Dallas Colleges: Mike Hicks
2012 Big 12 record: 4-5
Returning starters: Offense: 6; defense: 7; kicker/punter: 1
Top returners: OL Cyril Richardson, RB Lache Seastrunk, S Ahmad Dixon, WR Tevin Reese, LB Eddie Lackey, DE Chris McAllister, LB Bryce Hager, K Aaron Jones
Key losses: WR Terrance Williams, QB Nick Florence, WR Lanear Sampson, S Mike Hicks, C Ivory Wade, DT Gary Mason Jr.
2012 statistical leaders (*returners)
Passing: Nick Florence (4,309 yards)
Rushing: Lache Seastrunk* (1,012 yards)
Receiving: Terrance Williams (1,832 yards)
Tackles: Bryce Hager* (124)
Sacks: Chris McAllister* (6)
Interceptions: Eddie Lackey* (4)
1. Bryce is the guy. It was going to take a lot for Bryce Petty to lose his starting spot, but he looked like a guy who suited up for his fourth spring this year and cemented his status as the heir apparent to a crazy-good quarterback tradition under Art Briles. He'll follow Robert Griffin III and Florence, who both set school records for passing yards.
2. Defense changes its identity. The Bears didn't have a ton of speed in the secondary last season, and as a result, relied heavily on zone and didn't play a lot of tight coverage. To start fixing the problem, Dixon moved back to traditional safety, and as the defense's most physically skilled talent, that was a wise decision. Baylor wants to play more man and play tighter this year, and we'll see if it pays off in the fall.
3. Offense finds its playmakers. Williams is gone and so is Sampson, two of the team's top three receivers. Reese returns, but Antwan Goodley and Jay Lee emerged to win starting spots this spring, and both look like big-time targets for one of college football's best offenses. Count on those guys and Clay Fuller to keep the tradition going.
1. Can the defense prove itself? The Bears were definitely one of the best defenses in the Big 12 over the last month of the season. The same unit, however, was also a big reason why Baylor limped to an 0-5 start in conference 12 play before ripping off four wins to end the season. The defensive line should be improved and young talents like Javonte Magee and Shawn Oakman could make names for themselves this fall.
2. Is the offensive line deep enough? Baylor's history under Briles at this position makes me pretty confident, and the Bears have a solid starting five. But losing Troy Baker this spring is a big knock, and the Bears only had 10 healthy offensive linemen this spring. Come fall, more injuries could force the Bears to force inexperienced players into the rotation. This was probably the biggest concern for Briles all spring.
3. Just how good is Petty? He looks good for now, and was productive and impressive during the spring. That's also the spring. RG3 and Florence broke school records for passing yards in consecutive seasons, though, so the bar is sky-high. There's every reason to believe in Petty, but expectations are high and reaching them won't be easy. The good news is he has a huge talent in Seastrunk and a solid receiving corps around him to support his efforts.
Needs filled: Prerogative No. 1 for Baylor is fixing its defense, and the Bears are getting some help at linebacker in prep transfer Brian Nance, Raaquan Davis (No. 28 outside linebacker) and Travon Blanchard (No. 37 OLB). Future defensive tackle Andrew Billings was a home-grown talent who should compliment Javonte Magee well up front in the years to come. The Bears also need to keep the offensive machine humming. They seem to have done that with their two top signees, Robbie Rhodes, the nation's No. 3 receiver, and Chris Johnson, the nation's No. 5 dual-threat passer who coach Art Briles raved about in his signing day presser.
Holes remaining: Debate their quality all you'd like, but the Bears lost players in the secondary like Chance Casey and Mike Hicks, and cornerback Joe Williams will be a senior. There's not a lot of strength at defensive back in this class, unless Taion Sells (No. 46 safety) and Alfred Pullom (No. 67 safety) can blossom in Waco.
Needs filled: Rodney Coe comes to Ames via junior college and will try and replace some losses along the defensive line, but the biggest need for the Cyclones has been offensive playmakers. Aaron Wimberly checks in via the juco ranks at running back, but can ISU develop Texas receivers Brandon Harris and Bryan Ajumobi into major weapons at the Big 12 level?
Holes remaining: The Cyclones lost a pair of starters at linebacker and signed just one linebacker in this class, Florida native Brian Mills. Besides that, Iowa State did a nice job of bringing in big bodies along the defensive line and filling some offensive line holes, too, headlined by in-state prospect Jake Campos, who Iowa State swiped from Mizzou.
Needs filled: I'll be honest here, KU could use a big talent upgrade at pretty much every position on the field, other than running back. It's all about the jucos for the Jayhawks. Marquel Combs could be a major player up front to help KU stop the run and collapse pockets, but KU got a pair of big-time playmakers at receiver, too, in Ishmael Hyman and Rodriguez Coleman. Chris Martin offers another solid option as a pass-rusher. The Jayhawks also added a pair of quarterbacks in Montell Cozart and Jordan Darling.
Holes remaining: Did KU get enough high-quality linemen to replace its three lost starters? Ahongalu Fusimalohi is a juco transfer and Joey Bloomfield is the nation's No. 118 offensive tackle, but replacing solid starters like Tanner Hawkinson and Trevor Marrongelli is no easy task.
Needs filled: K-State basically lost its entire defense from last year, so any defenders will be greatly appreciated. Four of the classes' top five signees are defenders, highlighted by inside linebacker Nick Ramirez and juco corner Nate Jackson. Inside linebacker Tanner Wood and juco defensive end Devon Nash will also help fill the Wildcats' big losses defensively.
Holes remaining: The Wildcats are solid at running back this year, but it could be looking a bit thin in the future. John Hubert will be a senior this year and Bryce Brown didn't pan out, so K-State might have used a running back in this class. It didn't happen. K-State was shut out at the position.
Needs filled: Defensive line was the biggest one, and the Sooners grabbed two pass-rushers in the ESPN 300, D.J. Ward and Matt Dimon. Those two should pay off big, and Ward has enrolled early. Hatari Byrd also gives the Sooners an answer in the secondary while the nation's No. 3 running back, Keith Ford, helps provide solid depth at running back.
Holes remaining: Oklahoma lost Tom Wort to the NFL draft and Corey Nelson will be a senior next year, but Oklahoma didn't stock this class with a single linebacker. The Sooners don't put many traditional linebackers on the field and has converted a lot of safeties into outside linebackers, but still.
The Big 12 had nine players with 100 tackles this season. There were 89 players in FBS with at least 100 tackles. Let's have a look at projections vs. reality.
1. Jake Knott, LB, Iowa State: Knott was on track to hit 100, but a shoulder injury ended his career four games early. He was stuck on 79 tackles to end the season after nine games, capped by a home win over Baylor.
2. A.J. Klein, LB, Iowa State: Klein was third in the Big 12 with 117 tackles, closing strong with 33 tackles in his final two games. After Knott's injury, Klein had six or fewer tackles in three consecutive games, but the strong finish helped him easily clear the 100-tackle threshold.
3. Arthur Brown, LB, Kansas State: Brown made nine tackles in K-State's loss to Oregon to hit the 100-tackle mark on the number and finish ninth in the Big 12 in tackles.
4. Jordan Hicks, LB, Texas: Hicks got off to a great start, making 20 tackles in Texas' first two games, but a hip injury ended his season early against Mississippi in the third game of the season. He earned a medical redshirt and will still be a sophomore next season.
5. Mike Hicks, S, Baylor: Baylor's linebackers shouldered the load for tackles this year and were much stronger up front. Hicks needed just 67 tackles this season.
6. Alex Elkins, LB, Oklahoma State: Elkins was Oklahoma State's leading tackler, but finished the season with just 75 tackles. In four of his last five games, he had five or fewer tackles.
Here are the guys we overlooked:
Bryce Hager, LB, Baylor: Hager came out of nowhere to lead the Big 12 with 124 tackles. He made just 13 tackles in 2011.
Tony Jefferson, S, Oklahoma: Oklahoma's scheme change under Mike Stoops funneled a whole lot more tackles Jefferson's way, and he was there to make the plays. He had just 74 tackles in 2011, but racked up 119 this season to finish second in the Big 12.
Ben Heeney, LB, Kansas: Heeney made a rousing eight tackles in 2011, but emerged as a playmaker this season to finish fourth in the Big 12 with 112 tackles.
Eddie Lackey, LB, Baylor: The juco transfer became Baylor's biggest big-play threat on defense late in the season with a pair of pick-sixes, but he also made 104 tackles.
Karl Joseph, S, West Virginia: The true freshman became WVU's defense's biggest playmaker, racking up takeaways but making 102 tackles.
Ahmad Dixon, S, Baylor: Baylor had two safeties make 100 tackles last year, but Dixon was the only one this year. It's hard to believe Baylor had three 100-tackle defenders this year, though. Dixon had 102.
Cody Davis, S, Texas Tech: Davis is the least surprising player who I didn't project for 100 tackles. He's been a huge part of Tech's defense, and nearly topped 100 stops in 2011. This year, he made 101 as a senior four-year starter.
For defenders, 100 tackles is the dividing line of a productive season, even though plenty of other big talents don't hit the triple digits.
As for the ones who will in 2012?
College football had 86 players top 100 tackles in 2011. Only eight from the Big 12 reached that benchmark. Here's who will do it next year:
1. Jake Knott, LB, Iowa State: Knott's the most physical defender on Iowa State's defense, and he's already got two 100-tackle seasons under his belt. He'll add a third this year alongside his teammate, A.J. Klein, who's brought the Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year hardware to Ames in 2011.
2. A.J. Klein, LB, Iowa State: Klein will do the same thing Knott will in 2012: earn his third consecutive 100-tackle season. Iowa State's defensive line leaves a bit to be desired, but the Cyclones backer duo brings a punch, even if they're not behind the line of scrimmage too often. Klein's the better athlete between the two, but these two will go head to head again for the Big 12 tackles title.
3. Arthur Brown, LB, Kansas State: Brown's speed and sure tackling will pay off again in his second year as the cornerstone of the K-State defense. The Wildcats need him to shut down open spaces, and nobody in the Big 12 closes them faster than Brown.
4. Jordan Hicks, LB, Texas: The Longhorns are losing 215 tackles at linebacker without Keenan Robinson and Emmanuel Acho. The time is now for Hicks. Texas' defense will be salty, but Hicks, a former five-star recruit from Ohio, may be a household name very, very soon.
5. Mike Hicks, S, Baylor: Baylor won't have two safeties with 100 tackles this year, but they'll still have one, and Hicks will be that guy for the Bears. The defense will be better in Year 2 under Phil Bennett, but not all that much better. Big plays will happen against Baylor, but Hicks can keep them from being backbreaking plays.
6. Alex Elkins, LB, Oklahoma State: Elkins' story is incredible, and he'll finish it with 100 stops as a senior. Not bad for a guy who responded to an open tryout at junior college. Now, he'll be a lynchpin of a much-improved defense in Stillwater.
Do you see anybody else hitting triple digits?
Here's what we've covered so far:
The group of safeties across the Big 12 isn't fantastic, without any truly elite groups, but it's decent. There aren't any teams that look really hopeless at the position in the immediate future.
I haven't given it real close examination so far on the positions we haven't covered yet, but this is by far the closest gap between 1-10 of any position so far.
Here's how I ranked them. (Remember, I lumped in nickel backs with linebackers, so Ahmad Dixon and Tony Jefferson won't be found anywhere in this post.)
2. Texas -- Blake Gideon takes his share of criticism, a good deal of it fair, but there's a reason he's starting for Texas for a fourth season this fall. He knows what he's doing. Kenny Vaccaro will challenge OSU's Martin, among others, for the title of the Big 12's biggest hitter and Nolan Brewster and Christian Scott are strong reserves at the position. The Longhorns lose a lot at corner, but all the safeties are back from a defense that allowed just over 170 yards a game through the air in conference play last season.
3. Texas A&M -- The Aggies' Steven Terrell and Trent Hunter are solid, and Hunter is a big playmaker who made 62 stops and picked off two passes last year. Toney Hurd Jr. is the backup and was one of the most impressive freshmen in fall camp last year, joined by Steven Campbell in the rotation.
4. Kansas State -- Tysyn Hartman has loads of experience and is one of the Wildcats that Bill Snyder loves to rave about. Ty Zimmerman was one of the Big 12's best freshman last year, and picked off three passes. They should be solid again next year, and for as much criticism as K-State's defense faced last year, they were fifth in the Big 12 in pass defense. Logan Dold should be in the rotation, too.
5. Oklahoma -- Reserve Sam Proctor has starting experience, but Javon Harris and Aaron Colvin enter fall camp as starters. That says plenty about how Bob Stoops and Brent Venables feel about them. In a word: confident. Colvin has the most potential in the group, but the two starters will have to learn on the go. Proctor, a senior, should be able to help. James Haynes will also be in the rotation.
6. Missouri -- Jasper Simmons is gone, but Missouri's safeties might be a bit underrated in this spot. Kenji Jackson has loads of experience and should be solid, and Tavon Bolden and Matt White are a pair of promising sophomores who should compete at free safety. Kenronte Walker should be in the rotation, too.
7. Texas Tech -- Injuries were a problem last year for the Tech secondary, but Cody Davis and D.J. Johnson will hold down the traditional safety spots away from the line of scrimmage in new coordinator Chad Glasgow's 4-2-5. The unit gave up lots of big plays in 2010 (151 over 10 yards, 46 over 20, and 25 over 30, all the most in the Big 12), but I'd expect that number to drop under Glasgow if the secondary stays healthy. Davis is the team's leading returning tackler, with 87 stops. Brett Dewhurst and Giorgio Durham should be in the rotation.
8. Kansas -- Keeston Terry and Bradley McDougald give Kansas a lot of speed and athletic ability at the position, but both of the team's safeties from 2010 graduated and Terry and McDougald are short on experience. Lubbock Smith should add some solid depth to the position.
9. Iowa State -- Iowa State loses their top playmaker at the position, David Sims, but returns starter Ter'Ran Benton. He'll be helped out by some combination of Jacques Washington, Earl Brooks and Deon Broomfield once the season starts. Iowa State's biggest weakness is on the defensive line, so it's hard to get a good read on how good the safeties really are with such a poor pass rush up front.
10. Baylor -- This group might move up the list during the year under Phil Bennett, but the two best raw athletes (Ahmad Dixon, Prince Kent) at the position moved to nickel back and linebacker, respectively. The team's leading tackler, Byron Landor, graduated, and that left Mike Hicks as the other starter. He'll be helped out at safety by Sam Holl, Josh Wilson and K.J. Morton. Last year, the Bears ranked last in the Big 12 in pass defense in conference play, giving up over 300 yards a game. That'll have to change or Baylor won't get past seven wins.
Strongest position: Wide receiver
Key returnees: Kendall Wright, Josh Gordon, Terrance Williams, Tevin Reese, Lanear Sampson
Key losses: None, although tight end Brad Taylor graduated after catching 20 passes for 269 yards last year.
Analysis: Quarterback Robert Griffin III keys Baylor's offense, but he's got plenty of targets to throw to, and last year he distributed the ball well. All five of his top receivers had at least 40 receptions and 390 yards, and Wright led the group with 79 receptions for 952 yards and seven scores. Wright is already one of the Big 12's best receivers. Gordon could become one this year after emerging as a big red-zone target at 6-foot-4 and 220 pounds. Former blue-chip recruit Darius Jones also looked impressive during my visit to Waco for spring practice last week. Because Griffin has so many targets and isn't forced to rely on just one, none of the five may ascend to the Big 12's absolute elite, but Gordon and Wright both have that potential. At worst, all five will be solid and keep Baylor's passing game a huge boost to the Bears hopes at being a Big 12 title contender.
Weakest position: Linebacker
Key returnees: Elliot Coffey, Chris McAllister
Key losses: Antonio Johnson, Chris Francis, Earl Patin
Analysis: Baylor already ranked ninth in the Big 12 in rush defense last season, and loses Francis and Johnson, two of four Bears to make at least 70 tackles last season. Johnson was also one of the defense's leaders. The Bears' D has had problems stopping the run early in spring practice, and needs someone to help solidify the defense's second line. McAllister has plenty of potential after a strong freshman season in 2010, but he'll need to turn that potential into production to help the linebackers eliminate their status as a weakness before the season. Baylor loses both safeties -- the team's two leading tacklers from last season. Though the depth chart is still very much in flux, there's plenty of talent on the back line, as Ahmad Dixon and Mike Hicks that could be ready to replace Tim Atchison and Byron Landor.
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