Spring look around the Big 12
With spring practices getting started, our Big 12 notebook addresses the big questions for each team.
Is Baylor's running game showing signs of improvement? How is Gene Chizik's first year at Iowa State progressing? Who are the up-and-coming players for the Longhorns? Our Big 12 notebook addresses those questions and much more.
New QB Michael Machen was one of the early standouts in the Bears' early spring practice, tossing a 70-yard TD pass to Mikail Baker to account for the only score in the first scrimmage. Machen, a 6-foot-6, 237-pound transfer from Kent State, passed for 102 yards in the scrimmage. Machen is in a five-way battle to replace graduating senior QB Shawn Bell. Other contenders include sophomore Blake Szymanski, redshirt freshman Tyler Beatty, sophomore walk-on Ryan Roberts and junior John David Weed. Roberts is a transfer from Division II Midwestern State and Weed is transferring from Tyler Junior College. Szymanski was presumed to have a small edge heading into practice because he started three games when Bell was hurt last season. But getting enough snaps for all the quarterbacks is something that offensive coordinator Lee Hays will have to sort through. "If I had two as good as the five I've got, I would be happy," Hays told the Waco Tribune-Herald. "It's not a problem of us having a quarterback, it's finding the best one of them. But that's a good problem to have, I guess." The closeness of the battle is forcing Hays to chart every pass during the spring. The Baylor running game was solid in the scrimmage, with freshmen Andre Pierce and Jay Finley and senior Brandon Whitaker combining to produce a 5.5-yard per carry average on 88 yards on 16 carries. Improving the rushing game is one of coach Guy Morriss' most immediate spring goals, considering that Baylor ranked last in the nation with an average of only 40.2 rushing yards per game last season. Among the players who have been sidelined early in spring practice include WR David Gettis (mononucleosis), FB Keegan Vann (pulled hamstring), CB Antareis Bryan (dislocated kneecap), WR Jordan Adams (knee surgery) and DE Adam Geib (hand).
Redshirt freshman QB Cody Hawkins and transfer Nick Nelson got most of the work at the Buffaloes' second scrimmage. Nelson completed 5-of-9 passes for 45 yards and Hawkins was 4-of-8 for 59 yards. Returning starting QB Bernard Jackson got work at quarterback and at wide receiver. "All three of those guys, for what their role will be, had done a nice job," Colorado offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich said. "Nick has hit the wall a little mentally and right now he needs to keep his confidence up -- and that basically happens to every single quarterback in American football history. Cody is mentally ahead just because he's heard it before. But those guys are all making good progress." P Matt DiLallo was impressive, booming 13 punts at the scrimmage for a 51.8-yard average. PK Kevin Eberhart, who will face the difficult chore of replacing Mason Crosby, nailed his only field-goal attempt from 37 yards out. That scrimmage completed the first phase of the Buffaloes' spring work. They will take a week off before resuming work on April 2 The Buffaloes' lack of depth on the offensive line should improve in the second half of the spring practice with the expected return of Erick Faatagi and Daniel Sanders. The Buffaloes were down to five offensive linemen for some live drills.
Iowa State Cyclones
New coach Gene Chizik started his first spring practice last week and said he was excited to finally begin his first practice as a head coach. "It seems like I've been here nine months waiting for this," the former Texas co-defensive coordinator told reporters. "We're ready to get rolling." Chizik will be facing an immense challenge, considering the Cyclones have not won an outright conference title since claiming a share of the Missouri Valley Conference championship in 1912. Chizik has compared his basic offensive philosophy and formations to those utilized by Purdue coach Joe Tiller. Returning starting QB Bret Meyer has been pleased with his team's progress in the first several scrimmages. "We're making strides every day," Meyer told the Ames Tribune. "I'm learning a lot quicker now than when I was a freshman just because I've played three years and have more football knowledge." Jason Scales is the team's leading returning rusher, but he has been challenged by converted CB Jason Harris, who rushed for 3,226 yards in high school at Clearwater (Fla.) High School. The biggest early concern for new defensive coordinator Wayne Bolt is to find some playmakers in his secondary. The Cyclones were blistered last season as they allowed an NCAA-worst 72.5 percent completion percentage and produced only six interceptions. LB Adam Carper will miss spring practice as he recovers from knee surgery last season.
After three practices, the Jayhawks took a week off, breaking for Kansas' spring break. Kansas coach Mark Mangino emphasized that spring work is vital in setting the direction of his team. "Spring ball is important," Mangino told the Lawrence Journal-World. "I think it sets the tempo for the fall. There's no such thing as a guy who has a really bad spring and a great fall. It's a progression." Mangino is aiming to develop more of a vertical passing game with the arrival of new offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach Ed Warinner. RB Angus Quigley, who missed all of last season with a leg injury, will participate in most spring drills and is in the process of gradually returning to contact drills. LB Maxwell Onyegbule has been moved to defensive end. Converted FB Brandon McAnderson is getting some work at tailback as the Jayhawks' top rushing threat with departure of Jon Cornish. "When he carries the ball from tackle to tackle, he's an outstanding back," Mangino said. "He's not a guy that we're very often going to pitch the ball to on the toss and get him out on the perimeter. But with his vision, his quick feet and his balance, he can carry the ball very well and be an excellent pass protector."
Kansas State Wildcats
Coach Ron Prince hopes to enliven the Wildcats' annual April 21 spring game with several activities away from the game. Ancillary events include a golf tournament, a barbecue cooking competition, a carnival and midway, a car show, a children's fun zone and a battle of the bands competition. The Wildcats will begin spring practice on Wednesday. One of the major changes expected will be the utilization of more 3-4 defensive alignments under new defensive coordinator Tim Tibesar. That change could mean that Ian Campbell, who led the team with 11½ sacks as a defensive end, might play some snaps as an outside linebacker. Despite winning more games than any first-year Big 12 coach last season since 1999, Prince wasn't satisfied with his team's 7-6 record. "We had a nice season, but we didn't come close to reaching our goals," Prince said. "Our goals will always be to win the Big 12 North and compete for the conference championship. So  is a year where I want to see some improvement." He also expects a big transformation in his team between the start of spring practice and his team's Sept. 1 opener at Auburn. "I expect the makeup of the team to be very different in September than it is today," Prince said
Two of the biggest early surprises of the spring have been freshmen linebackers Michael Keck and Luke Lambert, who both skipped their final semesters in high school to start their college careers early. Both were listed as fourth string on the depth chart before spring practice began, but have worked to second string. "They've adjusted really well and we're pleased with their efforts," Missouri coach Gary Pinkel told the Kansas City Star. "I don't think there's any pressure. I don't think they really think 'I've got to play.' What they've got to do is work hard and get better. They've got a real chance to help this football team." The Tigers are off this week before returning to work on Monday after spring break concludes. One area of improvement Pinkel hopes to see next week is more efficiency from backup QB Chase Patton, who has shown flashes, but also struggled with turnovers early in spring practice. The Tigers planned scrimmages on April 7 and April 14, with the spring game on April 21. Among the more notable walk-ons who have joined the Missouri program is TB Shawn Scott, a transfer from Central Missouri who was one of the more heralded high school backs in the state in 2004. Scott will be ineligible for the 2007 season. Heralded redshirt freshman DE John Stull has left the Missouri program, according to the Columbia Daily Tribune. His departure leaves the Tigers with only five defensive ends on the roster.
The top priority for Nebraska defensive coordinator Kevin Cosgrove will be replacing four departing starters on the line. DT Ndamukong Suh and DT Ty Steinkuhler have made significant strides since last season. Suh produced 19 tackles last season, including 3½ tackles. And Steinkuhler, son of former Nebraska All-American and Outland Trophy winner Dean Steinkuhler, notched 22 tackles. DE Zach Potter is also receiving a long look this spring as projected starting DE Barry Turner rehabilitates from postseason shoulder surgery. Coach Bill Callahan is experimenting with several position switches along his offensive line. Matt Slauson, who started 11 games at tackle last season, has moved to right guard in place of Mike Huff, who has been sidelined after undergoing surgery for an Achilles' injury. Junior college transfer Carl Nicks has moved to left tackle and Lydon Murtha has moved to right tackle. Holdovers Andy Christensen and Brett Byford remain at left guard and center, respectively. Sam Keller and Joe Ganz remain in a tight battle to replace Zac Taylor at quarterback. But Callahan has remained steadfast that Beau Davis is also in the mix for the starting job. I-back Marlon Lucky has made an early bid for the starting job at I-back, remarkable considering he was hospitalized for an undisclosed ailment only a few weeks before practice began. "We want to see improvement from our I-backs," Callahan told reporters after an early practice. "Our reads can always get better and we can never be good enough at pass protection because these guys are going to see so many blitzes. Marlon has done a great job so far. I'm pleased with his efforts and his focus."
Among the early surprises has been DT Gerald McCoy, who redshirted last season, but has earned the majority of work with the No. 1 defense. McCoy notched five tackles at the Sooners' most recent scrimmage. McCoy said he receives much of his inspiration from roommate Adrian Taylor, who also redshirted last season. "We've been talking about it since we sat out," McCoy said. "We work on things together and just try to get better. It's coming." Redshirt RB DeMarco Murray has been one of the Sooners' top producers in the early practices. "Allen Patrick, Gut [senior TB Jacob Gutierrez], Mossis Madu and Chris Brown have played a lot, but I'm really confident," Murray said. "The best player will play and I think I have a good shot if I keep working hard and making big plays." One of the most interesting personnel matchups of the spring is the battle to replace Chris Messner at left tackle. Massive 6-8, 350-pound Phil Loadholt, a transfer from Garden City (Kan.) Community College is hooked up with 6-7, 295-pound redshirt freshman Cory Brandon, who has bulked up by more than 30 pounds since injuring his knee last season. OU coaches also might consider flipping one of the two contenders at right tackle into the mix, considering that Trent Williams and Branndon Braxton both started at times last season. The Big 12 has convinced Oklahoma to push the Sooners' annual "Bedlam" game with Oklahoma State from its original date of Oct. 27 to Nov. 24.
Oklahoma State Cowboys
After seeing his team double its win total over the last two seasons, coach Mike Gundy is hopeful of similarly doubling attendance for the spring game on March 27. School marketing officials have dubbed the game "Gundy's 30K Challenge," after the Cowboys drew about 15,000 fans last season. "I am challenging all of our supporters to show up for the spring game," Gundy said. "I would love to see 30,000 fans at Boone Pickens Stadium." Considering that Oklahoma State's single-game attendance high last season was 43,006 when Texas A&M was in town, crowd support for the game will be interesting. Dantrell Savage, the most valuable player of Oklahoma State's Independence Bowl victory, isn't receiving much work as a running back. Instead, Gundy is challenging him in other areas. "Spring is a time I don't need to see Dantrell Savage," Gundy told the (Oklahoma City) Daily Oklahoman. "He needs to work on certain things like pass protection, route running, those type of things. I know he can run the ball. He's pretty much proven that to me. I want to see what some of the other guys can do." All-Big 12 WR Adarius Bowman has reported for spring practice at 221 pounds -- 16 pounds lighter than he finished the regular season last year. Bowman credited his time working with the Oklahoma State basketball team with getting his weight in check.
Coach Mack Brown has been particularly impressed with the work of QB Colt McCoy in spring practice, which will culminate with the annual Spring Jamboree on Saturday. "Colt is playing much better right now than he did at the end of last year," Brown said. "He's stronger. He's so accurate. He hasn't missed." The battle for the backup job behind McCoy remains tight between true freshman John Chiles and redshirt freshman Sherrod Harris. "We're still inconsistent in the passing game with them and really good in the running game," Brown said. "It's young quarterbacks early. They've made their living with their feet, but now they've got to continue to work on the passing game." One of the early surprises has been freshman TB Foswhitt "Fozzy" Whitaker, who enrolled in college early to start working immediately with the Longhorns. "For Fozzy to have graduated in January and come in here and picked up all the things he has done, I'm very pleased with where he is," Texas offensive coordinator Greg Davis said. Another early standout, according to Davis, has been Chris Ogbonnaya, who has seen work at fullback, tailback and as a third-down receiving specialist.
Texas A&M Aggies
Don't expect a quarterback controversy between returning starter Stephen McGee and backup Jerrod Johnson, at least according to Texas A&M coach Dennis Franchione. "Jerrod is a long way from pushing Stephen for the starting position," Franchione told reporters before spring practice started. "There's no doubt who our starting quarterback is. Our concern right now is to get Jerrod as far along as we can." But Franchione does expect to implement several plays that will make his offense look similar to the one used by Florida last season when Tim Tebow entered the game in short-yardage situations. The 6-foot-6, 223-pound Johnson is expected to be used in many of the same ways that Tebow was employed. RB Jorvorskie Lane reportedly has lost about 25 pounds after suffering from a viral infection. The weight loss puts him close to his playing weight of 275 pounds from last season. Converted QB Jamie McCoy is receiving work at wide receiver during spring practice as the Aggies search for playmakers to replace top threats L'Tydrick Riley and Chad Schroeder. Other position switches include Johnathan Batson from safety to cornerback, Amos Gbunblee from tight end to defensive end, Lucas Patterson from offensive lineman to defensive tackle, Kenny Brown from cornerback to safety and Jordan Pugh from cornerback to safety. Younger players on the defensive line will receive work this spring as senior DE Chris Harrington (shoulder) and senior DT Red Bryant (knee) will miss all of spring practice recovering from surgeries. QB Ryan Tannehill and DB Lionel Smith both graduated from high school early to enroll at A&M and start spring practice.
Texas Tech Red Raiders
Coach Mike Leach's excitement about having a returning starting quarterback for spring practice for the first time since 2002 is tempered by his rebuilding job at wide receiver, offensive line and defensive line. With only nine returning starters, Leach is excited that the incoming group "works better" than last season's 8-5 team. "I think last year we had too many guys who thought they were established," Leach told the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal. "Too many guys spent more time thinking about themselves than the team. I'd like to think that what I see in this group is a little better start avoiding some of those pitfalls." One of the biggest contributors in the first week of spring practice has been heralded redshirt freshman WR Mike Crabtree, a 6-3, 222-pounder who has shown a knack for making acrobatic catches in his early work. With the departure of four-year starting P Alex Reyes, Leach is scrambling to find a punter during the spring. Jonathan LaCour earned a scholarship in the 2007 class, but Leach was soliciting Tech students with punting backgrounds to try out for the team during the spring. Tech and Nevada have agreed to a home-and-home football series that will begin in 2008 at Nevada. The return game will be played in Lubbock in 2011. New offensive line coach Jack Bicknell Jr. is facing a big rebuilding job, as only G Luis Vasquez is back from last season as a returning starter. The line's depth has also been diminished after Ofa Mohetau, a highly regarded junior-college transfer who was suspended late last season, has not returned to the team.
Tim Griffin covers the Big 12 for the San Antonio Express-News.
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