Big 12: Sean Fisher

None more 'interesting' than Nebraska

February, 8, 2011
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I first (briefly) stated my argument on Twitter: No team in college football was more interesting on and off the field for more reasons in the last year than Nebraska.

A lot of those reasons for interest were positive for the program. Others were negative. But I would argue that no team had more headline-worthy happenings on campus than the Huskers in the past year.

I hear the arguments for USC (coaching change, sanctions), Notre Dame (coaching change, student death, anticlimactic realignment) and Florida (Urban Meyer postseason flip-flop, "You're a bad guy" media incident, offensive collapse, coaching change).

I disagree.

A refresher course on the past 12 months in Nebraska football, for those who have forgotten:

Spring 2010: Starting quarterback Zac Lee is forced to sit out spring practice, and rumors about the progress of a redshirt freshman, Taylor Martinez, start to emerge. Martinez validates those rumors with a memorable spring game performance that leaves fans buzzing.

May-June 2010: Realignment rumors build into reality, and days after Big 12 spring meetings close, Nebraska leaves the Big 12 for the Big Ten, by far the biggest move of the summer's realignment. It becomes official on July 1, 2011.

August 2010: During fall camp, linebacker Sean Fisher (broken leg) and cornerback Anthony Blue (torn ACL) were injured during a closed practice, and rumors of their injuries leaked onto message boards. As a result, media members tried to reach family members, at one point, while Fisher was undergoing surgery. As a result, coach Bo Pelini banned the media from accessing his team for three days.

Sept. 4, 2010: No starter was officially announced before the season opener against Western Kentucky, but the speedy Martinez was announced during starting lineups to a raucous reception from the fans. He becomes the first freshman to start a season opener in Nebraska history. On his first career carry, he runs for a 46-yard touchdown. Nebraska wins, 49-10.

Oct. 7, 2010: Martinez had considerable buzz after rushing for 496 yards and eight scores in his first four games, but his coming out party was a nationally-televised, Thursday night game against Kansas State. He ran for four touchdowns, 241 yards and led the Huskers to a 48-13 road conference win over the bowl-bound Wildcats. That's Heisman-type stuff, and for the first time, he realistically threw his name into the Heisman race (alongside shoo-in Heisman winner Denard Robinson) and then-No. 5 Nebraska was looking like a very real national championship contender. Martinez would not score another rushing touchdown the rest of the season.

Oct. 16, 2010: Nine days later, they hit the first of many speed bumps. Texas' free fall lessened the impact of what looked like the biggest game of the year, but the Longhorns, who finished 5-7, were still able to remind Nebraska of the mysterious mojo they have over the Huskers. Martinez struggled, was benched in the fourth quarter and Nebraska suffered its first loss, 20-13, at home, in a shocker. The loss moved Nebraska to 1-9 against Texas since the Big 12 began in 1996.

Oct. 30, 2010: Roy Helu Jr. runs for 307 yards to help beat Missouri and gives the Huskers control of the Big 12 North. Martinez suffers a sprained ankle late in the first half and doesn't play in the second half. It eventually proves as one of the biggest moments of Nebraska's season.

Nov. 6, 2010: Martinez sits against Iowa State with an injured ankle, and the Cyclones erase a 24-10 lead to send the game into overtime. The Huskers score first, but intercept a wobbly pass on a fake extra point to win the game, 31-30, and maintain control of the Big 12 North, which they eventually win.

Nov. 20, 2010: Nebraska is flagged a school-record 16 times, compared to Texas A&M's two. The worst of the 16 flags is a phantom roughing the passer call that extends Texas A&M's game-winning drive in the 9-6 win.

The biggest news, though, has little to do with the on-field action that resulted in a second loss.

Martinez starts, but re-injures the ankle early and heads to the locker room. There, he returns a call from his father in violation of team rules. Upon learning this information, Pelini screams inches away from a stone-faced Martinez while jabbing his chest with a finger. ESPN's cameras catch the controversial interaction, which re-airs countless times over the following days.

After the game, Pelini chases an official off the field while screaming inches away from his face as well, a scene seen on the sideline during the game. As Texas A&M fans storm the field, his brother, defensive coordinator Carl Pelini, throws down a cameraman's camera, breaking off a few detachable pieces, but doing no permanent damage to the equipment.

After the game, Pelini makes his players off-limits and briefly addresses media.

Nov. 21, 2010: Nebraska chancellor Harvey Perlman publicly criticizes Pelini's actions during the game. Pelini later apologizes, saying he "let it get personal" toward officials.

Throughout the day, rumors that Martinez planned transfer swirl after the freshman misses a team workout. Later, it's revealed that Martinez also suffered turf toe on his left foot to pair with his sprained right ankle. Pelini denies rumors that Martinez planned to transfer.

Nov. 23, 2010: Top receiver/kick returner Niles Paul suffers a broken foot in practice. He misses the season-ending, Big 12 North-clinching win over Colorado and the Big 12 title game but returns for the bowl game. (That's a wholly terrible four-day stretch, no?)

Nov. 26, 2010: Nebraska clinches the Big 12 North with a win over Colorado, but no Big 12 officials are on hand to deliver the championship trophy. Commissioner Dan Beebe tells Nebraska media later that night that he didn't make the trip because of safety concerns. He had received death threats after the Texas A&M officiating fiasco.

Dec. 4, 2010: Nebraska closes its run in the Big 12 by reviving one of the league's great rivalries, one final game against Oklahoma. The Huskers' early 17-0 lead is erased, Martinez takes seven sacks and the Huskers lose, 23-20, to land in the Holiday Bowl for the second consecutive season against Washington, a team it beat in Seattle 56-21 in September.

Dec. 30, 2010: Nebraska, 17-point favorites, suffers a shocking loss to Washington, 19-7. They finish 10-4, and lose three of their final four games.

Jan 5, 2011: Martinez's father, Casey Martinez, confirms to ESPN.com that Taylor will return to Nebraska for the 2011 winter semester, ending rumors of a transfer.

Jan. 11, 2011: Defensive tackle Jared Crick announces he'll return to Nebraska for his senior season.

Jan 26, 2011: Nebraska ends its licensing agreement with Corn Fed, Inc., Casey Martinez's apparel company. The deal paid Nebraska 10 percent royalties on all merchandise sold and began in June 2007.

Feb. 3, 2011: In Indiana, new Hoosiers coach Kevin Wilson announces that his assistant, Corey Raymond, is leaving for Nebraska to coach the secondary. Huskers secondary coach Marvin Sanders is still employed.

Pelini hasn't spoken with the media in five weeks.

Later, during his signing day teleconference, Pelini refuses to answer any questions about his staff, and says no staff members have been hired or fired yet.

Nebraska signs 20 players and four ESPNU recruits for the nation's No. 14 recruiting class, which ranks No. 3 in the Big 12 and No. 2 in the Big Ten.

Later that night, Sanders, receivers coach Ted Gilmore and offensive coordinator Shawn Watson are absent from an Omaha recruiting dinner.

Feb. 4, 2011: Sanders announces his resignation for "family and personal reasons" amid reports of possible disciplinary action toward the coach for a nonfootball issue.

Feb. 5, 2011: Charles Jackson, Nebraska's only cornerback signee, tells the Omaha World-Herald he found out about Sanders' departure from a stranger via Facebook, and expresses discontent at not being notified that any moves had occurred or that they would follow his signing. He also adds he probably would have signed with Nebraska if he had been told.

Later in the day, his father goes on Omaha radio to diffuse the situation, and says his son is content and excited to start his career.

Feb. 7, 2011: Former Huskers star Scott Frost elects to stay at Oregon as receivers coach, rather than join his alma mater, who was reportedly unwilling to offer him playcalling duties.

Today: Gilmore and Watson are still employed, and Pelini says he knew nothing of an ad posted on Nebraska's website last week looking for an offensive assistant.

Now that, folks, is a whole lot of stuff that's happened in the last year. We can only assume 2011 will offer plenty more headlines in the Big Ten.

Can anybody top that? I say absolutely no way.

Big 12: What we know with two weeks to go

August, 23, 2010
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Preseason camps are about half gone. Opening weekend is less than two weeks away, and it's just over a week away for teams like Iowa State.

But plenty has been resolved in camps so far. Here's the best of what we know:

1. Three quarterback battles have been won. Two (Kansas State and Nebraska) have yet to be decided, but Tyler Hansen won the job over Cody Hawkins at Colorado. Kale Pick beat out Jordan Webb at Kansas. Taylor Potts beat out Steven Sheffield in an epic duel at Texas Tech between two seniors who could start for about anyone in the conference.

[+] EnlargeTaylor Potts
Karl Anderson/Icon SMITaylor Potts beat out Steven Sheffiled to be Texas Tech's starting quarterback.
2. Nebraska and Kansas have been hit hardest by injury. Nebraska lost linebacker Sean Fisher and utility lineman Mike Smith for the season, each with a broken leg. Backup cornerback Anthony Blue will also miss the season with a torn ACL. Tight end Dreu Young also required back surgery and may miss up to the entire season. None figured to be game-changers, but without them, the Huskers depth suffers, leaving them more reliant on less experienced players. That's not the case in Lawrence, where Turner Gill will coach his first season without Huldon Tharp, one of the conference's best linebackers and one of his most exciting young talents. Backup running back Rell Lewis will miss the season with a knee injury, as will offensive lineman Jeff Spikes, who had a chance to start.

3. Gill: What have you done for me lately? Turner Gill cares not about your recruiting stars, Jayhawks. Toben Opurum was the Jayhawks leading rusher as a freshman, with 554 yards. As one of the nation's best fullbacks, he came to Kansas because Mark Mangino planned to let the 6-foot-1, 240-pounder play running back. He was injured in the spring, but returned to full strength by preseason camp. Unable to crack the depth chart at running back, he's been moved to linebacker to help solve the Jayhawks' depth problems at the position. Meanwhile, two-year starter at center Jeremiah Hatch was sent to the bench in favor of senior captain Sal Capra, who played both guard positions last year.

4. Iowa State is even more huggable. The team rallied behind rookie head coach Paul Rhoads in 2009 and raced to a seven-win season after just five wins in the previous two seasons combined. This fall, one of the teams practices was canceled so the players could sandbag the athletic facility to prevent damage from a major flood in Central Iowa. To do the team's laundry, team managers had to travel nearly 20 miles to the nearest source of fresh water.

5. Robert Griffin's arm isn't rusty. The Bears sophomore quarterback has strung together two masterful scrimmages through the air, completing 33 of his 44 passes for three touchdowns and one interception. He has yet to prove he can run with the same explosiveness he showed as a freshman, but coach Art Briles isn't going to be getting Griffin hit many more times than is necessary.

6. Texas is talking up its defense. Coach Mack Brown isn't keeping quiet about his expectations for his defense in 2010. ""I do think this could be our best defense," Brown told the Dallas Morning News last week, noting health and depth as variables. "We should be really, really good on defense." The Longhorns already ranked No. 3 nationally in total defense last year, but bring back one of the nation's best secondaries and perhaps the best and deepest group of defensive ends anywhere.

Lunch links: Huskers down a starter

August, 18, 2010
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BYU is so indie its shirt don't fit. And it thinks Tokyo Police Club are all a bunch of sellouts.

Lunch links: Peso's side effect

August, 11, 2010
8/11/10
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Texas A&M's Jerrod Johnson at the mic singing some Blackstreet karaoke is by no means average. He's got class and style. No diggity, no doubt.

All that's missing is Lil' Penny, a puppet (OK, marionette) before puppets (Yes you, LeBron and Kobe) were cool.

Lunch links: Sooners drafting for spring game

April, 14, 2010
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Big 12 mailbag: Will Blackshirts be good in 2010 again?

January, 19, 2010
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I received a slew of comments about some of my early choices for my All-Decade teams across the conference. Hopefully, that will prove as popular during the rest of the week for the rest of the Big 12 teams as they are released.

Here's a representative example of some of the other missives I've received over the last few days.

Mike Heuertz of Iowa writes: Tim, even with Ndamukong Suh leaving Nebraska, as well as a couple other key defensive players, do you think the Blackshirts will be better next season? And what do you think Nebraska's record will be?

Tim Griffin: I talked with several Nebraska fans during my swing through the state last week who seemed almost giddy about the Cornhuskers’ chances next season.

That being said, the loss of Suh will be huge. I think he can be considered the arguably greatest defensive player in the history of the program. The Cornhuskers also will lose Barry Turner, Phillip Dillard, Larry Asante and the heart, grit and talent provided by Matt O’Hanlon.

Now I can see players like Prince Amukamara, Will Compton, Sean Fisher and Jared Crick getting a lot better gaining experience playing Bo Pelini’s defense. But it might be a little wishful thinking to hope for much improvement from this season -- considering the Cornhuskers’ big defensive personnel losses.

As far as their record, I would expect them to be one of the powers of the Big 12. They have a tricky game at Washington which will earn them a lot of national notoriety if they can win. Texas will be coming to Lincoln, as will Colorado and Missouri. A road game at Oklahoma State doesn’t look as daunting as it could be with the Cowboys breaking in a new quarterback. But an underrated challenge for the Cornhuskers might wait at Texas A&M with Jerrod Johnson and all of A&M’s strong returning offensive weapons back for next season.

Looking at that schedule, I’ll pick the Cornhuskers to go 10-2 and finish as the Big 12 North champion. Considering their returning talent and their schedule, I think that’s a relatively conservative pick.

But as far as next year's team being better than the 2009 version of the Blackshirts, that might be wishing for a little bit much -- even for the Pelinis.


Chris Henson from Salt Lake City, Utah, writes: Tim, a quick addition to the Texas A&M-Oklahoma State tidbit. The Red, White, and Blue Out in 2001 was organized by a group of students first and foremost as a fundraiser for the victims of 9/11. I appreciate you noting this event as it really shows what Texas A&M is all about.

Tim Griffin: Chris, thanks for the clarification. Like you wrote, it was truly an emotional event. There’s a picture of the stadium that is still hung in the press box at Kyle Field of the stadium bedecked for that game. It still gives me goose bumps when I see it.


Travis from Seattle writes: Tim, the players of the decade category has created quite a stir, with many saying, "...well how could X player be off the list." For the most part I agree with your list if you look at it being, who were great players, AND who did the most to influence their team's success, (thus why Graham Harrell is off, being a plug-and-play quarterback in that system although he did do a fine job).

But I propose a different category. Who were the best ATHLETES of the decade? And how about the best competitors, the ones who did everything to try to win. What are your thoughts?

Tim Griffin: You raise a good point about my list earlier being an all-around grouping of all qualities. As far as the best athletes of the decade in the Big 12 from the last decade, in no specific order I would include Ndamukong Suh, Eric Crouch, Robert Griffin, Chris Brown, Vince Young, Seneca Wallace, Dez Bryant, Dezmon Briscoe, Darren Sproles, Danario Alexander (before and after his injury), Brad Smith, Jeremy Maclin, Adrian Peterson, Brian Orakpo, Michael Huff, Earl Thomas, Reggie McNeal, Robert Ferguson, Sammy Davis and Michael Crabtree.

And among the top competitors I’ve seen include Stephen McGee, Crabtree, Colt McCoy, Roy Miller, Joe Pawelek, Jordan Lake, George Hypolite, Todd Reesing, Chase Daniel, Sean Weatherspoon, Matt O’Hanlon, Suh, Josh Fields, Brian Iwuh, Darrell Stuckey, Steven Sheffield, Wes Welker and Kliff Kingsbury. There are many others, but those are just some of the names that come to me off the top of my head. And the fact that Suh and Crabtree made both of those lists is pretty indicative of how exceptional they really were.


Fred Dodge of Annapolis, Md., writes: Tim, in reference to your top 10 jobs in college football. You have a good list, BUT the one caveat that I think goes with this list or any list is context. Most of these are still the "right-guy-for-the-right-place" jobs -- as are coaches. Being a Husker, I lean toward Bo Pelini and Nebraska as my first examples. Bo would not be a good fit for many of these jobs...I just can't see Bo fitting at USC or Florida for example; but I also can't see Lane Kiffin or Pete Carroll being successful in Lincoln. And in my opinion there are only a few guys who can shape a program around their personality. Nick Saban could coach anywhere, Urban Meyer probably could, and Jim Tressel could in most places. But I have a difficult time seeing Mack Brown outside the southeast or southwest and Bo Pelini outside the midwest. All of these guys could still coach, but I think they would struggle in fan support -- and so they would also in recruiting.

Tim Griffin: You make an interesting point, although I think that Pelini would work in more places than you might suspect. He’s a dyed-in-the-wool football coach and would succeed at most traditional powers, although I think his style best suits him at Nebraska. But I could see him being successful in the Southeastern Conference, in the Big Ten or even at Notre Dame. Anywhere they have a deep appreciation for football, I can see Pelini working out.

I think coaches like Bob Stoops, Saban, Meyer and Tressel would work most places. I also think you might include some underrated coaches out there like Mike Riley of Oregon State, Gary Patterson of TCU, Jeff Tedford of California and Chris Peterson of Boise State would be adaptable at almost any job in the country. But it does seem that the smart coaches are the ones who pick places where they are comfortable and have the best chance for success.


Kyle Zander of Fort Hood, Texas, writes: Will Chris Whaley and Desean Hales get playing time for Texas in 2010? I played against Hales in high school and the kid is the real deal, Texas needs to get him involved as soon as possible. And Whaley could help, too.

Tim Griffin: Texas needs to find some help for its running game. Whaley was hurt when he reported to practice last summer and never regained his form. If he’s willing to rededicate himself, there likely is a chance for him to earn some playing time this spring. He needs to have a big spring to get there.

Sales is in a similar situation. The Longhorns have wide receiving talent in players like senior-to-be John Chiles and James Kirkendoll. Malcolm Williams is a big strong receiver who will emerge in coming seasons and should be the team’s featured receiver in 2010. But there are catches – plenty of them -- available for Hales if he can force himself into the mix.


Brett Stamm from Keller, Texas, writes: Tim, love the blog! Keep up the good work! Has Mike Sherman, or will Mike Sherman, or why will Mike Sherman not, consider Dat Nguyen for defensive coordinator? Talk about a guy who has done an outstanding job in his current position and would bring some instant credibility with players and recruits in a program that has pretty much let a proud defensive tradition die with questionable and mediocre hires. This is a guy who was the face of and exemplified the "Wrecking Crew" tradition for four years! Your thoughts?

Tim Griffin: Brett, Dat Nguyen has been a key member of Wade Phillips’ staff as an assistant linebacker coach and defensive quality control assistant with the Dallas Cowboys. But I would suspect that Sherman probably would like for Nguyen to have a little more seasoning and experience calling defenses before he would give him the responsibility of serving as the Aggies’ defensive coordinator.

In a way, Nguyen reminds me a little of Major Applewhite as they develop in their coaching careers. It won’t surprise me if both become successful coordinators and eventually outstanding head coaches. But they need more experience to get there.

Nguyen seems like a natural to join the A&M coaching staff in the future. But I think it might be a stretch to see him as the Aggies’ defensive coordinator at this stage of his career.

That’s all the time I have for today. Thanks again for all of the good questions and keep the letters and e-mails coming. I’ll check back again on Friday.

Michael, Smith, Way head All-Big 12 freshman team

December, 8, 2009
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Along with my All-Big 12 team, I thought it would be fun to also pick a team made up of freshmen and redshirt freshmen.

There are a couple of gaps. There was only one center, Oklahoma's Ben Habern, on the two-deep rosters on Big 12 rosters. And there are also no kickers, either.

And I'll also go one step further. I'll pick Christine Michael of Texas A&M as my Big 12 Freshman Offensive Player of the Year, Aldon Smith of Missouri as my Big 12 Freshman Defensive Player of the Year and Tress Way of Oklahoma as my Big 12 Freshman Special Teams Player of the Year.

Here's a look at my all-freshman team for offense, defense and special teams.

Offense:
QB: Landry Jones, Oklahoma
RB: Christine Michael, Texas A&M
RB: Toben Opurum, Kansas
WR: Uzoma Nwachukwu, Texas A&M
WR: Alex Torres, Texas Tech
TE: Ben Cotton, Nebraska
OL: Tanner Hawkinson, Kansas
OL: Bryce Givens, Colorado
OL: Patrick Lewis, Texas A&M
OL: Lane Taylor, Oklahoma State
C: Ben Habern, Oklahoma

Defense:
DL: Aldon Smith, Missouri
DL: Jamarkus McFarland, Oklahoma
DL: Will Pericak, Colorado
LB: Kyle Manghan, Texas A&M
LB: Huldon Tharp, Kansas
LB: Sean Fisher, Nebraska
LB: Will Compton, Nebraska
DB: Cody Davis, Texas Tech
DB: Chance Casey, Baylor
DB: Dustin Harris, Texas A&M
DB: Ray Polk, Colorado

Special teams:
KR: D.J. Monroe, Texas
PR: Austin Zouzalik, Texas Tech
P: Tress Way, Oklahoma
ST: Kenny Vaccaro, Texas

Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin


Here are a few under-the-radar topics that people are talking about across the Big 12.
  • The early success of Baylor backup quarterback Nick Florence and Texas Tech wide receiver Lyle Leong points out the benefit of grayshirting, a practice where players report a year early before they go on scholarship. Both Florence and Leong developed before joining their teams and were better prepared to play when they got their chances. The results have immeasurably helped both teams.
  • Kansas State third-string quarterback Joseph Kassanavoid is useful to the Wildcats in other ways than merely flashing dummy signals and carrying a clipboard on the sideline. The 6-foot-5, 239-pound Kassanavoid is a member of almost every special-teams unit for the Wildcats. He even got a couple of rotations at defensive end late in the Wildcats’ game against Iowa State last week, producing a key fumble early in the fourth quarter.
  • The best new version of the Wildcat offense is the “Bearcat” offense employed by Art Briles at Baylor. It’s a little more unconventional than most because freshman tight end Jerod Monk got the snap. It worked to perfection for a 1-yard touchdown run against Kent State, so you can’t argue with Briles' success.
  • One item I’m going to be curious to watch Thursday night will be how much Missouri coaches allow quarterback Blaine Gabbert to change plays at the line of scrimmage. Owing to his newness at the position, Gabbert hasn’t done much of that yet. It will be an acquired skill. But I’m wondering how much growth in that aspect of his game will be seen in the next several weeks.
  • Perhaps the wisest move that Bo Pelini has made has been his reinsertion of senior Phillip Dillard back into the starting lineup at linebacker. Dillard’s return has helped foster a nasty disposition in the group that is best seen in Nebraska's emerging run defense. And Dillard also has helped settle down freshmen starting linebackers Sean Fisher and Will Compton, who join him in the starting lineup.
  • The presumption that starting middle linebacker Orie Lemon would be a huge loss for Oklahoma State this season hasn't exactly worked out. The strong production of former junior-college player Donald Booker has boosted the Cowboys' defense. Booker has emerged as one of the conference’s most underrated linebackers, leading OSU with 26 tackles.
  • The best example of Colorado’s offensive and defensive struggles can be seen in this statistic. The Buffaloes have produced two gains of 40 yards or more on offense. And they’ve allowed 11 gains of 40 yards or more on defense.

Pelini not concerned about young Nebraska LBs before V-Tech game

September, 14, 2009
9/14/09
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Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin


Nebraska coach Bo Pelini plans to start two young defensive players in their first road game when the Cornhuskers travel Saturday to Virginia Tech for a game against the No. 13 Hokies.

Included among Nebraska's defensive starters for that game will be redshirt freshman middle linebacker Will Compton and redshirt freshman starting Buck linebacker Sean Fisher.

Both players have started both games for the Cornhuskers so far this season. And both have eight tackles in their early work.

Despite their relative youth, Pelini doesn't expect to prepare either player differently than their work earlier in the season to prepare for the Hokies.

"Nothing,’’ Pelini said on the Big 12 teleconference. "We’ll be ready to play.’’

Virginia Tech will counter the Cornhuskers' defensive youth with some of their own. Top returning rusher Darren Evans was lost for the season in training camp after a knee injury.

But the Hokies had two freshmen running backs -- David Wilson and Ryan Williams -- who rushed for more than 160 yards in their 52-10 route over Marshall on Saturdy.

The presence of the talented tailback will challenge a Nebraska defense that allowed Arkansas State to have 18 plays of eight yards or more last week.

"They're really good football players," Pelini said about Williams and Wilson. "We'll have our hands full, we certainly know that."

Big 12 lunch links: Veteran D-coordinators meet in Iowa-ISU game

September, 10, 2009
9/10/09
1:18
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Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin


We don't get much rain in San Antonio -- or at least we haven't this year.

But it still doesn't explain why my home wireless service and my aircard both went out this morning as soon as the thunder and lightning hit.

Thank goodness for my local branch of the public library for delivering these lunch links in a timely manner. I'll remember this the next time they have a bond drive.

After dancing between a few raindrops on my way, here some prime discussion points across the Big 12 today.

Ranking the Big 12's defenses

September, 2, 2009
9/02/09
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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.

Seven Big 12 players make 2009 redshirt freshman A-A team

August, 4, 2009
8/04/09
2:31
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin

I'll admit I'm a sucker for any achievement award. Give me an All-American squad -- either preseason or after the season is over with -- and I'll peruse it with diligence as I look for familiar players and teams.

And I've seen a bunch of them so far this season in a variety of magazine and Web sites.

But one of my most favorite ones has always been College Football News' redshirt freshman All-America team. It provides an early look at some of the more notable freshmen to watch around the country, both offensively and defensively.

Richard Cirminiello's team had a lot of familiar names from Big 12 schools that merit some watching. Here's a list of his first-team selections from the Big 12.

T -- Tanner Hawkinson, Kansas

C -- Ben Habern, Oklahoma

T -- Bryce Givens, Colorado

DT -- Baker Steinkuhler, Nebraska

LB -- Sean Fisher, Nebraska

LB -- Douglas Rippy, Colorado

S -- Joseph Ibiloye, Oklahoma

It bodes well for the Big 12's passing games if both tackles come from the conference. In particular, I'm intrigued with the selection of Hawkinson, a converted high school tight end who moves over from defense to protect Todd Reesing's blind side.

Oklahoma players tell me that Habern has the skill to perhaps be one of the best at his position at Oklahoma if he can keep developing. And Fisher and Rippy both have the ability to be playmakers in defenses that struggled to make many key stops last season.

Honorable mention selections included quarterback Landry Jones of Oklahoma, tackle Mark Buchanan of Texas, guards Trevor Marrongelli and John Williams of Kansas, defensive end Dravannti Johnson of Texas, defensive tackle Stacy McGee of Oklahoma, linebacker Kyle Mangan of Texas A&M and punters Quinn Sharp of Oklahoma State and Tress Way of Oklahoma.

It wise to keep an eye on these redshirt freshman. Remember that Michael Crabtree won the Biletnikoff Award as a redshirt freshman in 2007. Sam Bradford won the first of two Big 12 titles as a redshirt freshman in the same season. And Travis Lewis developed into one of the most play-making linebackers in the nation as a redshirt freshman last season.

Nebraska spring wrap

May, 14, 2009
5/14/09
9:25
AM ET
Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin

Nebraska Cornhuskers
2008 overall record: 9-4

2008 conference record: 5-3

Returning starters

Offense: 6, defense: 5, kicker/punter: 1

Top returners

I-back Roy Helu Jr., I-back Quentin Castille, G Jacob Hickman, TE Mike McNeill, DE Pierre Allen, DT Ndamukong Suh, S Larry Asante, K Alex Henery.

Key losses

QB Joe Ganz, I-back Marlon Lucky, WR Todd Peterson, WR Nate Swift, G Matt Slauson, DT Ty Steinkuhler, CB Armando Murillo

2008 statistical leaders (* returners)

Rushing: Roy Helu Jr. * (803 yards)
Passing: Joe Ganz (3,568 yards)
Receiving: Nate Swift (941 yards)
Tackles: Ndamukong Suh* (76)
Sacks: Ndamukong Suh* (7.5)
Interceptions: Ndamukong Suh*, Zach Potter, Anthony West* (2)

Spring answers

2009 Schedule

Sept. 5 Florida Atlantic
Sept. 12 Arkansas State
Sept. 19 at Virginia Tech
Sept. 26 Louisiana-Lafayette
Oct. 8 at Missouri
Oct. 17 Texas Tech
Oct. 24 Iowa State
Oct. 31 at Baylor
Nov. 7 Oklahoma
Nov. 14 at Kansas
Nov. 21 Kansas State
Nov. 27 at Colorado

1. Zac Lee: There were some serious doubts before spring practice at quarterback, but Lee appeared to dispel most of those fears as he replaced Joe Ganz. Lee looked comfortable in his role as starter, passing for 214 yards and three TDs in the spring game. His development over the spring has clearly stamped him as the most likely starter for the Cornhuskers in August when heralded freshman Cody Green will be more comfortable in the offense.

2. Tight ends: Mike McNeill already was one of the conference's most underrated players after breaking the school record for catches at the position last season. But the Cornhuskers will have outstanding depth at the position after strong springs by junior Dreu Young, sophomore Ryan Hill and freshmen Kyle Reed and Ben Cotton. Their growth at the position might lessen some of the worries at wide receiver. Don't be surprised if the Cornhuskers regularly feature two-tight end sets as part of their basic offensive strategy.

3. Antonio Bell: The suspension of Niles Paul was supposed to aggravate the Cornhuskers' iffy depth at wide receiver. But Bell developed into a strong playmaker at the position and even showed some flashes as a kick returner at the spring game. He'll be in the mix for playing time at the start of the season.

Fall questions

1. Wide receiver: The loss of leading 2008 receivers Todd Peterson and Nate Swift robbed the Cornhuskers of much of their big-play capabilities at the position as well as a duo which contributed 125 combined catches last season. It will remain the biggest offensive liability of the Cornhuskers. Players like Menelik Holt and Paul will need to add production. Injury-prone Chris Brooks produced five catches in the spring game and much is expected from heralded junior-college standout Brandon Kinnie. And Marcus Mendoza looks to have adjusted after moving to wide receiver from I-back.

2. Right side of the offensive line: The loss of Matt Slauson and Lydon Murtha robbed the Cornhuskers of solid producers familiar with playing together. Marcel Jones appears to have claimed the starting job at right tackle. And the development of center Mike Caputo allowed Nebraska line coach Barney Cotton to
experiment with moving starting center Jacob Hickman to right guard. But a bigger question will be replacing the veteran leadership they received with Murtha and Slauson over the last several years.

3. Linebackers: The Cornhuskers are talented but very young at linebacker. Colton Koehler and Matthew May both look to have earned starting positions during the spring. Redshirt freshmen Alonzo Whaley, Micah Kreikemeier, Sean Fisher and Will Compton all had their moments. But a key player in fall practice will be Blake Lawrence, who started quickly but suffered a concussion late in the spring.

Big 12 links: Season openers are all about uncertainty

August, 27, 2008
8/27/08
10:54
AM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin

Credit Western Michigan coach Bill Cubit for being honest.

Cubit had a unique description for his mindset leading up to the Broncos' season opener Saturday at Nebraska.

"You kind of go in there blind," Cubit said, reflecting on his lack of knowledge about how new Nebraska coach Bo Pelini will operate his program during game situations.

Pelini has been a head coach for one previous game -- a 2003 Alamo Bowl victory over Michigan State as interim coach after Frank Solich was fired. So Cubit doesn't know much about what he'll be facing.

So he's preparing for just about anything.

"We just don't know," Cubit said on the Mid-American Conference's weekly teleconference. "You can talk to people about what coach Pelini did at LSU. But you've got different players and you're always trying to adapt your system to the players you've got, and what their strengths and weaknesses are.

"For us, it's just going to be more fundamentals. The unknown in the first game is always severe, but with the new coaching staff ... With our kids, you can't tell them exactly where people are going to be all the time."

Other coaches are facing similar problems across the country.

And that's why we're here. To provide enlightment about the Big 12 one link at a time.

Here are some of this morning's goodies.

  • Baylor coach Art Briles has decided who his starting quarterback Thursday night will be against Wake Forest. He's just not telling anybody -- yet.
  • Denver Post columnist Woody Paige provides a primer for visiting Democratic National Convention delegates about the upcoming season.
  • The Kansas City Star's Mike DeArmond writes a strong piece about Missouri WR-KR Jeremy Maclin, who approaches the upcoming season knowing he'll likely be a marked man. And don't miss DeArmond's vlog on the same page, where he convinced somebody to put a dartboard on their back for a feeling like Maclin experiences on the football field. I'm just wondering who the brave soul was.
  • New Kansas running back Jocques Crawford has a bold goal of rushing for 2,000 yards this season -- despite the fact he's not even the Jayhawks' starter at the position. J.Brady McCullough also has a vlog about his story.
  • The Lawrence Journal-World's Eric Sorrentino provides an early look at the Big 12's games this weekend.
  • Jeremy Maclin's first encounter with a mechanical bull wasn't too pleasant.
  • Teammates joke that Nebraska T Mike Smith should consider a career as a kicker or a tight end, considering he weighs "only" 285 pounds.
  • The leadership development of Oklahoma QB Sam Bradford has been dramatic, according to John Hoover of the Tulsa World. It's also helped Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops become more relaxed with Bradford in charge of his offense.
  • Oklahoma State QB Zac Robinson decided to come to the Cowboys because of his family's assocation at the school. His mother is an OSU graduate and his father once wore the Pistol Pete suit of the school's mascot.
  • No more boring football at Texas A&M as the Aggies debut a new offensive and defensive look, Dallas Morning News reporter Brandon George writes.
  • The Dallas Morning News' Chuck Carlton has Oklahoma and Missouri among two teams he thinks can win the national title.
  • The Lubbock Avalanche-Journal's Don Williams writes about how Texas Tech coach Mike Leach is using acupuncture to curb his need for smokeless tobacco and help treat his asthma.
  • Kirk Bohls recalls watching the wishbone for the first time 40 years ago and wonders if it will ever return.
  • The Austin American-Statesman's Alan Trubow profiles the passion of Texas defensive coordinator Will Muschamp.
  • Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy said his team will be facing a hostile crowd in what his research shows is the loudest stadium in the NFL when it faces Washington State in Seattle.
  • Tulsa World columnist Dave Sittler calls Oklahoma's opener against Chattanooga its final scrimmage before they break fall camp.
  • Starting Kansas State LB Ollu Hall was attracted to Kansas State after leaving Virginia, where his coaches included current Kansas State coach and former Cavaliers assistant Ron Prince. "It's the same thing," Hall told the Wichita Eagle's Jeffrey Martin. "Everything is done the same way. ... Virginia is the older brother, and K-State is the little brother."
  • Des Moines Register beat writer Andrew Logue wonders if Iowa State fans are nervous about Thursday's opener against South Dakota State.
  • Denver Post beat writer Tom Kensler blogs that his favorite players to typically interview are offensive linemen.
  • Both Austen Arnaud and Phillip Bates expect to see action Thursday night for Iowa State at quarterback against South Dakota State.
  • Colorado TB Demetrius Sumler's career has been marked with patience.
  • The Kansas City Star's Blair Kerkhoff takes his video top 25 for No. 4 Missouri on the road to the parking lot of Arrowhead Stadium, site of the Big 12 championship game. Kerkhoff (nice sunglasses, Blair) says that Missouri S William Moore might have been the best defensive player in the country over the second half of last season.
  • Stop the presses! Wichita Eagle columnist Bob Lutz goes out on a limb and picks Kansas and Kansas State both to win their openers on Saturday.
  • Gary Pinkel is wary about first-game challenges in Missouri's opener Saturday against Illinois in St. Louis.
  • Omaha World-Herald columnist Tom Shatel is glad that Bo Pelini is chintzy about awarding blackshirts. And so is Lincoln Journal-Star columnist Steve Sipple, too.
  • The Oklahoman's John Helsey profiles Oklahoma TE Brody Eldridge, who Sooner offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson calls the team's best player.
  • 6-foot-6, 225-pound freshman LB Sean Fisher should get a lot of playing time for Nebraska early in the season. 
  • Missouri redshirt freshman OT Elvis Fisher "isn't all shook up," even if he's protecting QB Chase Daniel's blind side against Illinois. Dave Matter of the Columbia Tribune also "Cuts to the Chase" with Daniel's weekly comments.

Cornhuskers have three-man logjam at I-back

August, 26, 2008
8/26/08
3:01
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin

Nebraska coach Bo Pelini apparently is determined to have a three-man rotation at I-back for the Cornhuskers' season opener Saturday night against Western Michigan.

Pelini's season-opening depth chart includes Marlon Lucky, Roy Helu and Quentin Castille as first-teamers at I-back. Nebraska offensive coordinator Shawn Watson has consistently said that Lucky, the Big 12's leading returning rusher, is his starter. But the three players are expected to play relatively equally in the Cornhuskers' first game.

The Lincoln Journal-Star blogged from Pelini's press conference that three freshmen made the two-deep roster -- OLB Sean Fisher, MLB Will Compton and TE Ben Cotton, son of Nebraska offensive line coach Barney Cotton.

Pelini also told the Omaha World-Herald he might not award "Blackshirts" for Nebraska's starting defensive players for "a long time."

He had a strong reason for the delay, he said.

"Why not?" he said, drawing a laugh from media members. "What's a Blackshirt mean if it's just a symbol that you haven't earned? Everybody wants to rush this thing. It's the same thing when I was here the first time. I don't see the point in it if you just hand them out to hand them out."

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