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Welcome to spring practice wrap-up week. With most spring practices in the books, it’s time to take a look at each Power Five team’s early 2017 storylines. Part two of our series is the Big 12, where we could be headed toward another season with two teams from the Sooner State atop the standings.
Previous entries: Pac-12
Baylor (2016 record: 7-6)
Key takeaway: The days of Art Briles and his high-flying offense are over at Baylor with Matt Rhule, by way of Temple, in the fold. As evidenced by Saturday’s spring game where quarterbacks — gasp! — lined up under center, things are going to be different moving forward on the field as the Bears strive to clean things up off of it.
Rhule ran a bruising style of offense with the Owls, but still found ways to get the ball to his playmakers in space. Despite the fallout of the end of the Briles era, there are still plenty of athletes around to spread the ball to. Rhule’s Temple defenses were tough, too, and usually quite a reflection of their coach. It’ll take some time to implement, but that’s the vision at Baylor, too.
Position battle: When Rhule arrived on campus, he had just one scholarship quarterback: Zach Smith. Smith was pressed into action in 2016 as a true freshman and showed flashes — especially in a Cactus Bowl win over Boise State. Now Smith is battling for the starting role with Anu Solomon, an experienced graduate transfer from Arizona. True freshman Charlie Brewer is also in the mix. Rhule has no plans to name a starter any time soon.
Straight from the coach: “It’s just not fair to them,” Rhule said per ESPN. “If they’d been in the system for several years, I could say, ‘OK, this is where you are, let’s establish a leader.’ But I want to see who makes the gains in the summer and who makes the gains into the fall camp. I want to see what Zach’s like when his ankle is healthy. I want to see what Anu’s like when he has some time with us in the offseason.”
Team trend: In the short-term, Baylor’s record may not look a whole lot different than it did in 2016. Any coaching transition is going to show in the win-loss column and the Bears have some depth concerns on both sides of the ball — the offensive line especially. Still, on the whole, Baylor’s program is trending up with Briles out and Rhule in.
For more Baylor news, visit SicEmSports.com.
Iowa State (2016 record: 3-9)
Key takeaway: The Cyclones won just three games in Matt Campbell’s first year with the program, but that doesn’t mean there wasn’t growth. ISU won two of its final three games and five of its losses were by 10 points or less. That has seemingly carried over to the spring, where things seem optimistic. Reports out of camp have this team making a noticeable jump forward — especially on offense.
Replacing multiple starters on the offensive line could present some issues, but this team has some serious playmaking talent. Auburn transfer Jacob Park is firmly entrenched as the starting quarterback and has quite the rapport with Allen Lazard at receiver. David Montgomery and Mike Warren also make up a nice duo at running back.
Position battle: With Jake Campos back from injury and the addition of a few grad transfers, the reshuffling of Iowa State’s offensive line is probably more of a battle, but a position switch at ISU really caught our attention earlier this spring. Joel Lanning, who has started 14 games at quarterback during his Cyclones career, is now ISU’s starter at middle linebacker. He hasn’t played the position since middle school, but there he was returning an interception for a touchdown during the spring game. The transition has seemingly gone well for Lanning, making for a pretty cool story. Don’t sleep on Lanning the quarterback, either. He could see some time on offense, mainly as a running threat.
Straight from the coach: “That’s a hard transition to make, and I’m not silly,” Campbell said of Lanning. “I know what the work ethic that it’s going to take to get where he needs to go so he can play at that rate consistently. But, I wouldn’t doubt Joel Lanning.”
Team trend: ISU hasn’t played in a bowl game since 2012 and a return in just Campbell’s second season doesn’t seem totally out of the question. The Cyclones are trending up.
For more Iowa State news, visit CycloneReport.com.
Kansas (2016 record: 2-10)
Key takeaway: David Beaty’s hire has proved to be fruitful on the recruiting trail. The biggest splash was made with some 2018 verbal commitments, but before that, the overall quality of athletes on the Jayhawks roster has made a pretty nice leap. That win over Texas last year showed you this team plays hard for Beaty, and now Doug Meacham is running KU’s air raid offense.
Meacham, who spent the last three seasons at TCU, has some toys to play with — especially at receiver. In a conference full of playmakers, wideouts Steven Sims (72 catches, 859 yards, 7 TDs) and LaQuvionte Gonzalez (62 catches, 729 yards, 3 TDs) quietly had great numbers in 2016. Expect that to continue in 2017. Look out for Alabama transfer Daylon Charlot, too.
Position battle: Carter Stanley started Kansas’ last three games in 2016, but Beaty brought in some competition in the form of junior college transfer Peyton Bender at quarterback. Bender, who was Luke Falk’s backup at Washington State, and Stanley seem to be neck and neck heading into the summer.
Straight from the coach: “Their leadership was a lot better this week than it had been previously, and I think it’s because with the teams they were kind of dialed in, so you knew what direction to go,” Beaty said of the quarterbacks after the April 15 spring game. “But I think the intangibles were getting better with both of those guys.”
Team trend: Kansas is a really difficult job and Beaty inherited a complete rebuilding project. So far, things are progressing. There’s some pretty good talent on this team on both sides of the ball. We highlighted the receivers, but the defensive line has some guys — Dorance Armstrong Jr. especially — college football fans should know (Armstrong is already on the radar of NFL teams). It’ll be hard for KU to make too big of a leap from the bottom of the conference standings, but the Jayhawks are still trending up.
For more Kansas news, visit JayhawkSlant.com.
Kansas State (2016 record: 9-4)
Key takeaway: Kansas State’s consistency (seven straight bowl appearances) is something plenty of programs around the country would love to have, but can the Wildcats make the jump from middle of the pack Big 12 team to the top of the league in 2017? It could be Bill Snyder’s best shot in years as the 77-year-old coach enters his 26th season at the helm. KSU returns 18 starters from a team that closed 2016 with four straight wins, including a bowl win over Texas A&M.
Position battle: Though many starters return, some of KSU’s most impactful defensive players are no longer around, including linebackers Elijah Lee and Charmeachealle Moore, two leading tacklers. Snyder likes the team’s depth at the position, so another spot worth focusing on is in the secondary. Safety Dante Barnett is off to the NFL and Denzel Goolsby and senior Sean Newlan are pushing for that spot. Both should play, but Goolsby, a redshirt sophomore who made an impact on special teams last year, has the higher ceiling.
Team trend: Kansas State is already getting some buzz as a sleeper pick in the league heading into 2017, but the Wildcats don’t quite have the talent or depth to supplant Oklahoma or Oklahoma State at the top of the standings. KSU had some injury issues during the spring, leaving a bevy of first-stringers on the sideline for the spring game. That group included starting QB Jesse Ertz, who is coming off shoulder surgery. Ertz, when healthy, is going to have to take a step forward as a passer in 2017. If not, eight or nine wins seems like the ceiling yet again. Push.
For more Kansas State news, visit GoPowerCat.com.
Oklahoma (2016 record: 11-2)
Key takeaway: Entering the spring, many wondered how Oklahoma would replace all of the talent it lost to the NFL on offense. Dede Westbrook, Joe Mixon and Semaje Perine are all gone, but it looks like Baker Mayfield will have quite a few options to spread the ball to. Jeffery Mead flashed his potential with a 70-yard TD grab in the spring game, tight end Mark Andrews is primed for a bigger role and the Sooners added Jeff Badet, a graduate transfer from Kentucky. Will any of these guys match the production of Westbrook? Doubtful. But Mayfield should have a pretty steady group to work with.
Position battle: With both Mixon and Perine off early to the NFL, the Sooners have a few options to turn to at running back. Despite the presence of Mixon and Perine, Abdul Adams avoided a redshirt and gained 283 yards on 53 carries, mainly at the end of blowout wins. The oft-injured Rodney Anderson emerged from the spring healthy and is in the mix for carries along with January enrollees Trey Sermon, a freshman, and Marcelias Sutton, a junior college transfer.
Coming out of camp, though, it seems like Adams will lead the way.
Straight from the coach: “He’s been our most consistent guy. He is one of the most improved of all the guys who returned last year thus far in camp,” offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley said of Adams, per the Tulsa World. “At times he played a little tight last year as he was trying to figure it all out. He just seems more loose, and you see more of his true athletic ability right now.”
Team trend: Oklahoma is pretty clearly a Top 10 team, but will it be a College Football Playoff-caliber team? A trip to Ohio State early in the season will be really big for its résumé. With Mayfield at the helm, the Sooners are again the favorites to win the Big 12, but the drop-off in playmaking talent could be significant. The defense is a concern, but the coaches seem optimistic about an improvement, especially in the secondary. We’ll call it a push, because saying OU is trending up would mean the CFP. We’re not ready to go there — yet.
For more Oklahoma news, visit SoonerScoop.com.
Oklahoma State (2016 record: 10-3)
Key takeaway: While the rival Sooners lost most of their top playmakers, Oklahoma State pretty much returns everybody. Mason Rudolph and James Washington bypassed the NFL for a chance to supplant Oklahoma at the top of the conference. Washington is joined by a slew of talented receivers, including five-star LSU transfer Tyron Johnson. 1,000-yard rusher Justice Hill is back, too.
But for all of that offensive talent, the defense, like most years in Stillwater, is a major question mark.
Position battle: Cowboys coach Mike Gundy has said throughout spring ball that he feels pretty good about his front seven on defense. The secondary, however, is a concern. Gundy moved Ramon Richards to safety, meaning no corners with starting experience return from a mediocre-at-best 2016 group. But Gundy went to graduate transfer market for immediate help in the form of Adrian Baker, formerly of Clemson. He’ll compete for a starting role alongside Darius Curry, Madre Harper and others.
Straight from the coach: “I don’t think there’s any question we’re going to be pretty good up front,” Gundy said, per The Oklahoman. “We’re going to be two-deep across the board at our ends and tackles. And we’ve got linebackers. So, I feel good about where we’re at. We’ve just got to get some good corner play as we move on into the season.”
Team trend: This is the best team Gundy has had since 2011, the last (and only) time he won the Big 12. The Sooners will be in his way yet again, but with the return of Rudolph and Washington, plus the additions of Baker and Cal grad transfer Aaron Cochran at offensive tackle, the Cowboys are definitely trending up and will be a trendy CFP pick for some.
For more Oklahoma State news, visit OStateIllustrated.com.
TCU (2016 record: 6-7)
Key takeaway: After winning 12 games in 2014 and 11 games in 2015, the drop-off to a 6-7 record in 2016 was pretty significant. TCU looked like a team without an identity last year and was plagued by inconsistent play on both sides. Coming out of spring ball, it looks like Gary Patterson has a pretty impressive — and experienced — defense to work with. Ty Summers and Travin Howard are two of the league’s best linebackers and the secondary looks solid across the board after some growing pains last year. That alone should keep the Horned Frogs in games, even if they are still looking for a few consistent pass-rushers to emerge.
Position battle: Former Texas A&M darling Kenny Hill is back for his senior season. He had some moments for TCU in 2016 but was eventually benched late in the year. He looks like he will have the starting role back in 2017 despite leading the Big 12 in interceptions, but Shawn Robinson, a hyped true freshman, is waiting in the wings. After he quickly seized the backup role, it wouldn’t be all that surprising if he sees the field in 2017 if Hill struggles.
Straight from the coach: “He started off with swagger, we didn’t end that way,” Patterson said of Hill in a recent radio interview. “He let all the other things get to him. Him and I have had a conversation about just, you know, you’ve got to care that you throw a pick but you can’t let your teammates know that. All the good ones I know, they’ve got to be able to play through that, like the corner or a kicker. You miss one, but you can’t let one be two. For him, being our senior quarterback and doing the things he needs to do, he needs to move forward and understand he doesn’t have to make great plays, he just needs to make good plays and not put us in bad situations.”
Team trend: Patterson’s forte has always been defense. If that unit is as good as it looks on paper (it reportedly looked pretty good in the spring game, too), TCU has a pretty good chance to rebound. Hill has to avoid the turnovers on offense, too. Trending up.
For more TCU news, visit PurpleMenace.com.
Texas (2016 record: 5-7)
Key takeaway: After another five-win season, Texas brought in Tom Herman to replace Charlie Strong and Herman is trying to bring some swagger and energy back to the Longhorns. He talks a big game, but it remains to be seen if that will show itself on the field in year one. He obviously proved he can coach at Houston, but recently voiced some concerns about the team’s depth, cooling some hopes of a quick jump back to the top of the conference.
Position battle: Herman has yet to name a starting quarterback despite Shane Buechele showing no reason he shouldn’t return as starter for his sophomore year. Who Buechele (or freshman Sam Ehlinger) is throwing to is a bit more intriguing. UT has quite a few candidates, but nobody really looked primed to seize a No. 1 role during the spring. Will it be senior Armanti Foreman? John Burt? Collin Johnson? Devin Duvernay? Ex-QB Jerrod Heard? There’s plenty of talent, but at least a few of these guys need to take a step forward.
Straight from the coach: “I’d have heard about these back-to-back top-10 recruiting classes. I was surprised that there’s not enough depth here as would seem to be with two ballyhooed recruiting classes in back-to-back years,” Herman said. “We have a lot of work to do.”
Team trend: A new coach can really bring a breath of fresh air to a program. Things always seemed tense throughout the Strong era and Herman’s confidence seems to be rubbing off on his new players this spring. There may not be a big jump in the win column, but it’d be a surprise if the Longhorns weren’t back in a bowl game in 2017. Trending up.
For more Texas news, visit Orangebloods.com.
Texas Tech (2016 record: 5-7)
Key takeaway: There were two obvious things for Texas Tech to address heading into spring ball. Patrick Mahomes, the nation’s leader in passing yards, left for the NFL and Nic Shimonek is his replacement. Is it likely he’ll put up the insane numbers Mahomes did? No. But he has the skill set and the weapons in Kliff Kingsbury’s pass-happy offense to excel.
On the other side of the ball, the Red Raiders have to find a way to improve defensively. The unit was the nation’s worst in 2016, giving up 554.3 yards per game. They have to improve, but if it’s not a fairly significant improvement, the Red Raiders will have a hard time winning more games. And perhaps sensing that this could be a do-or-die season for his job, Kingsbury has apparently been more involved in defensive meetings.
There’s a sense of urgency in Lubbock.
Position battle: Desmon Smith saw plenty of action at cornerback as a true freshman and defensive coordinator David Gibbs said recently if the season started now, he’d be penciled in as a starter. However, he has Jaylon Lane and Octavious Morgan, two junior college transfers, making a push behind he and senior D.J. Polite-Bray. Gibbs told reporters that all four will play when the season rolls around.
Straight from the coach: “I feel really good about that (quarterback) position. This is Nic’s fourth year in the program and I think he’s going to play at a high level,” Kingsbury said during last week’s Big 12 teleconference. “I tell him, ‘Don’t try to be Pat. If a play’s not there, throw it away.’ I think our offense will be more of a group approach. Our line will be better and all our receivers are back.”
Team trend: There is really nowhere to go but up for the Texas Tech defense, but that doesn’t mean it will all of a sudden be good. And with Mahomes, who kept his team in games with borderline miraculous play, off to the NFL, it will be hard for the Red Raiders’ offense to match the numbers of 2016. Overall, TTU is trending down.
For more Texas Tech news, visit RedRaiderSports.com.
West Virginia (2016 record: 10-3)
Key takeaway: Skyler Howard had his moments, but West Virginia hopes the addition of QB Will Grier, who left Florida after a PED suspension, will take its offense to a new level. He certainly looked the part during the spring game, completing 12-of-18 passes for 202 yards. Dana Holgorsen has said since Grier’s arrival on campus that he expects Grier to be eligible when the season begins (the NCAA will have the final say on his eligibility date). If he is the opening day starter, the Mountaineers have the look of a team that can make some noise in the Big 12.
Position battle: With Shelton Gibson and Daikiel Shorts no longer in the picture, a player with an intriguing backstory has made a push at wide receiver: David Sills. Yes, that David Sills — the David Sills who had a scholarship offer as a 13-year-old QB from Lane Kiffin. He went the junior college route to try to play quarterback after an earlier stint at WVU, but now he’s back and looked to have a nice rapport with Grier (six catches, 98 yards) during the spring game. Sills will fit in alongside Ka’Raun White and Gary Jennings in the passing game.
Straight from the coach: “David (Sills) has a starting quarterback mentality. He’s extremely, extremely football smart. That (Grier-Sills) connection has been fun to watch, and over the course of the next two years, it’s going to be a lot of fun to watch,” Holgorsen said after the spring game.
Team trend: Looking back, last year’s WVU team feels a little like it overachieved with its 10 wins. Ending the season with a lackluster bowl loss to Miami sort of reinforced that. With Grier running the offense and a strong defense, WVU is trending up. WVU isn’t quite at the level of Oklahoma and Oklahoma State, but this feels like a stronger, deeper team.
For more West Virginia news, visit WVSports.com.
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