Big 12: Spencer Drango

Q&A: Baylor LT Spencer Drango

March, 4, 2015
Mar 4
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Baylor left tackle Spencer Drango earned All-America honors last season then elected to come back for his senior season and another shot at a national title. What’s he working on this spring? How do his quarterbacks look? When will he get to catch a pass? We caught up with Drango before Baylor’s first spring practice last week.

What have you guys seen from Seth Russell so far?

[+] EnlargeSpencer Drango
AP Photo/Tony GutierrezSpencer Drango will see to it that Baylor's new QB is well protected.
Drango: He’s shown us that he can be the leader of this team. As far as who has the position, I think it’s still up in the air. The coaches decide that. But all of our guys have been busting their butt. Seth has stepped up to fill that leadership role that’s been vacated by other guys.

What do you like about Jarrett Stidham from getting to watch him work?

Drango: He’s an overall good guy. I haven’t seen much on the field, just seen him throw a little bit. Just like Seth, it doesn’t look like he’s putting much effort into it to throw 65 or 70 yards. I know he can run, I’ve seen that a little on his highlights. It should be a lot of fun to watch him work.

In what ways can you improve after already earning All-America honors?

Drango: Well hopefully I can get unanimous All-American. That’s one of my goals. And then another one of my goals is to win the Outland Trophy. I was a semifinalist last year so I’d like to improve on that. And just here and there, pass pro, getting back to my old self I guess. I got there about halfway through last season. Pass blocking, I still didn’t feel like I was quite back to 100 percent on that. I had to adjust. Now that I’ve got a lot of my strength back, it should help a lot.

Was it important to you, in coming back this year, to help this offense through a transition to a new quarterback?

Drango: I think so, and I think it’s on the whole line in general to maintain that protection we’ve had in the quarterbacks of the past -- and not just maintain, but improve upon it. I don’t know how many sacks we gave up last year. One is too many. I’d like to see us give up none, and I think we can. We definitely have the talent on the line and mindset to be able to do that.

How motivated is this team after the Cotton Bowl loss?

Drango: We’re extremely motivated. Offseason was very intense. We wanted it that way. We wanted to weed out and get rid of the bad habits we had and get focused on doing things right and staying right. Having motivation is always a good thing.

Has LaQuan McGowan been asking for more chances to catch the ball?

Drango: I think every O-lineman is asking for more chances to catch the ball.

Well why haven’t you?

Drango: Uh, you know … coaching, I think. I’d be more than willing to do it, but I think …

You’re an All-American now. You can ask for that, right?

Drango: Well I would hope so. I think, position-wise, it works out better for him to do it than me. Just in the spot I’m at and the spot he’s at, it works out better for him to go do it. I love it.

It might tip the opponent off if you’re lined up in the slot.

Drango: Yeah, exactly. I don’t know, maybe we can do a tackle screen or something like that. That’d be fun.

When you guys were setting up that play, did you ever think they might actually run it in a game?

Drango: Any play that we run in practice, I think we can run it in a game. We have some crazy stuff that we run just to mess around. Coach Briles has some of those plays he loves.

So there are much crazier plays than that one we haven’t seen yet?

Drango: Uh, I don’t know about much crazier. I don’t know if you can get much more crazy than a 400-pounder scoring a touchdown. But every team has their tricks. We’ve got to have a lineman throw him the ball. That would be kind of fun. I don’t know if that’s going to happen. I’ll talk to Coach.
With spring ball a month away, we've been ranking position groups in the Big 12. These evaluations are based on past performance, future potential and quality depth. We continue this series with offensive line:

1. Baylor: All five starters return for the Bears, notably All-American left tackle Spencer Drango, who spurned the NFL draft to return for his senior season. The majority of the entire two-deep, in fact, is back, as well, including right guard Desmine Hilliard, who missed much of last year with a wrist injury. Despite being a two-year starter, Hilliard will have to fight to reclaim his starting job, as Jarell Broxton slotted in nicely in place of him during the second half of the season. This unit has a superstar in Drango, plenty of experience and a ton of depth.

2. TCU: The TCU offensive line was among the most-improved units in the league last year, setting the tone up front for the nation's second-highest scoring offense. Left tackle Tayo Fabuluje is gone, but the rest of the unit returns intact, including center Joey Hunt and right tackle Halapoulivaati Vaitai, who were both second-team All-Big 12 performers in 2014.

3. Texas Tech: Texas Tech encountered all kinds of problems last year, but offensive line wasn't one of them. All-Big 12 left tackle Le'Raven Clark was terrific protecitng the blindside of quarterbacks Pat Mahomes and Davis Webb, as Tech allowed only one sack per 43 pass attempts, which was among the best rates in the country. Center Jared Kaster and guards Alfredo Morales and Baylen Brown will all be three-year starters.

4. Oklahoma State: The Cowboys were dreadful along the offensive line for much of last year. But the group rapidly rebounded late, due in part to the healthy comeback of Zachary Crabtree at right tackle. Crabtree will be able to stick on the right side, too, thanks to the mid-semester arrival of transfer Victor Salako, who started two years for UAB and is expected to man left tackle for the Pokes. Oklahoma State also should be deeper overall with junior college transfers Brandon Pertile and Matt Kellerman joining returning starters Michael Wilson, Jesse Robinson and center Paul Lewis. Mike Gundy still needs to hire a position coach for this group with Bob Connelly bolting for USC.

5. Oklahoma: The Sooners were hit hard by graduation with longtime lynchpin tackles Daryl Williams and Tyrus Thompson both departing. Center Ty Darlington is back; so is veteran guard Nila Kasitati. Oklahoma also signed the nation's No. 1 juco guard, Jamal Danley, to play alongside them. Tackle is the big concern, but the Sooners are hopeful that either Orlando Brown Jr. or Kenyon Frison will be ready to step up after redshirting last year.

6. Kansas State: B.J. Finney was a four-year fixture at center for the K-State offensive line and will be dearly missed. But the Wildcats return the rest of the offensive line, including standout left tackle Cody Whitehair, who should take over for Finney as group leader. The Wildcats need guard Boston Stiverson to make a full return from the leg injury he suffered in the Valero Alamo Bowl. They also need more consistent pass protection from their right tackles.

7. Texas: The Longhorns got better up front as the season wore on, but this is still a unit with a bunch of questions. Left guard Sedrick Flowers was the only linemen to start every game, as Texas tinkered with six different combinations over the course of the season. Center Taylor Doyle and right guard Kent Perkins should retain their starting gigs, but junior college transfers Brandon Hodges and Tristan Nickelson, as well as early enrollee freshman Connor Williams, all have a chance to overtake Marcus Hutchins, Camrhon Hughes and Jake Raulerson at the tackle spots.

8. Iowa State: Left tackle Brock Dagel missing most of last season with a knee injury could be a silver lining for the Cyclones in 2015. Jake Campos got valuable experience along the line, including left tackle. As a result, the Cyclones should be in good shape on the bookends, provided Dagel is 100 percent. Guard Daniel Burton is one of the more underrated players in the league. Cole Anderson and Kory Kodanko, who both redshirted last year, have a good shot of joining the rotation.

9. West Virginia: The Mountaineers weren't great up front last year, and now they've graduated their two best blockers in guards Quinton Spain and Mark Glowinski. Tyler Orlosky bring stability on the inside at center, but tackles Adam Pankey and Marquis Lucas need to take a step forward in their second seasons as full-time starters.

10. Kansas: The Jayhawks don't have any difference-makers up front, at least not yet. But Jacob Bragg, one of the top center recruits in the country last year, has a chance to become one in time. Joe Gibson and Junior Visinia return along the interior. So does rising senior tackle Larry Mazyck, who may be asked to swing to the left side.
This week, we’re counting down the Big 12’s top 25 players of 2014.

Remember, criteria for these rankings were based solely on performances from 2014, not a culmination of previous seasons. Pro potential was not a factor. Neither was preseason hype. Number of games played was taken into account.

Without further delay, our countdown goes on to Nos. 6-10:

6. Kevin White, WR, West Virginia (preseason rank: not ranked): The light came on for White as a senior, as the Mountaineer receiver committed himself to taking more of a businesslike approach to his preparation. The result was 109 receptions for 1,447 yards and 10 touchdowns during a season that made him an Biletnikoff Award finalist. At 6-foot-3, 210 pounds, White’s long frame and terrific ball skills make him a prime red zone candidate and deep-ball threat. Yet he’s terrific after the catch, as well, leading the Big 12 with 650 yards after catch.

7. Spencer Drango. T, Baylor (9): Drango’s importance to the Baylor offense rose to the forefront after his injury late in the 2013 season. He returned to his dominant, pre-injury form in 2014, earning All-Big 12 and All-American honors while anchoring the offensive line that helped the Bears lead the nation in points per game (48.2), yards per game (581.5) and first downs (30.1). Drango led all BU offensive linemen with an 88.8 coaches grade.

8. Samaje Perine, RB, Oklahoma (NR): The hard-running true freshman burst upon the scene with a 242-yard, four-touchdown performance in an early road win at West Virginia. Yet few remember that performance, thanks to his FBS-record 427 rushing yards against Kansas in November. Perine is a handful for defenders, finishing with 263 carries for 1,713 yards (6.5 yards per carry) and 21 touchdowns. His 636 yards after contact and 1,148 yards between the tackles led the Big 12.

9. Ben Heeney, LB, Kansas (16): Few players can match the productivity of Captain Heeney in 2014. The Jayhawks senior left his best for last, leading the Big 12 with 10.58 tackles per game and 88 solo tackles. Heeney could make plays from sideline to sideline and finished his final season with double-digit tackles in seven games, including a 21-tackle game against Texas Tech. KU didn’t have the team success he was striving for, but Heeney did everything he could for the Jayhawks.

10. Andrew Billings, DT, Baylor (NR): The strongest man in the Big 12 is also one of the most disruptive. While teammate Shawn Oakman got most of the attention, Billings was anchoring the middle of a Bears defense that allowed 3.15 yards per carry, ranking seventh among FBS teams. The sophomore had a breakout season, finishing with 37 tackles including 11.5 tackles for loss, nine hurries, two sacks and one forced fumble. Billings is a critical building block for Art Briles' team in 2015.
At midnight, we hit the deadline for underclassmen to declare intention to enter the NFL draft. In all, six Big 12 players elected to forgo eligibility and go pro. Some big-name ones elected to stay put, too. Here's a roundup of how the Big 12 programs affected by the underclassmen deadline fared.

Biggest winner: Baylor. Defensive end Shawn Oakman could've been a first-round pick. Left tackle Spencer Drango already has his degree and two All-Big 12 seasons. Both are coming back to Waco, Texas, to chase a third consecutive conference title and shouldn't have a hard time improving their draft position. Oakman is such a freaky athlete that you'd think scouts would fall in love with him at the NFL combine anyway. Luckily, we get to watch him play another season of college ball first. The draft advisory board recommended Drango go back to school, and that's terrific news for Seth Russell or whomever takes over the Baylor quarterback job.

Biggest loser: Oklahoma. The Sooners lost defensive tackle Jordan Phillips and receiver Dorial Green-Beckham, and it's hard to know which one is more damaging. Phillips, a fourth-year junior, flashed major potential but logged only one full season as a starter after missing most of 2013. Looks like he made a good choice: Phillips is No. 11 in Todd McShay's rankings and 27th in Mel Kiper Jr.'s Mock Draft 1.0. Insider And then there's Green-Beckham, the Missouri transfer whose total contribution at OU was one season on the scout team. Kiper has him projected to go 18th. DGB could've been one of the most talented players in the Big 12 next season, but we will never got to see him play a down in Norman, Oklahoma. It'll be interesting to see how much that one semester at OU helped repair his image and draft stock.

Most expected: Texas DT Malcom Brown. For probably four months or so, it's seemed obvious that Brown would be taking his talents to the NFL early. Even before the third-year junior turned in a season worthy of the ESPN.com Big 12 defensive player of the year honor, Brown's circumstances made this a smart move. He's married with two children (as we detailed in November) and plays at an elite level at a premiere position. What more could he have proven in 2015? Brown is projected at No. 23 in Kiper's mock and is No. 29 in McShay's prospect rankings.

Tough loss: TCU S Chris Hackett TCU was already set to lose senior defenders Paul Dawson, Kevin White, Sam Carter, Chucky Hunter and Marcus Mallet, so adding Hackett to that group doesn't help. Snagging a conference-best seven interceptions and thriving in a big role for the Frogs helped raised his profile this season, so you can see why he'd want to cash in. Hackett actually had a pretty nice backup in juco transfer Kenny Iloka, so there might not be much drop-off here.

Most unexpected: Kansas WR Nigel King. The graduate transfer from Maryland produced one of the top plays in college football this season with his 78-yard touchdown against TCU, but that was also his only touchdown as a Jayhawk. King felt he was ready to move on after logging a pair of 100-yard games and finishing with 537 yards on 30 catches this fall. He could've been a nice weapon for new coach David Beaty in a KU offense that will throw the ball around more.

Last-second surprise: TCU RB B.J. Catalon. News of the Horned Frogs running back electing to go pro didn't trickle out until late Friday morning. Catalon did a nice job of keeping quiet about this decision, and you can understand why he's pursuing the pros. He missed TCU's final five games after suffering a concussion Nov. 1 at West Virginia, and Aaron Green became a rising star in his absence. Assuming Catalon makes a full recovery, he can at the very least be a quality returner at the next level.

Also coming back -- worth noting: When looking ahead to 2015 nonconference play, a few departures could be deemed good news for the Big 12. West Virginia won't have to face game-changing Maryland receiver Stefon Diggs again. He scored a 77-yard touchdown and finished with 127 receiving yards against WVU last season. TCU doesn't have to defend Minnesota's Maxx Williams, a matchup nightmare at tight end.
We’ll probably never know how close Baylor really got. But this program can start closer than ever before in 2015.

The Bears’ No. 3 ranking in our Way-Too-Early Top 25 for next season is no polite hat-tip to all that Art Briles’ squad achieved in 2014. It’s recognition of the fact this Baylor program can reload and return to the College Football Playoff discussion immediately.

The college football landscape will change considerably between now and September, but on this first true week of the offseason, you get the sense Baylor is finally starting to enjoy the benefit of the doubt when it comes to its rise and imminent future.

[+] EnlargeArt Briles
Tim Heitman/USA TODAY SportsArt Briles' Bears are well-positioned for another Big 12 title run, with nearly 20 junior and senior starters expected back.
Bryce Petty is gone, off to train and prep for the NFL draft. Philip Montgomery is gone, and took a couple staffers with him to Tulsa. Impactful seniors Bryce Hager, Antwan Goodley, Troy Baker, Levi Norwood, Collin Brence and Clay Fuller are out the door, too.

Most of them were foundational pieces toward building this Baylor juggernaut, on-field performers and locker-room personalities not easily replaced. And yet, the Bears are about to cash in on an advantage they’ve been subtly constructing ever since the start of 2013.

That group, the first to win a Big 12 title at Baylor, was senior-driven but underclassmen-funded. That’s why, even with Petty and some all-timers out the door, this program is still positioned to have close to 20 juniors and seniors in the starting lineup in 2015. Spencer Drango and defensive end Shawn Oakman are passing on the draft for the chance to guide that group.

“Our future is bright,” Baylor defensive coordinator Phil Bennett said after the 42-41 loss to Michigan State in the Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic. “As disappointing and disheartening as the last six minutes of the game was, we’ve got to grow from it.”

Remember, Baylor’s No. 7 finish in the final AP poll was the best in school history. What’s made these last two bowl game finishes so much more disheartening for Briles and his staff is the fact both wiped out the storybook endings to two historic seasons.

“This is one of the tougher non-wins that I’ve ever experienced, quite honestly,” Briles said after the Cotton Bowl.

Once again, he must roll up his sleeves (kidding, Briles would never do that) and devote this seven-month offseason to further fine-tuning a machine that’s won 26 of its last 30 games.

After one of the best five-year stretches of quarterback play the Big 12 has ever seen, Baylor’s search for a new heir will be compelling. Seth Russell will be a fourth-year junior with far more playing experience than Petty prior to taking over. Chris Johnson will be a third-year sophomore, and coveted ESPN 300 freshman Jarrett Stidham is now on campus.

Beyond personnel changes and recruiting, the Bears' offseason transition to Kendal Briles as offensive coordinator should be a smooth and quiet one.

Briles made a nice first impression in the Cotton Bowl -- Petty did, after all, throw for a career-high 550 yards -- and the coaching change shouldn't move the needle much inside the Baylor offices. He was already heavily involved with running the show anyway and could take this offense to new heights from an innovation standpoint.

Quarterback change aside, the younger Briles couldn't be taking over at a much better time. No matter how the Bears' season finished, nearly all of the pieces are already in place for a Big 12 three-peat.

Since the start of the 2013 season, Baylor ranks No. 1 in the nation in total offense. Michigan State ranks No. 1 in total defense since 2013. AT&T Stadium is in for one heck of a best vs. best battle on New Year's Day when the Bears and Spartans face off in the Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic on Thursday (12:30 p.m. ET, ESPN).

ESPN.com's Brian Bennett and Max Olson break down the matchup:

How Michigan State can control the game: Baylor is going to score and put up big plays; that's pretty much a given. Michigan State's defense got gashed by the two other high-octane offenses it played this year, Oregon and Ohio State, so it's unrealistic to think the Spartans will shut down this one. But Michigan State's best defense might be its own high-powered offense, which can give the Bears problems with the power running game behind Jeremy Langford and the arm of quarterback Connor Cook. Michigan State might have to beat Baylor at its own game by lighting up the scoreboard. -- Bennett

How Baylor can control the game: Michigan State should expect gunslinger Bryce Petty and his limitless number of speedy receivers to do some damage, sure. But Sparty coaches who've been prepping for a month know by now the Bears win in lots of ways. Devin Chafin (elbow) is back and gives Baylor a three-headed monster at running back. Those backs will pound and bruise to set up the air show. Three-and-outs are the key on D, and Baylor forced more this season than MSU did. -- Olson

Michigan State's X factor: Defensive end Shilique Calhoun is likely playing his final game in the green and white, as he's widely expected to go to the NFL. He got off to a little bit of a slow start and whiffed on an important would-be sack of Marcus Mariota in the Oregon loss. But he bounced back strong and finished with 6.5 sacks. The Spartans need him to harass Petty and throw off the timing of the Baylor offense. -- Bennett

Baylor's X factor: Motivation. Even when Art Briles was irate about being left out of the College Football Playoff, he was quick to point out he hasn't forgiven or forgotten last year. Baylor laid an egg at the Fiesta Bowl -- a 52-42 loss to UCF -- but gets a redo this week: another chance for the first 12-win season in school history. Can the Bears channel their anger from the CFP snub and let loose against an even better opponent? -- Olson

What a win would mean for Michigan State: The Spartans are 10-2 but lost the only two marquee matchups on their schedule. So beating Baylor and claiming a New Year's Six bowl would add further validation to this season and make this a highly successful follow-up to last year's Rose Bowl championship season. With Ohio State surging and Michigan feeling the buzz of the Jim Harbaugh hire, Mark Dantonio's team can remind everyone that there's still a Big Ten East Division superpower in East Lansing. -- Bennett

What a win would mean for Baylor: In addition to those aforementioned incentives, the Bears are looking for a proper send-off for Petty, Bryce Hager, Antwan Goodley and the seniors who helped build up this program into a national title contender. Spencer Drango and Shawn Oakman made a major statement this week in electing to pass up the NFL for another run at the playoff. Baylor can make its own statement Thursday that, for a third straight year, this will be the team to beat in the Big 12. -- Olson

Baylor shouldn't apologize for 'ugly' win

November, 24, 2014
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WACO, Texas -- Art Briles walked back to the benches and saw five beat-up, rain-soaked, worn-out Baylor offensive linemen.

"They were just gasping," Briles said. "I thought, 'What's the deal?'"

[+] EnlargeArt Briles
AP Photo/LM OteroA hard-earned win over Oklahoma State might be just what Art Briles and Baylor needed.
So the head coach asked his assistants on the headset: How many plays had they just run?

Nineteen. Now Briles was gasping.

"Wow."

Baylor's longest offensive drive in two years will not go down as being overly memorable. The possession that reset the tone in the Bears' 49-28 win over Oklahoma State won't make any season highlight reels. It's a line scribbled on a College Football Playoff committee member's notepad and probably nothing more.

By the Bears' high-speed standards, a drive like this is calling winning "ugly." They shouldn't have to apologize. Possessions like these tell you something about a team's toughness.

In 19 plays, Baylor's offense burned through half of the first-quarter clock. They stayed on the field for 10 uninterrupted minutes, working through problem after problem with patience.

Fifteen rushes. Four pass attempts. Four penalties. Four second-and-longs. Four third downs. A fourth-down conversion.

"That was, uh ... um, tiring," Baylor left tackle Spencer Drango said.

Just ask his running back. Devin Chafin logged seven of his 21 carries on that drive and finished it with a 2-yard score. By the end of the night, his arms were covered top to bottom with red scars, scuffs and cuts.

"Just playing football," Chafin said.

His Bears have scored in three plays or fewer 18 times this season, including twice in that same first quarter. This time, to go ahead 21-3 on the Cowboys, they had to earn one.

Thanks to the penalties, the Bears had to travel 94 yards on their 79-yard drive. They did so by asking Bryce Petty, Chafin and two more backs to trust that the run game could grind out those gains. Ten of their 15 rushes gained less than 4 yards. Still, they kept the sticks and the clock moving.

They kept going after that drive, too. Briles was content to run on 33 of Baylor's 40 second-half snaps and maintain a double-digit lead the rest of the way.

Shock Linwood loved every minute of it. When the running back played football video games as a kid, he said he'd always turn on the rain before kickoff. Chafin was all for a little nasty weather, too.

"As running backs," he said, "we favor the rainy, muddy, grimy games rather than the sunny days."

After drying off, the last thing on those backs' minds late Saturday night was whether they'd done enough to impress the playoff committee. A 21-point win in rough weather over the team that spoiled Baylor's national title hopes a year ago? Yeah, they'll take that.

But they should know by now that, as Baylor embarks on its final stretch against Texas Tech and Kansas State with everything on the line, this offense and this team will continue to be held to almost unreasonable standards.

For Baylor to reach the playoff, it will have to outperform TCU, Ohio State, Mississippi State and, in a way, itself. "Be the standard" is the program's mantra. The bar was set incredibly high in 2013. This team hasn't had such an easy time reaching it.

The public expects America's Top Offense (as Baylor's own PR people call it) to keep cranking out long-bomb scores and instant blowouts. That's not getting easier. When an opponent tries Tampa 2 coverages and offers up beneficial rushing opportunities in return, as Oklahoma State did, Baylor sticks to taking what's easiest.

"That Tampa 2 just messed everything up," receiver Jay Lee said. "We had to go the ground game and pound 'em like that. If they're going to back [the safety] out, we're going to run it at them."

And what's wrong with that? The Bears, as well-equipped to chase style points as any team in this playoff hunt, didn't pile on against OSU. Briles didn't do much politicking Saturday. Maybe he shouldn't have to.

The easy wins on sunny days are more fun, no question. But these hard-earned ones might be better for Baylor.

"I just think our team's record speaks for itself," Briles said, "and I think good teams find ways to win."

Roundtable: Keys for TCU, Baylor

November, 11, 2014
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In this week's Big 12 roundtable, we focus on playoff hopefuls TCU and Baylor, as they prepare for a stretch run at one of the coveted playoff spots:

What will be the biggest key for TCU and Baylor down the stretch?

Brandon Chatmon: The quarterbacks will decide the Big 12 champion. TCU's Trevone Boykin has been the Big 12's best player for the majority of the season while Baylor's Bryce Petty has had his moments as well. But with the way Petty played on Saturday against Oklahoma, the Bears' quarterback looks like a determining factor with his leadership, experience and determination setting the tone for Baylor in its final three games.

Max Olson: I know this is frowned upon by some, but you know Gary Patterson and Art Briles are going to be battling for style points for the next month. Baylor will try to beat Oklahoma State and Texas Tech in more impressive fashion than TCU did, then run it up on Kansas State. And GP has to be going for 50-plus in Austin if he can get it, right? I'm curious to see how these coaches approach the real need to impress the College Football Playoff committee on the field.

Jake Trotter: Defense. When clicking, these offenses are unstoppable. But there have been moments, when the offenses have sputtered. Baylor and TCU both have the defensive talent to dominate the opposition (see: Saturday, Week 11). If these two defenses play anywhere like they did over the weekend, Baylor and TCU should be unbeatable the rest of the regular season.

Other than Boykin, who will be TCU's most important player the rest of the season?

Chatmon: Linebacker Paul Dawson is in the middle of a superb senior season. He has double-digit tackles in six of nine games, including his 18-tackle effort against Baylor. Dawson's athleticism has helped him be a core part of the defense's success. There are other players who have been critical to TCU's success, particularly Chris Hackett, Kevin White and Sam Carter.

Olson: Entering this final stretch of the season, we still don't have a clear-cut favorite for Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year. I want to see what Paul Dawson does to boost his campaign in his final three games. He can finish as the Big 12's leading tackler (currently six stops behind Ben Heeney) as well as No. 1 in tackles for loss. Dawson has already had a few big moments and could use a couple more.

Trotter: Thanks to a breakout effort from backup running back Aaron Green, TCU didn't need B.J. Catalon in the 41-20 demolition of K-State. That doesn't mean the Horned Frogs won't need Catalon the rest of the season. With his ability to impact the game rushing, receiving and returning, Catalon adds a unique dimension to TCU's scoring machine. They'll need him to heal up and be ready to go for the backstretch.

Other than Petty, who will be Baylor's most important player?

Chatmon: Defensive tackle Andrew Billings has been a disruptive force throughout the season but his performance against Oklahoma catapulted his name into the forefront with all-conference honors in sight. One tackle against the Sooners doesn't represent the havoc he was creating for the Bears' defense. His play in the middle is a key reason the Bears have the Big 12's best defense for the second straight season.

Olson: As defenses begin to overcompensate for Corey Coleman and continue to focus on Antwan Goodley, it's time for KD Cannon to reemerge. He's caught a total of eight passes for 80 yards in his last three games and has one 100-yard game in Big 12 play. Opponents are being more careful in coverage to not give up the long ball, but Cannon still has the speed to burn the teams left on Baylor's schedule.

Trotter: Offensive tackle Spencer Drango. When Drango exited the lineup due to a back injury last season, Baylor's pass protection fell apart. As long as Drango remains upright, Petty should, too. And with Petty beginning to find his groove again, this Baylor offense seems primed to take off -- at the perfect time, too.

ESPN.com midseason All-Big 12 team

October, 14, 2014
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We're halfway through the season, which means it's time for our midseason All-Big 12 team. There's plenty of football still to play. And this midseason team might be very different from the end-of-season one. But this list recognizes the players who have distinguished themselves thus far.

After careful consideration and friendly debate, our midseason All-Big 12 team:

Offense

QB: Clint Trickett, West Virginia: Baylor's Bryce Petty had the Big 12's best game last weekend, but Trickett has had the better season so far. He leads the Big 12 in QBR and completion percentage and is third nationally in passing, fueling the Mountaineers' surprising 4-2 start.

RB: Shock Linwood, Baylor: The Big 12's top rusher has 326 rushing yards over Baylor's last two games, including 104 in the fourth quarter of the Bears' monumental comeback win against TCU.

RB: Samaje Perine, Oklahoma: This true freshman is second in the league in rushing, first in rushing touchdowns and delivered an historic performance at West Virginia with 242 yards and four scores.

WR: Kevin White, West Virginia: White has been as dominant as any player in the league. He easily leads the country with an average of 148 yards receiving per game, and has come up with a hundred yards receiving in every game.

WR: Sterling Shepard, Oklahoma: It's hard to imagine where the Oklahoma passing game would be without Shepard. He has accounted for 48 percent of Trevor Knight's passing yards.

WR: K.D. Cannon, Baylor: The true freshman might already be the most dangerous big-play receiver in the league, averaging 62.5 yards per catch on his six touchdowns.

TE: E.J. Bibbs, Iowa State: The senior has been a big part of the Cyclones' offense with 22 receptions for 190 yards and four touchdowns, including a one-handed scoring grab at Oklahoma State.

OL: Spencer Drango, Baylor: The Bears' franchise left tackle is thriving again after a return from a season-ending back injury. He has graded out the highest on the offensive line of the nation's top scoring offense.

OL: Joey Hunt, TCU: Hunt is the best offensive lineman on the Big 12's most improved offense, which is second in the league in scoring with almost 46 points per game.

OL: B.J. Finney, Kansas State: Finney is well on his way to a third consecutive All-Big 12 season as the lynchpin of the K-State offensive line.

OL: Quinton Spain, West Virginia: He and Mark Glowinski form one of the top guard duos in the country for the league's second-best passing offense.

OL: Le'Raven Clark, Texas Tech: Arkansas coach Bret Bielema singled out Clark's prowess after facing him. Despite throwing the ball on almost every down, Tech leads the league in fewest sacks allowed with Clark protecting Davis Webb's blindside.

AP: Tyreek Hill, Oklahoma State: The speedy Hill has kick return touchdowns the past two weeks, and has proven to be tough and durable as well as really fast.

Defense

DE: Shawn Oakman, Baylor: The freaky 6-foot-9 end is second in the league with five sacks and fourth with eight tackles for loss.

DT: Chucky Hunter, TCU: Hunter has been the anchor of the TCU defensive line, joining Davion Pierson to give Gary Patterson's squad one disruptive duo up front.

DT: Malcom Brown, Texas: This 320-pound monster has been unblockable, and the most disruptive defensive player in the league.

DE: Emmanuel Ogbah, Oklahoma State: Ogbah has broken out with five sacks, including two on defending Heisman winner Jameis Winston in the opener. In addition to being tied for second in the Big 12 in sacks, he's also second with 9.5 tackles for loss.

LB: Eric Striker, Oklahoma: Striker has 4.5 sacks and 8.5 tackles for loss, and his relentless pass-rushing ability makes him the primary focus of opposing offensive coordinators.

LB: Jordan Hicks, Texas: The Longhorns' fifth-year senior is racking up 10 tackles per game, and is bringing leadership to the Texas defense after an injury-plagued career.

LB: Paul Dawson, TCU: The Big 12's leading tackler is on pace for the most single-season tackles in the Gary Patterson era. He also had the game-winning pick-six to upset the Sooners.

CB: Zack Sanchez, Oklahoma: Sanchez has given up some big plays, but he's countered with big plays of his own. He's second nationally with five interceptions, including a pick-six against Texas.

CB: Danzel McDaniel, Kansas State: McDaniel hits more like a linebacker than a cornerback. He's been another impressive junior-college find for Bill Snyder.

S: Sam Carter, TCU: Carter doesn't have eye-popping numbers, but he's once again been the heart of the TCU defense.

S: Karl Joseph, West Virginia: The enforcer of the West Virginia secondary is second among Big 12 defensive backs with 45 tackles.

Special teams

K: Josh Lambert, West Virginia: All he's done is nail two game-winning field goals as time has expired to beat Maryland (47 yards) and Texas Tech (55 yards) on the road.

P: Trevor Pardula, Kansas: He's gotten plenty of chances, but he's made the most of them, averaging 44.8 yards per punt, while putting 37.8 percent of them inside the opponents' 20.

PR: Tyler Lockett, Kansas State: Lockett, who is second in the nation in punt returns, once again has been an electric all-around playmaker. He's also sixth in the league in receiving.

KR: Alex Ross, Oklahoma: Ross leads the nation in kickoff returns, taking two of his nine kick returns to the house for touchdowns.

Baylor just finds a way -- again

October, 11, 2014
10/11/14
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WACO, Texas -- While some Baylor fans were filing out of McLane Stadium, full of doubts and disappointment, quarterback Bryce Petty was looking into his teammates eyes and reaffirming his belief that his team would find a way to win on Saturday.

“I told our guys we weren’t going to lose that game,” Petty said of the sequence early in the fourth quarter. “I don’t know what it is, I don’t know why I felt that. I just knew, looking in guys' faces, we were going to come back in that game.”

Twelve minutes later, Petty and his teammates were surrounded by rowdy fans clad in green and gold celebrating a game-winning 28-yard field goal from Chris Callahan as Baylor defeated TCU 61-58. Petty and the Bears scored 24 unanswered points in the final quarter to improve to 6-0 overall, 3-0 in the Big 12 and cement their status as the favorite to win the Big 12.

The battle between No. 5 Baylor and No. 9 TCU (4-1, 1-1) -- the first-ever meeting between the two teams when both were ranked -- exceeded expectations. Petty put up prolific numbers with 510 passing yards and six touchdowns, along with a pair of interceptions, but was matched by the playmaking of TCU running back B.J. Catalon, who had 213 all-purpose yards and three touchdowns. Big plays, trick plays, big hits and 38 combined points in the final 15 minutes left the Bears’ newly-minted stadium buzzing.

[+] EnlargeChris Callahan
Kevin Jairaj/USA TODAY SportsChris Callahan's field goal as time expired gave Baylor and its fans reason to go bonkers on Saturday.
“I think there were 40 plays in this game that determined the football game,” Baylor coach Art Briles said. “We made 21 and they made 19.”

After TCU linebacker Marcus Mallet intercepted a Petty pass and returned it 49 yards for a score, BU trailed the Horned Frogs 58-37 with 11:38 left in the game, prompting a small number of Bears fans to head for the exits.

Petty was unfazed.

“With our offense and the way we play defensively, 21 points isn’t that big a deal for us,” he said. “We just know that we’re never out of it, we really never are.”

It was an interesting reaction from a team that had never trailed at any point of the 2014 season heading into Saturday’s action. BU was chasing the game throughout -- trailing by 14 in the first quarter and 21 in the fourth quarter -- and never took the lead until Callahan’s game winner.

“This was the first game this year that we were behind,” defensive tackle Andrew Billings said. “It showed that wasn’t going to effect how we played even though we were down 21 at one point.”

For the second straight week, Baylor found a way. Against Texas, BU turned to its running game and special teams to lead the way in a 28-7 road win in Austin, Texas. This week it was the entire team that stepped up with its backs against the wall and College Football Playoff hopes in jeopardy in the final 10 minutes of the fourth quarter.

“We have a saying -- ‘clear it’ -- if something bad happens, something good happens, clear it and move on to the next play,” linebacker Bryce Hager said. “It was just one of those games we kind of knew, we had a feeling. When we needed to step up, we stepped up and when the offense needed to step up, they did the same.”

Buoyed by a pair of questionable pass interference calls, one questionable non-call on BU’s Ryan Reid on a critical fourth-down attempt by TCU and one pass interference penalty against TCU’s Corry O’Meally, the Bears completed their comeback with a nine-play, 44-yard drive to set up Callahan’s field goal.

“Everyone played really, really well at the end of the game,” tackle Spencer Drango said.

And in doing so the Bears showed the type of resilience generally equated with championship-level teams. Trevone Boykin and TCU came with punch after punch to the jaw of the reigning Big 12 champions, but the Bears' belief in their ability to win didn’t waver.

“Every champion has his back against the wall at some point in time and either cowers down or comes out swinging," Drango said. "We came out swinging.”

It’s a relatively new trait of the program that Briles has built alongside the banks of the Brazos River.

“I think that’s the difference now,” receiver Antwan Goodley said. “A couple years ago we didn’t have that mentality that, ‘Hey, we’re the best team and we’re going to go out there and play like it.’ This year, all of us guys are hungry, we want the same thing and we can get it done.”

Baylor's Drango, Hager ready for title run

September, 23, 2014
9/23/14
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WACO, Texas -- Spencer Drango and Bryce Hager got rings like everyone else.

They celebrated like everyone else inside Floyd Casey Stadium last December, when the Bears clinched their first outright conference title in more than 30 years. But it just didn’t feel the same.

[+] EnlargeSpencer Drango
AP Photo/Tony GutierrezSpencer Drango's return to the field is good news for Baylor.
“Watching the celebration was tougher than I thought it would be,” Drango said. “I’m so happy we won everything, but…I wasn’t suited out.”

As No. 7 Baylor gears up for its Big 12 opener at Iowa State on Saturday, two of its biggest leaders are not taking another conference title run for granted.

Drango and Hager were both lost for the 2013 season just as Baylor’s stretch run was getting good, during a 63-34 win over Texas Tech last November to improve to 9-0. Both went down with unusual ailments, leaving a void in both production and leadership. Both watched Baylor lose two of its last four -- derailing their BCS title chase -- and couldn’t do anything about it.

That unsatisfying feeling is giving Drango and Hager plenty to play for this season.

“I think there definitely is some unfinished business,” Drango said.

Drango, the left tackle with 25 career starts, hurt his back four days before Baylor’s blowout win over Texas Tech. He assumed he had a pulled muscle and played through it. In the week following that game, as Baylor prepared to face No. 11 Oklahoma State on the road, Drango met with doctors and learned that, if he kept playing, he risked permanent nerve damage.

The surgery that followed, a microscopic lumbar discectomy, lasted no longer than an hour but required roughly five months of rehab.

Drango doesn’t remember much about watching Baylor’s 49-17 loss to OSU, mostly because he was still on post-surgery pain medication. But he remembers wishing he could assist his struggling teammates.

“I was disappointed I couldn’t be there. I was texting guys at halftime, trying to say, ‘Here’s what I’m seeing,’ stuff like that,” Drango said. “I knew a lot of them don’t check their phones, so a lot of them wouldn’t get it. So I texted four of them, just to try to help.”

The first few weeks of recovery were rough. He couldn’t carry more than 10 pounds for a while. Fortunately, his mother came up to Waco during those weeks to help out.

“A gallon of milk was about the most I could carry,” Drango said, “and I had to hold it to my chest.”

Most of the rehab process required ab work, for up to 90 minutes a day. He never got a six-pack – “it’s under there somewhere,” the 310-pound lineman joked -- but he did get better.

“You can’t replace a guy like Spencer Drango,” Baylor quarterback Bryce Petty said. “Not physically, not from a leadership standpoint, not intellectually. I’m delighted to have him back.”

Hager’s recovery process was a bit more confusing. The 22-game starter at inside linebacker suffered a groin injury last October, during a win over Kansas State, but kept playing for another month. Art Briles and defensive coordinator Phil Bennett limited his practice schedule, but after four games, the inflammation finally overwhelmed Hager during the Texas Tech game.

Coaches didn’t rule out his eventual return, but Baylor doctors couldn’t diagnose what was really wrong. Like Drango, Hager missed the Bears’ final four games.

“He wasn’t getting better,” Bennett said this spring. “I could tell in his eyes.”

So they sought outside help and found the best of the best. Hager and his father flew to Philadelphia last winter to see Dr. William Meyers, an esteemed sports injury expert. He discovered an abdominal tear and an adductor tear and completed Hager’s operation the next morning.

“All of our doctors referred us to Dr. Meyers in Philadelphia,” Hager said. “I knew I was going to the best guy and felt really comfortable about that.”

Before he left, Hager visited Lincoln Financial Field, got a Cheez Whiz-topped cheesesteak from Geno’s and received some long-awaited relief after months of pain.

Hager and Drango both missed spring practice but felt better than ever by the end of the summer. They went right back to playing at a high level, too.

Drango has graded out better than 85 percent on his blocking in each of Baylor’s first three games. And Hager, the quarterback of the defense, leads the Bears with 19 tackles.

“He’s the guy,” Briles said during fall camp. “He makes the calls and he makes the plays.”

They both do. The Bears proved last season than can win the Big 12 without Drango and Hager. But the chase Baylor begins Saturday is made easier now that they’re back. And this time, they want a little more to celebrate come December.

Preseason All-Big 12 team

August, 21, 2014
8/21/14
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Today, ESPN.com released its preseason All-American team. Before Big 12 media days, we released our individual preseason All-Big 12 ballots. But to pair with the All-American team, we debated, argued and eventually settled on one Big 12 blog, consensus preseason All-Big 12 team.

Here we go:

Offense

QB: Bryce Petty, Baylor
Easy choice. Petty is the reigning Big 12 Offensive Player of the Year after he threw for 4,200 yards and 32 touchdowns with just three picks. He should be even better in Year 2 as a starter.

RB: Johnathan Gray, Texas
Malcolm Brown finished strong in place of Gray the past season, but there’s a reason Gray was Texas’ No. 1 back before he suffered an Achilles injury. Gray is healthy again, which gives Texas the best one-two punch at running back in the league.

RB: Shock Linwood, Baylor
Despite being Baylor’s third-string running back the past season, Linwood still finished sixth in the Big 12 in rushing. He’s the featured back now and could wind up the league’s top rusher.

WR: Tyler Lockett, Kansas State
Lockett was literally uncoverable at times last year. Just ask Texas, Oklahoma and Michigan, which surrendered a combined 631 receiving yards and six touchdowns to Lockett. With Jake Waters settled in at quarterback, Lockett could put up even bigger numbers in 2014.

WR: Antwan Goodley, Baylor
Goodley might have been the most improved player in the league the past season. He was also one of the most dominant, with 1,339 receiving yards and a national-best five catches of 60 yards or more.

TE: E.J. Bibbs, Iowa State
With Jace Amaro gone, Bibbs takes over as the top receiving tight end threat in the league. Only Amaro had more catches and yards than Bibbs among Big 12 tight ends the past season.

OT: Spencer Drango, Baylor
With Drango in the lineup, Petty was sacked only eight times through the Bears’ first nine games last year. After Drango was sidelined with a back injury, Petty was sacked nine times in Baylor’s last four games. Suffice it to say, Petty is glad to have Drango back protecting his blindside.

OG: Le'Raven Clark, Texas Tech
The Red Raiders previously had plans to move Clark inside to guard, but they still have him manning left tackle this season. Whether he stays at the bookend or slides to guard, Clark is one of the most dominating offensive linemen in the league.

C: BJ Finney, Kansas State
Finney owns a Big 12-best 39 starts over the past three years. The former walk-on is also a two-time first-team All-Big 12 selection and will be the favorite to garner such recognition again as the linchpin of the K-State offensive line.

OG: Cody Whitehair, Kansas State
Whitehair is capable of manning either guard or tackle, but the Wildcats will be showing their trust in him by asking him to protect Waters’ blindside this season.

OT: Daryl Williams, Oklahoma
Williams is the best piece on the league’s best offensive line, which returns four starters and plenty of capable backups.

AP: Jakeem Grant, Texas Tech
Grant finished sixth in the league in receiving yards per game, despite being the third option in Tech’s passing attack the past season. Grant is now the first option in the passing game, as well as an electric playmaker on special teams.

K: Michael Hunnicutt, Oklahoma
The Sooners have never had an All-American kicker before, but they have a strong candidate in Hunnicutt, who converted 24 of 27 field goals the past season.

Defense

DE: Ryan Mueller, Kansas State
In 2013, Mueller finished with 11.5 sacks and 18.5 tackles for loss, which were second in the league only to Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year Jackson Jeffcoat. Mueller, who also forced four fumbles, has one of the conference’s best noses for finding the ball.

DT: Chucky Hunter, TCU
The Horned Frogs still had a formidable front the past season, even without Devonte Fields, due in large part to Hunter. TCU won’t have Fields again. But Hunter is back to anchor a defensive line loaded with quality players.

DT: Malcom Brown, Texas
This former blue-chipper broke out the past season with 68 tackles, including 12 for loss. He and Cedric Reed team up to form the best inside-outside defensive line combination in the league.

DE: Cedric Reed, Texas
Reed was third in the Big 12 in 2013 with 10 sacks, fourth with 19 tackles for loss and tied for first with five forced fumbles. He gives the Longhorns a chance to feature the Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year for the second straight season.

LB: Eric Striker, Oklahoma
When it comes to rushing the passer, there’s no one better in the league. Striker has spent this offseason refining other parts of his game to become a more complete player. But his pass rushing alone makes him one of the top players in the league.

LB: Ben Heeney, Kansas
Heeney was a tackling machine last year for a defense that performed valiantly despite getting little help from its offense. Heeney will get plenty of help from his defense, though, which returns eight other starters.

LB: Bryce Hager, Baylor
Hager has notched 195 tackles over the past two seasons, while twice earning second-team All-Big 12 honors. With Ahmad Dixon and Eddie Lackey gone, he takes over as the leader of a defense angling to prove it can be as good as the past year’s.

CB: Quandre Diggs, Texas
Diggs, who has never been afraid to speak his mind, is the heart and soul of the Longhorns. If the rest of the team takes on his mentality, Texas could have one feisty team in Charlie Strong’s first season.

CB: Daryl Worley, West Virginia
Despite being just a second-year player, Worley has already taken over as one of the vocal leaders of the West Virginia defense. He’s also already one of the best cover corners in the league.

SS: Sam Carter, TCU
Carter has nine interceptions the past two years, the most of any returning Big 12 player. He leads arguably the best secondary in the league, too.

FS: Karl Joseph, West Virginia
Joseph has started all 25 games for the Mountaineers since he stepped foot in Morgantown. No other returning Big 12 defensive back has more career tackles than Joseph’s 170.

P: Nick O'Toole, West Virginia
The “Boomstache” ranked 15th nationally last year, with an average of 44.1 yards per punt. He also has the best mustache in the league, which has to count for something.
WACO, Texas -- Two years ago, Baylor’s backup quarterback rounded up the starting offensive linemen in the preseason and took them to Chuy’s for a Mexican feast on his dime. He wasn’t playing in 2012, but he understood the importance of keeping the big boys well fed.

Last August, Bryce Petty took the gang to Olive Garden. This time he brought six linemen. They capitalized on his kindness.

“They had appetizers and salads and two entrees -- one to take home, which was ridiculous,” Petty said. “I didn’t think they needed that, but I couldn’t really tell them no.”

[+] EnlargeSpencer Drango
AP Photo/Tony GutierrezJunior tackle Spencer Drango is one of the leaders of the Baylor offensive line.
The final bill? More than $120. Petty would love to make these lineman dinners a weekly staple in 2014, but as he put it, “The budget doesn’t really call for that all the time.”

Tackle Troy Baker got the Olive Garden invite despite being out with a torn ACL, so he was especially appreciative. The love Petty has always shown his linemen, even before he was a starter or Big 12 Player of the Year, isn’t lost on them.

“He’s going to take care of his big guys. He knows we’ll get beat up and we’ll work for him,” Baker said. “He knows what we mean to him. We know how important he is to us.”

But Petty still has to tread lightly among his linemen in the locker room. Baylor’s offensive line room is full of athletic freaks, blue-collar grinders and loudmouths, plus a Brit and two Aussies. And they can be merciless, even to QB1.

“Sometimes he’ll come in wearing his decked-out Nike stuff, looking like Tiger, or he’ll be wearing neon yellow Nike stuff head to toe,” Baker said. “We’ll give him some crap about that.”

Petty doesn’t get it as bad as Jason Osei, the 27-year-old sophomore from London with a martial arts and rugby background. He gets called “Pickle” on the days he’s wearing his green skull cap, shirt, shorts and shoes.

“He’s a character, man,” tackle Spencer Drango said. “All the girls love him for his accent. It’s pretty thick. We have a joke about who won the Revolutionary War. He says it was a tie.”

Then you have brothers Blake Muir and Sean Muir, who arrived in Waco last year. Blake started 12 games at Hawaii in 2012 before transferring. Sean had never played football before joining the Bears. Their accents are just as beloved.

Blake is competing for the left guard job with LaQuan McGowan, a young man who might be from the future.

“LaQuan is legitimately 6-foot-8, 400 pounds,” Baker said. “He’s strong as can be. Coach [Art] Briles always says he’s 20 years out of his time. It’s unbelievable physically what he can do.

“You can’t do anything to him. You literally can’t. He can cut you in line and, even as another offensive lineman, you’re like, ‘Go ahead, buddy. It’s yours. All you.’”

Drango jokes that the first time he shook hands with McGowan, his freshman-year roommate, he almost lost his.

“I have big hands,” Drango said. “He completely dwarfed my hand and almost crushed it.”

McGowan or Muir will line up to the right of Drango, an All-Big 12 tackle and NFL prospect who’s fully recovered from the back injury that ended his 2013 season early. His backup, Pat Colbert, is known as “Sinbad” in the locker room. Look up his mug shot and it’s easy to see why.

At center, there’s Kyle Fuller, a redshirt sophomore who’s described as no-nonsense and “very blue-collar” by teammates. Desmine Hilliard is the starting right guard and also an All-American at throwing the discus; he set school records at the NCAA track and field championships last year.

The backup at right tackle, Tyler Edwards, gets called “The Undertaker” for his hair. And then you have Baker, who’s back from the torn ACL and can’t wait to see what this group does at full strength.

[+] EnlargePetty
AP Photo/LM OteroBryce Petty knows his success is tied to staying upright, and he has a top-notch offensive line upon whom to rely.
As one of the old guys in the line room, Baker says he has witnessed an evolution in the past four years. The Waco native swears he wouldn’t have been recruited by BU if he were a high schooler today. He wouldn't have been good enough.

“To be honest, I don’t think I would,” the former three-star recruit said. “They don’t have to. They can recruit the studs, and the studs come after them now.”

Randy Clements, Baylor’s line coach, has been working alongside Briles since 1989. He oversaw linemen and power lifting back in their Stephenville High days. His linemen say he’s brilliant, a coach capable of developing anybody. At Baylor, he’s produced an NFL draft pick in six straight years.

The line began breaking through, in Baker's estimation, late in the 2012 season. Injuries hit the group hard last year during the stretch run, but they plugged in new starters and survived. Having All-American left guard Cyril Richardson to learn from no doubt helped.

“We had a perfect example,” Baker said. “His technique was flawless and that’s why he was so successful. He was able to do everything Coach Clem asked.”

As Clements’ linemen describe it, fall camp can be brutal. This 19-man line group averages 6-5 and 305 pounds. In practice, they run just as hard as everyone else to prep for hustling to the line of scrimmage. You can’t sustain a four-plays-per-minute tempo without practicing faster than you play.

And while Petty, his trio of running backs and his endless supply of receivers get all the attention, his offensive linemen will be busy doing the dirty work.

Drango and Baker, the leaders of the gang, were stuck on the sidelines when Baylor’s undefeated season fell apart at Oklahoma State. They know the run game faltered late, averaging 168 yards per game and 3.7 per carry in the final four games after putting up 300 a game and 6.0 per carry in the first nine. The seniors vow it can’t happen again.

“We go as they go. I’ve always said that,” Petty said. “I’m just praying those guys stay healthy.”

His linemen are practicing and conditioning this month with December on their minds. Sure, they love to mess with each other and tease their quarterback in their spare time. But when it comes to title talk, they’re not joking around.

“As we get closer to November,” Baker said, “we plan on being in contention for the playoff."

Top Big 12 players: Nos. 10-6

July, 31, 2014
7/31/14
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With the season just a month away, we’re taking this week to rank the top 25 players in the Big 12.

This is a ranking of who we think the best 25 players will be over the course of the 2014 season.

You can click here to see the previous three installments.

Today, we continue the series with Nos. 10-6:

10. Le'Raven Clark, OG, Texas Tech: Clark was a freshman All-American tackle two years ago and a first-team All-Big 12 performer last season as the anchor of the Texas Tech offensive line. With the addition of junior-college tackle Dominique Robertson, Clark is moving inside to guard, a more natural position for his 315-pound frame. Clark already has proven to be a terrific pass-blocker, but he could also become a road-grader in the run game in his new spot.

9. Spencer Drango, OT, Baylor: Sometimes you don’t realize what you’ve got until it’s gone. Baylor quarterback Bryce Petty found out the hard way just how valuable his left tackle is when Drango suffered a season-ending back injury in early November. With Drango protecting his blindside, Petty was sacked only eight times through the Bears’ first nine games. With Drango sidelined, Petty was sacked nine times in Baylor’s last four games -- two of which the Bears lost as their high-powered offense sputtered down the stretch. The good news for Petty, and Baylor, is that Drango is healthy again and ready to help keep one of the nation’s most lethal quarterbacks upright.

8. Charles Tapper, DE, Oklahoma: One offensive lineman at Big 12 media days noted that Tapper was the most difficult defender to block in the Big 12. The 6-foot-4, 281-pound junior runs like a linebacker with the strength of a defensive tackle. He was the only defensive underclassman to be named first-team All-Big 12 last season, and considering he’s only started 12 games in his career, he figures only to get better playing alongside one of the most talented and deepest defensive lines in the country.

7. Shawn Oakman, DE, Baylor: Coach Art Briles has been effusive in his praise of Oakman, whom he called “unblockable” during the spring. The 6-foot-9, 275-pound outspoken defensive end could be an unstoppable force this season in the Big 12. Despite being a part-time player in 2013, Oakman still finished sixth in the league with 12.5 tackles for loss. The switch just now appears to have flipped for Oakman this offseason, which is a frightening proposition for Big 12 quarterbacks not named Bryce Petty.

6. Ryan Mueller, DE, Kansas State: Mueller doesn’t have the length or the athleticism that Tapper and Oakman do. But the former unrecruited walk-on finds a way to make plays. In 2013, Mueller finished with 11.5 sacks and 18.5 tackles for loss, both of which were second in the league only to Jackson Jeffcoat, the Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year. Mueller forced four fumbles, too. There are players, and then there are playmakers. Mueller fits the latter.

Coming Friday: Nos. 5-1 ...
ESPN.com has taken on the monumental task of ranking the top 100 players in college football going into the 2014 season. The rankings were done based on the expected contributions of each player for the 2014 season, regardless of position.

The list will be released in 20-player increments, beginning today with the Nos. 100-81.

Make sure to track the rankings all week long, as there will be Big 12 players in all five parts.

Also, keep in mind this national list, which was compiled by the entire ESPN.com college football team, won’t necessarily line up with our Top 25 ranking of Big 12 players, which was compiled exclusively by the Brandon, Max and myself.

Without further ado, here are the Big 12 players that made the first installment:

No. 81: Oklahoma QB Trevor Knight

No. 90: Texas DT Malcom Brown

No. 91: Baylor OT Spencer Drango

No. 96: Texas RB Johnathan Gray

All four players here have the upside to rise up these rankings. But two have consistency questions, and the other two have health questions.

Knight has only started and finished three games in his career, and struggled with his passing accuracy at times early in the season. But he flashed immense potential in the Sugar Bowl, shredding Alabama with 348 passing yards and four touchdowns in the biggest upset of the bowl season. If he plays consistently near that level this season, not only will the Sooners challenge for inclusion the College Football Playoff, but Knight could become a darkhorse Heisman Trophy contender.

Brown also has the ability to dominate. He was rated the second-best defensive tackle coming out of high school, and began realizing his recruiting pedigree last season. If he can produce more big plays, he could be one of the best defensive tackles in the country.

Drango and Gray also have the ability to finish the season higher than they start here. The key is staying healthy.

When 100 percent, Drango is one of the best pass-protecting left tackles in the country. The stats prove it, too. With Drango manning left tackle, Baylor quarterback Bryce Petty was sacked just eight times through the Bears’ first nine games. After Drango suffered a season-ending back injury, Petty was sacked nine times in the Bears’ last four games. Two of which they lost. Drango should be ready to go for this season, which is good news for Baylor and for Petty.

Gray was on his way to an All-Big 12 campaign last year when he suffered a season-ending Achilles injury in early November. He was recently cleared for preseason camp. When healthy, Gray is one of the best power-speed combination rushers in college football.

The respective ranks could be debated, but I can’t argue against any of the four making the top 100.

A few Big 12 players just missed the cut for the top 100. Kansas State defensive end Ryan Mueller, Kansas State center B.J. Finney, Oklahoma defensive end Charles Tapper, Texas running back Malcolm Brown, Oklahoma linebacker Dominique Alexander and Baylor running back Shock Linwood.

In my opinion, Mueller, Finney and Tapper have the biggest gripes. Mueller was eighth in the country last year in sacks. Finney is a two-time first-team All-Big 12 selection. And Tapper was the only defensive underclassman to get named All-Big 12 team in 2013.

Coming Tuesday: Nos. 80-61.

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