Tuesday, April 24, 2007
Spring look around the Big 12
By Tim Griffin
Special to ESPN.com
Is Colorado on the road to recovery? Which quarterback will emerge at Nebraska, Kansas and Texas Tech? Can Baylor improve its running game? Our Big 12 notebook addresses those questions and much more.
Baylor's biggest aim during the spring was to juice production in a struggling running game. The Bears rushed for only 40.2 yards a game last season to rank last nationally. The Bears remain a work in progress after combining for only 33 net rushing yards between the two teams in their spring game. The offense's overall production left a little bit to be desired in the Green's 7-0 victory over the Gold, with the only touchdown coming on an 8-yard pass from QB Blake Szymanski to RB Brandon Whitaker late in the fourth quarter. "It took us a little while to get rolling, but we saw some things that we liked and some that we didn't like," coach Guy Morriss said. "Overall, I think it's been a good spring. We got done what we thought we could get done and feel pretty good about it." Incoming QB Michael Machen has the inside track after the spring to earn the starting position. The 25-year-old former minor-league baseball player's performance has made the starting job "his to lose," according to Morriss. "But we still have a long way to go yet and anyone could step up [and win the job]. So, we'll see," Morriss said.
• Whitaker rushed for 47 yards to lead all rushers in the spring game. "Last year, we were the worst rushing team in the nation. And we kind of took it personal," Whitaker told the Waco Tribune-Herald. "This is a passing offense, but we have to be able to run to open up the pass."
• New defensive coordinator Larry Hoefer's defense produced six sacks in the spring game -- all coming from the defensive line -- and four interceptions. Senior S Zach Jones produced two interceptions and DT Trey Bryant and DE Jason Lamb each notched two sacks. "They've [the defense] come after us all spring," Morriss said. "They put some pressure on us."
• Nine players were held out of the scrimmage with injuries, most notably Baylor starting rover Dwain Crawford. But all nine players are expected to be healthy for the beginning of fall practice. Morriss went out of his way to scotch rumors that the departure of his close friend Bill Bradley to the NFL's San Diego Chargers wasn't on good terms. "Bill has to do what's best for him, his career and his family," Morriss said about his former defensive coordinator. "I know there was some talk we had a fist-fight. That's ridiculous. I'd pound his little behind into submission in a heartbeat."
Colorado coach Dan Hawkins has seen some tangible improvements this spring in comparison with his disappointing first season, when his team limped home with a 2-10 record that was its worst since 1984. Hawkins told the Rocky Mountain News he was impressed with his team's attitude and its focus over the course of spring practice. "I like where we're going," Hawkins told the newspaper. "I kind of see an upward trend in terms of the whole perspective of what we're trying to get done. As the days and months go by, I think you see a little more ownership, more leadership." Offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich described the change as a "180." "We were joking in our locker room that I didn't speak for about an hour after last year's spring game," Helfrich said. "Our guys have really improved a ton, made a lot of progress and stayed healthy. The defense made some plays, but we also made some very correctable mistakes and that wasn't always the case last year." Junior QB Nick Nelson, a transfer from Saddleback (Calif.) College, and redshirt freshman Cody Hawkins shared most of the snaps. Nelson completed only 3 of 10 passes for 30 yards and an interception during the live scrimmage, but improved to 21-of-28 passes for 256 yards, two touchdowns and an interception in 7-on-7 drills. The 7-on-7 drills comprised about half the plays, mainly because the Buffaloes were down to six healthy offensive linemen. Hawkins, son of the Colorado coach, was 12-of-20 for 119 yards for a touchdown and an interception during live action. In 7-on-7 drills, he completed 15 of 23 passes for 182 yards and two touchdowns. "There were a lot of things we did well, a lot of things we could have done better and a lot of things we need to work on for the fall," Cody Hawkins said.
• The most impressive player in the scrimmage was former QB Bernard Jackson, who lined up under center in designed running plays, earning him the nickname of "Slash" from his teammates. Jackson rushed for a team-best 82 yards on nine carries, including a slithering 37-yard TD run. He also saw playing time at wide receiver and produced 96 yards on three kick returns. "It's exciting having all these formations getting thrown at us," Jackson said. "It's just like playing quarterback, except I play at different positions." Converted LB Joe Sanders was one of the surprises of spring camp, developing into the Buffaloes' second-string tight end behind starter Riar Geer. Sanders produced two catches for 28 yards and looked comfortable blocking at the position.
• The spring game attracted a crowd of about 5,800 to Folsom Field.
Iowa State Cyclones
Gene Chizik had been waiting for 22 years to have his first chance to serve as a head coach. He finally got his opportunity at his team's spring scrimmage. Chizik directed one half of his team's spring scrimmage from the offensive side of the field before switching at halftime to work with the defense. "I had a blast," Chizik told reporters after the scrimmage ended. "It was really interesting for me down there." Chizik has spent most of his career as a defensive coordinator or defensive coach and rarely directed his players from the sidelines. "It was the first time I've been on the field in so many years," Chizik said. "It was unique but fun and neat to be with the players." WR R.J. Sumrall emerged as a key producer in the scrimmage, snagging six receptions for 134 yards and a touchdown. "I feel like I'm improving on everything," Sumrall told the Ames Tribune. Iowa State's scrimmage attracted an estimated crowd of about 7,000 fans to Jack Trice Stadium.
• QB Bret Meyer completed 11 of 16 passes for 196 yards and a touchdown to lead the offense to a 31-22 victory over the defense in a scoring system devised by the ISU coaches.
• The biggest key for the Cyclones will be to protect Meyer, who was sacked a Big 12-high 41 times last season and has been sacked 108 times in his three-season career as a starter.
• Converted DB Jason Harris had a big day at running back, rushing for 103 yards on 10 carries, including an 81-yard TD run.
• New defensive coordinator Wayne Bolt sat out last season, undergoing gastric bypass surgery. Bolt weighed more than 500 pounds, but now weighs 248. "It's been a good year for me," Bolt, 51, told the Des Moines Register. "I decided to get my life in order."
• Leading returning receiver Todd Blythe missed the spring scrimmage, the second time he hasn't played in the spring scrimmage in the last three seasons. Chizik did not disclose the nature of Blythe's injury, but told reporters he could have played if it was during the season.
The Kansas quarterback battle between Kerry Meier and Todd Reesing still appears tight. The two quarterbacks combined to throw for 375 yards, alternating snaps with the first-team Blue's 48-0 triumph over the White before an estimated crowd of 8,200 at Memorial Stadium. "I'd like to see one guy emerge as the No. 1 quarterback and be the guy, and I think that's how it will play out," Kansas coach Mark Mangino told reporters after the scrimmage. "But if it doesn't, I think a lot of teams have proven you can with rotating quarterbacks. Our hope is that one guy will emerge as the No. 1 guy, but the No. 2 guy won't be that far behind." Meier completed 13 of 27 passes for 204 yards and two touchdowns. Reesing was 10 of 20 for 171 yards and a touchdown. "Based on the performance today, I think we both stalemated each other again," Meier told reporters after the scrimmage.
• Marcus Henry was a playmaking receiving threat for both quarterbacks, producing 150 yards on six receptions. Three of his catches went for touchdowns, including two touchdowns over converted RB Gary Green, who is just getting his feet wet at the new position of cornerback.
• The biggest need on offense is finding a consistent running threat after the departure of Big 12 rushing leader Jon Cornish. Converted FB Brandon McAnderson was the leading rusher in the spring game, producing 80 yards on 15 carries, including two TDs. Sophomore Jake Sharp, struggling to overcome a sprained ankle, produced 38 yards on seven carries.
• One of the biggest surprises on Kansas' defense has been CB Kendrick Harper, a transfer from Butler County Community College, who has beaten out 2006 starter Anthony Webb at the cornerback position opposite All-Big 12 CB Aqib Talib.
• Joe Mortensen has edged ahead of Mike Rivera at middle linebacker. Rivera led the Jayhawks in tackles last season with 90, earning second-team All-Big 12 honors from the coaches. "That's the type of competition we want to see," Mangino told reporters. "It's a battle, but a friendly battle."
Kansas State Wildcats
The Wildcats are expecting one of the larger spring game crowds in the conference in their April 21 contest, which will be one of the two spring games on that date that will conclude finish Big 12 spring practices.
• Offensive coordinator James Franklin and defensive coordinator Tim Tibesar will be the two coaches in the game. Rosters were set after a draft, with QB Josh Freeman selected as the first pick by Franklin. Tibesar's first pick was senior DE Rob Jackson. "I definitely think this is the way to do it," WR Jordy Nelson said. "It puts a little something else on the game besides being just a normal Saturday scrimmage. I think it's also better for the fans. I watched the Nebraska game [last week] and it was like 40-something to zero. This makes it more of a game instead of just another practice." Despite KSU's famed weak schedules under former coach Bill Snyder, Prince embraces the challenge of a difficult nonconference schedule. The Wildcats will begin and end the season with a pair of difficult nonconference games that will both be nationally televised by ESPN. KSU opens the season Sept. 1 at Auburn and concludes Nov. 24 at Fresno State. "It's an opportunity for us to play on both coasts in major markets," Prince said. "The Auburn game will be very well covered. The Fresno game, they're going to be back to the top of their game this year. That will give us exposure on the West Coast. So from a standpoint of getting out the message about Kansas State and having our logo behind those talking heads on television, that's what this is about."
• Prince had hoped to build crowds this season by opening his Thursday night practices -- a traditionally heavy party night in Manhattan -- at 9 p.m. Inclement weather kept attendance down to about 100 fans who showed up at the Wildcats' indoor practice facility at their most recent Thursday night practice last week. "I don't, yet, have any control over Mother Nature," Prince told reporters who attended the practice, which concluded about 11 p.m. The late finish was especially difficult for OG Logan Robinson, who is rising early to lift weights each morning and then driving to nearly Wamego, Kan., for his student-teaching responsibilities. "My students always know that on Friday, Mr. Robinson is going to be cranky," Robinson told the Wichita Eagle.
Heading into their April 21 spring game, the Tigers have not lined up their five blockers who are expected to comprise their 2007 starting offensive line at any practice this spring. OT Kurtis Gregory is being withheld from contact drills because of offseason surgery for old shoulder and knee injuries. Returning starters OT Tyler Luellen, C Adam Spieker and OG Ryan Madison have participated in all practices along with OG Monte Wyrick, who has been an occasional starter earlier in his career.
• The new kickoff rules moving the ball back to the 30-yard line will have a huge impact for the Tigers, who ranked 115th nationally in kickoff returns and returned the third-fewest kickoffs among Division I-A teams, trailing only Arizona and LSU.
• Former starting Missouri CB Domonique Johnson has transferred to Jackson State. He will be able to begin play immediately for the Division I-AA Southwestern Athletic Conference team.
• Junior safeties William Moore and Mack Breed have turned into playmakers this spring, much to the relief of coach Gary Pinkel. "I think the defensive guys run well and can be a little more physical," Pinkel said. "Potentially, we can be a good defensive team."
• The Missouri defense had a big day in the Tigers' second scrimmage, limiting Missouri running backs to 41 rushing yards on 17 carries and only two carries of 10 yards or more. DE Ziggy Hood set the tone by sacking backup QB Chase Patton for a safety on one of the first plays of the scrimmage. The defense also contributed three takeaways. "They always seem to get the upper hand," S Justin Garrett told the Columbia Daily Tribune. "So today, we had to show them. It was just the defense coming together and deciding, 'Hey, this has gotta stop.'"
• The big effort against the running game was particularly important for a Missouri defense that yielded 184.1 yards rushing yards in conference games to rank 11th in the Big 12. The Tigers were gashed by seven opposing backs who rushed for at least 100 yards last season.
• Despite being entrenched as the starter, Pinkel has been pleased with the development of starting QB Chase Daniel this spring. Even with the job securely his, Daniel has taken his production to a new level in his last several practices. "He has never been one of those guys who sits back and says, 'I'm a pretty good player,'" Pinkel said. "He's working as hard as he ever had, and I'm hoping he'll be a much improved player next year."
Sam Keller and Joe Ganz played to an apparent draw in the Cornhuskers' spring game in their highly publicized battle to replace Zac Taylor as Nebraska's starting quarterback. Both quarterbacks led three touchdown drives as the Red team (made up of first-teamers) cruised to a 38-0 victory before a conference-best crowd of 54,288. Keller and Ganz alternated series. Ganz completed 11 of 18 passes for 157 yards and Keller 10 of 13 passes for 193 yards. "We felt very good about how both of them performed," Nebraska coach Bill Callahan said. "You look at some of the numbers that they posted and it was pretty impressive. I was really pleased with everything they did." Callahan expects their positional battle to drag into fall practice. Keller was expected to claim the starting job after arriving as a transfer from Arizona State, but Ganz has maintained his chance to earn the starting job. The leading rusher in the spring game was I-back Marlon Lucky, who rushed for 94 yards on 16 carries before spraining his left knee early in the fourth quarter of the game. Starting offensive lineman Lydon Murtha injured his ankle in the game. But both players appear in good shape after treatment of their injuries, Callahan said. "It was a very minor sprain of [Lucky's] knee and with Lydon, it looks like everything's going to be fine -- a little soreness for both of them, but they've been cleared and should be in good shape for the fall." Nebraska's defense was overshadowed in the spring game by the quarterback battle, but the starters looked in midseason form. The Red team limited the White team to 23 offensive plays for minus-10 yards.
• The Omaha World-Herald reported that a "rebel" golf tournament played against a Letterman's Club event sponsored by the athletic department attracted about 150 former Husker players. Former LB Broderick Thomas told the newspaper he attended the event not sponsored by the university to express his displeasure with the current course of the Nebraska football program. Thomas said he has "lost sleep" about Nebraska's 19-15 record against Division I foes in the last three seasons and how the school has "turned away from the tradition" built by former coaches Bob Devaney, Tom Osborne and Frank Solich. "Coach Devaney is kicking his casket, like 'What's going on?'" Thomas told the World-Herald. "At some point everybody is going to be held accountable. It shouldn't take as long as it does today. This is the University of Nebraska. It's not Wisconsin." Osborne attended the rebel event, speaking for about 15 minutes about the tradition of Nebraska football. "Because we're here today, some people will try to make this into something it really isn't," said Osborne, who originally wasn't invited to the athletic department event before receiving a late courtesy call from athletic director Steve Pederson and Callahan. "Whatever we do here should be positive and proactive and an attempt to continue this tradition as best we can."
Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops' team has thrived most years on kickoff coverage. Stoops was one of the first coaches to heavily stock his special teams with starters, figuring they are his best athletes. Stoops is enthused with the new rule moving the kickoff back to the 30-yard line, although the potential for injury is concerning to him. "They're the highest-impact plays, and that's the only part that worries me," Stoops said. "You always worry about the injuries." Stoops is solidly in favor of the return to the timing rules of the 2005 season. "I like them," he said. "I think in the end, no one was really happy with the decreased plays on the field last year." With WR Malcolm Kelly's injury keeping him out of spring drills, Adron Tennell emerged as the top receiver in his place. OU coaches had hoped that LB Ryan Reynolds would challenge for a starting job with a solid spring performance. Instead, he was hobbled with his second knee injury in two seasons. That setback has made junior college transfer Mike Reed's quick development even more important at the position.
• Stoops, OU athletic director Joe Castiglione and several other top school athletic department officials met for more than four hours behind closed doors with members of the NCAA infractions committee last week in Indianapolis. OU president David Boren told reporters he is convinced the school received "a fair chance" to answer charges of major rules violations involving the employment of former players at a Norman car dealership. It represented the school's second hearing before the NCAA's infractions committee in less than a year. OU officials reported the violations to the NCAA and kicked off QB Rhett Bomar, OL J.D. Quinn and walk-on WR Jermaine Hardison after they received pay from the dealership for work they didn't do. The findings of the committee are expected to be released in the next several weeks.
• According to a report released last week by the American Association of University Professors, Stoops earned a salary 36 times more than the average full professor at his school. Stoops' 2006 contract of $3.45 million was the highest of any college football coach in the country.
• During a break after the conclusion of the Sooners' spring practice, Stoops attended practices at South Carolina, where his coaching mentor Steve Spurrier is the head coach. Stoops served as Spurrier's defensive coordinator at Florida.
Oklahoma State Cowboys
While attendance fell well short of coach Mike Gundy's goal of 30,000 fans, Gundy was still pleased with most of what he saw at Oklahoma State's Orange-White scrimmage. An estimated crowd of about 15,000 saw WR Artrell Woods snag two touchdown receptions and a two-point conversion in the Orange's 35-27 victory. The Cowboys' offense should maintain the same diversity as last season, when OSU was one of only two teams nationally to average 200 yards rushing and passing per game. TB Keith Toston (76 yards on 14 carries) and Dantrell Savage (72 yards on eight carries) highlighted the scrimmage. Backup QB Zac Robinson produced 55 rushing yards, including a 40-yard run, and produced two touchdown drives in the final 74 seconds of the scrimmage to lead the Orange's comeback triumph. Savage's playing time had been limited during the spring as he recovered from an injury, but he showed flashes of returning to the form of last season when he earned the Offensive MVP award in the Cowboys' Independence Bowl victory over Alabama.
• OSU's defense peaked with a strong performance in the team's second scrimmage, but was hamstrung with a reduced game plan that limited blitzing in the spring game. It helped explain why the two defenses yielded 511 yards. "We were limited on what we wanted to do," OSU defensive coordinator Tim Beckman told the (Oklahoma City) Daily Oklahoman. "The scrimmage was big for us. Today, you saw a lot of vanilla stuff. I just wanted to see the kids fly around to the football and make tackles." Gundy has preached developing toughness throughout the spring. He's still not satisfied with where his team is at after the end of spring practice. "We're not as far along as we are on the offensive side because we don't have enough depth inside and they are learning a new system," Gundy told the Tulsa World. "I would still like to be a tougher football team. I don't see enough big hits to make me happy."
• The infusion of a record $160 million donation from Boone Pickens should narrow the gap that Oklahoma State has traditionally faced in competing with other national powers. "The one thing we've never had around here is money. Ever," Gundy told the Daily Oklahoman. "We've been in debt for 50 years. And we're still in debt. But there's going to come a time when we're not that way. In future years, our annual budget will be like other schools in this league. Right now our operating budget is half the other state school [Oklahoma]. But that won't always be the case."
Texas coach Mack Brown said the new rule pushing the kickoff back five yards to the 30-yard line conceivably could provide as big an impact on the game as any recent rule change. "If you ask our defensive coaches [about it], they throw up," Brown said. "But if you ask our offensive coaches, they're pumped."
• Texas likely won't have a player contend for the Thorpe Award after having back-to-back winners in Michael Huff and Aaron Ross in the last two seasons. But the Longhorns might have better depth in the upcoming season, according to Brown. "For the first time, we could play two-deep there," Brown said. One of Texas' biggest aims during spring practice was working on gadget plays. Brown is convinced the extra work will help his team become more versatile in the upcoming season. "We've worked really, really hard on running at least two trick plays each practice," Brown said. "We do want to run more trick plays, and we want our defense to see more trick plays so they can defend them. The kids like it, the fans like and I like it." Co-defensive coordinator Duane Akina said the Longhorns' defense won't be that much different than in previous seasons. "The foundation needs to be that we're physical and we'll swarm to the football," Akina said. "That's a starting point no matter what you decide to do schematically."
• Brown was one of the biggest critics of the NCAA's management council's recommendation to do away with text messaging in recruiting. "I think it would be a real mistake to do away with text messaging because it's the most effective way to immediately communicate with prospects and their families without being intrusive," Brown said. "With the limitations on phone calls and in-person visits, a personal text is an efficient and convenient way to answer questions, have a quick discussion or just stay in touch. It also benefits any prospect to become more familiar and learn how best to use technology since it's a very prevalent form of communication on every college campus."
Texas A&M Aggies
Texas A&M coaches divided talent in a draft for the Maroon-White game. Starting QB Stephen McGee played for both sides in the White's 27-13 victory before 24,212 at Kyle Field. McGee led one scoring drive, completing 8 of 14 passes for 73 yards with an interception.
• Coach Dennis Franchione was most impressed with his team's production after the two squads combined to rush for 388 yards and produce 29 first downs. "I think the game was fairly efficient and smooth," Franchione said. "The way the teams were divided up, you would get a first-teamer with a second-teamer sometimes with a third-teamer. You worry about that making it a little inefficient at times, but all in all, it was pretty clean." Some of the defense's struggles were understandable considering that starting defensive linemen Chris Harrington and Red Bryant and starting linebacker Misi Tupe did not play. Harrington and Bryant were limited from contact work most of the spring recovering from injuries and Tupe missed action during the final week of spring practice.
• A&M coaches hoped to limit contact on McGee by having him wear a black jersey during the spring game. It didn't work as he tried to overpower LB Mark Dodge on one scramble. "He claims he didn't try to hit me," McGee said. "But it was all in fun. Coach Fran told me he was trying to protect me and I was going to get myself killed. It was fun to get a spark going out there." But that's not where McGee should have been worried. A celebratory head butt from teammate Jorvorskie Lane to the helmetless McGee along the sidelines was a more devastating lick than any he faced during the game. "It's just a brother thing with me and McGee," Lane said. "We go at it all the time. That's his fault [for not wearing his helmet]." Winners of the game were rewarded with steak dinners, while losers dined on franks and beans. "I get to be a winner today, so I'll be eating steak instead of hot dogs," McGee said, chuckling.
• Lane and Mike Goodson both had their moments in the scrimmage, but the most impressive rushing performance was produced by redshirt freshman TB Cornell Tarrant, who rushed for a game-high 117 yards, including a clinching 66-yard touchdown run for the White team with 36 seconds left in the game.
• Franchione watched game action from the field, taking a close look at how backup QBs Jerrod Johnson and Ryan Tannehill handled their game preparations. "I stood close to the huddle and didn't do much other than watching the young quarterbacks' demeanor and how they handled themselves as leaders," Franchione said. "I thought they did a nice job."
• Johnson, a redshirt freshman who earned the most improved quarterback award for his play this spring, completed a nifty 31-yard strike to Jamie McCoy on his first play. "I thought I did pretty good," said Johnson, who completed all five of his passes for 39 yards. "I still have a lot of stuff to work on with my reads and option. But it was good to see some live competition."
Texas Tech Red Raiders
Tech's quarterback battle got most of the spring headlines, but an even more surprising development for the offense occurred when RB Shannon Woods was dropped to the scout team at the end of spring practice. Woods, who rushed for a team-leading 926 yards last season and led the Big 12 in all-purpose yards, was beaten out by sophomore Kobey Lewis for most playing time this spring. "I don't think he competed very hard," Tech coach Mike Leach told the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal about Woods' demotion. "Somebody asked me if stats from last year register for anything? Well, they don't because you don't get any points out of them and you don't get any results out of them this year. You have good results, you compete and you play hard, it puts you where it puts you. He is where he is." Woods rushed for 4 yards on five carries in the spring game. Tech's defense showed some flashes after notching a 46-35 victory over the offense in the Red-Black Game in a game where three-and-outs and turnovers were rewarded with points. The defense also scored in a more conventional manner when two Graham Harrell interceptions were returned for touchdowns -- 93 yards by CB Pete Richardson and 43 yards by CB Nathan Stone. While the Tech offense rolled up 534 yards and 29 first downs on 93 plays, the defense notched 10 sacks and allowed 22 net rushing yards. Harrell completed 16 of 25 passes for 317 yards and three touchdowns and added a 1-yard keeper for a score. But he was also sacked twice. Backup quarterback Taylor Potts completed 16 of 27 passes for 139 yards. Potts was intercepted once and also sacked six times.
• Leach said that the quarterback battle between Potts and Harrell remains unsettled. "I think Taylor really emerged as we went through the spring," Leach said. "The first scrimmage, there was no question that Graham played the best. In the second one, Taylor played the best and in the third Graham played the best. But Taylor, as far as a guy his age, had an impressive a start as I've seen." Leach has coined 5-foot-8 inside receiver Eric Morris as "The Elf" because of his diminutive size. "Besides the obvious size thing, he looks like an elf," Leach told the Avalanche-Journal. "I mean, just look at him. We ought to play him in a green jersey. He'd do it, too." Leach said that Morris' nickname fits for other reasons as well. "They need to make a movie about him, kind of like 'Bad Santa,' except it would be called 'Bad Elf,' because he's not a warm, cuddly, fuzzy-feeling elf. He's kind of evil and sinister."
• LB Chad Hill still is projected as a starting linebacker, despite missing the spring with an injury. Paul Williams and Kellen Tillman appear to have nailed down the other two starting jobs at linebacker.
Tim Griffin covers the Big 12 for the San Antonio Express-News.