Commentary

Breaking down the Big 12 North

Originally Published: May 13, 2008
By Tim Griffin | ESPN.com

Is Missouri ready to build upon last year's success and become a championship team? Will a new face at Nebraska bring new energy to Lincoln? Can the Kansas Jayhawks prove they're no one-year wonder? Take a look at what questions were answered this spring and what problems linger heading into the fall in the Big 12 North.

Colorado Buffaloes

2008 Schedule

Aug. 30 Colorado State
Sept. 6 Eastern Washington
Sept. 18 West Virginia
Sept. 27 @ Florida State
Oct. 4 Texas
Oct. 11 @ Kansas
Oct. 18 Kansas State
Oct. 25 @ Missouri
Nov. 1 @ Texas A&M
Nov. 8 Iowa State
Nov. 15 Oklahoma State
Nov. 28 @ Nebraska


2007 overall record:
6-7

2007 conference record:
4-4

Returning starters
Offense: 7, defense: 8, kicker/punter: 1

Top returners
QB Cody Hawkins, WR Scotty McKnight, C Daniel Sanders, T Ryan Miller, TB Demetrius Sumler, DT George Hypolite, DE Maurice Lucas, CB Gardner McKay, LB Jeff Smart
Key losses
RB Hugh Charles, LB Jordon Dizon, T Tyler Polumbus, G Kai Maiava, G Edwin Harrison, CB Terrence Wheatley, DE Alonzo Barrett
2007 statistical leaders (* returners)
Rushing: Hugh Charles (989 yds)
Passing: Cody Hawkins* (2,693 yds)
Receiving: Scotty McKnight* (488 yds)
Tackles: Jordon Dizon (160)
Sacks: George Hypolite* (6)
Interceptions: Terrence Wheatley (5)

Spring answers

1. Devenny develops: Converted QB Patrick Devenny has emerged as a starter at tight end after producing six receptions for 121 yards and two TDs in a late scrimmage that preceded the spring game. "He can run, he can catch, he's got good hands and he's developed some confidence," Colorado coach Dan Hawkins said.

2. Offensive line depth: Considering that only six offensive linemen worked last spring, Colorado offensive line coach Jeff Grimes had an embarrassment of riches this spring with 13. The extra numbers helped foster competition for a young group that includes only two seniors-to-be, C Daniel Sanders and G Erick Faatagi. Sophomore Nate Solder, a 6-foot-8, 280-pound converted tight end, was one of the spring's biggest surprises and is listed as first team at left tackle on the post-spring depth chart.

3. Crowd support: The Buffaloes attracted a record crowd of 17,800 to their spring game, proving that fans are eager to gravitate to a little "Hawk love" during the upcoming season. "It was great -- really fun," Hawkins told the Rocky Mountain News about the record spring crowd. "It helps the players; they got energized by it. It was a great day. We just have to keep building and going."

Fall questions

1. Finding a starting cornerback: Terrence Wheatley was the Buffaloes' top playmaker last season and the kind of player that opposing teams tried to avoid. Considering the plethora of top aerial attacks in the Big 12, the need for a replacement is immediate. Gardner McKay will get the first look during the summer practices, but expect Hawkins to juggle several options before settling on a starter.

2. Running back: Freshman Darrell Scott is the most ballyhooed recruit of Hawkins' tenure. Look for Scott to immediately jump into contention to replace Hugh Charles, last season's top rusher. Demetrius Sumler got much of the playing time during the spring, and Kevin Moyd and Brian Lockridge will also be in the hunt. Scott should be the prime ball carrier by conference play, although Colorado likely will juggle several players in the feature role earlier in the season.

3. Special teams: Hawkins chose to look at his team's struggles in protecting the punter late in the spring as a positive. He said the four blocked punts at the final two scrimmages were an indication of increased athleticism on the special teams rather than leaky blocking schemes. But it still won't keep him and most Colorado fans from holding their collective breath before P Matt DiLallo's first few punts of the 2008 season.

Iowa State Cyclones

2008 Schedule

Aug. 28 South Dakota State
Sept. 6 Kent State
Sept. 13 @ Iowa
Sept. 20 @ UNLV
Oct. 4 Kansas
Oct. 11 @ Baylor
Oct. 18 Nebraska
Oct. 25 Texas A&M
Nov. 1 @ Oklahoma State
Nov. 8 @ Colorado
Nov. 15 Missouri
Nov. 22 @ Kansas State


2007 overall record:
3-9

2007 conference record:
2-6

Returning starters
Offense: 7, defense: 7, kicker/punter: 1

Top returners
G Reggie Stephens, QB Austen Arnaud, RB Jason Scales, RB Alexander Robinson, WR R.J. Sumrall, G Ben Lamaak, DE Kurtis Taylor, LB Jesse Smith, CB Chris Singleton, S Chris Brown
Key losses
QB Bret Meyer, WR Todd Blythe, LB Alvin Bowen, DT Bryce Braaksma, NG Ahtyba Rubin, TE Ben Barkema, LB Jon Banks
2007 statistical leaders (* returners)
Rushing: Alexander Robinson* (465 yds)
Passing: Bret Meyer (2,151 yds)
Receiving: Todd Blythe* (779 yds)
Tackles: Alvin Bowen (99)
Sacks: Kurtis Taylor* (6.5)
Interceptions: Chris Singleton* (4)

Spring answers

1. Backfield depth: Coach Gene Chizik has found several potential contributors from a tailback group that includes sophomore Alexander Robinson and seniors Jason Scales and J.J. Bass. All of them produced a 100-yard game last season. Robinson and Scales are hooked up in a tight battle, with Bass behind after he was suspended late in spring practice. Look for Chizik to utilize a combination of players to fill this hole, depending on game situations.

2. Lyle steps up: Defensive end Christopher Lyle, a transfer from Butler (Kan.) Community College, produced several big plays late in camp, including a sack and two tackles for losses in the spring game. Lyle and Kurtis Brown will be a big upgrade as pass-rushing threats for a Cyclone defense that needs more consistent pressure against opposing quarterbacks.

3. Lamaak settles at guard: Converted high-school quarterback Ben Lamaak, a 6-4, 320-pounder who has played eight positions in college, has become comfortable at guard along with tackle. Lamaak started every game last season as a freshman at tackle, but could be better suited by moving inside. "He came here to play tight end," ISU quarterback Austen Arnaud told the Des Moines Register. "I guess they say he ate his way out of it."

Fall questions

1. Settle on a QB: Austen Arnaud and converted WR Phillip Bates are locked in a tight battle for the starting job to replace Bret Meyer. Bates surprised ISU coaches with his quick grasp of the offense -- enough that Chizik is talking about alternating them during the fall. "We expected Austen to be further along, which he was," Chizik said. "But Phillip is closing the gap a good bit."

2. Offensive playmakers: The Cyclones' moribund offense ranked last in the Big 12 with an average of 18.2 points per game last season, producing just 3.1 yards per care and 9.6 yards per catch. Bates said the Cyclones will be fine in the fall. "We can take it from anywhere," he said. "Coach has put us in the right situation. If we're in the open field, we just have to take it to the house."

3. Help in the trenches: With both starting tackles gone from last season, defensive coordinator Wayne Bolt was looking for some help inside. Two-year letter-winner Nate Frere has the edge at nose guard over freshman Jerrod Black and Bailey Johnson are in front of Chris Weir at defensive tackle. Development against the run will be important for a young group without much game experience.

Kansas Jayhawks

2008 Schedule

Aug. 30 Florida International
Sept. 6 Louisiana Tech
Sept. 12 @ South Florida
Sept. 20 Sam Houston State
Oct. 4 @ Iowa State
Oct. 11 Colorado
Oct. 18 @ Oklahoma
Oct. 25 Texas Tech
Nov. 1 Kansas State
Nov. 8 @ Nebraska
Nov. 15 Texas
Nov. 29 @ Missouri


2007 overall record:
12-1

2007 conference record:
7-1

Returning starters
Offense: 6, defense: 9, kicker/punter: 0

Top returners
QB Todd Reesing, WR Dezmon Briscoe, WR Dexton Fields, C Ryan Cantrell, DE John Larson, DE Russell Brorsen, LB Joe Mortensen, LB James Holt, LB Mike Rivera, S Patrick Resby, S Darrell Stuckey, CB Chris Harris
Key losses
T Anthony Collins, T Cesar Rodriguez, TE Derek Fine, WR Marcus Henry, RB Brandon McAnderson, DT James McClinton, CB Aqib Talib, P Kyle Tucker, K Scott Webb
2007 statistical leaders (* returners)
Rushing: Brandon McAnderson (1,125 yds)
Passing: Todd Reesing* (3,486 yds)
Receiving: Marcus Henry (1,014 yds)
Tackles: Joe Mortensen* (106)
Sacks: Maxwell Onyegbule* (3.5)
Interceptions: Aqib Talib, Justin Thornton* (5)

Spring answers

1. Defensive depth: Kansas' defense was its biggest surprise last season. The group improved as the season progressed and continued its development during the spring. The defense dominated in the spring game, posting 20 tackles for losses and allowed only 90 yards combined on 49 carries -- an average of 1.84 yards per carry. "I thought defensively we looked sharp. I believe we have a chance to have a pretty dog-gone defense again," Kansas coach Mark Mangino said.

2. Explosive wide receivers: Even with the loss of Marcus Henry, the Jayhawks' wide receivers will again be strong. Dexton Fields returns after leading the team in receptions in each of the last two seasons. Dezmon Briscoe and Kerry Meier both were key producers last season. And competition is fierce with Marcus Herford, Johnathan Wilson, Raimond Pendleton, Tertavian Ingram and emerging junior-college transfer Rod Harris Jr. all battling for playing time.

3. Blooming confidence: Expectations are booming after last season's Orange Bowl victory, Kansas' first January bowl appearance since 1969. Mangino has carefully built this program and should have the Jayhawks primed for their first back-to-back bowl appearances in school history. They probably won't sneak up on many opponents like last season. But the Jayhawks' 2007 success should have them primed for a fierce schedule that will include games against Oklahoma, Texas and Texas Tech. All of those Big 12 rivals were missing off last season's schedule.

Fall questions

1. Find a featured back: The loss of McAnderson has Mangino scrambling for a replacement. Jake Sharp hasn't been able to show he could flourish as an every-down back. Expect a rotation involving heralded junior college recruit Jocques Crawford, a junior college transfer who led the nation with 1,935 rushing yards last season, but won't arrive until the summer. Junior Angus Quigley also could be a challenger for playing time.

2. Protecting Reesing: The loss of Collins and Rodriguez does more than merely strip the Jayhawks of their two best pass blockers. The new line struggled at times in the spring game, allowing six sacks, including three of QB Todd Reesing. If the Jayhawks have any hopes of matching last season's success, they must do a better job of protecting their quarterback.

3. Cornerback help: The Jayhawks won't be able to replace Aqib Talib, whose value for the defense was unmatched. Chris Harris is primed to become a key contributor in his second season as a starter and Kendrick Harper appears fully recovered from a broken wrist before last season. Anthony Webb, Isiah Barfield and converted receiver Ryan Murphy must become more proficient -- and fast. The Big 12's pass-heavy offenses will provide them with a weekly challenge.

Kansas State Wildcats

2008 Schedule

Aug. 30 North Texas
Sept. 6 Montana State
Sept. 17 @ Louisville
Sept. 27 Louisiana-Lafayette
Oct. 4 Texas Tech
Oct. 11 @ Texas A&M
Oct. 18 @ Colorado
Oct. 25 Oklahoma
Nov. 1 @ Kansas
Nov. 8 @ Missouri
Nov. 15 Nebraska
Nov. 22 Iowa State


2007 overall record:
5-7

2007 conference record:
3-5

Returning starters
Offense: 7, defense: 5, kicker/punter: 1

Top returners
QB Josh Freeman, WR Deon Murphy, G Gerard Spexarth, DE-LB Ian Campbell, LB Reggie Walker. LB Eric Childs, S Gary Chandler, K Brooks Rossman
Key losses
WR Jordy Nelson, G Logan Robinson, RB James Johnson, DE Robert Jackson, LB Justin Roland, CB Justin McKinney, S Marcus Watts, S Chris Carney, P Tim Reyer
2007 statistical leaders (* returners)
Rushing: James Johnson (1,106)
Passing: Josh Freeman* (3,353)
Receiving: Jordy Nelson (1,606)
Tackles: Justin McKinney (74)
Sacks: Ian Campbell* (4.5)
Interceptions: Chris Carney* (4)

Spring answers

1. Ian is the man: After struggling at linebacker last season, Ian Campbell returned to defensive end and quickly showed the form that allowed him to notch 11 sacks two years ago. "He'll probably play with his hand down more than he did last season," KSU defensive coordinator Tim Tibesar said. "We're going to move him around so teams can't zero in on him."

2. Valentine steps up: The departure of James Johnson left Coach Ron Prince scrambling for new running backs. The most intriguing was Keithen Valentine, a transfer from Mississippi Delta Community College who rushed for 104 yards in the spring game. "He's a kid who found us," Prince told the Manhattan Mercury. "We were in Mississippi recruiting other kids and he came to us and said, 'Hey I remember Darren Sproles. I used to watch Kansas State. I'd love to walk on.'"

3. Building a new identity: Prince wasn't happy with his team's late collapse last season, leading to adopting what he termed as a "Cold War" mentality during the spring. Most practices were closed and were held at night. "You don't go out and play the way we played at the end of last year and feel like things can go on status quo," Prince told the Topeka Capital-Journal. "I wasn't pleased with it all. It wasn't acceptable, and I'm not going to tolerate it."

Fall questions

1. JC contributions: Can the influx of junior college players help? Prince opted for immediate help with 19 junior-college transfers among his 32-member recruiting class. After yielding 198 points in his final four games, Prince knew he needed immediate assistance. It led to him signing a bumper crop of 11 defensive players and a punter for his defense. We'll see come September how this strategy will work.

2. Jordy Nelson's replacement: The former walk-on developed into the most productive single-season receiver in KSU's history. Holdovers Ernie Pierce, Cedric Wilson and Lamark Brown got most of the work as top returning receiver Deon Murphy sat out spring practice because of academics. But keep an eye out for heralded junior college transfer Adrian Hilburn, who was ranked as the fifth-best juco receiver in the nation last season at City College of San Francisco.

3. Where's the offense?:Kansas State's offense showed little life in a disappointing spring game where the two teams combined for three points and 204 total yards. Prince defended the struggles by saying his coordinators were playing the game close to the vest. "They were trying to win the game," he told reporters after the game. "There weren't a lot of balls in the air. It might not have been aesthetically pleasing to some, but I understand it.".

Missouri Tigers

2008 Schedule

Aug. 30 Illinois
Sept. 6 Southeast Missouri State
Sept. 13 Nevada
Sept. 20 Buffalo
Oct. 4 @ Nebraska
Oct. 11 Oklahoma State
Oct. 18 @ Texas
Oct. 25 Colorado
Nov. 1 @ Baylor
Nov. 8 Kansas State
Nov. 15 @ Iowa State
Nov. 29 Kansas


2007 overall record:
12-2

2007 conference record:
7-1

Returning starters
Offense: 6 defense: 10, kicker/punter: 1

Top returners
QB Chase Daniel, WR/KR Jeremy Maclin, G Kurtis Gregory, T Colin Brown, TE Chase Coffman, TB Jimmy Jackson, DE Stryker Sulak, DT Ziggy Hood, LB Sean Weatherspoon, LB Van Alexander, S William Moore, CB Carl Gettis, K Jeff Wolfert
Key losses
TB Tony Temple, TE Martin Rucker, T Tyler Luellen, C Adam Spieker, NG Lorenzo Williams, S Pig Brown
2007 statistical leaders (* returners)
Rushing: Tony Temple (1,039)
Passing: Chase Daniel* (4,306)
Receiving: Jeremy Maclin* (1,055)
Tackles: Sean Weatherspoon* (130)
Sacks: Lorenzo Williams (6.5)
Interceptions: William Moore (8)

Spring answers

1. No complacency here: The Tigers championship game loss to Oklahoma appears to have driven them to the realization of their more major goal. And they practiced like it during the spring, employing a zesty work ethic on both the offense and defense. "We accomplished a lot last year -- more than any Missouri except for the 1960 team," QB Chase Daniel said. "Now, we're not worrying about outside expectations for the program. We just want to go out and play well."

2. Depth at RB: Not much was expected out of either redshirt freshman De'Vion Moore or sophomore Derrick Washington at the start of spring practice. Moore emerged as a strong outside runner and should improve with future work. And Washington was the Tigers' most effective back this spring and could contend for the starting job to replace Tony Temple.

3. Best hands in the Big 12: Even with the loss of TE Martin Rucker, the Tigers will be loaded as far as pass-receiving threats. TE Chase Coffman looks recovered from post-season surgery and Daniel has his pick from a deep collection of wide receivers. "In our offense, we can do a lot of things," Pinkel said. "We could use Coffman, or have three tight ends. Or we could put Jeremy Maclin anywhere on the field we want to. Or Coffman, or Danario Alexander or Tommy Saunders. We've got a lot of ways to go."

Fall questions

1. Where are the linebackers?: The Tigers' deep linebacking corps was expected to be one of the team's biggest strengths before spring practice began. But the group was ravaged by injuries and attrition throughout the spring. Starter Van Alexander tore his ACL and might be doubtful for the start of the regular season. That injury came after top projected backup Connell Davis quit the team and Marquis Booker was kicked off the squad because of off-the-field problems. And Sean Weatherspoon, the team's leading tackler, suffered a shoulder injury that required post-spring practice surgery. Pinkel can only hope the unit is ready for the regular season.

2. Offensive line depth: The loss of starting T Tyler Luellen and C Adam Spieker was aggravated by the loss of two top backups at those positions, leaving Pinkel scrambling with a big turnover in the trenches. "We lost four of our top 10 players, not just two key starters but also two senior backups" Pinkel said. "That's almost half of your offensive line and your depth is gone. But the freshmen we have are good young players and we have to keep getting them better."

3. Punting: The Tigers have struggled over the years in punting and ranked 113th nationally in net punting last year as they will be looking for a replacement for three-year starter Adam Crossett. Likely contenders will include left-footed junior college transfer Jake Harry and Tanner Mills. "Jake right now is the guy who has the opportunity to win the job," Pinkel said. "He's a guy who has to show us the consistency, but he's got the ability." Missouri also will be looking for a new deep snapper as well.

Nebraska Cornhuskers

2008 Schedule

Aug. 30 Western Michigan
Sept. 6 San Jose State
Sept. 13 New Mexico State
Sept. 27 Virginia Tech
Oct. 4 Missouri
Oct. 11 @ Texas Tech
Oct. 18 @ Iowa State
Oct. 25 Baylor
Nov. 1 @ Oklahoma
Nov. 8 Kansas
Nov. 15 @ Kansas State
Nov. 28 Colorado


2007 overall record:
5-7

2007 conference record:
2-6

Returning starters
Offense: 6, defense: 6, kicker/punter: 2

Top returners
QB Joe Ganz, I-back Marlon Lucky, T Lydon Murtha, WR Nate Swift, DE Zach Potter, DE Barry Turner, S Larry Asante, CB Armando Murillo, K Alex Henery, P Dan Titchener
Key losses
QB Sam Keller, C Brett Byford, T Carl Nicks, WR Terrence Nunn, WR Maurice Purify, CB Cortney Grixby, LB Bo Ruud, LB Corey McKeon, S Tierre Green
2007 statistical leaders (* returners)
Rushing: Marlon Lucky* (1,019)
Passing: Sam Keller (2,422)
Receiving: Maurice Purify (814)
Tackles: Steve Octavien (92)
Sacks: Barry Turner* (3)
Interceptions: Bo Ruud, Cortney Grixby (3)

Spring answers

1. New defensive approach: New coach Bo Pelini has infused his defense with a noticeable change of attitude -- namely, a hustling tendency that was missing most of last season. New coaches tend to do that. No receiver was allowed to go without several defenders poking at the ball. Linemen sprinted through the line after an offensive play. "It will be really visible," linebacker Cody Glenn told the Omaha World Herald. "Everybody's going to be flying to the ball. It'll be very physical."

2. Glenn's position switch: Cody Glenn was an underutilized weapon at I-back before coming to the Nebraska coaches before the spring about a position switch. He has blossomed as a linebacker and should contend for a starting position this fall. "He's already become a factor on defense," Pelini told reporters. "There is no doubt that he has shown the ability that he can be a heck of a football player."

3. New playmakers emerging: I-back Roy Helu and WR Curenski Gilleylen both had solid springs and should contend for playing time once fall practice begins. Helu rushed for a team-high 69 yards in the spring game and Gilleylen produced a 77-yard TD reception from Joe Ganz that was the longest play in the spring game.

Fall questions

1. Bo factor: New coach Bo Pelini is bigger than a rock star across Nebraska with his dramatic ascension as the Cornhuskers' new coach. His honeymoon period will last until the games begin in August. It will be interesting to see if that reaction changes after tough early-season games against Virginia Tech and Missouri.

2. Defensive line production: Nebraska's defensive line was consistently outplayed last season as the Cornhuskers seldom were competitive in the trenches. Pelini's first big aim will be to light a fire under players like NT Ndamukong Suh, who missed spring practice because of an injury. Lack of a proven pass rush was the biggest reason the Cornhuskers produced only eight interceptions last season, tied for last in the conference with Texas A&M.

3. No proven backup QB: Joe Ganz flourished when he came off the bench late last season, but the Cornhuskers could be in a lot of trouble if he is injured. Backups Zac Lee, Patrick Witt, Kody Spano, Beau Davis and transfer Jim Ebke all have received scant game experience. Lee and Davis would be the leading contenders to replace Ganz after the spring.

Tim Griffin covers college football for ESPN.com. Send your questions and comments to Tim at espntimgriff@yahoo.com.

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