NCF Nation: Marcus Mendoza
Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin
Iowa State 31, North Dakota State 17 (Thursday): The Paul Rhoads era begins Thursday in Ames against a tricky opponent in the Bison, who are 3-2 in their last five games against FBS opponents -- including a victory at Minnesota in 2007. They’ll challenge a young Iowa State team struggling to find its identity on defense. But even with those uncertainties, Craig Bohl’s team likely won’t have enough offense to stick with Austen Arnaud and Co. in their first game running Tom Herman’s no-huddle defense.
Baylor 31, Wake Forest 28: The Bears learned their lesson last season in Waco, falling into an early 17-0 deficit before losing a 41-13 blowout. Art Briles decided not to start Robert Griffin in that game, but he’s been in the Bears’ starting lineup ever since. The key will be the performance of new Baylor tackles Danny Watkins and Phillip Blake, who will protect Griffin from Wake Forest’s pass rush. Wake Forest starting defensive ends Tristan Dorty and Kyle Wilber have accounted for only seven career starts and will be outweighed by more than 50 pounds per man by the Baylor tackles. The Bears rushed for at least 200 yards in four of the last five games last season. If they can maintain that balance with Griffin’s passing on Saturday, they can steal an upset victory.
Oklahoma State 34, Georgia 31: Mike Gundy’s team comes into this game with more hype than any Oklahoma State team in history with the highest national ranking to start the season. The Cowboys will face a couple of potentially troubling personnel losses after starting tight end Jamal Mosley (quit team) and starting middle linebacker Orie Lemon (season-ending knee injury) were lost earlier this week. The Cowboys won’t be facing a team unaccustomed to road success as Mark Richt’s team is an incredible 30-4 on the road, including a 5-2 road record against top 10 teams. The Bulldogs will be a physical challenge and hammer away at the Oklahoma State defense that struggled late last season. But I’m expecting the Oklahoma State offensive triplets to prove too much for Georgia in a shootout.
Illinois 35, Missouri 31: The Illini are looking to turn the tables after losing four straight against the Tigers in the annual Arch Rivalry since it returned to St. Louis in 2002. Missouri quarterback Blaine Gabbert will make his first career start, only a few long touchdowns passes from his old high school in the St. Louis area. Missouri linebacker Sean Weatherspoon has played big against the Illini in previous seasons with two interceptions last season. He’s promised to “squeeze the pulp” out of Illinois quarterback Juice Williams again this season. But in the end, Williams’ experience and play-making abilities will prove to be a little much for the Tigers to overcome.
Nebraska 45, Florida Atlantic 17: Zac Lee makes his first career start as the Cornhuskers attempt to build on momentum that saw them finish with a four-game winning streak, punctuating that with a Gator Bowl victory over Clemson. It will be important for the Cornhuskers to get a lot of work for an inexperienced set of running backs that features only two players -- Roy Helu Jr. and Marcus Mendoza -- with previous college experience. The Cornhuskers will face old rival Howard Schnellenberger, who claimed a memorable national championship while at Miami by beating them in the 1984 Orange Bowl. The Owls are coming off a victory over Central Michigan in the Motor City Bowl. Quarterback Rusty Smith was the MVP of that game and comes into the contest as the Sun Belt Conference’s leading career passer. But look for Nebraska’s talented defensive front to repeatedly pressure him and set the tone for the victory.
Oklahoma 48, BYU 20: The Sooners and Cougars christen the Dallas Cowboys’ new stadium in Arlington, Texas, in its first college football game. Both teams are alike on offense as they have standout quarterbacks and tight ends and rebuilt offensive lines that are question marks coming into the game. Look for Oklahoma’s dominance along the defensive front to be the difference in this game, helping to extend BYU’s losing streak of 12 games to ranked nonconference opponents. BYU quarterback Max Hall struggled against better opponents last season and will be flummoxed by Oklahoma’s veteran defense that returns nine starters from last season.
Texas A&M 28, New Mexico 17: Mike Sherman and the Aggies will be looking for a better start than last season, when they dropped a season-opening loss to Arkansas State that deflated much of his momentum in starting the program. Look for the Aggies to play better Saturday with improved play in the trenches after their struggles last season. A&M running backs Cyrus Gray and Christine Michael should be primed to dictate the pace.
Texas 51, Louisiana-Monroe 7: The Longhorns start off a pillow-soft nonconference schedule and shouldn’t face much of a challenge from the War Hawks, who finished 4-8 last season and were picked to finish seventh in the Sun Belt this season. Colt McCoy returns for his fourth season as starter and the Longhorns’ offense should prove multiple problems for the smaller Louisiana-Monroe team. Watch for Texas to try to feature Vondrell McGee as it hopes to give him a chance to grow into a comfortable role in the offense. The Longhorns have won their last nine openers by a margin of 43 points. This one should be right in that range.
Kansas 55, Northern Colorado 10: Mark Mangino’s team comes in with more hype about a potential Big 12 North title than in any previous season in school history. The Jayhawks shouldn’t be challenged much by a Northern Colorado team that was 1-10 last season and has lost its last two openers to FBS schools by an average of 44.5 points per game. Look for Todd Reesing and an explosive set of Kansas wide receivers to have a huge night against the outmanned Bears.
Texas Tech 56, North Dakota 10: It’s a name the margin game for the Red Raiders, who will be trying to build the confidence of a developing offense keyed by new quarterback Taylor Potts. Mike Leach has won six straight openers, scoring an average of 45.7 points per game. I’m expecting a big offensive showing by a group intent on showing it still has firepower even after Graham Harrell and Michael Crabtree are gone.
Kansas State 31, Massachusetts 14: It’s reunion weekend as Bill Snyder returns to the sideline to begin his second tour of duty after a three-season sabbatical. Carson Coffman will get the nod at quarterback and celebrated junior college transfer Daniel Thomas gets the start at running back. The Minutemen hope for better luck than their last game against a Big 12 team when they were blown out at Texas Tech last season. Look for them to stay closer, but they'll be facing too much emotion for them to overcome in Manhattan with Snyder’s return.
Colorado 24, Colorado State 14 (Sunday): Dan Hawkins plans to wait until game day to name his starter. It shouldn’t matter if the Buffaloes’ running attack plays to its level against a CSU defensive front that allowed 190 rushing yards last season and returns only one starter. Colorado State is inexperienced at quarterback and the Buffaloes should prevail -- no matter who is their quarterback.
Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin
Nebraska I-back Roy Helu Jr. already was prepared to shoulder his share of trying to make the Cornhuskers’ offense productive heading into this season.
As the Cornhuskers attempt to break in a new starting quarterback and two new wide receivers, Helu and the backfield were expected to be the integral part of the team’s offense.
But that preparation for Helu intensified Aug. 22 when Quentin Castille was dismissed from the team because of an undisclosed violation of team rules. The move means that a Cornhuskers offense that was already expected to lean on Helu will likely be depending on him even more when Nebraska starts the season Saturday against Florida Atlantic.
“As a unit, I don’t know how it will affect us,” Helu said. “I think it’s inevitable with me and the other I-backs that we’ll get more work. And absolutely, I’m ready for it.”
Helu and converted wide receiver Marcus Mendoza are the only Nebraska backs with previous college carries.
“Practice is already a lot different now,” Helu said. “I’m excited to see what happens for us this year. It will definitely be a challenge. But I’m looking forward to it."
Helu rushed for 803 yards last season to lead the Cornhuskers, averaging 6.42 yards per carry to lead the team’s primary ball carriers.
And he really came on late in the season, producing three games with at least 100 yards in his final four regular-season games, topped with career-best totals of 25 carries and 166 yards in the Cornhuskers’ victory over Colorado.
With the 235-pound Castille, Helu was expected to contribute to a bruising running style that had earned them the nickname “Thunder and Lightning.”
Now, Helu is bracing for additional work that he had hoped for when he chose Nebraska over BYU, California and Oregon after playing high school football in Danville, Calif.
“It’s been a blessing to come to school here,” Helu said. “They have a strong appreciation for the I-back here and I thank the Lord that I’ve chosen a place where I can run the ball.”
Whether he’s still feeling that way after 30 or 35 carries every Saturday still is to be determined. But Helu is excited about the chance to help his team.
Nebraska offensive coordinator Shawn Watson vowed that Castille’s departure won’t affect his plans for the Cornhuskers’ offense.
“We have a philosophy and we just plug players in,” Watson said. “It won’t change. We’ll do what we would have done with Quentin here, but we have younger players we are developing and move on. We don’t feel sorry for ourselves. We just move forward.”
The move will be helped by having Helu, who has bulked up to about 218 pounds after playing below 200 pounds late last season, physically ready for an increased workload.
“He’s just an awesome back for us,” Watson said. “He’s one of those kids you point to and tell the others that’s what you want them to be like. The tempo he brings to our practices is incredible and he’s just a phenomenal practice player. He’s been a great example for us and we break the new backs in.”
Helu actually told reporters late in the Cornhuskers’ training camp, only a couple of days before Castille was jettisoned, that Castille was at that point the best running back on the Nebraska football team.
“He’s a better player than me right now, and he has been for awhile,” Helu said.
Helu and Castille have developed a close friendship during their time at Nebraska. Castille discussed his playing opportunities with Helu after he left the Cornhuskers until he finally landed at Northwestern State, where he will be eligible immediately and could see action in the Demons’ opener against Houston on Saturday.
“A decision was made from Quentin’s standpoint that affected our team,” Helu said. “Collectively, we as a team talked about it. It [his dismissal] was the best thing for him and for us. We have moved on and wish good things for him as well. I communicate with him nearly every day and hope he’s going to do well with his new school.”
The Cornhuskers were chosen by the Big 12 media as the preseason favorites in the North Division. But that selection obviously was made before Castille’s dismissal and led some to back off on their earlier predictions.
For his part, Helu said he doesn’t care where the Cornhuskers are picked.
“Nothing matters at all to us,” Helu said. “It’s the preseason. It doesn’t mean much one way or the other. Of course, it’s flattering, but in no means is it final or will it decide if we’ve won or lost. We just have to go out and play strong.”
The Cornhuskers are a confident bunch after last season, when they claimed their final four games, capped by the Gator Bowl to finish with a four-game winning streak. That late charge helped the Cornhuskers claim a share of the Big 12 North Division championship and catapults them into 2009 tied with Texas for the longest winning streak in the conference.
“Once we won those games, we had so much confidence and momentum to finish up,” Helu said. “It rolled right in to a great spring and we looked like a new team. Then we went out and developed in fall camp, learning as we went. It’s a process and we’re pushing to keep things going once the season starts.”
Posted by ESPN.com'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.