College Football 2010: Post-Spring Burning Questions For the Big 12
Spring football is over, which means we all get to sit on our asses and be sad that three months separates us from the beginning of preseason practices in August.
And it also means that we can kill some of the time by over-analyzing our favorite team. In essence, outside of establishing a little bit of depth and evaluating underclassmen for the future, spring ball means nothing.
But that doesn't stop us from dissecting everything, right down the hopes of that third-string, walk-on quarterback who completed 3-of-25 passes in the spring's final scrimmage.
So, for us college football nerds out there, maybe March and April are meaningful football months.
As for me, my focus is the Big 12, where I managed to narrow down each team's hypothetical list of post-spring questions down to one—and it's all for your enjoyment.
All images provided by Getty Images
12. Colorado Buffaloes — How short (or long) is Hawkins' leash?
Once a proud program, the aspirations of which included winning national titles, Colorado football has spent the better part of the last decade embroiled in controversy and stagnation.
Despite the fact the Buffaloes won the Big 12 North title in four of his seven seasons, Gary Bennett will forever have his tenure in Boulder defined by what took place off the field, including major NCAA infractions founded in 2005 and allegations made by placekicker Katie Hnida that she was sexually harassed and molested by teammates in 1999.
When the smoked cleared, Dan Hawkins arrived, and did so with much fanfare following a decorated stint at Boise State. Four seasons later, the smoke has returned, now billowing from under Hawkins’ rear end.
His coaching seat is undoubtedly the hottest in the nation after compiling a ragged 16-33 mark, during which time Colorado has been reduced from perennial division contender to a safe pick to wind up in the cellar.
How will Hawkins respond in 2010, particularly if another mediocre season still won’t mean his can ends up on the unemployment line?
Colorado officials have showed utmost confidence in the head coach, but how much of that support is based on the fact that it will cost the cash-strapped administration more than $3 million to terminate Hawkins, whose contract doesn’t expire until after the 2012 season?
11. Kansas State Wildcats — Can Snyder orchestrate another resurrection?
At least to some in Manhattan, Bill Snyder must be considered a miracle worker. He excelled at transforming what was arguably the sorriest program in all of college football, and he’s at it again, having begun to repair the destruction that his successor (and predecessor), Ron Prince, left behind.
Under Snyder’s watch, the Wildcats opened some eyes in 2009, finishing the season with six wins and narrowly missing out on a Big 12 North title. And they did in typical Snyder fashion.
Led by Big 12 leading rusher Daniel Thomas, a junior college transfer from Florida, Kansas State averaged 179.9 yards on the ground. And the Wildcats also proved effective in stopping the run, ranking fifth in the conference at 105.4 yards per game.
As he did in the 90s, Snyder has picked the program up off the floor. But can he sustain success once again? Can the Wildcats take the next step and capture a division title, or has the summit of Snyder’s second go-around already been reached?
Thomas is back, which is fabulous considering how poor the passing game was a season ago. Six starters are back on defense. And Snyder seems content on feeding his habit of nabbing proven talent to provide instant help, having signed 10 junior college players in February.
Wildcat fans would prefer no one more than Snyder to lead their team. But with presumably less overall talent than North frontrunners Nebraska and Missouri, the line between another six-win season and something truly special seems wide, even for a coach of Snyder’s capabilities.
10. Iowa State Cyclones — Will the real Austen Arnaud come forward?
Standing at 6’3” and more than 225 pounds, Austen Arnaud is prototypical in stature, and his skills are versatile. The No. 6-ranked dual-threat quarterback prospect in 2006, Arnaud spurned several programs to play college ball in his hometown of Ames.
But the fairy tale story hasn’t exactly unfolded as expected.
After red-shirting in his first season in the program, Arnaud has spent the past two seasons battling inconsistency and regime changes at Iowa State.
Former head coach Gene Chizik didn’t exactly show an overwhelming amount of confidence in Arnaud to run the offense in 2007, and when he grabbed the reins the following season, Arnaud failed to stand out on a bad team, throwing for 2,792 yards but 10 interceptions as the Cyclones stumbled to 10 losses.
Last season’s numbers (2,015 yards, 14 TDs, 13 INTs) were even more unimpressive, but Arnaud showed he could adequately contribute to new head coach Paul Rhoads’ offensive attack in other ways, rushing for a career-high 561 yards, second only to running back Alexander Robinson.
Now a senior, Arnaud will embark on his third season as the starter, but it seems the struggles of the past have begun to subside, allowing him the chance to become the player many thought he could be when he was recruited.
If returns on spring practices are any indication, Arnaud should be a more mature quarterback in 2010.
He has reportedly improved his decision-making and ability to read defenses, both of which prompted Rhoads to elect Arnaud the team’s
9. Baylor Bears — Is Griffin worthy of the "Stiffarm Trophy"?
Anyone lucky enough to have watched Robert Griffin prance about the field with ease during his sensational freshman season knows how good the junior-to-be Baylor quarterback can be.
And anyone with half a heart knows how unfortunate it was that Griffin was forced to sit out a majority of 2009 with a torn knee ligament.
The surface of Griffin’s ability has barely been scratched, so how good can he be? The native of Copperas Cove, Tex., isn’t exactly a dual-threat, having thrown only six touchdown passes in his career, but last season was supposed to provide us with some insight into the evolution of Griffin as a more complete player.
Maybe 2010 is that season.
His gimpy knee is reportedly at or near 90 percent , and figures to be at full-tilt come September.
If Griffin can maintain his health, as well as prove his game has matured, is a Heisman nod out of the question? No. But as a program, Baylor carries little or no cache, which doesn’t exactly play in Griffin’s favor.
Also, the Heisman Trophy is an award typically given to college football’s most outstanding player, not necessarily its most dynamic. If Griffin wants Heisman consideration, he’ll have to post astronomical numbers, which was a major problem for the Griffin-less Bears a season ago.
In 2009, when Griffin missed all but two games and some change, the Baylor offense averaged a meager 20.8 points per game, down more than one full touchdown from Griffin’s freshman season (28 points per game).
Even more telling is the dropoff in the Bears’ scoring frequency. With the freshman Griffin under center, Baylor scored 46 touchdowns in 2008. Last season, that number plummeted to 32, fewest in the Big 12.
Will a healthy Griffin mean more scoring and presumably more wins in Waco in 2010? And will his presence mean that Baylor captures that elusive bowl invitation?
If Griffin’s arm catches up with his legs, and a handful of new starters on defense waste little time in meshing, the answer to both of those questions could be “yes.”
Still, will wins and Baylor’s first postseason appearance in 15 seasons give Griffin enough exposure to be considered for college football’s foremost individual prize?
8. Kansas Jayhawks — Who will be Gill's "Pick" at QB?
The moment Turner Gill agreed to become the next head coach at Kansas, he knew he’d be entering the 2010 season with little inexperience at quarterback.
Perhaps what he didn’t know is how many options he would be provided with to find a replacement for the departed Todd Reesing.
Lucky for Gill, the spring has provided some clarity.
“I wouldn’t say there’s a leader,” Gill told the Lawrence Journal-World, shortly after KU’s annual Blue and White Game on Apr. 25. “But I can say Webb and Pick are the two guys. And they’re going to continue to battle it out as we go on.”
That would be redshirt freshman Jordan Webb and sophomore Kale Pick (left), who comprise only one-third of the candidates hoping to succeed Reesing. The remaining foursome consists of junior college transfer Quinn Mecham, sophomore Conner Teahan, junior Jacob Morse, and redshirt freshman Christian Matthews, who is reportedly splitting reps at wide receiver.
According to the KU coaching staff, each member of the current two-horse race brings his own definable attributes to the table.
Webb is said to have the stronger arm and better pocket presence, while Pick can create plays with his legs and mobility. Additionally, Pick is the only quarterback on the roster with game experience, having played in seven games last season—albeit sparingly.
No matter who assumes the duties, he’ll have his work cut out.
Reesing often earned praise for his emotion and leadership abilities, and his 11,194 career passing yards are not only the most in KU history, but the fifth-highest total ever in the Big 12.
And there’s the question of who the starter will throw to. Minus Kerry Meier and Dezmon Briscoe, who each entered the NFL, Kansas returns only one receiver who caught more than 35 passes last season.
7. Oklahoma State Cowboys — What's left in Stillwater?
With as much experienced firepower as Oklahoma State possessed in 2009, you would have to think the Cowboys missed out on a golden opportunity to make some major noise on the national stage.
Equipped with premiere names at all the right positions, at least offensively, OSU was supposed to rise up, and stay there, in 2009.
Zac Robinson provided the Cowboys with a two-way threat under center. Russell Okung was the cornerstone of a solid offensive line. Keith Toston, though not spectacular, was more than a serviceable running back with the skills to get the job done. And to help dull the pain of losing Dez Bryant to suspension, receiver Hubert Anyiam emerged as a viable scoring threat on the outside.
Add in electrifying return man/corner Perrish Cox, underappreciated linebacker Patrick Lavine, and safety Andre Sexton from a defense that allowed a respectable 21.7 points per game, and it’s no wonder patrons in Stillwater were hoping for more than a relatively disappointing 9-4 mark that included a free-fall in the polls.
But the past is the past. A mixture of graduation and the NFL draft has wiped the Oklahoma State roster clean of its notable names from a season ago. Or has it?
With so many fresh faces prepared to fill key roles in 2010, it would seem that the cupboard is bare. But OSU is a proud program that has won seven or more games in each of the last four seasons, and has enough talent to sustain momentum.
The quarterback job seems to be Brandon Weeden’s to lose. The junior doesn’t have Robinson’s wheels, but he does seem to have a good grasp on the frenetic system brought to town by new offensive coordinator Dana Holgorsen, who engineered Houston’s top-ranked offense in 2009.
Kendall Hunter will man the backfield, but some suspect Holgorsen will split Hunter out at various positions to utilize the back's hands. Anyiam, who is one of only four returning starters on offense and is recovering from a broken foot suffered in spring practice, will be the top threat on the outside, and Tracy Moore and Justin Blackmon should be worthy complements.
If an offensive line that features four new members can gel—particularly in a system that will place the onus on the pass, and not the run, like OSU fans are used to—the Cowboys shouldn’t miss much of a beat.
Defensively, end Ugo Chinasa, linebacker Orie Lemon, and safety Markelle Martin are all upper-tier players that will act as the glue of the unit. The Cowboys don’t have overwhelming talent on this side of the ball, but how many teams outside of a select few do nowadays?
Plus, another year in coordinator Bill Young’s system should help with the learning curve taken on by the defense’s six new starters.
All in all, the 2010 version of the Cowboys will hardly resemble the one that skyrocketed up the polls to begin 2009. With so much inexperience, stumbles are bound to occur. But it would be foolish to cast OSU to the nether regions of Big 12 South just because of a little turnover.
6. Texas Tech Red Raiders — Will Tuberville go on the defensive?
And so begins the Tommy Tuberville era in Lubbock.
We already know, before Tuberville ever coaches a game in the Big 12, that the Red Raiders won’t hold back on offense. Under Mike Leach, the MO was to chuck the ball as many times as possible, whether the defense dictated it or not. But it’s hard to argue with the results.
Tech, which threw for 386.8 yards per game in 2009, has led the Big 12 in passing offense each of the last nine seasons, so don’t expect that wide-open philosophy to change just because of Tuberville’s less-aerial, SEC pedigree.
But what does need alteration, and what will receive the sharper end of Tuberville’s focus, is the Red Raider defense.
For as good as the Tech offense has been, it’s been the other side of the ball that has prevented the Red Raiders from seriously challenging Oklahoma and Texas, and making consistent waves in the Big 12 South.
Unequivocally, it is the Red Raiders’ lack of a reputation for defensive toughness that played a major role in the hiring of Tuberville, whose list of accomplishments includes successful stints as defensive coordinator at Miami and Texas A&M.
Tuberville used the spring to assess what he has at his disposal, including whether his cornerbacks can hold up in man-to-man coverage, which is only one of many scheme changes that could be forthcoming for a Tech defense that Tubervile says will be converted to a 3-4 alignment.
Tuberville’s stamp on his new team will take some time, but the hopes for his inaugural season are that his tweaks to the defense, coupled with the Raiders’ continued potency on offense, will help to close a gap in the Big 12 South that has been far too wide for far too long.
5. Texas A&M Aggies — Is DeRuyter the cure for the D's ills?
The most-closely watch member of the Texas A&M football program this fall may not be quarterback Jerrod Johnson. Or defensive end Von Miller.
There’s a good chance it won’t even be a member of the roster.
If the Aggies make a move in the Big 12 South in 2010, it will be due in part to an offense that scored nearly 33 points a game last season and returns all but two starters. But it will also be because of defensive coordinator Tim DeRuyter, whose job is to remedy a unit that in 2009 surrendered an average of 33.5 points, which ranked 104th in the nation and dead last in the Big 12.
Manning the same post at Air Force a season ago, DeRuyter built one of the stingiest defenses in college football. Unlike the Aggies, who allowed 426 yards per game, including nearly 250 through the air, the Falcons excelled against the pass and keeping opponents off the scoreboard, ranking fifth nationally in pass defense (154.3 yards/game) and 10th in points allowed per game (15.7).
And DeRuyter is not resting on the fact that he’ll have more talent at his disposal at College Station than he did at Colorado Springs. DeRuyter has spent the spring instituting a 3-4 scheme, an alignment that is drastically different from the 4-3 the Aggies have spent recent seasons running.
At the center of DeRuyter’s efforts will be creating as much space as possible for Miller (left), a consensus All-American who led the nation in sacks last season with 17.
DeRuyter told the Dallas Morning News that he plans to use Miller much in the same fashion the Pittsburgh Steelers use James Harrison, a hybrid who uses versatility to play both defensive end and linebacker in a 3-4 scheme.
But DeRuyter will have more to work with than just Miller. The Aggies return nine starters, including a handful of underclassmen who should have benefited from last season’s woes.
Is that necessarily a good thing?
There’s no place for the A&M defense to go but up. How far they ascend will ultimately be up to DeRuyter, who has shown a knack for pulling off drastic defensive transformations. Does he have another one in him?
And, if so, will it be enough to effectively complement what should be a powerful offense, making the Aggies a contender in the top-heavy Big 12 South?
Photo credit: U.S. Presswire
4. Missouri Tigers — Who's up for some pass defense?
After enduring a mass exodus of talent that was responsible for arguably the most successful two-season stretch in the history of the program, the Missouri Tigers were hungry to make a statement in 2009.
The statement went a little something like this: “We’re not going anywhere.”
Once names like Chase Daniel, Jeremy Maclin, Chase Coffman, Ziggy Hood, and William Moore bid adieu to their days in Columbia, many thought the Tigers would simply slip back into mediocrity.
Mizzou had its struggles last season, but an 8-5 campaign proved that the program had managed to stockpile talent to the point where lengthy rebuilding projects were no longer an option.
Daniel’s successor, Blaine Gabbert, took on the look of a future superstar. Danario Alexander matched, and then exceeded, the feats of Maclin. And for all of the ammunition that was lost from those highly explosive offenses of past seasons, the Tigers displayed an impressive ability to reload, scoring more than 30 points eight times.
Unfortunately for the Tigers, the defense was passed a torch as well.
Characterized by a large number of unfamiliar faces, a youthful Missouri defense allowed 251 yards per game through the air last season, marking the third year in succession the Tigers have ranked in the bottom half of the Big 12 in pass defense.
And the Tigers’ ineptitude to prevent teams from throwing the ball can be directly attributed to two losses: an embarrassing 40-32 home loss to Baylor and the lopsided 35-13 bowl defeat against Navy, a pass deficient team that still threw for 130 yards on only nine completions.
Apparently, something had to be done, a new scheme devised. And defensive coordinator Dave Steckel has achieved just that.
Rather than continue on with a conservative, umbrella approach to pass defense, which seemed to negate his players’ natural aggressiveness last season, Steckel is giving his corners, led by seniors Kevin Rutland and Carl Gettis, permission to play considerably more press coverage. And the results have come.
Missouri’s defense dominated a majority of the spring session, holding Gabbert and the rest of offense in check as the secondary clamped down under Steckel’s new game plan.
Other than Gettis and Rutland, safeties Jasper Simmons and Jerrell Harrison—a pair of former juco players now in their second season in the program—and the rest of the crowded defensive backfield are relishing the new tactics.
Better still, the newfound excitement caused by the change in scheme is not only firing up the entire defense, but it has given pause to members of the MU offense, who have spent the spring serving as test dummies for the defense's experimentation in coverages.
"Coverage is everywhere," junior receiver Jerrell Jackson said after a March scrimmage. "You see yourself getting past one guy, but you’ve got another guy trailing right on top of you. And the corners are hitting pretty hard this year. They’re bringing the heat every play.”
Now the goal is to transfer that momentum and enthusiasm over to the season, when the Tigers will face a familiar gauntlet of potent Big 12 offenses that have thrown the ball at will in recent past.
One of college football’s youngest teams in 2009, the Tigers broke in seven new starters on defense and at times paid a heavy price. In 2010, many of the names remain the same, but the Tigers are taking the steps to make sure that isn’t a bad thing.
3. Oklahoma Sooners — Can Murray survive a full season?
From the second he stepped on the field in his first game as a running back at Oklahoma, DeMarco Murray had the look of a star.
That day, Murray set an OU record with five touchdowns against North Texas. Two games later, he cracked the record books again, posting the third-longest run in school history with a 97-yard jaunt against Utah State.
Murray would end up seeing the end zone 15 times that season, setting an OU freshman record that is equaled only by Adrian Peterson. For a player as highly coveted out of high school as Murray, who was ranked by ESPN.com as the best running back prospect in the nation in ’05, the instant success was not altogether unexpected.
What has been unexpected, however, has been Murray’s inability to stay healthy.
Casting a shadow over Murray’s 3,448 combined yards from scrimmage, including 1,002 rushing in his sophomore season of 2008, has been a rash of injuries.
A dislocated knee cap shortened his freshman season. And he was a spectator at the national title game against Florida after undergoing surgery in December of 2008 to repair a hamstring ailment suffered in the Big 12 Championship.
In each instance, rehab followed, as did Murray’s absence from the Sooners’ spring practices.
Amid the turmoil, Murray garnered All-Big 12 accolades, but he still played second fiddle to Chris Brown, who rushed for more than 1,000 yards as OU’s featured back in each of his final two seasons.
With Brown now gone, Murray seems to be the logical choice to assume the workload in the OU backfield. And, for the first time in a long time, he’s healthy enough to assume the task, telling The Oklahoman recently that he’s feeling the best he has since his breakout freshman season.
If Murray’s proneness for injury takes a season off, that could be a scary scenario for opposing Big 12 defenses.
2. Nebraska Cornhuskers — Is there enough in the tank to get to Arizona?
The Cornhuskers are just about everybody’s pick to win the Big 12 North in 2010. Due in part to a changing of the guard under center at Texas and Oklahoma, some have asserted that Nebraska could legitimately parlay a conference title into a chance to play for a national championship.
Given Nebraska’s rich past as a national power, I understand the need for a bandwagon and an overflow of sentiment in response to the Huskers' ascension from mediocrity under Bill Callahan. Success in Lincoln is good for the Big 12, and it’s good for college football.
But national title contender? I don’t know.
Per Bo Pelini’s penchant for defense, the Cornhuskers will again be solid on that side of the ball, after having led the nation in scoring average in 2009 (10.4 points per game).
No one man can duplicate the exploits of Ndamukong Suh, but defensive tackle Jared Crick is the next best thing, and he’ll be joined by seven other returning starters.
On the other side, Nebraska’s offense will go as do running backs Roy Helu and Rex Burkhead, who combined for more than 1,500 yards and 12 scores a season ago. Zac Lee is by no means an elite talent, but assuming he holds off Cody Green in preseason camp to retain his title as the starting quarterback, he won’t need to be spectacular as a mere complement to the running game.
The problem NU’s offense may have is if defenses decide to bring extra men into the box. Lee seldom showed an ability to beat teams all by himself in 2009, and his receiving corps is pedestrian, at least according to Big 12 standards.
And what about the roadmap to Glendale, Ariz., site of the 2011 BCS title game? The non-conference schedule is cake, with the exception of a Sept. 18 date at Washington that could throw a wrench into Nebraska’s plans right off the bat.
In Big 12 play, we’ll know Nebraska’s chances for a conference title by Halloween, when the Huskers will have played home games against Texas and Missouri and on the road versus Oklahoma State in consecutive weeks.
It’s true, defense will always win championships. But the past has shown that offense goes a long way in removing any doubt. That’s something the Huskers’ No. 72-ranked offense was unable to do in 2009.
Nonetheless, the Nebraska bandwagon has been prepped, and pundits are having trouble finding room. I, for one, haven’t much reason to buy into the hype, at least not in May.
1. Texas Longhorns — Who will take charge of the running back committee?
It’s called nitpicking when you try to find flaws in a team that reached the national title game, but how much different would that game against Alabama have been if Texas had shown a shred of aptitude running the ball?
Do the Longhorns win? Probably not. But a balanced attack relieves some of the butterflies in the stomach of freshman quarterback Garrett Gilbert, who received only 81 yards on 28 carries from the UT ground game.
Not since Jamaal Charles left following the 2007 season has Texas had what you would consider a No. 1 running back, a player who stands alone in the backfield as a workhorse and assumes responsibilities that include lessening the workload of the quarterback and keeping the opposing offense off the field.
In fact, it’s interesting to think of where the Longhorns would have been if it were not for the legs of Colt McCoy, who led the team in rushing in 2008 (561 yards) and finished 2009 ranked second (348) on the team, behind only Tre’ Newton.
For all intents and purposes, I suppose McCoy was the featured back in the Texas offense. But because his Heisman-caliber quarterback was equally dangerous throwing the ball, head coach Mack Brown has admitted that McCoy's arm was the reason why the Longhorns may have appeared to be uncommitted to the run.
"We’d said it, but Colt was so good we kept coming back out of it and go throw it every time," Brown said at a recent press conference. "We can throw it every time with Garrett, but we want to go back and be more balanced."
The Longhorns ran the ball 513 times last season, which ranked 27th nationally. Not bad. But they also attempted 540 passes, the fifth-highest total in college football.
If my math is correct, that ratio seems pretty even. Maybe the problem is that Texas only gained four yards per attempt, which ranked 60th. Or maybe it's that the Longhorns sorely lacked a reliable source for logging a majority of the carries.
In total last season, Texas had six players that registered 20 carries and 140 yards on the ground. A collective effort, no doubt, but one that was weakened by the void of any clear-cut go-to source.
But change could be coming. Take it from the man himself.
During the same press conference, Brown made no bones about needing to emphasize the run more, saying, “We still have to get a lot better to be consistent in the running game.”
He added: “We’re going to go back and we’re going to be good in the running game.”
So, who demands the rock in the Longhorn backfield in 2010? Will Newton become the undisputed leader?
Or will Brown and Texas choose to hope that increased chances will lead to more production from an assembly running backs not headlined by one player?