NCF Nation: Joe Bergeron

AUSTIN, Texas -- The first nine questions Charlie Strong faced Sunday, in his media address to kick off fall camp at Texas, centered on a burdensome topic: The Longhorns who got in trouble.

The first-year coach had to announce, and then explain, why he'd dismissed five Texas players and suspended three more. He had to reiterate his five core values and dedicate more time to talking about players that, for the most part, are no longer his problem.

But that talk is for the public. It's hard to imagine Strong needed to give lectures on the topic of discipline inside his locker room and meeting rooms last week.

[+] EnlargeStrong
Brendan Maloney/USA TODAY Sports"I'd say Coach [Charlie] Strong weeded out the people that shouldn't be here," defensive end Cedric Reed said.
His punishments delivered his message loud and clear, to an audience of 80 remaining scholarship players who by now understand what's expected.

The Texas players who stay out of trouble and go to class don't need an explanation from their new coach.

"The players, they see it," Strong said. "When you have that number of players, they know what is going on. They know a lot more than we know, so for them it's nothing unusual."

They've witnessed their peers' missteps. They've paid for them, too. Just ask Johnathan Gray.

The junior running back practiced Monday for the first time since tearing his Achilles in November. He's returning to a field that is now missing dismissed backs Joe Bergeron and Jalen Overstreet. Gray is one of three scholarship running backs on the roster at the moment.

"It's one of those things that, it sucks," Gray said. "They're your teammates and your friends, but they made their choice and Coach Strong said he wasn't dealing with it. There was a time and a place that he was going to catch them and he did and kicked them off."

But Gray was not na´ve to the fact that Bergeron and Overstreet were, in the words of Strong, "repeat offenders."

When a Texas player got in trouble this spring and summer -- even for mistakes as simple as ditching class early -- he and everyone else at his position paid the price. If a receiver screwed up, for example, strength coach Pat Moorer made sure his fellow wideouts all showed up for early-morning sprints as punishment.

The intended purpose is obvious: Strong was rebuilding a system in which Texas players held each other accountable. So, no, the exploits of Bergeron and Overstreet were not news to the guys in the running backs room.

"We paid for it for a while," Gray said. "When those guys keep constantly messing up, it becomes an issue with them and the coach, and that's when they need to step in and tell the kid, ‘Hey, you've got to get your act right and if not you're off the team.' So that's just one of those things that Coach Strong doesn't tolerate, and he deals with it."

Granted, Gray was still rehabbing his Achilles this summer during the discipline, but as a player who's completely avoided trouble in his two years at Texas, he was understandably unhappy to watch as the good guys paid for the sins of the problematic players.

"It hurts the team, me and all of our players," he said. "Everybody that's on the team, we need them. It kind of hurts to see guys that really don't care about football or really don't care about the team do that type of stuff. What has to be done has to be done."

Of course, we should've seen this discipline coming weeks ago. Quandre Diggs proudly told reporters at Big 12 media days that he supported Strong weeding out players who'd taken being a Longhorn for granted. Mission accomplished.

"I'd say Coach Strong weeded out the people that shouldn't be here," defensive end Cedric Reed said Monday.

What remains is a group that, in time, should be able to better police itself. Texas' veteran players seem to recognize that's the next step.

"If you want to be a part of this team, you are going to have to follow the rules, you are going to have to be committed and do things right," quarterback David Ash said. "If you don't want to do that, you can't be a part of this team. That doesn't mean we can't still be friends with them, doesn't mean we can't be buddies with them. But if they can't be all-in, they can't be a part."

The message couldn't be clearer nowadays: Texas players know Strong's rules, they know the score and they know more discipline is coming if they don't learn from the departed.

Big 12 weekend rewind: Week 14

December, 2, 2013
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Taking stock of Week 14 in the Big 12:

Team of the week: After trailing by three scores for most of the game, Iowa State came roaring back with 17 straight points in the fourth quarter and ultimately prevailed 52-44 in a stunning, triple-overtime comeback. Freshman QB Grant Rohach was terrific in his second career road start, accounting for five touchdowns, including the winning toss on the first play of the third overtime. The defense forced four turnovers to help spearhead the rally. And punter Kirby Van Der Kamp converted a fake punt into a huge first down, igniting the comeback early in the fourth quarter. As a result, Iowa State finished off an otherwise disappointing season with a thrilling road victory and a two-game winning streak to build on for 2014.

[+] EnlargeRyan Erxleben, David Brenner, Keenon Ward
Brendan Maloney/USA TODAY SportsTexas Tech punter Ryan Erxleben (26) celebrated perhaps the Red Raiders' only highlight Thursday.
Disappointment of the week: After a fake punt touchdown gave them a 7-0 lead, the Red Raiders basically no-showed the rest of the way in a discouraging 41-16 loss at Texas. The Longhorns obliterated Tech up front, as both Malcolm Brown and Joe Bergeron topped 100 yards on the ground. On the other side of the ball, Tech couldn't protect its quarterback, as Baker Mayfield was sacked seven times. As a result, a team that once was ranked 10th in the country ended its regular season with a thud -- and a five-game losing streak.

Big (offensive) men on campus: Kansas State running back John Hubert and Iowa State wide receivers Quenton Bundrage and Justin Coleman.

Hubert unleashed a monster performance in his final Sunflower Showdown. The senior rushed for a career-high 220 yards and a touchdown on 30 carries, as K-State defeated Kansas 31-10 for a fifth consecutive victory in the series.

Together with Rohach, Bundrage and Coleman fueled Iowa State's comeback with huge catches down the stretch. After Van Der Kamp's fake punt conversion, Bundrage hauled in a 62-yard touchdown grab to cut West Virginia's lead to 10. Later, Coleman's 19-yard scoring reception tied the game with a minute left in regulation. And on the first play of the third overtime, Coleman reeled in another touchdown, which proved to be the game winner.

All told, Bundrage and Coleman combined for 12 receptions, 184 receiving yards and four touchdowns.

Big (defensive) men on campus: Baylor linebacker Eddie Lackey, TCU cornerback Jason Verrett and Texas defensive end Jackson Jeffcoat.

Lackey played a hand in two turnovers that ultimately led to defensive touchdowns. With the Horned Frogs driving at the end of the second quarter with a chance to take the lead before halftime, Lackey charged up the middle and tagged TCU QB Casey Pachall's legs. The hit forced Pachall's pass to be behind his intended receiver, and Orion Stewart intercepted it and raced 82 yards for a touchdown. Then on TCU's first possession of the third quarter, Lackey picked off Pachall and dashed 54 yards for another score, putting the Bears up 34-17. Lackey added six tackles and a sack in Baylor's 41-38 win.

As good as Lackey was, no player was more dominant than Verrett. Matched up one-on-one with Baylor's Antwan Goodley the entire game, Verrett checked the Big 12's leading receiver to just one reception for 12 yards. As a result, Baylor finished with a season-low 206 passing yards.

Jeffcoat also flourished in his final home game, recording a game-high three sacks as Texas shut down Texas Tech's passing game. Jeffcoat also had seven tackles and a quarterback hurry, solidifying his candidacy as an All-Big 12 defensive end.

Special-teams player of the week: Tech punter Ryan Erxleben produced one of the special-teams plays of the year in the Big 12 in Austin. On Tech's second possession, Erxleben took off on a fake punt and raced 51 yards down the sideline for a touchdown, giving the Red Raiders an early 7-0 lead. After the game, coach Kliff Kingsbury confirmed Erxleben called the fake on his own. It proved to be Tech's longest rush of the season, but pretty much its only highlight in the lackluster loss to the Longhorns.

Play of the week: After falling behind 34-17 on two Baylor defensive touchdowns, TCU made a furious rally and drove into field goal range with a chance to either win or send the game to overtime. Instead, with 18 seconds to go, quarterback Pachall's pass to Brandon Carter was tipped away by Baylor nickelback Sam Holl and into the arms of Terrell Burt for the game-clinching interception to seal Baylor's victory.

Stat of the week: By holding Baylor to 370 yards of offense, TCU snapped the Bears' 37-game streak of at least 400 yards of offense. Ball State now holds the longest FBS streak at 12 games.

Quote of the week: "Gary Patterson lives in Fort Worth. If he's got a problem with me, that's where I live."

-- TCU coach Gary Patterson, after a pair of heated exchanges with Baylor coach Art Briles

Big 12 predictions: Week 14

November, 27, 2013
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What an epic disaster last week was.

First, the Sooners blitzed K-State, destroying my first pick. Then Oklahoma State annihilated Baylor, annihilating my second pick. And before the end of the night, the Iowa State Cyclones made me look ridiculous for taking the Jayhawks.

As a result, I went 0-3 for the week. To add insult to injury, Wingnut Drew went 2-1. Now, I trail you guest pickers for the season. Maybe one of you should just take over the blog.

Alas, I fear you all would miss me too much. So I’m going to give it another go.

This week’s guest picker submission, Shelley from Lubbock, Texas:

I grew up watching the Dallas Cowboys, Houston Oilers (yep, I’m old) and West Texas high school football under the Friday night lights. But I love college football the most. Now, I work in the billing office at Texas Tech. After eight years of watching Tech athletes grow and succeed on and off the field, I have become a Red Raider, despite my Aggie roots. Guns Up!

To the Week 14 picks:

SEASON RECORD

Trotter last week: 0-3 (.000)

Guest picker (Wingnut Drew) last week: 2-1 (.667)

Trotter overall: 52-18 (.743)

Guest picker overall: 40-13 (.754)

THURSDAY

Texas 37, Texas Tech 31: There are only four teams in college football whose turnover differentials are negative-11 or worse: Southern Miss, California, Eastern Michigan and Texas Tech. Southern Miss, Cal and EMU have combined to win three games. So, it’s actually pretty remarkable the Red Raiders have seven wins, given how poor their ball security has been. Turnovers, however, will doom the Red Raiders in Austin, as Texas takes better care of the ball and exploits Tech’s depleted defensive front with Malcolm Brown and Joe Bergeron. Sorry, Shelley.

Shelley’s pick: The Red Raiders jump to a big lead, forcing Texas to play catch-up, which means playing fast, which means throwing the ball … and we all know Case McCoy’s arm can handle only so many passes in one game. Seeing the Longhorns lose on Thanksgiving is better than pecan pie. Tech, 35-17

SATURDAY

Kansas State 44, Kansas 13: One step forward, two steps back. The Jayhawks finally looked like they were breaking out after a landmark victory over West Virginia that ended a 27-game conference losing streak. Instead, Kansas looked like the old Kansas while getting obliterated in Ames. Tyler Lockett has another huge afternoon hauling in passes downfield, Daniel Sams and John Hubert pound the Jayhawks defensive line and the Wildcats run their Sunflower State winning streak to five on their way to the National University Holiday Bowl.

Shelley’s pick: “The Sunflower Showdown” is the worst rivalry name ever. It sounds like a gardening reality show on HGTV. Sadly, the game will probably be as entertaining as a gardening show. K-State, 45-17

Baylor 41, TCU 23: The Horned Frogs aren’t going to a bowl. So they’ve turned QB Casey Pachall’s final college start into a de facto bowl game. That, combined with a slight Baylor hangover, actually keeps this game interesting in the fourth quarter.

Shelley’s pick: Baylor is going to take out its frustration on those poor Horned Frogs. It's going to be ugly in Fort Worth. Baylor, 63-17

West Virginia 27, Iowa State 21: West Virginia QB Clint Trickett called Iowa State "the greatest 2-9 football team in the history of football." After falling at Kansas, it's probably wise for West Virginia to respect any and every opponent. But the Mountaineers have been a different team in Morgantown than on the road. Just ask Mike Gundy.

Shelley’s pick: Both of these teams would really love a reset button. Iowa State gets my vote in this one purely because the Cyclones have momentum in their favor after crushing KU last week. Iowa State, 24-14

Gray positive Texas can run without him

November, 15, 2013
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AUSTIN, Texas -- Nearly two weeks ago, Johnathan Gray posed a question to a Texas assistant trainer out of pure curiosity.

“How does it feel if you tear your Achilles?”

[+] EnlargeJohnathan Gray
David K Purdy/Getty ImagesJohnathan Gray had become one of the top runners in the Big 12.
Who knows how long he’d wondered, but this came to mind sometime after Texas linebacker Jordan Hicks went down for the season with that tear.

The answer? It feels like somebody has kicked you from behind, like they’ve stuck a knife just below your calf.

Gray isn’t making up that anecdote. He says he asked the question. He got a much more definite answer a week later.

“I felt like I kind of jinxed myself,” Gray said Monday.

The sophomore running back’s season is over. He had surgery on Wednesday to repair the torn Achilles he suffered against West Virginia last Saturday, and by all accounts the operation went well. Now he’s in for a long road to recovery, carrying the hope he’ll be back in time for the start of the 2014 season.

“God puts us here in weird positions and we have to overcome them and get through adversity,” Gray said. “That’s what I plan on doing.”

And Texas, with three high-stakes games and a bowl left, must find a way to keep its run-heavy offense rolling without the third-leading rusher in the Big 12.

When he turned after hauling in a third-quarter pass from Case McCoy at West Virginia, Gray felt the pop. He’s seen the slow-motion TV replays that show a ripple in his right leg after trying to plant his foot. He skidded to the ground.

“Sure enough, I looked behind me and nobody was behind me. It felt like somebody kicked me,” Gray said. “I knew right then when I went down I’d tore it. It sucks, but you have to get through it.”

He’d notched more than 330 touches in two seasons and proved to be Texas’ most durable running back. Gray didn’t have much of an injury history in his time in Austin. That’s why his teammates were stunned.

“I was shocked. Like, damn,” tackle Donald Hawkins said. “It’s Johnathan, you know? The guy who's always smiling, always encouraging people. To see him on crutches was surprising.”

What didn’t shock fullback Alex De La Torre was the way Gray reacted. When he went down near the sideline, he unbuckled his chinstrap, took off his helmet and asked for some help.

“I don’t think he even yelled when he got hurt,” De La Torre said. “He was just like, ‘Hey, I’m hurt.’”

If the former five-star recruit is hurting right now, he’s hiding it well. Gray was all smiles on Monday, in his boot and crutches, and is staying overwhelmingly positive about the setback.

He believes in juniors Malcolm Brown and Joe Bergeron. He’s confident they can handle the workload and get the job done against No. 12 Oklahoma State on Saturday.

That duo is now responsible for powering an offense that has averaged more than 49 carries per game in the past month. And Gray will be with them throughout, barking out orders as a volunteer running backs coach in practice and offering his in-game encouragement when he returns to the sidelines.

“We've got a good thing going for us: defense playing well, offense playing well, special teams playing well. Anyone can step up and play any position on this team,” Gray said. “We have talent on this team. I told the guys to keep going forward and keep my goal in mind, and that’s to win out and make it to a good BCS bowl and win that.”

Co-offensive coordinator Major Applewhite said Gray has always been one to choose optimism. His running back had the same smile when Texas was 1-2 as he did after beating Oklahoma. The attitude is infectious, and Gray will have a presence in the locker room no matter his health.

And just as Gray will tell you, Texas isn’t necessarily sunk without him. The four backs left -- Brown, Bergeron, Daje Johnson and Jalen Overstreet -- have combined for 3,130 career rushing yards and 45 touchdowns.

Applewhite spent the last five years coaching Texas running backs. He knows what he’s working with. When it comes to Brown and Bergeron, the coaching staff will ride the hot hand on Saturday.

“The carries and the rotation, except for certain situations, is kind of handled by how they’re playing and how they’re taking care of the ball,” Applewhite said. “Both those guys will play a whole bunch.”

Gray wants to be there for them. He can't be on the sideline Saturday afternoon, but coach Mack Brown made sure Gray and defensive tackle Chris Whaley join everyone else at the team hotel this weekend. He wants them to miss out on as little as possible.

Teammates say they’ll miss Gray as much off the field as on it, but the ever-faithful back says he’ll be fine. He’s keeping his head up. He wants a Big 12 title more than ever now, and he believes his fellow Longhorns can deliver.

“Those guys have nothing but victory in their eyes,” Gray said. “I know they’ll get the job done.”

What to watch in the Big 12: Week 12

November, 14, 2013
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OSUJohn Weast/Getty ImagesClint Chelf and Oklahoma State have to beat Texas in Austin if they hope to keep their conference title hopes alive, as the Cowboys are a game behind the Longhorns and Baylor in the loss column.
Let's take a look at the top storylines in the Big 12 for Week 12:

1. Can Oklahoma State make this a race? The stakes for Oklahoma State this weekend are obvious: Beat Texas and we're looking at a three-team Big 12 title race. Lose, and the Cowboys join Oklahoma on the outside looking in, making the Dec. 7 Bedlam game irrelevant to the conference-title picture. We haven't said that in a long time, have we? The Cowboys have won five straight and face a Texas team missing several key cogs. They've won their last two games in Austin. Do it again and they just might sneak into the top 10.

2. Texas Tech goes for the big upset: The Red Raiders have plenty of motivation this week as the 27-point David to the conference's undefeated green-and-gold Goliath. The team that was once as hyped as any in college football at 7-0 is now staring down the real possibility of ending the season 7-5. Maybe being backed into a corner and underestimated is just what coach Kliff Kingsbury's squad needs this week to end a three-game slide and stun Baylor.

3. Texas offense without Johnathan Gray: One of the best running backs in the Big 12 is done for the season. How will the Longhorns' offense regroup? Expect a heavy workload for the junior duo of Malcolm Brown and Joe Bergeron, and perhaps a few more creative ways to put the ball in the hands of the speedy Daje Johnson. If OSU loads the box to stop the Gray-less run game, can Case McCoy make the throws to beat the Pokes' talented secondary?

4. Baylor's defense tries to do it again: Shutting down Oklahoma in a 41-12 victory last Thursday might've done wonders for the national perception of Baylor's much-improved defense. But there will always be detractors who say Oklahoma was flat-out inept in Waco and that the Bears' performance wasn't conclusive enough. Maybe shutting down Jace Amaro and the rest of the Tech attack in front of a national primetime audience at AT&T Stadium would quiet a few of those remaining doubters.

5. K-State goes for four in a row: Winners of three straight, all by convincing or impressive margins, the Wildcats are enjoying the fruits of their weekly improvement after a tough 2-4 start to the season. A win over TCU makes Kansas State bowl eligible, a feat that seemed unlikely one month ago. Don't sleep on this KSU team -- it might be the Big 12's fourth- or fifth-best squad by year's end.

6. Does West Virginia have gas left in the tank? The Mountaineers have gone to overtime in each of the past two weeks, one a win at TCU and the other a shootout home loss to Texas in which they came up just short. This West Virginia defense is as beat up from an injury standpoint as any in the league. Can the Mountaineers get up for a road game against a Kansas team that plays most foes close? Knowing they need to win out to reach a bowl should be sufficient motivation.

7. Oklahoma offense must answer criticism: As usual, Bob Stoops faced another week full of criticism and second-guessing following a Sooners loss. This time, the public's focus was on quarterback Blake Bell, play-caller Josh Heupel and the sputtering offense that duo is held responsible for, fair or not. This might be a good week to pound the rock and rediscover the run game that was less than impactful against Baylor.

8. TCU trying to keep its bowl hopes alive: If there are two teams nobody in this conference wants to play right now, it might be Kansas State and Baylor. That's all the Horned Frogs have left in 2013, and all they have to play for right now at 4-6 is a puncher's chance at bowl eligibility. The only time Gary Patterson hasn't taken his team bowling was 2004.

9. Is this the week Kansas finally wins? You might've noticed my colleague Jake Trotter boldly went out on a limb and predicted Kansas would pull off a victory over West Virginia on Saturday. The Jayhawks, you might have heard, have lost 27 consecutive Big 12 games and are 0-15 in conference games under Charlie Weis. Will KU reward the bravery of Trotter and its remaining fans and finally notch that elusive victory? If this isn't the week, don't worry, there’s still a game against Iowa State left.

10. Bring it on, Grant Rohach: We're trying to find reason to get excited about an Iowa State offense that just hasn't been able to figure things out this season. Quarterback Sam B. Richardson is still dealing with a thumb injury, so Rohach will get a chance to shake off the jitters from his first career start and give it a go on the road against Oklahoma. Not an ideal situation by any means, but perhaps he can give ISU a spark.

Big 12 predictions: Week 1

August, 29, 2013
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An intriguing opening week in the Big 12, including a pair of neutral-site showdowns with the SEC.

My picks for Week 1 -- and I wouldn’t go to Vegas with them:

FRIDAY

Texas Tech 35, SMU 27: All eyes will be on Texas Tech’s quarterback, whether that’s Davis Webb or fellow true freshman Baker Mayfield. Whoever it is, Eric Ward and Jace Amaro will provide enough support to give Kliff Kingsbury the win in his Tech debut.

[+] EnlargeJake Waters
Peter G. Aiken/Getty ImagesJake Waters' debut at Kansas State comes against a North Dakota State team capable of pulling a surprise.
Kansas State 31, North Dakota State 22: The last time the Bison visited the Sunflower State, they came away with a victory. Even though this game won’t be in Lawrence, the two-time defending FCS champs won’t go out easy. K-State and its veteran offensive line, however, eventually wear down the Bison in the second half as the Wildcats pull away in QB Jake Waters' first start.

SATURDAY

West Virginia 48, William & Mary 14: Running back Charles Sims begins his West Virginia career with a monster debut, prompting the MountaineerS faithful to forget about Tavon Austin. Well, for a night anyway.

No. 13 Oklahoma State 38, Mississippi State 24: Mike Gundy makes good on his word of playing both Clint Chelf and J.W. Walsh. And both quarterbacks shine in a two-quarterback system as the Cowboys defeat an SEC opponent in their opener for the second time in five years.

No. 16 Oklahoma 31, Louisiana-Monroe 14: The Sooners have been dreadful in openers under Bob Stoops, and playing a freshman quarterback doesn’t help things early, either. But Trevor Knight finally finds his groove in the second half and shows everyone why he ultimately beat out Blake Bell for the job.

Baylor 49, Wofford 21: Lache Seastrunk launches his Heisman campaign with a big season debut, but freshman receiver Robbie Rhodes steals the spotlight with a pair of touchdown receptions, showing why he’s been generating so much buzz this preseason.

No. 15 Texas 56, New Mexico State 6: The Longhorns waste no time attacking with their new up-tempo offense and bury the Aggies in the first quarter. The three-headed monster of Jonathan Gray, Malcolm Brown and Joe Bergeron looks crisp, too, racking up 250 yards rushing against a hapless New Mexico State defense.

Iowa State 24, Northern Iowa 21: Sam Richardson carries Iowa State to victory over the always-pesky Panthers with some clutch fourth-quarter passing. In the second half, junior college transfer Aaron Wimberly delivers a run and later a catch both for more than 40 yards, showing signs he might be the game-breaker the Cyclones have been coveting offensively.

No. 12 LSU 26, No. 20 TCU 21: TCU has the front-line talent that LSU does on both sides of the ball. But the Tigers have two advantages: superior depth and the experience of playing in these kinds of games. That proves to be the difference, as LSU strips the Big 12 of a potential weekend sweep.
Recruiting is a fickle beast. Even if your school lands an elite prospect there's no guarantee that player will develop into an difference maker at the college level. It's a realization that makes evaluation just as important as recruiting and landing top prospects. Each year relative unknowns on signing day emerge as playmakers for their college programs in the fall. Here's a look at a signee from each Big 12 school during the past two recruiting cycles (2011 and 2012 signing classes) who has already exceeded expectations.

Baylor

Linebacker Eddie Lackey wasn’t a highlight signee in February 2012. Yet the junior college transfer stepped right in and finished second on the squad with 104 tackles. He had five games with nine tackles or more and intercepted four passes, returning two for touchdowns.

In 2013: Lackey could be even better with a year under his belt. His ability to be comfortable playing in space, while bringing the physical mindset of a linebacker is one of the reasons he could be poised to earn All-Big 12 honors as a senior.

Iowa State

Receiver Quenton Bundrage wasn’t considered a “can’t miss” prospect when he signed with the Cyclones out of Bradenton (Fla.) Manatee High School in February 2011. After a redshirt season, he emerged as a threat for the Cyclones offense as a redshirt freshman with 20 receptions for 232 yards and two touchdowns in 2012.

In 2013: Fellow redshirt freshman Sam Richardson started ISU’s final three games at quarterback, overshadowing Bundrage’s contributions as a newcomer. But the duo could become a important foundation for ISU’s offensive attack over the next three seasons. At 6-foot-2, 187 pounds, Bundrage brings a size/speed combination that can be difficult for Big 12 defenses to handle.

Kansas

Jake Love played small school football at Tonkawa (Okla.) High School, making it unclear how he would transition to the rigors of playing linebacker in the Big 12. Yet, he made an immediate impact after a redshirt season, starting four games in 2012. He finished with 36 tackles, including eight tackles for loss as a redshirt freshman.

In 2013: Love’s playmaking ability became clear in 2012 so he should emerge as a mainstay in KU’s defense. His eight tackles for loss, which ranked second on the squad, are a sign of his active and aggressive approach when he’s on the field.

Kansas State

ESPN.com had him as a two-star prospect along the offensive line, so it’s hard to imagine Cody Whitehair being more overlooked when he signed with the Wildcats in 2011. A versatile lineman who started at guard and tackle at different points during KSU’s Big 12 title season, Whitehair earned honorable mention All-Big 12 honors as a redshirt freshman in 2012.

In 2013: He should join center B.J. Finney as one of the anchors of the Wildcats’ offensive line. His versatility should allow KSU to get creative as they look to find ways to get their five best offensive linemen on the field in 2013.

Oklahoma

Folks in Norman, Okla., barely noticed when Arizona Western running back Damien Williams signed with the Sooners in February 2012. Senior Dominique Whaley was set to return alongside talented juniors Roy Finch and Brennan Clay, making it appear unlikely the junior college transfer would make an immediate impact. But Williams didn’t get the memo, earning the starting job at the beginning of October and finishing with 176 carries for 946 yards and 11 touchdowns.

In 2013: Williams will have to hold off a bevy of talented backs angling for carries in the Sooners backfield, but the senior has proven game-breaking ability that will be difficult to ignore.

Oklahoma State

Receiver Austin Hays was an afterthought on Signing Day 2012. The overlooked prospect outperformed several Cowboys receiver signees who were much more highly regarded in February. He started six games and finished with 29 receptions for 394 yards and two touchdowns.

In 2013: His dependability, ball skills and competitiveness should make him a mainstay in the Cowboys lineup, even though he’s not a game-breaking receiver in the mold of Dez Bryant or Justin Blackmon.

Texas

ESPN.com had Joe Bergeron as a three-star recruit who appeared to be destined to a career buried on the bottom of the depth chart behind the elite running backs the Longhorns were inking. Yet Bergeron made an immediate impact as a freshman and continues to be a productive force in UT's offensive backfield. He's scored 21 touchdowns in two seasons including 16 touchdown runs as a sophomore in 2012.

In 2013: He enters his junior season as UT's best short-yardage runner and should continue to earn carries at running back thanks to his toughness and physical running style.

TCU

Offensive tackle Aviante Collins was a three-star prospect on ESPN.com, far from a recruit with expectations to start immediately. Yet that’s exactly what Collins did, starting all 13 games of his true freshman season. And he showed some versatility by starting games at right and left tackle in 2012.

In 2013: Collins will be a foundational member of TCU’s offensive attack this season. There’s no reason he cannot be a four-year starter for the Horned Frogs and leave a legacy as one of the most productive signees in the Gary Patterson era.

Texas Tech

Jakeem Grant was never going to be considered the prototypical receiver prospect. At 5-foot-6, 163 pounds, it’s a given to have people notice Grant’s size (or lack thereof) before his ability. Size didn’t stop him from becoming one of the most explosive players on the Red Raiders offense as a redshirt freshman, averaging 11.7 yards per touch thanks to his quickness and speed.

In 2013: With Kliff Kingsbury taking over, the new Red Raiders coach will undoubtedly find ways to take advantage of Grant’s speed and open-field ability. His physical gifts are difficult for most opponents to match up with.

West Virginia

Safety Karl Joseph wasn’t a complete unknown when he stepped on campus. Yet nobody could have envisioned Joseph becoming one of the best players on WVU’s defense. He led the Mountaineers with 102 tackles and brought a physical mindset to the secondary.

In 2013: Joseph provides an excellent base upon which a foundation can be built as WVU looks to rebuild its defense. He will bring a physical presence to the Mountaineers secondary for years to come.

Pac-12 bowl primer: Valero Alamo

December, 12, 2012
12/12/12
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This week we'll be taking a snapshot look at all of the bowl games including Pac-12 teams.

No. 23 Texas (8-4, 5-4 Big 12) vs. No. 13 Oregon State (9-3, 6-3)

Where: San Antonio, Texas, Alamodome

When: Sat. Dec. 29, 6:45 p.m. ET/3:45 PT

TV: ESPN

About Oregon State: What a wild year it's been for the Beavers, who have flipped last season's mark of 3-9 to 9-3. From the strange start of postponing the season opener to the quarterback switches, Oregon State has dealt with some bizarre distractions -- but it has also endured through it all. Quarterbacks Sean Mannion and Cody Vaz continue to be locked in a quarterback competition. But whoever gets the start will have one of the nation's best wide receiver duos to work with. And for as explosive as OSU's passing game has been with Markus Wheaton and Brandin Cooks (both 1,000-yard receivers), the defense has been just as potent, allowing fewer than 20 points per game. OSU went 2-2 vs. ranked competition this season, topping Wisconsin and UCLA in consecutive weeks, then falling to Stanford and Oregon late in the year.

About Texas: Like the Beavers, the Longhorns have quarterback issues. While we wait for Beavers coach Mike Riley's decision, we too must wait for Texas' Mack Brown to decide between Case McCoy and David Ash. Texas lost its final two games, against TCU and No. 6 Kansas State. Ash, who started the first 11 games, was benched against the Horned Frogs, and McCoy started the season finale against Kansas State. Twice the Longhorns couldn't hold a lead against No. 8 West Virginia (48-45), and they were routed by No. 13 Oklahoma (65-21) and dismissed by Kansas State (42-24). Their only victory against a ranked team was a 31-22 win at Texas Tech.

Key players, Oregon State: It starts with Wheaton and Cooks -- who have combined for 152 catches, 2,327 yards and 16 touchdowns. This pair represents the best mismatch for the Beavers, so whichever quarterback wins the gig, look for them to get this duo involved early and often. Defensively, All-American cornerback Jordan Poyer leads a defense that has 19 interceptions this season, which ranks sixth in the country. He has seven of those interceptions and returned one for a touchdown.

Key players, Texas: The Longhorns can score. They average just north of 36 points per game, and the two-back system of Johnathan Gray and Joe Bergeron has been pretty successful. Gray, a freshman, is the smaller, speedier back (though he has pretty good size at 5-11, 207). Bergeron (6-1, 230) is a sophomore and has 16 rushing touchdowns. He's the thunder to Gray's lightening. All-conference defensive end Alex Okafor can be disruptive. He's got a team best eight sacks, and 12 tackles for a loss this season.

Did you know: This is the third meeting between the schools and Texas has won both, the last coming in 1987 ... Texas' last and only appearance in the Alamo Bowl was in 2006 when it defeated Iowa 26-24 ... This is Texas' 14th bowl appearance in 15 seasons under Brown ... this is Oregon State's first appearance in the Alamo Bowl and first postseason appearance since 2009 ... The Beavers are 5-1 in bowl games under Mike Riley ... Oregon State has been ranked for a school record 11 consecutive weeks in the AP poll.
Texas followed up its two-game losing streak with three straight conference wins, the latest a 33-7 win over Iowa State at Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium Saturday. With the win the Longhorns (8-2, 5-2) reached eight wins, the same total they had in all of 2011. Iowa State (5-5, 2-5) is still one win away from bowl eligibility but does have Kansas still on the schedule.

It was over when: Texas put its third first-half touchdown on the board when quarterback David Ash hit Barrett Matthews on a 3-yard strike. The score gave Texas a 20-0 lead. Anthony Fera missed the extra point. While the Longhorns defense has not been stellar, a 20-point cushion was more than enough for Texas to be able to control the rest of the game.

Stat of the game: Ash was 13-of-14 for 245 yards and two touchdowns in the first half. The sophomore quarterback hit his first eight passes, one of which was a 61-yard touchdown to Mike Davis. That is the second week in a row Ash has hit Davis for a deep touchdown pass. Last week, Ash hit Davis for a 75-yard score.

Stat of the game, part 2: The Longhorns rolled up 611 yards and averaged 8.0 yards per play. It's the second time this season the Longhorns have topped 600 yards. They had 676 in a win against Ole Miss. On the flip side, Iowa State managed just 277 yards. That's the second time in the last three games that Texas has limited an opponent to less than 300 total yards. Kansas had just 273.

Game ball goes to: Texas running back Joe Bergeron. The sophomore has been the second, third or fourth option with the emergence of Johnathan Gray, Daje Johnson and D.J. Monroe. But Texas continued to go to Bergeron against Iowa State and he continued to produce. Bergeron averaged 7.2 yards per carry and totaled 86 yards. Bergeron's ability to move the ball allowed Texas to get in a position on second and third down and open up the playbook.

What it means for Texas: The Longhorns can still hold on to the hope that the season could end with a BCS game. The chances are remote and rely on Kansas State and Oklahoma losing games in which they are favored. The more likely scenario for Texas is to split the last two games and finish with a Cotton or Alamo Bowl berth.

What it means for Iowa State: The Cyclones are still searching for their sixth win. They travel to Kansas next week in what should be their best opportunity to get that win.
Every February, a wheelbarrow full of five-star recruits makes a deposit on the campus at the University of Texas.

Under Mack Brown, reeling in one of the nation's top classes has become an annual tradition. It's hard to stick out. Even still, running back Johnathan Gray came to Texas with as much or more hype as any signee under Brown.

[+] EnlargeJohnathan Gray
Michael C. Johnson/US PresswireFreshman Johnathan Gray is Texas' leading rusher this season with 533 yards.
That's what happens when you're the Gatorade National Player of the Year and score 205 rushing touchdowns, more than any running back in high school football history. Oh, and there's also that matter of his 10,908 rushing yards, more than all but two running backs in the history of high school football.

All five-star prospects are not created equal.

With last year's leading rusher, Malcolm Brown, shelved and/or banged up the past couple weeks, Gray's chance has come early. He's taken advantage with his first two career 100-yard games, racking up 111 yards against Kansas and 106 yards last week against Texas Tech, both times setting his career high for carries, with 18 and 20, respectively.

"We’re very excited about what Johnathan’s done. He’s done what we expected him to do," Mack Brown said. "He’s very mature. He’s tough, he’s fast, he’s a very smart football player."

Part of that comes from playing the game from the time he was in grade school. Having a father in James Gray who was an All-American running back at Texas Tech can't hurt, either. Gray's first 100-yard game came in Lubbock, where his father played from 1986-89 and was one of the best backs in Red Raiders history, scoring 52 rushing touchdowns to set the Southwestern Conference all-time record.

Gray's making an impact despite not enrolling early in the spring and showing up to campus over the summer like the majority of his classmates. Brown credits the 5-foot-11, 207-pound true freshman's maturity for his early impact.

"He’s very tough but he loves football. He’s so competitive," Brown said. "He practices every day in practice the same way he plays in a game and that’s a very good attribute for a young freshman."

Brown's scored just one touchdown this season compared to teammate Joe Bergeron's 16, but he's averaged 5.28 yards on his 101 carries. In a season when most expected Gray to make only slight contributions, he's leading the team in rushing.

"Johnathan's gotten better week to week. He's prepared more. He's had more opportunities and he's taken advantage of those," offensive coordinator Bryan Harsin told reporters this week. "That's what anybody that plays, when they have an opportunity to take advantage of it, and he's continued to do that. He needs to have that mindset this week in practice. Take advantage of your opportunities, be prepared, and do your job."

Gray's opportunities have come thanks to a lingering ankle injury from Brown, but his own efforts have put him atop the team's rushing race and eighth in the Big 12 as a true freshman. Along the way, he's proven that if Texas needs him to be a featured back, he'll have the ability to deliver. The best news: He'll only continue to get better.

"He’s so competitive. That’s what you didn’t know," Brown said. "He works so hard every day in practice that you’re not surprised when you watch him accomplish what he does on game day."

What to watch in the Big 12: Week 11

November, 8, 2012
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Here's what I'm keeping an eye on in the Big 12 this week.

1. Sit him down if he sees birdies circling his head. Kansas State coach Bill Snyder sounds optimistic about quarterback Collin Klein's status this week, but will the Heisman front-runner be on the field? And if he is, will he look like his usual self? Will the K-State offense dial back the designed runs for him to try to protect whatever ails him? All pressing questions -- and we likely won't know the answers until Saturday night.

2. He's back ... then he wasn't. Is he back again? Wes Lunt looked good at times on Saturday, but the freshman quarterback made some costly mistakes in Oklahoma State's loss to Kansas State and missed much of the game with an undisclosed injury of his own. Lunt looks good playing the position, but the decision-making is a legitimate issue at this point. Will he be back on the field against West Virginia this week?

3. Fool's gold? Or growth for the Eers? Speaking of, West Virginia's defense showed up for most of the game against TCU last week, holding the Frogs to the second-fewest total yards WVU had given up in conference play. The 94-yard score to tie the game marred that improvement, but can WVU keep it rolling this week against Oklahoma State? The coaches liked the improvement they saw coming off the bye week. Is it legitimate?

4. Amon for a change in Fort Worth. (I'm sorry.) TCU hasn't won at home since Sept. 22 and is 0-2 in Big 12 play at home this year, with a lopsided loss to Iowa State and a heartbreaking loss to Texas Tech in triple overtime. TCU has played its best ball away from home, but can it change those fortunes this week?

5. Where there's a Williams, there's a way. Oklahoma's secondary is all kinds of legit, but the Sooners haven't faced a receiver anything like the caliber of Baylor's Terrance Williams. Can he break loose and have a big game after catching the historic game winner against the Sooners last year? If Baylor's going to spring the upset, that has to happen. The Biletnikoff front-runner leads the nation in receiving and averages nearly 170 yards a game.

6. An encore for George. Iowa State's Jeremiah George racked up 17 tackles last week filling in for injured linebacker Jake Knott. He'll get a huge task this week against a powerful Texas running game that's back to full strength, finally. Can he keep that going this week? He'll have a solid running mate in experienced A.J. Klein, but neither can do it alone.

[+] EnlargeJames Sims
Cal Sport Media via AP ImagesIf James Sims can crack 100 yards for a sixth straight game, maybe Kansas' Big 12 skid cracks, too.
7. Another set of legs can go a long way. Johnathan Gray has played outstanding with Malcolm Brown sidelined the past few weeks. The true freshman has his first two career 100-yard games while Joe Bergeron has vultured his way to 16 rushing touchdowns, fourth-most nationally. With Brown back now from injury, can Texas' backfield keep using fresh legs to boost its effectiveness?

8. Who's it going to be? Seems like every week it's a new featured receiver for Oklahoma's offense. Kenny Stills gets it done, then it's Sterling Shepard, then it's Jalen Saunders. Then back to Stills with a sprinkling of Justin Brown. Who emerges this week against a porous Baylor defense? Lots of receptions to be had.

9. Six is the magical number. James Sims has five 100-yard games in a row, the first Kansas back to do that since 1974. He's been an amazing bright spot in another dark season in Lawrence. Can he do it again against Texas Tech and give the Jayhawks a fighting chance to end their 18-game losing streak in Big 12 play? If KU had Sims earlier in the season, it likely would have three wins.

10. No time to feel sorry for yourself. Texas Tech got off to a hot 6-1 start, but its season is at a bit of a crossroads. Can it take care of business and play well against Kansas, winning convincingly? Or will it slip up and let KU make it a game? Tech got beat pretty soundly a week ago, but is it going to throw a pity party or take out its anger against the Jayhawks in Lubbock? We'll learn a little bit about this team this week after last week's disheartening loss. The Big 12 title is almost certainly off the board, but can the Red Raiders stay committed?

Big 12 helmet stickers: Week 8

October, 21, 2012
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Time to hand out some hardware for a job well done this week. Your stickers are in the mail, gentlemen.

Joe Bergeron, RB, Texas: Bergeron rumbled over Baylor's defense for five touchdowns in Saturday's 56-50 win. It's his second game in three weeks with at least four scores and he led the Longhorns with 117 yards on 19 carries, including three on the final drive to milk the clock and ice the win.

J.W. Walsh, QB, Oklahoma State: Walsh started again in place of Wes Lunt and became the second freshman quarterback to throw for 400 yards this season for the Cowboys. Walsh was under control and used a steady diet of runs and passes to keep a very good Iowa State defense on its heels. He finished with 415 yards and a touchdown on 32-of-47 passing and ran for 46 yards and a score in the 31-10 win over the No. 24 Cyclones.

Seth Doege, QB, Texas Tech: Doege set a school record with seven touchdown passes and hit Alex Torres for an eight-yarder to beat TCU 56-53 in triple overtime on the road on Saturday. Doege finished with 318 yards on 30-of-42 passing and hit his stride after a rough start.

Collin Klein, QB, Kansas State: Klein controlled the 55-14 win from start to finish and took advantage of a weak West Virginia defense, completing 19 of 21 passes for a career-high 323 yards and three touchdowns. He also rushed for 41 yards and four touchdowns, his first career game with at least three touchdowns on the ground and through the air.

Landry Jones, QB, Oklahoma: Jones is back in a bit of a groove after that Kansas State loss. He hit on 19 of 28 passes for 291 yards and three touchdowns in an easy 52-7 win over Kansas. Oklahoma ran just 51 plays, too.
When Oklahoma State quarterback Wes Lunt went down nearly two weeks ago, he clutched his left knee immediately and writhed in pain.

It was easy to fear the worst.

In the days that followed, those fears proved unfounded. Lunt's injury, Oklahoma State said, wasn't as bad as previously believed. He might be back in a couple of weeks, maybe longer.

Would he play against Texas on Saturday, though? Coach Mike Gundy said there wouldn't be any official word until a day before the game when Oklahoma State traditionally releases its injury report.

The Cowboys don't seem too keen on updating Lunt's status, but they've been more forthcoming than most.

He'll probably practice later in the week after getting out of a knee immobilizer, Gundy said. There would be more word on his status on Friday.

Gundy has been reasonably forthcoming with his high-profile injury, but as Pac-12 dust-ups have pushed injury information to the forefront, should Gundy and his colleagues be set on equal ground when it comes to what they do and don't have to reveal about injuries?

"I don’t know that you could ever control it," Gundy said. His Friday report, though basic and terse, is more than some coaches across the league offer.

"Whether you could regulate it at the college level, I don’t know that it would ever be consistent," Gundy said. "One coach could say a guy is probable and he’s really not, so I don’t know how you’d ever really measure and get a feel for what the exact injury report would be."

Kansas coach Charlie Weis will answer questions from the media on Tuesdays, using an NFL-style scale. If a player has a 75 percent chance to play, Weis will tell the media he's "probable." If he's questionable, he's got a 50 percent chance to play. Doubtful, 25 percent.

"I think that you have to understand on the one hand, you don’t want to be giving your opponent any information they don’t need to know. On the other hand, I think the writers and reporters have an ethical responsibility to try to do their job," Weis said. "The thing is, how many people are going to give you an honest evaluation? That really is a bit subjective, but there’s always going to be gray area when it comes to injuries, and because there’s nothing uniform, there’s no value in trying to tell everyone what’s going on injury-wise because the other guys don’t have to do the same thing."

Weis' in-state rival, Kansas State coach Bill Snyder, won't ever address a player's injury. Some schools only address injuries if they're season-ending.

[+] EnlargeTommy Tuberville
John Albright / Icon SMI "It doesn't do any good to hide anything [about injuries,]" coach Tommy Tuberville said. "There probably needs to be somewhere, somehow looked into a national way to do it. Everybody on the same page. "
Texas Tech, though?

"There’s so much information that comes out on Facebook and Twitter that even gets around us a little bit. We’re one of those we just tell how it is, when it is, how it happened," Texas Tech coach Tommy Tuberville said. "It doesn’t do any good to hide anything. There probably needs to be somewhere, somehow looked into a national way to do it. Everybody on the same page."

Like Weis, Texas coach Mack Brown favors an NFL-style injury report early in the week. Brown says he'll bring up the idea at the league's spring meetings next year.

In order to report injuries on a consistent basis like that, however, schools may have to get around federal HIPA laws that protect the privacy of students' health.

More challenges await coaches, too.

"You’ve watched us around here, we try to be as honest as we can," Brown said.

The Longhorns are dealing with injury issues of their own, waiting to see if running back Joe Bergeron (shoulder), linebacker Jordan Hicks (hip) and kicker Anthony Fera (groin) will be available when the Horns play at Oklahoma State on Saturday.

"It’s a very difficult thing for coaches, because you don’t know. ... Things change," Brown said. "When people ask to evaluate or give an evaluation from your doctors and trainers on Sunday or Monday and then maybe you say they get ready to play and they get hurt on Wednesday. I think that’s maybe something we can all talk about and see how much information you can give out and what’s best to give out and trying to be honest and fair. It’s a very difficult thing."

At Texas, Brown can only tell the media exactly what trainers tell him, and assistant coaches aren't allowed to talk about injuries.

"If you say a guy can play and he goes and has a pulled muscle on Tuesday, it looks like you lied, so it is a difficult thing," Brown said. "If you’re coming off injuries, you’re not going to practice them at the same speed you do other guys in some cases, so you may not know until game time whether they’re ready to play."

The only thing anyone knows for sure is coaches are torn on a weekly basis with so much variance and so little information required.

How much information should be given? Should it always be the right information? Do you endanger players by giving out too much? The conversation has arrived, and it sounds like there'll be plenty more when the season is over.

"I really wish that either across the board we’d have no comment or maybe we go to an NFL style and the trainers are the only ones that can comment and you have to come forth with it, and if it’s wrong, there’s some penalty," Brown said. "I don’t know, but we’re all over the place with injuries right now and it’s a very difficult thing to do."

Big 12 predictions: Week 3

September, 13, 2012
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Time for another set of predictions after a rough time in Week 2.

Let's get it started.

Last week: 5-3 (.625)

Season record: 14-3 (.824)

No. 15 TCU 44, Kansas 17: If Kansas had looked impressive last week against Rice, this would have looked like a very dangerous game for Big 12 newbie TCU. But the Jayhawks lost, giving Rice its first-ever win over a Big 12 opponent. Inexcusable. TCU's defense still has a lot to prove, but KU won't be able to slow down TCU on the ground or through the air, even at home.

Oklahoma State 51, Louisiana-Lafayette 24: The Ragin' Cajuns will be an interesting test for Oklahoma State's defense, which suddenly is offering plenty of reason for doubt. The offense should be fine, though, as long as the receivers tighten up and help quarterback Wes Lunt out by not dropping passes. Lunt racked up 436 yards last week in his first road start, and only one of his three interceptions was his fault.

No. 8 West Virginia 61, James Madison 13: Another week, another 60-pointer. JMU will control the clock early and frustrate the Mountaineers, who will spend a lot of time in the end zone over the final three quarters.

Baylor 55, Sam Houston State 20: If Baylor turns it over, this game could get scary quickly. Sam Houston State is better than the average college football fan realizes. The problem? So is Baylor. It should be another huge night for quarterback Nick Florence.

No. 14 Kansas State 38, North Texas 13: Lance Dunbar cannot save you now, Mean Green. Coach Dan McCarney is a good fit in Denton, but K-State is playing ridiculously good football, and nobody on North Texas' front line will be able to stop the Wildcats' running game.

Texas Tech 51, New Mexico 14: New Mexico is not very good. The jury is still out on Texas Tech, which finishes up its cupcake platter with the Lobos, winners of one game a year ago. We should see a good performance here on both sides of the ball for Texas Tech. We still don't know anything about the Red Raiders. Suit up for Iowa State in two weeks.

Iowa State 38, Western Illinois 10: How long until all the FCS games are done? Running back Shontrelle Johnson will get back into the groove with another 100-yard outing.

No. 12 Texas 24, Ole Miss 13: U-G-L-Y. This one should be interesting and filled with three-and-outs. Ultimately, Texas' running game will be too much late. Joe Bergeron and Malcolm Brown should punish the Ole Miss front seven and control possession in the fourth quarter, not allowing Ole Miss to rally late.
The 2011 season was unkind to Big 12 running backs from Ames to Austin, but nobody suffered a worse injury than Texas Tech's Eric Stephens.

"He tore pretty much everything," coach Tommy Tuberville said of his back, who also dislocated his knee. Doctors gave the swelling in Stephens' knee more than a month to calm down before operating.

[+] EnlargeEric Stephens
AP Photo/Sharon EllmanTexas Tech RB Eric Stephens tore both the ACL and MCL in his left knee late last season.
Saturday, he'll finally make his return to the field. Tuberville says he'll likely start, with a target of 10-15 touches.

"We discussed that. It could be less or could be more. It just depends on the situation, how he’s doing, how he reacts," he said.

Stephens performed well in fall camp after suffering the injury early last season, derailing a likely 1,000-yard season that would have been Tech's first since 1998. The only noticeable difference now is Stephens is a little overweight and looks about 90-95 percent of his usual self.

"That’s not the knee problem, he just hasn’t played football in a long time," Tuberville said. "I don’t think physically there’s a problem at all. I’m sure he’s more than 100 percent ready to go with the knee. ... I’ve never had a serious injury like that, but I can just imagine being a major college running back and getting hit all around high and low for the first time in 10-11 months, it’d be awful tough mentally."

The offseason was rough on Iowa State's Shontrelle Johnson mentally, too. Doctors doubted whether he'd return to the game after suffering a neck injury last year against Texas. He missed the spring, but doctors cleared him just before fall camp and his long-awaited return is set for Saturday afternoon against Tulsa.

"Shontrelle’s done an excellent job and had zero ill effects coming back from neck surgery this offseason," Iowa State coach Paul Rhoads said. "He’ll be on the field early. If camp is any indication, we think he’s ready to go."

Oklahoma senior running back Dominique Whaley suffered an ugly broken ankle when a player landed on the back of his legs in a win over Kansas State. He'll be on the field early for the Sooners after earning the starting job once again.

"In my mind he looks to be back to what Dom always was, that's explosive, strong, fast," Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops said. Whether he's 100 percent or not, maybe only he and the good Lord really know. But he sure looks it to me. I'm hopeful that will be the case."

Oklahoma rival running backs Joe Bergeron and Malcolm Brown of Texas were banged up with various minor injuries last season, but a renewed focus on health, diet and fitness has hopes high that the duo will be able to stay on the field in 2012.

The running back whose status is most in doubt? West Virginia's Dustin Garrison. The sophomore led the Mountaineers in rushing as a freshman, but suffered an injury later than any other Big 12 back. He tore his ACL in preparation for the Mountaineers' 70-33 win over Clemson in the Orange Bowl.

Soreness led coaches to give him a few days off last week, but if he doesn't respond well to practice this week, he could redshirt in 2012, ceding the starting spot to bigger back Shawne Alston, a senior.

"The plan all along has been get him to game week and then get him out there and see what happens," Mountaineers coach Dana Holgorsen said.

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