With no clear favorite entering spring practice, the Big 12 should be college football’s most intriguing conference to watch when preseason picks are released for 2013.
Oklahoma State, TCU, Oklahoma and Texas seem to be the early favorites for next season, but Kansas State and Baylor can’t be counted out. The Horned Frogs should be better in their second tour through the Big 12, while the Cowboys will be a dangerous team if they can settle on one quarterback.
It may seem strange to say this for two high-profile programs, but Oklahoma and Texas are the two darkhorse teams to watch in spring practice. The Longhorns have shown some small progress over the last few years and have the talent to win the Big 12. Oklahoma is coming off a 10-3 season but must replace quarterback Landry Jones and rebuild a defense that allowed 398.3 yards per game last year.
The Big 12 had only one head coaching change this offseason, as Kliff Kingsbury returns to Lubbock to take over for Tommy Tuberville at Texas Tech. Kingsbury helped to engineer some of the nation’s best offenses at Houston and Texas A&M and should be able to immediately put his stamp on the program in 2013.
Big 12 Team Spring Storylines and Quarterback Battles to Watch
Can the defense continue to make progress?
Baylor’s final defensive numbers certainly weren’t anything to be proud of. The Bears finished 2012 ranked 110th nationally in scoring and 119th in yards allowed. However, there were encouraging signs over the final few games of the year, which included a solid performance against UCLA in the Holiday Bowl. Now that coordinator Phil Bennett has been in Waco for two years, the Bears should have a good grasp on his system and more improvement is expected in 2013. And this unit has promising talent returning, including safety Ahmad Dixon, linebacker Bryce Hager and defensive end Terrance Lloyd. With the momentum from the 2012 finish, combined with seven returning starters, Baylor’s defense should show more progress in 2013. Considering the Bears will have a new starter at quarterback, it’s important for the defense to help shoulder more of the burden this year.
Quarterback Battle? Can the Bears continue their recent run of successful quarterbacks? Nick Florence departs after an outstanding year, leaving junior Bryce Petty as the No. 1 passer this spring. Redshirt freshman Seth Russell and true freshman Chris Johnson will get a look this spring, but Petty is expected to be Baylor’s starting quarterback in 2013.
Finding replacements at linebacker
Quarterback and linebacker seem like they will be the focus almost universally in the Big 12 this spring. Maybe nowhere in the nation, however, is that more apparent than at Iowa State. The Cyclones must replace two All-American-caliber linebackers from a defense that ranked third in the Big 12 in points allowed. A.J. Klein won co-Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year two years ago and finished his career with 361 tackles. Jake Knott posted 347 stops of his own. Talented tackler Jeremiah George is a good starting point but other names will need to step into more prominent roles at linebacker for the Cyclones to reach the postseason for the third consecutive season.
Restocking the offensive line
While the defense is a huge concern, the Jayhawks have to be concerned about their offensive line with the departure of three starters from last season’s unit. Left tackle Tanner Hawkinson was the group’s biggest departure, but center Trevor Marrongelli and guard Duane Zlatnik will also be missed. Considering the only real strength with Kansas last season was the rushing attack, the new pieces on the offensive line have to jell together this spring. The Jayhawks are counting on junior college recruits Mike Smithburg and Ngalu Fuismalohi to fill the gaps at guard, while senior Aslam Sterling should be the starter at right tackle. However, the two most important positions on the line – left tackle and center – are up for grabs. Converted defensive lineman Pat Lewandowski is the frontrunner at left tackle, while sophomore Dylan Admire is listed No. 1 on the spring depth chart at center. Admire played in all 12 games last season but doesn’t have a start under his belt. If this unit struggles, Kansas’ offense will have trouble getting running back Sims on track, along with giving quarterback Jake Heaps time to throw.
Rebuild the linebacking corps
Arthur Brown eventually turned into a superstar at Kansas State and was a key factor in the team’s success over the last two years. However, Brown and four other contributors have departed the linebacking position. In fact, the Wildcats boasted seven senior linebackers on the roster in 2012, so Bill Snyder has his work cut out for him this spring. The defensive line and secondary lose a lot as well, so the entire defense needs work, but rebuilding should start in the middle at linebacker. Jonathan Truman, Tre Walker and Mike Moore are the only players returning to the position with any experience at all.
Quarterback Battle Breakdown: Daniel Sams (SO) vs. Jake Waters (JR)
While Collin Klein will be missed, Kansas State has two solid options to turn to under center this season. Sams was impressive in limited action last year, while Waters threw for 3,501 yards and 39 touchdowns at Iowa Western Community College in 2012. Considering both quarterbacks have no starts at the FBS level, this battle could extend deep into the fall.
Find a supporting cast for Aaron Colvin in the secondary
Oklahoma’s defense has major holes to fill at a variety of positions, but three of the starting four defensive backs from 2012 have departed the team. The top four tacklers last season were defensive backs — which should indicate just how much the front seven struggled last year — and three of them are gone, including the team’s most talented player and leading tackler Tony Jefferson. Only Aaron Colvin returns, and Bob Stoops needs to find him support this spring.
Quarterback Battle Breakdown: Blake Bell (JR) vs. Trevor Knight (FR) vs. Kendal Thompson (SO)
While the Sooners are listed as a battle, it’s hard to see Knight or Thompson unseating Bell. The Kansas native needs to show he can be a consistent passer but has scored 24 rushing scores in limited action. The battle between Knight and Thompson for No. 2 could be the bigger storyline to watch, especially since the winner of that competition is in line to start if Bell struggles.
Who steps up at defensive end?
The Cowboys don’t have many glaring issues to work on in spring practice, but the defensive end spot is a concern for coordinator Glenn Spencer. Oklahoma State loses three key contributors from last season, as Cooper Bassett, Nigel Nicholas and Ryan Robinson expired their eligibility after the bowl win against Purdue. Tyler Johnson is the most experienced option on the outside and he recorded 27 tackles and four sacks last season. Outside of Johnson, there’s not much in the way of proven options. Sam Wren ranked as the No. 16 junior college prospect by ESPN and could win the other starting end spot. True freshman Naim Mustafaa enrolled early to compete in the spring and figures to play a prominent role in the rotation. However, even if Wren and Mustafaa emerge as solid options, depth is still an issue. Expect the defensive staff to spend a lot of time watching the trenches in spring practice.
Quarterback Battle Breakdown: Clint Chelf (SR) vs. Wes Lunt (SO) vs. J.W. Walsh (SO)
Despite three quarterbacks making starts for Oklahoma State in 2012, the Cowboys finished third nationally and averaged 547 yards per game. All three passers are back this spring, and Oklahoma State should have one of the most intriguing quarterback battles in the nation. Wes Lunt began last season as the starter but lost his job due to an injury. Walsh and Chelf played well in Lunt’s absence, with Chelf finishing the year as the No. 1 quarterback.
Stop the run without Alex Okafor
Getting star front seven players Jackson Jeffcoat and Jordan Hicks back healthy will obviously go a long way to improving one of the most underachieving units in the nation. Filling holes left by end Alex Okafor and tackle Brandon Moore and stabilizing this unit could be the difference between a conference championship or pink slip for Mack Brown. Manny Diaz needs to figure out a way to improve a defense that allowed 88th nationally in rushing defense. There is a definite sense of urgency with this portion of the depth chart this spring.
Replace two All-Big 12 blockers up front
This team has few weaknesses heading into 2013 and will feature one of the league’s best defenses. Gary Patterson also has two quality options under center as well. Losing guard Blaize Foltz and center James Fry, two All-Big 12 performers from a year ago, will hurt the middle of the offensive line. Foltz was the best lineman on the team and the pivot is a critical position, so filling the gaps inside along the line is key for TCU this spring.
Quarterback Battle Breakdown: Trevone Boykin (SO) vs. Casey Pachall (SR)
Considering the Horned Frogs have the pieces in place to win the Big 12, this offense needs Pachall to return to his 2011 form. Despite missing eight games last season due to an off-the-field incident, Pachall is expected to edge Boykin for the starting job this spring, but Boykin will have some role on the offense in 2013.
Rebuilding in the secondary
One year after allowing 485.6 yards per game, the Red Raiders were one of the nation’s most-improved defenses. Texas Tech ranked second in the Big 12 by allowing 367.3 yards per game, while finishing first in pass defense. This unit struggled later in the season, but there’s no question the Red Raiders were better on this side of the ball in 2012. In addition to a new coaching staff taking over, Texas Tech has significant question marks in the secondary. Cornerbacks Cornelius Douglas and Eugene Neboh, along with safeties Cody Davis and D.J. Johnson have expired their eligibility, which leaves the Red Raiders with just one returning starter in the defensive backfield. Cornerback Tre’ Porter is a good place to start rebuilding, while Bruce Jones, Jarvis Phillips, Derrick Mays and Ola Falemi return with experience. While there’s at least some depth at cornerback, the safety position is virtually empty. J.J. Gaines and John White are the only returning safeties on the roster, and the duo combined for just nine tackles in 2012. Incoming freshman Jalen Barnes and junior college recruit Martin Hill could be asked to play a lot in 2013, which is particularly bad news in an offensive-minded league like the Big 12.
Who will emerge as the top receivers?
All eyes in Morgantown will be focused on the defense in the spring, but the receiving corps shouldn’t be overlooked. Gone are standouts Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey, along with Ryan Nehlen and J.D. Woods. The unit’s top returning receivers are Jordan Thompson (13 catches) and Connor Arlia (7), so it’s easy to see why the coaching staff is bringing in five players in the 2013 recruiting class at the position, including three junior college recruits. True freshman Shelton Gibson is also expected to get into the mix this fall. With a new quarterback and virtually new receiving corps, it may take some time for West Virginia to work out the kinks in the passing game. However, in an offensive-minded league with a questionable defense, the Mountaineers will need to win their share of shootouts in 2013.
Quarterback Battle Breakdown: Ford Childress (FR) vs. Paul Millard (JR)
Millard has the edge in experience (34 career passes), but the West Virginia coaching staff is excited to see what Childress can do with the No. 1 offense. The Houston native ranked as the No. 18 recruit in the 2012 signing class and spent last season learning the ropes as a redshirt. Even though Millard has the edge in game experience, this is Childress’ job to lose.
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