NCF Nation: Big 12 Take Two Tuesday

It's Take Two Tuesday, and today we’re watching the throne. Big 12 co-champions Baylor and TCU have both begun spring practice and are already hard at work toward proving they deserve playoff-contender hype in 2015. Both have flaws and holes to address over the next month.

Brandon Chatmon and Max Olson debate which defending Big 12 champ will have more questions answered by the end of spring ball.

Brandon Chatmon: Baylor Bears

Baylor doesn’t have many questions to answer after back-to-back titles and increasing depth as each season goes by.

Obviously replacing Bryce Petty will be the talk of Waco as the quarterback battle between Seth Russell, Chris Johnson and Jarrett Stidham garners plenty of headlines. Russell is the favorite to win the job thanks to his experience in the system and success behind Petty in 2014. Either Johnson or Stidham will have to take the job away from the junior quarterback, meaning it’s possible Russell cements the job this spring. Either way, BU’s track record of stellar quarterback play under Art Briles makes this a mini question mark as opposed to the elephant-sized question marks at some of the other quarterback positions around the conference.

Receiver, linebacker and defensive back are the other potential question marks at Baylor with the departures of Antwan Goodley and Bryce Hager, along with BU’s secondary struggles at various times in 2014.

Yet the receiver position looks like it could be even stronger with KD Cannon poised to make a jump in Year 2, Corey Coleman showing he can be one of the Big 12’s top targets, and a meeting room full of elite but inexperienced receiving talent.

At linebacker, Taylor Young will look to build on a productive redshirt freshman campaign and will have Aiavion Edwards and Grant Campbell battling to help fill Hager’s void.

The bulk of BU’s starting lineup returns from last season, and the small questions facing Briles' team could have answers who saw time on the field for the Bears in 2014.

Max Olson: TCU Horned Frogs

There’s no disputing TCU has more players to replace this spring, and that means more uncertainty. Gary Patterson knows replacing six veteran starters on defense is no small task, and starting defensive end Mike Tuaua is out for the spring as well.

So what are the Frogs going to do? Entering their fourth year in the Big 12, they have the quality depth needed to solve these issues. Patterson and his newly promoted co-defensive coordinators will foster a next-man-up mentality this spring and push for competition.

And there will be lots of competition. At strong safety, Sam Carter’s replacement could be Denzel Johnson, Travin Howard or George Baltimore. At weak safety, Kenny Iloka is probably the favorite but will be pushed by redshirt freshman Ridwan Issahaku.

Then you’ve got Kevin White’s starting corner job, a battle that could play out a lot of different ways. You’ve got a former juco transfer (Corry O’Meally) competing with a touted true freshman (DeShawn Raymond), a converted receiver (Cameron Echols-Luper), a senior track star (Kolby Griffin), and youngsters Nick Orr and Torrance Mosley. Of all of TCU’s question marks, this is the competition I think is most likely to carry over to fall camp, though a pecking order will surely develop in spring ball.

And then there’s linebacker. Two new starters are needed, but that situation could be mostly figured out by the end of the spring. Between Sammy Douglas, Paul Whitmill, Ty Summers and the Frogs’ freshmen, Patterson seems excited about his options.

That’s a lot of names to keep up with, isn’t it? Still, I trust that Patterson knows what he’s working with and that this group can, in time, come close to playing to their successors’ standards. And fortunately, this team lost practically nothing -- just one starting lineman -- on offense. Having so few concerns on that side of the ball makes me far less concerned about TCU’s situation.
This week, we examined the steps that catapulted Baylor and TCU into becoming national powerhouses. That has come at the expense of conference flagships Texas and Oklahoma, who were never factors in the Big 12 race last year.

But can the Sooners and Longhorns return to being contenders and challenge TCU and Baylor in 2015? And if so, who has the better shot?

We tackle this question with the return of our weekly Take Two debate:

Take 1: Brandon Chatmon -- Texas

It may not look pretty now but I have a feeling Texas can force its way into the Big 12 title conversation. Year 2 of the Charlie Strong era should be much better than Year 1. With his first fully evaluated recruiting class on the way and the foundation of his program in place, Strong can focus on exceeding expectations in 2015.

The quarterback position is scary with Tyrone Swoopes showing inconsistency, Jerrod Heard as an unknown and Kai Locksley not even on campus yet. But what’s new? And an overall search for playmakers and big plays should keep the Longhorns' offensive coaches busy this offseason.

Yet, all those problems with the offense don’t stand as an immovable obstacle between Strong’s team and Big 12 championship contention because the Longhorns' defense should be able to keep UT in every game next season. Even though Malcom Brown, Jordan Hicks, Quandre Diggs and Cedric Reed are no longer in Austin, Strong’s roster has the talent to have one of the Big 12’s top defenses yet again. Defensive tackle Hassan Ridgeway could take his game to another level as a junior and highly-touted freshman linebacker Malik Jefferson seems college-ready.

Both teams need to find an answer at quarterback and questions about their offenses will linger into the fall, but its defense makes UT the better choice over OU.

Take 2: Jake Trotter -- Oklahoma

Texas is coming. But the Longhorns aren't there yet.

Texas isn't any closer to finding its long-term answer at quarterback. And the Horns graduated its best running back, two best receivers, two best defensive linemen, best linebacker and best defensive back off last year's team.

Considering it may take a while for Strong's recruiting triumphs to pay off on the field, Texas is not built to win big just quite yet.

Oklahoma might not be, either. But the Sooners are definitely closer.

As Bob Stoops would say (and has many times) Oklahoma is only months removed from defeating Alabama in the Allstate Sugar Bowl. The Sooners bring back a front seven capable of wreaking havoc; one of the best receivers in the Big 12 in Sterling Shepard; and one of the best running backs in the country in Samaje Perine.

Like with Texas, the key to Oklahoma contending is better quarterback play. Trevor Knight was good, at times. But when he was bad, he was really bad, leading the Big 12 in pick-six interceptions. The Sooners, however, will be adding Texas Tech transfer Baker Mayfield, who was the Big 12 Offensive Freshman of the Year two years ago, to the competition this spring.

If Mayfield (or Knight or Cody Thomas) can stabilize the position and thrive in new coordinator Lincoln Riley's Air Raid system, Oklahoma has the talent elsewhere to return to contender status.

That might be a big "if." But smaller than what Texas faces in Strong's second season.
Devonte Fields, Shawn OakmanIcon SMI, USA TODAY SportsTCU DE Devonte Fields returns motivated after missing most of last season with an injury and Baylor DE Shawn Oakman has been unblockable this spring, but will this excitement carry into the fall?

This week's "Take Two" topic: Which Big 12 defensive player impressed you the most this spring?

Take 1: Brandon Chatmon -- TCU DE Devonte Fields

Fields is back.

Watch out Big 12. The TCU defensive end is one of the league’s top defenders when healthy and his absence in 2013 played as big a role as any in the Horned Frogs' disappointing season. Explosive and athletic, Fields can dominate games when he’s healthy and has the right mental approach. His 10 sacks in 13 games as a freshman was a glimpse at the production he could provide this fall.

TCU loses a potential first round pick in cornerback Jason Verrett but could be gaining one in Fields, who TCU defensive coordinator Dick Bumpus said was “not only back to where he was, he’s past where he was.” If that’s the case, it’s a troubling thought for Big 12 offensive tackles.

Fields showed he has the ability to change games during his true freshman season in 2012 so if he can return to that type of form in 2014, he could spark the Horned Frogs into the Big 12 title race and put himself in the running to earn Big 12 Defensive player of the year honors.

Take 2: Jake Trotter -- Baylor DE Shawn Oakman

What Fields showed this spring was impressive, but it wasn’t really surprising. When healthy and motivated, Fields is one of the best defensive linemen in the Big 12, if not the country. This spring, Fields was healthy again after recovering from last year’s season-ending foot surgery. And, apparently, he was motivated.

That’s why I’m going with Oakman here.

Baylor coach Art Briles isn’t often prone to hyperbole. But he can't help himself when discussing Oakman or the potential of his defensive line.

“Same thing I’ve thought all spring, we can’t block him,” said Briles, when asked for his thoughts on Oakman's dominating performance in Baylor’s spring game. “And I don’t think anyone else will, either. I think our D-line is as good as anybody in America, and he’s just one out of about six or seven in there that are going to be dominant, dynamic players for us in the fall, no doubt.”

At 6-foot-9, 275 pounds, Oakman has the combination of size and speed to be as dominant as any defensive lineman in the league, which, with the likes of Fields, is saying quite a bit. If the Baylor offense had problems with Oakman this spring, what offense won’t next season?

We already knew Fields had star potential. The same goes for Oklahoma outside linebacker Eric Striker, Kansas State defensive end Ryan Mueller and Texas defensive end Cedric Reed.

After a dominating spring, it appears that Oakman does, too.

And that’s why, to me, he was most impressive.
This week's "Take Two" topic: Who will be Texas’ starting quarterback in the Longhorns’ Aug. 30 opener against North Texas?

Take 1: Max Olson -- David Ash

[+] EnlargeDavid Ash
Ronald Martinez/Getty ImagesIf David Ash can stay healthy, he's Texas' best option at quarterback for 2014.
When is the last time we saw David Ash at his best?

There are two correct answers: Either the second half of the 2013 opener against New Mexico State (a team that would go 2-10), or the second half of the 2012 Valero Alamo Bowl to rally past Oregon State.

Texas fans have been clinging to those fleeting flashes of brilliance for, what, eight months now? Those quarters are some of the best evidence that, when everything is clicking, Ash can operate a tempo offense with confidence and creativity.

But he has to do it for four quarters and 12 games if he wants to hold on to Texas’ starting quarterback job.

I don’t doubt that, barring another injury, Ash will be the guy behind center when the Longhorns open their season. He did enough this spring in nearly a dozen practices to show Charlie Strong and quarterbacks coach Shawn Watson he’s the right quarterback to bet on.

The foot fracture Ash is recovering from now is a poorly timed setback, no question, and it prompts skeptics to point out Ash has now dealt with three troubling injuries (broken ribs, concussions, foot fracture) in less than two years.

An Ash optimist would point out this: As a true sophomore in 2012, he was a top-25 passer by QBR and efficiency standards. And, really, it won’t be easy for another QB to surpass him. Tyrone Swoopes should redshirt. Jerrod Heard is better off doing the same. That leaves potential transfer Max Wittek, who’d face three months of catching up this summer, to learn the offense.

As long as Ash doesn’t eliminate himself from the race with another injury, you only need that process of elimination to see it’s still his job to lose.

Take 2: Jake Trotter – Max Wittek

I don’t deny Ash has talent. But after missing an entire season due to lingering concussion issues, then most of a spring with a fractured foot, I’m skeptical of Ash’s long-term health. And that’s why I’m going another direction.

Swoopes showed in the spring game that he’s not ready to be the starting quarterback at Texas, even with a decent finish after a disastrous start. Heard is loaded with potential, but he’s going to be a true freshman.

That leaves USC transfer Max Wittek, who visited the Austin campus for a third time over the weekend, suggesting a decision to ink with the Longhorns could be imminent. Wittek will graduate from USC in May and will be eligible immediately wherever he decides to go. He has two seasons of eligibility remaining.

Wittek might not be Bobby Layne, but given Ash’s injuries, Swoopes’ lack of polish and Heard’s complete inexperience, Wittek could very well be the best option for Strong’s maiden voyage.

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