When Duane Akina announced in January that he wasn’t returning for a 14th season at Texas, the response from Longhorns fans and ex-players was understandable disappointment. He was, after all, the coach who helped make Texas “DBU.” Akina, who’s now coaching at Stanford, embraced that tradition like nobody else.
But when it comes to pride and passion for Longhorns defense backs, Bedford might be the perfect successor. He played cornerback at UT from 1977-81 and developed into a starter and a captain.
Get Bedford talking about Texas’ legacy in the secondary and he’ll go full-on historian, even mentioning that he caught up with two former “DBU” members -- Johnnie Johnson and William Graham -- while recruiting their sons at a recent junior day.
“‘DBU’ started with those guys. Raymond Clayborn, Johnnie Johnson, William Graham, Derrick Hatchett, Glenn Blackwood, Ricky Churchman, that’s when it started,” Bedford said. “Fred Akers came here and turned things around, said we’re going to play man-to-man, and almost every guy I played with went to the NFL. Jerry Gray, Mossy Cade, Craig Curry, Fred Acorn, Jitter Fields; the list goes on and on and on.”
Mack Brown and Akina kept it going, producing 14 All-Big 12 defensive backs and 11 who played in the NFL last season. They made sure today’s players knew and respected those DBs who came before them.
Bedford intends to keep that tradition going. This means an awful lot to him.
“We’re not just ‘DBU,’” he said. “We want to make it Linebacker U and D-Line U, whatever it takes to get the best players in the state of Texas to come here and get this program back to the top where it belongs.”
He felt like he’d won the lottery when he found out he was coming home to Texas, and it’s easy to see Bedford is excited about selling and signing the next generation of Texas defensive backs.
“This is the place to live in the state of Texas, just like this university is the best university in this state,” Bedford said. “Why would you not want to live in Austin, Texas, and go to the University of Texas? I just don’t know who would do something else.”
Believe it or not, Jean-Mary has more ties to the state of Texas than even he might’ve realized.
He played linebacker at Appalachian State for the legendary Jerry Moore, a Texas native who played at Baylor and was head coach at Texas Tech.
His defensive coordinator there was Ruffin McNeill, who went on to coach at Texas Tech for 10 years before becoming head coach at ECU. Jean-Mary’s position coach when he arrived at App State was George Edwards, who later coached linebackers for the Dallas Cowboys and is now the Vikings’ defensive coordinator.
And his roommate and best friend during those college years? Dexter Coakley, the future three-time Pro Bowler for the Cowboys.
So, yes, he’s picked up some knowledge about this state along the way thanks to those friendships.
“It almost feels like I was born and raised here,” Jean-Mary said.
A self-described college football junkie, Jean-Mary said following Strong and Bedford to Texas was a no-brainer because he understood the magnitude of coming to a program like this one.
He’s proud of what he accomplished in four years at Louisville. Jean-Mary knows he left a program that’s build to succeed in 2014 and beyond. But coaching at Texas -- and staying with Strong -- was too good to turn down.
“At the end of the day, you only get so many opportunities to really coach at a tradition-rich school like this and feel like you can take your next step in your career as an individual coach, but also helping a team take the next step as a program,” he said.
Jean-Mary inherits a group of linebackers that could return every contributor from 2013, though five of those players -- Jordan Hicks, Steve Edmond, Dalton Santos, Tevin Jackson and Timothy Cole -- are recovering from injuries. He likes this group’s potential and depth once everyone gets healthy, and his expectations are simple.
“We all come from the same school of defense: We want to have smart, tough and dependable guys,” Jean-Mary said. “We’re not going to be too complex, but we do want to have guys who can handle different situations.”
And whatever situations Jean-Mary finds himself in at Texas, he’s glad he has more than few Texans he can call for advice.
Oklahoma receivers coach Jay Norvell has several pass catchers in his meeting room who have made occasional plays for the Sooners, showing glimpses of their playmaking ability. This season OU is counting on those players to transform into consistent playmakers. If they don’t, OU could find itself with a passing offense that is shooting blanks.
Sterling Shepard qualifies as "really good".
The Sooners’ leading returning receiver will take over for Jalen Saunders as OU’s go-to receiver after two seasons as a complementary piece in OU’s offense. Outside of Shepard, the Sooners' returning receivers combined for 17 receptions and 228 receiving yards in 2013.
Durron Neal's 22-yard catch against Kansas State and Derrick Woods' 20-yard reception against Alabama provided glimpses of their potential. The duo joined Shepard in the same recruiting class but have been looking up at him on the depth chart for their first two years on campus. Neal was one of the nation’s top receiver recruits out of high school, and the Sooners held off a late charge from USC to secure Woods.
Making the occasional play is no longer acceptable for Neal or Woods; it’s either step up or lose their spot. Sophomore Austin Bennett joins redshirt freshmen Dannon Cavil, Jordan Smallwood and K.J. Young as highly regarded receivers nipping at their heels this spring. And four freshmen signees, including ESPN 300 receiver Michiah Quick, will arrive this summer with the goal of forcing themselves into the competition.
The overall depth of talent at the position is one reason the Sooners aren’t overly concerned about finding pass catchers for starting quarterback Trevor Knight.
“It’s a good group, they just haven’t had a ton of time on the field,” said Sooners coach Bob Stoops, who likened the receiver position to OU’s defensive line group, which was a major question mark last spring before blossoming into a major asset in the fall.
“These guys have been developing, training [and are] ready to take over. Those guys are just going to have to be more consistent [to] stay on the field.”
Shepard is the lone known commodity, with all-conference honors in his sights after 51 receptions for 603 yards and seven touchdowns as a sophomore. He’s tough as nails, competitive and rises to the occasion in big games, with four of his seven scores coming in wins over Notre Dame, Kansas State and Alabama.
The Sooners' search for consistent receivers is reminiscent of two springs ago in Norman, Okla., when OU had just lost NCAA all-time receptions leader Ryan Broyles and returned Kenny Stills, who had been a key player during his first two seasons but was being counted on to anchor the receiver spot for the first time in his career. Norvell turned to Stills to raise his overall game and leadership that spring, much like he’s asking from Shepard over the next 12 practices.
“When you become a leader, you gotta make everybody else better,” Norvell said of his only veteran receiver. “He’s not competing against guys here, he’s competing against guys around our league, around the country. He’s got to raise the standard in his game.”
OU hopes the similarities between 2012 and 2014 stop at the concerns about the receiver spot during spring football. In 2012, the Sooners added transfers Justin Brown (Penn State) and Saunders (Fresno State) in the summer after post-spring suspensions took Jaz Reynolds and Trey Franks out of the equation. OU hopes its young receivers improve enough this spring to remove all doubt about the position heading into the summer while creating depth that can withstand any unexpected hits before August.
“It’s a competitive group,” Norvell said. “We’re extremely competitive in the spring, the whole group gets graded every single day on every snap, so it's really easy to know who the best players are. We have a bunch of young guys who have shown flashes but now it’s about being able to go out every day compete and make plays. So, we’ll see who rises to the top.”
Initially, two junior college transfers, Avery Gennesy and Jermaine Eluemunor, were the early candidates expected to compete for the position.
But with versatile talent across its offensive line, Texas A&M had other options to explore as well. So far, the Aggies have done just that in experimenting with yet another candidate: sophomore Germain Ifedi.
"With the two new JC guys and then moving Ced [Ogbuehi] to left [tackle], we've actually experimented with a little Germain Ifedi at right tackle," Aggies coach Kevin Sumlin said. "He thinks he's skinny anyways at 324 [pounds]."
The 6-foot-5 Ifedi was the Aggies' full-time starter at right guard last season, his first as a starter after redshirting in 2012.
The Aggies like having versatile offensive linemen and have utilized them as such in the past. Last season, Jake Matthews played left tackle but spent two games at right tackle. Ogbuehi played right guard and right tackle previously before making the switch to left tackle this spring. Jarvis Harrison, who is sitting out spring while recovering from offseason shoulder surgery, has been the left guard but also spent two games at left tackle last season.
So it should come as no surprise that the Aggies are mixing and matching to see what works best.
"We've created a little bit more energy during practice with those guys up front and a bunch of new guys out there anyway moving positions and trying to earn them," Sumlin said. "Whenever you have something like that, the energy level is always pretty good, I think."
While Harrison has sat out, Garrett Gramling -- who started two games at left guard last season -- has worked at left guard this spring. When Ifedi has practiced as the first-team right tackle, veteran tackle Joseph Cheek has seen time at right guard with the first group.
"He's a big dude in there now," Sumlin said of Gramling. "He's all of 6-6 and 315-320 pounds and really gives us some flexibility at guard to be able to move Germain around and Cheek. People forgot Cheek is still here. We've got some guys around that give us some quality depth in the offensive line."
When it comes to Gennesy and Eluemunor, Sumlin has also liked what he has seen and the work that offensive line coach B.J. Anderson has done with the entire offensive line.
"Coach Anderson has done a good job of putting them with the twos so they can get used to their technique because when they get up there with the ones, things are happening real fast," Sumlin said. "Guys get a little bit worried. Avery is really, really athletic. Jermaine is a lot more athletic than I thought he would be. Those two guys are great additions. It just takes some time."
Offensive returner ready to take next step: Sophomore running back Keith Ford could be ready to take the next step in the Sooners' offense. OU needs someone to fill the void left by departed running backs Brennan Clay, Damien Williams and Roy Finch, who combined for 4,824 career rushing yards in crimson and cream. Ford earned himself some carries as a freshman, but fumble troubles put him in the doghouse for a portion of his first season. This spring, Ford could lock down a major role in the offense with his power, decisiveness and quickness.
Redshirt freshman to watch: Defensive tackle Charles Walker was an unknown with an underwhelming offer list when he signed with OU in February 2013. But Walker was one of the guys who repeatedly earned praise during discussions of scout-team stars last fall. At 6-2 and 289 pounds, Walker moves like a much smaller man and could force his way onto the field with his play this spring and provide young, quality depth along the defensive line.
Most significant position battle: The battle to replace two-time All-Big 12 cornerback Aaron Colvin should be entertaining. There is no clear favorite among a group of talented cornerbacks that includes Stanvon Taylor, Cortez Johnson and Dakota Austin. This spring provides the opportunity for someone to step up in Colvin’s absence and become a trustworthy cover man on the perimeter of OU’s defense. If that doesn’t happen, the Sooners could be forced to account for a weak link in the secondary, particularly if none of the freshman arrivals in the summer (Tito Windham, Jordan Thomas, Marcus Green) proves they can slide into Colvin’s spot.
Key midterm enrollee: Linebacker Devante Bond already is making an impression during his short time at OU. An outside linebacker with pass rush skills, Bond isn’t going to replace Eric Striker in the Sooners lineup. Yet if he proves to be one of the best pass rushers on the squad this spring, Stoops could pair him with Striker to give Big 12 quarterbacks headaches this fall.
Question that could be answered: Will Trevor Knight build on his Sugar Bowl MVP performance? The sophomore ended his first season with a bang, leading OU to a upset win over Alabama. This spring will show if Knight is hungry for more and striving to play at a championship level every Saturday this fall, or if he could return to the inconsistency that hampered his play in 2013.
Question that won’t be answered until fall: Who will get the majority of the carries in OU’s backfield this fall? Even if Ford has an exceptional spring, there’s no guarantee he can hold off the talents of incoming freshmen Joe Mixon and Samaje Perine in the summer. The lone certainty is that there will be a bunch of talented options for running backs coach Cale Gundy.
- Safety Lyndell Johnson, one of only five projected returning starters on the Oklahoma State defense, has left the team, coach Mike Gundy announced. The Cowboys also lost two centers, including starter Jake Jenkins, who decided to move on from football.
- Coach Paul Rhoads is leaving all the offensive decision making to new offensive coordinator Mark Mangino, according to the Des Moines Register's Randy Peterson. The Cyclones are banged up for spring ball, reports the paper's Tommy Birch.
- Jonathan Kimble is enjoying his final days as 'The Mountaineer' mascot in this profile by The Oklahoman's Jason Kersey. Does he get to keep the musket?
- Former Texas DB coach Duane Akina landed at Stanford.
- After watching Kliff Kingsbury participate in a panel discussion in Austin, Texas, the USA TODAY's Laken Litman thinks the Texas Tech head man is the coolest coach in college football. The Red Raiders landed a juco offensive lineman.
- The Tulsa World's John Hoover writes that an overnight transformation from QB to tight end is unlikely for Oklahoma's Blake Bell.
- Baylor has sold out of season tickets for the opening season at McLane Stadium.
- Former TCU QB Andy Dalton was back in Fort Worth, Texas, for charity.
Today's Take Two topic: Which Big 12 freshman that redshirted last season will have the biggest breakout season in 2014?
Take 1: Brandon Chatmon
Bryce Petty was the Big 12 offensive player of the year as Baylor earned its first conference title.
Yet, the argument could be made that Lache Seastrunk was the MVP of the Bears’ offense. His game-breaking ability kept defenses honest, allowing Petty and the Bears’ receivers to put up eye-popping numbers in 2013.
Now Seastrunk is NFL-bound, and Baylor is looking to replace his big-play ability.
Johnny Jefferson, a redshirt freshman running back, could be ready to step into the void.
Don’t expect Jefferson to unseat Shock Linwood as the Bears’ starting running back, but Jefferson should have an impact on Baylor running attack. A former Texas A&M pledge who redshirted during his first season in Waco, Texas, Jefferson appears ready to contribute, and the Bears are going to need to replace the quality depth that left the program when Seastrunk and Glasco Martin moved on.
He’s already making a strong early impression this spring, compiling 12 carries for 65 yards in the Bears’ first scrimmage. At 5-foot-11, 200 pounds, Jefferson brings a combination of speed and size that could help spread the carries and make sure that fresh legs are always alongside Petty in Baylor’s backfield this fall.
Linwood might provide a roadblock in Jefferson’s road to a starting spot, but the redshirt freshman running back has the skills and versatility to be a key contributor and breakout performer on one of the Big 12’s most explosive offenses in 2014.
Take 2: Jake Trotter
With leading receivers Josh Stewart, Tracy Moore and Charlie Moore all gone, Oklahoma State will need someone to step into one of those primary receiving roles in its spread attack.
Enter Ra'Shaad Samples.
Samples was the Cowboys’ highest-rated recruit in the 2013 class and had offers from everyone in the Big 12, along with offers from the likes of Notre Dame, Ohio State and USC.
Because they had Stewart in the slot, the Cowboys didn’t need Samples last season. That redshirt season allowed the once extremely slight Samples to fill out a bit.
His speed, however, still appears to be alive and well.
In fact, outside track star Tyreek Hill, Samples might be the fastest player on the roster (he reportedly ran a 4.32-second 40 last summer).
Even without the Moores, the Cowboys are set at outside receiver with sophomores Jhajuan Seales (39 receptions, 571 yards, three TDs) and Marcell Ateman (22 receptions, 276 yards).
But Oklahoma State will be leaning on Samples to become one of the go-to guys inside. He has the talent to become a big-time playmaker for the Cowboys there.
Several playmakers return, but some unknown players could make names for themselves during March and April. Here are five to keep an eye on:
Defensive tackle Charles Walker: Unlike a year ago, the Sooners aren’t searching for experienced playmakers on the defensive line. OU returns six defensive linemen who started a game in 2013, yet few people around the program would be surprised if Walker earns playing time as a redshirt freshman this fall.
“Charles has really been impressive,” OU coach Bob Stoops said. “He had a great fall. He’s a guy that’s up to about 300 pounds now, light on his feet, ran really well when we timed. I want to say he ran in the 4.7s, so he really has a bright future. [He] works hard. Charles is going to be a big factor in that defensive line.”
“[Woods] has really come on,” Stoops said. “Derrick Woods made a huge play in the Sugar Bowl when we had to have it on a third-and-12 or whatever it was -- a competitive play.”
Defensive end Mike Onuoha: The sophomore was mentioned along with Charles Tapper as the future of the Sooners defensive line after both youngsters played themselves out of a redshirt season in 2012. Last season, Tapper fulfilled his upside, earning All-Big 12 honors; Onuoha watched from the sideline after shoulder surgery. This spring is Onuoha’s chance to make his mark. He brings unique size and athleticism at 6-foot-5 and 249 pounds.
“Michael Onuoha really is a guy ready to make a big move in that defensive line,” Stoops said.
Receiver Jordan Smallwood: As soon as Smallwood stepped on campus last summer, he began impressing teammates with his physical nature and receiving skills. A foot injury took away his freshman season, but he returned to practice during Sugar Bowl preparations and drew praise from the coaches. This spring is his chance to show he can be a big part of OU’s offense in 2014.
“They finally turned him loose to practice in the bowl practices,” Stoops said. “[He] really was impressive.”
Linebacker Devante Bond: Much like Walker, OU doesn’t need Bond to make an impact with playmaking veterans returning at linebacker. However, if he shows the pass-rushing prowess he displayed in junior college, he could become a key component of the Sooners’ defense in pass situations, joining Eric Striker to create havoc in opponent’s backfields.
“Devonte Bond has really looked impressive in our workouts and weights,” Stoops said. “In long yardage he will put his hand down and let him go or stand him up and let him go.”
COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- Texas A&M defensive line coach Terry Price sent a clear message to his players this spring: Being where they were last year is not going to cut it this season.
The Aggies defensive line was part of a defense that ranked last in the SEC and in the bottom 30 nationally in many statistical categories.
"We're going to be completely different from last year, from the bottom to the top," junior defensive end Julien Obioha said.
The four-star prospect from Longview (Texas) High School was the lone early enrollee among the Aggies' defensive line recruits, and stood out in the Aggies' first scrimmage of the spring on Thursday.
"Zaycoven Henderson was noticeable," coach Kevin Sumlin said. "He was with the [second team], but he's a guy that really needs the summer to get into football-playing shape, but there's no doubt that he's a very, very talented young man and is benefiting from graduating early."
At 310 pounds, Henderson certainly has the size desired for his position. Teammates have noticed his ability as well.
"That guy is very, very strong," Obioha said. "He has meat and potatoes. Henderson is just a strong guy. Strong, fast, athletic -- whatever is good about a D-lineman, Henderson has right now."
Given his good start to spring practice, it might not be a surprise to see Henderson earn some time with the first team when the Aggies return to the field next week. Obioha noted that Henderson's work ethic appears to be good, and his passion for improvement is evident.
"He's young and he's hungry to learn right now," Obioha said of Henderson. "That's one of the best things about him; he wants to get better. He has all the talent in the world. If he keeps his ambition up, he can do whatever he wants."
That's good news for Price and the A&M defensive line, which needs all the help it can get if it's going to improve this fall.
Robinson won’t tell this story to his new Texas running backs, but it’s one Malcolm Brown, Johnathan Gray, Joe Bergeron and the rest of the gang ought to know.
“I don’t know what to expect because, on purpose, I didn’t study them at all,” Robinson said. “I didn’t want to study them on tape. I want to go out and see these guys perform.”
He’s chatted with former running backs coach Larry Porter, but Robinson isn’t interested in analyzing what his players have done in the past. He wants a clean slate, a fresh start. He has a good reason why.
When Robinson arrived at USC last year, leaving his NFL gig with the Arizona Cardinals to return to the college game, he knew the expectations. Penn State transfer Silas Redd led the Trojans in rushing in 2012, and they’d signed ESPN 300 backs Justin Davis and Ty Isaac. Those were the options.
Robinson didn’t watch the film. He didn’t want any biases. He kept the competition going and used five different backs last fall. The standout of the group was a surprise: Javorius Allen.
When Robinson first joined the program, he says he was told he didn’t need to worry about Allen. The staff didn’t think the sophomore, a former ESPN 150 recruit with six career carries, would amount to much.
“They didn’t want him around, wanted to let him go,” Robinson said. “I learned a very valuable lesson: Had I listened to what I was told, that kid would’ve never got a chance to play football at USC. But I didn’t listen to what I was told about him. I wanted to formulate my own opinion about the kid, and the kid ended up leading us in rushing.
“This is a kid that wasn’t supposed to be on the team, that I was told, ‘Don’t worry about him, he won’t amount to anything,’ and he ended up leading the team in rushing. So who knows?”
That’s why, when Texas begins spring practice next week, Robinson intends to treat his rushers like true freshmen. They’ll have to convince him they’re his best option.
“I’ve made that point crystal clear,” Robinson said. “Everybody has an opportunity.”
Koenning and Vance Bedford both arrived at the University of Texas in 1977. They could tell you all sorts of stories about their college days, but they won’t.
“They might be R-rated,” Bedford said. “We had our day in the sun. It’s amazing some of the things we did, that we’re still here today. That’s all I can tell you.”
No doubt Koenning has done plenty of reminiscing during his first two months back on campus since joining Charlie Strong’s coaching staff. After more than three decades coaching elsewhere, this is his homecoming.
“The one thing that’s been really nice for myself is to come back and see what it’s like, having the opportunity to play in the stadium, going back through campus,” Koenning said. “Things have changed a little bit since I was last here. It’s gotten a lot nicer.”
Koenning’s 33-year career has seen him make stops at Alabama, Louisiana-Lafayette, Mississippi State, Rice, Duke, Texas A&M, the Miami Dolphins, back to Duke, Houston, TCU, back to Alabama, back to A&M, South Alabama and Mississippi State. Finally, the road led him back to Austin.
You won’t get him to talk badly about his time at Texas A&M, Alabama or anywhere else. Koenning says he’s been fortunate throughout and given the chance to coach at some great programs.
Getting back to Texas, at a time when the program is in transition and in need of coaches with Longhorns roots, was too good an opportunity to pass up.
“I’m excited about it, and I think also the opportunity to come with Coach Strong is really nice,” Koenning said. “His background and what he’s done in the past has been really impressive to me. It’s an opportunity to win.”
The son of a longtime Texas high school football coach, Koenning hit the road to recruit right when he was hired and ran into folks he knew all over the place. He’s looking forward to recruiting a state he knows well alongside coaches he trusts.
His offenses at Alabama and Mississippi State faced Strong’s South Carolina and Florida defenses. He knows what Texas is getting in its new head man, and Bedford is happy to vouch for what Koenning brings to the group.
“He’s one of the most competitive guys I’ve ever known,” Bedford said. “You watched him as a player, and the same tenacity you saw as a player, you see as a coach. He’s going to get the best out of his players.”
The sun rose. And Kansas won its 10th consecutive Big 12 title.
There’s more, though.
The 2013-14 campaign for the Big 12 orchestrated a shift in the conference hierarchy. The Big Ten has been the king of regular-season college basketball for years. But the Big 12 can make that claim this season. The league will enter its tournament with seven teams positioned to earn at-large NCAA bids. That’s 70 percent of the conference.
No conference can match that depth. And if the hoopla in Kansas City, Mo., is anything like the movie we witnessed in a thrilling round of conference play, then we’ll need a lot of popcorn this week because anything could happen.
What’s at stake?
"Based on that, this weekend [in the Big 12 championship] is out," Kansas coach Bill Self said in a statement. "Next weekend, we feel like is a longshot, but the doctors are hopeful that if Joel works hard in rehab and progresses that it is possible that he could play in the later rounds of the NCAA tournament if our team is fortunate enough to advance."
So this week, for a few reasons, could be significant for the Big 12 champs.
A few wins in Kansas City would solidify the Jayhawks’ campaign, if a top seed is their best scenario. Maybe it’s not. Kansas could end up in a No. 2 slot opposite in-state enigma Wichita State. Perhaps that’s preferable. Regardless, this week could ease or complicate KU’s potential path to the Final Four.
But the Jayhawks are not alone.
Melvin Ejim, the Big 12's player of the year, and Iowa State could use this week’s tournament to attain some much-needed momentum after dropping two of three. A successful stretch would also help Texas and Oklahoma secure favorable second-round matchups on Selection Sunday.
But Baylor and Oklahoma State are the two teams that really need this tourney. Just two weeks ago, both looked as if they’d fallen out of the NCAA tourney pool.
Then Baylor won seven of its final eight regular-season games. And Marcus Smart led Oklahoma State out of a ditch, too. His return from a suspension fueled a rally of four wins in its last five games.
Both of those teams could win this tournament. Or they could stumble early. Their Thursday matchups -- potentially Baylor against Oklahoma and Oklahoma State against Kansas -- could be their toughest, assuming they’re successful in Wednesday night meetings with TCU and Texas Tech, respectively. A run in Kansas City could also position both teams to avoid dicey seeds in the Big Dance.
Baylor and Oklahoma State look good right now. But when they were bad, they were horrid. Oklahoma State endured a seven-game losing streak, and Baylor lost seven of eight during one ugly Big 12 stretch.
Additional quality wins would make it easier for the selection committee to consider the present instead of their collective, rocky past.
Team with the most to gain
What if West Virginia makes a run? On its best days, the Mountaineers have competed against the best teams in the league. And the 9-9 Big 12 squad enters the conference tourney following a whipping of Kansas over the weekend.
Juwan Staten would be a major star in any other league. A run would help him attract the praise he deserves. It’s not crazy, either. West Virginia opens the tourney against a Texas team that’s lost four of its past six. A win would lead to a matchup against Baylor or Oklahoma, two teams that split their season series with the Mountaineers. And Kansas might be waiting in the title game.
There’s nothing sexy about WVU’s 83 RPI or its 5-12 record against top-100 teams. But if you’re looking for a dark horse that could steal a bid and shake up the field, check out the crew in Morgantown.
The regular season in the American Athletic Conference was so tight, it came down to a coin flip. Cincinnati and Louisville won on each other’s home courts in games decided by a combined four points. They shared the regular-season title, but the Bearcats took the No. 1 seed for the conference tournament after winning the coin toss.
There’s not much that separated the top five finishers in the conference. In fact, fifth-seeded Memphis swept its meetings with Louisville. Both No. 4 seed UConn and No. 3 seed SMU beat Cincinnati. It would come as no surprise if any of those teams won the league tournament.
As for the bottom five teams, March doesn’t contain enough madness to describe the reaction if Houston, Rutgers, Temple, UCF or USF emerge as champion. At 16-15, the Cougars are the only team among the five with a winning record.
The inaugural AAC tournament is held at FedEx Forum in Memphis, meaning the Tigers will have the unofficial advantage of being on their home court. As a member of Conference USA, they won the last five league tournaments that were held in Memphis. The last time the Tigers didn’t win a league tournament they hosted was in 2005, when they lost in the title game to Louisville.
What’s at stake?
Defending national champion Louisville, short of winning the American tournament and defeating two more ranked teams in the semifinals and title game, can expect to get a seed that won’t match the way it’s currently playing. The Cardinals didn’t have any marquee nonconference wins, and they lost their first four games against ranked opponents. Now they’ve won three of their past four against ranked foes, including an 81-48 smashing of UConn in the regular-season finale. Could it be too late for the tournament committee? Possibly. ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi had the Cards listed as a No. 4 seed, which isn’t entirely bad. Coach Rick Pitino guided the Cards to the Final Four while seeded fourth in both 2005 and 2012.
SMU got a wakeup call with its loss to Louisville in the home finale. The Mustangs had been unbeaten at home this season, but they showed signs of inexperience from a program new to winning. It’s not enough for an early lead and a raucous crowd to win games. SMU has been free of expectations and winning big for some time now. But its third-place finish in coach Larry Brown’s second season is clearly a sign of progress. The looming question for the Mustangs: Will they be content with what they’ve already achieved?
Teams with most to gain
Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin and Memphis coach Josh Pastner could both use a little momentum going into the NCAA tournament. Cronin and the Bearcats advanced to the Sweet 16 in 2012. Pastner, who has a 1-3 NCAA record, has yet to get the Tigers out of the first weekend. Both teams seemingly have the main ingredient for success in the postseason -- experienced backcourts. Winning the American tournament could be a springboard for NCAA success.
Some have loosely compared UConn senior guard Shabazz Napier to former standout Kemba Walker for his ability to come through in the clutch. If Napier really wants to cement his legacy with the Huskies, he’ll need to come through in the postseason.
Walker carried the 2011 Huskies on an unprecedented run winning five games for the Big East tournament title before winning six games to capture the NCAA title. Napier’s job isn’t nearly as tough. He’d only have to win three games for a conference title. Napier has the ability to make his teammates better and take control of a game when needed. And the Huskies will be looking to rebound after their most lopsided loss in more than two decades.
This spring, the Cowboys have another true freshman quarterback who might be capable of the same.
After winning 10 games and ranking in the top-10 for several weeks late last season, Oklahoma State kicked off its spring practice on Monday as a team in transition. Of all 128 FBS programs, only Utah State returns fewer starters than the Cowboys. And one of the many positions the Pokes must find starting replacement is at quarterback.
Gone is Clint Chelf, who became just the second quarterback in program history to earn first- or second-team all-conference honors.
J.W. Walsh, who has eight career starts over two seasons, is the only returner at the position with any experience and is the favorite to reclaim the starting job.
Two years ago, head coach Mike Gundy named true freshman Wes Lunt the starter coming out of spring drills. And one pressing question that popped up Monday during Oklahoma State’s spring press conference was, would Gundy entertain the idea of doing the same again?
“The truth is, if you have a freshman come in and is the better player, you probably play him,” Gundy replied. “It would be hard at that position [quarterback] because we can say what we want, but everybody watches the practices we watch. And everybody has a good feel for what’s happening. And we have a responsibility to our team to give them the best chance to have success. So we have to watch real close. I thought three springs ago that [Lunt] was clearly the best player -- that’s why we named him the starter. What that holds for the future, I’m not sure. But if we didn’t think he was [the best], we certainly wouldn’t have named him the starter. And so we just have to watch and see how it works.”
In other words, Rudolph will have his chance, just like Lunt did.
Rudolph arrived in Stillwater as perhaps the most highly-touted quarterback prospect the school had ever signed.
Lunt was a three-star recruit and was the No. 42-ranked quarterback coming out of high school. By contrast, Rudolph was Oklahoma State’s top recruit of this class and was rated the eighth-best pocket passing quarterback in the nation.
He threw for 4,377 yards and 64 touchdowns as a senior at Northwestern High in Rock Hill, S.C., while leading his team to a state championship.
Weeks later, he was named MVP of the Shrine Bowl of the Carolinas All-Star Game after leading his team on a game-winning touchdown drive. Rudolph split time with Georgia quarterback signee Jacob Park, but when the game was on the line, Rudolph was the one the coaches called on. And like he had in high school, Rudolph delivered in crunch time.
“He had that leadership ability that you could see on the sideline with his team,” Oklahoma State offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Mike Yurcich said. “When he threw the football, the physical side was apparent.
“He also has an ‘it’ factor. You know when you see it. It’s hard to describe. It’s hard to put into words.”
Whether that “it” factor translates into Rudolph accomplishing what Lunt did two springs ago remains to be seen.
Lunt had an easier path to the starting job then. The Cowboys were replacing first-round NFL draft pick Brandon Weeden, and at the time, neither Chelf nor Walsh had any experience.
Though Walsh’s play dipped last season, he shined as a redshirt freshman after Lunt got injured in 2012 and wound up leading the entire Big 12 in the Adjusted QBR metric.
“J.W. always has had great leadership, and we want him to have a great feel for what we want to accomplish on offense from a read standpoint, footwork fundamentals, things that he can control,” Gundy said. “J.W. brings experience to the table. J.W. will be the guy that goes out there first this year because he has the most experience.”
Experience alone, however, won’t guarantee Walsh the job.
Limited arm strength plagued Walsh’s ability to complete throws downfield last season. That, coupled with poor decision-making, opened the door for Chelf to reclaim the job in early October.
Superior arm strength is what helped propel Lunt to the top of the depth chart two springs ago, and that could also be a similar asset for the 6-foot-4, 217-pound Rudolph this spring. But Rudolph, who rushed for 16 touchdowns as well last season, also seems to possess more mobility than Lunt, who suffered a knee injury after his third start while unsuccessfully attempting to escape the pocket.
“You can also tell he has some fight in him,” said third-year wide receiver Austin Hays. “It’s so hard when you’re a freshman. But towards the end of spring, Wes really started to find his way. Eventually he earned it, and everybody followed him.
“I don’t see why Mason couldn’t do that, too.”
2. Dr. Joab Thomas, the former president of the University of Alabama and Penn State University, died last week at age 81. While at Alabama, Thomas endured the controversy of hiring Ray Perkins and Bill Curry to replace the legendary Paul Bryant. In 1990, Thomas went to State College, Pa., where the equally legendary Joe Paterno turned 65 the following year. When someone asked him about Paterno retiring, Thomas said, “You can't ask one man to replace both Bear Bryant and Joe Paterno.”
3. Jake Trotter’s post Monday described the desire of West Virginia players to turn the program around after a 4-8 record last season. Injuries contributed a great deal to the Mountaineers’ troubles. But the physical and mental burden of traveling to the Big 12 footprint will be an annual drag on West Virginia football. The good news is that in this season’s nine-game conference schedule, the 5/4 split tips to Milan Puskar Stadium. The bad news is that the season opens with a neutral-site game against Alabama in Atlanta.
Last spring, he was a bright-eyed true freshman experiencing spring football for the first time. This spring, the Red Raiders’ offensive future rests upon his shoulders.
“I might not have guys breathing down my neck competing for a job, but I’m treating it like that,” Webb told the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal.
The Red Raiders better hope so.
Webb is coming off a stellar first season in which he ranked among the Big 12’s best in Adjusted QBR (82.6, third in Big 12), passing yards (2,718, second in Big 12) and completion percentage (62.6, second in Big 12). He started six games, including his Holiday Bowl MVP performance in Tech’s 37-23 win over Arizona State so he has plenty of game experience and should handle everything as a veteran.
Even though Webb appears to have the starting spot in hand, he still needs to continue to develop if TTU hopes to make a Big 12 title run in 2014. His strong individual performance as a true freshman resulted in only a .500 record as a starter, with wins over ASU, Iowa State, West Virginia and losses to Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and Kansas State.
Webb’s development this spring is critical to the Red Raiders’ future success, and it won’t happen unless the sophomore pushes himself to excellence. Davis’ 403 passing yards and four touchdowns against the Sun Devils was a glimpse of his potential, and his goal is to consistently mimic that performance in the future.
“I don’t want that to be the highlight of my Texas Tech career,” Webb told the LAJ. “The Holiday Bowl championship is awesome, but I want more than that.”
Those words should be music to the Red Raiders' ears.
- Over the weekend, Texas Tech landed a verbal commitment from Jarrett Stidham, the No. 1 dual-threat QB in the country for 2015.
- Texas coach Charlie Strong would welcome playing Texas A&M again. The Longhorns offered Jordan and Jaxon Shipley's a cousin a scholarship. Hanner Shipley is currently committed to LSU.
- The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette's Stephen J. Nesbitt explores whether West Virginia is returning to a 3-3-5 defense under new coordinator Tony Gibson.
- The Oklahoman's Berry Tramel writes that Barry Switzer lacks a filter. The former Oklahoma coach made all sorts of headlines last week. The paper's Jason Kersey interviewed Sooners QB Trevor Knight, who is hoping to carry the Sugar Bowl momentum into next season.
- Iowa State picked up its first commitment for 2015.
- The Dallas Morning News' Chuck Carlton thinks TCU could have one of the best defenses in the country next season.
- Oklahoma State fullback Teddy Johnson, a former walk-on, is grateful to get a scholarship. Freshman Cowboys QB Mason Rudolph is adjusting to college life.
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