Dallas Colleges: Quinn Mecham
Here's what each team across the Big 12 needs. You'll find Texas A&M and Mizzou on the SEC blog and West Virginia on the Big East Blog.
Quarterback: This one's pretty simple. Robert Griffin III is taking his talents to the NFL early. Nick Florence is waiting to take over, and the Bears have Bryce Petty behind him, but more reinforcements at quarterback are needed. Dual-threat quarterbacks, ideally.
Defensive tackle: Baylor already was one of the nation's worst teams (102nd nationally) at stopping the run. Now it'll need to replace both its interior linemen, Nicolas Jean-Baptiste and Tracy Robertson.
Offensive linemen: Baylor's offensive line, meanwhile, has been solid. It loses junior college transfer and two-year starter Robert T. Griffin, as well as All-Big 12 center Philip Blake. John Jones, a reserve guard, also has exhausted his eligibility.
Receiver: This has been a weak spot for the team for several years, and its top overall talent, Darius Reynolds, is gone. Darius Darks is, too. Aaron Horne and Josh Lenz will be the team's best weapons in 2012, but the pair of shifty slot guys will be seniors. This position needs reinforcements.
Defensive back: The DBs have been a quiet strength for ISU, especially in 2011. Cornerback Leonard Johnson and safety Ter'Ran Benton both have exhausted their eligibility, though, and defensive backs coach Bobby Elliott left for Notre Dame. You'll see plenty of new faces in the Cyclones' secondary next year.
Defensive line: Experienced starters Stephen Ruempolhamer and Jacob Lattimer are both gone, and Iowa State has struggled to stop the run consistently the past few seasons.
Quarterback: Kansas landed high-profile transfers Dayne Crist (Notre Dame) and Jake Heaps (BYU), but this is still a huge position of need. Last year's starter, Jordan Webb, left the team. Quinn Mecham is out of eligibility. Heaps is sitting out his NCAA-mandated year after transferring. Crist is the starter, but he badly needs a backup, especially if Brock Berglund's transfer appeal allows him to leave.
Wide receiver: Kansas lacks a big threat at this position. It needs a talent upgrade in a big way. Oklahoma transfer Justin McCay is joining the team, but he's no guarantee to a) be granted immediate eligibility or b) become an impact player.
Defensive tackle: Kansas is thin here, too. Richard Johnson, Patrick Dorsey and Michael Martinovich are gone, and Kansas couldn't stop much of anything on defense. Some push up front could help make everything look better. A late addition to the 2012 class from a junior college seems like a no-brainer. The Jayhawks need physically mature players to contribute immediately.
Offensive line: K-State's offensive line was much better in 2011 and could be again in 2012. It needs help replacing All-Big 12 lineman Clyde Aufner, though. Starter Colten Freeze is also gone.
Defensive line: Kansas State is bringing back about as many starters as anyone in the Big 12, but the biggest losses are along the defensive line. Kick-blocking specialist (five in 2011) Ralph Guidry is gone, along with tackle Ray Kibble. Juco transfer Jordan Voelker exploded onto the scene this year, but he's gone, too.
Defensive backs: Cornerback David Garrett leaves a huge hole behind. Tysyn Hartman may not be as talented as teammate Ty Zimmerman, but his experience leaves a big hole. Zimmerman will have to mentor a younger safety in the near future.
Receiver: The Sooners are thin here in a big way. That was obvious late in the season when Ryan Broyles' storied college career ended a few weeks early with a knee injury. The team also lost Justin McCay (transfer) to Kansas. Jaz Reynolds and Kenny Stills are the likely top two targets, but they need help.
Tight end: This position inspired a bit of panic at the end of the season. Seniors James Hanna and Trent Ratterree are gone. Austin Haywood wasn't allowed back on the team, and two more tight ends left the team for various reasons. That left the Sooners suddenly without a scholarship player at the position returning in 2012.
Offensive line: Starting tackle Donald Stephenson must be replaced, as will guard Stephen Good, who moved in and out of the starting lineup throughout his career. The Sooners bring back a lot of talent and aren't dying for depth there, but those two will leave holes. Three more offensive line starters will be seniors in 2012.
Offensive line: The Cowboys need a whole lot of help here to fill in behind young players stepping into the starting lineup. Starters Levy Adcock, Nick Martinez and Grant Garner are gone. Backup center Casey LaBrue is gone, too. Those are two All-Big 12 linemen who leave big shoes to be filled.
Receiver: Justin Blackmon surprised no one by leaving a year early, and Josh Cooper leaves with perhaps the most underrated career of any receiver in school history. In OSU's offense, there's always room for depth here. Nine receivers had at least 19 catches in 2011. Blackmon and Cooper combined for 192, though.
Defensive ends: The pass rush was solid for Oklahoma State this year, but both starters, Jamie Blatnick and Richetti Jones, are gone. Replacing both is a necessity.
Receiver: Texas lacks a true game-changer at the position, though Jaxon Shipley and Mike Davis may develop into that role in 2012. Former blue-chip recruit Darius White left for Missouri, too.
Quarterback: David Ash and Case McCoy didn't show a ton of potential at quarterback this year, though Ash may grow with an offseason to prepare as starter. Garrett Gilbert got a big chunk of the work in the spring, summer 7-on-7 and fall preseason camp. Even if Ash does grow, the Longhorns need reinforcements at the position.
Linebacker: Two senior impact players are gone. Texas is left trying to replace Emmanuel Acho and Keenan Robinson, though Jordan Hicks may mature into a star in 2012.
Offensive line: TCU's offensive line is headed for some major turnover. OT Robert Deck, OG Kyle Dooley and OG Spencer Thompson are gone. Two more starters, OG Blaize Foltz and C James Fry, will be seniors in 2012.
Defensive linemen: TCU isn't losing a lot at this spot, but Ross Forrest and D.J. Yendrey will be seniors in 2012. The Horned Frogs would be well-served to prepare, and offer some depth next year.
Specialists: TCU will have to break in a pair of new starters on special teams next season. Kicker Ross Evans and punter Anson Kelton have exhausted their eligibility.
Receiver: The Red Raiders' offense requires a lot of depth here. Tramain Swindall is the only loss at the position, but three more (Alex Torres, Cornelius Douglas, Darrin Moore) will be seniors. Douglas moved to cornerback this year after the team was racked with injury, but we'll see whether he moves back this offseason.
Offensive line: Tech has a huge need here. Four players won't be returning in 2012. Lonnie Edwards, Mickey Okafor and center Justin Keown must be replaced.
Defensive linemen: Tech's Donald Langley and Scott Smith are both out of eligibility, and juco transfer Leon Mackey will be a senior.
Garrett Gilbert began the season as starter after winning the offseason quarterback battle. He was benched midway through the season's second game and eventually transferred to SMU after undergoing shoulder surgery.
Since then, Ash and McCoy have split the starter role. Ash, a true freshman, has had significantly more playing time until a string of five games midseason where he had no touchdowns and six interceptions.
McCoy threw the ball 16 times (the same number as Ash) against Kansas State, tied for his highest total this season before throwing it 27 times against Texas A&M. Ash didn't have a pass attempt, but entered the game on a handful of plays.
McCoy has yet to throw an interception this season.
Looking around the league, the trend at Texas is troubling. The Longhorns are the only team doing the quarterback shuffle.
Here's how the rest of the league has handled their quarterback situation.
- Baylor: Robert Griffin III started all 11 games, replaced in the second half on Saturday by Nick Florence after suffering concussion-like symptoms. Will return this week versus Texas.
- Iowa State: Started Steele Jantz for the season's first seven games, benched early for Jared Barnett in a loss to Texas A&M. Barnett started the next four games, winning three, including an upset of No. 2 Oklahoma State.
- Kansas: Jordan Webb started all 12 games. Quinn Mecham threw 18 passes.
- Kansas State: Collin Klein started 11 games and will start this week, rushing for 1,013 yards and 25 touchdowns, and throwing for 1,587 yards, 11 touchdowns and 5 interceptions.
- James Franklin started all 12 games, throwing for 2,740 yards, 20 touchdowns and 10 interceptions and rushing for 839 yards and 13 scores. Missouri:
- Oklahoma: Landry Jones started all 12 games, but the Sooners rotate in freshman Blake Bell in short yardage situations in the "BellDozer" formation. Bell has nine rushing touchdowns in four games.
- Oklahoma State: Brandon Weeden started all 12 games, ceding to Clint Chelf often in blowout wins.
- Texas A&M: Ryan Tannehill started all 12 games.
- Texas Tech: Seth Doege started all 12 games, though backup Jacob Karam threw a 43-yard touchdown pass on a trick play this week.
Not a good sign when the Big 12's best recruiting school can't settle on a player at the game's most important position, especially when every other team in the league hasn't had any troubles in that area.
Best in class: Brandon Weeden, Oklahoma State
Weeden is everything you want in a quarterback. He's a good decision-maker with a huge arm that's about as accurate as they come in the college game. He led the Big 12 with 8.4 yards per attempt in 2010, his first year as a starter, and helped Oklahoma State win a school-record 11 games.
Sorest postgame arm: Landry Jones, Oklahoma
Jones is a close, close second in the Big 12 and wouldn't surprise anyone by surpassing Weeden, but Jones threw 617 passes in 2010, more than any quarterback in the nation. Part of that number is the high volume of short passes in Oklahoma's offense that it views as an extension of the running game, but Jones piled up big numbers with those throws, leading the Big 12 with 4,718 yards and 38 touchdowns to just 12 interceptions. Without workhorse DeMarco Murray in the fold this season, don't look for those pass attempts to dip much, if at all.
Griffin has a well-deserved rep as a dual-threat quarterback, but he also completed 67 percent of his 454 passes in 2010, good for eighth in the nation and second in the Big 12 behind Taylor Potts by one-tenth of a percentage point. Griffin can still giddy-up after knee surgery in 2009, but he's a much more mature passer than he gets credit for, and he's got one of the league's best receiving corps to help him out.
Most pressure: Garrett Gilbert, Texas
I'm going all-in with Gilbert as the Longhorns' opening-day starter against Rice, but Gilbert better perform and do it early, because if not, the hook that never arrived in 2010 will do exactly that, giving Case McCoy, Connor Wood or David Ash a chance. Gilbert's 10 touchdowns to 17 interceptions in 2010 were eye-popping, but he'll try to improve on that in a new offense under Bryan Harsin from Boise State.
Most indecision: Iowa State
The Cyclones have an open gig after three-year starter Austen Arnaud left, but the job sounds like it's still wide open between junior Jerome Tiller, who played some during a few of Arnaud's injuries the past two seasons, and juco transfer Steele Jantz. Coach Paul Rhoads says Jared Barnett is still a factor in the race, but Iowa State plans to officially name its starter on Aug. 20, exactly two weeks before its season opener.
Best story: Seth Doege, Texas Tech
Doege grew up in West Texas and dreamed of becoming the next great passer in red and black. As soon as Texas Tech began recruiting him, he committed, but missed his final two seasons of high school football with knee injuries. The Red Raiders stuck with him during two frustrating runs of rehab while others took a pass, and five years after his last season as full-time starter, the junior is finally getting his shot to do what he wanted to do since well before high school.
Smartest quarterback: Ryan Tannehill, Texas A&M
Tannehill has just six starts under his belt, but they were memorable last season, helping rescue the Aggies from a 3-3 start, including an 0-2 start in conference play. The Aggies ended up co-Big 12 South champions, earning a berth in the Cotton Bowl. But Tannehill did it all despite missing parts of spring practice for labs for his biology major, which he hopes to use to eventually attend medical school and become an orthopedic surgeon. Tannehill graduated in May with a 3.59 GPA, and ask any of his teammates who the smartest guy on the team is. There's no contest.
Best supporting cast: James Franklin, Missouri
Franklin will fill the void left behind by Blaine Gabbert, but he'll do it with the most help of any first-year starter in the league, and any first-year starter Gary Pinkel has ever prepared. The Tigers return one of the league's best defenses, four offensive linemen, and every single receiver from last season's team. He also returned four running backs, but one of the reserves, Marcus Murphy, will likely redshirt after needing shoulder surgery. Still, the Tigers are ready-made contenders if Franklin can get the job done.
Biggest passer: Collin Klein, Kansas State
Klein used his legs to earn a solid chunk of playing time in 2010, but the 6-foot-5, 233-pounder (see him in real life here) will have to be more than just hard to tackle for the Wildcats to get back to the postseason in 2011 after reaching the Pinstripe Bowl in 2010. That was their first bowl appearance since 2006, but Klein has a lot to prove after throwing just 18 passes last season, compared to his 76 carries for 432 yards and six scores. Making matters more difficult: Workhorse back Daniel Thomas, who had a Big 12-high 595 carries over the past two seasons and led the league in rushing both years, is in the NFL now.
Most work to do: Jordan Webb, Kansas
The Jayhawks were the Big 12's worst passing team in 2010, failing to reach 2,000 yards, and Texas was the league's only other team to throw more interceptions than touchdowns. Webb earned the most time, and seized control of the starting job ahead of Quinn Mecham over the summer, but he completed just 56 percent of his passes last season, better than only Colorado's Cody Hawkins.
The wild card: Steele Jantz. Jantz is a speedy transfer from junior college in California who also arrived at Iowa State with his top receiver from the City College of San Francisco, Aaron Horne. Jantz will have to keep learning the offense, but can he inject life into the offense with his legs like Taylor Martinez did for Nebraska? Iowa State's version of The Decision is set for Aug. 20. Who will be taking their talents under center at Jack Trice Stadium? Give me the underdog in this race.
The dark horse: Jared Barnett. James Capello, a fourth contender, transferred, but Paul Rhoads says Barnett still has a chance. Can he make enough noise in fall camp to make that a reality?
The heavy favorite: Jordan Webb. Webb started seven games as a redshirt freshman in 2010, and appeared to take control during the summer, but he struggled last season. He should learn from experience, too. Last year's opening-day starter, Kale Pick, is now a receiver. Webb will almost certainly get the call for the season opener, but if he doesn't improve, that could change fast.
The underdog: Quinn Mecham. Mecham started four of the final five games for the Jayhawks, but the senior and junior college transfer might not be the best long-term option for Kansas. Webb learning on the go could pay off in the future, while any lessons Mecham learns will be out the door after the season. Mecham as the backup might be a better role for the team's greater good.
The wild cards: Brock Berglund and Michael Cummings, a pair of true freshmen. Cummings enters with a bit less talent but much less baggage. Berglund was a blue-chip recruit from Colorado, but legal issues stemming from an April assault charge have him spending much more time back home than anticipated. Berglund also missed summer voluntary workouts because of the charge and went back to Colorado before spring practice began, despite enrolling at Kansas in January, a semester earlier than the rest of the freshman class. Expect a redshirt for one of the two, but the two quarterbacks in front of them haven't exactly set the bar high. If the favorites struggle, don't be surprised to see Cummings or Berglund get a chance.
The heavy favorite: Collin Klein. Coach Bill Snyder has already given Klein the status as Day 1 starter, but the Wildcats have played two quarterbacks before under Snyder, and Klein's backups could benefit from a similar strategy this season. The only rumors surrounding Klein are those of vast development during the summer, but he'll have to prove it during fall camp and early in the season to get a stranglehold on the job.
The hype man: Justin Tuggle. Tuggle replaced Cam Newton at Blinn Junior College and transferred to Kansas State before spring practice after originally playing for Boston College out of high school. Tuggle sounded like a strong contender entering spring practice, but didn't make it happen. We'll see if his status changes during fall camp.
The backup plan: Sammuel Lamur. Lamur was the No. 3 quarterback last season, and took over the No. 2 spot on the depth chart ahead of Tuggle during the spring. We haven't seen much of Lamur during his career, but this might be the year.
The favorite: Garrett Gilbert. Gilbert, despite his struggles in 2010, never got pulled and started all 12 games for the Longhorns. He looked unimpressive in the spring game, but indications from his teammates are that he's embodied the leadership aspect of the job, something coach Mack Brown covets. That might earn Gilbert the job, but if he doesn't look like a vastly different player this season, he'll lose it.
The wild card: Case McCoy. McCoy, the younger brother of that other McCoy kid you might have heard of, has taken on a bit of a fan-favorite role after his performance in the spring game, when he outplayed Gilbert. Despite his good numbers in the spring game, however, he looked uncomfortable and must make up for his lack of experience to oust Gilbert for the reins of the offense.
The mystery man: Connor Wood. Wood is a former high school All-American, but redshirted in 2010 and played sparingly in the spring game. Outside of a few snaps in spring, no one outside the locker room has had much of a chance to see Wood play, but if he starts making noise during fall camp, you'll hear it.
The young gun: David Ash. Coaches lauding true freshman quarterbacks in the spring is rare, but Ash arrived in Austin early and got a lot of compliments from the new Longhorns coaches. He's the long shot in this race, and Brown apologized to him for not getting him enough snaps in the spring game, but the coaches indicate he's still alive in the race.
This is a good group this year. There's a big dropoff after the first four, but plenty of others could join that group by season's end.
Also, I picked each team's representative according to who I picked to win the job in fall camp.
So, without further ado, let's get it on.
2. Landry Jones, Oklahoma -- That said, my bet is on Jones taking the No. 1 spot from Weeden by season's end. We'll see a much more confident Jones this season, further development in his naturally quiet personality. I expect that to manifest on the field and Jones has enough talent around him to mount a serious Heisman campaign, as well as come close to or exceed his 4,718 yards and 38 touchdowns last season. It won't be for a lack of confidence. Jones threw the ball more than any quarterback in the nation last season.
3. Robert Griffin III, Baylor -- Griffin made big strides as a passer in 2010, and I'd expect that to continue this season, especially with the likely emergence of Josh Gordon as a big target with more experience. People peg Griffin, a junior, as a dual-threat quarterback, and there's no denying his speed, but if you took that away from him, he'd still be No. 3 on this list after throwing for 3,501 yards and completing 67 percent of his passes, the highest percentage of any returning quarterback in the Big 12.
4. Ryan Tannehill, Texas A&M -- Tannehill will try to avoid the Texas A&M senior quarterback curse this season, but you have to love his chances with the way he played in the Aggies' final seven games of 2010, including a 5-1 record in his six starts. Tannehill, like Griffin, has the luxury of returning almost his entire receiving corps. Just nine receptions from last season's team won't return in 2011.
5. Seth Doege, Texas Tech -- The risk with Doege is significantly less than the risk that comes with James Franklin at Missouri. To me, it boils down to experience. Doege has been in the program for three seasons already, and he'll finally get his chance to start in his fourth fall on campus vs. Franklin in his second. He might not have the support at the skill positions that Franklin has, but he'll have five returning starters on the offensive line and an offense that's provided success for a lot of quarterbacks before him, even more than Missouri's.
6. James Franklin, Missouri -- Franklin, a sophomore, has a bit more upside than Doege, but I'd expect Franklin to learn a lot more during 2011 than Doege will. Franklin's thrown 14 passes at Missouri, but he might surpass that in the first half against Miami (OH) in the opener. Tyler Gabbert's departure after spring didn't help the Tigers' depth, but here's guessing it did wonders for Franklin's suspect self-confidence.
7. Collin Klein, Kansas State -- Klein was a big, versatile piece of Kansas State's offense last season, integral in a satisfying 39-14 stomping of Texas in Manhattan. He'll need to develop more as a passer to be the complete quarterback Kansas State needs, but for now, it looks like he'll hold off Justin Tuggle and Sammuel Lamur to win the job officially.
8. Garrett Gilbert, Texas -- Gilbert's potential is clear, but it feels like time and quality receivers are necessary for him to start making good on that potential. He might not have either this season. I expect him to be better, but his leash will be much, much shorter if he beats out Case McCoy and Connor Wood in fall camp. He made it through 2010 without being benched, but if he shows any of the same struggles in 2011, he won't get far before McCoy or Wood get a chance, or even freshman David Ash.
9. Steele Jantz, Iowa State -- Jantz's speed is something Iowa State hasn't had from a quarterback since Seneca Wallace, and that playmaking ability can put pressure on defenses and allow Iowa State's backs to make plays and receivers see less blanketing coverage. I'll pick him over the more experienced Jerome Tiller up in Ames, and he'll love playing with former juco teammate Aaron Horne at receiver.
10. Jordan Webb, Kansas -- Webb sounds like he's distancing himself from Quinn Mecham this summer, but he still has a long way to go before he proves he's a quarterback that can get Kansas into the postseason. The position is more important in the Big 12 than in perhaps any other league in college football, and until Kansas improves there, losing seasons will continue.
We'll start at the most obvious position: Quarterback, a position that I'd argue is more important in the Big 12 than in any other conference.
Depth will be a huge factor in these rankings, though at quarterback, it's the toughest to gauge, considering how little we see of backup quarterbacks.
Here's how each Big 12 team ranks at the quarterback position:
Oklahoma learned the hard way in 2009 about the importance of the backup quarterback, but even in his limited experience, Drew Allen has impressed Bob Stoops after narrowly losing out on the backup job behind Sam Bradford in 2009. Landry Jones is a great one, and with his opportunities, has become a Heisman Trophy favorite. Could Allen have done the same if he had beaten out Jones in 2009? Blake Bell, the nation's No. 3 quarterback in the 2010 class, will likely be Oklahoma's No. 3 in 2011.
2. Oklahoma State
Brandon Weeden's profile spiked when he led the Cowboys to a comeback win over Colorado on a Thursday night game in 2009. He took over as the starter shortly after, but going into that game Weeden was a third-stringer. Alex Cate transferred after it became evident that Weeden would be the starter in 2010, and behind Weeden is Clint Chelf and two solid recruits: Johnny Deaton and J.W. Walsh, who was the nation's No. 10 QB (just outside the ESPNU 150) in 2011 and enrolled early.
3. Texas A&M
Ryan Tannehill is entrenched at the starting spot, with a lot of youth behind him. Matt Joeckel and Jameill Showers will try to hold off incoming freshman Johnny Manziel for the No. 2 spot this fall. Manziel was impressive during the spring, and will contend for the starting job in 2012, but he'll likely redshirt unless he wins the backup job.
4. Texas Tech
Seth Doege looks ready to grab the reins for two seasons, barring injury. Jacob Karam is probably ready to start in the Big 12 right now, he's just not as good as Doege. Behind them are two promising prospects with upside and development to do: Scotty Young and Michael Brewer. The Red Raiders are the last of the Big 12 teams who have truly solid depth at quarterback.
Robert Griffin III will probably hold every school record for quarterbacks by the time he leaves Waco, but the Bears need to find a true replacement behind him. Nick Florence filled in well in 2009 when Griffin missed the final nine games with a knee injury, but he's a junior like Griffin and their eligibility will expire simultaneously. Redshirt freshman Bryce Petty and 2012 commit Jared Johnson could battle for the spot in 2013.
The Tigers depth took a hit after Tyler Gabbert's transfer following spring practice, but expectations are high for sophomore James Franklin, who got a bit of experience in 2010 behind Blaine Gabbert. Senior Jimmy Costello quit the team after last season to focus on an impending fall enlistment in the Army, but rejoined after the Gabbert brothers' departures from Columbia. He's likely to be the backup, with Ashton Glaser and walk-on Ryan Howerton filling out the rest of the quarterback spots. Corbin Berkstresser, a 6-foot-3, 218-pound quarterback from Kansas City that ESPN ranked No. 43 at his position, will arrive in the fall, too.
How long until we see a quarterback make the kind of plays Garrett Gilbert made against Alabama in the national championship? Those kinds of long scores were rare last year, but the Longhorns will have a competition this fall that sounds like it's pretty open heading into camp. If Gilbert wins, he'll likely have a much shorter leash in 2011 than he did in 2010, before Case McCoy or Connor Wood gets a crack, and dark horse true freshman David Ash could make things interesting, too.
8. Kansas State
Collin Klein made a nice move toward winning the job with a strong spring game performance. But coach Bill Snyder says he still didn't see a ton of separation between Klein and his backups, Sammuel Lamur and Boston College transfer Justin Tuggle, who spent last year replacing Cam Newton at Blinn College in Texas.
9. Iowa State
James Capello transferred after the spring, but Iowa State's race has likely boiled down to two men: Jerome Tiller and Steele Jantz. Jantz, a juco transfer, is the wild card and Tiller will need to show that his struggles in spot duty last season were temporary. He didn't show the progress you'd expect from a maturing player when he played for an injured Austen Arnaud in a few games early and late in 2010. Jared Barnett is still battling in Ames, but him winning the job would be a huge upset.
The Jayhawks could use a couple more years of Todd Reesing. The Jayhawks saw a huge drop off at the quarterback position in 2010, as Jordan Webb, Quinn Mecham and Kale Pick all got time under center. Kansas will likely run its offense through a strong group of running backs, but unless newcomer Brock Berglund shows potential and proves he's the best of the group, expect Kansas to remain near the bottom of the Big 12 by the end of 2011.
Spring practice starts: February 28
Spring game: April 2
What to watch:
- Big changes on defense. Baylor brought in Phil Bennett as its new defensive coordinator, and he says his scheme will be multiple, built to fit the Bears' personnel. Considering the Bears' recent recruiting successes in the secondary, look for a 4-2-5 type of look.
- Recruiting stars: time to shine. Both safeties, Tim Atchison and Byron Landor, are gone. Baylor, though, has two former ESPNU 150 recruits at safety who would be well served to start filling their potential. Prince Kent was a reserve last season and at one time, the nation's No. 51 overall recruit who originally signed with Miami. Ahmad Dixon, meanwhile, was the No. 15 overall prospect in the 2010 class. The opportunity is there. Baylor needs big talent at the position. Briles has recruited it. Can they develop into players who make Baylor a contender?
- Running back competition. Jay Finley topped 1,200 yards in 2010, but he's gone. Who steps into his void? Terrance Ganaway is a bowling ball at 5-foot-11, 235 pounds, but the shifty Jarred Salubi could get a good amount of carries, too. They could begin to share carries this spring.
Spring practice starts: March 22
Spring game: April 16
What to watch:
- Quarterback competition. It should be a good one in Ames this spring. Jerome Tiller is the name most recognize after getting lots of meaningful time and starts because of injuries to Austen Arnaud over the past two seasons. But juco transfer Steele Jantz sounds confident he can win the job. Rising sophomore James Capello and redshirt freshman Jared Barnett will compete, too.
- Paging Cyclone receivers. Iowa State had one of the most underwhelming receiving corps in the league during the past season, and three of its top five pass-catchers won't return in 2011. Of those three, however, one is a tight end (Collin Franklin) and another is a running back (Alexander Robinson). The new quarterback will need some help, and Darius Darks and Darius Reynolds will need to provide it as seniors.
- Shontrelle's time or not? Freshman Shontrelle Johnson looked like the running back with the most pop behind Robinson for most of 2010, but two other freshmen running backs jockeyed for carries, too. Paul Rhoads is hardly handing the job over to Johnson, but spring could be the time when he really separates himself from the pack.
Spring practice starts: April 1
Spring game: April 30
What to watch:
- What are they doing behind center? Kansas never got much consistent play out of the quarterback position last year, but freshman Brock Berglund is one of the 2011 class' top recruits, and enrolled early to compete in the spring with Jordan Webb and Quinn Mecham. With a building program like Kansas, there's perhaps some value in handing the program to a younger player like Webb or Berglund, but they'll have to earn it. Doing so will start in the spring, but don't expect the Jayhawks to have a set-in-stone starter by spring's end.
- Top linebacker back on the field. Huldon Tharp missed all of 2010 with a foot injury, but he says he's 100 percent and ready to get back on the field. As a freshman in 2009, he was fifth on the team in tackles, with 59, and looked like one of the league's possible budding stars. Now, he'll get his chance to join fellow linebacker Steven Johnson as one of the team's top tacklers, and he'll do it as a sophomore after redshirting in 2010.
- Toben rising? Turner Gill raised plenty of eyebrows when he moved his team's leading rusher in 2009, Toben Opurum, to linebacker in fall camp, and eventually slid him up to defensive end. But toward the end of 2010, Opurum started showing some major signs of growth at the position. We'll get a better idea this spring if he's one of the league's most unlikely new stars at defensive end.
Spring practice starts: April 6
Spring game: April 30
What to watch:
- Prodigal Kansan sons come home. There's no doubt that the Wichita native Brown brothers are the main attraction at Kansas State this spring, a season after transferring back home. Bryce Brown, the running back, was the nation's No. 8 prospect in the 2009 class. Arthur Brown, the linebacker, was the nation's No. 6 prospect in the 2008 class. Bryce transferred from Tennessee and Arthur from Miami. The Wildcats are pinning much of their hopes on the duo, and we'll get a good sense of what they can provide soon.
- Quarterback competition. Carson Coffman is gone, and two new faces will challenge for the job: juco transfer Justin Tuggle and Daniel Sams. Sammuel Lamur is also up for the gig. Collin Klein may or may not be; Bill Snyder hasn't explicitly confirmed a past comment from Sams saying Klein had moved to receiver. Don't expect a starter to be named by spring's end, but a general order could start to form.
- Can the defense show improvement? Kansas State had the Big 12's worst overall defense last year, and the worst rushing defense in college football, giving up 3,008 yards on the ground. Coordinator Chris Cosh looks like he'll still be around in 2011, and defensive backs David Garrett and Tysyn Hartman are solid pieces to try and build around. But this young maturing defense must get better to make a bowl game again with so many questions on offense. That starts in the spring.
Spring practice starts: March 8
Spring game: April 16
What to watch:
- Franklin comes alive! Blaine Gabbert bolted to the NFL early, and Missouri has a gaping hole a quarterback. The position, however, is surrounded by a lot of quality talent that likely makes the Tigers a Top 25 team. There's no understating the importance of the position for the Tigers, and that will begin to be decided in the spring. James Franklin, a rising sophomore, saw spot duty in 2010 as more of a runner, and may have the inside track on the job, but Tyler Gabbert, Blaine's younger brother, and Ashton Glaser should make it an interesting competition in the spring. If neither of them impress early, don't count out incoming freshman Corbin Berkstresser.
- Here is the new secondary. Same as the old secondary? After years of pass defense being one of the Tigers' biggest weaknesses, it became a strength in 2010 behind the leadership of senior corners Kevin Rutland and Carl Gettis. But the Tigers lose them and safety Jarrell Harrison. Rutland emerged as one of the team's most impressive players last spring, but was Missouri's success in the secondary a one-time thing or the beginning of a welcome trend?
- Time to dominate the trenches? Missouri played without likely first-round pick Aldon Smith for much of the previous season, but the defensive and offensive lines for the Tigers were as good as ever in 2010. How will they look in 2011? Impact juco transfer Sheldon Richardson won't be enrolled by the spring, but the four returning starters on the offensive line should get some solid work against Brad Madison, Jacquies Smith and Terrell Resonno.
Spring practice starts: March 21
Spring game: April 16
What to watch:
- Freshmen on display. Coach Bob Stoops hasn't been shy about saying his 2010 recruiting class was his best ever, but it could look even better after this spring. Two of his best emerging recruits, Justin McCay and Geneo Grissom, didn't even play in 2010, and could start to make an impact. The same goes for Corey Nelson, who will try to earn some more time somewhere backing up star Travis Lewis.
- Is there a golden boot in Norman? Jimmy Stevens was much more accurate in 2010, finishing 19-for-23, but his attempts outside 45 yards were sparse. The good news is he missed none of his 53 extra points. Field goals have been a bit of an adventure for the past couple years, but continuing in the spring what he started last year would be a good sign for Oklahoma. The Sooners are strong everywhere and need good special teams play to reach their lofty title goals.
- Are the Sooners' backs back? Roy Finch missed the Fiesta Bowl with a stress fracture, and his durability is certainly questionable entering 2011. When he's healthy, he looks like the next star in the Sooners' backfield, but they'll need some depth behind the 5-foot-8, 173-pounder. Jermie Calhoun, Jonathan Miller and Brennan Clay have all looked good at times, but there should be some good competition from newcomers Brandon Wegher, an Iowa transfer who'll be in camp this spring and eligible next season, and blue-chip recruit Brandon Williams, who enrolled early.
Spring practice starts: March 7
Spring game: April 16
What to watch:
- Every piece of the offense. The spring in Stillwater is all about keeping or improving upon the status quo. Had it kept Dana Holgorsen, there'd be little doubt that would happen, but Oklahoma State must make the most of its five returning offensive linemen, quarterback Brandon Weeden and receiver Justin Blackmon. The opportunity for a historic season is there, but they'll have to pick up the nuances of the new offense quickly in the spring like they did last year.
- What about the kicker? Dan Bailey won the Lou Groza Award as the nation's top kicker in 2010, but he's gone. Oklahoma State needs to fill that role quickly, and we'll likely know who will get the nod after the spring.
- Who steps up on the defensive line? The Cowboys lose three starters up front on defense, including All-Big 12 performer Ugo Chinasa and tackles Chris Donaldson and Shane Jarka. Can senior Richetti Jones become a star in the Big 12? We'll have a good idea if he, or any of the Cowboys' other defensive linemen, can by the end of April.
Spring practice starts: February 24
Spring game: April 3
What to watch:
- New coaches and their students/players. Texas has five new coaches. Although it's hard to get a good read early on, how they relate with the players on the field, in the film room and around the facilities will have a big impact on how the 2011 season plays out in Austin. The young-blooded coordinators could serve themselves well by relating to players and the players will need to spend plenty of extra time learning new schemes and plays.
- Quarterback competition ... or not? Mack Brown says the gig is open and it is, for now. Garrett Gilbert can close it with a strong spring. If Garrett struggles on the field or has difficulty grasping the new system, the door will be wide open for Connor Wood or Case McCoy to step in and close it. Gilbert didn't get much help, but he did very little in 2010 to inspire a lot of breathing room with McCoy and Wood clamoring for playing time.
- And you've got to defend the pass, too. Texas loses its top three cornerbacks to the NFL, and only Carrington Byndom and A.J. White got much meaningful playing time last season. Younger players can earn some rare early playing time with a strong spring. Will anyone step up?
Spring practice starts: March 22
Spring game: April 16
What to watch:
- New linebackers in the running. Spring isn't so scary when you bring back nine defensive starters, but the two Texas A&M lost were the heart of its defense. Linebackers Michael Hodges and Von Miller are gone. Kyle Mangan didn't look fantastic when forced into action during the Cotton Bowl, but the time is now for Damontre Moore and Dominique Patterson, a pair of sophomores, to make their impact.
- Tannehill's tuning things up. Quarterback Ryan Tannehill played about as well as anyone could have hoped late last season, but he'll need it to continue his performance with a solid spring nailing down the timing with his receivers, who all return. He's already got a leg up on last year's quarterback, Jerrod Johnson, who was held out of team drills last spring after shoulder surgery that eventually derailed his senior season.
- Christine's back. Christine Michael missed the second half of the season with a broken leg, giving way to Cyrus Gray's rise among Big 12 backs. It should make Texas A&M's depth at the position even more impressive, but we'll see how Michael looks coming back from the injury.
Spring practice starts: February 19
Spring game: March 26
What to watch:
- Past defending that pass defense. Texas Tech had the Big 12's worst pass defense last season, but has a pair of big potential players at cornerback in rising sophomores Tre Porter and Jarvis Phillips. Starters LaRon Moore and Franklin Mitchem are gone, but if returning starters Cody Davis and Will Ford can continue to mature, the defense should improve in the area most important for success in the Big 12.
- And they're off! There's a four-man quarterback derby set in Lubbock this spring between Seth Doege, Jacob Karam, Michael Brewer and Scotty Young. I don't expect it to be settled until midway through fall camp, similar to last season, but there should be a solid front-runner and more clarity after spring. Coach Tommy Tuberville was extremely impressed with Doege and Karam last spring after Taylor Potts and Steven Sheffield went down with injuries.
- Time to find new stars. Most of the big names on Texas Tech's defense are gone. Colby Whitlock, Bront Bird, Brian Duncan will all continue their careers elsewhere. The leaders on the defense will have to begin to emerge in the spring. Is it Scott Smith? Cody Davis? A younger, unexpected player? We'll find out. Sometimes these types of situations aren't as easy to predict as they might seem, like Missouri's strength in 2010 emerging in the secondary.
Nebraska's secondary won't see the same Landry Jones on Saturday, but Jones won't see the same Nebraska secondary, either.
"Last year when we played him, he was a young quarterback just learning the system and everything," defensive back DeJon Gomes said. "One of the biggest things we took away from that game is he’s a competitor and he’s going to do the best he can to get his team into a situation to win."
And one more thing.
No kidding. Jones has racked up 527 pass attempts in 2010, in part because of Oklahoma's hurry-up offense and in part to find more success as a sophomore passer.
No quarterback in the Big 12 has more than 500, and Dominique Davis at Eastern Carolina is the only quarterback in America with more attempts than Oklahoma's Jones.
The Blackshirts picked off Jones five times in Lincoln in 2009 -- including three by departed safety Matt O'Hanlon -- though Huskers coach Bo Pelini tossed a wet blanket on talk of that game having any relevance over a year later.
"It's a different time, different place, different offense, new challenges," Pelini said. "The furthest thing from my mind is what happened in that game last year."
What does matter is what's happened this year. Nebraska has put together the No. 2 pass defense in the country, allowing just 144 yards a game. Jones averages almost 330 a game, good for No. 3 nationally.
"It’s going to be an exciting game, especially with them having one of the top offenses in the country and us priding ourself on defense," Gomes said. "It’ll be a fun one to watch."
If history repeats itself, it'll be a lot more fun for Huskers fans than Oklahoma fans when it comes to passing the ball. On the way to that No. 2 ranking, the Nebraska secondary has ruined the days of a handful of good quarterbacks. A sampling:
- Nathan Enderle, Idaho: 16-31, 141 yards, TD, 5 INT
- Jake Locker, Washington: 4-20, 71 yards, TD, 2 INT (stress: not a typo)
- Carson Coffman, Kansas State: 14-22, 91 yards, TD, INT
- Garrett Gilbert, Texas: 4-16, 62 yards
- Blaine Gabbert, Missouri: 18-42, 199 yards, TD, INT
- Quinn Mecham, Kansas: 3-13, 15 yards, INT
- Cody Hawkins, Colorado: 10-26, 162 yards, 2 TD, 2 INT
Only Iowa State's Austen Arnaud, Oklahoma State's Brandon Weeden and Ryan Tannehill at Texas A&M managed decent days against the secondary. Part of Weeden's success was in finding receiver Justin Blackmon, one of the nation's best, for 135 of his 283 yards and both touchdowns. Only Tannehill got a victory with his success, however moderate (19-29, 172 yards).
Jones has another of the nation's best receivers, Ryan Broyles, to throw to, but even Broyles could only manage eight catches for 74 yards in 2009, one of his lowest outputs of the season while healthy.
"They have a trigger man who can get the ball to everybody," Pelini said of Jones. "They stretch the field on you. It's a good challenge for us."
It could be an even bigger challenge for Jones.
Mecham was sacked six times in Kansas' 20-3 loss to the Huskers, completing just 3 of 13 passes for a hearty 15 yards and an interception. The entire Jayhawks offense was held to just 87 yards of offense in the loss.
Two weeks ago, with the Big 12 North hanging in the balance, the Blackshirts held Gabbert to 18-of-42 passing for just 199 yards in a convincing 31-17 win.
"We're playing very, very well," said Eric Hagg, the lynchpin of the Huskers quarterback-perplexing Peso scheme. "But we can't get overconfident because we know we have to keep playing well."
They'll try to add Texas A&M quarterback Ryan Tannehill to their list of victims on Saturday, but the No. 19 Aggies are playing some of the best football on both sides of the ball of any team in the league since naming Tannehill the starter.
"The last couple weeks we haven’t had as many mental mistakes," Hagg said. "We’ve had some, but that and we haven’t had many missed tackles either. We’ve been swarming to the ball and that’s helping us out."
Texas A&M's downhill running game, with only one featured back in Cyrus Gray after leading rusher Christine Michael was lost for the season with a broken leg, is more effective than the one that helped hand Nebraska its only loss of the season, at home against Texas.
"You’ve got to have balance. You’ve got to be able to defend everything that they do," coach Bo Pelini said. "They’ve shown good balance, they’ve shown that they can hurt you in a number of different ways, so you’ve got to be able to prepare for everything that they can do."
Said Hagg: "They seem like they come out in one formation and then another one. They don’t line up in the same formations every time. They switch it around a lot."
Nebraska's offense has slowed as conference play has continued, in part because of a gimpy Taylor Martinez trying to regain his early-season form from an ankle injury suffered in the win against Oklahoma. Martinez didn't play in the overtime win over Iowa State, and didn't look like his usual self in the win over Kansas.
If that continues against an offense like Texas A&M's, it might take another virtuoso performance from Pelini's defense to come home from College Station with a win.
"We need to take the game plan that we put out there and play the way we’re coached to play," Pelini said. "If we do that, we’ll be in good shape. If we don’t we’re going to be in for a dog fight."
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