May 17, 2006

Rest of Big 12 now chasing Longhorns

Texas would love to relive its 2005 national championship season.

The other 11 teams in the conference would love to forget it.

The Longhorns steamrolled through the Big 12 last season, outscoring conference opponents by more than 37 points per game - including the 70-3 trouncing of Colorado in the title game.

During the spring, several conference teams imported new coaches and new ideas to try and prevent a Texas repeat.

On offense, Colorado hopes new coach Dan Hawkins can bring the blue-turf magic from Boise State to Boulder. At the same time, Baylor looks toward new coordinator Lee Hays and his spread offense to build on last year's 5-6 season.

Meanwhile, the Longhorns' neighbors in the Lone Star State will have new-look defenses. New Texas A&M defensive coordinator Gary Darnell installed a 4-2-5 scheme. A personnel change at Texas Tech will make the Red Raiders' defense more daring and creative.

Despite sending six players to the NFL Draft - including quarterback Vince Young - Texas is poised to reload after discovering potential breakout players at several positions during the spring.

Oklahoma, too, will put the changes made by the rest of the conference to the test behind a healthy Adrian Peterson and standout linebacker Rufus Alexander.

Baylor (5-6, 2-6)
The most important thing: Team adapts to new spread offense.
Jason Howell of "After Baylor finished with its best record since joining the Big 12, Coach Guy Morriss established it wasn't good enough. Morriss revamped the Bears' offensive attack by adding coordinator Lee Hays and quarterbacks coach Wes Phillips. This spring, the Bears worked on the fundamentals of their new spread attack. The new coaches and system changed the attitude and pace of the offense, and Hays showed he will pull a few tricks out of the bag. The offense still has a way to go before the transition is complete, but next season look for the Bears to come out ready to put points on the board."
Player to watch: Offensive tackle Jason Smith
Howell: "The 6-foot-6, 290-pound sophomore is the most impressive lineman the Bears have had in a long time. The former tight end was the first off the ball and the quickest in pass protection. He routinely dominated his opponent at the point of contact throughout the spring. Look for him to anchor the Baylor offensive front not only next fall, but for years to come."
Colorado (7-6, 5-3)
The most important thing: New offense will take time to develop.
Adam Munsterteiger of "Dan Hawkins' teams at Boise State were known for their high-octane offensive attack. While the Buffaloes' offense did progress some over the course of spring ball, it is far from an effective unit. In addition to implementing a new system, Colorado is forced to replace six starters on offense, including three-year starting quarterback Joel Klatt."
Player to watch: Wide receiver Stephone Robinson
Munsterteiger: "Arguably the most underutilized player by the old staff, Robinson had struggled to work his way into the rotation at receiver despite twice being named second-team All-Big 12 as a punt returner by the league coaches. Robinson's impressive performance this spring, capped by 126 all-purpose yards in the final scrimmage, has earned him a spot atop the depth chart."
Iowa State (7-5, 4-4)
The most important thing: Defense will rebound quickly.
Paul Clark of "Despite being down seven starters from a year ago, Iowa State's defense was impressive overall during the spring. Going against an experienced Cyclones offense, the defensive acquitted itself well more times than not through spring ball. While Iowa State could take a step back on defense, where it ranked 20th nationally in scoring, there are plenty of indications it will still be a good unit in 2006."
Player to watch: Linebacker Tyrone McKenzie
Clark: "After sitting out last season as a transfer from Michigan State, McKenzie is primed to be a three-year starter and standout for the Cyclones. The 6-foot-2, 230-pound Floridian can play the middle and strongside linebacker positions and combines excellent speed and athletic ability with a physical style and tenacious attitude."
Kansas (7-5, 3-5)
The most important thing: Defense should remain one of conference's best.
Mark Lewis of "After fielding the nation's No. 11 team in total defense in 2005, many felt the defense could face a drop-off. That's not going to be the case. The defense will be more physical up front and the secondary should be better. The unit is led by Aqib Talib, who is among the Big 12's best cornerbacks. The biggest loss was at linebacker, but the Jayhawks could be more athletic at that spot. They lack experience, but the talent is there."
Player to watch: Defensive end Rodney Allen
Lewis: "The Jayhawks will have to replace both starting defensive ends. One player who will be a key on the edge is Allen. He will open more eyes in the Big 12 this year. Allen is a physical and strong player at 6-2, 290 pounds. In spring drills he demonstrated his athletic ability and mobility. He can play the run and is athletic enough to make plays behind the line. Last year, we predicted the defensive player to watch was Charlton Keith. He ended up being named first-team All-Big 12. Allen could follow in his footsteps."
Kansas State (5-6, 2-6)
The most important thing: Wildcats have bought into Prince's program.
Matt Hall of "The biggest question of the spring was how Kansas State players and fans would react to new coach Ron Prince replacing Bill Snyder. From the looks of things, everyone has accepted him with open arms. Wildcats players had a hard time hiding their excitement concerning the changes made within the program. The team is more media friendly and the practices are more relaxed. Nearly 32,000 fans, a Kansas State record, showed up for the spring game."
Player to watch: Running back James Johnson
Hall: "Johnson, a four-star rated junior college prospect out of Blinn Community College, came from the same program that produced former Heisman runner-up and Wildcats quarterback Michael Bishop. When Johnson arrives in fall, he will have every opportunity to seize Kansas State's starting duties at running back, where nobody stepped up during the spring."
Missouri (7-5, 4-4)
The most important thing: Defensive line should be anchor for team.
Gabe DeArmond of "The defensive line, which returns its top five members, should help ease the trouble of breaking in two new starting cornerbacks early in the season. Last year, the Tigers pass defense struggled because opposing quarterbacks had too long to throw the ball. However, by the end of the season, the unit was a strength - and it has improved over the winter. The battle at end between Stryker Sulak and Xzavie Jackson will rage all season. Senior Brian Smith could lead the Big 12 in sacks."
Player to watch: Wide receiver Greg Bracey
DeArmond: "Bracey is a sprinter on the Tigers track team and has been timed at 4.29 seconds in the 40-yard dash. He had mononucleosis prior to last season and ended up doing very little during the year. Bracey showed off improved hands during the spring and could provide the deep threat Missouri hasn't had in more than a decade. With Chase Coffman and Martin Rucker roaming the middle of the field, Tigers wideouts will see plenty of single coverage, and Bracey could be the biggest beneficiary."
Nebraska (8-4, 4-4)
The most important thing: Quarterback Zac Taylor is more comfortable with scheme.
Sean Callahan of "This team now has a solid quarterback that is familiar with the system. Since Coach Bill Callahan has been in Lincoln, the Cornhuskers have not had that luxury. However, senior Zac Taylor is the leader and catalyst of this football team Nebraska will go as far as Taylor will take them. In his first year of starting, Taylor passed for 2,653 yards, 19 touchdowns and 12 interceptions."
Player to watch: Linebacker Steve Octavien
Callahan: "After breaking his leg in the season opening game in 2005, the junior had a huge spring. Octavien showed no signs of slowness from the injury and he took over practices this spring. If everything plays out, he has the potential to be an All-Big 12 linebacker."
Oklahoma (8-4, 6-2)
The most important thing: Linebacker Rufus Alexander has plenty of help.
Carey Murdock of "Linebacker Rufus Alexander, The Sporting News' preseason Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year and a Butkus Award candidate, already gives the Sooners a solid foundation on defense heading into 2006. But no one could have predicted the defensive secondary would make so many strides over the spring. Reggie Smith's move from strong safety to cornerback was the biggest news of the spring. The talented sophomore was all over the field during the spring. D.J. Wolfe was also outstanding at the other cornerback position. The Sooners should be able to create more turnovers on defense in 2006. In fact, it may be the best secondary at Oklahoma since Mike Stoops' departure to Arizona three years ago."
Player to watch: Offensive lineman Brandon Walker
Murdock: "The offensive line is still a major key to the offense. If Adrian Peterson can't find running room between the tackles, the offense will suffer. Rhett Bomar's arm is not as dangerous as Peterson's legs. Walker could be the key to establishing a dominant inside running game. The junior college All-American is expected to battle for a starting job during the fall if he works hard over the summer and enters two-a-days in good condition."
Oklahoma State (4-7, 1-7)
The most important thing: Bobby Reid took charge of the quarterback position..
Jeff Johnson of "As a four-star prospect and an Elite 11 quarterback, Bobby Reid had all of the credentials but didn't really look the part as Oklahoma State's starting quarterback in 2005. Before a foot injury in the fifth game of the season slowed his development, Reid appeared to be overthinking in the passing game and while running the football. This spring, Coach Mike Gundy opened up the position to last season's substitute starter, Al Pena, redshirt freshman Zac Robinson and true freshman Alex Cate. Two weeks into spring workouts, Reid had emerged as the best overall package. His comfort level with coordinator Larry Fedora's spread offense has greatly improved over last season."
Player to watch: Wide receiver Adarius Bowman
Johnson: "Bowman was on campus last year but unavailable for game action after transferring from North Carolina. At 6-4 and 220 pounds, Bowman can be a physical receiver and also has the speed to outrun defenses. In preparing the Cowboys defense to face eventual national champion Texas, Bowman played the role of Vince Young on the scout team. Though out of position, Bowman turned in several jaw-dropping plays. This spring, Bowman regularly got open against first-team defensive backs and dragged two or three of them for extra yards after the catch."
Texas (13-0, 8-0)
The most important thing: Coaches find several potential breakout players.
Geoff Ketchum of "On the offensive side of the ball, keep an eye on tight end Jermichael Finley, a redshirt freshman who will be responsible for replacing All-Big 12 tight end David Thomas. The former East Texas prep star was dominant at times this spring as a receiver. He should give the Longhorns an even more athletic and versatile threat in the passing game than they've had in recent years at the position. Also, third-year receiver Jordan Shipley proved again he could be Texas' best wideout when healthy. As for the defense, watch sophomore defensive end Brian Orakpo and redshirt freshman Roderrick Muckelroy. Both players appear to be ready to make major contributions on a defense that should be among the nation's best."
Player to watch: Running back Jamaal Charles
Ketchum: "After an outstanding freshman season in 2005, Charles appears ready to take his game to the next level and that could mean a run at the Heisman Trophy this season. With two unproven quarterbacks replacing Vince Young, the Longhorns will rely on the ground game to lead the offense. Charles figures to get the bulk of the carries. With his rare speed, he's a threat to score every time he touches the football."
Texas A&M (5-6, 3-5)
The most important thing: Defense still a work in progress.
Troy Miller of "Texas A&M's defense was a far cry from its Wrecking Crew days in 2005, ranking 107th in the country in total defense and 117th against the pass. The dismal season resulted in three new coaches on the defensive side of the ball - coordinator Gary Darnell, cornerbacks coach Van Malone and safeties coach Bill Clay. Darnell installed a 4-2-5 defense in the spring, which the defense seemed to pick up rather quickly. But, as the spring game showed, there is still plenty of work to be done."
Player to watch: Linebacker Mark Dodge
Miller: Dodge transferred from Quincy (Calif.) Feather River Community College in January and participated in spring practice. By the end of the first week, Dodge had earned first-team duties alongside Justin Warren. By the end of the spring he had a hold on a starting position. Dodge showed this spring he has a knack for finding the football. He also is a powerful hitter and is good against the run and the pass. Dodge is already drawing comparisons to an Aggies great of the past, Dat Nguyen."
Texas Tech (9-3, 6-2)
The most important thing: Dawson's move to linebacker frees up defense.
Chris Level of "It appears Keyunta Dawson's move from defensive end to strongside linebacker will allow Texas Tech defensive coordinator Lyle Setencich to do more with the senior. Throughout spring drills, Setencich deployed five- and six-man rushes with some frequency, ran some twists and stunts, and dropped into an occasional zone blitz. This looks to be a more daring and complex defense than we've seen from Setencich. The defense's experience, the coverage skills of the linebackers and Dawson's potential as a pass rusher are what make it all possible."
Player to watch: Wide receiver Joel Filani
Level: "Watching Joel Filani progress since he arrived four years ago has been an amazing transformation. Filani has reached the point where he is one of the best at what he does in the country, and he proved that again this spring. He's big, he's durable, he's fast, and he's a difference-maker. He'll be wealthy someday because of what he's turned himself into. As a junior last year, he caught 65 passes for 1,007 yards and eight touchdowns. Yet few know his name on the college football landscape."

What We Learned from Spring Practice Series
Big Ten: Growing pains for Big Ten, Notre Dame Big 12: Rest of the conference now chasing Texas
Big East: Several teams facing QB questions ACC: Looking to rebuild in the trenches
Pac-10: Plenty of backfield talent left in Pac-10 SEC: New faces all around the SEC

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