, QB, Texas A&M: No backup will be able to reproduce Johnson's impressive numbers from 2009 (38 touchdowns, 4,085 total yards). But Johnson's backup Ryan Tannehill does have plenty of experience--at a different position. He got plenty of reps this spring with Johnson sidelined from live action after minor shoulder surgery, but he's the team's active leader in receiving, with 1,418 career yards. He's thrown just nine passes in two seasons with the Aggies.
Colby Whitlock, DT, Texas Tech: Should assume the role of nose tackle in Tech's new 3-4 scheme under coach Tommy Tuberville and defensive coordinator James Willis. Though it's a new position, Whitlock's experience will be tough to replace. Of his 46 tackles in 2009, 8.5 came behind the line of scrimmage. His backup is a mountain of a man, Myles Wade. The 6-foot-2, 340-pound junior college transfer made just two tackles in limited action last season, but he still has two years of eligibility left, and could plug plenty of holes in the middle of the defense after Whitlock graduates.
(UPDATE 12:01 p.m: Kansas State's Daniel Thomas was mistakenly left off this list. I trust we can agree he belongs. He's really good at football. Read more about him here.)
Here's a look at what immediate recruiting needs each North Division team must address first.
Running back: With the departure of Darrell Scott and Demetrius Sumler, Dan Hawkins needs to find some talent at running back. With only three scholarship backs on the roster, an immediate talent infusion is needed. Tony Jones is the only commitment and the Buffaloes could use size from a bigger back.
Tight end/H-back: All of the positions are important in Kent Riddle’s offense, and six players graduated from those positions in December. The only player who will return with experience includes junior tight end Ryan Deehan, so Hawkins needs players at the position who can help immediately.
Quarterback: With Tyler Hansen set at quarterback and Cody Hawkins set to graduate after next season, the Buffaloes still would like to add some depth at the position. Nick Hirschman has enrolled early to get a head start on his development, and Josh Moten appears ready to enroll after failing to make his grades before last season.
Across the board talent infusion: The Cyclones already have added 24 commitments for the upcoming season. Junior college players like massive offensive lineman Jon Caspers, defensive end Rony Nelson, wide receiver Anthony Young and tight end Ricky Howard should provide an immediate lift. And look for coach Paul Rhoads to add a couple of more to capitalize on the late momentum from the Insight Bowl victory.
Running back: Preparing for the future will be important as Alexander Robinson will be entering his senior season. Freshmen Beau Blankenship still has some developing to do and Jeremiah Schwartz has left the program. The Cyclones have added depth with the addition of Duran Hollis and Shontrelle Johnson. Don’t be surprised if Hollis moves positions once he comes to college if Johnson develops as expected.
Wide receiver: The Cyclones had trouble making big plays and could use a talent boost at the position. Leading 2009 receiver Marquis Hamilton has graduated and Jake Williams will be a senior next season. Recruits Jarvis West and Chris Young appear to have addressed those needs.
Defensive end: The Jayhawks could use a talent upgrade here with occasional starters Jeff Wheeler and Maxwell Onyegbule graduated, and Jake Laptad and Quintin Woods entering their senior seasons in 2010. It became more of a need after Oklahoma beat out the Jayhawks for top defensive end prospect Geneo Grissom earlier this week.
Quarterback: With unproven Kale Pick set to take over for Todd Reesing, the Jayhawks have added junior college transfer Quinn Mecham of Snow Junior College to immediately contend for playing time. Meacham threw for 3,091 yards and 40 touchdowns last season and has already captured the attention of new offensive coordinator Chuck Long because of his experience in the spread offense.
Secondary: New coach Turner Gill also needs help in the secondary where starters Darrell Stuckey and Justin Thornton were seniors and Philip Strozier, Chris Harris and Calvin Rubles will be seniors next season.
Adjust time-held notions to recruiting: Bill Snyder said recruiting seemed “out of kilter” in his first season back because of how teams now are in a hurry to link up with rising juniors. This strategy has caused Snyder to change his recruiting strategy, looking into signing more players earlier than in his previous coaching strategy.
Junior-college additions again will be critical in the trenches: Snyder has attacked the junior colleges with his traditional fervor as he attempts to unearth a couple of under-recruited gems in the offensive line and defensive lines -- the Wildcats’ two primary needs. Also, the Wildcats need some immediate help from the junior colleges after a recruiting imbalance during the last two seasons under Ron Prince that has left them with a need for immediate contributors. Snyder has estimated that up to 13 players will enroll at the semester break to contend immediately for playing time.
Quarterback: Even with a crowded group of potential contenders at the position, Snyder is still considering another quarterback. Carson Coffman, Sammuel Lamur, Collin Klein and Oregon transfer Chris Harper all are in the mix at the position heading into spring practice.
Wide receiver: The Tigers have a lot of talent returning, but still will lose leading 2009 receiver Danario Alexander and Jared Perry. The opportunity for eventual playing time will be there for new arrivals, although Jerrell Jackson, Brandon Gerau, T.J. Moe and Wes Kemp will be back.
Nose tackle: The graduation of Jaron Baston and Bart Coslet’s senior-to-be status opens up a position for a contribution in the trenches for the Tigers.
Secondary: All four of Missouri’s projected starters next season -- cornerbacks Carl Gettis and Kevin Rutland and safety Jarrell Harrison and Jasper Simmons -- will be seniors. The Tigers need to restock depth at the position and perhaps move it forward from this class.
Defensive end: The Cornhuskers could use an additional player with Barry Turner graduating and Pierre Allen set to enter his senior season in 2010. They are in the hunt with Oregon for Owamagbe Odighizuwa, a heralded speed rusher from Portland, Ore., who would be the crown jewel in the Cornhuskers’ incoming class if he commits.
Wide receivers: Many players are back, although the Cornhuskers could use an infusion of speed at the position. Niles Paul will be a senior and more talent is needed to make the Cornhuskers competitive with the athletic teams in the South Division like Texas, Oklahoma and Texas Tech.
Safety: Starters Matt O’Hanlon and Larry Asante both will be graduating and Eric Hagg will be a senior in 2010. The Cornhuskers will need some help to join with youngsters Courtney Osborne, Austin Cassidy and P.J. Smith at the position.
Coming into the season, senior defensive end Maxwell Onyegbule wasn't expected to crack Kansas' starting lineup.
|Scott Sewell/Icon SMI|
|Maxwell Onyegbule has been a consistent playmaker on defense for Kansas.|
Onyegbule, a converted high school linebacker, has emerged as the Jayhawks’ top pass-rusher. He is among the team leaders in sacks (three), tackles for loss (4.5) and tackles (12).
“It’s not really been a surprise for me,” said Onyegbule, a finance major who dreams of being accountant after his graduation from college. “I always knew I had it in me and was capable of doing something like this. When I got the opportunity, I just wanted to make the most of it.”
The first-year starter has been the key player in the Jayhawks’ defensive transformation that has led to a 3-0 start heading into Saturday’s game against Southern Mississippi.
The biggest question coming into the season for the Jayhawks was their defense. Their defensive linemen were considered to be strong athletes but largely unproven.
Onyegbule had shown flashes earlier in his career, but had never started a game before this season.
But a strong performance in training camp earned him the starting position at left defensive end. He’s wasted little time in making the most of his opportunity and hasn’t looked back.
His breakout game came against UTEP when he notched two sacks among three tackles for loss and a team-high six tackles. That outing earned him a share of the Big 12’s defensive player of the week honors.
He built on that last week with a strong performance capped by a 48-yard interception return for a touchdown that helped spark the Jayhawks’ victory over Duke.
“As a defensive end, I was supposed to drop,” said Onyegbule, who also added three tackles, one tackle for loss and a sack for an 8-yard loss in the victory over the Blue Devils. “The quarterback didn’t see me and threw it right to me. I just ran for my life to the end zone. There was nobody in front of me so I went as fast as I could.”
Onyegbule’s athleticism has always been his biggest attribute. It led Kansas coach Mark Mangino to move him from linebacker to the defensive line after coming into the Kansas program as a linebacker/tight end from Arlington, Texas.
“Max made a nice play, got underneath the ball in the zone and had a good stride taking it in,” Mangino said. “He just keeps getting better as we go.”
Coming into the season, junior college transfer Quintin Woods was expected to be the player to emerge at defensive end. Instead, the 6-foot-5, 258-pound Onyegbule has beaten him to it.
Earlier in his career, Onyegbule would frustrate his coaches because his transition to defensive end wasn’t always smooth. But he made enough big plays that they felt he could produce if he could be consistent.
Mangino saw a rangy player with size and speed that could develop into a pass-rushing threat with patience. Of his 30 tackles in his career before this season eight were behind the line and six were sacks.
Along with the transformation into accepting direct contact from an opposing offensive lineman, Onyegbule worked hard to learn to use his hands better and become more accustomed to springing out of a three-point stance along the defensive front.
In the process, he’s helping confound some doubters who thought Kansas’ defense would be a liability in the Jayhawks' quest for their first Big 12 championship game appearance.
“I was just waiting for the right time to emerge,” Onyebule said. “Them saying we would be a question mark gave me a goal of proving to people they were wrong about us. And we’ve been able to do that so far this season.”
Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin
Big 12 defenses are nearly as proficient as their offensive counterparts. But the best teams in terms of defense will likely end up as the conference’s best teams because stopping the high-powered offenses in the conference is so rare.
Here’s a look at how I rank them:
1. Oklahoma: The Sooners return nine starters and are among the nation’s very best defenses. It starts with three-deep talent along the defensive line keyed by Gerald McCoy and Auston English, who was the conference’s preseason player of the year last season before spraining his knee. They might be a little lacking in depth at middle linebacker behind Ryan Reynolds with the injury to freshman standout Tom Wort and Mike Balogun’s iffy status. The only new starters are strong safety Sam Proctor and free safety Quinton Carter, who have both been impressive in fall camp. The Sooners’ substitutes might be better collectively than most Big 12 units.
2. Texas: The Longhorns have arguably the conference’s best back seven, particularly a developing secondary led by Earl Thomas and corners Chykie Brown and Aaron Williams. Sergio Kindle and Alex Okafor are poised to become the primary pass-rushing specialists. Lamarr Houston has developed into an anchor at defensive tackle, but the Longhorns need to find another player at the other defensive tackle position to juice production for their biggest defensive weakness. Will Muschamp’s unit must do a better job after producing only 16 turnovers last season to rank tied for 104th nationally.
3. Nebraska: It all starts with the defensive line, which is among the best in the nation with Outland Candidate Ndamukong Suh and defensive ends Pierre Allen and Barry Turner. The Cornhuskers are young at linebacker where they might start two linebackers, although coaches really like 6-foot-6, 230-pound buck linebacker Sean Fisher and Will Compton. Coaches say the secondary is playing with more confidence, but the group produced only 12 interceptions last season. Boosting that turnover production will be critical in the Cornhuskers’ division title hopes.
4. Texas Tech: This is where the big drop-off starts from the top three teams. The Red Raiders will miss pass-rushing threats McKinner Dixon and Brandon Williams from last season, but have an experienced unit back. Rajon Henley and Brandon Sharpe are set to fill in as the pass-rushing threats and Colby Whitlock can be a terror at times -- particularly against Texas. Brian Duncan is a producer and the team’s leading tackler at middle linebacker. Jamar Wall is one of the better cover corners in the league. But the unit will depend on the improvement of two projected starters: redshirt freshman free safety Cody Davis and strong safety Franklin Mitchem.
5. Oklahoma State: The development by veteran defensive coordinator Bill Young will determine whether this unit has the goods to lead the Cowboys to their first South title and a potential maiden BCS bowl appearance. The biggest key will be producing more sacks from a defensive front that notched only 15 last season. Young has been concentrating on push from his defensive tackles and thinks he has an underrated pair in seniors Swanson Miller and Derek Burton. The loss of Orie Lemon at middle linebacker will hurt, although Donald Booker has been a producer in limited playing time. The secondary will be playing new starters with only Perrish Cox returning. But keep an eye out for senior free safety Lucien “The Punisher” Antoine who was turning heads last season before blowing out his ACL in the second game last season.
6. Colorado: The Buffaloes are faster this season and that should help them cope with the high-powered offenses in the Big 12. The linebackers are deep with Shaun Mohler and Jeff Smart as the prime producers. And I really like the secondary, with Jimmy Smith and Cha’pelle Brown among the best pair of cornerbacks in the conference. The biggest concern is along the defensive line, particularly after the injury of heralded freshman Nick Kasa that may idle him for the season. One area to note will be at right defensive end, where sophomore Lagrone Shields and freshman Forrest West are in the two-deep. Shields has played four snaps in his career.
7. Kansas: The Jayhawks need defensive improvement if they are going to fulfill their hopes of making their first championship game. The Jayhawks were crippled last season without a consistent pass rush. They hope junior-college transfer Quintin Woods, Caleb Blakesley and 304-pound Jamal Greene up front along with sack leader Jake Laptad. After losing three starting linebackers from last season, the Jayhawks will retool. I look for them to play two linebackers and a nickel look in many cases. Look for freshman Huldon Tharp to become a producer at linebacker. The secondary is the strength of the defense with All-Big 12 candidate Darrell Stuckey at strong safety and Phillip Strozier poised to continue his late-season development.
8. Baylor: Up the middle, the Bears might be among the strongest defenses in the conference with heralded transfer defensive tackle Phil Taylor, linebacker Joe Pawelek and hard-hitting safety Jordan Lake. Baylor coordinator Brian Norwood knows he needs more production from a defensive line that collected only 21 sacks and allowed opponents to complete 67 percent of passes for 3,063 yards. Antonio Jones and Antonio Johnson sometimes get overshadowed by Pawelek at linebacker. Junior cornerbacks Tim Atchison, Clifton Odom and Antareis Bryan need to improve or it could be a long season for the secondary.
9. Missouri: Any defense that starts with All-American candidate Sean Weatherspoon won’t be too bad. The Tigers could be a surprise considering that Gary Pinkel has been raving about the speed his unit possesses -- particularly at defensive end and at cornerback. Look for a three-man rotation at defensive end with Brian Coulter, Jacquies Smith and Aldon Smith to boost production in the pass rush. The secondary was a huge liability last season ranking 118th in pass defense. Kevin Rutland has shown a physical style at cornerback and Kenji Jackson and Hardy Ricks might be ready to help at safety.
10. Kansas State: New coordinators Chris Cosh and Vic Koenning plan to run a 4-2-5 defense. Their first concern is developing a rush with 2008 first-team freshman All-America pick Brandon Harold out with an injury. While he’s gone, the Wildcats need Eric Childs and Jeffrey Fitzgerald to emerge up front. John Houlik and Alex Hrebec apparently have earned the starting jobs at linebacker. Three junior college players -- David Garrett, Troy Butler and Emmanuel Lamur -- have apparently earned starting jobs for a secondary that desperately needs to improve after ranking 106th nationally in pass defense. The defense ranked tied for 110th in scoring defense and 117th in total defense, so the new coordinators better boost improvement or it will be another long season.
11. Texas A&M: Whatever happened to the Wrecking Crew defenses from the past? The best indication of the concern that Mike Sherman has for his defensive unit came when he transferred projected starting left tackle Lucas Patterson move back to defensive tackle late in preseason practice to boost production inside. Von Miller was impressive at the “jack” position, but he’ll need some good fortune to hold up consistently rushing against the huge offensive lines in the conference. The Aggies need to improve after yielding 461 yards and 37 points per game and earning the ignominy of being one of three FBS teams to allow opponents to average 200 yards rushing and passing last season. Coaches say the unit is faster and more athletic, but they have to play much better to get the Aggies back into bowl contention.
12. Iowa State: Veteran defensive Wally Burnham has a great reputation and most recently flummoxed the spread defenses of the Big East while at South Florida. The Big 12, however, will be a different story. The Cyclones ranked tied for 110th in scoring defense and 112th in total defense. Coach Paul Rhoads says he’s been frustrated by his team’s lack of tackling techniques. They have a building block in cornerback Leonard Johnson. Burnham and Rhoads know what they are talking about defensively as both were coordinators for top 30 defenses last year. But it will take a lot of patience to help rebuild this unit that needs so much improvement.
Whether he's playing football or planning his next career step, Kansas senior safety Darrell Stuckey always says he's ready.
His future career plans are limitless. Maybe an NFL career or work as a sports agent. Or how about a career in public service or even politics? Part of him wonders what it would be like to be an athletic director at a university.
"My philosophy is to be prepared for everything," said Stuckey, whose most immediate challenge is to help Kansas claim its first Big 12 North title. "I like to make a change in the world in what I do and make a difference. It that ends up in public service, so be it. I'm ready for whatever happens."
Stuckey is one of the defensive leaders for the Jayhawks, a speedy All-Big 12 player who is the team's leading returning tackler and has been a pillar for the Jayhawks' defense since claiming a starting position as a redshirt freshman in 2006.
From that vantage point, Stuckey has seen the Kansas program transformed during his college career.
Coming to college, Stuckey wasn't heavily recruited. He decided on the Jayhawks over Kansas State, Northwestern, Tulsa and Wyoming -- among others.
"When I first got here, people wondered why I wanted to go to Kansas," Stuckey said. "I didn't really follow college football, but since I've gotten here, I've seen the philosophy of the players in the program evolve during that time. We've gotten better and it's been fun to be a part of it."
The Jayhawks had never been to back-to-back bowl games when Stuckey arrived. The Jayhawks only dreamed on contending in the North Division and hadn't earned a conference championship since sharing the 1968 Big Eight title with Oklahoma.
"I could tell that players in this program were defeated when I got here," Stuckey said. "This wasn't Texas or OU and they didn't believe it was a place that we could win."
That transformation started in 2005, Stuckey's redshirt season, when the Jayhawks claimed a resounding 42-13 victory over Houston in the Fort Worth Bowl to finish with their first winning season in 10 years.
It was a starting point. The Jayhawks went on to claim a share of the Big 12 North title in 2007, earning a trip to the Orange Bowl. They then beat Virginia Tech to help boost public perception in the program.
And even as the program took a step back in last season's 8-5 campaign, how the season finished help forge the Jayhawks' temerity. Stuckey produced two interceptions and a fumble recovery in the Jayhawks' gritty comeback victory over Missouri in the regular-season finale. They built on that with a win over Minnesota in the Insight Bowl, providing them three bowl victories in the last four seasons.
"The Fort Worth Bowl was an eye-opener for what this program could accomplish," Stuckey said. "We started achieving things in the short term. Then we built on it and kept getting better to where we're at the point where we're at today. As we started winning we saw that the sky was the limit. We've seen that as the evidence for what we can do."
That late surge enables the Jayhawks to enter the 2009 season with more preseason buzz than any time in recent memory. Kansas and Nebraska are fashionable preseason favorites to claim the North title.
To fulfill those expectations, Stuckey will be counted to lead a young defense that is considered one of the program's biggest question marks.
Gone are starting linebackers Joe Mortensen, Mike Rivera and James Holt from last season's unit. But their departure has opened up the opportunity for the Jayhawks to play more of a 4-2-5 defense that will be the team's defense of choice against most of the Big 12's pass-heavy offenses.
""Those guys leaving were a great loss, but it gives us another chance to transition," Stuckey said. "We lost our size in our linebacking corps, but we gain in our speed and athleticism. We couldn't play a 4-2-5 last season. It wasn't an option. But we'll be more effective in the long run by us playing it with the new guys."
The Kansas defense struggled at times last season as they allowed at least 33 points in seven games last season. The Jayhawks ranked 89th nationally in scoring defense and ranked 114th in pass defense, allowing 27 touchdown passes.
But those struggles have provided tangible growth points for Stuckey and his defense that he said he sees every day in practice.
The Jayhawks return all four starters in the secondary and three starters along the defensive front along with heralded junior-college transfer Quintin Woods.
"We learned from our mistakes," Stuckey said. "A baby doesn't learn how to walk until they keep falling, get back up and keep going. You don't learn until you fail."
Those struggles forged a mentality that has the Kansas defense primed for significant improvement this season.
"We're underrated as a unit and still not satisfied with how last season turned out," Stuckey said. "They don't know what to expect from us. We have a chip on our shoulder and are working hard to get ready. We know our capabilities and we're going to show everybody else what we can do."
Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin
Lunch links are here from across the Big 12.
- Hybrid Texas A&M linebacker/defensive end Von Miller is evoking memories of great Aggie defensive players from the past, San Antonio Express-News/Houston Chronicle beat writer Brent Zwerneman reports.
- Missouri will be attempting to exceed lessened expectations after losing several key players from the Tigers' back-to-back championship game teams, the Denver Post's John Henderson reports.
- The Lawrence Journal-World's Dugan Arnett introduces us to one-time Michigan commit Quintin Woods, who is expected to boost Kansas' pass rush after transferring from junior college.
- Record-setting quarterback Blake Szymanski provides Baylor with a battle-tested backup behind Robert Griffin, the Waco Tribune-Herald's John Werner reports.
- Oklahoma State quarterback Zac Robinson tells the Oklahoman's John Helsley that he has never learned how to slide while he's scrambling.
- Nebraska guard Derek Meyer is excited about a chance to play football closer to home sitting out last season after transferring from Kansas State.
- Six-foot-7 wide receiver Adrian Reese will be transferring from Texas Tech to Northwestern State in hopes of earning more playing time after being demoted to the Red Raiders' scout team, Don Williams of the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal reports.
- A number of at-risk Texas players ingested a silicone-coated CorTemp capsule to provide readings that enables trainers to better manage the searing South Texas heat at practice sessions, the Austin American-Statesman's Alan Trubow reports.
- Colorado is intent on improving its run defense after struggling last season, Boulder Daily Camera beat reporter Kyle Ringo reports.
- The Des Moines Register's Randy Peterson breaks down all things Iowa State in an informative chat about the Cyclones.
- The Topeka Capital-Journal's Austin Meek reports that Grant Gregory is closing the gap in his bid to unseat Carson Coffman as Kansas State's starting quarterback.
- The Columbia Tribune's Dave Matter writes about Missouri's recent troubling case of dropped passes -- a malady that Coach Gary Pinkel calls his No. 1 concern of preseason camp.
Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin
Excitement is booming at Kansas, where the Jayhawks are picked to contend for their first berth in the Big 12 title game.
Before they get to that game, Coach Mark Mangino still has some serious work to shore up his defense after losing starting linebackers Mike Rivera, Joe Mortensen and James Holt. He'll also have to replace three new starters along offensive line before the Jayhawks start making any plans to be heading to Arlington for the title game.
Here are three predictions for the Jayhawks after meeting with their players and coaches last week at the Big 12 media days.
1. Sorry, but the Jayhawks are taking the collar again against the Big 12 South teams. They allowed an average of 47.6 points per game in losses to Texas, Oklahoma and Texas Tech last season. The Texas Tech game would appear the most favorable, but remember that Kansas dropped a humbling 63-21 home loss to the Red Raiders last season. Texas and Oklahoma both are better than the Jayhawks again. If the Jayhawks are going to win North title, they need to sneak a win from the South or go 5-0 against the North. Both are rather sizable goals.
2. Mangino will play a 4-2-5 defense as his base set. Part will be because of all the high-powered passing offenses the Jayhawks will be facing in the conference this season. But part will be because the Jayhawks don't have enough Big 12-caliber talent to stock three linebacker positions on a consistent basis.
3. Transfer defensive end Quintin Woods is absolutely the most important player on the defense. Much is expected out of Woods, a junior-college transfer who signed with Michigan coming out of high school but failed to qualify academically. With the Jayhawks' new five-man secondary, a consistent pass rush is a necessity here. But behind him and returning starter Jake Laptad, there's not much there. Woods and Laptad must be big producers for the Jayhawks' title success. They won't win the North unless they get a noticeable improvement here.
Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin
Sometimes the spring provides a chance for personnel holes to be filled. Sometimes it doesn't.
Here are some of the notable positions around the Big 12 that picked up some assistance during the spring.
Baylor: The quick development of defensive tackle Phil Taylor, a heralded transfer from Penn State, should turn a traditional position of weakness for the Bears into a strength. Joining him at the position will be Jason Lamb, who showed some promise after moving over from defensive end before spring practice.
Colorado: The emergence of hulking 260-pound middle linebacker Marcus Burton and B.J. Beatty at outside linebacker have helped transform the Buffaloes' defense. Burton led the team in tackles and was a prime playmaker in the spring game with eight tackles, two sacks and a fumble recovery. He had eight tackles in 10 games last season.
Iowa State: Redshirt freshman quarterback Jerome Tiller outplayed starter Austen Arnaud in the spring game, passing for 210 yards and getting free for a 65-yard touchdown run. I'm not sure that Tiller will be starting come September, but he'll make Arnaud work harder to earn his job.
Kansas: The Jayhawks had questions in the defensive line before the spring, even with the return of all-Big 12 honorable mention selections Caleb Blakesley and Jake Laptad and late season starting defensive tackles Richard Johnson and Jamal Greene. The development of tackle Darius Parish and end Max Onyegbule should add to the depth. And that doesn't even account for the arrival of heralded junior college transfer Quintin Woods, who originally signed with Michigan out of high school before heading to Bakersfield (Cal.) Community College to get his grades in order.
Kansas State: The emergence of linebackers like Alex Hrebec, Ulla Pomele and John Houlik has helped turn the position into the strength of the defense, even as the Wildcats are transforming to a 4-2-5 alignment. Hrebec, a former walk-on, contributed 19 tackles in the spring game and Houlik is a huge hitter despite his 5-foot-11, 219-pound size.
Missouri: Redshirt freshman Aldon Smith has only added to the Tigers' depth at defensive end, which already featured Brian Coulter and Jacquies Smith in front of him. Smith was voted as the team's most improved player in the spring. Throw in converted offensive tackle Brad Madison and redshirt freshman Marcus Marlbrough and you'll see why Gary Pinkel considers it his best collection of defensive ends at Missouri.
Nebraska: The Cornhuskers had serious questions at quarterback, particularly after the departure of projected starting challenger Patrick Witt before spring practice and Kody Spano's knee injury. But the strong spring by Zac Lee and the surprising development of converted linebacker LaTravis Washington eased some of offensive coordinator Shawn Watson's concerns. Their strong spring work also should mean that heralded freshman Cody Green likely won't be thrown into action perhaps as quickly as Watson might have feared before the spring.
Oklahoma: After losing starters Nic Harris and Lendy Holmes, safety was the only position without returning starters for the Sooners on defense. Quinton Carter nailed down one starting position and Sam Proctor and Joseph Ibiloye are poised to fight for the other job beside him. Emmanuel Jones and Desmond Jackson also had strong spring efforts to challenge for playing time.
Oklahoma State: Defensive tackle was enough of a question that new coordinator Bill Young moved Derek Burton inside from defensive end to help bolster depth at the position. Burton and Swanson Miller appear to have won starting jobs with redshirt freshman Nigel Nicholas and junior Chris Donaldson providing strong depth. Their strong play helped the Cowboys rack up seven sacks in the spring game - more than half of their 2008 season total of 13.
Texas: The Longhorns were concerned about defensive end after the departure of NFL draft picks Brian Orakpo and Henry Melton from last season. Those fears appear to be assuaged after the seamless transition of Sergio Kindle to the position from linebacker and the quick assimilation by freshman Alex Okafor. Toss in Sam Acho and Russell Carter and the return injured pass-rushing threat Eddie Jones and the Longhorns appear stacked at the position.
Texas A&M: Safety was a question mark before spring camp after the loss of Devin Gregg and Alton Dixon and the move of 2008 starting free safety Jordan Peterson to cornerback. But the strong return to safety by converted cornerback Jordan Pugh and the noticeable development by Trent Hunter helped solidify the position during the spring. And the Aggies' depth at the position was improved after the move of wide receiver Chris Caflisch to the position along with strong play from DeMaurier Thompson.
Texas Tech: The departure of two-time Biletnikoff Award winner Michael Crabtree and underrated Eric Morris was supposed to cripple the Red Raiders' receiving corps. Mike Leach appears to have found several serviceable replacements after Tramain Swindall, Lyle Leong, Detron Lewis and walk-on flanker Adam Torres all emerged during the spring. And that doesn't include Edward Britton, who was in Leach's doghouse much of the spring after falling behind in the classroom but still is perhaps their most athletic force on the field.