May 6, 2008

Big 12 teams make progress on defense

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Big 12 Spring Review
Rebuilding the defense was the focus of several teams in the Big 12 during spring drills. Here's a look at the progress, or lack thereof, some of them made in 15 practices.
OVERVIEW: The Big 12's perennial doormat hoped to make great strides in changing its status in the conference's caste system this spring. New coach Art Briles installed his offense and began trying to bolster a defense that was among the nation's worst last season. Krys Buerck made a great impression in a move from receiver and could emerge as the team's best cornerback. Also, Elliot Coffey showed promise in a move from safety to outside linebacker, while Antonio Johnson appeared to nail down a starting linebacker job. Offensively, Jason Smith, J.D. Walton and Dan Gay form the nucleus of what could be the Bears' best line in several years.
LINGERING QUESTION: Incumbent Blake Szymanski returns, heralded recruit Robert Griffin, who was impressive this spring, is on hand and Kirby Freeman transferred from Miami, so who's going to emerge as the starting quarterback is the No. 1 question. Will it matter is probably No. 2.
FIRST GAME: Aug. 30, vs. Wake Forest


OVERVIEW: Although guard-turned-fullback Kai Maiava's announcement that he intends to transfer is a setback, the Buffaloes feel like they had a productive spring. Coaches installed a no-huddle offense to increase the tempo and hopefully further capitalize on the high altitude, and felt like they made significant progress. In addition, 6-foot-9 sophomore Nate Solder showed great potential in moving from tight end to tackle. Meanwhile, tight end Patrick Devenny, linebacker B.J. Beatty, tackle Ryan Miller, inside linebacker Marcus Burton and running back Demetrius Sumler had strong showings, while Cody Hawkins reaffirmed his status as the starting quarterback.
LINGERING QUESTION: With both of last year's starters likely needing to be replaced, will the cornerbacks be vulnerable? Terrence Wheatley was taken in the NFL draft and Ben Burney has had a serious of injuries that will threaten his availability in '08. Potential replacements Gardner McKay and Cha'pelle Brown are small, and Jimmy Smith tends to give up big plays.
FIRST GAME: Aug. 30, vs. Colorado State at Denver


Iowa State
OVERVIEW: Although four players who started on the offensive line last season return, the Cyclones still had major shakeups up front. Walk-on junior Mike Knapp looks to be the new starter at center, redshirt freshman Kelechi Osemele clearly distinguished himself and is a likely starter at right tackle, and sophomore Matt Hulbert made a move to take over at left tackle. On defense, junior Jesse Smith was impressive all spring and established himself as the starter at middle linebacker.
LINGERING QUESTION: The Cyclones, who ranked 91st in the nation in pass defense last season, entered the spring with problems in the secondary. More questions were raised when starting senior safety Chris Brown suffered a knee injury that leaves his status for this season uncertain.
FIRST GAME: Aug. 28, vs. South Dakota State


OVERVIEW: The Jayhawks entered the spring still riding the momentum of their best season ever but with several holes to fill. Linebacker Mike Rivera is primed to be considered among the Big 12's best. The defense also seemed to get a boost from freshman tackle Richard Johnson, who was running with the first team in the spring game. Running back Jake Sharp showed he was the best runner on campus and that a battle for the staring job with highly regarded junior college transfer Jocques Crawford is looming this summer.
LINGERING QUESTION: Will quarterback Todd Reesing get sufficient protection to have another stellar season? And will a big-play threat emerge? Offensive tackles Anthony Collins and Cesar Rodriguez, who had a combined 65 starts, are gone. So is NFL first-rounder Aqib Talib, who was a vocal leader who made big plays on offense and defense. Whether anyone will surface to replace his production and leadership remains a question.
FIRST GAME: Aug. 30, vs. Florida International


Kansas State
OVERVIEW: Ian Campbell, who had a disappointing season in '07 after earning all-conference honors in '06, moved from linebacker to defensive end, his original position. Several newcomers stepped up at linebacker. Olu Hall, who transferred from Virginia a year ago, staked a claim to one spot, while junior college transfers Ulla Pomele and Hansen Sekona made impressive bids to win starting jobs at inside linebacker. And JC transfer Keithen Valentine was dazzling throughout spring drills and could challenge for a starting job at running back.
LINGERING QUESTION: Will the Wildcats be able to replace wide receiver Jordy Nelson? Deon Murphy was sidelined all spring with academic issues. Although JC transfer Adrian Hilburn was on hand for spring practice, the Wildcats are waiting on three more transfers to arrive in the summer.
FIRST GAME: Aug. 30, vs. North Texas


OVERVIEW: A 12-victory team with six offensive and eight defensive starters returning doesn't have many questions, so Missouri's spring went about as expected. The Tigers' high hopes may have been boosted by running back Derrick Washington, who had an excellent spring and seems to have established himself as the successor to departed Tony Temple. Wide receiver Jared Perry appears to be raising his game. Cornerback Castine Bridges proved solid, and freshman tight end Jon Gissinger's play was a pleasant surprise.
LINGERING QUESTION: Why would a team with Chase Daniel at quarterback worry about a punter? Well, even the most dynamic offenses sometimes stall, and the punter position is unsettled.
FIRST GAME: Aug. 30, vs. Illinois in St. Louis


OVERVIEW: Rebuilding an atrocious defense was Job One for new coach Bo Pelini, and he appeared to make some progress. Tailback Cody Glenn voluntarily moved to linebacker and is the leading candidate to start on the weakside. Larry Asante improved and could emerge as an impact player at strong safety. Meanwhile, quarterback Joe Ganz established himself as the unquestioned team leader. He also should feel secure behind a deep line that could be the best the Huskers have fielded in several seasons.
LINGERING QUESTION: Will anyone emerge as a major receiving threat for Ganz? Todd Peterson and Nate Swift are experienced receivers, but the Huskers need others perhaps junior Menelik Holt, sophomore Niles Paul and redshirt freshman Curenski Gilleylen, who combined for five catches last season to become productive receivers.
FIRST GAME: Aug. 30, vs. Western Michigan


OVERVIEW: Injuries wreaked havoc during the spring as 14 scholarship players including starters Duke Robinson, DeMarco Murray, Chris Brown, Nic Harris, Auston English, John Williams and Ryan Reynolds missed all of spring drills or significant amounts of practice time. Still, the Sooners did find reason for encouragement, particularly in the secondary. Sophomore cornerback Dominique Franks capped off a solid spring with three interceptions in the spring game. In addition, Brian Jackson emerged as a solid cover corner on the other side and former safety Keenan Clayton performed so well at strongside linebacker that he came out of the spring with the edge there.
LINGERING QUESTION: Can the Sooners field a corps of linebackers that meet OU's high standards? Reynolds looked good when he was in action and showed he could make a smooth transition to the middle from the weakside. Austin Box, perhaps the favorite to win the weakside job, dislocated an elbow with two weeks remaining.
FIRST GAME: Aug. 30, vs. Chattanooga


Oklahoma State
OVERVIEW: The Cowboys allowed 27 touchdown passes and ranked 113th nationally and last in the Big 12 in pass defense last season, so improving there was a big focus this spring. Coaches were encouraged with the play of Lucien Antoine and Markelle Martin. Antoine, a JC transfer, made a big move for a starting job at safety, and Martin, a freshman, looked solid at cornerback. Defensive tackle Swanson Miller also had a strong spring. The offense remains the team strength with quarterbackZac Robinson and receiver Dez Bryant leading that group.
LINGERING QUESTION: The question has been repeated for several years now will the positive signs seen this spring actually result in better defensive play during the season?
FIRST GAME: Aug. 30, vs. Washington State at Seattle


OVERVIEW: The loss of Jamaal Charles, an early entry into the NFL draft, left a gaping hole at running back, and finding his successor was a major priority. Fozzy Whittaker had an exceptional camp and will be a strong contender when the competition resumes in August. Upgrading the defense also was a point of emphasis. Several players made an impression on new coordinator Will Muschamp, but perhaps none more than end Brian Orakpo, who seemed to establish himself as the Longhorns' best player. Lamarr Houston emerged as a starter at defensive tackle. Defensive backs struggled last season, but Deon Beasley, Ryan Palmer, Christian Scott, Chykie Brown and Ben Wells had strong showings to indicate improvement is coming there.
LINGERING QUESTION: The Longhorns have more questions than a presidential news conference. Can the defensive backs improve the woeful pass defense? Will a deep threat emerge at receiver? Still, perhaps the most pressing question is who will replace Charles at tailback.
FIRST GAME: Aug. 30, vs. Florida Atlantic


Texas A&M
OVERVIEW: The Aggies appeared to get a much-needed infusion of speed on defense with linebackers Von Miller, Matt Featherston and Garrick Williams getting more work. Redshirt freshman running back Bradley Stephens had a strong spring and will challenge Mike Goodson at tailback. And receiver Jamie McCoy, originally recruited as a quarterback, moved to tight end as A&M coach Mike Sherman devised ways to get more speed on the field.
LINGERING QUESTION: Is the offensive line going to be a huge liability? The Aggies lost their entire starting unit from '07 and the inexperience showed during spring. Tackles Travis Schneider and Michael Shumard are solid players, but the Aggies are going to have to rely on unproven players up front and have little depth.
FIRST GAME: Aug. 30, vs. Arkansas State


Texas Tech
OVERVIEW: Defensive coordinator Ruffin McNeill's unit dominated four consecutive scrimmage situations. But offense remains the Red Raiders' strength, especially with heralded wide receiver Michael Crabtree getting even better and Detron Lewis and Adam James showing they're ready to take more prominent roles as inside receivers. No running back secured the starting role, but a heated competition will resume in August between Shannon Woods, Aaron Crawford, Kobey Lewis and Baron Batch, each of whom had strong springs.
LINGERING QUESTION: Although the defense looks good overall, the cornerback spot opposite Jamar Wall remains a point of concern. Laron Moore and Brent Nickerson appear to be the top contenders for that job.
FIRST GAME: Aug. 30, vs. Eastern Washington


Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for He can be reached at is your source for: College Football | Football Recruiting | College Basketball | Basketball Recruiting | College Baseball | High School | College Merchandise
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