Athlon takes a look at the key storylines in the Big 12 this spring.
The Big 12 didn’t have a banner year in 2013 with only three teams finishing in the final Associated Press poll. Baylor, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State combined for 32 victories last season, while the rest of the conference combined for 38 wins. While last season left a lot to be desired, the Sooners defeated Alabama in the Sugar Bowl, and Kansas State has momentum after a strong close to the year.
As spring practice opens in the Big 12, each team has a handful of question marks the coaching staff hopes to find solutions for over the next few months. Oklahoma is considered a slight favorite over Baylor for the top spot in the conference, but Oklahoma State, Kansas State and Texas will be tough outs for the rest of the Big 12.
Texas Tech is a darkhorse to watch this season, but the Red Raiders have a few significant question marks on defense. Assuming a quarterback emerges, TCU should rebound after going 4-8 last year. And West Virginia has enough returning talent to expect a run at a bowl game after a disappointing 2013 campaign.
Here’s a quick snapshot of the teams heading into spring practice with personnel losses from last season and returning starters on both sides of the ball.
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Key Storylines Around the Big 12 for Spring Practice
First look at the new faces on defense:
An underrated part of Baylor’s Big 12 championship last season was the defense. The Bears held opponents to 4.8 yards per play in 2013 after allowing 6.3 in 2012. Coordinator Phil Bennett has a busy spring ahead if he wants his defense to improve off of those totals in 2014. Only four starters return from last year’s unit, and All-Big 12 performers in safety Ahmad Dixon, linebacker Eddie Lackey and end Chris McAllister have expired their eligibility. Baylor’s recruiting has improved under Art Briles, and there’s talent waiting to step onto the field. Defensive end Shawn Oakman is a name to remember after recording 33 tackles last year, while help is also in the way in the form of three junior college transfers this spring. Will this unit continue to build off the improvement showcased last season? Or will all of the new faces create a transition year in 2014?
Is Grant Rohach ready to emerge as the No. 1 quarterback?:
The Cyclones have question marks on both sides of the ball, but Rohach’s development is the key to the season. The California native finished 2013 by throwing for 631 yards and six touchdowns over the final two games, leading Iowa State to back-to-back victories. New coordinator Mark Mangino should help Rohach’s growth, and the Cyclones are bringing in a potential impact recruit at receiver in Allen Lazard. Iowa State’s schedule is tough. But if Rohach builds off the final two performances of 2013, the Cyclones could push for six wins this season.
Improving the passing attack:
When you win four games in two years, it’s hard to call many areas of that team a strength. Kansas has some pieces to build around, including running back Darrian Miller, all-purpose threat Tony Pierson and All-Big 12 linebacker Ben Heeney. However, for the Jayhawks to show significant improvement in the win column, quarterback play and the receiving corps needs to show progress this offseason. Jake Heaps and Montell Cozart each played significant snaps at quarterback last year, but neither showcased enough to have the full-time job going into the spring. UCLA transfer T.J. Millweard will get a chance to unseat Heaps and Cozart, and Miami (Ohio) transfer Nick Harwell should provide the quarterback a No. 1 target. But can the Jayhawks find a No. 2 or No. 3 receiver? Is Justin McCay ready to live up to the hype?
Finding a No. 1 running back:
With John Hubert and Robert Rose expiring their eligibility, Kansas State’s returning leaders in rushing yards are quarterbacks Daniel Sams (807) and Jake Waters (312). And there’s little in the way of returning experience at running back for coach Bill Snyder. Demarcus Robinson was a four-star recruit by Rivals but has only 11 carries in two years. Sophomore Jarvis Leverett Jr. was a three-star recruit in 2012 and will be in the mix to replace Hubert, while incoming freshman Dalvin Warmack is a name to watch this fall. A wildcard option to watch in the ground attack is Sams, as he could spend time at running back or receiver this season. Kansas State has a few other voids to fill, including spots at linebacker, cornerback and at tackle. However, this team is positioned to compete for a spot among the top 25 in many preseason polls.
Can Trevor Knight build off his Sugar Bowl performance?:
With 16 starters returning, and momentum from the Sugar Bowl win against Alabama in place, Oklahoma is considered a slight favorite over Baylor for the Big 12 title in 2014. The Sooners return most of their core from last season, and Knight’s performance in the bowl has provided plenty of optimism that Oklahoma is ready to contend for a playoff spot. Knight gashed Alabama’s defense for 348 yards and four touchdowns – easily his best performance of 2013. Should we expect to see similar numbers in 2014? Or was that just an aberration? With Blake Bell moving to tight end, it’s clear Knight has the starting job. Now it’s time for the sophomore to take the next step in his development, which will be a challenge with Jalen Saunders and Lacoltan Bester gone at receiver.
The quarterback battle:
Mike Gundy’s team returns only nine starters next year, but Oklahoma State should still be a factor in the Big 12 title picture. The Cowboys have not won fewer than eight games since a 7-6 mark in 2007, and there’s promising young talent on offense, including running back Desmond Roland and receiver Jhajuan Seales. However, all eyes this spring will be on the quarterback battle. Junior J.W. Walsh has the experience, but incoming freshman Mason Rudolph enrolled early and is expected to push for time. Daxx Garman and Richard Lagow are also in the mix, but the job is expected to go to Walsh or Rudolph. Walsh is a dual-threat option, while Rudolph is a prototypical pocket passer. Will a quarterback claim the job this spring? Or will Rudolph and Walsh take their battle into the fall?
Rebuilding on offense:
Despite the defense leading the Big 12 in fewest yards per game (conference-only contests), the Horned Frogs finished with their worst record under Gary Patterson. After watching the offense manage just 349.1 yards per game in Big 12 action, Patterson made changes to his offensive staff. Doug Meacham was hired away from Houston to call the plays, while Sonny Cumbie joins the staff after four years at Texas Tech. Meacham and Cumbie were solid additions, but both coaches will have their work cut out for them this preseason. The Horned Frogs need to find a quarterback, as Casey Pachall has expired his eligibility, and Trevone Boykin could slide to receiver. If Boykin doesn’t stay at quarterback, there’s not much in the way of proven options under center. Zach Allen, Tyler Matthews and Carson Snyder have combined for just three pass attempts, while incoming freshmen Foster Sawyer and Grayson Muehlstein will have an opportunity to win the job this preseason. The question marks on TCU’s offense extend to the line where two starters depart from a unit that struggled in 2013. The Horned Frogs also need more consistency from the receiving corps and at running back. This spring is the first step to finding answers for TCU.
Finding answers on offense:
In what seems to be an ongoing question mark, the Longhorns enter spring practice looking for answers on offense. Texas has not ranked higher than sixth in the Big 12 in scoring in each of the last four years and averaged only 5.1 yards per play in conference action in 2013. New coach Charlie Strong and co-offensive coordinators Shawn Watson and Joe Wickline will be looking for solutions this spring, starting under center where David Ash returns after missing most of last year with a concussion. Ash will face competition from Tyrone Swoopes this spring, while touted freshman Jerrod Heard arrives this summer. In addition to finding a quarterback, Texas has to replace three starters on the line, while receiver Mike Davis departs after averaging 14.3 yards per catch last season. Wickline has a strong track record of developing offensive linemen, and with a strong backfield returning, Texas can lean on the ground until the passing attack stabilizes. However, for the Longhorns to be a factor in the Big 12 title picture, a quarterback needs to step up before the season opener.
Restocking the defensive line and secondary:
The Red Raiders finished 2013 with a fury, handling Arizona State 37-23 in the Holiday Bowl. Kliff Kingsbury has Texas Tech on the right track, but there are a few glaring concerns heading into spring practice. The receiving corps needs to reload after losing Eric Ward and Jace Amaro, but a bigger concern is on defense where only three starters return. The line must replace standout end Kerry Hyder, while the secondary loses three starters, including safety Tre Porter. To help with the personnel losses, Texas Tech dipped into the junior college ranks, bringing five players who can help this season. It’s always risky relying on junior college recruits to make an immediate impact, but the Red Raiders needed players who can play right away and help with depth this season. Finding two new starting cornerbacks and developing depth up front will be critical to Texas Tech’s chances at beating last year’s eight wins.
The quarterback battle:
Considering West Virginia had to replace quarterback Geno Smith and receivers Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey, it was no surprise the offense took a step back from its 2012 production in 2013. However, the drop-off was greater than most anticipated. The Mountaineers still averaged 410.8 yards per game, but the scoring average dropped by 13 points. Quarterback play has been a strength in Dana Holgorsen’s offenses and spring practice will be critical to developing a pecking order under center after a season of lackluster play from the quarterbacks. Three players started under center last year, but Ford Childress left the team before spring practice, and Clint Trickett is still recovering from shoulder surgery. Paul Millard is the team’s No. 1 quarterback – for now – but keep an eye on junior college recruit Skyler Howard. Will Millard take a step forward in 2014? Or will he leave the door open for Howard, incoming freshman William Crest or Trickett to eventually win the job in the fall?