BIG 12 Football Preview
The quarterback situation at Baylor already makes just about anyone cringe. To make matters worse, the star of the spring game was Greg Cicero, who threw for four touchdowns playing in the alumni game.
Yes, Cicero has exhausted his eligibility.
Instead, the Bears must choose among several other candidates, none of whom surfaced as an undisputed leader during spring drills. This battle features four players -- Shawn Bell, Dane King, Terrance Parks and Aaron Karas.
Bell is the backup who started the last two games in 2003 and showed promise. Karas has drawn 20 starts the past two years and has the most experience, but has also engineered numerous defeats. King is a juco transfer who can probably win the job if he shows enough consistency. Parks is a former Texas high school phenom who needs some seasoning after redshirting last year as a freshman.
Bell proved steady late in the season, but Baylor can actually apply a little mustard with either King or Parks. Any flair the Bears can manage needs to be tapped. Naturally, this four-man cavalcade attracts most of the attention, but if Baylor doesn't mind some manpower up front, it won't matter who plays quarterback. The chosen one simply won't have enough time to generate a consistent passing attack and openings cannot be created for the Bears' receivers without some semblance of a rushing game.
PRESEASON PREDICTIONS: Quarterbacks ranked 10th in Big 12 by Athlon.
KEY GAME: Conference victories have been difficult for Baylor since the inception of the Big 12, but the Bears should be favored when Iowa State rolls into Waco for homecoming on Oct. 23. The Cyclones went winless in the Big 12 last season and are the easiest conference opponent on the schedule. An early gauge of progress can be measured on Sept. 25 during a visit from North Texas, which handed Baylor a 52-14 loss last season in Denton.
THE MINDSET: In Guy Morriss' first season as coach, Baylor steadily improved, especially on the defensive side. This has to be encouraging, though anyone who thinks a quick fix is possible for the Bears is out of his mind. Still, Morriss has the team moving in the right direction and will not stand for players who don't buy into his system.
BIG SHOES TO FILL: No one off the Baylor squad last season is irreplaceable, though the biggest threat on returns and receptions was Robert Quiroga, a senior who signed a free-agent contract with the Baltimore Ravens. Quiroga had two kick returns for touchdowns.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "I feel a lot better about football program now than I did a year ago." -- Baylor coach Guy Morriss.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
PROJECTED OFFENSIVE STARS: QB Dane King -- This position is up for grabs, even though Aaron Karas returns after drawing 20 starts in the past two seasons. King, a juco transfer, was impressive early on in spring drills before leveling off.
WR Marques Roberts -- Tough to say who may emerge from the receiving corps. Roberts was the Bears' leader in the spring game with 48 yards receiving, yet only caught two balls.
PROJECTED DEFENSIVE STARS: S Willie Andrews -- One of the most gifted athletes on the squad, Andrews ranked fourth in the Big 12 last season with a 24.7-yard kick return average. Strong player in coverage and run support, though his raw tools need refined.
LB Justin Crooks -- Great nose for the ball, even though the 6-0, 222-pounder is somewhat undersized and definitely not as fast as many of his counterparts in the Big 12. Ranked second on the team in tackles and had five tackles for loss last season against Kansas State.
INJURY IMPACT: Baylor's thin offensive line did not get the work it needed in spring practice after OT Nick Pace (back) and juco transfer Evan Stone (knee) both underwent offseason surgery. The shortage of linemen forced Baylor to take a look at DE Luke Groth on the offensive side.
It appeared that Colorado head football coach Gary Barnett almost certainly would lose his job when a recruiting scandal hit during the offseason. However, the embattled Barnett survived the scandal and was reinstated as the Buffs' head coach despite allegations of sexual misconduct and rape by Colorado players. Barnett had been placed on paid administrative leave for three months after making insensitive remarks about a former Colorado female football player, kicker Katie Hnida.
Colorado president Elizabeth Hoffman said administrative changes will be made within the Colorado athletic department that will put an end to the "old boys' club" that had been allowed to exist. However, neither Barnett nor athletic director Dick Tharp will lose their jobs.
"To the degree that a 'good old boys club' still exists within the athletics department, those days are over," Hoffman said at a news conference. "Did Coach Barnett say things that I and others have found offensive? The answer is yes, and for that he has paid a price," Hoffman said. "Mr. Tharp has contributed more than 30 years of service to this university in leadership positions," she said.
"Could he, in some instances, have performed better regarding the administration of policies and procedures? Yes. "When considered with the many innovations and reforms he has helped institute, were his shortcomings so egregious that they should result in his immediate dismissal? I think not."
But while Barnett survived his difficult offseason, the Colorado program continues to suffer from attrition. DE Marques Harris asked for and was granted his release from the university. Five players have left the team since early May, including starting CB Sammy Joseph and valuable TB Brian Calhoun, as well as two backup offensive linemen. Harris missed most of last season with a broken leg, but he led the Buffs with 14 tackles for loss in 2002.
The scandal has had a negative impact on season ticket sales. The Buffs have seen a drop of 14 percent in season-ticket renewals, and much of the erosion has to do with a loss of confidence in the program. The school polled former season-ticket holders to find out why they failed to renew and "about 2 or 3 percent" indicated it was because of the scandal, according to senior associate athletic director John Meadows. Others blamed last season's 5-7 performance and others blamed economic factors.
More bad financial news: The school reported it spent $814,000 dealing with the recruiting scandal.
PRESEASON PREDICTIONS: Quarterbacks ranked fourth in Big 12 by Athlon. Not many individual honors to go around, but DB J.J. Billingsley was second-team preseason all-conference by Lindy's.
KEY GAME: After so many negative developments during the offseason, the opener against in-state rival Colorado State will go a long way in answering just how well the Buffaloes can block out the controversy they've lived with each and every day. Colorado State has been no pushover, winning three of the last five meetings with Colorado.
THE MINDSET: This has been a team rocked by turmoil and no matter how tightly the wagons are circled, the Buffaloes are adversely affected. They went through spring practice not knowing whether suspended coach Gary Barnett would retain his job. The players were reportedly very pleased that Barnett retained his job, but the team will have to recover from the scandal ... and that may not happen overnight.
BIG SHOES TO FILL: Although WR/KR Jeremy Bloom never became near the star in football as he was on the ski moguls, it was tough nonetheless for the Buffs to lose the versatile athlete to an NCAA ruling prohibiting his football eligibility after accepting endorsements to train for the 2006 Winter Olympics. An injunction against the NCAA was denied in May, and his return to the gridiron appeared increasingly unlikely.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "Yes, I've actually heard it used as a term of endearment." - Colorado president Elizabeth Hoffman, defending the use of a vulgar word to describe a former Colorado female football player.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
PROJECTED OFFENSIVE STARS: QB Joel Klatt -- Threw for 2,614 yards and completed 65.1 percent of his passes while establishing himself as one of the Buffaloes' top leaders. Older than most juniors after playing professional baseball, Klatt will be counted on heavily to help Colorado block out all its offseason problems.
TB Bobby Purify -- A high ankle sprain kept Purify out last season and he was granted a medical redshirt. He will try to regain the form he flashed in 2002, when he had back-to-back 100-yard games at Missouri and Iowa State.
PROJECTED DEFENSIVE STARS: LB Thaddaeus Washington -- Starred in the spring game, returning an interception 24 yards while also accounted for nine tackles.
DB Brian Iwuh -- He and J.J. Billingsley will be counted on for leadership in the secondary after Imuh was named the most outstanding defensive back during spring practice.
INJURY IMPACT: No significant injuries to report.
Essentially, Iowa State must get tougher.
To a large degree, coach Dan McCarney measures that quality by rushing yardage. It is an area in which the Cyclones excelled until the past two seasons. Last year, they fell to 91st in the country in rushing, and McCarney understands why.
"We were not physical enough," he said. "It's not just neutralizing people. It's knocking people off the football."
When the staff across the state line separated by the Missouri River disbanded after last season, McCarney tapped its expertise. He brought in Barney Cotton, who coordinated the nation's seventh-ranked rushing attack at Nebraska to be the Iowa State offensive coordinator.
It didn't take long for Cotton and McCarney to stir the pot on the offensive side. Developing the run game is just one element. Another is to find more consistent play at quarterback, and the two raised some eyebrows by promoting redshirt freshman Bret Meyer into the No. 1 spot during spring drills.
After a shaky performance in the spring game, Meyer left as a co-No. 1 with Austin Flynn, who shared the starting spot last season with Cris Love.
The quarterback who emerges as a starter is likely to receive more support in the backfield. In addition to Nebraska's rating a year ago, Cotton, a former defensive lineman, helped New Mexico State rank among the nation's top 25 rushing attacks in each of his six seasons there.
"(Cotton) is on everybody all the time," Iowa State RB Stevie Hicks said. "It seems like if you slack off just a little, he's right there."
PRESEASON PREDICTIONS: Defensive line ranked seventh in Big 12 by Athlon. Cyclones picked to finish last in the Big 12 North by Lindy's, Athlon, Street & Smith's.
KEY GAME: The Cyclones go on the road for four of their first seven games before returning home for their best chance at a conference win, against Kansas on Oct. 30. While the Jayhawks have made significant progress under Mark Mangino, the Cyclones cannot afford to let Kansas pass them by in the tame Big 12 North.
THE MINDSET: Dan McCarney, whose 10-year stretch as Iowa State coach gives him the second-longest tenure in the Big 12, is known as a motivator. Now is the time for him to do just that. An 0-8 dip through the Big 12 in 2003 marked the first time since 1964 the Cyclones lost all of their conference games. McCarney is the man to hold accountable for that slide and he needs to get this squad pumped, because it too will be outmanned by most conference opponents in 2004.
BIG SHOES TO FILL: No one epitomized the type of player Iowa State needs more than WR Lane Danielson, an in-state walk-on who made the most of his opportunity and closed his career as the leading receiver in school history. These are the kinds of unheralded players McCarney must find, and develop, to stave off the big boys. Danielson signed a free-agent contract with the Minnesota Vikings.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "We need to improve in every phase of our special teams. I am committed and dedicated to that, and every coach on this team is too. We are going to get it done." -- Iowa State coach Dan McCarney.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
PROJECTED OFFENSIVE STARS: RB Stevie Hicks -- After developing a quick tradition of 1,000-yard rushers, Iowa State's backs have missed that benchmark each of the last two seasons. Hicks could be the answer after gaining 164 yards and scoring two touchdowns in the spring game.
OT Aaron Brant -- After starting as a true freshman at guard in 2003, Brant will move to right tackle, a position that better suits his 6-7 frame. He could emerge as a rock along the offensive front.
PROJECTED DEFENSIVE STARS: DE Jason Berryman -- The Big 12 newcomer of the year as a freshman in 2003, Berryman needs to add weight to continue to progress. He checked in at 225 during spring drills and is expected to add more pounds during the offseason. Great conditioning allows Berryman to go all out on every snap.
LB Tyson Smith -- Smith was granted a medical hardship for a sixth year of eligibility after missing the 2003 season. With the emergence of Berryman as a rush end, Smith moves to the Will linebacker. At 6-2, 242, he can play the position. Needs to replicate his 2002 season, when he had 104 tackles as an end.
INJURY IMPACT: C Luke VanderSanden missed some time during spring drills with an injured wrist, then missed the spring game with mononucleosis. The good news was that Iowa State did not sustain any major injuries during spring practice.
One of the more glaring offensive blemishes from Kansas' spring game was the interception count. Six were thrown, including four by junior college transfer Jason Swanson. But do stats tell the whole story? KU coach Mark Mangino thinks not.
The wind was blowing at gusts up to 35 mph. And in Swanson's case, the scrimmages he engaged in this spring marked his first taste of competition since he hyperextended his elbow midway through last season at City College of San Francisco.
Furthermore, the KU defenders were not restricted to their base package, and they mixed in several stunts and blitzes.
The only touchdown through the first three quarters came on a 46-yard interception return by Charles Gordon, who practiced on both offense and defense after playing each way as a freshman.
"Often times you get a situation in a spring game where defenses don't want to do too much, so they'll be vanilla," Mangino said. "Then the quarterbacks come out against one zone coverage all day and fire the ball downfield, roll up some big yards and everybody says, 'Wow, those guys are great.'
"We gave our quarterbacks every look you can get. We put pressure on our quarterbacks, and because Adam (Barmann) has been around, and has some Big 12 experience, he was able to see things better than Jason was."
Although KU must replace its most valuable player, QB Bill Whittemore, the battle at that position isn't as worrisome as improvement needed on defense.
PRESEASON PREDICTIONS: Receivers ranked ninth by Lindy's, 10th by Athlon. Linebackers ranked ninth by Lindy's. WR/CB Charles Gordon ranked the eighth-best all-purpose player by Lindy's.
KEY GAME: The Big 12 opener on Sept. 25 against Texas Tech will be a strong indicator of just how good the Jayhawks might be. The game will be at home and the Red Raiders figure to be down. Still, the Kansas schedule is difficult. It includes eight games against 2003 bowl participants.
THE MINDSET: After reaching a bowl for the first time since 1995 and playing a postseason game on the mainland for the first time since 1981, Kansas is rightfully encouraged. Any early setbacks, however, could destroy that feeling. KU could easily be better than last season, yet not have the kind of record that reflects any improvement.
BIG SHOES TO FILL: A case could be made that departed QB Bill Whittemore was as valuable to his team as any player in the Big 12. When Kansas needed a win in the season finale to secure a bowl berth, Whittemore returned from a fractured collarbone and engineered a victory that sent the Jayhawks to the Tangerine Bowl.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "It was a productive spring, more pads popping on the practice field than at any time since I've been here. We have kids going into their third year in this system and they're playing with more confidence and understanding of their roles and assignments." -- Kansas coach Mark Mangino.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
PROJECTED OFFENSIVE STARS: QB Adam Barmann -- Although he didn't produce a victory in any of his three starts last season, the mere fact Kansas had to strip Barmann of his freshman redshirt is proof he is the Jayhawks' quarterback of the future. He threw four touchdown passes in his debut at Texas A&M and completed 67.1 percent of his attempts overall.
RB Clark Green -- The junior must battle sophomore John Randle for the starting job. Green led KU with 968 yards as more of a power runner, and also has good hands, accounting for 81 receptions the past two seasons.
PROJECTED DEFENSIVE STARS: LB Nick Reid -- Led the Jayhawks with 133 tackles in 2003, including six for losses after moving to outside linebacker from safety. One of three starting linebackers who return for KU, which could field one of the best units at that position in the Big 12 if the defensive front can shed blockers.
CB/WR Charles Gordon -- With three interceptions in the spring game, Gordon probably solidified a spot in the secondary, where the Jayhawks' depth is thin. A versatile player the Jayhawks counted on both ways last year as a redshirt freshman, Gordon set a frosh record at KU with 769 receiving yards. He also averaged 13.1 yards on punt returns, 13th in Division I-A.
INJURY IMPACT: The primary player missing from spring contact drills was LB Gabe Toomey, who battled shoulder problems and also came off the field woozy a few too many times. To counter Toomey's frequent need to take plays off, the Kansas conditioning staff is working on adding pounds. If the plan works, Toomey could definitely emerge as one of the Big 12's top linebackers.
Throughout spring drills, Kansas State coach Bill Snyder professed complete faith in Dylan Meier, the sophomore who figures to take over at quarterback. A couple of factors played into this tactic. One is that the Wildcats want to instill confidence in Meier, who was prone to turnovers whenever he took the field in mop-up situations last year.
Also, Kansas State wants everyone to forget about Ell Roberson, whose sexual escapades at the Fiesta Bowl embarrassed the program and led to disciplinary measures after the team returned home. Still, the Kansas State offense figures to sputter some as Meier breaks in, unless Heisman Trophy candidate Darren Sproles can bust enough big plays through defenses geared at stopping the shifty running back.
Defense could be the Wildcats' salvation, and depth within that unit could negate the loss of seven starters. It was the second-string defense that impressed Snyder most during Kansas State's spring scrimmage, which he hardly endorsed as a breakthrough event.
"We're behind schedule," insisted Snyder, who enters his 16th season as the dean of Big 12 coaches. "We had several bad practices out of 15. That enhances the concern you have."
On paper, Kansas State doesn't figure to be as dominant as it was down the stretch in 2003, when seven consecutive victories sent the Wildcats to the Bowl Championship Series with their first conference title since 1934. Still, the Big 12 North is weak enough that Kansas State must be considered the favorite, despite obvious concerns like the one at QB.
On the judicial front, backup QB Allen Webb saw his trial date for battery shifted from mid-June to July 29. Webb was charged with a Class B misdemeanor stemming from a June 2003 incident. If found guilty, he could receive penalties ranging from six months in jail and a fine not to exceed $1,000 -- or both. Webb had a solid performance in the Kansas State spring game and could challenge Meier for playing time this year.
PRESEASON PREDICTIONS: Ranked 14th by Lindy's; ranked 22nd by Street & Smith's; ranked 12th by Athlon. RB Darren Spoles, 1st team All-America by Lindy's and Athlon; 3rd team by Street & Smith's.
KEY GAME: A rematch with Oklahoma, the team Kansas State stunned 35-7 for the Big 12 championship last year, comes on Oct. 16 in Manhattan. It also begins an interesting three-game homestand, which also includes visits from Nebraska and Texas Tech. For the eighth straight year, Kansas State opens conference play on the road, a scheduling quirk which prompted a complaint to the Big 12 office.
THE MINDSET: How this team responds is anyone's guess. Coming off the first conference championship in 69 years is huge, but the afterglow diminished with the controversy involving departed QB Ell Roberson at the Fiesta Bowl. The Wildcats insist they've put the turmoil in Tempe behind them, but only time will tell.
BIG SHOES TO FILL: Kansas State lost a key contributor within every position group, but none handled as many responsibilities as Roberson. Matching the threats he posed, as well as his knowledge of the system, will be impossible for Dylan Meier and Allen Webb, the only quarterbacks outside the freshman class that are on scholarship.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "We couldn't snap it, couldn't hold it, couldn't kick it. That doesn't leave much." -- Kansas State coach Bill Snyder on the Wildcats' kicking game in the spring scrimmage.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
PROJECTED OFFENSIVE STARS: RB Darren Sproles -- Was fifth in Heisman Trophy balloting last season after breaking the Kansas State single-season and career rushing records. Hard to track at 5-7, though Sproles could have more trouble without his top two blockers from last season. Did not participate in many of the spring drills so he could spend time with his mother, Annette, who died six days before the spring game.
TE Brian Casey -- Got his chance when preseason All-Big 12 pick Thomas Hill required ankle surgery before the start of the 2003 season. Casey developed into a solid blocker and is a big target at 6-7.
PROJECTED DEFENSIVE STARS: CB Cedrick Williams -- Talkative cover man jumped into the starting lineup when the Big 12 season rolled around and developed into a strong cornerback. Must assume leadership role in the secondary.
LB Marvin Simmons -- Mysteriously absent from games during his sophomore season despite showing great promise. Registered six tackles, including two for losses and one sack, in his only extended action, at Iowa State. Could move into the Will spot and develop into the same kind of freewheeler as Josh Buhl, who set a single-season tackling record in '03.
INJURY IMPACT: DT Andrew Bulman received a medical redshirt after missing the 2003 season with a broken leg. He then missed much of spring drills with a minor ankle injury. ... OT Jon Doty underwent offseason surgery and missed all of spring practice, while CB Louis Lavender sat out the spring game after undergoing surgery. ... WR Antoine Polite did not play in the spring game and wore a cast on his right arm.
Missouri needs to develop an understanding of how to use Brad Smith, who started all of the Tigers' games during his first two seasons.
What we know from those outings is that Smith is one of the most elusive quarterbacks in the country and also has a strong arm.
What we also know is Missouri seems to keep him from exhibiting those talents. There were times last season when the Tigers kept Smith contained, leery of any hits that might cause an injury. They also failed to develop any kind of deep passing game, partly because of concerns Smith was too inaccurate at long distances and partly because the Missouri receiving corps was sub-par.
Now is the time to work out the kinks. With the experience he gained each of the past two seasons, Smith poses a threat unlike any quarterback in the conference.
Already the top rushing quarterback in the country, Missouri attempted to hone Smith's passing skills during spring practices. He averaged just 5.8 yards per attempt last season, and must improve drastically on that mark.
Still, it was no surprise when Missouri unleashed a couple of tailbacks -- Damien Nash and Marcus Woods -- for 201 rushing yards in the spring game, while Smith was limited to just three carries in one half of action.
After all, running the ball is what the Tigers do best. Throwing it better, however, will key whatever diversification Missouri needs to challenge for the Big 12 North championship.
PRESEASON PREDICTIONS: Ranked 16th by Lindy's; 19th by Street & Smith's; 11th by Athlon. LB James Kinney, 2nd team All-America by Street & Smith's. Brad Smith rated the third-best quarterback nationally. Defensive line ranked fourth by Lindy's. Linebackers rated No. 9 nationally by Athlon.
KEY GAME: Missouri will have to survive some potentially difficult tests, including two on the road at Texas and Nebraska, but should be in position on Nov. 6 to play for the Big 12 North title against Kansas State. The Tigers have lost 11 straight to the Wildcats, but the games are usually close in Columbia. Too bad this matchup doesn't close the season like so many of the recent games between the teams.
On the schedule front, Missouri angered the Big Ten's Iowa when it pulled out of games with the Hawkeyes in 2005 and 2006. The schools had originally signed a four-year contract for games between 2005-08, but the Tigers bailed out of the first two games. The Tigers will make a payment of $50,000 to Iowa as the Hawkeyes scramble to fill the holes. The 2007-08 games remain intact.
THE MINDSET: This is a team that should be feeling better about itself than any other squad in the Big 12 North. The Tigers have the firepower to contend for a title with 13 starters returning off an 8-5 team. Road wins, however, will be a requirement. The Tigers were 0-4 in Big 12 road games last season.
BIG SHOES TO FILL: The shoes come in two pairs -- one for C A.J. Ricker and the other for OT Rob Droege. Together, they were the heart and soul of a sturdy Missouri offensive front.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "You come out of spring, and you're playing real solid defense, as a head football coach going into the summer, that's very good news. Head coaches do not like to be worrying about their defense all summer long as I have the last few years." -- Missouri coach Gary Pinkel.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
PROJECTED OFFENSIVE STARS: QB Brad Smith -- In just two seasons, Smith broke the career total offense record at Missouri. He is a phenomenal talent, though if defenses contain him on the edge, Smith can be neutralized when contained to the pocket. He must throw the ball better on deep routes to make defenses honest.
RB Damien Nash -- Although he could have some difficulty holding off Marcus Woods for time in the backfield, Nash gives the Tigers a speedy threat they didn't have when Zack Abron was bulling for yardage.
PROJECTED DEFENSIVE STARS: DT Atiyyah Ellison -- A late bloomer last season, Ellison showed off his athleticism in the spring game with a 47-yard interception return for a touchdown. Cat-quick off the ball, Ellison is a tackle who could keep blockers off the linebackers.
LB James Kinney -- Ranked fourth in the Big 12 last season in tackles and was credited with 292 stops over the past two seasons. Still needs to improve dramatically on run defense.
INJURY IMPACT: Depth was showcased in the secondary after SS David Overstreet missed four weeks of spring practice with a hamstring injury and Jason Simpson emerged as the starter. ... TE Martin Rucker missed spring practice after undergoing shoulder surgery, but Victor Sesay returned from a knee injury that cost him four games last season.
The numbers don't lie. All the passes Nebraska attempted in the spring game ushered in a fundamental change in how the Huskers play football.
"We made the playbook come alive," QB Joe Dailey said.
Generations of Nebraska fans have attended the spring game and never left wondering whether the No. 1 quarterback had to have his arm iced after the scrimmage. Dailey, however, was a candidate after throwing 49 times.
Yes, it's a whole new ballgame, one spawned on the West Coast and delivered by Bill Callahan, who took over after Frank Solich was dismissed for going 9-3 in the regular season during 2003.
Intrigued by the makeover, a record 61,417 watched the first chapter in Callahan's transformation. Remarkably, they did so without any primers on the intricacies of the forward pass.
With so many attempts, fans were able to pick up on it as the spring game progressed.
"We wanted to work the passing game," said Callahan, who is two years removed from a Super Bowl appearance with the Oakland Raiders. "I really wanted to put our kids on display and really watch them execute and perform. It's an area we need to get better in. There's a lot more work to do yet, but overall I was pleased with the way they performed."
Although the Huskers were marred by inconsistency throughout the spring, Callahan wasn't discouraged. His primary goal was to install the system and allow his coaches time to teach and grow accustomed to personnel.
The talent level is probably inadequate for Nebraska to make a title push in Callahan's first season. Progression in mastering the new system, however, will be the Huskers' main objective.
Ironically, former head coach Frank Solich is talking with one of Callahan's former rivals about an assistant coaching job. Solich has met with the Kansas City Chiefs and has said that he finds the possibility of moving into the NFL an "intriguing" prospect.
"They (the Chiefs) have been great," Solich told WHB radio in Kansas City. "I've had a chance to get into their meetings and study film a little bit with them and watch practice with them. It's been a very valuable experience for me."
Solich also attended a mini-camp with the Indianapolis Colts and has visited four college campuses. He said he will visit the Chiefs again.
"I think pro ball is very intriguing," Solich said. "They have a great deal of time they're able to spend directly on football."
PRESEASON PREDICTIONS: Ranked 22nd by Lindy's; 23rd by Athlon. S Josh Bullocks, 1st team All-America by Lindy's, Street & Smith's and Athlon. TE Matt Herian, 1st team All-America by Street & Smith's; 2nd team by Athlon and Lindy's. Defensive backs ranked second by Lindy's, sixth by Athlon.
KEY GAME: Given the radical change of the offense, every game will be key in the development of the Cornhuskers, who will be one of the most watched teams in the country. By the end of the season, we'll have a better idea of how all this works, and Nebraska will get a chance to show its stuff Nov. 13 at Oklahoma. This used to be an annual battle, but there is still plenty of hatred on both sides.
THE MINDSET: Early success may be needed for Bill Callahan to gain the support of the personnel he inherited. The Huskers were not happy when Frank Solich was fired as head coach. Nor did they like it when Bo Pelini wasn't promoted. This won't have a lasting effect on whatever strides Callahan makes, but he does take over a team fractured by a messy coaching transition.
BIG SHOES TO FILL: There are players the Huskers will miss, particularly on defense where LB Demorrio Williams showed great range and playmaking instincts. But the leader of that unit was its coordinator, Bo Pelini, who instilled an aggressive style. It was no coincidence the Huskers led the nation in turnover margin.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "They're upbeat right now. They're feeling good about the system. Self-esteem and confidence are very important in learning this system. If they buy into a system, it makes it that much easier to execute." -- Nebraska offensive coordinator Jay Norvell.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
PROJECTED OFFENSIVE STARS: C Richie Incognito -- Found guilty of an assault charge stemming from an incident at a Lincoln party during the offseason. It wasn't Incognito's first brush with the law, though the Lincoln city prosecutor said she would not ask for jail time. Nebraska must find a way to curb the talented Incognito's anger.
QB Joe Dailey -- Spent last season fielding questions about whether he should replace embattled starter Jammal Lord. Now that Lord's gone, it's Dailey's turn in the spotlight and he'll get to test his arm in Nebraska's new offense.
PROJECTED DEFENSIVE STARS: DE Adam Carriker -- An emerging star for a first-team defense that pitched a shutout in the spring game until allowing a TD pass on the final play. At times during the spring game, Nebraska showed a new twist by using four ends -- Carriker, Jay Moore, Wali Muhammad and Benard Thomas -- along the front to gain more quickness in third-and-long situations.
LB Barrett Ruud -- Steps into a leadership role on defense with the loss of rangy LB Demorrio Williams. Ruud set a Nebraska single-season tackle record with 149 stops last season. Ruud also led the No. 1 defense with six stops in the spring game.
INJURY IMPACT: SS Phillip Bland was forced to give up football. After starting as a freshman, the senior-to-be was plagued by injuries. He underwent ankle surgery in December, then learned before spring practice was to start that he needed another operation. He also missed spring practice in 2003 because of shoulder surgery.
One of the bigger losses for Oklahoma was on its coaching staff. Mike Stoops left for a head coaching job at Arizona, though no one is writing off the Sooners' defense. Not when Stoops' replacement is Bo Pelini, who in one season as Nebraska's defensive coordinator developed an aggressive unit that led the nation in turnover margin.
In addition, Oklahoma has one of the best defensive masterminds in college football as its head coach in Bob Stoops. Plus, Brent Venables, who will share the title of coordinator with Pelini, may be the next head coach-in-waiting to be plucked off the OU staff.
As for Pelini, the newest Oklahoma assistant inherited one of the finer collections of talent among all the Sooners' position groups. Three outstanding returnees in the secondary -- Brodney Pool, Donte Nickerson and Antonio Perkins -- negate the loss of All-Americans Derrick Strait and Brandon Everage.
How the defense reacts after losing three national award winners -- Strait (Nagurski, Thorpe), LB Teddy Lehman (Butkus) and DT Tommie Harris (Lombardi) -- will be interesting, though the Sooners remain stockpiled with exceptional talent on that side.
Adding Pelini will only help the Sooners get the most out of the newcomers filling holes. There was no shortage of motivation for those candidates during spring practice, the Sooners' first chance to assemble in pads after two disappointing losses at the end of last season spoiled a bid for the national championship.
"It was apparent tackling was an issue in our last two games, and we'll work harder to get better at it," Venables said. "Our guys are extremely hungry. Having time to reflect, they realized that as good as we were, the people we lined up against at the end of the year were pretty good, too. There was no margin for error."
PRESEASON PREDICTIONS: Ranked second by Lindy's and Athlon; third by Street & Smith's. WR Mark Clayton and OT Jammal Brown, 1st team All-America by all three of those publications. DT Dusty Dvoracek, 1st team All-America by Lindy's; 2nd team by Street & Smith's; 2nd team by Athlon. KR Antonio Perkins, 1st team All-America by Street & Smith's. QB Jason White, 2nd team All-America by Lindy's; 1st team by Street & Smith's and Athlon.
S Donte Nicholson, 2nd team All-America by Lindy's. OL Vince Carter, 2nd team All-America by Street & Smith's and Athlon. PK Trey DiCarlo, 2nd team All-America by Street & Smith's and Athlon. DB Brodney Poole, 2nd team All-America by Street & Smith's. DL Dan Cody, third-team All-America by Street & Smith's; 1st team by Athlon. PR Antonio Perkins, 2nd team All-America by Athlon, rated the No. 1 all-purpose player by Lindy's. DB Donte Nicholson, 2nd team All-America by Lindy's.
Backfield ranked fourth nationally by Lindy's. Receivers ranked second by Lindy's and Athlon. Offensive line ranked first by Lindy's and Athlon. Defensive line ranked first by Lindy's, second by Athlon. Linebackers ranked 10th by Lindy's. Defensive backs ranked second by Athlon, third by Lindy's.
KEY GAME: After opening with five home games, Oklahoma plays its traditional grudge match in Dallas against Texas looking for a fifth straight victory in the season. The game again appears to be the biggest in the Big 12 South. For Oklahoma, it not only could stamp the Sooners as the division favorite, but also maintain an edge in a rivalry they love to control.
THE MINDSET: Oklahoma should be itching to play another game after a late-season collapse spoiled its bid for a national title. A 12-0 run through the regular season was wrecked by a lopsided loss to Kansas State in the Big 12 championship game and another defeat to LSU for the national championship in the Sugar Bowl. The Sooners have lived with those setbacks throughout the offseason.
Head coach Bob Stoops received a contract extension that will tie him to the university through 2010. Stoops has been one of the most talked-about coaching candidates on the NFL front and university officials want to make sure he's happy in Norman. His new salary will be $2.3 million per year.
BIG SHOES TO FILL: Several key defenders left, including first-round draft pick Tommie Harris. Depth in the interior of the line will be a concern. Lance Mitchell returns from a medical redshirt season to compensate for the loss of LB Teddy Lehman and maybe make a run at the Butkus Award himself. The Sooners have considerable depth in the secondary, though replacing a shutdown corner such as Derrick Strait won't be easy.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "We won 14 games and won 12 of them. I don't think we need many changes." -- Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
PROJECTED OFFENSIVE STARS: QB Jason White -- What a lift for the offense to have the Heisman Trophy winner return after petitioning the NCAA for a medical hardship. White needs better protection, however. The pounding he took late in the season left him woozy and not as sharp as he was during a 12-0 start.
WR Mark Clayton -- Along with White returns Clayton, the other half of Oklahoma's dangerous passing combination. Although the Big 12 featured established star wideouts such as Rashaun Woods of Oklahoma State and Roy Williams of Texas, Clayton earned a first-team spot on the all-conference team after setting OU records for receptions (83), yards (1,425) and touchdowns (15).
PK Trey DiCarlo -- Contribution went largely overlooked on a team loaded with stars, though DiCarlo was a finalist for the Groza Award. Led the Sooners with 131 points, which ranked 13th nationally.
PROJECTED DEFENSIVE STARS: CB/KR Antonio Perkins -- Three touchdown returns off punts against UCLA established Perkins as one of the most dangerous return men in college football. He continues to develop as a decent corner.
DE Dan Cody -- Unsung lineman could come into his own this season. The Sooners need him to spearhead their pass rush.
INJURY IMPACT: Minor injuries limited several Sooners during spring drills, including FB J.D. Runnels and SS Brodney Pool. C Vince Carter was held out of practice all together, as was QB Jason White. ... The good news was that LB Lance Mitchell returned. The Sooners' tackling leader in 2002 missed most of last season with a knee injury.
Much of the attention at Oklahoma State is focused at quarterback, and rightfully so.
There was slim hope that starter Josh Fields would come back for his senior season, but he was a first-round pick in the June baseball draft, agreeing to a contract with the Chicago White Sox, with a reported $1.55 million signing bonus.
Fourth-year head coach Les Miles thought that freshman Bobby Reid would have the inside track on the job after a fine performance in the Oklahoma State spring game, but Reid injured his shoulder in that practice and underwent surgery in early June. He likely will take a redshirt season.
As a result, Donovan Woods is next in line for the starting quarterback position. Woods is the brother of former OSU star receiver Rashaun Woods, who was taken in the first round of the NFL draft by the 49ers.
"You definitely don't ever wish any harm on a guy," Donovan Woods said. "Injuries are a bad thing. But it's an opportunity for me. And I'm ready."
Even before Reid's injury and Fields' departure, the Cowboys looked like the kind of team that might struggle on offense this season ... and the job just got a lot tougher.
PRESEASON PREDICTIONS: CB Darrent Williams, 2nd team All-America by Lindy's and Athlon; 3rd team by Street & Smith's.
KEY GAME: The season opener for Oklahoma State is hardly a pushover. A trip to UCLA could confirm just how well-suited the Cowboys are to make a push in the Big 12. A victory in the TV game could provide a huge boost.
THE MINDSET: Even if Oklahoma State wasn't making progress under fourth-year coach Les Miles, life in the Cowboys' football camp would be looking up. A $100 million renovation of Lewis Field demonstrates a big commitment by Oklahoma State to keep up with the likes of Oklahoma and Texas. Heavy spending is necessary to keep pace in the Big 12 South. ... Miles got a one-year contract extension in mid-June and is now tied to Oklahoma State through the 2010 season. The contract includes an option for two additional years at the end of the 2010 season.
BIG SHOES TO FILL: One of the most dangerous receivers to ever play in the Big 12 was Rashaun Woods, who not only rewrote the conference record book but also established Cotton Bowl records for catches (11) and yards (223).
QUOTE TO NOTE: "This is easily the fastest team we've fielded, and as talented as most I've been around." -- Oklahoma State coach Les Miles.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
PROJECTED OFFENSIVE STARS: TB Vernand Morency -- With teammate Tatum Bell injured late in the 2003 season, Morency came on and rushed for more than 500 yards in back-to-back wins over Kansas and Baylor.
WR D'Juan Woods -- Will officially step out of the shadow of his brother, Rashaun, and needs to emerge as a productive receiver. He showed his potential in the spring game with six receptions for 84 yards and three touchdowns.
PROJECTED DEFENSIVE STARS: DE Nathan Peterson, Tulsa, Okla. (Union) -- While arch-rival Oklahoma snagged only two in-state recruits, Oklahoma State secured probably the top Oklahoma prospect in Peterson. It may be too early to project Peterson as a starter. Then again, the Cowboys lost three starters along the defensive line.
LB Paul Duren -- Came off a freshman All-America season to lead the Cowboys with 97 tackles last season as a sophomore. Starred in the Cotton Bowl.
INJURY IMPACT: Freshman QB Bobby Reid injured his shoulder in spring practice and will likely miss the season and take a redshirt year. At the end of the spring game, LB Roderick Johnson hit Reid hard on a routine play. He did not appear to be seriously hurt. However, the blow injured Reid's shoulder and he was forced to undergo surgery. ... TB Seymore Shaw did not participate in spring drills, so he can heal from an assortment of nicks.
Toughness seems to be a key theme for Texas after spending the better part of spring football intent on improving tackling and concentrating on the run game.
"We want to be the best tackling team and the most physical team in the country," Texas coach Mack Brown said. "It's going to be a hard-running team."
Offensively, a makeover was conducted at midseason a year ago when the Longhorns began to rely more on TB Cedric Benson and also gave QB Vincent Young enough snaps that he contributed 998 rushing yards.
New defensive coordinator Greg Robinson has bought into the need for the Longhorns to manhandle opponents.
"Let me tell you something, it won't be about schemes," Robinson said. "It will be about the way we play the game. It'll be about the intensity in which we play. That's really what it's all about."
Texas can instill toughness. It happened last season after the offensive line was ripped for getting pushed around in losses to Arkansas and Oklahoma. Brown completely revamped the offense, relied on the run game and the Longhorns responded with six straight wins.
The opportunity exists for Robinson to showcase this defense. It is loaded with talent, including LB Derrick Johnson, the national preseason Defensive Player of the Year, according to Lindy's magazines. He absolutely flies to the ball, and was involved in more blitz packages this spring.
Improvement on that side, coupled with a ball-control attack headed by Young and Benson, will make the Longhorns contenders.
PRESEASON PREDICTIONS: Ranked sixth by Street & Smith's and Athlon, seventh by Lindy's. LB Derrick Johnson; Defensive Player of the Year by Lindy's; 1st team by Street & Smith's and Athlon. DL Rodrique Wright, 2nd team All-America by Lindy's. RB Cedric Benson, 1st team by Street & Smith's; 2nd team by Athlon.
Backfield ranked second nationally by Lindy's. Offensive line ranked fifth by Lindy's, 10th by Athlon. Defensive line ranked eighth by Lindy's and Athlon. Linebackers ranked fourth by Lindy's, 10th by Athlon. Defensive backs ranked ninth by Lindy's.
KEY GAME: While the Texas staff probably doesn't want to look ahead, everyone worth their weight in orange has already circled Oct. 9, the date the Longhorns clash with arch-rival Oklahoma in the Cotton Bowl. Snapping the Sooners' four-game winning streak in the series is imperative if Mack Brown wants to gain credibility as a big-game coach. More important, a win is necessary to gain control of the South Division.
THE MINDSET: Texas narrowly missed out on a spot in the Bowl Championship Series last season, then promptly lost in the Holiday Bowl. This team has some lingering issues, about toughness and about playing its best in the biggest games. Three new assistants this spring seemed to help change the attitude of the team, as the coaches made sure the players paid more attention to detail than ever before.
BIG SHOES TO FILL: Throughout the 2003 season, Brown cited WR Roy Williams as an unselfish leader who passed on millions of dollars to return for his senior season. His departure will be felt, but as much because the Longhorns also lost two other regular wideouts, B.J. Johnson and Sloan Thomas.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "After you leave a game like we left at the end of last year, the team started over. They understood that we had six great weeks at the end of the season. We didn't finish like we wanted to, so they're back in a movement to try to be the best team we've had." -- Texas coach Mack Brown.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
PROJECTED OFFENSIVE STARS: TB Cedric Benson -- The only back in the country to rush for 1,000 yards in each of the past three seasons, Benson is the nation's leading returning rusher with 3,706 yards. He has 45 career touchdowns.
QB Vince Young -- Chance Mock is still around, but the job should go to Young outright this season and the 6-5 sophomore could be deadly. He rushed for 998 yards last season, with a 7.4-yard average, and also threw for 1,155 yards.
PROJECTED DEFENSIVE STARS: LB Derrick Johnson -- Returns off an All-America season, when he led the Longhorns with 125 tackles. Quickness also gives him an edge in pass coverage. He grabbed four interceptions last season.
DT Rod Wright -- Returns to anchor the defensive line. Recorded 145 tackles the past two seasons and was Big 12 defensive freshman of the year in 2002. Must step up after the loss of DT Marcus Tubbs.
INJURY IMPACT: QB Vince Young had hernia surgery in mid June. He will have to rest until mid to late July, but he should be ready to practice when the Longhorns go to preseason camp in August. "It was just minor surgery that I needed to get taken care of," Young said. "I'm happy that I was able to get it done now so I can begin healing and getting back into workouts with my teammates as soon as possible." ... One of the more intriguing rehabilitations is that of Tony Hills, the top-rated tight end prospect in the nation in 2003 who sat out last year after undergoing knee surgery. ... Another tight end, sixth-year senior Bo Scaife, also has had to rebound from knee surgery, though he came around last season with 16 catches and looks stronger now. ... OG Mike Garcia nursed a sprained ankle during spring drills and is now locked in a battle with Kasey Studdard for a starting job.
The ol' Wreckin' Crew at Texas A&M has to find its sledgehammer again. In Dennis Franchione's first season as coach, the Aggies' proud defense was swinging feathers. It showed long before the end of the season, though that's when Texas RB Cedric Benson carved A&M for 283 yards rushing and afterward had this to say:
"They were coming up and trying to make plays, but they just didn't seem like the same A&M team," Benson said.
Well put. The 4-8 finish marked the first losing season for the Aggies in 21 years, since Jackie Sherrill was in his first season as coach. The eight defeats were the most since 1972.
This isn't why Texas A&M lured Franchione away from Alabama by offering a $2 million annual salary.
While problems need to be corrected in all phases, the tradition-rich program at A&M cannot stand watching a defense that ranked 96th nationally after allowing 431.5 yards per game. The Aggies finished the season with a 1-5 stretch in which they allowed 47.8 points on average, including an embarrassing 77-0 loss at Oklahoma. It got so bad the Sooners ran the ball into the heart of the line so they wouldn't score again late in the game.
The good news is A&M started just three seniors on defense last season and redshirted some potential impact players, headed by two guys with names that belong on the Wreckin' Crew, linemen Red Bryant and Jason Jack.
PRESEASON PREDICTIONS: Courtney Lewis ranked as the 24th-best running back in the country by Lindy's. Jaxson Appel rated No. 9 among safeties by Lindy's.
KEY GAME: The Big 12 opener should be as good a gauge as any to see just how much Texas A&M improved in the offseason. The Aggies play host to defending conference champion Kansas State on Oct. 2 after a decent set of tests in nonconference play -- at Utah and against Wyoming and Clemson at home.
THE MINDSET: As a motivational ploy, Texas A&M coach Dennis Franchione announced the names will be removed from the backs of the Aggies' jerseys.
BIG SHOES TO FILL: None are as big as the proud A&M athletic heritage, which took a pounding this past year. The football, men's basketball and women's basketball teams at A&M combined to go 4-36 in Big 12 games. Aggie fans can deal with two of those poor finishes. Football is an entirely different matter.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "Year two is just much easier than year one. Players are more comfortable. They know what to expect from coaches and each other, understand so many more things." -- Texas A&M coach Dennis Franchione.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
PROJECTED OFFENSIVE STARS: QB Reggie McNeal -- With a year of experience as a starter, it is time for McNeal to develop more consistency. A junior, he has the potential to be a splendid run-pass threat.
TB Courtney Lewis -- Showed promise by becoming just the second freshman in Texas A&M history to rush for more than 1,000 yards. Lewis finished with 1,024 yards, the same total Dante Hall gained in 1998.
C Geoff Hangartner -- Has drawn 24 consecutive starts the past two seasons while playing for two different coaches. Versatile blocker who fits well into the balanced attack coach Dennis Franchione desires.
PROJECTED DEFENSIVE STARS: S Jaxson Appel -- Was the undisputed leader of the defense as a sophomore, playing practically the whole season with a broken hand, yet leading the Aggies with 135 tackles. That total is a record for an A&M defensive back.
LB Aaron Brown -- Recruited out of Compton Community College to make an immediate impact and enrolled in time to participate in spring drills. Two-time juco All-American who was in on 67 tackles and 14 sacks last season despite playing in just six games after suffering a broken leg.
INJURY IMPACT: Offseason shoulder surgery prevented QB Reggie McNeal from participating in spring practice, leaving Texas A&M to look at several newcomers following the transfer of Dustin Long to Sam Houston State. The most interesting prospect to surface was Stephen McGee, a true freshman who graduated early from Burnet High School after leading his team to the Texas Class 3A title last fall.
With an offensive juggernaut that did not lose a step after a seamless transition between quarterbacks Kliff Kingsbury and B.J. Symons, rumors often surfaced concerning the possible departure of Texas Tech coach Mike Leach.
Speculation grew last season during a stalemate on a possible contract extension.
But after and 8-5 run, which included a win over Navy in the Houston Bowl, the two sides agreed to an extension, which keeps Leach at Texas Tech through the 2008 season if he fulfills the terms of the contract.
No buy-out clauses were attached, though Leach will be paid more the longer he stays in Lubbock. The five-year deal Leach signed is worth $5.675 million and makes him the 10th Big 12 football coach to make $1 million annually.
If Texas Tech chooses to fire Leach for an unsatisfactory win-loss record, it must pay the coach $250,000 per year for the remainder of the contract.
A good move? Probably. Leach is certainly an offensive mastermind who can make his quick-strike passing system work. The biggest problem under his watch is he plays almost no role in the development of the defense, and the Red Raiders' performance on that side of the football has kept them from finishing higher in the Big 12 South.
PRESEASON PREDICTIONS: Adell Duckett ranked No. 8 among defensive ends by Lindy's. The receiving corps ranked fourth in the Big 12 by Athlon.
KEY GAME: Texas Tech plays just one of its first five games at home and that's against TCU, which flirted with a spot in the Bowl Championship Series last season. The first conference home game, on Oct. 9, will go a long way in determining how strong Tech might finish. It is against Nebraska.
THE MINDSET: With no experienced player (although sufficient talent) at quarterback, and the loss of several key receivers, questions abound for this team. The longer it takes for the offense to click, the greater chance the 2004 season will be a downer.
BIG SHOES TO FILL: After rewriting the NCAA record book, QB B.J. Symons is obviously going to be difficult to replace. The assumption now is that Texas Tech coach Mike Leach can insert anyone at QB and make his system work. It's not that simple. Everyone forgets Symons was a senior who learned the system as a backup to Kliff Kingsbury. Former walk-on Sonny Cumbie understands the system and left spring with a slight edge on touted JC transfer Robert Johnson.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "Really, the biggest thing (for quarterback candidates) is win the battle of being the best at making routine plays. You have more routine plays than you do any other kind of plays, so it's whoever's best at making routine plays has the best shot." -- Texas Tech coach Mike Leach.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
PROJECTED OFFENSIVE STARS: RB Taurean Henderson -- Not a typical running back with big rushing numbers because of the nature of the Texas Tech offense. Instead, Henderson is another receiving threat, with 176 catches the past two seasons. Also rushed for 793 yards in 2002 and 736 in '03.
WR Nehemiah Glover -- Returns as the go-to man among the Tech receivers after catching 77 passes for 1,081 yards last season. Small target at 5-8, but can get lost in coverage with the picks the Raiders use. Could fit into the role filled by Wes Welker.
PROJECTED DEFENSIVE STARS: DE Adell Duckett -- Came on strong late in the 2003 season and finished as the Big 12 leader in sacks with 14.
LB Brock Stratton -- Named the co-defensive freshman of the year in the Big 12 last season after recording 95 tackles, including 61 solos. Must take over some leadership responsibilities to help Tech stiffen defensively.
INJURY IMPACT: An enlarged gall bladder kept LB Brent Slaughter out of some early spring practices, but he returned to lead all defenders with eight tackles in the spring game. Surgery is a possibility for Slaughter, who experiences stomach discomfort because of his ailment. ... DE Seth Nitschmann missed spring practice while recovering from knee surgery. ... OG Matt Grisell missed the last two weeks of spring practice with a knee injury. ... Minor injuries kept DE Adell Duckett, LB Mike Smith, OG Manny Ramirez, OT Gabe Hall and SE Brandon Douglas out of the spring game.