Bob Stoops needs to figure out his backfield as Oklahoma looks to defends its Big 12 title
College football teams are stirring once again, as spring practice has begun in different parts of the country. Activity will only pick up as the calendar turns to March, especially in Big 12 country.
Iowa State (Feb. 28) is the first Big 12 team to return to the field with Oklahoma (March 21) and Kansas State (March 29) scheduled to round things out. Even though the Sooners are the defending conference champions, the start of spring practice signals a fresh start for everyone, as well as the opportunity to get a closer look at what the fall could hold.
With Big 12 teams set to get back to work, here is a look at the biggest question mark and possible solution for all 10 teams entering spring practice.
How much depth will new Baylor head coach Matt Rhule have in his first season?
Baylor’s 2016 recruiting class was much leaner than expected after several transfers and defections following the sexual assault scandal around the program. While Rhule and his staff closed strong in 2017 with 27 commitments, some of the new faces might find themselves on the two-deep immediately. That is especially true in the secondary where the Bears are looking to replace key contributors Orion Stewart, Ryan Reid and Patrick Levels. Look for redshirt freshman Raleigh Texada and Chris Miller to see a lot of action this spring.
Can Iowa State’s defense match its offense?
The Cyclones return an impressive group of skill players on offense with QB Jacob Park, WR Allen Lazard and RB David Montgomery. But the concerns for Iowa State lie on defense. The good news is that Matt Campbell has a pair of top-100 junior college recruits that should help immediately on the defensive line in Matt Leo and Ray Lima. These two will need to help solidify a defense that allowed 5.2 yards per carry, which was third worst in the Big 12 in 2016. If the Cyclones’ defense starts making strides this spring, watch out.
What does new Kansas offensive coordinator Doug Meacham have in store?
After spending the past three seasons helping revitalize TCU’s stagnant offense, Meacham has an even tougher job in Lawrence. Last season the Jayhawks were last in the Big 12 in scoring offense and total offense, and placed eighth in passing offense. Comparatively, TCU ranked third nationally in total offense and seventh in scoring in 2015.
First off, Meacham needs to figure out who is quarterback is going to be. Montell Cozart was the latest KU QB to transfer, but the favorite for the job was always going to be Washington State/Itawamba (Miss.) Community College transfer Peyton Bender. It’s hard to believe Meacham wouldn’t take this job if he didn’t think he was going to be upgrading at quarterback by going from the overrated Kenny Hill to Bender.
How healthy is Kansas State head coach Bill Snyder?
It was announced a couple of weeks ago that Snyder is undergoing treatment for throat cancer. He is not supposed to miss any of spring practice and his cancer has been called “very treatable.” But the reality is Snyder will be 78 years old this season. Folks in Manhattan have speculated for the last couple seasons about when Snyder might retire (again) and who could be his replacement. There’s no doubt that chatter will only begin to heat up and Snyder will face more questions than ever about his future.
Who will Oklahoma QB Baker Mayfield be handing off to?
The Sooners just lost two of the best running backs to ever come through the program in Samaje Perine and Joe Mixon, which is really saying something. Because of this, it’s very possible OU goes with a rotation in the backfield in 2017. Abdul Adams is the returning running back with the most experience. He played in seven games as a freshman last season and totaled 283 rushing yards. But keep an eye on true freshman Trey Sermon, who is enrolled early and ready to give Adams and Rodney Anderson, the only other returning scholarship running back, some serious competition this spring.
Can the Oklahoma State running attack keep pace with the passing game?
We know the explosiveness the QB Mason Rudolph and WR James Washington combination brings to the table, but the running game has struggled in recent seasons. In 2015, Oklahoma State ranked ninth in the Big 12 in rushing offense, but the Pokes were up to seventh last season. Freshman Justice Hill (1,187 rushing yards) came on strong for the Cowboys last season, along with an improved offensive line. But Chris Carson and Rennie Childs, who combined for more than 800 yards in 2016, both graduated. On top of that, the team’s running backs coach Marcus Arroyo recently left for Oregon. There isn’t a ton of depth at the position, but expect to see more of Jeff Carr, and some looks for La’Darren Brown this spring. One of Oklahoma State’s top recruits from the 2017 class was Canadian running back Chuba Hubbard, but he did not enroll early, so Cowboys fans won’t see him until the summer.
Can TCU QB Kenny Hill keep his job?
Hill threw 17 touchdowns compared to13 interceptions last season and his decision-making was often suspect. Last year Hill beat out Foster Sawyer for the starting job, but Sawyer left for FCS member Stephen F. Austin. There are other candidates who have been around the program (Grayson Muehlstein, Brennen Wooten), but true freshman Shawn Robinson is the quarterback everyone around TCU has pinned their hopes on. Robinson led DeSoto (Texas) High School to a state title last season and is already being compared to former TCU QB Trevone Boykin. Robinson enrolled in January, which means he may see a chance to get on the field ASAP in Fort Worth.
Who’s under center for new Texas head coach Tom Herman?
Considering last year’s Texas team was mediocre, Shane Buechele had a solid true freshman season, throwing for nearly 3,000 yards, with 21 touchdowns, only 11 interceptions, while completing more than 60 percent of his passes. But new head coach Tom Herman has made it clear he has no returning starters as he reevaluates the program. Newcomer Sam Ehlinger is a hometown product from nearby Westlake High School and he is expected to give Buechele all he can handle. Ehlinger has better wheels than Buechele and we know how much Herman likes a QB who can run from his time with Greg Ward Jr. at Houston. Unlike in recent seasons, Texas actually has a QB battle that’s worth watching.
Can Texas Tech coordinator David Gibbs finally turn around this defense?
Gibbs enters his third season as defensive coordinator and the Red Raiders have seen little, if any, improvement on this side of the ball. In 2016 Texas Tech was last in the Big 12 in total defense, rushing defense, and pass defense efficiency. Early enrollees who could turn some heads this spring include JUCO linebacker Tony Jones from Butler County (Kan.) Community College and his teammate, defensive back Octavius Morgan. Also keep an eye on defensive back Vaughnte Dorsey and defensive end Nelson Mbanasor. Head coach Kliff Kingsbury and Gibbs better hope these newcomers show serious promise this spring, or the 2017 recruiting class may be their last in Lubbock.
How will West Virginia rebuild its defense?
For the second straight season, defensive coordinator Tony Gibson will need to work his magic on defense. Last year, the Mountaineers replaced nine starters on defense, but did it with eight seniors and one junior. So once again, the turnover is real for the Mountaineers. Rasul Douglas, Noble Nwachukwu, Darrien Howard, Justin Arndt, and several other key pieces are gone.
In 2016, West Virginia was third in the Big 12 in total defense and second in pass efficiency defense. The Mountaineers do welcome back safety Dravon Askew-Henry from a season-ending knee injury suffered last August. Also, WVU lost one of its best recruits from the 2016 class, linebacker Brendan Ferns, to a knee injury last summer as well. These are two impact players coming back from serious injuries. With the holes on defense, their health this spring deserves a close eye.
— Article written by Pete Mundo, owner and operator of HeartlandCollegeSports.com, a site for Big 12 fans. Mundo also is a sports anchor at CBS Sports Radio and can found on Twitter @PeteMundo. Follow Heartland College Sports on Twitter @Heartland_CS.