Athlon previews the storylines in the Big 12 this spring.
Spring practice is already underway for a handful of college football teams, and the offseason workouts and scrimmages provide the first glimpse of how all 128 teams will look in 2015.
Baylor and TCU return to the top of the preseason heap in the Big 12 after both barely missed a shot at the College Football Playoff. Both teams are loaded with experience, but have some holes to plug at key positions.
Meanwhile, power programs Texas and Oklahoma are looking to return to Big 12 glory with rebuilt rosters and coaching staffs, respectively. And watch out for a developing Oklahoma State and an always underrated Kansas State.
Big 12 Spring Preview and Storylines to Watch
(Teams listed by pre-spring power rank)
2014 Record: 12-1 (8-1)
Returning Starters: Offense – 10, Defense – 5
Key Coaching Changes:
Chad Glasgow/DeMontie Cross (co-DC), Dan Sharp (DL), Paul Gonzales (CB)
Horned Frogs' Spring Priorities
1. Replace the star power in the front seven
Gary Patterson is known for his defensive prowess but he will have his work cut out for him this spring. Chucky Hunter and Paul Dawson were as good a front-seven tandem as any team in the nation had last year and both are gone. The rest of the linebacking corps needs reworking as well. The situation at end looks promising but the rest of the front seven needs to be settled.
2. Reconstruct the secondary
This unit isn’t in need of reloading or rebuilding, it needs to be totally reconstructed. Three All-Big 12 selections in Kevin White, Sam Carter and Chris Hackett need to be replaced with only Derrick Kindred returning. Patterson and his coaching staff need to find some suitable replacements in the defensive backfield — especially, in a league like the Big 12.
3. Handle expectations and stay healthy
This team will be picked by many to win the Big 12 and TCU needs to stay grounded if it wants to win the league. Handling expectations are as difficult a task as there is for young athletes, so staying focused on and off the field this spring will be key. Keeping all the important puzzle pieces healthy and upright would help too.
2014 Record: 11-2 (8-1)
Returning Starters: Offense - 8, Defense - 9
Key Coaching Changes:
Kendal Briles (OC), Tate Wallis (WR), Cris Dishman (S)
Bears' Spring Priorities
1. Find out what you have under center
Seth Russell is the incumbent and will be tough to beat out. He threw eight touchdowns and just one interception in 85 attempts behind Bryce Petty last year. While he has the lead heading into spring, look for sophomore Chris Johnson and incoming freshman Jarrett Stidham to press for time.
2. Replace Hager, Brence at linebacker
There are not many holes on this defense with nine starters returning. The only real voids that need to be filled are at linebacker (Bryce Hager) and hybrid nickel/linebacker (Collin Brence). There are plenty of names on the roster but replacing 169 tackles from the middle of the defense will be key.
3. Address the legs on special teams
Second-team All-Big 12 punter Spencer Roth is gone and will need to be replaced. Kicker Chris Callahan was eighth in the Big 12 in field goal kicking percentage (69.2) and needs to improve. Special teams are often overlooked, but on a team with few weaknesses, it could be the difference in the race for a third straight conference championship.
Listen to the Cover 2 Podcast: Early 2015 Big 12 Preview
2014 Record: 8-5 (5-4)
Returning Starters: Offense – 5, Defense – 6
Key Coaching Changes:
Lincoln Riley (OC), Dennis Simmons (Outside WR), Kerry Cooks (CB), Diron Reynolds (DL)
Sooners' Spring Priorities
1. Stabilize the sideline
The biggest issue for Bob Stoops this spring might have nothing to do with his players. With an entirely new coaching staff around him, meshing on the sidelines and in meeting rooms is just as important as anything else in Norman. Lincoln Riley brings a new offense from East Carolina and designing the right systems for the roster will be huge for the Sooners.
2. Which QB fits the new system?
Once the staff settles in and finds its rhythm, the first order of business is to pick a starting quarterback. Trevor Knight came into last season with huge expectations only to fall short due to injuries and inconsistency. Cody Thomas has quit baseball to focus on winning the OU starting gig and should prove to be an adequate challenger. Don’t forget about Texas Tech transfer Baker Mayfield as well. This three-way race should be fun to watch… from the outside.
3. Find some studs up the middle
Departed defensive tackles Jordan Phillips and Chuka Ndulue have left Stoops with a huge void in the middle of his defensive line. There are plenty of linebackers returning and despite issues giving up big plays, the secondary returns plenty of talent too. But those position groups may not matter if OU can’t hold the point of attack.
2014 Record: 6-7 (5-4)
Returning Starters: Offense – 5, Defense – 5
Key Coaching Changes:
Jay Norvell (WR), Jeff Traylor (TE), Brick Haley (DL)
Longhorns' Spring Priorities
1. Develop Tyrone Swoopes
Charlie Strong likely won’t have a better option under center than Swoopes. The talented athlete had his moments last year but didn’t do much to prove he could be the long-term solution in Austin. But Texas is stuck with him, so getting him as many reps as possible this spring is critical.
2. Rebuild heart of the defense
Malcom Brown was arguably the most dominant defensive player in the league last year. Steve Edmond and Jordan Hicks posted 278 total tackles last fall. Mykkele Thompson was a major contributor in the secondary. All are gone as well as end Cedric Reed. The middle of any defense — tackle, middle linebacker, safety — is critical and for Texas, it must be totally reworked.
3. Find stars on the outside
John Harris and Jaxon Shipley were both All-Big 12 picks last year and both need to be replaced at wide receiver. There is no better way to help a struggling quarterback than with star power on the outside in space. This roster has plenty of talented names filling the depth chart and someone needs to step into the No. 1 (and No. 2) role this spring.
5. Oklahoma State
2014 Record: 7-6 (4-5)
Returning Starters: Offense – 10, Defense – 7
Key Coaching Changes:
Greg Adkins (OL), Dan Hammerschmidt (CB), Marcus Arroyo (RB), Jason McEndoo (TEs)
Cowboys' Spring Priorities
1. Who to get the ball to?
Tyreek Hill and Desmond Roland are both gone (for different reasons) and Mike Gundy needs to find some playmakers on offense. He has a lot of names returning with some experience — David Glidden, Brandon Sheperd, James Washington, Marcell Ateman and Jhajuan Seales all caught between 18 and 42 passes last year. But finding a go-to playmaker on the outside and in the backfield is key this spring.
2. Finalize the QB depth chart
Mason Rudolph is the youngest name under center for the Pokes but showed the most promise last fall. He excelled down the stretch and has the most upside. He’s the logical choice to start but with J.W. Walsh and Daxx Garman also back with starting experience, settling on a specific pecking order leaving spring camp would be wise for Gundy.
3. Rebuild depth along D-Line
Since this roster was so young a year ago, there are very few holes to fill on either side of the ball. But with two defensive tackles and one end leaving the front line, Gundy needs to rebuild the D-line two-deep. Emmanuel Ogbah and Jimmy Bean are two rising stars but their supporting cast could use some development.
6. Kansas State
2014 Record: 9-4 (7-2)
Returning Starters: Offense – 6, Defense – 5
Wildcats’ Spring Priorities
1. Replace Jake Waters
Somehow Bill Snyder keeps finding gritty leaders to play quarterback. After Collin Klein led the Cats to a Big 12 title, Jake Waters picked up where he left off and led KSU to 15 wins in his last 20 starts. The onus of signal-caller now falls to Joe Hubener — who has just 17 career pass attempts but a similar skill set to that of both Klein and Waters (aka, he likes to run too). Look for Snyder to get his quarterback as ready as possible this spring.
2. Find someone who can catch a pass
Tyler Lockett is one of the greatest to ever suit up for Kansas State. But it's not just the speedy Lockett that KSU must replace. Both Curry Sexton (1,059 yards) and DeMarcus Robinson (437 yards) are gone as well. Be it Kody Cook, Deante Burton or anyone else, someone must step up on the outside this spring and provide quality support to the passing game.
3. Create star power up front on defense
Ryan Mueller, Jonathan Truman and Randall Evans were All-Big 12 selections last year and all three are gone. The secondary has some rising stars in Danzel McDaniel and Dante Barnett, but the traditional strength of the KSU defense — the front seven — needs to find some star power. Travis Britz, for example, has a great opportunity to develop into a star and will be asked to emerge as both a leader and playmaker.
7. West Virginia
2014 Record: 7-6 (5-4)
Returning Starters: Offense – 7, Defense – 9
Bruce Tall (DL)
Mountaineers’ Spring Priorities
1. Find out if Skyler Howard is the guy
Skyler Howard threw 110 passes last year in spot duty behind Clint Trickett and is in line to take over under center in Morgantown. But in Dana Holgorsen’s offense, the star of the show has to be the signal-caller. Mountaineers fans want to see Howard separate himself from William Crest and everyone else during the spring
2. Develop pass-catchers
Kevin White and Mario Alford combined for 174 receptions, nearly 2,500 yards and 21 touchdowns last year. Both are gone and the best way to break in a new quarterback is to give him some quality options to throw to. Jordan Thompson, Daikiel Shorts, Shelton Gibson and KJ Myers will compete on the outside while Cody Clay and Elijah Wellman need to provide help at tight end.
3. Fill pass-rushing voids up front
The top three sack artists on the team are gone, as four members of the defensive front need to be replaced. Noble Nwachukwu is the leading returning sack master after just 2.0 QB takedowns last year and the linebacking corps is led by Nick Kwiatkoski (103 tackles). Holgorsen needs to find pieces to fit around those two.
8. Texas Tech
2014 Record: 4-8 (2-7)
Returning Starters: Offense – 8, Defense – 7
David Gibbs (DC), Zac Spavital (LB)
Red Raiders’ Spring Priorities
1. Put your passers through the ringer
Kliff Kingsbury has two good options at quarterback in Davis Webb and Patrick Mahomes. But only one can play at a time. Webb is much more experienced but Mahomes was efficient and effective in five starts to end the season (try 14 TDs and only two INTs in his final three games). Kingsbury needs to have some order at the position coming out of spring practice.
2. Work on discipline
This is a bigger picture issue for Tech but fixing unforced errors is a must for the Red Raiders. Texas Tech was 117th in the nation and last in the Big 12 with 28 giveaways and was dead last in the country (128th) in penalties per game (9.3). This team must be more disciplined.
3. Find some linebackers
All-Big 12 linebacker Sam Eguavoen and fellow tacklers VJ Fehoko and Austin Stewart combined for 191 tackles last year and all three are gone. Micah Awe is the only linebacker on the roster who returns with more than 10 tackles to his name last year. Find some linebackers this spring, Tech.
9. Iowa State
2014 Record: 2-10 (0-9)
Returning Starters: Offense – 6, Defense – 6
Cyclones’ Spring Priorities
1. Find some playmakers on offense
All-Big 12 tight end E.J. Bibbs might have been the best player on the team and needs to be replaced. Receiver Jarvis West and tailback Aaron Wimberly are both gone as well, leaving just two of the top five receivers and no starting running back. The good news is youngsters Allen Lazard and D’Vario Montgomery could be a special duo on the outside. Paul Rhoads needs to find some guys to get the ball to.
2. Center and tackles
Center Tom Farniok and right tackle Jacob Cannon, both honorable mention All-Big 12 blockers, need to be replaced in Ames. Guards Daniel Burton and Jamison Lalk started all 12 games and bring experience, but the other three spots on the line need to be filled. Tackles Jake Campos and Brock Dagel return with a combined 15 starts and should serve as the line's foundation.
3. Generate a pass rush
The Cyclones were 116th in the nation and last in the Big 12 in getting to opposing quarterbacks. In fact, end Cory Morrissey posted six of the team’s 15 total sacks and he needs to be replaced. This unit needs to find a way to pressure the quarterback
2014 Record: 3-9 (1-8)
Returning Starters: Offense – 3, Defense – 4
David Beaty (HC), Rob Likens (OC), Clint Bowen (DC), Kenny Perry (co-DC)
Jayhawks’ Spring Priorities
1. Create overall depth
This seems awfully vague but for a team with just seven returning starters and a mostly new coaching staff, but developing depth across the roster should be priority No. 1. Every position should be an open competition in an effort to field a competitive depth chart. There are a lot of names returning on offense but this unit needs to find some star power.
2. Fill voids in the front seven
At least three starters up front on defense need to be replaced, including the best player on the team in linebacker Ben Heeney. Additionally, holes at end and tackle also need to be filled. Plenty of guys got snaps last season but this group needs to settle into position.
3. Rebuild the secondary
Specifically, one of the units that took the most hits this offseason in Lawrence is the defensive backfield. All-conference performers JaCorey Shepherd and Cassius Sendish need to be replaced, as well as primary contributors Dexter McDonald and Victor Simmons. This staff needs to find players behind returning safeties Isaiah Johnson and Fish Smithson.