NCF Nation: Blake Dees

Crowning the best freshmen in the Big 12

December, 13, 2011
The regular season is over, but with the end of any season, you can't help but look to the future. In college football, that means youth, i.e., freshmen.

Plenty of big talents played their first season in the Big 12 this year, and here were the best of the bunch.

It should come as no surprise that the bulk of the young talent plays offense, assuring that the Big 12's reputation as an offense-driven league looks as though it'll remain a constant.

Malcolm Brown, RB, Texas: The Longhorns were tentative to let Brown start early in the season, but he emerged as the team's top back and into the starting slot, finishing the season as the team's leading rusher, at 707 yards and five touchdowns.

Tyler Lockett, WR/KR, Kansas State: Lockett became one of K-State's best playmakers late in the year and the Big 12's best kick returner. He returned two kicks for scores and averaged more than 35 yards per return, catching 18 passes for 246 yards and three scores. No small accomplishment in the Wildcats' run-heavy offense.

Jaxon Shipley, WR, Texas: Shipley was hampered by a knee injury for much of the season, but he was the Longhorns' most reliable receiver, leading the team with three touchdown catches. He was narrowly edged for the team lead in catches (40) and receiving yards (593).

Jared Barnett, QB, Iowa State: Barnett is best known for playing an unbelievable game against Oklahoma State. He took over for Steele Jantz in midseason and led the Cyclones from 3-4 to 6-4 and a bowl berth, with a blowout win over Texas Tech and dramatic wins over OSU and Kansas. He threw for 376 yards and three scores against OSU and ran 84 more yards.

Quandre Diggs, CB, Texas: Diggs has star written all over him. Don't be surprised if he's the Big 12's best defensive back next year. He showed flashes in the spring game after enrolling early and started nine games for Texas as a true freshman. A rare feat in most years, especially for the defense. He led the team with three interceptions, forced two fumbles and had 43 tackles and 13 pass breakups. An unbelievable freshman year for the Horn.

Darrian Miller, RB, Kansas: Miller's got some great wiggle to his running style as one of the league's most elusive backs, and he ran for 559 yards and four scores on just 136 yards.

Blake Dees, LB, Texas Tech: Dees looked like a potential starter in spring practice and showed up once fall came for the Red Raiders. Despite an ankle injury that basically erased the second half of his season, he made 32 tackles with four tackles for loss and two forced fumbles.

Tony Pierson, RB, Kansas: Memo to Charlie Weis: You've got a heck of a backfield; you'd better use it. Pierson, Miller and James Sims are all solid for the Jayhawks, and Pierson might have as much upside as any of them. He's an electrifying player like Miller but with more size, and he averaged more than 5.5 yards on his 71 carries, scoring three times. Here's guessing the scoring numbers and touches go up next year.

Josh Stewart, WR, Oklahoma State: Stewart was a nice piece of a powerful OSU offense and showed plenty of promise as a kick returner, too, averaging better than 20 yards on his 11 returns. He caught 19 balls for 291 yards and two scores.

Blake Bell, QB, Oklahoma: Bell redshirted before showing up midseason in the valuable BellDozer formation that OU came up with after Dominique Whaley went down with a fractured ankle. He scored an unbelievable 10 touchdowns on 34 carries, but the throwing thing could use some work. In four attempts, he completed as many passes to the other team (one) as his own.
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.
Every spring, unheralded players make a name for themselves and give a preview of what's to come in the fall. Two teams in the Big 12 are still practicing, but here's who did it across the league this spring.

Baylor: Ahmad Dixon, DB. Dixon, a big name in Waco and one of the highest-rated recruits in Baylor history, played sparingly as a freshman reserve safety in 2009, finishing with 16 tackles. This year, though, the 6-foot, 200-pounder could be a game-changer at nickelback for Phil Bennett's defense.

[+] EnlargeTexas' Alex Okafor
Brett Davis/US PRESSWIREAlex Okafor had five sacks during Texas' spring game.
Iowa State: Aaron Horne, WR. Horne only got a scholarship offer from the Cyclones when coaches came to see his teammate, quarterback Steele Jantz, play at a junior college in California. This spring, the 5-foot-9, 167-pounder emerged as a likely major contributor in the passing game, and led all receivers with eight receptions for 124 yards and a touchdown in the spring game.

Kansas: Darrian Miller, RB. Kansas is still practicing, but Miller, a Kansas City native and one of the Jayhawks' highest-rated recruits in the 2011 class, has impressed with his explosiveness and figures to earn plenty of touches next fall in the running game.

Kansas State: Nigel Malone, CB. Malone could be next in line to be one of Bill Snyder's impact juco transfers. He showed up this spring without the memories of last year's struggles by the Wildcats' defense, and is in competition for a starting spot at corner opposite David Garrett.

Missouri: Kony Ealy, DE. Missouri is already loaded at defensive end with Brad Madison and Jacquies Smith, but the Tigers' may have a budding star in Ealy, a redshirt freshman. He was unblockable at times this spring and should be a major contributor in the defensive end rotation next season. If nothing else, he could make an impact in Missouri's "Candy" defensive package, which features four defensive ends.

Oklahoma: Corey Nelson, LB. Nelson was one of the Sooners' top recruits in the 2010 class, and played very little last year, but coach Bob Stoops says he'll have to get Nelson on the field somehow this year. For now he backs up All-Big 12 mainstay Travis Lewis, but you'll see No. 7 plenty this fall. After a recent scrimmage, Stoops called him the best player on the defense this spring.

Oklahoma State: Michael Bowie, OT. The Cowboys bring back all five starters on the offensive line, but there's plenty of buzz that Bowie could steal a starting spot by mid-season if he continues to play like he did in the spring. The juco transfer is a light-footed 6-foot-4 and 294 pounds, and starter or otherwise, gives an already impressive line great depth.

Texas: Alex Okafor, DE. Okafor switched to defensive end just days before the spring, but looks like a budding star at the position after a strong spring. He capped it by a five-sack performance in the Longhorns' spring game.

Texas A&M: Donnie Baggs, LB. Baggs enrolled early this spring for the Aggies, and as a true freshman, could find himself getting a serious look to replace departed starter Michael Hodges, who led the team in tackles last year.

Texas Tech: Blake Dees, LB. Dees is benefiting from a simplified 4-2-5 scheme under new coordinator Chad Glasgow that allows him to use his natural instincts to rush the passer, rather than worry about complex coverage schemes. It's unlikely he'll beat out Sam Fehoko to start at linebacker, but he's very likely to find a spot in the rotation and get some major playing time in his first season.

Big 12 spring game recap: Texas Tech

March, 28, 2011
What happened:

  • Junior quarterback Seth Doege threw for 317 yards and four touchdown on 20-of-35 passing. He also had an interception for the only turnover of the day, picked off by Daniel Cobb, who returned it 22 yards.
  • Safety D.J. Johnson and linebacker Cqulin Hubert led the team with eight tackles each. Hubert had a sack and led the team with 2.5 tackles for loss. He also broke up a pass.
  • [+] EnlargeTramain Swindall
    Mark D. Smith/US PresswireTexas Tech receiver Tramain Swindall, who had 33 receptions last season, had a 55-yard touchdown catch in the Red Raiders' spring game.

  • Doege's day was highlighted by a pair of long throws. He hooked up with new outside receiver Tramain Swindall for a 55-yard score and hit Alex Torres for a 63-yard gain on Torres' only catch of the day.
  • Ben McRoy led the team with 61 yards on seven carries, but likely starter Eric Stephens had 48 yards on seven carries.
  • Texas Tech had hoped for 25-30,000 fans, but 12,400 made their way into Jones AT&T Stadium on Saturday. Among them: New athletic director Kirby Hocutt and basketball coach Billy Gillispie.
  • As with all these spring games, it doesn't matter much, but the Black team beat the Red team 27-26. It's not out of character for these games, but players switched teams often. Doege, for instance, was 12-of-23 for 231 yards and three scores for the Red team. For the Black team, he was 8-of-12 for 86 yards and a score. Saboteur!
What we learned:

  • Doege did everything he could to maintain a stronghold on the starting job over backup Jacob Karam. Coach Tommy Tuberville won't make an official announcement until midway through fall camp, but Doege was receiving the majority of the snaps in practice this spring. It would be very, very surprising if he didn't lock up the job for sure in fall camp. Barring injury, he should finally get his shot next season. "Seth is definitely in front right now,” offensive coordinator Neal Brown told reporters on Saturday. "He’s making better decisions, leading the offense better at this point. Not to a point where he’s the bona fide starter, but there is a difference. Then Jacob and Scotty [Young] are right there duking it out right now to be in that second position and come up and battle Seth."
  • Red Raiders fans have to be happy about the contributions from the newcomers. Juco receiver Marcus Kennard enrolled early and caught a 29-yard touchdown pass from Doege in the second quarter. True freshman Ronnie Daniels had impressed all spring, and caught a 20-yard touchdown pass from Young. Kennard finished with two catches for 32 yards. Daniels finished with 34 yards on 11 carries. The touchdown was his only catch of the day. Another early enrolling freshman, linebacker Blake Dees, had seven tackles and half a tackle for loss.
  • The defense still has plenty of work to do, giving up five pass plays of longer than 25 yards, but the Red Raiders are going to be a work in progress on that side of the ball all season. Defensive coordinator Chad Glasgow and Tuberville have been preaching it: It's all about speed for this defense. Part of that comes with recruiting. Part of it comes with making players comfortable with the defense's schemes and playing without thinking. Both of those take time. Glasgow's new scheme puts a heavy emphasis on winning one-on-ones, and the Red Raiders have a lot to prove in showing they can do that consistently in Big 12 play.
They said it:

"Right now Seth is ahead, but we want to give (Jacob Karam) a chance to throw his name in there. We're not looking for just one quarterback, we're looking for two. We lost both quarterbacks last year. Both of these guys will step up and compete and make each other better." -- Tuberville.

Notes from a visit to Texas Tech

March, 23, 2011
LUBBOCK, Texas -- Not having an indoor facility is a lot like having a leaky roof. Most of the time, it's not a problem. But when it rains, it's an annoyance that's too late to fix to do any good.

Tuesday, of course, it was the wind that postponed Texas Tech's practice until today. As a result, I didn't get to see Texas Tech practice, but I spent a long while with coach Tommy Tuberville and a few players during my time in Lubbock.

Tuberville is mildly irritated with the lack of an indoor practice facility, and sometimes the Red Raiders are able to practice at Frenship High School, but that poses a whole new set of problems. In fact, when I sat down in Tuberville's office, he had a mock-up of an indoor facility on his desk, a rough draft of something he had drawn up to gauge the possibility of building an indoor facility in the future.

[+] EnlargeTommy Tuberville
Matthew Emmons/US PresswireTexas Tech coach Tommy Tuberville is mildly irritated with the school's lack of an indoor practice facility.
"It's not a necessity, but it's something that would really help," he said. "I just had somebody draw that up just to get the feasibility of whether it would fit here and how big it needs to be, height, and a lot of them use it for different things."

Tuberville cited his nickname of the Riverboat Gambler, which apparently transcends the field and carries over to spring practice as well. Last year, Tuberville began spring practice in mid-March, partially because he needed time to get his feet on the ground after being hired in January. This year, Tech's spring game is set for Saturday, the first in the Big 12.

"I started spring practice about three weeks before anybody even thought about spring practice," he said. "I did it for the simple fact that we've got to have more offseason. If we go 4 to 5 weeks of offseason and then have spring practice and then 2 to 3 weeks of offseason, it breaks it up too much. We've got to get stronger and quicker."

Last year, the late spring practice meant players like LaRon Moore couldn't make it back for the fall because of injuries suffered in the spring. So the gamble, of course, was that the weather in West Texas would cooperate.

"The weather was rough last year. I said, 'We can't have two years bad weather like that back-to-back, and we haven't. We've had great weather," he said. "Until today. We've got a mini-hurricane out there."

Winds were up to 50 miles per hour throughout Tuesday.

"No sense in going out there if you can't get anything done," he said.

Regardless, we touched on a wide variety of topics, and we'll have more on the Red Raiders later this week, but here's some of what Tuberville had to say.

Offense playing catchup

Tuberville readily admitted that the offense is behind where it was a year ago at this point, but what would you expect? Last year's team had two senior quarterbacks, a senior running back and two senior receivers. Even though this is spring No. 2 for Tuberville, he's working with a much younger offense as a whole this time around.

He feels like he's starting back at ground zero a bit, but the eventual upside with this group is obviously higher since they won't be here one year and gone the next like most of last year's offense.

This year will come with a few changes, but Tuberville has a good idea of what he wants. He didn't have to worry about having two quarterbacks that were ready last year, Taylor Potts and Steven Sheffield came with the job. This time around, Tuberville wants to make sure he has two quarterbacks, and it may be a bit more difficult, but Jacob Karam and Seth Doege have separated themselves. It's not over yet, but Doege taken the early lead with his consistency and is getting the vast majority of reps in practice with the first team. Tuberville said, barring injury, Michael Brewer will redshirt. Like last year, Tuberville plans to officially name a starter during the second week of fall two-a-days. More on the quarterbacks is coming later.

[+] EnlargeTexas Tech's Seth Doege
Dustin Bradford/Icon SMITexas Tech quarterback Seth Doege has been getting most of the reps with the first team.
He also wants his tight ends to get involved more as blockers to help establish a running game he believes the Red Raiders need. That's good news for touted recruit Jace Amaro's future, but for now, the duties have gone to Adam James, who has put on a bit of weight to fill the need.

Freshmen LB, RB impress early

Two early-enrolling freshmen have stolen the show in spring scrimmages, and Tuberville provided a bit of insight on both.

Linebacker Blake Dees has racked up tackles in both scrimmages and should be a part of the rotation at middle linebacker along with Sam Fehoko. For Dees, who Tuberville admitted has surprised him with his early impact, the coaches simplified his responsibilities, allowing his natural linebacker instincts to take over.

"He's really catching on well. He might not be a starter, but he'll play," Tuberville said. "We put him at linebacker and he plays run first. It's cut his responsibilities down and really helped him."

Simplicity in his 4-2-5 scheme is what Chad Glasgow has preached since he took the job, and with so many young, inexperienced players all over the defense, it's going to be necessary for the defense.

Another quick note: Tuberville sees safety as the strength of the defense, thanks to new nickel back Terrance Bullitt and Cody Davis. D.J. Johnson has also moved to safety from cornerback.

Running back Ronnie Daniels led the team in rushing with 80 yards on 13 carries in the second scrimmage, and the 6-foot-2, 195-pounder has made it obvious he'll play as a freshman along with Eric Stephens and Aaron Crawford. Tuberville has expressed his desire to run more two-back formations with one as a runner and the other as a blocker, and the Red Raiders have developed solid depth at the position.

Daniels had 3,000 yards as a senior in high school.

"He's just been so raw at running back, sometimes that's the best kind to have. You don't tie them down with reads and things he has to do," Tuberville said. "He just came in and just turned it loose. He's got a good frame, he's tall and physical and he's got good hands. He can play in this offense and he's been a breath of fresh air."

No Championship Weekend for Tech-Baylor, other schedule notes

Texas Tech and Baylor are set to finish the season against each other in Cowboys Stadium, and since the Big 12 Championship game no longer exists, Tech was open to the idea of moving their game to that weekend. Other games like the Lone Star Showdown and Bedlam may end up on that weekend, but the Bears and Red Raiders won't. After the championship was kaput, Jerry Jones filled the stadium with another event.

The Big 12 schedule is still in flux, but Texas Tech knows it will open its season with Texas State, have an off week and then play 11 consecutive games.