NCF Nation: Austin Zouzalik
A big hit sent Jace Amaro to the sidelines with a rib injury. A fractured foot ended Javon Bell's season. A knee injury did the same to Bradley Marquez.
Just like last season, the Red Raiders were forced to deal with injuries. It had been a mostly healthy year, something coach Tommy Tuberville had been unfamiliar with in his first two seasons in Lubbock.
This time, though, the Red Raiders easily adjusted in the wake of these injuries. How? Depth.
"We went out and took some junior-college players the last couple of years. We added more speed," Tuberville said. "It was ironic last week, the old hands that have been around here, Alex Torres and Austin Zouzalik, had not played as much this year as they had in the past, just because of the depth, but they really stood out last week, made a lot of plays."
"They’ve shown me that I can have trust in them. They compete every Saturday and they want the ball in their hands and want to make big plays," Doege said of his new receivers. "That’s the best quality of this whole corps. They’re very unselfish, but they all want to compete and they all want to do what it takes to win football games."
Eight different Red Raiders have at least 100 yards receiving and 13 catches this year. Fourteen receivers have at least five catches.
The rest of the team is relatively injury-free, but when the bug bit the receivers, they were prepared.
"Outside of the '08 group, I think it has to be one of the best I’ve been around, because of the depth. There’s so many guys that can come in and make plays on Saturday," said Doege, who redshirted that 2008 season as a freshman. "It does remind me of the '08 group that had (two-time Biletnikoff Award winner Michael) Crabtree and Eric Morris and even before that when they had Crabtree and Morris and (Danny) Amendola. There was a lot of big-time players that are still playing.
"I don’t know if we have a Crabtree here, but we have a lot of solid guys that can make a lot of plays."
Maybe the Red Raiders don't have a Crabtree, but it likely has the Big 12's best tight end in Amaro, who may return this week after suffering the rib injury against West Virginia. The 6-foot-5, 257-pounder leads the team with 394 receiving yards, despite missing last week's game.
"That guy’s a beast. There’s no other way to explain how he plays," Doege said. "In the blocking game he makes DBs and linebackers look like rag dolls when he puts his hands on ‘em. Then when he catches the ball, he’s hard to bring down. He’s hard to cover because he’s so big."
A year ago, this might not have been the case for the Red Raiders. Injuries to just about every unit knocked the Red Raiders down to 5-7 and out of the postseason. Tech has already surpassed its win total from a year ago, and this time, it was ready to handle the injury issues.
"It pays off the most when you have times like this and have a few guys go down and then the next guy steps up and you don’t lose any production," said Doege, who leads the nation with 28 touchdown passes.
Added Tuberville: "Whenever you throw 28 touchdown passes in seven games, something’s going right with your receivers and quarterbacks."
That's about the only thing missing from this performance on the road against an overmatched New Mexico team.
Texas Tech leads, 28-7, midway through the second quarter.
Seth Doege is making it look easy. He's completed 22-of-23 passes for 252 yards and three touchdowns.
Darrin Moore now has seven catches for 109 yards and three scores, well before halftime. Another 200-yard performance for the 6-foot-4, 214-pound target? His third score came on a trick play, a 26-yard reception from fellow receiver Austin Zouzalik.
This one looks like a laugher for the Red Raiders.
Remember that depth plays a big part of these rankings. We'll be ranking the top 10 individuals at each position later on before the season begins.
Other position rankings:
2. Oklahoma State
The Cowboys boast the returning Biletnikoff Award winner and 2011 favorite, Justin Blackmon, with a great group around him, too. Slot machine Josh Cooper returns for his senior year, and fellow senior Hubert Anyiam (the team's leading receiver in 2009) is hoping to return to form after being slowed by an ankle injury in 2010. Isaiah Anderson is a shifty speedster, while Michael Harrison and Tracy Moore offer a more aerial approach to receiving.
3. Texas A&M
The Aggies have the Big 12's No. 3 receiver, Jeff Fuller, who is arguably one of the top-five in the college game. But they also have the Big 12's most experienced receiving unit, with guys who won't be surprised by anything they see in Big 12 play. Juniors Ryan Swope and Uzoma Nwachukwu are the team's second and third options, but fellow juniors Kenric McNeal and Brandal Jackson could be bigger pieces of the offense in 2011. Tight end Nehemiah Hicks should see his profile rise in his coming sophomore year.
Top target Kendall Wright will likely end his career as the Bears' leading receiver for all four of his seasons on the field, and 6-foot-4, 220-pound junior Josh Gordon looks like the new Jeff Fuller. Terrance Williams, Lanear Sampson and Tevin Reese round out the Bears' top five, who all had at least 40 catches last season, and all return.
Missouri still lacks a proven big-play threat, but has two pass-catchers who have some of the best hands in the game. Receiver T.J. Moe and tight end Michael Egnew won't drop many passes, and combined to catch 182 for 1,807 yards and 11 touchdowns. Wes Kemp and Jerrell Jackson bring a lot of experience and both had at least 39 catches last season. If Marcus Lucas or Rolandis Woodland can become a consistent downfield threat, Missouri will rise up these rankings by season's end.
6. Texas Tech
Tech's top two receivers, Lyle Leong and Detron Lewis, must be replaced, but the Red Raiders have a few solid candidates to do it. Junior Alex Torres will likely lead the group, but fellow junior Austin Zouzalik and seniors Jacoby Franks and Tramain Swindall will be counted on for more production. Dark horse/juco newcomer Marcus Kennard could blossom into a household name across the Big 12 by season's end.
Sophomore Mike Davis and redshirt freshman Darius White are loaded with potential, but two of the team's top three receivers (James Kirkendoll, John Chiles) are gone, and no Texas receiver caught more than two touchdowns last season. Malcolm Williams and Marquise Goodwin are as different as two receivers could be, but both need to break out to help whoever becomes the Longhorns quarterback next fall.
8. Kansas State
Brodrick Smith will be back this season after breaking his leg in a loss to Nebraska. But two of the team's top three receivers are gone, leaving converted quarterback Chris Harper as the leading returner, though Smith might have held that title if he'd stayed healthy. Sophomore speedster Tramaine Thompson can make plays if he gets the ball with some space.
9. Iowa State
The Cyclones will be breaking in a new quarterback this season and they will need a playmaker to step up. Tight end Collin Franklin led team in receiving last season but he is now gone. Darius Reynolds looks like a possible candidate to fill the role, although incoming slot receiver Aaron Horne might rack up a few catches in space. Darius Darks and Josh Lenz should earn some more targets too.
Converted defensive back Daymond Patterson is the team's top receiver, but the team's No. 3 receiver junior Bradley McDougald, moved to safety in the middle of the season. Tight end Tim Biere is one of the Big 12's best and led the team with four touchdowns last season. Chris Omigie and D.J. Beshears have some potential, and converted quarterback Christian Matthews keeps showing up in spring games. But all three, along with the rest of the group, would benefit from some consistency at the quarterback spot.
How the game was won: Texas Tech's offense put up big points like most expected them to, but only played one quarterback for most of the game. Taylor Potts played well and the Red Raiders' offense rolled for most of the game. Instead, it was the Wildcats who went with a two-quarterback attack, rotating Evan Watkins and Kain Colter often but neither found a rhythm to help Northwestern's offense until the Wildcats trailed by 22. Colter ran the ball well late in the game, but it wasn't enough to make up for Texas Tech's early cushion.
Turning point: Texas Tech led 24-6 at halftime, but fumbled the opening kickoff, handing the ball back to the Wildcats deep in Red Raiders territory for the game's first turnover. The Wildcats couldn't capitalize, botching a quarterback sneak and settling for an 18-yard field goal. On the next play from scrimmage, Texas Tech running back Eric Stephens broke an 86-yard touchdown run to take a 31-9 lead, the Red Raiders' biggest of the day. Northwestern got to within seven late, but the early lead was enough for the Red Raiders to hold on.
Stat of the game: Texas Tech notched its second 45-38 win of the season in the Cotton Bowl stadium. Back in October, the Red Raiders beat Baylor on the neutral field, 45-38.
Player of the game: Potts. He finished with an impressive 369 yards and four touchdowns on 43-of-56 passing, pacing the Red Raiders' offense that struggled to run the ball for most of the day. He also caught a pass and ran it in for a touchdown, but it was later reversed to a run after officials determined the pass went backward. Northwestern took away the run game, opening up short underneath routes, and Potts capitalized. He had lots and lots of time to throw, a credit to the offensive line, but he was as accurate as he's been all year. Without that, it would have been a very different game.
Best call: Potts threw Austin Zouzalik what looked like a routine screen to the sideline, but Zouzalik tossed it back to Potts, who was escorted into the end zone by a trio of offensive linemen, helping the Red Raiders take a 24-6 lead at halftime. Tommy Tuberville didn't want to run it, but told ESPN heading into halftime that he got outvoted by his fellow coaches.
Second-guessing: Texas Tech strung together an impressive 82-yard drive in 12 plays to take a 38-17 lead, but tried for the onside kick and a possible knockout punch against a Northwestern defense that hadn't stopped them from reaching the end zone on the last four drives. The Red Raiders were offside, however, and gave Northwestern the ball at the 36-yard line. The Wildcats needed just two plays to score and cut the lead to 14, keeping the game still somewhat in doubt. Texas Tech had to punt on its next possession, and Northwestern scored a touchdown to bring the game to within 38-31.
There was a little bit of upside to the curious decision, but with Northwestern's offensive inconsistency throughout, it seemed pretty unnecessary, and cost the Red Raiders momentum.
Record performance: Matt Williams' booming 24-yard field goal that opened scoring is the longest in the history of the TicketCity Bowl. Gotta love inaugural bowl games.
What it means: The exit of Texas Tech defensive coordinator James Willis from the program days before the game didn't hurt them badly enough for a loss. The Red Raiders looked good early, and though Northwestern's quarterbacks struggled to complete passes with consistency, Texas Tech didn't make it very easy on them. The way the offense played, the defense didn't need a big performance, but they got one for long enough in the first half, and as a result, the Red Raiders held on. They entered Saturday's game ranked 116th nationally in total offense, giving up over 460 yards a game. Northwestern's undermanned offense without quarterback Dan Persa managed just 374 yards.
1. The scoreboard at Boone Pickens Stadium. You saw it in my pick this morning, there's going to be a lot of points on the board this Saturday, featuring some of the best skill-position talent in the league. Oklahoma State's triplets -- quarterback Brandon Weeden, running back Kendall Hunter and receiver Justin Blackmon -- go head-to-head with Robert Griffin III, Jay Finley and Kendall Wright.
3. Texas' defense. It completely shut down the league's best rushing offense earlier in the season in a marquee 20-13 victory at Nebraska. Now, it takes on the Big 12's No. 2 rushing team, Kansas State, in Manhattan. What's in store for running backs Daniel Thomas and William Powell?
4. Texas Tech's receivers. Jacoby Franks and last year's leader, Alex Torres, are out. They the are Red Raiders' Nos. 3 and 4 targets. Franks is gone for the year, and Torres could be too, but arthroscopic surgery earlier this week provided hope he could return in a few weeks. Those who will be playing, namely seniors Lyle Leong and Detron Lewis, will need to play well to keep up with Missouri's offense. Younger players like Austin Zouzalik and Tramain Swindall have to elevate their play.
5. Blaine Gabbert. Gabbert actually played pretty well for what was available last week, running when he needed to and throwing without any real misses on the rare occasion when a receiver was open. This week should be much easier against a Texas Tech secondary that is the worst in the league and one of the worst in the nation. Is he due for a big week? His targets will be back open, and he won't get hit nearly as much. The Red Raiders gave up 449 yards to Ryan Tannehill, 274 yards to Cody Hawkins and 356 to Brandon Weeden in the past three weeks. Not a sparkling résumé.
6. Oklahoma on the road. Bob Stoops says it's not a real problem. The Sooners' win-loss margin at home is 22.7 points higher than away from Owen Field, by far the highest of any other elite program. This year, the Sooners have a loss to Missouri and a two-point win over Cincinnati, the last-place team in the Big East at 3-5, on their record. Texas A&M is a renewed team with Ryan Tannehill at quarterback. Is an upset in store?
7. Tannehill's next test. Like we mentioned above, Texas Tech's secondary ranks last in the league, giving up 45 more yards per game through the air than any other team. That ranks 119 out of 120 teams nationally. Oklahoma isn't way, way better (sixth in Big 12, No. 83 nationally), but they'll be tougher than Texas Tech. What does Tannehill have in store for his encore after a school-record 449 yards and four touchdowns in his first start last week?
8. Quarterback controversies. Texas Tech has reopened the competition between Steven Sheffield and Taylor Potts, and hasn't officially announced a starter. Kansas' top two passers may be back this week, but their status is in doubt as No. 3 Quinn Mecham hopes to make his second career start. Texas A&M coach Mike Sherman hasn't explicitly said Tannehill will start on Saturday, but it would be hard to imagine he wouldn't after last week. Keep an eye on how all this shakes out on Saturday.
9. Kansas climbing. The Jayhawks led at halftime last week at Iowa State. Now, they host the next-worst team in the league, Colorado, the Big 12's only other 0-4 team. There's no doubt this is the best chance for either team to get their first -- and maybe only -- conference win of the year.
10. Huskers taking care of the ball. I'm not 100 percent sure, but I think the definition of a football nightmare is finishing a game with more turnovers than points. That's what Nebraska did last year, turning the ball over eight times in a 9-7 home loss to an Iowa State team missing its two best players, running back Alexander Robinson and quarterback Austen Arnaud. They'll face a full-strength Iowa State team in Ames on Saturday for control of the North. The Huskers have an incredible 26 fumbles in eight games, but have lost only nine of them. What are the odds history repeats itself?
Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin
Some Big 12 position groups are clearly above others as far as raw talent and athleticism. Here's a look at some of the most dominant in the conference.
Oklahoma's front seven: The Sooners go two-deep in talent in the defensive line and linebackers. Defensive tackle Gerald McCoy anchors the defensive front and is an Outland Trophy candidate. Adrian Taylor and Cordero Moore also are capable players. The Sooners have the best collection of defensive ends in college football with Frank Alexander, Jeremy Beal, R.J. Washington and Auston English. Travis Lewis could develop into one of the finest linebackers in Oklahoma history and Mike Balogun, Brandon Crow and Keenan Clayton all are expected to contribute. If heady team leader Ryan Reynolds comes back from his knee injury, this group could rival any in the country -- if it doesn't already.
Texas' secondary: After producing only six interceptions last season, Texas defensive coordinator Will Muschamp ratcheted up competition among defensive backs. The results were seen in the spring, when the group was the best defensive backfield group I saw in the conference. Aaron Williams and Chykie Brown have emerged as starters at the corners with Curtis Brown and Deon Beasley providing backup. Safeties Blake Gideon and Christian Scott both are emerging, but the key player might be sophomore safety Earl Thomas, who played the nickel position with tenacity and abandon. It's not a stretch to say that two Thorpe Award winners could emerge out of this group in the next several years.
Colorado's running backs: The Buffaloes seemingly have a back for every situation with the deepest backfield in the conference. Darrell Scott appears intent on making a comeback after a disappointing freshman season. Rodney Stewart looks recovered from a broken leg sustained last season that kept him from rushing for 1,000 yards. Sophomore Brian Lockridge appears to be the fastest back and 215-pound Demetrius Sumler is the biggest back with the best inside running ability among the group. This group will serve as the backbone for the Buffaloes' hopes of returning to a bowl game and perhaps their dark horse challenge for the Big 12 North title.
Kansas' wide receivers: Dezmon Briscoe missed all of spring practice for an undisclosed violation of team rules, but is back to serve as one of the nation's most explosive deep talents. Coach Mark Mangino hopes to be able to permanently switch Kerry Meier to receiver for his senior season after a breakout season in 2008. Meier and Briscoe were two of the nation's top-15 receivers last season when they combined for 189 catches, 2,452 yards and 23 touchdown grabs. And Wilson emerged as quarterback Todd Reesing's go-to receiver in the spring when Briscoe was gone, notching six catches in the spring game. Add Rod Harris, Tertavian Ingram and Raimond Pendleton and it might be among the most potent pass-catching groups in the nation.
Nebraska's running backs: With unproven Zac Lee starting at quarterback, look for Shawn Watson to lean heavily on a pair of talented returning backs. Quentin Castille trimmed about 20 pounds to get into better shape and leading returning rusher Roy Helu Jr. boosted his weight by 24 pounds to become a more powerful rusher between the tackles. Together, it wouldn't be a stretch that the two backs could combine for 2,000 rushing yards and 20 rushing touchdowns if both can stay healthy.
Iowa State's running backs: With new offensive coordinator Tom Herman taking over with a spread offensive attack, a talented array of running backs still will have frequent opportunities to contribute. Leading returning rusher Alexander Robinson could be poised to become one of the most underrated rusher/receiver combination backs in the conference. But Robinson will have to fight for playing time with a stacked group that also includes bruising redshirt freshman Jeremiah Schwartz and heralded University of Florida transfer Bo Williams. Herman will be able to utilize all three backs in a variety of roles.
Missouri's defensive ends: The Tigers appeared loaded before spring practice with Brian Coulter and Jacquies Smith back, but redshirt freshman Aldon Smith has developed into an immediate contributor. Converted offensive tackle Brad Madison and redshirt Marcus Marlbrough also had strong springs, leading Gary Pinkel to say it was his best group of defensive ends he's ever had at Missouri.
Texas Tech's wide receivers: Even after losing two-time Biletnikoff Award winner Michael Crabtree and Eric Morris, the Red Raiders developed several potential playmakers during the spring. Edward Britton appeared to have crawled out of Mike Leach's doghouse with strong late production. New quarterback Taylor Potts should have many productive targets including Detron Lewis, Tramain Swindall, Lyle Leong, walk-on flanker Adam Torres, 6-foot-7 Adrian Reese and redshirt freshmen Austin Zouzalik and Eric Ward. The Red Raiders won't have two players grab the majority of balls like Crabtree and Morris did in recent seasons. Instead, they will feature a more balanced attack featuring eight to 10 receivers capable of thriving in a tag-team approach.
Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin
Happy opening day for baseball.
The cool thing about this is that by the time baseball season ends, college football season will be in full swing.
That day can't come soon enough for me. And I'm sure it's that way for more than a few of you out there, as well.
Until then, here are some lunchtime links to help tide you over.
- The late Sal Aunese's legacy still lives on in the Colorado program, Boulder Daily Camera beat writer Kyle Ringo writes.
- Kirk Bohls of the Austin American-Statesman opines on the development of the Texas secondary that was on display at Sunday's spring game.
- Tough Nebraska guard Ricky Henry is earning the nickname "The Finisher" because of his ability to put opponents on their backs, Omaha World-Herald columnist Tom Shatel writes.
- Physical safety Quinton Carter has toned down his hitting at Oklahoma's practices, but not during games, the Oklahoman's Jake Trotter reports.
- John Hillman of Realfootball365.com reports that the development of offensive lineman Danny Watkins and defensive tackle Phil Taylor will be keys for Baylor to develop into a bowl team.
- Missouri coach Gary Pinkel is allowing his quarterback to take and give a few shots in practice this spring, the Kansas City Star's Mike DeArmond reports.
- With Oklahoma State's numbers depleted at receiver by Dez Bryant's injury and Bo Bowling's suspension, Justin Blackmon is emerging as one of the top producers of the spring, the Oklahoman's Scott Wright reports.
- Denver Post beat writer Tom Kensler writes that after five surgeries during an eight-month period in 2008, Colorado cornerback Benjamin Burney earned the nickname of "Joystick" because of one of his frequent medical procedures.
- Lubbock Avalanche-Journal beat writer Don Williams reports on converted high-school quarterback Austin Zouzalik, who is making the transition to wide receiver at Texas Tech this spring.
TOP 25 SCOREBOARD
Final 20 Duke 7 1 Florida State 45 Final 2 Ohio State 24 10 Michigan State 34 Final 5 Missouri 42 3 Auburn 59 Final 17 Oklahoma 33 6 Oklahoma State 24 Final 7 Stanford 38 11 Arizona State 14 Final 25 Texas 10 9 Baylor 30 Final 16 UCF 17 Southern Methodist 13 Final Utah State 17 23 Fresno State 24