NCF Nation: Dan Gay

Posted by's Tim Griffin

A fast finish made Baylor running back Jay Finley wish that the 2008 season could have lasted a few weeks longer.

Finley capped 2008 with 100-yard rushing efforts in the Bears' final two games, finally showing the potential he had longed to meet since arriving at college.

  Karl Anderson/Icon SMI
  Jay Finley averaged 5.8 yards per carry last season and rushed for seven touchdowns.

The closing spurt started with 116 rushing yards in the Bears' impressive victory over Texas A&M and was followed with 105 yards in Baylor's season finale against Texas Tech.

"I have confidence that I can keep doing it and going into the offseason, those games have made me work extra hard," Finley said. "We were rolling and I hated to see the season end."

Finley's late charge came after he made a conscious decision to relax in the backfield, waiting on his blocks rather than attempting to blast through holes that weren't there.

"To tell you the truth, it was just the case of trying to be more patient and letting my blocks come to me," said Finley, who finished with a team-high 865 rushing yards to finish fifth in the conference. "It's made me work hard in everything I'm doing. I'll keep working hard. My personal goal is that I want to be a 1,000-yard back this season."

That aim appears doable as Finley enters his junior season as the Bears' featured back. But his supporting cast will be much stronger with the arrival of transfer Terrance Ganaway, who rushed for 550 yards and scored six touchdowns in 2007 at Houston in Art Briles' final season coaching there.

Briles' arrival at Baylor has transformed the Bears' attitude into a more blue-collar rushing team, emphasizing the run after several seasons of neglect.

Finley and other Bears chafed at the lack of rushing production in 2007 under former coach Guy Morriss. It made Finley, a 5-foot-11, 205-pounder from Corsicana, Texas, feel like he was being used as much as a receiver and pass-blocker as a rushing threat. The Bears ranked 113th nationally in rushing that season, averaging a paltry 3.13 yards per carry.

That philosophy was transformed last season as Briles emphasized a physical nature in the trenches. The result was that the Bears finished the season with an average of 195.8 yards per game, good for 21st nationally.

In the process, the Bears improved their yards per carry by 1.75 yards per tote from 2007 last season. And Baylor's rushing improvement of 117.9 yards per game rushing from 2007 to last season ranked as the nation's second-biggest jump behind only Army's 154.0 yards-per-game rushing improvement.

"I think it will be more of the same this year," Finley said. "We were able to grind it out when we needed to, but still have our receivers and a passing game when we needed them, too."

Any improvement will come despite the loss of former starting tackles Jason Smith and Dan Gay, who both are on NFL rosters.

"Our line will be physical and we'll be able to do everything we did last season," Finley said. "It's going to be hard to replace guys like Jason and Gay, but I'm confident in the new guys that we have. During the spring, it doesn't look like we've missed a step."

Some of the confidence comes because of the return and continued development of sophomore quarterback Robert Griffin, who rushed for 843 yards and 13 touchdowns and passed for 2,091 yards and 15 touchdowns last season.

Despite a promising career in track and field, Griffin has concentrated on football this spring in hopes of leading his team to a bowl for the first time since 1994.

Finley can see a difference in Griffin's approach and in his command of the Baylor offense after concentrating on football this spring.

"Robert already works harder than anybody," Finley said. "And he's just doing what he did last season, only better."

After working together during the spring, Finley said that the Baylor offense is more productive and confident.

"Our rhythm is faster and we're moving faster," Finley said. "You can tell a difference in what we're doing."

Finley and the rest of the Bears have been conducting informal workouts with preparations for the start of training camp in early August.

That early work hasn't been any vacation for Finley or his teammates over the past several days, he said.

"It must be about 120 degrees out there," Finley said after another blistering practice earlier this week. "It's really hard to stay focused because of the heat and the conditions. It's hot out there."

Those blast-furnace conditions have only intensified Finley's determination to lead his team. He exhibits that attitude with a quick needling for his teammates during their work.

"You've got to keep people motivated," Finley said. "I've always found you forget you're tired if you're laughing. That's what we're trying to do to get better is come out and work hard to get ready for the season."

Posted by's Tim Griffin

All questions aren't settled during the course of spring practice as teams still have much work to upgrade their weaknesses heading into the season.

Obviously, some will receive a boost from incoming freshmen who will arrive later. But here's how each team's biggest liability shakes out heading into the summer.

Baylor: The Bears are desperately looking for help at offensive tackle after losing No. 2 overall draft pick Jason Smith and Dan Gay as their starters. Former Canadian firefighter Danny Watkins has established himself at Smith's old position protecting Robert Griffin's blind side. And on the right side, junior Chris Griesenbeck and redshirt freshmen Cameron Kaufhold are competing for the starting job with Tyler Junior College's Phillip Blake and Blinn College's Marquis Franklin set the arrive later this summer.

Colorado: Wide receiver has been a question mark for the Buffaloes throughout Dan Hawkins' coaching tenure. The Buffaloes return four scholarship wide receivers and had a chance to work out several new players with Scotty McKnight injured during the spring. Josh Smith and Markques Simas are the top playmakers coming out of the spring. Non-scholarship players like Jason Espinoza and Ryan Maxwell emerged, but the Buffaloes definitely need a big upgrade at the position from their arriving freshman class.

Iowa State: The Cyclones will be facing a big hole at left tackle, where two-year starter Doug Dedrick departs. It could be filled by Matt Hulbert, who started two games last season when Dedrick was hurt. Or it could be massive 354-pound junior Hayworth Hicks or freshman Brayden Burris at the position. Whoever emerges will face a huge challenge in filling Dedrick's experience as he protects the blind side of the Iowa State quarterbacks.

Kansas: Coach Mark Mangino will be facing a few huge rebuilding job at linebacker, where the Jayhawks lose key contributors Joe Mortensen, Mike Rivera and James Holt from last season. Mangino is talking about using a two-linebacker set as his base defense with fifth-year senior Jake Schermer and senior Arist Wright getting the starting jobs leaving spring practice. Sophomore Steven Johnson and converted running back Angus Quigley were competing for playing time during the spring and another boost is expected when junior linebacker Justin Springer, who is recovering from a torn ACL last season, returns in the fall.

Kansas State: Carson Coffman appeared to have claimed the starting job at quarterback -- at least for a few weeks -- after a strong effort during the latter stages of spring practice. But Coffman's late binge has to be tempered considering he is playing against the weak Kansas State secondary. So it's fair to say there are some lingering questions at the position. Coffman apparently has beaten back the challenge of challengers Collin Klein, Joseph Kassanavoid, Trey Scott and Milton McPeek. But the arrival of South Florida transfer Grant Gregory and heralded junior-college transfer Daniel Thomas will mean more competition in the summer.

Missouri: The Tigers will be facing a challenge of replacing NFL first-round draft pick Evander "Ziggy" Hood at defensive tackle to play opposite nose tackle Jaron Baston. Redshirt sophomore Terrell Resonno appeared to have claimed the job out of the spring, with Dominique Hamilton, Chris Earnhardt and converted linebacker George White perhaps earning their way into the rotation.

Nebraska: After the graduation of top receivers Todd Peterson and Nate Swift from last season, the Cornhuskers need to fill both positions. Leading returning receiver Menelik Holt appears to have a hammerlock on one position, but Niles Paul lost a chance to take a big step forward after missing the spring after he was suspended for driving under the influence. Antonio Bell was the biggest surprise, but converted I-back Marcus Mendoza, Chris Brooks, Wes Cammack and Curenski Gilleylen all showed flashes during the spring.

Oklahoma: There was concern before spring practice, considering the Sooners were replacing four-fifths of their starting offensive line with only Trent Williams back from last season's starters. And it got worse when Bob Stoops called out the young replacements because of their lack of diligence in their preseason conditioning. Williams emerged at left tackle with Brian Simmons and Stephen Good at guards, redshirt freshman Ben Habern at center and either LSU transfer Jarvis Jones or Cory Brandon at right tackle. The depth took a hit when center Jason Hannan left early in training camp and sophomore guard Alex Williams chose to leave after spring practice. The group struggled against the Sooners' talented defensive line, allowing Sam Bradford to be touch-sacked twice in three possessions in the spring game and produced only 27 rushing yards in 52 carries.

Oklahoma State: The loss of veteran center David Washington produced a huge hole in the center of the Cowboys' interior line. Andrew Lewis returns to his natural position, leaving Oklahoma State needing two new starters at guard. Noah Franklin and Jonathan Rush have staked claims to the starting positions with Anthony Morgan and Nick Martinez getting repetitions inside. This group needs to improve if it hopes to equal the standards of previous seasons, when the Cowboys led the Big 12 in rushing each of the last three seasons.

Texas: The tight end was rarely used for the Longhorns after Blaine Irby dislocated his kneecap last season against Rice. He still wasn't ready to go during the spring as Greg Smith, Ahmard Howard, Ian Harris and D.J. Grant all got work. None of them emerged. And with Irby's return remaining iffy, it means the Longhorns again could reduce the use of the tight end and utilize four-receiver sets when they want to move the ball. Don't look for the Longhorns to use the tight end much unless this production improves.

Texas A&M: The Ag
gies were wracked with injuries during the spring as projected starters Lee Grimes, Kevin Matthews and Lucas Patterson were sidelined all spring as A&M was down to only nine healthy offensive linemen for some practices. It still doesn't excuse the lack of offensive production for A&M's starting unit, which produced only 9 yards rushing on 24 carries against Texas A&M's first-string defense. Coach Mike Sherman will be counting on immediate production from an impressive group of incoming freshman at fall practice, but it's fair to characterize the Aggies' offensive line as the team's biggest spring concern -- especially after allowing 39 sacks last season and ranking last in the conference in rushing yards per game.

Texas Tech: The loss of productive starters Daniel Charbonnet and Darcel McBath left a gaping hole at safety for the Red Raiders. Junior Franklin Mitchem earned the free safety position leaving spring practice and redshirt freshman Cody Davis emerged at strong safety.Jared Flannel , Brett Dewhurst and converted linebacker Julius Howard also got some snaps at safety. It will still be a challenge to combat the explosive Big 12 defenses with such an inexperienced group at the position.

Posted by's Tim Griffin

The Sports Nation poll that went with my Big 12 spring wrapup had a few of the bigger questions involving the conference during the upcoming season.

I've gotten a bunch of e-mails from readers wondering how I think on the questions.

Here's a look at the results and my take on whether I agree or disagree with you, the readers.

1. Which Big 12 quarterback will be tougher to slow down in 2009

SportsNation results (15,721 votes)

Sam Bradford -- 41 percent

Colt McCoy -- 40 percent 

Robert Griffin -- 10 percent

Zac Robinson -- 6 percent

Todd Reesing -- 4 percent   

My take: I agree and by roughly the same margin.

It's a close decision for me, but I would think that Bradford will be the most productive quarterback - by a slim margin over McCoy. Bradford will be playing behind a rebuilt line with a new set of wide receivers. And McCoy will largely have the same returning cast from last season - with the exception of versatile wide receiver Quan Cosby. But I think that both will have big offensive seasons. We likely could see both in New York City again in early December at the Heisman Trophy presentation.

2. Which is the team to beat in the Big 12 this season?

SportsNation results (10,118 votes)

Texas -- 52 percent

Oklahoma -- 48 percent

My take: Agree.

Again, by a slight margin I favor the readers. I think Texas should be slightly favored because of a productive two-deep secondary, McCoy, Jordan Shipley and one of the nation's best offensive lines. Oklahoma has Bradford, DeMarco Murray, Chris Brown, Ryan Broyles, Jermaine Gresham and nine starters back on defense headed by Gerald McCoy and Travis Lewis. But I think the snub of not making the national championship game, along with Oklahoma's green offensive line , ill be the biggest differences in the two teams.

3. Will Baylor make a bowl game this season?

SportsNation results (10,315 votes)

Yes -- 63 percent

No -- 37 percent

My take: Disagree.

The Bears will be better this season with Griffin back for another season, the return of top rusher Jay Finley, leading receiver Kendall Wright and the arrival of massive transfer defensive tackle Phil Taylor. The Bears have starpower on defense with linebacker Joe Pawelek and safety Jordan Lake back. But they are playing in the Big 12 South. They haven't won at Texas A&M since 1984. Their game against Texas Tech -- a likely pick 'em contest if it had been played in Waco -- has been moved to the new Dallas Cowboys' Stadium in Arlington where Tech will have more fans. They lose experienced tackles Jason Smith and Dan Gay, who combined for 71 career starts. And their non-conference schedule is a tough one with games at Wake Forest and at home against Connecticut. Baylor could be significantly better than last season and still only have a 5-7 record to show for it. So I'm guessing they don't snap a bowl drought that dates to 1994 -- tied for the longest among teams in BCS-affiliated "Big Six" conferences.  

4. Which of these teams has the best shot at moving up in the Big 12 standings?

SportsNation poll (10,060 votes)

Baylor -- 53 percent

Texas A&M -- 18 percent

Colorado -- 18 percent

Kansas State -- 11 percent

My take: Disagree.

As mentioned above Baylor will have a hard time jumping past Texas Tech if they don't beat them. My pick as the Big 12's surprise team among the four listed is Colorado, which could be just below Nebraska and Kansas among Big 12 North contenders if they can remain healthy. I'm not buying their 10-2 record that Coach Dan Hawkins predicted at the end of last season, but it wouldn't surprise me to see the Buffaloes winning seven or eight games and returning to a bowl game.

5. Which Big 12 defender will have the biggest impact in 2009?

SportsNation results  (9,851 votes)

Nebraska DT Ndamukong Suh -- 44 percent

Oklahoma DT Gerald McCoy -- 34 percent

Texas DE Sergio Kindle -- 23 percent

My take: Agree.

I think that Suh and McCoy are virtual equals at defensive tackle and easily the two best inside players in the conference. I give Suh a slight edge because of overall production. He'll also play some offense and likely stand out more for the Cornhuskers because his surrouunding teammates on defense won't be as good as McCoy's are with the Sooners.

Posted by's Tim Griffin

Every team is green someplace. Here are the specific areas of the most inexperience for each Big 12 team.

Baylor offensive tackle: The Bears need to break in two new starters after losing Jason Smith and Dan Gay.

Colorado defensive line: Help is needed along the defensive front where the Buffaloes lose starting defensive end Maurice Lucas, starting defensive tackle George Hypolite and starting nose tackle Brandon Nicolas.

Iowa State defensive line: Coach Paul Rhoads desperately wants somebody to emerge on the defensive line where the Cyclones lose starting defensive tackle Michael Tate, starting defensive end Kurtis Taylor and top backup defensive back Travis Ferguson.

Kansas linebackers: Even as Mark Mangino is contemplating going to a two-linebacker base defense because of the Big 12's spread offenses, he still needs to find those two players. The Jayhawks lose starters James Holt, Mike Rivera and Joe Mortensen at the position from last season.

Kansas State quarterback: Josh Freeman departed for the NFL early, leaving Carson Coffman and junior college transfer Daniel Thomas to compete for the starting job. It's not a pleasant introduction back to football for returning KSU coach Bill Snyder.

Missouri skill-position players: The Tigers need a quick infusion of playmakers after losing quarterback Chase Daniel, wide receiver/kick returner Jeremy Maclin and tight end Chase Coffman. All of them arguably were the greatest players at their respective positions in Missouri history. Blake Gabbert will receive first look at quarterback and Andrew Jones will work at tight end. It could take several players to fill in for what Maclin did.

Nebraska quarterback: It will be tough for the Cornhuskers to replace all that Joe Ganz did for them, both as a playmaker and a leader at quarterback. Zac Lee will get the first shot, along with freshman Cody Green and redshirt freshman Kody Spano. Maybe the Cornhuskers really could use former Miami quarterback Robert Marve next season.

Oklahoma offensive line: The departure of starting center Jon Cooper, tackle Phil Loadholt and guards Duke Robinson and Brandon Walker means that Sam Bradford will have an inexperienced group protecting him next season. Trent Williams moves to left tackle and Bob Stoops likes his incoming talent, if not its early work habits.

Oklahoma State defensive tackles: The Cowboys ranked last in the conference in sacks last season and lost starting defensive tackles Tonga Tea and Jeray Chatham. It will mean that new defensive coordinator Bill Young will need somebody to step up in the trenches to help shore up that weakness.

Texas defensive line: The major question dogging the Longhorns' national title hopes will be rebuilding a defensive front that loses All-American defensive end Brian Orakpo, defensive tackle Roy Miller, defensive tackleAaron Lewis and defensive end Henry Melton from last season.

Texas Tech offensive line: New quarterback Taylor Potts will be relying on a retooled offensive line protecting his blind side after left tackle Rylan Reed, left guard Louis Vasquez and center Stephen Hamby all departed from last year.

Texas A&M running backs: The Aggies' offensive backfield will need to restock players: Michael Goodson left school early to declare for the NFL draft and fullbacks Jorvorskie Lane and Nick LaMantia are gone. Look for Cyrus Gray to get most of the work this spring with heralded freshman Bradley Stephens arriving in the summer.