February 21, 2007

Inside spring drills: Big 12 preview

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The competitive chasm that separates north from south in Big 12 football appears to be narrowing.

The South went 13-5 against its northern cousins in 2006. That marked the fifth consecutive season in which teams from the northern lost seven or more inter-divisional games. A South Division team claimed the conference championship for the third consecutive year and fourth out of the last five.

Last year Oklahoma defeated Nebraska 21-7 in the Big 12 title game. That was much more competitive than in the two previous seasons when southern teams won by a combined score of 112-6.

In fact, the gap seems to be closing so much that Nebraska - aided by Arizona State transfer Sam Keller at quarterback - could rate as the Big 12 favorite next September.

The Cornhuskers must replace their defensive front four, but every team has its issues - including the last two conference champions. Oklahoma may start a freshman quarterback, and Texas lost the heart of its offensive line and must rebuild its secondary.

Breakout Performers | Impact Newcomers | Position Battles | New Schemes | Best by Position

BIG 12: PROJECTED 2007 FINISH (With 2006 records)
1. Nebraska (9-5, 6-2): The Cornhuskers must overhaul their defensive front four, but they got a big break with quarterback Sam Keller transferring in from Arizona State. That should make the loss of All-Big 12 quarterback Zac Taylor relatively painless.
2. Missouri (8-5, 4-4): Chase Daniel emerged as one of the conference's best quarterbacks last season, and he has a cadre of capable receivers at his disposal - led by tight end Martin Rucker. The defense needs some repair, though.
3. Kansas State (7-6, 4-4): The Wildcats showed promise with a freshman-infested starting lineup last year. Those guys figure to be better in their second seasons. Also, Ian Campbell gives the Wildcats the conference's best pass rusher.
4. Kansas (6-6, 3-5): Losing Big 12 leading rusher Jon Cornish will hurt, but the Jayhawks have a couple of good, young quarterbacks. If they can avoid fourth quarter collapses they could be a factor in the North race.
5. Iowa State (4-8, 1-7): Talented players like quarterback Bret Meyer, receiver Todd Blythe, linebacker Alvin Bowen and incoming four-star junior college transfer Jamicah Bass give the Cyclones reason for optimism. Last year's disaster is hard to forget, though.
6. Colorado (2-10, 2-6): Ohio State's Jim Tressel, Oklahoma's Bob Stoops and Florida's Urban Meyer won national championships in their second seasons on the job. Colorado's Dan Hawkins would settle for a bowl game.
1. Texas (10-3, 6-2): When healthy, Colt McCoy was the Big 12's best quarterback a year ago. He has a good running back and upper-level receivers for support, but the middle of the offensive line is gone. The pass defense needs a serious upgrade, too.
2. Oklahoma (11-3, 7-1): The Sooners defense will be superb as usual. The loss of tailback Adrian Peterson is obviously significant, but the big question mark is at quarterback where a freshman - Sam Bradford or Keith Nichol - may emerge as the starter. Although that could be cause for concern, uncertainty at that position never seems to be a liability for Bob Stoops' team.
3. Texas A&M (9-4, 5-3): With several returning starters and a strong finish to the regular season last year, some might have thought A&M would be one of the favorites in the conference. However, that was before the Holiday Bowl disaster - which makes us unsure of what to expect from the Aggies in 2007.
4. Oklahoma State (7-6, 3-5): The Cowboys made tremendous progress in their second season under coach Mike Gundy, and they should continue to improve if quarterback Bobby Reid can avoid injuries.
5. Texas Tech (8-5, 4-4): Productive quarterback Graham Harrell and running back Shannon Woods are returning. However, the Raiders must replace three receivers and four offensive linemen. Expect the defense to have issues - as usual.
6. Baylor (4-8, 3-5): The postseason drought has stretched to 12 seasons and looks like it's getting longer. The Bears must rebuild their secondary, find a new quarterback and establish some kind of running game.

Kansas State RB Leon Patton
Jermaine Gresham, TE, Oklahoma: Although the big guy (6-foot-7, 250-pounds) caught just eight passes as a backup to Joe Jon Finley a year ago, Gresham did average 20.1 yards per grab. The Sooners have to take advantage of his big-play potential, and he should play a much larger role in the offense in 2007. The only question is who will be throwing the ball to Gresham.
Leon Patton, RB, Kansas State: Patton had a solid year in Manhattan as a true freshman in which he averaged 5.6 yards per carry. He rushed for a team-leading 609 yards and scored six touchdowns despite starting just three games for the Wildcats. He scored touchdowns in each of the last five games of the regular season and should build on that next season.
Ndamukong Suh, DT, Nebraska: The 6-foot-4, 305-pound sophomore recorded 19 tackles - eight for losses - and 3.5 sacks last year as a backup to Ola Dagunduro. Suh will move into the starting lineup and his totals will move up, too.
Paul Williams, LB, Texas Tech: He played well in a reserve role last season posting 30 tackles and 1.5 sacks. He'll step into a starting role this season and could become the focal point of the Red Raiders' defense.
Sergio Kindle, LB, Texas: A former five-star recruit who was ranked the nation's No. 5 overall prospect in 2006 by Rivals.com, Kindle was hobbled by an ankle injury last season and played primarily on special teams and as a fullback. He was second team on the depth chart at the end of last season, but it should be difficult to keep him off the field this year.

Five impact newcomers
Nebraska QB Sam Keller
Chykie Brown, Texas, CB: A former four-star recruit, Brown has a chance to step into the Longhorns' secondary as a starter. Texas loses both corners, including Thorpe Award winner Aaron Ross. Last season's backups did little to distinguish themselves. The Longhorns must improve after finishing 99th in the nation in pass defense last season.
Michael Crabtree, WR, Texas Tech: The talent and depth at receiver last year enabled Tech to redshirt Crabtree, but the coaches loved what they saw every day in practice. This year they will love what they see in games. Tech had three players with at least 75 catches last season. The folks in Lubbock think Crabtree can be that productive, too.
Sam Keller, QB, Nebraska: Two years ago, Keller completed 35 passes for 461 yards against LSU and passed for 2,165 yards and 20 touchdowns in seven games as the starting quarterback at Arizona State. His decision to transfer to Lincoln allows the Cornhuskers to replace All-Big 12 quarterback Zac Taylor with a proven senior. Taylor passed for almost 3,200 yards last season and Keller should be just as productive.
Gerald McCoy, DT, Oklahoma: The 6-foot-4, 289-pound redshirt freshman has the potential to dominate. Ranked by Rivals.com as the No. 1 defensive tackle prospect in the nation and the No. 4 player overall in 2006, McCoy will get into the rotation at tackle. He'll likely work his way into the starting lineup and opponents' backfields.
Gary Chandler, S, Kansas State: Rated the nation's No. 5 junior college prospect in the 2007 signing class, the NJCAA All-American with 4.43 speed is expected to step in for former starter Kyle Williams.

Position battles to watch
Baylor: Quarterback looks like a position in crisis. Injuries forced Blake Szymanski into the starting lineup for the last three games last year. He passed for 689 yards while throwing seven interceptions and just four touchdowns. He'll compete for the starting job with junior college transfer John David Weed and Michael Machen, who passed for 2,078 yards two years ago as a sophomore at Kent State. Redshirt freshman Tyler Beatty will also get a shot.
Colorado: During the 2-10 crash of '06, Colorado ranked 102nd nationally in total offense, 107th in scoring offense and 116th in passing offense. Those stats are not conducive to retaining starting jobs, especially at quarterback. Incumbent Bernard Jackson completed just 49.3 percent of his passes with seven interception and seven touchdowns. Junior college transfer Nick Nelson, who completed 62.5 percent of his passes for 2,241 yards last year at Saddleback College, and redshirt freshman Cody Hawkins - rated the nation's No. 17 quarterback prospect in 2006 by Rivals.com - will challenge Jackson. If he doesn't play QB, Jackson has the athletic ability to play another position.
Iowa State: All positions in the secondary should be up for grabs because almost everything that was up for grabs last season was caught by opposing receivers. The Cyclones ranked 101st in pass defense in 2006. Upgrading that area must be among coach Gene Chizik's top priorities. Cornerback Chris Singleton, cornerback/safety Steve Johnson, safety Jason Harris (a converted running back) and James Smith have playing experience. That said, they will be challenged by all newcomers and redshirt freshmen.
Kansas: Quarterback Kerry Meier had a strong first year with 1,193 passing yards and 344 rushing yards in eight games. Todd Reesing played very well in a backup role. Their competition for the starting job figures to be the primary point of interest this spring, but Tyler Lawrence - named scout team player of the year last season - could step in and steal the job.
Kansas State: The top two tacklers from a year ago - linebackers Brandon Archer and Zach Diles - have completed their eligibility. The third spot was never set, so the starting jobs there are wide open. In addition, Kansas State is toying with the idea of switching to a 3-4 defense. Holdovers Reggie Walker, Marcus Perry, John Houlik and Antwon Moore will get first shot at starting roles. Four-star junior college transfer Chris Patterson, a five-star coming out of high school, won't be in Manhattan this spring. However, he may barge into the starting lineup after he arrives in May.
Missouri: The Tigers have to replace half their defense, including starting safeties David Overstreet and Brandon Massey. Last year's backups - Willie Moore and Pig Brown - converted cornerback Del Howard and junior college transfer Justin Garrett will vie to top the depth chart.
Nebraska: The Cornhuskers made significant improvement in their rushing offense last season and ran for 170.5 yards per game. But the offseason has taken a toll at I-back where Brandon Jackson, last year's leading rusher, left early for the NFL. Cody Glenn has been hobbled by a foot injury, Kenny Wilson had a bone infection in a knee and Marlon Lucky was hospitalized in critical condition for unspecified reasons. If they continue to have issues, newcomer Marcus Mendoza, an early enrollee, may have a chance to distinguish himself immediately.
Oklahoma: As if last year's quarterback crisis wasn't enough (Rhett Bomar's dismissal and Paul Thompson's return under center), that position will again be the focus this offseason. The starting job may be won by either redshirt freshman Sam Bradford or true freshman Keith Nichol, an early enrollee who was the nation's sixth-ranked dual-threat quarterback by Rivals.com. Joey Halzle only threw two passes as Thompson's backup last year, but he'll be in the mix if the freshmen aren't ready.
Oklahoma State: The Cowboys are very good in the skill positions but lost three interior linemen on defense. That area may determine their level of success. OSU ranked 72nd nationally in run defense a year ago, and that figure has to improve. The Cowboys need a solid four-man rotation inside, and veterans Jeray Chatham, Maurice Cummings and Jonathan Lewis and redshirt freshman Quencey Patrick will vie to get in the mix. If Tonga Tea - a junior college transfer - can nail down the nose tackle spot, the folks in Stillwater will be breathing easier.
Texas: The Longhorns ranked 99th against the pass last year and now must be replace three starters, including Thorpe Award-winning cornerback Aaron Ross. There is no shortage of candidates with sophomore Deon Beasley and redshirt freshman Chykie Brown expected to step in to starting jobs. True freshman Curtis Brown, a high school All-American who was ranked the nation's No. 21 overall prospect by Rivals.com, could get in the lineup immediately.
Texas A&M: Even though the Aggies made remarkable improvement in pass defense last year (from 117th to 44th), cornerback remained an area of concern. Touchdown passes in the last minute resulted in losses to Texas Tech and Nebraska and the Aggies were overmatched against California in the Holiday Bowl. Jordan Peterson and Danny Gorrer are incumbent starters, but Arkeith Brown, Marquis Carpenter and maybe Jordan Pugh will have a chance to push past them on the depth chart.
Texas Tech: Somebody has to pass block, right? Guard Louis Vasquez certainly will, but the Raiders need to identify four more. Shawn Byrnes will likely step in at center, but both tackle spots and the right guard position are there to be taken. Brandon Carter, Marlon Winn, Rylan Reed, Chris Olson and Josh Aleman will try to take them. Ofa Mohetau can take over one of those positions if he gets his off-the-field issues settled.

Teams with new schemes
Iowa State: The Cyclones hope to be more physical and aggressive in the 'Tampa Two' coverage Chizik prefers. Cornerbacks will use more press coverage and the middle linebacker will be involved more in deep pass coverage. The previous bend-but-don't-break philosophy will be replaced by a defensive scheme that tries to force the issue.
Oklahoma: The Sooners mainly operated out of the 'I' in 2006. With Adrian Peterson back there, who wouldn't? Offensive Coordinator Kevin Wilson may incorporate elements of the spread offense to take advantage of a deep and talented group of receivers and a good receiving running back in redshirt DeMarco Murray.

Best by position
Defensive linemen
1. Colt McCoy, Texas
2. Chase Daniel, Missouri
3. Sam Keller, Nebraska
4. Graham Harrell, Texas Tech
5. Stephen McGee, Texas A&M

1. Ian Campbell, Kansas State
2. James McClinton, Kansas
3. Nathan Peterson, Oklahoma State
4. Chris Harrington, Texas A&M
5. Frank Okam, Texas
Running backs
1. Mike Goodson, Texas A&M
2. Jamaal Charles, Texas
3. Dantrell Savage, Oklahoma State
4. Allen Patrick, Oklahoma
5. Tony Temple, Missouri

1. Bo Ruud, Nebraska
2. Alvin Bowen, Iowa State
3. Jordon Dizon, Colorado
4. Joe Pawelek, Baylor
5. Mike Rivera, Kansas
Defensive backs
1. Adarius Bowman, Oklahoma State
2. Malcolm Kelly, Oklahoma
3. Maurice Purify, Nebraska
4. Limas Sweed, Texas
5. Todd Blythe, Iowa State

1. Aqib Talib, Kansas
2. Reggie Smith, Oklahoma
3. Zackary Bowman, Nebraska
4. Terrence Wheatley, Colorado
5. Marcus Watts, Kansas State
Tight ends
1. Martin Rucker, Missouri
2. Chase Coffman, Missouri
3. Martellus Bennett, Texas A&M
4. Jermichael Finley, Texas
5. Derek Fine, Kansas

1. Garrett Hartley, Oklahoma
2. Jeff Wolfert, Missouri
3. Alex Trlica, Texas Tech
4. Scott Webb, Kansas
5. Jason Ricks, Oklahoma State
Offensive linemen
1. Duke Robinson, Oklahoma
2. Cody Wallace, Texas A&M
3. Matt Slauson, Nebraska
4. Yemi Babalola, Texas A&M
5. Anthony Collins, Kansas

1. Matt Fodge, Oklahoma State
2. Justin Brantly, Texas A&M
3. Matt DiLallo, Colorado
4. Mike Brandtner, Iowa State
5. Michael Cohen, Oklahoma


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