Texas' Gray back, better after rapid recovery

August, 21, 2014
Aug 21
AUSTIN, Texas -- Ever since he was 15, Johnathan Gray’s feats have been met with effusive praise. And his latest one might be his finest.

Charlie Strong told a kickoff luncheon crowd last week that a Texas assistant recently offered up some feedback: “Why can’t everyone work out like Johnathan Gray?” That’s high praise considering what the running back has already endured in 2014.

[+] EnlargeJohnathan Gray
Cooper Neill/Getty ImagesJohnathan Gray says he's back to his old self after suffering a torn Achilles last fall.
  If you saw him in fall practice this month, you wouldn’t know Gray is coming back from a torn Achilles suffered last November. His recovery from that gruesome season-ending injury has been nothing short of freakish.

The initial prognosis from team doctors suggested Gray would be sidelined eight to 10 months. He got back in seven. Now he says he’s better than ever.

“Everybody was surprised at how I came back,” Gray said. “Months of rehab and staying in the training room constantly and trying to get back, it really paid off.”

Gray knew from his days as a five-star rusher at Aledo (Texas) High School that he was a quick healer. When he first went down, on Nov. 9 at West Virginia, many feared he might not be back for the 2014 opener. Gray never saw it that way.

“In my mind it was always, ‘You’re going to be back in time. Don’t know when, but you’re going to be back in time,’” he said. “That’s what I was always telling myself. It was a long process and a painful process, but I kept pushing it.”

Gray was officially cleared for fall camp on July 21, but he’d already been working out again by then. His recovery time puts the junior back in elite company with the likes of Kobe Bryant, Terrell Suggs and Michael Crabtree. And you better believe he had them in mind as he charted out his rehabilitation plan.

“Kobe, I don’t know how he walked off the court with a torn Achilles, but he came back at a respectable time,” Gray said. “At that time it was like, OK, there’s hope for me to come back and play.”

He had a surplus of motivation on the winter and spring days he got up at 6 a.m. for agility and cutting drills, mobility training and innumerable calf raises. After all, Gray had been cut down in the midst of a legitimate breakthrough season. He was the No. 4 rusher in the Big 12 and on pace for more than 1,100 rushing yards as a sophomore.

He sensed his strength was fully back by late summer. When fall camp first began, Gray said he might’ve been 95 percent ready to go. As for his quickness?

“The burst is back,” Gray said. “Like I said, I’m back to the same Johnathan Gray. I’m ready.”

 And that’s a scary idea for the rest of the conference. Gray can’t wait to tag-team with senior Malcolm Brown, who rushed for 534 yards after Gray went down and is now in the best shape of his career at sleek 218 pounds.

Brown was in the Erwin Center last week when Strong offered up the praise of Gray’s practice habits. He definitely wasn’t surprised.

“J-Gray just doesn’t get tired,” Brown said. “J-Gray works his tail off each and every day. That’s definitely a great example.”

Strong and running backs coach Tommie Robinson have still taken a cautious approach when it comes to practice reps, which can’t be easy considering Texas’ No. 3 back is injured and its No. 4 option just arrived on campus.

“We have to be very, very smart about just how much work he does,” Strong said. “He's going to get sore at some point. … We don't need to just throw him out there, and he can go play 60 plays in a row. That's not going to happen. He's going to get a little, come back, rest, get a little, come back and rest. We have to get him to the game.”

Robinson proudly says he didn’t watch film of Gray’s past two seasons in the interest of giving him a fresh start. In fact, until this month, he hadn’t seen Gray play a game since those days at Aledo, where the national phenom rushed for 10,908 yards, a record 205 touchdowns and won three state rings.

But he did get another glimpse of Gray’s character last month, during a phone call after Joe Bergeron and Jalen Overstreet were kicked off the team. Those departures left the Longhorns with Gray, Brown, a pair of freshmen and a few walk-ons in their running back room.

After the painstaking offseason Gray just survived, that new reality -- less help, more teaching and more pressure -- seems like no big deal.

“He took a deep breath,” Robinson recalled, “and he said, ‘We got it, Coach.’"

Preseason All-Big 12 team

August, 21, 2014
Aug 21
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:


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.


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.
Bradley Marquez could have spent his summer chasing fly balls and trying to hit curveballs while honing his craft as a minor league baseball player in the New York Mets organization.

Instead, the receiver spent the summer alongside his teammates at Texas Tech. In doing so, he sent a clear message to those teammates, the Red Raiders coaching staff and the rest of the program about his commitment to excelling during his final season catching passes in Lubbock, Texas.

[+] EnlargeBradley Marquez
AP Photo/LM OteroTexas Tech wide receiver Bradley Marquez, a baseball player in the New York Mets organization, made 49 catches last season.
“He hasn’t hung up the baseball cleats for good, but he hung them up this summer to really work on his game with us,” coach Kliff Kingsbury said. “And that brought a lot of leadership to our program.”

Heading into the 2014 season, the Red Raiders will be counting on Marquez to be one of the guys to help replace departed tight end Jace Amaro, who was arguably the Big 12’s biggest mismatch en route to 106 receptions for 1,352 receiving yards and seven touchdowns in 2013.

“I think he’ll be a big part of it,” Kingsbury said of Marquez's role in replacing Amaro and Eric Ward. “He brings some speed, brings some toughness at that position. His toughness and desire has really helped us as a program.”

It started with his commitment to remain in Lubbock, Texas, this summer, a decision that showed the sacrifice the senior was willing to make to maximize his impact on the Red Raiders’ destiny this fall. It wasn’t about individual accolades or an increase in his total catches -- it was about becoming a guy Kingsbury and his teammates could count on.

“I just want to be a consistent player and want to do everything possible to help this team win,” Marquez said. “That’s why I stayed this summer, to better myself in the weight room, [help] the timing [with quarterback Davis Webb and be around my teammates.”

If he had decided to return to minor league baseball, it wouldn’t have been a decision that caused eyebrows to raise. Marquez finished the 2013 season with 49 receptions for 633 yards and six touchdowns, ranking fourth on the team in each category. And he did it after playing 27 games for the Kingsport Mets in 2013 before joining Tech for Kingbury’s first season.

Nonetheless, he decided to make football his top priority in 2014 immediately securing a leadership role among Tech's receivers becoming a guy whose commitment to the upcoming season could not be questioned.

“The guys believe in him,” Kingsbury said. “They know how hard he worked, they know his story and they know he sacrificed for his teammates to be here this summer, and that’s gone a long way for us.”

Now he wants to go even further and secure a lasting legacy at Texas Tech before returning to baseball in the future.

“I just want to have a great senior season and leave my lasting mark on Texas Tech,” he said.

SEC morning links

August, 21, 2014
Aug 21
1. Talk to any SEC athletic director about priorities during football season and fans’ in-game experience inevitably arises in the conversation. With so many games available now on TV – which you can watch for free, from the comfort of home, in high definition – SEC schools researched the areas of greatest concern to fans. They found that availability of concessions and restroom conditions were the top issues, and other concerns include cell service and video production. The SEC reported that 12 schools have upgraded their concessions before this season and at least eight are working on improving restroom and/or cell service. Those changes won’t necessarily be the deciding factor in whether most fans attend a game, but in this day and age, schools recognize that they must provide as many fan amenities as possible because there are so many entertainment options available.

2. This might be too much for even the most even-tempered Auburn fan to turn down. Deranged Alabama fan Harvey Updyke, who poisoned the famous Toomer’s Oaks in downtown Auburn, has agreed to appear at a Sept. 29 charity event in Mobile, Alabama, where fans can dunk him in a dunking booth or throw pies at his face. The event will help raise funds for “Roses From Linda,” which helps family members visit terminally ill patients before they die. Updyke’s wife, Elva, said he told charity organizers “they can do whatever they want to him if it will raise money for kids.” So get your pitching arms warmed up, Auburn fans. You’ve got about a month.

3. Speaking of the Iron Bowl, hey, whaddya know? The Auburn-Alabama game is college football’s hottest ticket on the secondary market, according to this story from Forbes. The median price is only $535 a pop. No big deal. Also included in the top 10 are six other games that feature SEC teams (Alabama-LSU, Florida-Alabama, Clemson-Georgia, LSU-Texas A&M, Texas A&M-Alabama and Auburn-Georgia). None of those games hold a candle to the top single-game ticket price from last preseason, however. At this time last year, Alabama-Texas A&M tickets were going for an average of $744 on the secondary market.

More from the SEC
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Q&A: TCU safety Sam Carter

August, 20, 2014
Aug 20
Sam Carter is one of the Big 12's top defenders. The TCU safety has started 25 straight games and has earned second-team All-Big 12 honors twice for the Horned Frogs heading into his senior season. One of the leaders on Gary Patterson's defense, Carter took some time during Big 12 media days to chat about last season, the Horned Frogs' defense and Kevin White trying to fill the void left by Jason Verrett.

[+] EnlargeSam Carter
Kevin Jairaj/USA TODAY SportsSenior safety Sam Carter is looking to help turn around TCU after a 4-8 season in 2013.
How do you look at last year? You were close in so many games then let them get away, what did you learn so those games won’t get away this year?

Sam Carter: You learn from all of your losses, you learn from all of your wins. It’s just understanding that, at the end of the day, they made one more play than you did and understand it’s in the past. I forgive all those teams that beat us but never forget. I have not forgot about those games, it’s not winning games that make you a better team, it’s losing games. Sometimes when you win, some guys think, ‘I did this, I did that.’ When you lose, you can’t point fingers because you lost as a team. I’m excited to go into the season and know those mistakes are behind us. We went 4-8 last season, it's in the past.

Do you think people overlook your defense?

SC: I don’t really know, they might. I’m not a big stats guy but I know my coach [Patterson] is one of the top coaches in the nation. He has a lot of wins. Folks say, ‘Well, that was the Mountain West,’ but I’ve seen Mountain West teams beat all these other big programs. You just have to not worry about what people say and just play football.

When you look at your defense, I know you won’t put it on your offense, but there were situations where the defense was actually was real solid.

SC: It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know that we wish our offense had played better, but that’s in the past. I forgive them but haven’t forgot, either, with our offense. We know if you live in the past you might think, the offense just went three-and-out then we go out there and let them score because we’re worried about what the offense did. Just play, let the chips fall where they fall. We need to give them the ball back so they get another opportunity to score. That’s all we can control.

Tell me more about Kevin White.

SC: He’s like a brother to me, we came in the same year. We call him “Squirrel.” Kevin started off rough, just like Jason did, first few games were rough. He has the confidence now, he’s the guy. Last year, Jason was the guy. Now Kevin is the guy and all the young corners look up to him. I believe the experience that he has and the leadership he brings knowing what it takes to play in Division I and in the Big 12 is going to help the young cornerbacks. I’m excited to see what he does. To be able to say I left with this guy after coming in with this guy, I’m excited.

Do you think he has a chip on his shoulder? He’s been overshadowed by Jason.

SC: I tell people all the time, sometimes it’s your time, sometimes it’s not. I feel I’ve been overlooked for the longest, not just on my team but in the nation. When it’s not your time, you have to wait. God does things for a reason. Patience is the key to success. If you feel you’ve been overlooked, the only way to stop people from overlooking you is to do something they remember. And that’s how I look at every year, I try to come out and do something to make people say, ‘Wow, that’s the kid we should watch.’ When the light is shining on someone, you never want to be the guy to say, 'Give me that.' No, be happy for them and let God bless you later. I’m happy for Jason. If [Kevin] feels overshadowed, the only way to stop that is do something you’ve never done before.

Do you have a much better feel for the conference now than when you came in?

SC: I don’t know. There are still things all these Big 12 schools do that you get there and say, 'Wow, I didn’t see that on tape.' Every snap I’m learning something new about the Big 12.

Texas A&M Aggies season preview

August, 20, 2014
Aug 20
» More team previews: ACC | Big 12 | Big Ten | Pac-12 | SEC

Previewing the 2014 season for the Texas A&M Aggies:

2013 record: 9-4

Final grade for 2013 season: The Aggies finished fourth in the SEC West, and considering the lofty preseason expectations placed upon them with a returning Heisman Trophy winner and three eventual first-round NFL draft picks, it wasn't quite the season they hoped for. The nine wins are nice, and so was the Chick-fil-A Bowl victory, but they were 1-4 against Top 25 teams. We'll give them a B-minus.

Key losses: QB Johnny Manziel, RB Ben Malena, WR Mike Evans, WR Travis Labhart, OT Jake Matthews, DT Isaiah Golden, DE Gavin Stansbury, LB Darian Claiborne, LB Steven Jenkins.

Key returnees: QB Kenny Hill, RB Tra Carson, RB Trey Williams, WR Malcome Kennedy, WR Ricky Seals-Jones, OT Cedric Ogbuehi, C Mike Matthews, DE Julien Obioha, LB Jordan Mastrogiovanni, CB Deshazor Everett, CB De'Vante Harris.

Projected 2014 starters: QB Kenny Hill, RB Tra Carson, LT Cedric Ogbuehi, LG Garrett Gramling, C Mike Matthews, RG Joseph Cheek, RT Germain Ifedi, WR Speedy Noil, WR Ricky Seals-Jones, WR Malcome Kennedy, WR Joshua Reynolds, DE Daeshon Hall, DT Alonzo Williams, DT Hardreck Walker, DE Julien Obioha, OLB Donnie Baggs, MLB Jordan Mastrogiovanni, OLB A.J. Hilliard, CB Deshazor Everett, S Howard Matthews, S Armani Watts, CB De'Vante Harris.

Instant-impact newcomers: WR Speedy Noil, DE Myles Garrett, WR Joshua Reynolds, DT Zaycoven Henderson, S Armani Watts

[+] EnlargeDeshazor Everett
AP Photo/Bob LeveyDeshazor Everett and the Aggies' defense will have their work cut out for them this season.
Breakout player: His collegiate debut as a true freshman gave us a glimpse of his ability but an injury robbed Ricky Seals-Jones of the rest of his season. Now he's healthy, big (6-foot-5, 230 pounds), fast for his size and only continues to get better as a receiver. He'll be able to line up inside or outside, but expect him to spend most of his time as an inside receiver, looking for mismatches against linebackers and safeties. He is developing good chemistry with new starting quarterback Kenny Hill, so expect the 2013 ESPN 300 recruit to have a huge season.

Most important game: There are plenty of big ones, but our pick is South Carolina. Yes, it's the season opener and there are 11 games that follow, but for a young A&M team that has inexperienced players in many key positions, most notably quarterback, going to Columbia and generating some confidence -- win or lose -- will be important. The Gamecocks are a top-10 team and SEC road games are tough, but think of the way the Aggies got on a roll after their competitive SEC debut in 2012, a 20-17 loss to Florida. Like that season, the Aggies have a lot to prove and many tough SEC road games in their future, and a win or at least playing well on Aug. 28 can go a long way toward getting this group heading in the right direction.

Biggest question mark: Without question, it's the defense. It was atrocious last season and the Aggies lost four players this offseason who they expected to return, three of which would likely have been starters. Defensive coordinator Mark Snyder is encouraged by the increased athleticism and depth his group has, thanks in large part to the influx of talent from the 2014 recruiting class, but there are still many unproven talents who will log significant time in the front seven. Can they take a step forward this season?

Upset special: Keep an eye on the LSU game. Seems to be an unusual choice, since the Aggies didn't beat the Tigers the two years Manziel was on campus, but the last time LSU visited Kyle Field, Texas A&M took a 12-0 lead with its up-tempo offense before the Tigers came from behind to win 24-19 in Manziel's freshman season. Night games at Kyle Field usually provide for an electric atmosphere, so expect nothing less on Thanksgiving night. By Game 12, the Aggies' offense should be operating at peak efficiency and the young defense should be coming into its own. Don't be shocked if the Aggies finally upend the Tigers here.

Key stat: Texas A&M returns offensive linemen that combine for 78 career starts, though the most tenured starter of them all -- guard Jarvis Harrison (31 starts) -- might not start, an indication of the depth the Aggies developed across their offensive front.

They said it: "That was a very tough decision. Both of them are playing at a very high level. I just kind of went back to my gut feeling and the maturity of him and being around this system for one year. There were a lot of other factors, but that was the one that kind of stood out the most to me, because he sat here and watched Johnny for a year and he's going to be put in some situation that he has probably – hopefully – seen before, and he can get us out of those bad looks." -- Offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Jake Spavital, on why the Aggies chose Kenny Hill to start at quarterback over Kyle Allen.

Preseason predictions:

ESPN Stats & Information: 8.3 wins

Bovada over/under: 7 wins

Our take: The schedule-makers did the Aggies no favors by giving them road games at South Carolina, Mississippi State, Alabama and Auburn. That's tough for a young squad. Fortunately for the Aggies, after the opener at Williams Brice Stadium, they have three manageable nonconference games and Arkansas, so the opportunity to string wins together is there early in the season. Even minus Manziel, Evans and Matthews, this offense should still be one of the best in the nation given Kevin Sumlin's and Jake Spavital's track record for coaching offensive football. Will the defense be better? It should be given the added talent and depth. How much better is the key question and will be the difference between a six- or seven-win season and an eight- or nine-win season. This is definitely a bowl team but probably not ready to finish in the top two of the SEC West yet; 2015 is the season this team could take a huge step forward. If the Aggies finish the 2014 regular season with eight wins, that should be considered a good year and something to build on for 2015.

Big 12 morning links

August, 20, 2014
Aug 20
Breakfast is the most important meal of the day. A breakfast with morning links? One thousand percent better. In fact, 9 of 10 nutritionists recommend morning links as a healthy companion to your breakfast.
  • The future of Kansas' offense took a downward turn when the Jayhawks announced the loss of Brandon Bourbon and Taylor Cox to season-ending injuries on Tuesday, writes Rustin Dodd of the Kansas City Star. It's a painful loss for a KU offense that is going to need a strong running game to help take the burden off sophomore quarterback Montell Cozart. Neither Cox or Bourbon come to mind as the top playmakers in KU's offense before injuries took them out of the equation -- Tony Pierson and Nick Harwell top the list -- but it's hard to overlook the impact on KU's offense. The good news is Corey Avery stepped on campus ready to play as a freshman and De'Andre Mann is another option at running back for the Jayhawks.
  • Iowa State safety Kamara Cotton-Moya was shot, yet he insists losing last season to an Achilles injury was worse, writes Randy Peterson of the Des Moines Register. The redshirt freshman was says he learned to "try not to be in the wrong place at the wrong time" from the incident, which occurred before he headed to Ames, Iowa, last summer. Cotton-Moya's story is an interesting one but his impact on the field is just as intriguing. He would have likely joined Nigel Tribune as a true freshman to see time in ISU's secondary in 2013 if he hadn't hurt his Achilles, so it should be fun to monitor his impact on a defense that needs to replace its top two tacklers (Jacques Washington, Jeremiah George) from 2013.
  • Who is the active leader in career tackles on Kansas State's roster? Kellis Robinett of the Kansas City Star has the surprising answer: Randall Evans sits atop the list with 146 career tackles. Evans isn't a guy who comes to mind when you think of the most productive defenders on Bill Snyder's team but Robinett's story reminds us just how important the versatile Evans is to K-State's defense, particularly considering the fact he goes head to head with some of the Big 12's best receivers at his slot cornerback position.
  • The Oklahoman's Berry Tramel believes Oklahoma State is a Big 12 heavyweight. Why? The Cowboys' defensive line tells the tale as that group is the best unit on OSU's defense heading into 2014 which is sign things have changed in Stillwater, Oklahoma. It's hard to disagree as quality defensive linemen often help separate teams and are easily the hardest jewel to find on the recruiting trail. Is OSU's defensive line good enough to overcome concerns at linebacker and safety? That's the bigger, unanswered question.
  • Finally, in case you missed it, take a look at Grantland's Big 12 preview by Holly Anderson. It's a fun look at the conference including a outlandish prediction that someone in the conference will score 100 points in a game this season. Yes, you read that right, 100 points. Could it happen? I don't think so, but that's why they call it an outlandish prediction.

Position battle update: Texas WR

August, 19, 2014
Aug 19
Texas' wide receiving corps lost three players to discipline and one starter to an injury. Who's left? Who's going to make an impact in the Longhorns' opener against North Texas? Here's a closer look.

Contenders: Junior Marcus Johnson, sophomore Jacorey Warrick, redshirt freshman Jake Oliver, freshmen Armanti Foreman, Dorian Leonard, Lorenzo Joe, Roderick Bernard, Garrett Gray, sophomore Ty Templin, senior John Harris

Not contenders: Jaxon Shipley is sidelined indefinitely with a hamstring injury. Daje Johnson is suspended for at least one game. Kendall Sanders and Montrel Meander were dismissed from the program before fall camp.

What they replace: Not only do the Longhorns need a possession receiver as reliable as Shipley while he's recovering, they also must replace top deep threat Mike Davis. There's still no word on how quickly Shipley will be back on the field. Davis, who's now in Oakland Raiders camp, finished with 2,753 career receiving yards and 18 TDs. Sanders was supposed to be a major contributor for this group after catching 37 passes for 361 yards and a TD as a sophomore last year.

What they offer: The only proven commodity in the group is Johnson. He offers serious speed; he was productive last season, including in big games, and he can play inside or outside. With Shipley sidelined, you'd have to think Johnson will be the go-to target for David Ash to start the season.

But who knows what to expect from the rest. Warrick, known by his peers as "Petey," has earned consistent praise from Charlie Strong and his coaches and saw a little mop-up duty last season.

Oliver redshirted last season and could be a nice target on the outside with his 6-foot-3 frame. Harris is a guy who made a few big plays in 2013, but has still yet to really break through and earn consistent playing time.

What remains to be seen is just how far these five true freshmen have come in the past few weeks. The coaching staff has repeatedly said publicly that all five are doing well and haven't singled out one or two as standing out above the rest. But Strong has acknowledged he likes Foreman's explosiveness and playmaking ability. Joe and Leonard seem to have a real shot at playing as well.

And then the surprise of the group has been Templin, a 6-foot, 195-pound sophomore walk-on whose efforts in fall camp have been called "unbelievable" by Strong. He played on the scout team last year but was getting first-team reps in Texas' only fall practice open to the media.

Prediction: Shipley will fight hard to try to get back for BYU and UCLA, and he just might pull that off. But in the meantime, Texas goes with a starting four of Marcus Johnson, Warrick, Harris and, yes, Templin. Foreman quickly works his way up to the No. 1 offense with a few nice plays against North Texas. And then the pressure is on for Daje Johnson, who needs to get back in good standing before the Longhorns get their rematch with the Cougars.

Position battle update: Oklahoma St. QB

August, 19, 2014
Aug 19
This week we'll be highlighting the key position battles for every program in the Big 12. We continue the series with Oklahoma State’s quarterback derby.

Here's where the battle stands:

Contenders: junior J.W. Walsh, junior Daxx Garman, freshman Mason Rudolph

What happened last season: Departed quarterback Clint Chelf ignited OSU’s offense when he took over as the starter midway through the 2013 season. He played as well as any quarterback in the conference during OSU’s final seven games, playing a major role in the Cowboys' late-season surge. Chelf finished second in the Big 12 with an 82.9 adjusted QBR.

Walsh started five games and played the majority of OSU’s season-opening win over Mississippi State while helping the Cowboys to a 10-3 record. His 74.5 adjusted QBR was fourth in the Big 12, and he rushed for 294 yards and passed for 1,333 yards in 2013. Nonetheless, Walsh hasn’t run away with OSU’s starting quarterback job heading into the 2014 season.

While Chelf and Walsh were running the Pokes' offense each Saturday, walk-on quarterback Garman was beginning to create some buzz in practice while sitting out due to transfer rules after transferring from Arizona.

What they offer: Walsh offers an unquestioned leader who has a proven ability to win Big 12 games. He enters his junior season with 2,897 passing yards, 22 touchdowns and eight interceptions along with 584 rushing yards and 10 scores in 18 games played. Walsh struggled at times during the 2013 season and needs to greatly improve as a passer, but nobody on the roster can match his experience or college production.

Garman’s ability to throw the ball started garnering attention last fall. His passing ability remains one of his top assets, with offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich repeatedly praising his throwing skills. Garman’s play is the main reason Walsh, despite his experience, has not been named the starter, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see the former walk-on taking snaps in the season opener against Florida State.

Rudolph appears to be the Cowboys' quarterback of the future. The question is, could the future begin this fall? With OSU featuring two quality options ahead of him, Rudolph faces a long road to earning playing time this fall. And if he does, that’s a terrific sign for the future.

They said it: “As a group, the three of them had as good of a scrimmage at the quarterback position in a number of years.” -- OSU coach Mike Gundy after the Cowboys’ scrimmage on Saturday.

Prediction: The Cowboys’ quarterback battle will wage deep into the season. It would be a surprise if Walsh didn’t start against Florida State, particularly since his running ability could come in handy against an active Seminoles defensive front. But, much like last season, Walsh will have to hold off another quality quarterback behind him in Garman. There will probably be times when Garman is the best option instead of Walsh, and Rudolph’s physical gifts are impressive. In fact, it wouldn’t be a surprise if all three quarterbacks take snaps for the Cowboys in 2014.

Position battle update: TCU QB

August, 18, 2014
Aug 18
TCU will soon have an answer to its offseason-long question of who will replace Casey Pachall. Here's what we know:

Contenders: Senior Matt Joeckel, junior Trevone Boykin

Not contenders: Freshmen Foster Sawyer and Grayson Muehlstein are both expected to redshirt this fall, according to TCU coach Gary Patterson.

What they replace: While Pachall's final two seasons at TCU might best be described as rocky, he did leave Fort Worth as one of the school's top three all-time passers in completions, passing yards and passing TDs while ranking first in completion percentage. Between his suspension in 2012 and his injuries in 2013, Pachall was at times unreliable for this Horned Frog offense. Still, he started 23 career games and isn't easy to replace.

What they offer: Now that's what makes this competition so interesting, because each one brings a different kind of experience to the table.

Joeckel has the experience of operating an Air Raid offense with confidence, and that's crucial as TCU makes its transition to an offense that should resemble what we've seen from Oklahoma State and Texas Tech in recent years. He's had great mentors in Kevin Sumlin, Jake Spavital and Kliff Kingsbury. He has prototypical size and, after four years on the bench in College Station, he's hungry.

The downside is Joeckel showed up in June. He had a ton of catching up to do and he's done an admirable job so far, but not enough to lock down the job from Day 1.

Boykin brings a different kind of experience: He knows this team. The players know him. He's won a few games with them. He dropped 15 pounds this offseason and is in the best shape of his life. The OCs are new to him, but otherwise, this is Boykin's fourth year in the program. He says working with Sonny Cumbie has raised his game. And he happens to be one of the best athletes on the team.

The only problem with that is, if this race is dead even, is TCU better off going with Joeckel knowing that Boykin can still be a dynamic receiver? Wouldn't you prefer to have both on the field? Boykin is playing QB throughout camp with every intention of winning that job, but no doubt that idea was crossed Patterson's mind.

Prediction: We all expected Joeckel to win this in the end, but I'm betting on Boykin. There seems to be real enthusiasm about how he responded to competition this summer. Realistically, though, TCU's best course of action might be to use both QBs in their opener against Samford and then re-evaluate during the two weeks they have to prep for Minnesota.

Takeaways belt a point of pride for Texas D

August, 18, 2014
Aug 18
AUSTIN, Texas – When Texas linebacker Dalton Santos ran onto the field for practice last Sunday wearing a pro wrestling-style title belt, naturally, there were going to be questions.

While the belt and its origins remain shrouded in mystery, some key details have emerged.

The Texas Takeaways belt was introduced this fall as a method for inspiring the Longhorns' defense to take more pride in forcing turnovers, something it didn’t do too much of in 2013.

[+] EnlargeTexas championship belt
btp_longhorn/InstagramPeter Jinkens sports the takeaways belt, which goes to the unit that racks up the most points toward forcing turnovers
Every day, Charlie Strong’s defenders are graded by a point system for every interception, fumble, strip, rip and poke. There might be more criteria, but even Texas’ veterans are hesitant to reveal the criteria and point values.

“It’s just a fun thing we’ve got going on so everyone competes on defense,” defensive end Cedric Reed said.

The points reset every day, and it’s not just about which unit -- defensive line, linebackers and defensive backs -- scored the most in a given practice. If your unit won the day but didn’t meet the coaches’ required number of points, Reed said, no belt for you.

“Whoever wins the most days at the end of the week -- which will be the DBs this week -- will get that belt,” cornerback Quandre Diggs said.

The belt has a Longhorn logo and the word “WARRIOR” printed in the middle of its silver plate. Players say they don’t know where it came from. Cornerback Duke Thomas claimed defensive backs coach Chris Vaughn brought it in to work one day. Texas’ defense has been battling ever since.

Last season, Texas finished with 10 interceptions, 12 forced fumbles and 16 fumble recoveries. Its 26 takeaways tied for 26th-best nationally, but the turnover margin was a mere plus-four. Only three FBS schools recovered more fumbles, so that’s a positive, but Texas’ interception total ranked eighth in the Big 12 and 82nd nationally, and the 12 forced fumbles tied for fewest in a single season in school history.

Strong’s defense at Louisville put up relatively similar numbers last year, but did have 16 interceptions and the No. 2 turnover margin in the nation at plus-17.

“Whatever you emphasize and whatever you put in, you get out,” said Thomas, whose three interceptions led the Longhorns last year. “That’s what we’re trying to do right now.”

The linebackers evidently won the belt for the first week of fall camp. Three days after Santos ran onto the field to show it off, Texas’ defensive backs earned it back.

And yet, as is the case with most wrestling and boxing belts, this one comes with dispute.

“Just to let y’all know, the D-line is winning it,” Reed said. “We run out there with it pretty much every time.”

Diggs frowned in disgust when told Reed had claimed domination of the belt.

“Look at my face. Ced has told y’all a big, flat-out lie,” Diggs said.

Added an outraged Thomas: “The DBs are going to have the belt regardless. Aww, man, we had like 35 points [on Friday]. Ced doesn’t know what he’s talking about. They didn’t get no points out there.”

After Texas’ first scrimmage on Saturday, the defending champ entering the weekend was holding on tight to his prize. He was confident the DBs were ahead in the points race.

“It’s meant a lot,” Diggs said. “If you go in the locker room right now, it’s in my locker. So that can tell you who’s winning that belt.”

On Monday morning, Reed fired back the best way he could: with a photo of the belt's new true owners.

Aggies QB Hill groomed for new role

August, 18, 2014
Aug 18
COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- Kenny Hill knows plenty about pressure.

From the time he became a varsity quarterback at Texas high school football power Southlake Carroll to preparing for the unknown as a true freshman at Texas A&M, to engaging in an offseason battle for the right to succeed Johnny Manziel, Hill has met and conquered his fair share of challenges.

Now, his biggest one awaits.

After being officially named the Aggies’ starting quarterback by coach Kevin Sumlin on Saturday, Hill prepares to lead Texas A&M into its post-Johnny Football era on Aug. 28 when the Aggies visit South Carolina.

[+] EnlargeHill
Bob Levey/Getty ImagesKenny Hill was named the Aggies' starting quarterback on Saturday.
It’s a moment that Hill has been groomed for.

Hill is no stranger to following a rich legacy. At Southlake, the standards are high -- especially if you’re a quarterback. The program owns eight state championships and is a factory for Division I quarterbacks. Chase Wasson, Chase Daniel, Greg McElroy, Riley Dodge, Kyle Padron and David Piland, who all preceded Hill, went on to play college football.

“Is there pressure? Yes,” said Southlake Carroll coach Hal Wasson, who coached several of the aforementioned players, including Hill. “Every quarterback since '02 has gone D-I.”

But Wasson and those close to Hill never compared him to his assembly line of predecessors. They pressed him to create his own identity -- a concept he embraced.

“Like Kenny would say, he can't be anybody but himself,” said Ken Hill Sr., Kenny’s father. “He's not trying to be somebody he’s not. You have to create your own opportunity and your own legacy.”

Kenny Hill did. In 2011, Hill guided the Dragons to a 16-0 record and a state championship as a junior. Whether by air (3,014 passing yards, 25 touchdowns) or on the ground (1,400 yards, 24 touchdowns), Hill was dominant. As a senior, he accounted for 3,196 offensive yards and 42 touchdowns en route to Gatorade Texas Player of the Year honors.

"He handled that well,” Hill Sr. said. “Like I always tell him, just go out there and do your deal. ... People can talk all they want but your play on the field will speak [for itself]."

Living up to a high standard comes natural to Hill because of his bloodlines. His father, Ken Hill Sr., had a 14-year Major League Baseball career as a pitcher, one that included an All-Star season in 1994.

Kenny Hill continued Carroll’s tradition of Division I quarterbacks by signing with Texas A&M in 2013 and before long, he was thrust into another potential pressure situation. As questions about Manziel’s eligibility loomed amid an NCAA investigation into a pay-for-autographs controversy, Sumlin had Hill, then a true freshman, battle for a chance to start in the event Manziel was suspended.

Manziel wound up serving only a two-quarter suspension, but Hill’s camp performance earned him playing time later, as he appeared in four games as a freshman. That experience proved invaluable entering yet another training camp quarterback race this month with prized recruit Kyle Allen.

Hill’s ability to assimilate the Aggies’ Air Raid-style offense can also be attributed to his prep days; Southlake Carroll ran similar concepts. Texas A&M quarterbacks coach Jake Spavital immediately noticed Hill’s comfort level with the offense.

“You can tell he was raised in a spread, no-huddle system,” Spavital said. “That comes pretty much second nature to him.”

The journey wasn’t without hurdles. Hill missed the final week of spring football practice after an arrest on a public intoxication charge in March.

It was an eye-opener for the 19-year-old. Not only was he suspended from team activities, cell phone photos of Hill passed out in a planter box circulated on social media.

“He was embarrassed,” Hill Sr. said. “Not only did he let his family down, he let the university down, coaches down, teammates. It wasn't a good moment. It was an embarrassing moment. Hopefully he'll continue to learn from it."

Once reinstated for summer workouts, Hill bounced back.

"He's a completely different person now,” said Texas A&M receiver Sabian Holmes, who was also a high school teammate of Hill’s. “You can tell he wants it and he takes everything more serious, not just football but off-the-field decisions and he takes the film [study] more serious.”

If there’s one thing that has carried Hill to this point, it’s his toughness. Whether it's from a mental standpoint (dealing with the daily grind or off-field noise) or a physical standpoint (carrying the ball 382 times in his final two seasons at Southlake Carroll or adding muscle to prepare for the rigors of an SEC schedule), Hill has displayed the necessary fortitude.

“I always admired his toughness,” Hal Wasson said. “I admired the way he commanded a huddle. ... [I remember a game he] didn't play as well as he wanted to, he walked into my office and said ‘Coach, I wasn't at my best, I apologize and it'll never happen again,’ and it didn't. He always took ownership in everything he did.”

When reporting day for Aggies training camp approached this month, Hill was excited and confident. After a year of spot duty and watching Manziel work his magic, his opportunity called and he grabbed it.

Yes, succeeding Johnny Football is a tough task. But Hill was groomed for it.

“With Kenny, his composure, there's really no situation that's too big for him,” Texas A&M sophomore quarterback Conner McQueen said. “Pressure doesn't ever seem to faze Kenny.”

Big 12 mailbag: Uniforms, DGB

August, 15, 2014
Aug 15
In today’s mailbag, we discuss uniforms, Dorial Green-Beckham and Baylor's home schedule.

I took Twitter questions for this mailbag. But you can always submit a mailbag entry the traditional way by clicking here.

On to the 'bag:

@Jake_Trotter: If Heard is clearly the No. 3 quarterback, then they should try to redshirt him. But remember, he's playing behind a quarterback in David Ash with a severe injury history. And another in Tyrone Swoopes, who has yet to prove he can be a viable Big 12 quarterback. So while I think it would be beneficial to redshirt Heard for his future development, they need to keep him ready to play just in case.

@Jake_Trotter: I don't know who has the "worst" uniform, but there are some pieces in this league I don't like. I love Oklahoma State's alternates, but I'm not a fan of their shiny orange helmet with the interlocking "OSU" logo. Texas Tech's all black is one of the cleanest looks in the league, but their Lone Star Pride uniform is not my favorite. I'm not big on Oklahoma's alternates, but we'll see what they look like in person. The beak on Kansas' Crimson Chrome helmets is way too big, though I did enjoy the alternates the Jayhawks introduced last year.

@Jake_Trotter: I had Iowa State's receiving corps ranked sixth in the spring. With Kendall Sanders gone, Daje Johnson suspended and Jaxon Shipley nursing a hamstring injury, I could see myself slotting the Cyclones ahead of Texas. But if Dorial Green-Beckham were cleared, they would fall back behind Oklahoma. Either way, somewhere around sixth feels about right for Iowa State going into the season.

@Jake_Trotter: Not anytime soon, because there's no one feasible to add at the moment that makes sense for everyone financially, geographically, competitively.

@Jake_Trotter: There are really only three possibilities for a home loss. TCU on Oct. 11; Oklahoma State on Nov. 22; and Kansas State on Dec. 6. The Horned Frogs still have much to prove offensively before I'd pick them to win in Waco. Oklahoma State has traditionally played Baylor well, but the Cowboys are going to be very young this year. That leaves Kansas State as the most likely to pull the upset. That could be a dangerous game for the Bears. But if you're asking me today if Baylor loses at home this year, I say no.

@Jake_Trotter: Depends on who it is. And who that team beat during the nonconference relative to the other 11-1/12-1 teams that would theoretically be in the mix. This is where the Bears could fall into trouble. Baylor's best win would be SMU, which isn't going to stack up well. An 11-1 Big 12 champ would have a great chance. But it wouldn't be a lock, either.

@Jake_Trotter: Well, Shannon isn't technically off the team yet. He's still practicing while waiting to learn the outcome of his appeal. But anytime you lose your leading tackler, it hurts. Shannon has been a good player for the Sooners the past two years. That said, I think it's a defection the Oklahoma defense would be able to overcome. Jordan Evans was solid as a true freshman last year. He should be able to step in and fill Shannon's role. Evans would also be flanked by some very good players, which would help ease the transition.  

Ben R. in San Jose, California writes: How bad is ESPN going to look for ignoring KSU in the initial power rankings? They missed out of the Top 25 and Travis Haney's next four.

Trotter: I didn’t have a vote in the ESPN Top 25, but I would have advocated having the Wildcats ranked ahead of Texas and TCU. K-State is third in my Big 12 power rankings for a reason. So you and I are in agreement, even if others are not.

Kale in Dallas writes: Hey Jake, assuming DGB remains ineligible, there is a ton of talent but little experience at receiver for OU this year. I know Sterling Shepard and Durron Neal are locks to start, and Jordan Smallwood, K.J. Young and Michiah Quick are getting hype, but what about Austin Bennett? He looked really sharp in the spring game, and he could really make an impact.

Trotter: It’s going to come down to who makes plays in practice the next two weeks and the early portion of the schedule. Shepard is the only receiver right now guaranteed to be part of the rotation. Bennett is in that mix. But the competition for inclusion in that rotation will be fierce.

Bob Stoops rides on Sooner Schooner

August, 15, 2014
Aug 15
Oklahoma athletic director Joe Castiglione has plans to place food trucks on campus to feed the Sooners' student-athletes. But it's doubtful any of those trucks will be as cool the one the football team ate from Friday.

At the end of practice, coach Bob Stoops rode in on the Sooner Schooner wearing a cowboy hat and wielding a Ruf/Nek shotgun. He also brought with him some frozen treats for the players.

Sumlin cancels practice; Aggies rejoice

August, 15, 2014
Aug 15
The Texas A&M Aggies were dressed out, padded up and ready to begin their second practice of the day on Thursday and their 15th of preseason training camp until Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin delivered a special message with a change of plans.

"We're going to see a movie ... no practice."

The way the players celebrated, you would think they were just told they won the SEC championship.

The good folks at AggieFBLife.com captured Sumlin delivering the news and the player reaction:

The Aggies got some rest before a full scrimmage scheduled for Friday evening, their third scrimmage of camp and their second of the week after a "mini-scrimmage" on Wednesday.

Let's just say the team was a fan of the decision and of Sumlin himself. Here are some of the reactions from A&M players on Twitter: