Spring football preview: Burning questions for each Big 12 team
Gone are the days of North and South. Now, the Big 12 is just one big happy conference (though some are happier than others). Despite that new reality, the balance of power in 2011 figures to remain among the former South schools, most notably Oklahoma and Oklahoma State, which return hordes of offensive firepower from squads that finished last season a combined 23-4. But Texas A&M is hoping this is the year it finally challenges for a title, while rival Texas looks to re-brand itself following last year's 5-7 debacle.
The league may be downsized, but big questions hover over each team's spring camp.
Art Briles' program finally got over the hump last season, earning its first bowl berth since 1994 thanks largely to quarterback Robert Griffin III leading the nation's No. 13 offense. However, the Bears ended the year on a four-game losing streak due largely to a porous defense (ranked 104th nationally) that allowed 55, 42, 53 and 38 points in those contests. To fix the problem, Briles brought in veteran coordinator Bennett, the former SMU head coach who was most recently a coordinator at Pittsburgh but has past experience with four current Big 12 schools. He's produced six top 10 national defenses, but he has his work cut out in Waco, where there's suspect talent on hand. With replacements needed for the top five tacklers from a year ago, Bennett has already instituted position changes with several returning players.
During Paul Rhoads' first two seasons in Ames, Iowa State delivered two memorable upsets (over Nebraska in 2009 and Texas in 2010) and teased fans by coming tantalizingly close to another last season (falling 31-30 in overtime to the Huskers). Had the Cyclones prevailed, they would have gone bowling for a second straight season -- a tough goal to achieve with the nation's 99th-ranked offense. Rhoads desperately needs guys who can step up and create some fireworks on offense. One possibility is 5-foot-9, 182-pound running back Shontrelle Robinson, who averaged 6.2 yards per carry as a freshman backup last season. Much will depend on who takes over at quarterback. Junior Jerome Tiller and juco transfer Steele Jantz enter spring as favorites.
The former Nebraska star's first season in Lawrence was abysmal. The Jayhawks went 3-9, losing games by scores like 6-3 (North Dakota State), 55-7 (Baylor), 59-7 (Kansas State) and 48-14 (Oklahoma State). Some have questioned whether Kansas made a mistake in hiring the former Buffalo coach, but it's too soon to say. Gill still believes in his staff (which includes former head coaches Chuck Long and Carl Torbush) and has emphasized that the 2011 Jayhawks will be faster, deeper and more experienced. It will be interesting to see whether senior quarterback Quinn Mecham, a juco transfer who started four games last season due to others' injuries, takes the reins full-time in the spring, or whether Gill will focus on continuing to develop sophomore Jordan Webb.
Following the departure of star running back Daniel Thomas (1,585 yards, 19 touchdowns), all eyes this spring will be on former five-star recruit and Tennessee transfer Bryce Brown, who ran for 476 yards on 101 carries as a Vols freshman in 2009. Brother Arthur, a former five-star linebacker recruit and a Miami transfer, also becomes eligible this fall. Coach Bill Snyder could certainly use an immediate impact from the Wichita, Kan., natives. The Wildcats need an influx of talent to improve what was the nation's 106th-ranked defense last season, and they will need production from their running backs while breaking in a new quarterback to replace the dynamic Carson Coffman. Junior Collin Klein, used primarily as a runner last year, figures to be the guy.
Entering his 11th year on the job, Mizzou coach Gary Pinkel has rarely if ever dealt with a quarterback controversy. The job just seemed to naturally change hands from Brad Smith to Chase Daniel to Gabbert, all of whom achieved All-Big 12 honors. With Gabbert's defection to the NFL, competition will commence this spring between sophomore James Franklin and Gabbert's brother, redshirt freshman Tyler. The 6-2, 230-pound Franklin saw some game action last season and enters the spring as the slight favorite. He's also a departure from the Tigers' past two signal-callers as a dual-threat guy who would likely play a more active role in the running game. Whoever wins the job will have the benefit of playing with nine returning starters on offense.
For the most part, Bob Stoops' 2011 team looks loaded -- so much so that pundits are lauding it as the likely preseason No. 1. If there's a question, it's the secondary. OU was already set to replace both of its starting safeties, including All-Big 12 honoree Quinton Carter, and is now without top cornerback Jamell Fleming, who's out of school for at least the spring and summer reportedly due to academic issues. With Fleming out, rising sophomore Aaron Colvin, who saw significant action as a true freshman, will be put on the spot this spring. Meanwhile, Carter's leadership will be tough to replace, but promising redshirt freshmen James Haynes and Julian Wilson will compete with upperclassmen Javon Harris and Sam Proctor for the safety spots.
He spent less than a year in Stillwater, but soon-to-be West Virginia coach Holgorsen had a tremendous impact on Mike Gundy's program. He helped produce a prolific attack that ranked third nationally in total yards (520.2) and helped the Cowboys to the winningest season (11-2) in school history. Nearly all key offensive pieces return (quarterback Brandon Weeden, receiver Justin Blackmon, all five starting linemen), but not the mastermind himself. Gundy hired Todd Monken from the Jacksonville Jaguars to replace Holgorsen, and Monken has made it clear he plans to learn Holgorsen's offense and run it himself. After the first day of practice Monday, Weeden said "99.9 percent of the offense was the same." One thing that's different: no Kendall Hunter, who ran for 1,548 yards last year. But successor Joseph Randle impressed as a freshman.
Everything that could go wrong did for Texas' offense last season, hence Mack Brown's complete staff makeover. Bryan Harsin, formerly of Boise State, will serve as co-offensive coordinator with Longhorn great Major Applewhite, and while they'll likely re-evaluate all their personnel, quarterback is obviously the most important. In his first year starting last season, the much-touted Gilbert struggled mightily, throwing 10 touchdowns and 17 interceptions, but it's hard to say how much of it was due to his shoddy supporting cast. Applewhite and Harsin will look to restore Gilbert's confidence, but they'll also give a hard look to rising sophomore Case McCoy, redshirt freshman Connor Wood and early enrollee David Ash. Brown has repeatedly stated that all starting jobs are open.
Coming off a 9-4 season that included wins over Oklahoma and Nebraska, the Aggies enter 2011 amid their highest expectations since the late '90s. The presence of 18 returning starters, including quarterback Ryan Tannehill, running back Cyrus Gray and receiver Jeff Fuller, will cause that. But A&M does have significant questions at linebacker, where it must replace Butkus winner and two-time All-American Von Miller (who accounted for 27.5 sacks the past two seasons) and anchor Michael Hodges (who led the team with 115 tackles last fall). Rising sophomore Damontre Moore, who saw significant action last season, is the leading candidate to take Miller's outside spot, while juniors Kyle Mangan and Jonathan Stewart and juco enrollee Steven Jenkins will look to fill the void left by Hodges inside.
Gone are the days when whoever was anointed the next Texas Tech quarterback was assured of throwing for 5,000 yards, but second-year coach Tommy Tuberville still needs an effective passer as part of his more balanced approach. The Red Raiders, who began practice on Feb. 19, have already held two scrimmages. Rising junior Seth Doege, the veteran of the group, was 17-of-26 for 246 yards and two touchdowns in the first scrimmage, while the challenger, sophomore Jacob Karam, made a move in the more recent outing by throwing for 218 yards and four scores. "We'll see where [Karam] ends up in terms of putting pressure on Doege, but that's the best he's played since he's been here," Tuberville said afterward. Tech is also assessing several possible running threats to replace departed tailback Baron Batch.