August 22, 2008

Big 12 finds itself searching for some 'D'

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When Dan Hawkins left Boise State for Colorado before the 2006 season, there were questions about whether his offensive system would be successful in the Big 12.

The Broncos had averaged more than 36 points per game in 2005, but some wondered if Hawkins' offense would work outside the wide-open WAC.

But Hawkins had some questions of his own.

"People were talking about the Big 12 and if you can run a Big 12 offense," he said. "I said, 'Have you looked around the Big 12? Who takes a running back and runs it down your throat?' "

Point made.

In fact, hundreds of points have been made recently in the Big 12, which depending on one's point of view has either evolved or eroded into a Midwestern version of the WAC with high-scoring offenses and vulnerable defenses.

The latter might be cause for a double-take.

New Nebraska coach Bo Pelini was a defensive coordinator for the Huskers and at Oklahoma before holding the same title for three seasons at LSU. When he returned to the Big 12, he almost didn't recognize it.

"I was really taken aback when I first got back to Nebraska and seeing the numbers, the offensive numbers that were happening in the Big 12," Pelini said. "I believe six of the top 10 (offenses) in the country came out of the Big 12.

"For a defensive guy, that kind of woke me up a little bit. I think it's become an offensive league to a certain extent. But I think at the same time you've got to play good defense to win football games."

FEELING A DRAFT?
The number of defensive players taken from each conference in the first three rounds of the past two NFL drafts, with the first-rounders listed.
ACC:
20 picks, seven first-rounders
Chris Long, Virginia, DE
Kentwan Balmer, North Carolina, DT
Kenny Phillips, Miami, S
Gaines Adams, Clemson, DE
Lawrence Timmons, Florida State, LB
Brandon Meriweather, Miami, S
Jon Beason, Miami, LB
BIG EAST:
Three picks, three first-rounders
Mike Jenkins, South Florida, CB
Amobi Okoye, Louisville, DT
Darrelle Revis, Pittsburgh, CB
BIG TEN:
14 picks, three first-rounders
Vernon Gholston, Ohio State, DE
Leon Hall, Michigan, CB
Anthony Spencer, Purdue, DE
BIG 12:
10 picks, four first-rounders
Aqib Talib, Kansas, CB
Adam Carriker, Nebraska, DE
Michael Griffin, Texas, S
Aaron Ross, Texas, CB
PAC-10:
10 picks, four first-rounders
Sedrick Ellis, USC, DT
Keith Rivers, USC, LB
Antoine Cason, Arizona, CB
Lawrence Jackson, USC, DE
SEC:
20 picks, nine first-rounders
Glenn Dorsey, LSU, DT
Derrick Harvey, Florida, DE
Jerod Mayo, Tennessee, LB
LaRon Landry, LSU, S
Jamaal Anderson, Arkansas, DE
Patrick Willis, Ole Miss, LB
Justin Harrell, Tennessee, DT
Jarvis Moss, Florida, DE
Reggie Nelson, Florida, S
OTHERS:
Two first-rounders
Leodis McKelvin, Troy, CB (Sun Belt)
Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, CB, Tennessee State (Division I-AA)
The Big 12 once boasted Nebraska's Blackshirts, Texas A&M's Wrecking Crew and suffocating defenses at Oklahoma and Texas, which didn't have catchy nicknames but certainly deserved them. Yet the proliferation of spread offenses that has transformed the Big 12 into the highest-scoring conference in the country also has rendered it one of the most defensive deficient. While the Big 12's spread offenses have flourished, the defenses clearly a step or two behind have foundered.

Last season, 10 league teams ranked between 46th and 113th in the nation in total defense. The same number ranked between 38th and 115th in scoring defense.

The Blackshirts? Nebraska allowed an average of 476.8 yards per game to rank 113th. The Wrecking Crew? A&M allowed 415.8 to rank 84th. Texas ranked 54th overall, but was 110th against the pass. Eight Big 12 defenses ranked 92nd or worse in pass defense last season.

The 2006 season was a little better but not much. Ten of the league's teams ranked between 39th and 110th in total defense and nine ranked between 33rd and 110th in scoring defense.

Compare that to 2004, when eight Big 12 defenses ranked between 13th and 56th, and none ranked lower than 94th.

Still, there is resistance to labeling the Big 12 a defensively challenged league within the league, anyway.

"Look who's been drafted from the Big 12 on the defensive side," Hawkins said. "There are a lot of guys with a lot of talent.

"Seven of the top 15 quarterbacks in the country play in the Big 12. I think the combination of a lot of great (offensive) players and schemes make it tough on defenders. By and large, when you look at Big 12 teams in bowl games, they do OK."

Well, maybe not as well as one might think.

True, Missouri held Arkansas to seven points in last year's Cotton Bowl and Kansas limited Virginia Tech to 21 in the Orange Bowl. But overall, Big 12 teams have participated in 16 bowls in the past two seasons and in 12 of those games, the opponent exceeded its season scoring average.

And in the past two NFL drafts, the Big 12 has had a total of 10 defensive players selected in the first three rounds. Four were first round picks Kansas cornerback Aqib Talib, Texas cornerback Aaron Ross and safety Michael Griffin and Nebraska defensive end Adam Carriker.

That's not bad. But compare it to the other major conferences in that span.

The ACC, considered a lesser conference, has had 20 defensive players taken, including seven first-rounders. The SEC has also had 20 defensive players selected, with nine taken in the first round. Only the Big East which has eight teams has had fewer players selected, and all three were first-round picks.

Missouri coach Gary Pinkel, who's no-huddle offense is one of the most explosive in the country, believes Big 12 defenses will catch up to the offenses.

"I think more people are going to spreads and no-huddles around the country than they have ever before," Pinkel said. "And don't think the defenses aren't going to figurer some things to do.

"I think it's all based on personnel. We have good coaches and good players."

Catching up obviously will require some changes. Defenses once built to stop powerful running games in the Big 12 featured hulking linemen and big linebackers, especially in the middle. But lighter and quicker players will take over those positions because of the proliferation of the spread offenses.

"I think some of it is just (getting) more speed on the field is a big factor," Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops said. "I think that's a major factor, speed and athleticism on the field. Speed-wise, you're constantly trying to mix things up, and I think there's always some tweaking there."

Pelini demanded that Huskers players shed weight so they'd fit better into his scheme. Defensive end Barry Turner lost about 10 pounds, while linebacker Phillip Dillard lost more than 20.

Big 12 teams have also made moves to improve by hiring better defensive coaches.

Nebraska hired Pelini as coach. Two years ago, Iowa State hired Gene Chizik, who was the defensive coordinator on Texas' 2005 national championship team. Texas Tech promoted Ruffin McNeill to defensive coordinator after the Red Raiders allowed 49 points to Oklahoma State last season. First-year Texas A&M coach Mike Sherman hired veteran Joe Kines to rebuild the Wrecking Crew. And Texas coach Mack Brown has hired Will Muschamp, arguably the country's premier defensive coordinator.

"He brings the ability to do a better job of disguising (coverages)," Brown said. "With the offenses in our league and the spread offenses, we felt like we needed to get more pressure on the passer, and we have got to do a better job of stopping the passing game and try to force more turnovers. We thought he was the guy to help us get that done."

Maybe he will.

But until Texas, Texas A&M, Nebraska and other league teams again play defense to the level they once did, the Big 12 will continue to be seen as a conference with strong offenses and questionable defenses.

Just like the WAC.

MORE BIG 12: Conference preview | Unit rankings | Video previews

Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at olin@rivals.com.




 

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