NCF Nation: Austin Box

Clint ChelfAP Photo/Tim SharpClint Chelf threw for 2,169 yards and 17 touchdowns for Oklahoma State last season.
Last season, Clint Chelf joined Brandon Weeden as the second Oklahoma State quarterback ever to earn all-conference recognition.

After losing his starting job to J.W. Walsh after the second series of the season opener, Chelf came roaring back to reclaim the starting position and fuel the Cowboys to a seven-game winning streak.

Despite watching nearly half the season from the sideline, Chelf finished eighth nationally in Adjusted QBR.

Chelf, who is currently working out in his hometown of Enid, Oklahoma, still hoping to get a shot in the NFL, spoke with this week about Mike Gundy, Oklahoma State’s 2014 prospects and the time Boone Pickens danced in the locker room.

What did it mean to you to become the second quarterback in school history to earn All-Big 12 recognition?

Chelf: It’s really cool. That’s something I was honored to hear. At the same time, it doesn’t make me angry, but it makes me wonder what might have happened if I had gotten more snaps and gotten to play more games. But that’s something you go down in history for, and I’m honored by it.

You guys were literally seconds away from winning the Big 12 championship, and you would have been the hero having led the offense to the late go-ahead touchdown. What was going through your mind when Jalen Saunders caught that touchdown pass for Oklahoma at the end?

Chelf: Disappointment, I guess. I really felt like when we went down and scored, I thought, with the way our defense was playing all year, that we had won it. Unfortunately, they made some big plays. It was just overwhelming emotions after they scored. That’s something I’ll always remember, that was a tough loss for us, and for me especially. It was as opposite end of the spectrum as you can get in two minutes. We were ecstatic and thought we had just won the Big 12 to absolutely disappointed. It was really tough.

On the other side, what was your favorite moment from last season?

Chelf: My favorite moment would probably be catching a pass against Baylor. That whole Baylor game obviously was a lot of fun. As a quarterback, that’s something you don’t get a chance to do. That was really a fun atmosphere.

What was it like playing under Coach Gundy?

Chelf: It was really kind of surprising how it worked. My first year there, he was still involved in our offense. He was more hands on with us, so he got to be around us a lot. But the next couple of years we hired Dana (Holgorsen) and Coach (Todd) Monken, and (Gundy) was never around us. The two offensive coordinators were with us in meetings, on the field, and (Gundy) was kind of more on the defensive side. At the end of the Coach Monken era, Coach Gundy came back in the Heart of Dallas Bowl and he was around us again. He’s an offensive-minded football coach. He’s a good guy. He broke things down for us where all the guys in the room could understand. He relates to the guys well. Everyone knows about his dancing. It’s fun. Guys see we have a coach that will act goofy with us and isn’t afraid to be around us and let his hair down. That’s just how he is. Around us, behind closed doors, he’s a good guy, he’s not afraid to have fun. I think that helps him relate to the guys.

So was he more around the offense again this past season?

Chelf: Yeah, he was more around. Just with the dynamics of it, Dana and Coach Monken were older guys that had been around. Monken was from the NFL. Dana had been an offensive coordinator for a long time. Coach (Mike) Yurcich, it was his first time being at a big-time school in a big-time conference. So I think Coach Gundy, it’s not like it was him coaching, it was Coach Yurcich, but Coach Gundy was around more than he was with the other two guys.

There has been some speculation that maybe Gundy and (former Oklahoma State offensive line coach) Joe Wickline were calling plays at times last season instead of Yurcich. Any truth to that?

Chelf: I think as far as calling plays during the game, Coach Yurcich was calling plays. When we went in for adjustments, everybody would put in their ideas about what would work. Having guys like Coach Gundy, Coach Wickline, those are guys Coach Yurcich could look to and listen to when they had ideas. Those are people you listen to. They influenced (the offense), but they didn’t try to take anything away from Coach Yurcich. I think it was a group effort. I think (Yurcich) called the plays, but they all gave suggestions.

Do you have any good Boone Pickens stories?

Chelf: After we won the Big 12 championship in 2011, he came in and did a little Gundy impersonation, and showed us his moves. They were pretty cool for a 70-year-old billionaire. That was probably the funniest one that I can remember.

Who is the better dancer, Gundy or Boone?

Chelf: I’d have to say Boone, for being the older guy. I think he had a little bit more rhythm.

Moving to this season, what is the key to Walsh playing more efficiently the way he did two years ago?

Chelf: What’s going to help him is having those athletes around him. I think they’re going to be really deep at receiver this year. With J.W., everyone knows he can run and make plays with his legs. What helps him is if you can get him going early with quick passes and let him make some plays running to get his confidence up. I think that really helps him the whole entire game. Getting him going early is a big key for him.

The players all talk about Walsh’s leadership. What is it that makes him a good leader?

Chelf: He’s really relatable to all those guys. He hangs out with all them. He’s also a hard worker. I think that’s probably his biggest asset. Those guys see him in the weight room. When they’re running, he’s always out in front. Guys respect guys like that and he gives the younger guys someone to look up to.

With so much turnover from last year, what are your thoughts on the Cowboys this season?

Chelf: It’s going to be tough. I think that’s something everyone should be prepared for. Anytime you lose 28 seniors and guys that pretty much all played, that’s going to be hard to replace. At the same time, I think they have a lot of talent at the skill positions, and with J-Dub, I think they’re going to be fine. And then on defense, they’re going to be young and have growing pains. But at the same time, Coach (Glenn) Spencer is one of the best defensive coaches I’ve ever been around. He has his guys prepared and ready to go. I think that’s going to be huge for the defense, having him on their side. But it’s also going to be a hard season, I think.

Some people probably don’t know this, but you grew up in Enid with former Oklahoma linebacker Austin Box, who passed away suddenly in 2011. How tough was that and what do you remember about Austin?

Chelf: It was really tough. I remember the day. I was sitting in the exact same spot I’m sitting in right now. I was one of the first ones to find out in my family. My brother was home, I went in there and told him and my mother. They were shell-shocked. That was one of my brother’s best friends. They played everything together since they could walk. I was kind of the tagalong with them. It was a tough time. The one thing I remember about Austin, whenever he walked in the room, it didn’t matter if there were a hundred people or 10, you could always hear him. He was always loud and charismatic and funny. I’ll always remember that. He was a great guy, and someone I looked up to since I could walk. He’s one of the reasons I wanted to play quarterback. Watching him do some of the things he did at Enid was inspiring. It was a tough loss. But we always remember how Austin was growing up. Kind-hearted and a great guy.

Big 12 weekend rewind

October, 10, 2011
It's that time again. What you need to know about the last weekend in football:

Best offensive player: Landry Jones, QB, Oklahoma. Jones threw for 367 yards and three touchdowns, but 305 of his yards and all three scores were in the first half of Oklahoma's 55-17 rout of Texas. It was the junior's best game of the year and he played mistake-free football against a defense doing everything it could to rattle him.

[+] EnlargeLandry Jones
AP Photo/Mike FuentesLandry Jones topped 300 yards and threw three touchdown passes in the first half alone as the Sooners rolled the Longhorns.
Best defensive player: Frank Alexander, DE, Oklahoma. Alexander made six tackles, had three sacks and forced and recovered a fumble in Oklahoma's 55-17 win over Texas. His forced fumble was scooped up and returned for a touchdown in the third quarter, too. Alexander was named one of the Walter Camp Players of the Week for his efforts.

Best team: Oklahoma. Pretty simple here. The Sooners dominated on both sides of the ball for one of the most complete performances we've seen from a team in any game all season.

Best gesture: Travis Lewis, LB, Oklahoma. Oklahoma's tribute to Austin Box--having a different defender wear his No. 12 jersey each week--is a great idea, and some weeks will hit harder than others. After Saturday's game, Lewis was in tears and being consoled by quarterback Landry Jones. Lewis said Saturday was the kind of game Box lived to play in and the two were close friends.

Worst gesture: Vandals in Lubbock, Texas. There's no guarantee that the people who vandalized Texas A&M's bus with Texas Tech logos, spray paint and "some sort of excrement" were Texas Tech fans, but it's the scenario that makes the most sense. Either way, it was unnecessary, regardless of how you feel about the Tech-A&M rivalry coming to an end when the Aggies leave for the SEC.

Best game: Kansas State 24, Missouri 17. It was pretty slim pickings this weekend, but the Tigers stormed back from a 24-3 deficit in the fourth quarter and Kansas State secured a win with a clutch drive late that was extended by an unbelievable one-handed catch by Andre McDonald to convert a third down and keep the ball away from a hot Missouri offense.

Ugliest hit: Damontre Moore on Eric Stephens. Stephens dropped a short pass and Moore came in for a hit low on Stephens' left knee, which torqued the joint and resulted in Stephens being carted off. Moore was also shaken up on the play, but returned. I don't think you can call the hit "dirty" or malicious but it was maybe a bit reckless, and definitely late. Either way, Moore called to apologize on Sunday and Stephens says it was part of the game and "all good."

Worst quarter: Kansas' first quarter. The Jayhawks were walking into a buzzsaw on Saturday in Stillwater, but it began with promise. After six minutes, the Jayhawks led, 7-0. Then Oklahoma State ripped off 35 points in 8:45 and the Cowboys led 56-7 at the half. The half!

Best fashion sense: Oklahoma State. The Cowboys dropped one of their strongest uniform combos of the season with a matte black helmet, a black jersey and orange pants.

Best jab: An Oklahoma staffer made note of the Sooners' own uniform combination: "Today's OU uniform: white pants, white jersey, crimson helmet, Golden Hat."

Sooners find inspiration in No. 12

September, 22, 2011
Frank Alexander watched in Week 1 as one teammate -- linebacker Tom Wort -- honored another. He saw the difference.

Wort was chosen to wear Austin Box's No. 12 jersey for Oklahoma's game against Tulsa, the first time the Sooners had taken the field since Box died on May 19 from an apparent prescription drug overdose.

[+] EnlargeOklahoma's Frank Alexander
AP Photo/Steve CannonFrank Alexander wore the No. 12 jersey for Oklahoma against Florida State. "It was such a great honor," he said.
"If you watched the game, you could just tell, the way he was playing, that he was playing lights out for Box," Alexander said. "His whole demeanor on the field."

Shortly after that win, senior linebacker Travis Lewis approached Alexander and told him the team captains wanted Alexander to wear the nameless No. 12 jersey for one of the Sooners' biggest games of the year, last Saturday's 23-13 win over Florida State.

Alexander was the defense's player of the week against Tulsa after he notched one of the team's three sacks, intercepted a pass that he returned 27 yards and finished with three tackles. The process of making the decision, which is announced each Friday, is left to the captains, but Alexander could only smile when Lewis told him the news.

"Both of us came in 2007 together and I’ve known him since we were both getting recruited," Alexander said. "It was such a great honor, I felt like I had to come out and play big, and try to get us a win to help my team get any kind of win it could get."

Alexander, a native of Baton Rouge, La., had exactly 12 family members making the more than six-hour trip along the banks of the Gulf of Mexico from Baton Rouge to Saturday's game in Tallahassee.

Tributes for Box are all over for the Sooners, planned and spontaneous. After Kenny Stills made a game-changing, 37-yard touchdown catch in the fourth quarter, a TV camera approached Stills on his way back to the sideline. Last year, Stills made headlines for a flamboyant spike that earned a very public scolding from coach Bob Stoops.

This time, on what may prove to be the biggest play of the Sooners' season?

Stills looked down so the camera couldn't see his face and subtly flashed a "1" with one hand and a "2" with the other.

Box is still everywhere for the Sooner. Against Florida State, his most public tribute was on the defensive line, which made three tackles, half of a sack, and wreaked constant havoc in the backfield, especially on the late drives after Stills made his catch.

"I came out the same way I usually come out, but some reason, this time," Alexander said, "it just felt like everything was going to be all right."

Sooners plan touching Austin Box tribute

September, 1, 2011
The No. 12 jersey for Oklahoma senior Austin Box will get plenty of attention this season.

After talking it over with Box's parents, quarterback Landry Jones will keep his No. 12 jersey as a tribute to his teammate, and a defensive player will wear Box's number to honor him each week. Box died on May 19 from an overdose of painkillers.

The team will announce who will wear the jersey each Friday of the season.

"I think it's a neat way to help (parents) Craig and Gail and their family. I think when you lose somebody tragically ... or a family member, I think one of the things we fear the most is people forgetting and just kind of sweeping it under the rug," said defensive coordinator Brent Venables, Box's former position coach. "It happens. That's just the way it is. It kind of stinks.

"But I think that particularly being on the stage that Austin was, I'm sure it's incredibly difficult for them, particularly when the season's now back upon us," he said.

The Sooners will also wear a custom decal with Box's name and jersey number on each player's helmet. The team has left his locker untouched and keeps his spot unoccupied in warmups before practice and in team meetings.

"I think this is a terrific opportunity for us to help them as they continue to try to grieve and remember Austin the right way," Venables said. "I know that we feel honored to have that opportunity."

Oklahoma's tribute has a precedent. Missouri linebacker Aaron O'Neal died in 2005, and during his senior season, different Missouri players wore his No. 25.

"Talking with the Boxes, they gave me the blessing of wearing it, and it's just an honor to be in Austin's company and know he's looking down on me," Jones said. "Whenever I'm feeling weak or tired, I kind of call on him and remember the way he played the game."
Not even days after last season ended, the whispers began.

"You know, OU brings back a pretty good team next year. Maybe even the best team."

Did the Sooners deserve a No. 1 ranking in the preseason?

Months later, 60 coaches and 60 members of the media said yes, anointing Oklahoma as college football's team to beat heading into 2011.

But with a spring and summer to decide, the Sooners sat through plenty of discussion.

[+] EnlargeBob Stoops
Aaron M. Sprecher/Getty ImagesAfter a challenging offseason, Bob Stoops and the Sooners are ready for the 2011 slate to begin.
"At the end of the day, we always have a lot of hype around us. We really do," said coach Bob Stoops. "There’s always a ton of talk. That’s all it is, is talk."

But that talk served only as a backdrop for an eventful offseason full of highs and lows, an emotional grinder that no other program in college football endured. That offseason will finally screech to a halt on Saturday night when the Sooners host in-state opponent Tulsa.

In May, with several members of the team on a mission trip to Haiti, news broke that Austin Box, a senior linebacker on the team, had died from a fatal mix of painkillers.

"The hard part is Austin, not having him with us," coach Bob Stoops said. "The rest of it is nothing."

For the team's first five days of camp, ESPN's cameras invaded Oklahoma's practice for an all-access special.

"The whole deal with ESPN was very easy," Stoops said. "You really don’t even notice they’re there after awhile."

The result was a few hours of entertaining programming and a look inside the program that Stoops said provided "great publicity for our program and recruiting."

Early in camp, the Sooners were forced to practice without their defensive leader, three-year starting linebacker Travis Lewis. The volume of his voice is surpassed only by the impact it has on his teammates, but that's all he can do for the first few games of the season while nursing a broken toe.

But finally, with a No. 1 ranking and a bona fide Heisman contender at quarterback in tow, the season is just days away.

"The excitement is there because we get to go against another opponent and kind of prove ourselves," said center Ben Habern. "It’s always exciting running out in front of 85,000 people when it’s actually a game experience, so I think pretty much, we’re at the top of our excitement right now."

And what's helped them get to this point, rising above the fawning media and offseason tragedy?

Each other.

"This is the closest team I’ve ever been a part of," Habern said. "Within the locker room, and outside football, we love to hang out. A lot of us go to dinner after practice. We enjoy each other’s company."

Around 50 members of the team bussed to Box's funeral in Enid, Okla., providing support for one another and Box's family. Teammates provided laughs with impressions of Stoops in the locker room, and others retreated back home for a friendly game of soccer on the PlayStation game console.

Receiver Ryan Broyles and safety Tony Jefferson traded friendly jabs on the field early in camp with a bit of trash talk.

Finally, that trash talk and pad pops aimed at teammates will be directed at Tulsa.

"I’m excited to just go through a long season with these guys," Habern said. "And see where it takes us."

Some thoughts on All-Access with OU

August, 24, 2011
The premiere of the hour-long special following Oklahoma's fall camp, "Hard Knocks" style, was last night on ESPN. I hope you checked it out.

It was pretty fantastic.

Miss it? Here's the re-air schedule.

Off to a few thoughts:
  • I really enjoyed all the segments regarding Austin Box, a senior linebacker who died back on May 19. There's no doubt how much he meant to this team. It was written all over each player's face during the scene in the team chapel during camp when they players were re-shown the video that was first shown at Box's funeral back in his hometown in Enid. I was at the church on that emotional day, and 50 of Box's teammates were, too.
  • In a lot of those segments, you got a sense of what this team means to Travis Lewis, and what Box meant to Lewis. One of Box's teammates that wasn't at his funeral was Lewis, who told me at Big 12 Media Days last month that he just couldn't do it. Lewis, of course, isn't going to delve into what exactly that means with the media, but with his teammates? You saw part of it in his speech when he took the podium in front of the team, and Lewis showed exactly why he's this team's leader. That kind of presence? You just can't replace it. Lewis will be around, but he won't be on the field for awhile for Oklahoma. The show gave fans a look at what that means. Being a good leader and isn't about being the loudest or the funniest. Lewis is often both. But being a true leader is about competing and setting an example, and communicating to your teammates. Lewis does both, and you saw just how easily it came to him when he injected meaning into the team's new tradition of breaking down huddles with a "12" chant. All Lewis did was speak from his heart, and the result was a short, profoundly powerful words. "When Travis speaks, people listen," linebacker Corey Nelson said. Now you know why.
  • On to less serious things: Kenny Stills' hair needs its own show. Outstanding. Just when you thought there was no trail left to blaze on the Mohawk front, Stills takes it a step further. Keep that mane flowing all season, sir.
  • True freshman offensive lineman Nila Kasitati stole the show early with his Haka dance. His hometown of Euless, Texas, a suburb of Dallas, has a high Pacific Islander population, and Kasitati brought some of that flavor to Norman. Pretty awesome. The Sooners say they're not perfecting it, but I'd love to see them bust it out before a big game this fall.
  • Small thing here, but take note: The cold tubs early in the show that Oklahoma has? Chalk that up to great facilities. I've seen other programs across the league that simply use big metal tubs filled with ice. The Sooners' setup looked quite a bit more high tech.
  • Great stuff from Stoops, throughout. He's got a personality, but us media types rarely get to see it. If the cameras are around long enough, I suppose it comes out eventually. Stoops introducing us to his dogs and talking about his kids' relationships with his players showed one facet of his personality, contrasted with the fiery personality he shows with his players on the practice field. We don't get to see either of those very often. A nice look inside. His tour around his office was good, too.
  • Lane Johnson: Take that Bob Stoops impression on the road. You'll make millions. Stoops peeking his head in to ask "What's going on over here?" was by far the funniest part of the show.
  • Outside of lots of contact scored by speed metal, it was tough to tell who was doing what in the Oklahoma drill, but Corey Nelson looked like he was eating up a few running backs.
On Tuesday, the Big East wrapped up the last set of media days in college football, so it's time to take a look back at what we learned from the Big 12's annual event, as well as what we still have to learn.

What we learned from Big 12 Media Days

The Big 12's coaches weren't excited to see high school games on the Longhorn Network. Almost a week before media days, Big 12 commissioner Dan Beebe put a hold on the Longhorn Network's plans to broadcast high school games, but the league's coaches voiced their displeasure at the possibility in various ways, none stronger than Missouri's Gary Pinkel. "It's a lack of common sense there to think that the network, the university network, can have high school games," he said. Oklahoma State's Mike Gundy said his "antenna went up when I started to hear that information." Baylor's Art Briles was the only coach who said it didn't bother him, but on Monday, the league announced it would declare a one-year moratorium on broadcasting high school games, allowing the issue to be further examined by the NCAA.

Mack Brown knows what he wants from his quarterbacks. Brown said summer workouts helped Colt McCoy separate himself from Jevan Snead the last time Texas had a quarterback battle, and he's hoping the same thing happened this summer. Brown wants leadership from his quarterbacks above all, but he wants them to take care of the ball second for a team that ranked 116th in turnover ratio in 2010. Garrett Gilbert has the experience and is the most vocal of the group, but he threw 17 interceptions to 10 touchdowns last season. Case McCoy, Connor Wood and David Ash were supposed to spend their spring and summer mostly learning Bryan Harsin's new, complex offense. Now, it's time to focus on competing. The separation could happen fast, and Texas opens fall camp on Friday.

Art Briles narrowly edges out Tommy Tuberville for the league's most entertaining coach. Tuberville poked at the Big 12 on his way off the stage, but Briles earned a few more fans with a solid collection of one-liners, including one about Ahmad Dixon that somehow got overlooked. "I take a lot of pride in being able to guess how much a male weighs," Briles said of the 206-pounder. "If you looked at him, you'd say that guy looks like he weighs about 183. He's put together pretty good." Briles also argued that talking trash was "in the ear of the beholder" and compared his quarterback to famed hurdler Edwin Moses.

Oklahoma will be fascinating to watch. The Sooners got by far the most attention on Day 2, sharing the second half of media days with the four teams picked to finish at the bottom of the Big 12. Oklahoma, though, isn't shying away from the hefty preseason expectations and players also spoke openly about the death of their teammate, Austin Box, this summer. The Sooners have a few subtle tributes planned, and won't have Box far from their minds throughout the season.

Kansas State's quarterback race is over. Bill Snyder brought Collin Klein to Big 12 Media Days, which seemed conspicuous enough, but he confirmed the obvious once he made it to Dallas. "He’ll take the first snap when we start in the fall," Snyder said. Klein was the most impressive during the spring, ahead of Boston College and Blinn College transfers Justin Tuggle and Sammuel Lamur, but Snyder maintained there wasn't a lot of separation between the three following the spring game. After the summer, it looks like that's changed.

What we have yet to learn after Big 12 Media Days

How will Texas rebound? We won't know this until the Longhorns suit up against Rice and BYU to open the season, but Texas is the Big 12's biggest wild card after a 5-7 season precipitated wholesale changes on the coaching staff. The depth chart is wide open for new coordinators Manny Diaz and Bryan Harsin, and fall camp should be one of the most competitive ever for the Longhorns.

Are Big 12 realignment rumors over for now? Texas A&M said the Longhorn Network produced uncertainty about the Aggies' future in the Big 12, but the one-year moratorium on broadcasting high school games may only delay conversations about the future of the Big 12, especially if the NCAA rules in favor of the practice.

Is this Oklahoma's year? Or the SEC's decade? Bob Stoops told a crowd at an recent caravan that it was "about time" for Oklahoma to win a national title, 11 years after its seventh national championship in 2000. The Sooners have enough talent to do it, but can they play consistently and catch the right breaks to rip off the 13 wins it will take to bring a national title back to the Big 12? Texas' championship with Vince Young in 2006 was the last time any non-SEC team won a national championship.

Who will start at Texas and Iowa State? The Big 12 has just two true quarterback battles left. The Longhorns have to pick between four, but the race in Ames is likely boiled down to Jerome Tiller, who has played in spot duty behind Austen Arnaud, and juco transfer Steele Jantz.

Big 12 notebook

July, 27, 2011

Iowa State: Iowa State had one of the nation's toughest schedules in 2010, and that won't change in 2011 with 11 of the Cyclones' 12 games coming against BCS teams. That included nonconference games against in-state rival Iowa and reigning Big East champ UConn. That schedule will lighten up in the future, though, a welcome sign for the ISU faithful.

"My wife likes our job, and I sort of do, too," Cyclones head coach Paul Rhoads said. "A change is in place in 2012 and beyond to get away from that challenging of a schedule."

Kansas: The 2010 season was a long one in Lawrence, but the early steps to a more promising future may begin in fall camp, thanks to increased competition. That stemmed from a calculated move by Turner Gill to redshirt 15-16 freshmen, which he thought would benefit the program in the long term, even while his program suffered through a trying 3-9 season. This year, he'll add 25-26 more freshmen to the program.

"This year we got competition. That's what we didn't have last year at positions," he said. "When you've got competition at just about every position, you're going to improve your play of your football team."

Kansas State: The Wildcats are 5-2 against Texas in Big 12 play, including wins in the past three meetings. In the new Big 12, the two teams will play every season, but coach Bill Snyder balked at the idea of looking forward to seeing the Longhorns every season.

"We've just been fortunate, fortunate that our players play extremely hard. Fortunate that … things just kind of fell into place in several of those ball games that we've played with the University of Texas," he said. "I assure you that we don't have anybody's number. … I just hope we can compete this year with them."

Oklahoma: It's been over two months since Oklahoma linebacker Austin Box's death, and though the initial shock and grief is over, he'll still be felt in the Sooners program for the 2011 season and beyond.

"I don't know how I [got through] it, to be honest with you. And I think the players, more than anything, really, I think, leaned on each other, us as coaches leaned on them," Stoops said. "There's no words that truly can describe how you hurt and how the players hurt. Austin was a great, great spirit in the locker room. … He was a friend to everybody, and he's one of those special characters, a young person that everybody loved to see."
Texas Tech

Texas Tech: Texas Tech coach Tommy Tuberville received a reprimand from the Big 12 last summer for saying "We have a 10-team league right now, but I just don't know how long that's gonna last, to be honest with you."

That was a radio interview, but this time around at Big 12 media days, Tuberville stuck to the Big 12 script.

"I said a few things last year. And, of course, I believe that," he said. "I don't know what the future is, but I don't think there's any doubt we can sustain with 10 teams and we can make the best out of it and even become a stronger conference maybe than what it was."

Tuberville, though, left with one last quip.

"That's a political answer, right? I worked on that," he said.
1. Now that toxicology reports have established that Aaron Douglas of Alabama and Austin Box of Oklahoma died of accidental overdose of painkillers, let us hope that their deaths are not in vain. Here’s hoping that every team doctor at every level of college football uses Douglas and Box to remind student-athletes that painkillers must be taken carefully. Here’s hoping that doctors plead with players in any form of chronic pain to ask for help, regardless of a culture where asking for help is a weakness.

2. This is a compliment, if you think about it. The active coach who has the most wins despite a losing record is Bob Toledo (76-97 in 15 seasons at Pacific, UCLA and, now, Tulane). Not far behind is first-year San Diego State coach Rocky Long (65-69 in 11 seasons at New Mexico). Greg Schiano of Rutgers qualified for this list when the Scarlet Knights went 4-8 last season. That made Schiano 59-63 in 10 seasons. There is a would-be runaway winner: lurking near qualification is Mike Price at UTEP (169-167).

3. BYU quarterback Jake Heaps, my guest on the ESPNU College Football Podcast this week, is uncommonly mature for a sophomore who just turned 20. He’s already married. He’s already established himself as a starter. He’s already started four losses, two more than he lost on a three-time state champion at Skyline High near Seattle. The most mature thing about Heaps is that he leads an offense with guys in their mid-20s who left BYU for two years on an LDS mission, and they follow him. That’s maturity.
We've taken a look at the Big 12 offensive skill positions in our position rankings, and we'll circle back along to the lines eventually. For now, though, we'll flip to the defensive side of the ball, starting with linebackers.

There's a lot of turnover in this space, and the bottom half was pretty hard to sort out. We haven't seen a lot of these new faces on the field for extended periods of time, so it's somewhat of a crapshoot. I don't feel like there's a wide gap between teams 7-10, and each of those squads have at least one linebacker who could be due for a huge year and shoot them up this list.

I see Nos. 1-3 possibly being great, with dropoffs before the No. 4 and No. 7 teams.

Also, if you missed them, here are the other position rankings we've done so far.
So, without further ado, here's how I ranked the linebackers. (Nickel backs are included in this list, hybrid DE/LBs will be with defensive lines)

[+] EnlargeTravis Lewis
Matthew Emmons/US PresswireOklahoma's Travis Lewis is the Big 12's top returning defender.
1. Oklahoma -- The Sooners boast the Big 12's top returning defender in Travis Lewis, who has notched at least 100 tackles in each of the past three seasons, and he'll be joined by the Big 12's co-Defensive Freshman of the Year, Tony Jefferson. Tom Wort and Corey Nelson are both loaded with potential, and will fill out the rotation, after the starter at middle linebacker, Austin Box, died on May 19.

2. Iowa State -- The Cyclones boast two of the Big 12's best in Jake Knott and A.J. Klein, who combined for more tackles than any two teammates in the Big 12 last season. They had 241 stops, and, after healing from a broken leg suffered midseason last year, Matt Tau'fo'ou should join them at middle linebacker.

3. Texas -- Texas' offense may be lacking, but the defense will be strong once again, led by two others likely to earn spots as some of the Big 12's best. Keenan Robinson and Emmanuel Acho were Texas' top two tacklers last year with 187 stops, and return as likely captains come fall camp. Texas' depth chart is wide open, but look for former blue-chip recruit Jordan Hicks to emerge as another star this year, despite being forced to sit out spring camp with a broken foot. Dravannti Johnson played some defensive end last year at the Buck position for the Longhorns, but may find his way back to linebacker. Tevin Jackson was ineligible last year, but he's ready for 2011, and could make an impact.

4. Oklahoma State -- The Cowboys "Star" linebacker is occupied by co-Defensive Freshman of the Year Shaun Lewis, and sophomore Caleb Lavey is charged with replacing Orie Lemon, the leader of last year's defense. Oklahoma State has questions on the weak side, but LeRon Furr and Chris Dinkins will compete next fall. Kris Catlin could be a factor, too.

5. Texas A&M -- The Aggies must replace their leading tackler, Michael Hodges, and don't have a clear replacement heading into fall camp. The good news: They've got two others with lots of experience in the linebacking corps that look like budding stars. Garrick Williams should be one of the defense's leaders and Sean Porter returns after making 74 tackles last year to rank third on the team.

6. Missouri -- The Tigers have lots of experience at middle linebacker, where a pair of seniors (albeit frequently injured seniors) Will Ebner and Luke Lambert will be on the field a lot. One of the Big 12's most exciting players, junior Zaviar Gooden, will hold down the weakside and perhaps become a household name by season's end. Sophomores Andrew Wilson and Donovan Bonner, who missed all of last season with a knee injury, will likely compete for strongside duties in fall camp. Andrew Gachkar, the team's leading tackler, is gone, but here's guessing Gooden emerges as the defense's top playmaker.

7. Kansas -- The Jayhawks linebackers were solid last year, and could be pretty good again, despite losing Drew Dudley and Justin Springer, two of the team's top four tacklers. Steven Johnson, the team's leading tackler in 2010, is back and he'll be joined by possible star Huldon Tharp, who missed all of last season with a leg injury. Fellow sophomore Darius Willis earned a starting role after spring.

8. Kansas State -- K-State's front seven struggled last year, but will get a big boost from Arthur Brown. One man won't be enough to totally fix the Wildcats rush defense problems, though. K-State gave up 26 more yards on the ground per game than any other team in the Big 12 (more than 231 per game) but Brown may be playing in a 4-3 next fall rather than the 4-2-5 the Wildcats have employed since Snyder's return. Alex Hrebec, Emmanuel Lamur, Tre Walker and Blake Slaughter will likely fill the rotation along with Brown.

9. Baylor -- Baylor's defensive depth chart, like Texas', is a bit amorphous after bringing in a new coordinator, but Elliot Coffey figures to be the Bears biggest playmaker at linebacker. Chris McAllister should be solid and Ahmad Dixon is promising at nickelback, too. Brody Trahan is a great story, but him going from third-string quarterback to starting linebacker isn't a ringing endorsement for Baylor's depth at the position.

10. Texas Tech -- Tech will be moving to a 4-2-5 this year under new coordinator Chad Glasgow, and could rise up this list, but the Red Raiders lose a lot of talent from last season's team, which ran the 3-4. Bront Bird and Brian Duncan are both gone, and youth will be a big factor with this group. Cqulin Hubert's outstanding potential is matched by his more outstanding first name, and freshman Blake Dees showed promise after arriving early this spring. They'll likely be the rotation at middle linebacker spot alongside Daniel Cobb and Zach Winbush. Terrance Bullitt could be a playmaker at his new safety spot, listed as a strong safety but with plans to spend lots of time near the line of scrimmage, a la nickelback.
ENID, Okla. -- Friends, family and a pair of communities gathered at Emmanuel Baptist Church on Friday to say goodbye to Enid native and Oklahoma linebacker Austin Box.

Box, 22, died on May 19 in Oklahoma City after being found unresponsive at a friend's home in El Reno, just outside of Oklahoma City.

The church's parking lot was nearly full and dotted with news trucks 30 minutes before the service began for a person that "had an impact on a city like no other player I've ever seen," said Wade Burleson, a family friend and, for two decades, senior pastor of Emmanuel Baptist.
There's still lots of uncertainty, and that will continue until the results of Austin Box's autopsy are released, but more details surrounding the Oklahoma linebacker's death emerged in the 24 hours since it happened.

The Tulsa World, The Oklahoman and The Associated Press all brought new information to light.

El Reno Police Chief Ken Brown said officers and medics responded to a call at a house in the town about 30 miles west of Oklahoma City at about 9:25 a.m. concerning an unresponsive male "with unknown medical issues." Brown identified the man as Box and said he first was taken to an El Reno hospital, then transferred by air ambulance to Mercy Hospital in Oklahoma City.

You can hear the 911 call on the Tulsa World's website. The police report is also available.

Police are investigating whether drugs were involved in Box's death, based on comments made to police.
According to the police report, El Reno police officer Todd Ward said that upon arriving at the house, he made contact with John Cobble III, who had identified himself to an emergency dispatcher as J.T. Cobble, who is the son of Tom Cobble, who was Box's high school football coach in Enid.

Ward said in the report Cobble III was performing CPR on Box and that "Cobble told me when I entered the room Box was in he believed he had overdosed." On the police report, under the offense category "controlled dangerous substance" is listed, and Ward checked the "drugs" box under a category listing possible/probable motivation.

Oklahoma defensive coordinator Brent Venables made a statement and spoke to media briefly on Thursday night. The emotional video can be found on Oklahoma's website.

Sooners coach Bob Stoops is out of the country. Venables said on Thursday night that grief counseling is being made available 24/7.

"You can't plan for this," he said. "There's no blueprint for it. We just know that a young man was tragically taken from us today."

The Box family also released a statement through Mercy Health Center on Thursday afternoon.

"The Box family wishes to express their appreciation for the outpouring of sympathy from across the state," the family said. "We particularly want to thank the University of Oklahoma, the coaching staff and players for their kindness and support. Austin loved everything about Oklahoma -- the people, his hometown of Enid and his many close friends. Most of all, Austin loved his family and we loved him. We invite you to join us in celebrating his life."
Oklahoma defensive coordinator Brent Venables said linebacker Austin Box, who died on Thursday, "exemplified everything you want in a player."

Venables, the first Oklahoma official to publicly answer questions, made a brief statement before answering questions for several minutes on Thursday evening.

[+] EnlargeAustin Box
Ronald Martinez/Getty ImagesAustin Box was expected to be the Sooners' starting middle linebacker this fall as a senior.
"Every parent's worst nightmare is to get that call," he said. "We're numb, heartbroken."

Venables said the team had all been notified of Box's death.

"News travels fast, but you want to inform people the right way, the appropriate way," he said. "Guys got together rather quickly and did it the right way."

Box was found unresponsive at a home outside Oklahoma City on Thursday morning. Paramedics arrived, and he was eventually airlifted to a hospital in Oklahoma City, where he died.

An official at the Medical Examiner's office in Oklahoma City told that the cause of death would likely remain unknown until Friday at the earliest.

The 911 call was released on Thursday afternoon, in which Box's friend, J.T. Cobble, attempted to perform CPR.

"There's a guy who stayed with me last night and he's not responding to me," Cobble said when asked what was happening. "He takes pain pills and he's not responding to me."

Asked whether Box was breathing, he said, "I don't think so."

Venables said he "wouldn't be surprised" to see Oklahoma dedicate its season next fall to their former teammate.

"You talk about adversity, but he faced a lot," he said. "He fought his way out of it and got himself back in a place to contribute. That meant a lot to him, to not let his teammates down."

Box injured his elbow before coming to Oklahoma, injured his knee in 2008 and missed five games in 2010 after back surgery before the season began.

"He had a profound impact on the success we had," said Venables.

Oklahoma won its final five games in 2010 to win the Big 12 and the Fiesta Bowl.

"He stands for everything that's right about this program. He’s made a ton of big plays, and was instrumental in what we did to finish the way we did," he said. "Without him, I’m not sure we would have finished the same way."

Box finished spring practice atop the depth chart at middle linebacker.

"He was one of the most selfless guys I’ve ever been around, a great leader for us," Venables said. "His greatest fear was to let down great coaches and great players … He wanted to live up to that in some way."

Video: Feldman on Austin Box's death

May, 19, 2011
ESPN the Magazine's Bruce Feldman comments on Oklahoma linebacker Austin Box's sudden death, the Big Ten's stipend proposal, Jim Tressel's future with the Buckeyes and his "Freaks of the Fall" piece on

Three Oklahoma officials released statements on Thursday afternoon in response to the death of Sooners linebacker Austin Box:

Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops:
"We're all shocked and heartbroken. Austin was a great young man, a great young man to coach and a great teammate. He played an integral part in our success the last three years and was looking forward to a big senior year. As heart-wrenching as this is for us, we know it's even more difficult for his family. More than anything, our thoughts and prayers are with them."
Oklahoma athletic director Joe Castiglione:
"This is a devastating day for the OU family. Austin was incredibly well-liked by his teammates, coaches and fellow students, and will be greatly missed by all of us. We're providing all the appropriate resources necessary to help everyone in his family, and ours, cope during this extremely difficult time."
University of Oklahoma president David L. Boren:
"The University family is deeply saddened by the tragic death of student-athlete Austin Box. Our hearts go out to his family and friends."

The Oklahoma City medical examiner's office told me earlier this afternoon that the cause of death was unlikely to be known before Friday. We'll have more details as they become available.