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College Football’s Pivotal Players: Seven from the Big 12

Texas coach Mack Brown is counting on his QB to be key to conference title

<p> College Football’s Pivotal Players: Seven from the Big 12</p>

This week, teams around the nation moved from preseason camp mode and into game-week preparation.

We’re starting to see coaches name starting quarterbacks and settle on position battles.

Although questions are still out there before the season, some weigh more heavily than others. As the preseason winds down, we’re picking who we believe to be “pivotal players,” or in other words, key players who need to step up where their teams need them most.

Athlon Sports’ characteristics of a “pivotal player:”
• He plays for a conference or division contender.
• He plays at a position of weakness for his team.
• He’s an unestablished player with potential to solidify his team’s position of weakness.

We begin our look at pivotal players with the Big 12 with more conferences to follow.

David Ash, QB,
Texas has a nationally elite defense, a deep stable of running backs and a solid offensive line. The Texas quarterback, then, is the prototype for our definition of a “pivotal player.” If Ash plays like he did in the bowl win over Cal (14 of 22,  142 yards, touchdown), Texas will have a chance to compete for the Big 12 title and perhaps more. Play like he did midseason (eight interceptions in six games), and Texas stays in the middle of the pack. A full season of Jaxon Shipley and a complete offseason of competing for the job could stabilize Ash’s hold on the position.

Nick Florence, QB,
We were tempted to go with Oregon running back transfer Lache Seastrunk or a defensive player like nose guard Kaeron Johnson, but the pressure to keep Baylor relevant is on Florence’s shoulders. Coach Art Briles wants to throw the the ball around -- and if Baylor’s defense is anything like it was last season, he’ll need to air it out just to keep up. Florence started seven games as a freshman in 2009 and burned a redshirt late last season to throw two touchdown passes against Texas Tech. He’s not Robert Griffin III, but Baylor hopes it can continue to run a spread, no-huddle efficiently with the senior Florence.

Joel Hasley, LB,
Linebacker suddenly became a thin spot for the Horned Frogs over the offseason with Tank Carder gone to graduation, Tanner Brock dismissed amid a drug scandal and Deryck Gildon out with academic issues. The sophomore Hasley could grab a spot alongside returning starter Kenny Cain in TCU’s 4-2-5 scheme, but Hasley’s nine career tackles highlights a position short on experience.

Wes Lunt, QB,
As with Florence, expectations for Lunt should be tempered -- perhaps moreso considering Lunt’s age. The defending Big 12 champions handed their offense over to an early-enrolling true freshman in the spring. Lunt is the rare rookie to start for Mike Gundy at Oklahoma State. Gundy last started a sophomore in 2007 when Zac Robinson took over for Bobby Reid. Still, Lunt ran a similar offense in high school at Rochester (Ill.), . Oklahoma State might need to wait until he’s a veteran to compete for a championship again, but if Lunt adjusts to the speed of the college game, the Cowboys should at least be a tough out.

Shaq Rowell, DT,
West Virginia continued to tinker with its top defensive concern during the preseason, eventually settling on Rowell, a junior college transfer in 2011, at nose tackle, . The move allows returning starter Will Clarke to move to end and Jorge Wright to move to defensive tackle on the three-man front. Rowell’s 6-4, 308-pound frame perhaps makes him be a better fit for the nose position than Wright (6-2, 291).

Boston Stiverson and Cody Whitehair, OL,
Kansas State could begin the season with two redshirt freshmen on the right side of the offensive line with Whitehair at tackle and Stiverson at guard. That’s a good deal of inexperience for a team that will try to grind opponents behind quarterback Collin Klein and running back John Hubert.

R.J. Washington, DE,
Washington was a highly coveted recruit in 2008, but he’s been a career backup so far. He broke out of sorts last season with five sacks and 16 tackles. Oklahoma may need more in the absence of Frank Alexander and Ronnell Lewis. Washington will start alongside fellow senior David King for a team that ranked eighth nationally in sacks last season.

Previous pivotal players

-David Fox 

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