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March 2, 2007

Spring Football Team Capsules: Big 12

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On Dec. 18 Texas A&M University President Dr. Robert Gates took office as United States Secretary of Defense, which marked one of the few times in 2006 that defense was positively associated with a Big 12 institution.

If defense does indeed win championships, as the age-old adage suggests, then the Big 12 members should have thrown in the towel long before bowl games were staged. That would have saved a lot of trouble, time and even some embarrassment. Six of the eight Big 12 teams competing in the postseason allowed 31 points or more in their bowl games, including conference champion Oklahoma the Big 12's best defensive team which gave up 43 in a loss to Boise State.

Nebraska allowed only 17 points in a Cotton Bowl loss, but that was to Auburn, which ranked 56th nationally in scoring. Texas gave up 24 in an Alamo Bowl victory, but that was to Iowa, which ranked 58th in scoring.

Three-fourths of the Big 12 teams ranked 46th or worse nationally in total defense last season. Even scarier, many Big 12 teams, including the top two favorites in each division, are facing major rebuilding projects on their defensive units this year.

Oklahoma, which was No. 16 in total defense last season, must replace a pair of All-Big 12 linebackers in Rufus Alexander and Zach Latimer as well as three starters in the defensive line.

Texas, No. 22 in total defense, lost both starting ends and three-fourths of its secondary, which might not be a bad thing considering the Longhorns ranked 99th in pass defense.

Nebraska has to completely rebuild its front four, while Missouri lost half-a-dozen starters and its top three tacklers from '06.

No doubt, plugging sieve-like defensive units will be a high priority throughout the Big 12 during spring football practices. The teams with the stronger defenses will have the best chance of winning a championship in the fall.

That would seem to indicate that Texas A&M could be the team to beat. After all, the Aggies made tremendous progress last season in their first year under defensive coordinator Gary Darnell and return eight defensive starters.

But the Aggies also gave up 45 points in a Holiday Bowl loss to California, which happened 10 days after Gates took office.

Clearly, when Gates left College Station the defense went with him.

Big 12 Spring Capsules
Spring practice starting date: March 20
Spring game: April 14
Top returner: LB Joe Pawelek. A year ago Pawelek posted 86 tackles and two sacks to earn All-Big 12 and freshman All-American honors. The Bears expect him to at least duplicate that production.
Player on the verge: WR David Gettis. Big (6 feet 4, 206 pounds) and fast (4.35), Gettis expects to play a much larger role in the offense next season than he did in 2006 when he caught just four passes. Not only does he have the physical ability for a big year, but Baylor lost Dominique Zeigler and Trent Shelton, its top two receivers in '06, and will be looking for someone to pick up their production.
Impact newcomer: DE Leon Freeman. A linebacker at Mesa (Ariz.) CC, Freeman is a three-star recruit who was ranked the nation's No. 75 junior college prospect by Rivals.com. He had 49 tackles last season, including 13 behind the line of scrimmage. Baylor desperately needs an injection of talent to upgrade a defense which ranked 110th nationally in 2006.
The big question: Who will be the Bears' starting quarterback? Blake Szymanski started the final three games last season and passed for 689 yards, four touchdowns and seven interceptions. 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.
Spring practice starting date: March 12
Spring game: April 14
Top returner: LB Jordon Dizon. Through all their tribulations of 2006 it was almost overlooked that Colorado had a pretty good defense. Dizon was a major reason why. He led the Buffaloes with 137 tackles and posted four sacks. He was a second team All-Big 12 selection by Rivals.com and could be on everybody's all-conference team next season.
Player on the verge: LB Michael Sipili. Sipili appeared in 10 games and posted 31 tackles in a backup role. He'll step in to replace Thaddaeus Washington, last year's second-leading tackler with 107 stops, and strive to match that production.
Impact newcomer: QB Cody Hawkins. The Buffaloes must upgrade an offense that ranked last in the Big 12 in scoring and passing. Hawkins is a former three-star recruit and the country's 17th rated pro-style quarterback by Rivals.com.
The big question: Who will play quarterback for the Buffaloes? Bernard Jackson, last season's starter, completed less than 50 percent of his attempts and threw as many interceptions as touchdown passes as the Buffaloes finished 116th in passing offense. Jackson faces a tough challenge in holding off Hawkins and junior college transfer Nick Nelson to retain the starting job.
Spring practice starting date: March 20
Spring game: April 14
Top returner: LB Alvin Bowen. A junior college transfer in 2005, Bowen emerged as a defensive force last season and led the Big 12 with 155 total tackles. He'll remain the focal point under defensive-minded new head coach Gene Chizik.
Player on the verge: WR R.J. Sumrall. The cousin of NFL receivers Reggie Wayne and Robert Ferguson, Sumrall, who also runs track at Iowa State, had a solid sophomore season with 25 catches for 310 yards. His reception total should increase with the loss of Austin Flynn and Jon Davis, the Cyclones' top two receivers a year ago.
Impact newcomer: OL Joe Blaes. A junior college All-American at Coffeyville (Kan.) JC, Blaes was a three-star recruit rated the nation's No. 54 junior college prospect by Rivals.com. He figures to be an immediate starter for a team that lost four regulars in the offensive line.
The big question: Can new coach Gene Chizik turn the Cyclones around? After two seasons of coming within a field goal of winning the North Division, the Cyclones grossly underachieved last year and finished with a disappointing 4-8 record. That led to the hiring of Chizik, who aims to transform the Cyclones into overachievers.
Spring practice starting date: March 14
Spring game: April 15
Top returner: CB Aqib Talib. Talib was a shining star in a bleak Kansas secondary in 2006. He had six interceptions and led the nation with 28 passes defended even though opponents had little reason to throw in is direction. Kansas, which ranked last among Division I-A teams in pass defense, must improve its secondary, but at least the Jayhawks don't have to worry about Talib.
Player on the verge: LB Mike Rivera. In his first season as a starter Rivera distinguished himself by notching 90 tackles and 1 sacks. At 6-3, 250 pounds he has excellent size and good speed for his position. He's ready to make the leap from solid starter to all-conference candidate.
Impact newcomer: S Patrick Resby. Desperately needing to upgrade their pass defense, the Jayhawks signed four defensive backs in their 2007 class. The 6-2, 195-pound Resby is the most likely of those to emerge as a starter. A three-star prospect, he had 76 tackles, forced three fumbles and had an interception last season at Navarro (Texas) JC.
The big question: Who will replace Jon Cornish, the Big 12's leading rusher? Cornish became the focal point of the Jayhawks last season as he rushed for 1,457 yards and eight touchdowns. Kansas has several possible replacements, but no proven ones. Jake Sharp is fast and elusive, but also small and isn't seen as an every-down back. Angus Quigley, who was injured last season, Donte Bean or true freshman Carmon Boyd-Anderson none of whom has a collegiate carry probably will be Cornish's successor.
Spring practice starting date: March 28
Spring game: April 21
Top returner: QB Josh Freeman. As a true freshman he took over the starting job midway through last season and led the Wildcats to a 4-4 finish, which included a 45-42 victory over Texas in which he passed for 269 yards and three touchdowns. He threw way too many interceptions (15), but that stat should be reduced as he gets more experience.
Player on the verge: RB Leon Patton. He averaged 5.6 yards per carry while rushing for a team-leading 609 yards and scoring six touchdowns despite starting just three games in his freshman year. He scored touchdowns in each of the last five games of the regular season and should build on that next season.
Impact newcomer: S Gary Chandler. 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.
The big question: Can the Wildcats make a successful switch from a 4-3 defense to a 3-4? Coach Ron Prince and new defensive coordinator Tim Tibesar are familiar with the 3-4 and are expected to make the change, which probably means Ian Campbell, the Big 12's returning sack leader in '06, would move from defensive end to outside linebacker.
Spring practice starting date: March 13
Spring game: April 21
Top returner: QB Chase Daniel. His sophomore season and first as a starter was a true breakout year. Daniel completed 63.5 percent of his passes and threw for 3,527 yards and 28 touchdowns. Most of his receivers return, so he's expecting another big year in 2007.
Player on the verge: WR Jared Perry. The Tigers' freshman of the year in 2006, Perry made a significant contribution with 36 catches and three touchdowns. That solid first year figures to lead to an exceptional one in 2007.
Impact newcomer: Jeremy Maclin. A former four-star recruit with 4.4 speed, Maclin redshirted last season but will provide an alternative target for Daniel. He could also make a big splash on punt returns. He averaged 24.6 yards on 11 returns as a high school senior. That would be a big boost for the Tigers, who averaged just 7.5 yards on punt returns and ranked 11th in the conference last season.
The big question: Can Missouri field a defense that will relieve some pressure from its offense? The Tigers averaged 30.1 points per game in 2006 and the returning offensive firepower suggests they should at least reach that mark again. But the Tigers have big holes to fill on defense after losing several key contributors.
Spring practice starting date: March 21
Spring game: April 14
Top returner: WR Maurice Purify. A junior college transfer a year ago, Purify emerged as the Cornhuskers' most effective receiver with 34 catches for an 18.5-yard average and seven touchdowns. There is no question about his ability. The only question is why the Huskers didn't throw to him more.
Player on the verge: DT Ndamukong Suh. The 6-4, 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.
Impact newcomer: QB Sam Keller. 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.
The big question: Can Nebraska play championship-caliber pass defense? Nebraska ranked 79th in pass defense and diminutive cornerback Cortney Grixby was particularly vulnerable to giving up big plays. The Huskers won't have the pass rushing of ends Jay Moore and Adam Carriker, who have gone off to the NFL, but they will regain the services of superb cornerback Zack Bowman, who missed all of last season with a knee injury.
Spring practice starting date: March 5
Spring game: April 7
Top returner: WR Malcolm Kelly. This rising junior caught 62 passes for 993 yards and 10 touchdowns last year despite playing in a run-oriented offense and missing almost the entire Fiesta Bowl with a knee injury. He had 10 catches for 142 yards and two touchdowns in the Big 12 championship game.
Player on the verge: DT Gerald McCoy. Oklahoma had enough talent on its front four last year that it could afford to redshirt this former five-star prospect. This should be the year McCoy shows why Rivals.com rated him as the top defensive tackle in the 2006 recruiting class.
Impact newcomer: QB Sam Bradford. This redshirt freshman enters spring practice as the odds-on favorite to replace Paul Thompson as the Sooners' starting quarterback. The former three-star prospect must hold off challenges from junior Joey Halzle and 2007 recruit Keith Nichol, who is already on campus.
The big question: Who will take over on the front seven?: The competitions at quarterback and running back might get more attention, but the Sooners proved last season they can overcome uncertainty at those two positions. A potentially greater concern involves how Oklahoma will restock a defense that loses C.J. Ah You, Larry Birdine, Rufus Alexander and Zach Latimer among others.
Spring practice starting date: March 5
Spring game: April 14
Top returner: WR Adarius Bowman. After sitting out a year following a transfer from North Carolina, Bowman emerged as perhaps the most dangerous deep threat in the Big 12 last season. He caught 60 passes for 1,181 yards and 12 touchdowns. He scored seven touchdowns in a three-week stretch which included a 13-catch, 300-yard, four-touchdown performance against Kansas.
Player on the verge: LB Chris Collins. A true freshman last season, Collins had 31 tackles and was on the way to establishing himself as one of the Cowboys' best defensive players before suffering a season-ending torn ACL against Kansas in the sixth game of the season. He won't participate in contact drills this spring, but he's expected to be back next season and should pick up where he left off.
Impact newcomer: DT Tonga Tea. The Cowboys lost two starters and a third player in their defensive tackle rotation, so they need immediate help. Tea should provide it. A four-star recruit, he was rated the nation's No. 31 junior college prospect by Rivals.com.
The big question: Will Oklahoma State show significant improvement under new defensive coordinator Tim Beckman? Beckman, who coached under Urban Meyer at Bowling Green and Jim Tressel at Ohio State, comes highly recommended by both. He faces a tough task in rebuilding the Oklahoma State defense, which last season ranked 89th nationally in total defense and no higher than 64th in total defense the last seven seasons.
Spring practice starting date: Feb. 23
Spring game: March 31
Top returner: QB Colt McCoy. Defensive tackle Frank Okam and wide receiver Limas Sweed are better NFL prospects, but McCoy clearly is the Longhorns' most valuable player. Texas looked like a national title contender last season before McCoy got hurt. The Longhorns lost to Kansas State without McCoy and fell to Texas A&M when he played at less than full strength.
Player on the verge: LB Roddrick Muckelroy. He looked like a star in the making after starting the Longhorns' first three games last season and collecting 2.5 tackles for loss. He then ruptured a tendon in his right ring finger and missed the rest of the season. Muckelroy's fearless aproach to the game gives him plenty of big-play potential. He could emerge as the team's top linebacker if he stays healthy all year.
Impact newcomer: CB Chykie Brown. Texas must find two new starting cornerbacks now that Thorpe Award winner Aaron Ross and Tarell Brown have finished their senior seasons. Deon Beasley probably will win one starting spot, but the other job is up for grabs. That opportunity could allow this former four-star prospect to crack the starting lineup as a redshirt freshman.
The big question: What about the pass defense? The Longhorns struggled to defend the pass even with Ross and probable high draft pick Michael Griffin in their secondary. Now the Longhorns must replace both of those guys as well as former defensive coordinator Gene Chizik, now the head coach at Iowa State. That leaves secondary coach/co-defensive coordinator Duane Akina with quite a task on his hands in his first year calling defensive signals for the Longhorns.
Spring practice starting date: March 20
Spring game: April 14
Top returner: RB Mike Goodson. Anyone who saw Goodson accelerate past the Texas defense on a 41-yard touchdown run knows he is one of the fastest players in the Big 12. He rushed for 847 yards and averaged 6.7 yards per carry last season, and two other A&M players had more carries. Wanna bet that changes?
Player on the verge: TE Martellus Bennett. A better-than-expected blocker, the 6-7 Bennett established himself as a solid receiver with 38 catches for three touchdowns in 2006. Without a star split end, he could emerge as the Aggies' primary receiver.
Impact newcomer: S Kenny Brown. The Aggies want a big, athletic guy at safety, and the 6-2, 200-pound Brown, a redshirt and converted receiver, fits the criteria. A&M must replace its starting safeties after Melvin Bullitt completed his eligibility and Brock Newton was dismissed from the team, and Brown is a good bet to move up on the depth chart.
The big question: Can the Aggies improve their passing game? Although quarterback Stephen McGee passed for 2,295 yards and completed 62 percent of his attempts the Aggies still ranked 11th in the Big 12 in passing yardage. McGee returns, but his top two wide receivers from last season are gone.
Spring practice starting date: March 21
Spring game: April 14
Top returner: QB Graham Harrell. Unlike Tech quarterbacks in the previous five seasons, Harrell did not lead the nation in passing last year. The slacker was second. In his second season as the Red Raiders' starter he'll make a bid to regain the top spot for Tech.
Player on the verge: LB Paul Williams. 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.
Impact newcomer: WR Michael Crabtree. Tech coaches loved what they saw from Crabtree every day in practice while he redshirted last year. 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 bleieve Crabtree can be that productive, too.
The big question: Will the Texas Tech offensive line be sound after losing four starters? If new offensive line coach Jack Bicknell can put together a solid unit the Red Raiders will have another big year offensively. Well, they probably will anyway, but a good line will make it easier.

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