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2008 Spring Preview - The Big 12
Kansas State QB Josh Freeman
Kansas State QB Josh Freeman
CollegeFootballNews.com
Posted Mar 2, 2008


Just as spring ball gets underway, here are the big questions, the most important positions and more for each Big 12 team in the CFN Spring Preview.

Spring Preview 2008

Big 12 Spring Football Previews

By John Harris
- 2007 Big 12 Spring Analysis
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2008 Early Lookaheads - Big 12
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2008 Big 12  Insider Spring Questions & Answers

North

Colorado   Spring Practice Begins:  March 17 Game:  April 19
The early spring buzz … First year, disaster.  Second year, bowl game.  Yes, expectations are heightened in Dan Hawkins’ third year, but more importantly, the excitement around the program is back for the first time since Gary Barnett was taking his controversial teams to Big 12 title games.  Add one of the nation’s top running backs in this year’s recruiting class (Darrell Scott) and the positive buzz is as loud as it’s been since 2001.  It didn’t look good a few years ago after the Buffs lost to D-IAA Montana State, but the Buffs are light years away from the program Hawkins inherited.
The big spring question is … Can any running back gain a foothold on what’s going to be Scott’s position?  The Buffs haven’t had a recruit of Scott’s caliber in a while, and now this spring is an audition for Demetrius Sumler, Brian Lockridge and Kevin Moyd to step into the void created by Hugh Charles’ graduation and provide a few options.  Scott will set the campus on its ear when he arrives in the fall, but the on-campus options can pile on the carries this spring, getting a head start on the Chosen One.
The most important position to watch is … Cornerback.  Terence Wheatley was a big popping All-Conference performer who was one of the only positives in the secondary.  Finding capable cover corners is a must when facing Chase Daniel, Todd Reesing, Josh Freeman, and this year, Colt McCoy, Stephen McGee and Zac Robinson.  Gardner McKay backed up Wheatley last year, so he’ll get first crack this spring, and while he won’t be the same caliber of performer, he has to prove he can at least be competent.
Spring attitude … This is Big 12 football, brother. Hawkins is starting to get all his pieces in place, and landing a Darrell Scott could be the catalyst to take the program from good to great. Now it’s time to take the next logical step and compete for a Big 12 North title. The North isn’t the walk-in-the park conference that it was years ago, but there’s no reason to shoot for anything less than a championship.


Iowa State   Spring Practice Begins:  March 25 Game:  April 20
The early spring buzz … Head coach Gene Chizik’s era struggled out of the gate, but improved mightily over the second half of the season (other than the 45-7 lambasting from Kansas).  The KU loss obviously wasn’t the “finishing-on-an-upswing” performance that Chizik was hoping for, but the last five games showed that the Cyclones can compete, and more importantly, that the staff can make chicken salad out of chicken spit.  Do most expect a return to a bowl game this year?  Not quite, but this is a program that’s trending back upward.  It just may take another year.
The big spring question is … is there a running game?  Last season, the Cyclones leading rusher, Alexander Robinson, ran for 465 yards and fewer than four yards per carry.  With record setting quarterback Bret Meyer graduating, along with star receiver, Todd Blythe, establishing a ground attack is going to be project No. 1 this spring for offensive coordinator Robert McFarland.  The Cyclones return all five offensive line starters from the end of the season, but they need to be better.
The most important position to watch is … Linebacker.  The defense revolved around tackling machine Alvin Bowen, who is moving on to the NFL, and Jon Banks.  No one will provide Bowen-type leadership, but someone has to step in and replace his triple-digit tackle effort.  Former JUCO transfer Michael Bibbs and sophomore Josh Raven will have some big shoes to fill, but they have the coaching staff to put them in the right positions. Chizik and defensive coordinator Wayne Bolt place a premium on quick, athletic linebackers, so it’s a vital hole that needs to be filled right away so improvements can be made on the rest of the D.
Spring attitude … Chizik’s bunch came a long way during the fall; all the way from losing to Northern Iowa to beating bowl bound Colorado in the last half of the season.  Chizik and his staff established a no nonsense type attitude, and it paid off late in the season with the carryover into the off-season.  Now that the Cyclones know what they can do, expect Chizik to continue to push this spring with nothing less than a bowl game expected. Even if the team isn’t ready yet.


Kansas   Spring Practice Begins:  March 11 Game:  April 14
The early spring buzz … For the first time in a long time, the football program is actually worth paying attention to, even as Bill Self and the basketball team look to make a big run in the NCAA tournament.  Lose in the first or second round again, and the football team will quickly get all the attention (after the hoop screams die down).  2007 Coach of the Year Mark Mangino wasn’t nearly as fortunate as Missouri head man Gary Pinkel, losing a number of key underclassmen to the NFL Draft.  This Jayhawk team, with tackle Anthony Collins and cornerback Aqib Talib, would be a top-15 team, but without them, KU has to fill these huge holes to vie for Big 12 North honors.  However, Mangino has had to deal with much bigger obstacles before.
The big spring question is … How will the defense respond to new defensive coordinator Clint Bowen?  Bowen has been on the staff for seven years, and now he takes over for Bill Young, who went to the University of Miami after the Orange Bowl.  Bowen, only 35 years old, will keep the defensive scheme nearly the same, and with the experience that he has coming back, he shouldn’t change much.  Even so, every spring practice will be vital to getting everyone used to each other.
The most important position to watch Is … Offensive Tackle. Right tackle Cesar Rodriguez graduated after the season opening a hole on that side.  While that’s manageable, things became far worse once All-America offensive tackle Anthony Collins decided he was ready to head to the NFL, leaving both tackle positions open for competition. Jose Rodriguez and Ian Wolfe will vie for the positions, but the Jayhawks must find two guys to ably protect quarterback Todd Reesing.
Spring attitude … It’s changed. The Jayhawks are way beyond being an opponent’s “automatic” win like they used to be and now they must carry themselves in that manner.  Mangino won’t have to worry about dealing with overconfidence, but the team has to keep doing what it did to get to this point. Part of that is having an underdog mentality, which might be tough to maintain.   


Kansas State  Spring Practice Begins:  March 29 Game:  April 19
The early spring buzz … After a strong first year under Ron Prince, and a good first half of the 2007 season, the bottom fell out in the final four games costing the Wildcats a second consecutive bowl trip.  Now, spring ball will be a stark contrast to last year’s when the team was considered by some to be a sleeper to win the Big 12 North.  This spring?  The Wildcats barely register on the championship radar.  At the moment, the buzz is dead, but that might not be a bad thing considering now the team can sneak up on everyone.
The big spring question is … Who is Josh Freeman?  For two years, the one time superstar recruit showed enough potential to be one of this conference’s best quarterbacks, and he still might be, but he needs to be more consistent. The team’s collapse wasn’t Freeman’s fault, he threw for seven touchdowns and only three interceptions in the final four games, but the success of the program will always fall on his broad shoulders.  Without All-American receiver Jordy Nelson and a proven running back, the load is even heavier on Freeman, who has to not only stay healthy, but he has to take his game to another level.
The most important position to watch is … Wide receiver.  Nelson is gone, but Big 12 Newcomer of the Year, Deon Murphy, is back, giving Freeman one remaining weapon in the arsenal.  Making things interesting is the recruiting class, picking up four key JUCO transfers, led by Aubrey Quarles and Attrail Snipes, who’ll be expected to contribute right away.  Freeman will have the entire spring to get accustomed to playing with his new toys.
Spring attitude … If the Wildcats didn’t get the picture that it’s about winning now, then maybe the signing of 19 JUCO players will.  Prince has assured everyone that this isn’t a cause for alarm, but it’s a hard sell that smells a little like panic.  As Prince is quick to point out, one of the best K State teams, the 1997 squad, featured a significant number of two year players.  Can history repeat itself?  If Prince is lucky, maybe.


Missouri   Spring Practice Begins: March 11   Spring Game: April 19
The early spring buzz … The Tigers proved in the Cotton Bowl that they were just as worthy of making an appearance in a BCS bowl as anyone.  When Chase Daniel, Chase Coffman, William Moore and several other draft-eligible juniors all decided to come back to Columbia for their senior seasons, Mizzou went from Big 12 North heavy to potential national championship contender.  Head coach Gary Pinkel will need to temper expectations, but anything less than a BCS appearance will be a major-league disappointment after last year.
The big spring question is … Who wants to protect Daniel? The Tigers offensive line in 2007 was one of the best in the nation, but center Adam Spieker and tackle Tyler Luellen graduated leaving two gaping holes to fill in this line.  Redshirt freshman Tim Barnes will need to step into the shoes of Spieker, who started for three years.  Given the returning experience everywhere else, this is the one difference between a good and a great year.
The most important position to watch is … Running back.  With Tony Temple not applying for a sixth year of eligibility, the Tigers have to find steady production from the backs.  Temple, at one point this winter, wanted to appeal to stay for another year at Missouri, but chose to jet to the NFL.  Temple was the perfect complement to Daniel’s passing acumen, and now Jimmy Jackson, who’s lightning quick and tough to tackle in space, will be the next in line. Tony’s younger brother Drew, a true freshman, will also be in the mix.
Spring attitude … Pressure takes on a different form for Pinkel and company.  Getting out of the spring with all limbs intact will be more the focus than establishing a fresh attitude.  With so much experience coming back, it’ll be vital for Pinkel and his staff to find some depth behind the stars to tweak, more than build. It’s time to start acting like the Big 12 North champions.

Nebraska  Spring Practice Begins:  March 26 Game:  April 19
The early spring buzz … Bo knows Nebraska. The Big Red program got the hire many wanted after Frank Solich was released back in 2003, and now former defensive coordinator Bo Pelini has many thinking that the Blackshirts are coming back.  At least, that’s the hope after what Pelini did with the LSU D. However, everyone will likely need to be patient with a guy who has never been a head coach, outside of a interim fill-in, and with a defense that has more holes than a golf course. But as long as the words “West Coast offense” or “Callahan” aren’t spoken any time soon, Nebraska fans will be excited about the possibilities.
The big spring question is … When do the Blackshirts arrive?  Unfortunately, Grant Wistrom and Trev Alberts aren’t walking through the door. Neither are Corey McKeon nor Steve Octavien.  It may take a while, but there’s a fresh start with Pelini, and defensive coordinator (and brother), Carl Pelini, will need to find some help right away and have to identify who can actually play. The defensive line has plenty of experience, and a Steinkuhler, but…
The most important position to watch is … Linebacker.  Wide receiver is a big issue, but the linebacker situation is a bigger problem with a barren cupboard. All three starters - McKeon, Octavien and Bo Ruud – are gone and now senior Tyler Wortman, a career backup, will vie for a spot with Blake Lawrence, while Latravis Washington and Phillip Dillard will push for the other two jobs. The race for the starting spots is wide open and may not be filled until the fall.
Spring attitude … In some respects, the Callahan Way/West Coast Offense rubbed nearly everyone the wrong way from jump, even though there was more offensive statistical success than the ill-fated era got credit for. Pelini has some built in cache with the fan base, and even though this isn’t a team he recruited, it’s going to be a team he puts his stamp on. Miracles aren’t expected, but a return of Husker attitude is. Immediately.


South

Baylor
   Spring Practice Begins: March 3   Spring Game: April 5
The early spring buzz … All you need to know about Baylor’s hiring of Art Briles could be summed up by the angry Houston fans who can’t believe he left for … Baylor?!  Let’s just say the consensus was that BU got a steal and one of the best coaches in the state of Texas.  The buzz around Baylor football has been nonexistent since it moved into the Big 12, but that all changed after Briles accepted the offer to become head coach.  A new staff will help give the program, and this university, a kick in the backside that both have needed for a long time when it comes to being a football school. Wait until they get a load of Briles.
The big spring question is … How will the Bears take to Briles’ diversified offense?  When he took over at Houston, he had the luxury of handing the keys to the offense to Kevin Kolb, a guy who ran his offense for his entire middle school and high school career.  That’s not quite the case this spring.  Quarterback Blake Szymanski started nine games last season, but can he take the reins of this offense and be as productive as Kolb was in four years at Houston?  He’s not Kolb. Could former Miami quarterback Kirby Freeman rekindle some of his former Texas high school magic in one year in Waco with Briles?
The most important position to watch is … Defensive back.  Quarterback might be a bit too obvious, but so might be the secondary, the team’s biggest liability.  Antareis Bryan, Dominique Criss and Cliff Odom are sophomores to watch, who’ll vie for the two starting corner spots.  The good news is that safety Dwain Crawford is back to man the middle of the field, but the inexperience on the perimeter might be a problem for the Bear defense.
Spring attitude … The Bear program can’t fall any further, right?  It’s vital this spring that Briles establish his way, no matter the consequences.  Sure, coaches are paid to win games, but Briles and his staff must build this program the right way from the start and build with each practice.  Although he couldn’t settle on a quarterback last year until Case Keenum helped make the choice for him, don’t be surprised if Briles makes that all important decision right away in spring to establish a tone of confidence. 


Oklahoma   Spring Practice Begins: March 5    Spring Game: April 12
The early spring buzz … Things are a bit muted after getting spanked in the Fiesta Bowl, but that doesn’t mean there still aren’t national championship expectations. The loss didn’t take much away from a strong recruiting class that included stud defensive end R.J Washington and running back Jermie Calhoun. Bob Stoops has to find that chip to put on these players shoulders; for when this program has played with something to prove (i.e the Big 12 Championship game against Missouri), it’s been hard to beat.  This spring is the perfect time for Stoops to get his players attention and get back that big game mentality. That’s the early goal.
The big spring question is … After two straight Fiesta Bowl losses, how does OU get the train back up on the tracks?  The answer to this won’t come in the spring, but the foundation of the response to the question has to be established early on.  There are no questions about the talent on both sides of the ball, even with early entrants to the NFL Curtis Lofton, Reggie Smith and Malcolm Kelly, but mentally this team went south in Glendale yet again.  After years of being “Big Game Bob”, Stoops has been put under the microscope and must respond with a big bowl game win. He has the Big 12 down, now he needs to prove OU can be nasty in the post-season again.
The most important position to watch is … Defensive back.  Smith, DJ Wolfe, Marcus Walker and Darien Williams have all left the building, and while OU always reloads in the secondary, it will take a little work this time around. Nic Harris and Lendy Holmes have experience in the back four, but in the Big 12, with the improved passing games, and the addition of Art Briles at Baylor and the West Coast offense at A&M, it’s become even more important to be strong in the secondary.  The coaches really like soon-to-be sophomore Dominique Franks, who started in the Fiesta Bowl, but they can’t decide to put him at corner or safety.
Spring attitude … It’s hard to be disappointed with back to back Big 12 Championships and eleven win seasons, but the losses in the Fiesta Bowl have taken a toll on the program’s confidence.  Stoops must get it back, but it won’t happen in the spring.  However, he can set a tone for this program this spring that it won’t be physically beaten any more.  The good news is that the rest of the Big 12 South may still be a half step behind Oklahoma, even with Texas Tech vying for conference honors in 2008.


Oklahoma State   Spring Practice Begins: March 3   Spring Game: April 12
The early spring buzz … The Cowboys finished the season with another bowl win, but it wasn’t exactly the year many Poke fans were hoping for.  OSU was embarrassed by Georgia and Oklahoma on the road, got throttled by Kansas at home, choked away a sure win against Texas (a third lost lead to the Longhorns in the last four years) and lost a 17 point lead at Texas A&M.  The program opens the spring at a crossroads.  Mercurial quarterback Bobby Reid has taken his game back to Houston and Texas Southern University, which reduces a bit of the drama, but it’ll take a bit more than that to get the Cowboys over the hump.
The big spring question is … How does the program take the next step? Each year the Cowboys have NFL talent and this team is no exception – receiver Dez Bryant and tight end Brandon Pettigrew are physical specimens, but under Mike Gundy, OSU hasn’t been able to beat the big teams on a consistent basis and hasn’t turned the corner.  The answer lies in a defense that gave up 32 points per game in Big 12 competition last season, so the loss of six starters may be a blessing and a curse. Second year defensive coordinator Tim Beckman has his work cut out for him this spring as he tries to change things up. Coming from Ohio State, he knows what a staunch defense is supposed to look like, but his group last year wasn’t quite in that league yet. Hellloooo JUCO transfers to change to try to change that in a hurry.
The most important position to watch is … Running back. Dantrell Savage took over in 2006 and didn’t relinquish the job until he was out of eligibility. Kendall Hunter ran for 696 yards last season and is Stillwater’s version of Knowshon Moreno … at least that’s OSU’s hope.  JUCO transfer Beau Johnson will push for time as well, but this is Hunter’s position to lose going into the spring.
Spring attitude … Sign seven JUCO players and the message is clear – win now.  However, it’s tough to bring together two-year players with the current squad and establish the right attitude to win a championship.  Can this team make that leap, starting this spring?  Probably not, but another seven win season, including a bowl win is still within reach. Spring needs to set the tone for the fall.

Texas   Spring Practice Begins: February 22   Game: March 29
The early spring buzz … The Longhorns added another former Auburn defensive coordinator Will Muschamp and it couldn’t have come at a better time.  After taking a couple of steps back after the 2005 national championship season, especially in the “we’re the more physical defense” department, Longhorn nation craves a physical, nasty defense and Muschamp’s defenses at LSU and Auburn would work well in Austin.  He’ll challenge this group to win the physical battle every day it takes the field.
The big spring question is … Who’s going to emerge as the number one back coming out of spring?  The loss of Jamaal Charles, who declared for the NFL a year early, was made more significant loss when five star recruit Darrell Scott chose Colorado over Texas in a fierce battle.  However, there are many around the program who’ll tell you that it opens the door for two backs who can bang more than Charles – Vondrell McGee and Chris Ogbonnaya.  McGee is smaller and quicker, while Ogbonnaya is a bit bigger and more powerful.  Even if McGee and Ogbonnaya aren’t the answer, a small army of backs will be taking their games to Austin in the fall (DeSean Hales and Tre Newton, among others). In the end, McGee will probably be the guy, but he has to prove it.
The most important position to watch is … Linebacker. Throughout the 2007 season, many Longhorn supporters questioning why Roddrick Muckleroy wasn’t on the field 100% of the time.  He and Sergio Kindle, who should be ready in the fall, brought a different feel to the defense bringing the hammer on a consistent basis.  With Muschamp in charge and upperclassmen out of the way, the Longhorns are going to be as good at this position as they’ve been in a number of years.
Spring attitude … Get tough. That’s been the Mack Brown rallying cry since the Holiday Bowl, and it’s carrying over to the off-season.  Being fast and athletic is one thing, but being able to physically change a game is another.  That’s what Muschamp was hired to do.  The offensive weapons are always going to be there and the offensive line improved immensely throughout last season.  Scoring won’t be the issue, but if the defense takes hold of Muschamp’s teachings and his attitude, the defense will be scary.


Texas A&M  Spring Practice Begins: March 24   Spring Game: April 19
The early spring buzz … The Aggies have one of their own.  Head coach Mike Sherman has the Aggie faithful buzzing, mainly because he’s not Dennis Franchione, but also because he’s returning to his old stomping grounds where he was the offensive line coach during the program’s successful SWC days.  The mix of experience at A&M, his love for the program, and his NFL experience have helped him win over the old guard Aggies, however, the new guard just wants results.  The first recruiting class, as hurried as it was, was average, but the buzz around spring practice, and the installation of the Sherman Way, is at an all-time high.
The big spring question is … Will Jerrod Johnson get a shot at the starting quarterback gig?  Stephen McGee has been the main man over the last few years, and one of the team’s better performers, but throughout last season many clamored for the hotshot recruit from Humble, Texas.  Johnson appeared to be more of a threat in Franchione’s scheme where he could use his legs more often, but he also showed that he had a strong arm and could throw effectively enough to overtake McGee, who won’t be going through spring practice.  Even if Johnson doesn’t get the chance to start, can Sherman find a way for Johnson to impact the offense in some way?
The most important position to watch is … Cornerback.  It’s hard to imagine the defense formerly known as the Wrecking Crew not having lockdown corners, but that’s what has happened in College Station.  Although defensive coordinator Reggie Herring came and went before the spring started, defensive coordinator Joe Kines took over that role and has a similar, aggressive defensive philosophy, which was important to Sherman.  That means more blitzing and more man-to-man coverage, but the corner situation has been bleak the past few years.  Danny Gorrer (still rehabbing a torn ACL), Jordan Peterson and Arkeith Brown have more pressure to perform this year than any other group on the field … outside of the offensive line, which has to replace four starters.
Spring attitude … Although recruiting is the first major function for a new coach, the first spring sets a tone for his entire career.  Sherman has said that his first task is to bring back a Wrecking Crew type defensive mentality, so expect plenty of hitting and blitzing from day one.  Regardless, the Aggies are in a precarious position in the Big 12 South.  Texas Tech will make a strong bid for the South championship, while Texas, OU and OSU aren’t going to be losing any ground from last season.  A&M had better beat Baylor to stay out of the cellar, and it had better be nasty against the better teams. Remember, the Aggies beat Texas the last two years.

Texas Tech   Spring Practice Begins: March 26   Spring Game: April 19
The early spring buzz … Sit back and enjoy the show. For the past few years under head coach Mike Leach, Tech fans got in the habit of going to decent bowls and occasionally playing on New Year’s Day, but the return of the entire offense, other than wide receiver Danny Amendola (and perhaps injured and still-recovering tackle. Rylan Reed), has the Tech fans thinking a little bigger.  Biletnikoff Award winner Michael Crabtree is back and quarterback Graham Harrell has thrown for over 10,000 in just two years, but the defense will be improved, at least that’s the hope, under the leadership of defensive coordinator Ruffin McNeill. It’s all there for this to be Leach’s best team yet.
The big spring question is … Can the team make a BCS bowl run?  With so much firepower back on offense, the answer will fall on the success of the defense. With McNeill taking over as the full-time defensive coordinator after half a season of interim work, he has all eleven starters returning, led by safety Darcel McBath.  The job of a Tech D is different than most Big 12 teams, but if they can hold teams under 27 points, there’s a good chance the offense won’t have to carry things every week.
The most important position to watch is … Defensive end. Leach and his staff added two junior college stud defensive ends this recruiting season, and both are expected to push for immediate playing time.  McKinner Dixon and Brandon SeSay should make an impact right away and give the defense some edge rushing threats, a necessity with the star Big 12 quarterbacks to deal with week after week.
Spring attitude … The Red Raiders did lose offensive coordinator Dana Holgerson to the University of Houston, and Amendola to graduation, but very little else.  If there’s a time for the Red Raiders to make a statement that they can be a true contender for the Big 12 championship and a potential BCS bowl game.  It’s all lining up for Leach and company, and a strong spring to ingratiate the junior college transfers into the fold could mean the difference in a potential championship season and a trip to the Alamo Bowl.