Breaking down the Big 12 South
Will new leadership make a difference at Baylor and Texas A&M? Will Texas and Texas Tech find the answer at running back? Will Oklahoma State find a playmaker and Oklahoma find WR depth? Take a look at what questions were answered this spring and what problems linger heading into the fall in the Big 12 South.
Spring answers1. Fresh leadership: New coach Art Briles has hit the ground running in his transformation of the Bears program. It's a tall order, considering that Baylor is the only Big 12 school to fail to make a bowl trip in the conference's history. "We can't be looking up all the time, thinking 'Wow, these teams are tough.' We've got to be a part of it," Briles said. "We've got to get on equal ground with some of these folks."
2. Offensive line: The Bears return four starters along the offensive line from a group that allowed only 21 sacks last season. Tackles Jason Smith and Dan Gay started every game last season. Smith, who has more starts than any current Baylor player, is the Bears' top pro prospect. And C J.D. Walton and G James Barnard also emerged during the spring. "These guys are going to be the heart and soul of our offense," Briles said.
3. Gettis emerges: WR David Gettis was the most ballyhooed recruit in recent Baylor history after tearing up defenses and setting track records at Dorsey High School in Los Angeles. After two struggling seasons, Gettis appears ready to blossom in Briles' pass-heavy spread offense. His speed and playmaking abilities suggest that Gettis finally could develop into the deep threat the Bears have desperately needed.
Fall questions1. Who starts at QB?: Briles is sorting through his options as returning starter Blake Szymanski, Kirby Freeman and Robert Griffin all are challenging for the top job. Freeman, a fifth-year senior transfer from Miami, got the first snaps at Baylor's spring game, but was outplayed by both Griffin and Szymanski. Look for the battle to play out throughout summer camp.
2. Secondary help:After being blistered for an average of 279.3 passing yards per game last season, new defensive coordinator Brian Norwood is considering all personnel options. Cliff Odom and converted WR Krys Buerck are getting extended looks at the vacant starting cornerback position. Jordan Lake, Antareis Bryan, Jeremy Williams and Tim Atchison all are competing at safety. If some strong producers don't emerge, it could be a long season -- particularly with all of the Big 12's strong quarterbacks.
3. Finding a running threat:Leading rusher Brandon Whitaker is gone, leaving several options for Briles' featured back. Sophomore Jay Finley emerged as the No. 1 back after the spring with Jacoby Jones and converted S Ray Sims competing for the featured backup role. "I thought Jay and Jacoby ran extremely tough," Briles said. "And that's what we need."
Spring answers1. Secondary: Most thought the Sooners' defense would take a step back this spring with Reggie Smith, Marcus Walker and D.J. Wolfe gone and Nic Harris sidelined with an injury. Instead, CB Dominique Franks emerged as the star of the spring game with three interceptions. Brian Jackson had a similarly productive series of practices and S Sam Proctor was the surprise of the spring, according to Oklahoma coaches. Defensive coordinator Brent Venables has always done a strong job of developing young players and appears to have done it again with this group.
2. WR Ryan Broyles: After dazzling Sooner coaches at early spring practices. Broyles suffered a broken collarbone that kept him out of the spring game. The 5-11, 170-pounder is expected to challenge for a starting position by the fall. "He's not the tallest in stature, but he makes up for it with his explosiveness," Oklahoma wide receivers coach Jay Norvell told the Daily Oklahoman. "He was making a lot of big plays and is going to be a good player."
3. LB Keenan Clayton: The converted safety made a concerted push for the starting job at strongside linebacker by playing every snap of the spring game, notching four tackles, a sack and creating one of the Sooners' three defensive touchdowns. "Keenan Clayton had a great winter," Stoops said. "He's been around here for several years now. We're hoping that he can really make a difference. He has the ability to."
Fall questions1. Sam Bradford's no-huddle struggles: Oklahoma coaches raved about Bradford's grasp of the no-huddle offense early in practice. But he was intercepted three times in the spring game -- a revelation considering he was picked off only eight times all of last season. Those questions will continue to hover around the Sooners until the season starts in August, even if Coach Bob Stoops isn't worried. "We know Sam's been in pressure situations and handled it," Stoops said.
2. Which Sooner defense will emerge? Will it be the one that looked so dominant in the spring game and against Missouri in the Big 12 title game? Or the one that was bamboozled again in a bowl game -- this time by West Virginia in the Fiesta Bowl? The Sooners return only five starters and need some young players to step up quickly if they want to continue their South Division dominance.
3. Is Ryan Reynolds the answer at middle linebacker? The oft-injured Reynolds draws the unenviable task of replacing Curtis Lofton, the Big 12's defensive player of the year. But Sooner coaches have always liked Reynolds and have plugged in other less-heralded players like Lofton and Rufus Alexander into the middle linebacker position before they blossomed as key contributors once they started playing.
|Oklahoma State Cowboys|
Spring answers1. Jucos look promising: Coach Mike Gundy needed an immediate infusion of defensive talent and appears to have received it with the addition of six juco players. Among the most promising are DE Jeremiah Price, massive 300-pound DT Swanson Miller and S Lucien "The Punisher" Antoine. "Our coaching staff was impressed with them," Gundy said. "Hopefully, these guys will help us out early in the season."
2. Emerging defensive line: The Cowboys' weakness last season was in the trenches, but Miller and redshirt DE Jamie Blatnick have keyed a revival inside. Miller's emergence wasn't a surprise, but Blatnick capped a breakout spring with three sacks in OSU's spring game. "I was excited to watch the defense -- to see some of the young guys get pressure on the quarterback," Gundy told the Tulsa World. "We haven't had that in a couple of years here."
3. Depth at the offensive line: For the first time in Gundy's coaching tenure, the Cowboys have legitimate two-deep talent at every offensive line position. With four starters back, the Cowboys appear to finally have the roster strength that should enable them to better survive the attrition of what should be another brutal Big 12 schedule.
Fall questions1. Playmakers needed: After the loss of top receiver Adarius Bowman and leading rusher Dantrell Savage, Gundy is looking for featured players at both positions. He'll try to plug in a rotation of players at running back, including heralded junior college recruit Beau Johnson, Keith Toston and Kendall Hunter. Both Damian Davis and Dez Bryant have showed big-play abilities at receiver, but need to be more consistent.
2. Backup QB: With Zac Robinson taking as much of a pounding in the running game as he does, the Cowboys will need a reliable backup. Neither Alex Cate nor former minor league pitcher Brandon Weeden separated themselves in the spring. "Alex and Weeden both had good springs, but I'm not satisfied that they've earned the job," Gundy said. "Within the first 10 days of practice, we'd like to name the backup to distribute our reps properly."
3. Can the defense improve?: Even with all of the new players, the Cowboys have a lot of work in front of them. OSU ranked 101st in total defense and 112th in pass defense last season, allowing seven opponents to hang at least 35 points in a game against them. Gundy said he's seen his returning group make a big step forward, which could be important for defensive coordinator Tim Beckman's job security.
Spring answers1. Will Muschamp: Texas' new defensive coordinator has provided fiery leadership style for a unit that limped down the stretch last season. His moxie could be just what the team needs to return to the national championship form it flashed when Gene Chizik was directing it. "Will brings a great mix working with multiple defenses, he's high-energy and tough, but also very, very positive," Texas coach Mack Brown said.
2. John Chiles: The sophomore quarterback flashed the athleticism throughout the spring that showed he could be used in a variety of roles for offensive coordinator Greg Davis. His biggest spring aim was to throw better and he showed marked improvement. "I've been focusing more on my passing to become more accurate," Chiles said. "It's coming along. I just have to keep working at it."
3. Henry Melton: After failing earlier in his career as an inside-running 265-pound tailback, Melton appears to have found a home at defensive end. Melton finished spring practice at the top of the defensive depth chart. His raw athleticism and speed have Longhorn coaches drooling about his potential pass-rushing production at an area of need.
Fall questions1. Running backs: The Longhorns can't wave a magic wand and replace Big 12 rushing leader Jamaal Charles. Chris Ogbonnaya, Vondrell McGee and redshirt freshman Foswhitt "Fozzy" Whittaker are the likely replacements. Ogbonnaya was familiar to Texas coaches, who heavily leaned on McGee and Whittaker during the spring. "What we're trying to do is see attitude, effort and toughness, and see who can make the individual plays," Brown told reporters about the trio.
2. More pressure from the defense: Muschamp promises to be more aggressive and use more blitzing schemes from his defense. The Longhorns appear more athletic than in previous seasons -- particularly at linebacker. But will Muschamp go with his ballyhooed athletic young players or prefer to lean on more experienced players with less talent as previous Texas defensive coaches chose to do?
3. Are the receivers ready? Brown will be looking for replacements with the departure of leading receiver Nate Jones, Limas Sweed, Jermichael Finley and Billy Pittman. Quan Cosby has thrived in a role as a multitalented offensive weapon and Jordan Shipley -- when healthy -- has been a nice complimentary threat. But is either ready to emerge as Colt McCoy's primary receiving weapon? And can Blaine Irby or Peter Ullman catch enough passes to replace Finley's explosive talents at tight end?
|Texas A&M Aggies|
Spring answers1. In Goods they trust: New coach Mike Sherman wasted little time installing Mike Goodson as the team's featured back. Sherman said his new offense will be built around utilizing Goodson as both as a rusher and receiver. Goodson responded by starring in the spring game. "He's a very dangerous weapon," Sherman said. "He's certainly a guy who needs the ball in his hands. I think he's proved that."
2. Matt's the man: MLB Matt Featherston might not be the most athletic player on the roster, but he quickly grasped the nuances of new coordinator Joe Kines' philosophy. It's helped him claim the No. 1 position for a young linebacking corps that will miss prime playmakers Mark Dodge and Misi Tupe from last season.
3. Is the Wrecking Crew back?: Kines' new defense will require more thrust inside than Gary Darnell's old read-and-react unit could ever muster. DE Cyril Obiozor, DE Michael Bennett and DT Kellen Heard all have thrived in early work. "I always thought that defense was never meant to be played defensively," Obiozor said. "You want to play aggressively. We aren't sitting back waiting for things. We're going after it before it happens."
Fall questions1. Youthful offensive line: The Aggies lose four starting linemen from a veteran group that was the backbone of the team last season. If Goodson has any hopes of challenging for the Heisman, as he openly talked about during the spring, he'll need some help from his teammates in the trenches.
2. Who starts at tight end?: The loss of Martellus Bennett to the NFL draft has left Sherman scrambling for answers at a position he expects will be a prime weapon. Lack of returning players led him to work converted QB/WR Jamie McCoy and LB Billy Chavis at the position. "The tight end position is still up in the air," Sherman said. "Our success will be predicated by how hard these guys work this offseason."
3. Receivers needed: Sherman has made implementing a new pro-style offense his primary spring task. After losing starting receivers Kerry Franks and Earvin Taylor from last season, QB Stephen McGee completed only five passes in the spring game and none were to a wide receiver. Pierre Brown and E.J. Shankle had strong camps and should receive the first look when fall practice begins. Redshirt freshman Jeff Fuller also emerged as an intriguing prospect.
|Texas Tech Red Raiders|
Spring answers1. More receiving help: Tech's lone loss of a skill-position starter was Danny Amendola, who contributed 109 catches last season as QB Graham Harrell's second receiving option. Detron Lewis could be the leading candidate to replace Amendola after pacing Tech with seven catches for 93 yards in the spring game. Tech coaches like his speed and athleticism and say that his only drawback in his lack of consistency. And that problem didn't surface in the spring.
2. Defensive depth: New coordinator Ruffin McNeill served on an interim basis last season and directed the Red Raiders to continued growth over the final eight games of the season. His group seems to be gravitating to continued work with him, controlling Tech's offense at many stages of the spring. "Ruff brings a lot of excitement out here," DE McKinner Dixon told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. "We're going to do more of what we've got to do and keep showing as the year progresses that we're the team."
3. Kobey Lewis: After playing little more than in a spot role earlier in his career, Lewis responded with a big spring. He'll need it in order to separate himself in a tight four-way battle at running back that includes Baron Batch, Aaron Crawford and Shannon Woods. Crawford started at the end of last season, but Lewis might have the best chance in Coach Mike Leach's offense because of his pass-blocking skills.
Fall questions1. Huge expectations: Tech will enter the 2008 season with more preseason hype than any season in recent history. It's unclear how this group handles that anticipation. If Leach's view of the spring is any indication, probably not very well. "I think their heads are in the newspaper," Leach told reporters. "I think these guys are reading too many press clippings, buying into everyone saying how good they are. They haven't proven a thing."
2. Find a kicker: Alex Trlica was the most underrated element of Tech's recent success and Leach doesn't have an immediate answer for his replacement. P Jonathan LaCour and walk-on Cory Fowler competed in the spring and Donnie Corona is the first place-kicker to sign a national letter of intent with the Red Raiders in Leach's tenure. But the kicking question festers. "I think we've got good people to work with at the position, but it's still kind of a concern," Leach said.
3. Secondary help: The Red Raiders must replace two underrated starters, as CB Chris Parker and S Joe Garcia are gone. A tight battle to replace Parker includes Marcus Bunton, LaRon Moore and Brent Nickerson. And three seniors are in the mix to replace Garcia -- Anthony Hines, Lance Fuller and Jordy Rowland.