The following is the second part of a three-part series reviewing the Big 12 teams set to…
Big 12 Media Days Kick Off
Below is the first of a three-part series, breaking down the teams set to face the podium. Nebraska, Oklahoma State, Iowa State and Texas A&M will be the first to the mic, with eight more teams to follow over the next couple days.
First, here's the good news. The Cornhuskers return several key defensive spots, including Ndamukong Suh at defensive tackle. But Suh is just the best part of a line that should include Pierre Allen, who came on last year, and Barry Turner, who is looking to get back to form after injury. The X-factor could be Jared Crick, who has looked at times like a burgeoning star. That line should make things pretty easy for an experienced secondary. Not to be outdone, the ‘Huskers appear to look pretty strong in the trenches on the offensive side of the ball as well, where center Jacob Hickman returns to lead an offensive line that returns three starters. That line will have the privilege of blocking for one of the Big 12's best running back tandems in Roy Helu Jr. and Quentin Castille.
But Nebraska has its fair share of holes as well. The ‘Huskers are starting over at quarterback with Zac Lee, and at receiver, though the latter problem should be alleviated by a solid tight end unit. Nebraska also needs to find its linebackers … several players who are projected as starters have run into issues, from Phillip Dillard's spot in the doghouse to Blake Lawrence's concussion problems, leaving the group with several questions. Then there's the schedule, which includes trips to Virginia Tech and to North contenders Kansas, Missouri and Colorado. The Cornhuskers went 2-2 on the road in 2008, with the victories coming against Iowa State and Kansas State.
Oklahoma State faces a new attitude this year, with several media outlets proclaiming the Cowboys as darkhorse national title candidates, in the mold of last year's Texas Tech story. The main reason for optimism stems from the offense, where the Cowboys return one of the country's top skill-position trios in quarterback Zac Robinson, running back Kendall Hunter and wide receiver Dez Bryant. Throw in left tackle Russell Okung and what appears to be a pretty good offensive line and you have a recipe that lights up the scoreboard.
But the Cowboys have struggled in recent years to keep teams off that same scoreboard, a problem that defensive coordinator Bill Young hopes to take care of. Finding talented athletes won't be the problem — the Cowboys return all three linebackers from 2008 and cornerback Perrish Cox. But the real issues have been on the defensive line, where the Cowboys have struggled to pressure the quarterback and slow down other teams' run games. The secondary must also replace three starters, though there is some young talent waiting to break through. Like Nebraska, Oklahoma State also has a nice non-conference game set up, with the Cowboys playing host to the Georgia Bulldogs to open the season. Oklahoma State also gets Texas at home, though the Cowboys must travel to Oklahoma.
It might seem difficult to find positives for a team that went 0-8 in the Big 12 last year. The Cyclones could hit the donut mark again this year as well, but there are reasons for optimism. First is at quarterback, where the Cyclones have two high-quality signal callers in Austen Arnaud and Jerome Tiller. Both bring different styles to the Cyclones' new up-tempo attack — Arnaud is the big pocket passer, while Tiller is the explosive athlete. Speaking of athletes, the Cyclones experimented this spring to find ways to get the ball into the hands of Alexander Robinson, the squad's running back. One of those included a Wildcat formation that featured Arnaud split out as a wide receiver. Robinson could top the 1,000-yard mark for new coach Paul Rhoads this year. The Cyclones also have some nice returning players at receiver, including Darius Darks, who put up 49 catches as a freshman. The interior of the offensive line also returns to give Robinson some running room. Christopher Lyle broke out last season with five sacks, while defensive tackle Nate Frere supplies experience.
As expected, there are many more question marks. The Cyclones may return several receivers, but how many can break a game open? For as good as Darks was, he averaged just 9.7 yards per reception. Iowa State's players have also spent time talking about the improved fundamentals on defense, and Rhoads has said he wants more of a penetrating, playmaking approach on that side of the ball. The problem is that the Cyclones lack the defensive linemen and the linebackers to do it. Four players on the defensive line two-deep are freshmen or sophomores. The defensive backfield may be even thinner than the defensive line. Two of the three starting linebackers return, but they didn't make enough plays last year. The Cyclones do get the "easy" South rotation, but Oklahoma State, Texas A&M and Baylor outscored Iowa State by an average 49-21 margin of 49-21 in 2008.
Oh, how the mighty have fallen. Just 11 years ago, the Aggies captured the Big 12 crown. The Aggies are also just a few years removed from a nine-win season. Now, with the quick (somewhat) turnaround of Baylor, Texas A&M just might spend the 2009 season as the worst team in the Big 12 South. Still, there's quite a bit to like about the Aggies, especially offensively. Most teams would like to have young playmakers like junior quarterback Jerrod Johnson, sophomore running back Cyrus Gray, sophomore quarterback/receiver Ryan Tannehill, sophomore receiver Jeff Fuller and freshman running back Christine Michael. Johnson, Gray, Tannehill and Fuller are four parts of an offensive unit that essentially returns 10 starters from a year ago. Gray could become A&M's next great back, while Tannehill and Fuller combined for nearly 1,500 yards and 14 touchdowns last season. Jamie McCoy, one of the league's top receiving tight ends, is another great piece to have. Defensively, athletic freak Von Miller could serve up a double-digit sack season from his new "Jack" position.
But while the offense returns just about everybody from 2008, the defense is almost a total rebuilding job. Just four starters return from a unit that struggled last season, allowing a Big 12 worst 37.4 points per game. That group was almost equally bad against the run (219.2 yards per game, worst in the conference) and the pass (second-worst passing efficiency defense in the league). Some bright spots came out of last year's trials, including defensive tackles Eddie Brown and Tony Jerod-Eddie and safeties Trent Hunter and Jordan Pugh. But for every plus, there are several more minuses. The problems aren't just limited to one side of the ball. The offense, despite all that young talent, put up the second-fewest points in the league. The Aggies must also deal with a typically rough South schedule, though they do get a break against the North, playing Iowa State, Colorado and Kansas State.
Tomorrow will feature Missouri, Baylor, Kansas and Oklahoma.
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