Oklahoma Sooners: Eric Stephens

The 2011 season was unkind to Big 12 running backs from Ames to Austin, but nobody suffered a worse injury than Texas Tech's Eric Stephens.

"He tore pretty much everything," coach Tommy Tuberville said of his back, who also dislocated his knee. Doctors gave the swelling in Stephens' knee more than a month to calm down before operating.

[+] EnlargeEric Stephens
AP Photo/Sharon EllmanTexas Tech RB Eric Stephens tore both the ACL and MCL in his left knee late last season.
Saturday, he'll finally make his return to the field. Tuberville says he'll likely start, with a target of 10-15 touches.

"We discussed that. It could be less or could be more. It just depends on the situation, how he’s doing, how he reacts," he said.

Stephens performed well in fall camp after suffering the injury early last season, derailing a likely 1,000-yard season that would have been Tech's first since 1998. The only noticeable difference now is Stephens is a little overweight and looks about 90-95 percent of his usual self.

"That’s not the knee problem, he just hasn’t played football in a long time," Tuberville said. "I don’t think physically there’s a problem at all. I’m sure he’s more than 100 percent ready to go with the knee. ... I’ve never had a serious injury like that, but I can just imagine being a major college running back and getting hit all around high and low for the first time in 10-11 months, it’d be awful tough mentally."

The offseason was rough on Iowa State's Shontrelle Johnson mentally, too. Doctors doubted whether he'd return to the game after suffering a neck injury last year against Texas. He missed the spring, but doctors cleared him just before fall camp and his long-awaited return is set for Saturday afternoon against Tulsa.

"Shontrelle’s done an excellent job and had zero ill effects coming back from neck surgery this offseason," Iowa State coach Paul Rhoads said. "He’ll be on the field early. If camp is any indication, we think he’s ready to go."

Oklahoma senior running back Dominique Whaley suffered an ugly broken ankle when a player landed on the back of his legs in a win over Kansas State. He'll be on the field early for the Sooners after earning the starting job once again.

"In my mind he looks to be back to what Dom always was, that's explosive, strong, fast," Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops said. Whether he's 100 percent or not, maybe only he and the good Lord really know. But he sure looks it to me. I'm hopeful that will be the case."

Oklahoma rival running backs Joe Bergeron and Malcolm Brown of Texas were banged up with various minor injuries last season, but a renewed focus on health, diet and fitness has hopes high that the duo will be able to stay on the field in 2012.

The running back whose status is most in doubt? West Virginia's Dustin Garrison. The sophomore led the Mountaineers in rushing as a freshman, but suffered an injury later than any other Big 12 back. He tore his ACL in preparation for the Mountaineers' 70-33 win over Clemson in the Orange Bowl.

Soreness led coaches to give him a few days off last week, but if he doesn't respond well to practice this week, he could redshirt in 2012, ceding the starting spot to bigger back Shawne Alston, a senior.

"The plan all along has been get him to game week and then get him out there and see what happens," Mountaineers coach Dana Holgorsen said.
We'll be walking through the top 10 players at each position in the Big 12 before the season, but we'll start with the most important, especially in this league.

Let's do this:

1. Geno Smith, West Virginia: Smith put up huge numbers (4,385 yards, 31 TD, 7 INT, 65.8 completion percentage) and did so efficiently last season. Both of his top two targets are back and the adjustment to Big 12 defenses shouldn't be too difficult.

2. Landry Jones, Oklahoma: Jones and Smith will go head-to-head all season for honors as the Big 12's top passer. Who comes out on top is anyone's guess, but Jones regressed last season, and his receivers let him down after Ryan Broyles' season ended with a knee injury. He'll try to bounce back with just one reliable target (Kenny Stills) to start the season. The rest of the receiving corps is loaded with potential, but very inexperienced.

3. Collin Klein, Kansas State: Clearly, I'm taking more than just passing acumen into account here. Klein is the Big 12's No. 2 returning rusher, and also threw for just under 2,000 yards last season, adding 13 passing touchdowns to the 27 he scored rushing. We'll see how much better he is as a passer this fall.

[+] EnlargeCasey Pachall
Otto Kitsinger III/Getty ImagesTCU's Casey Pachall could be poised for a big year with a stable of talented receivers.
4. Seth Doege, Texas Tech: I refuse to hang last year's failures on Doege's shoulders. Absolutely not. He played well, at least as well as he could. The running game struggled and offered almost no support after Eric Stephens' injury. The defense was a disaster and there were injuries all over the place. Doege still went for more than 4,000 yards, 28 scores and just 10 picks. Don't be surprised if Doege throws his hat in the ring as the Big 12's best passer by season's end.

5. Casey Pachall, TCU: Pachall didn't have eye-popping numbers, but only because TCU rode on the shoulders of its trio of running backs. Still, Pachall's numbers are going to be better this year, and he's got great targets in Josh Boyce, Skye Dawson and Brandon Carter, not to mention youngster LaDarius Brown.

6. Nick Florence, Baylor: I like Florence to have a big year with really good receivers, but he's got too much to prove for now. He looked good in spot duty for RG3 against Texas Tech last season, but his senior season will look much, much different than his inconsistent freshman year all the way back in 2009.

7. Wes Lunt, Oklahoma State: The Big 12's only freshman quarterback is a true freshman, and Lunt earned this spot by beating out some really tough competition in J.W. Walsh and Colton Chelf this spring. Amazing stuff, and his coaches know good quarterbacks. Zac Robinson and Brandon Weeden have established quite the QB tradition in Stillwater. Here's guessing Lunt continues it.

8. Dayne Crist, Kansas: Crist's college career hasn't been what he imagined after coming to Notre Dame as one of the most highly recruited signal-calling prospects in his class, but he's got a chance to start something special at Kansas in his senior year, reunited with former coach Charlie Weis. Crist won't have the weapons some of the other guys on this list have, but he gives KU a big, big upgrade at the position.

9. Steele Jantz/Jared Barnett, Iowa State: These two have to cut down the turnovers, but they've both shown the ability to be playmakers. There's no guessing who wins this legitimate battle in the fall, but coach Paul Rhoads isn't afraid to bench either one if the turnovers don't stop.

10. David Ash/Case McCoy, Texas: Mack Brown insists it's still a contest. My jaw will be on the floor if Ash doesn't trot out on the field for the first game of the season. Ash has some potential and promising targets in Mike Davis and Jaxon Shipley, but he hasn't shown the big-play ability of Jantz or Barnett. Expect Ash to move up this list by season's end, but for now, it's all just potential.
October 6, 2012: at Texas Tech
2011 record: 5-7 | 2011 conference record: 2-7 (Big 12)
OU’s all-time against Texas Tech: 13-6

Top returners: QB Seth Doege, RB Eric Stephens, WR Alex Torres, WR Eric Ward, WR Cornelius Douglas, OT LaAdrian Waddle, DE Leon Mackey, LB Daniel Cobb, LB Cqulin Huber, CB Tre' Porter, S Cody Davis, S D.J. Johnson, S Terrance Bullitt

Key losses: RB Aaron Crawford, WR Adam James, WR Jacoby Franks, OG Lonnie Edwards, OT Mickey Okafor, C Justin Keown, DE Scott Smith, DT Donald Langley

2011 statistical leaders (*returners)
Rushing: Eric Stephens* (565 yards)
Passing: Seth Doege* (4,004 yards)
Receiving: Eric Ward* (800 yards)
Tackles: Cody Davis* (93)
Sacks: Scott Smith (5.5)
Interceptions: D.J. Johnson* (2)

Three things to watch:

1. The Sooners should have revenge on the mind. Tech ruined the Sooners’ season by ending OU’s home-winning streak with a 41-38 victory – a final score that could have been a lot worse had it not been for OU’s furious fourth quarter rally. Up to that point, OU had been one of the most impressive teams in the country with a win at fifth-ranked Florida State and a beat down of Texas. But the Sooners were never the same after the Tech loss, and eventually dropped games to Baylor and Oklahoma State in November. Another loss to the Red Raiders would, again, tarnish OU’s season.

2. Will OU be ready to go to Tech this time around? Lubbock, historically, has been an awful place for the Sooners to play. In 2005, OU lost in the final seconds after a series of controversial calls. In 2007, Sam Bradford was knocked out of the game in the first quarter and an OU rally came up short. In 2009, the Sooners were run out of Jones AT&T Stadium.

3. Quietly, Tech has one of the better quarterbacks in the country in Seth Doege, and Doege has his best offensive weapons back from last season, including Alex Torres, who torched the Sooners. Doege will also have running back Eric Stephens, who suffered a season-ending injury early in the year, at his disposal again. The Red Raiders have the pieces to have one of the more prolific offenses in the country, which will make them dangerous.
We're continuing our look at the postseason rankings for each position in the Big 12. Here's a look back at where the running backs ranked in the preseason.

In this position, unlike quarterback, depth is a major, major factor in these rankings.

1. Texas A&M

The Aggies had the two most talented backs, and despite injuries to both, proved it through an otherwise frustrating 2011. Christine Michael suffered a torn ACL, but still managed 899 yards on just 149 carries. Cyrus Gray injured his shoulder late in the season, but secured his second consecutive 1,000-yard season and ranked third in the Big 12, despite carrying the ball just 198 times. This duo should have easily surpassed 1,000 yards, but even when they were injured, Ben Malena played well in the final two games.

[+] EnlargeChristine Michael
AP Photo/Brandon WadeChristine Michael averaged 6 yards per carry before a torn ACL ended his season.
2. Missouri

Mizzou dealt with injuries, too, first to Kendial Lawrence and De'Vion Moore. Cue Henry Josey. Josey became the best back in the Big 12 this year before suffering a major knee injury that included torn ligaments. He may not be back in 2012. His 1,168 yards were third most in the Big 12, despite carrying the ball just 145 times. Lawrence finished 12th with 566 yards.

3. Oklahoma State

Joseph Randle stole the show this year, rushing for 24 scores and ranking second in the Big 12 with 1,216 yards. Only Collin Klein ran for more touchdowns and Terrance Ganaway was the only player with more yardage. Still, Jeremy Smith had averaged more than 7 yards a carry, and he'd be able to start for anyone else in the league. Herschel Sims showed promise, too, with 242 yards on 31 carries.

4. Baylor

Ganaway led the Big 12 in rushing with huge performances late in the season, including a 200-yard, five-touchdown game in his final outing as a college athlete in the Alamo Bowl. He averaged more than 6 yards on his 250 carries and had 330 more yards than any other back in the league. Jarred Salubi added 331 yards, too.

5. Texas

Texas' Malcolm Brown and Joe Bergeron were banged-up late in the season, but Fozzy Whittaker played well until suffering a torn ACL against Missouri, too. Scatback D.J. Monroe was effective in the passing game as well. Four running backs topped 300 yards and Brown led the team with 742 yards, despite missing three games and having his carries limited early in the season.

(Read full post)

Early 2012 Big 12 power rankings

January, 10, 2012
1/10/12
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With the season over, it's time to take a look at the Big 12 in 2012. For now, that means assuming a few things. And we all know what assuming does.

It makes us all look like geniuses.

So, for the purpose of this, I'll assume a few predictions. First, I'll assume Robert Griffin III is heading for the NFL. I'll also assume Mike Stoops lands back at Oklahoma.

That said, it's time to project what this league looks like in 2012.

And, before we start, let me make this clear: The Big 12 from 1-6 is absolutely wide open. Last year, the league only had three legitimate title contenders: Oklahoma, Texas A&M and Oklahoma State. This year, every one of the top six teams (and maybe seven, if RG3 returns) can win the Big 12 in a realistic scenario. The difference between Nos. 2 and 6 is minuscule and could change a ton by the end of spring practice.

And for the curious: I would have Missouri behind Kansas State on this list, and I'd have Texas A&M right behind Texas.

1. Oklahoma: The Sooners moved into the familiar role of favorite after Landry Jones announced he'd return in 2012, but not nearly as heavy a favorite as they were in 2011. Injuries hurt Oklahoma late this season, and replacing Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year Frank Alexander, along with linebacker Travis Lewis and corner Jamell Fleming won't be easy. Receivers Kenny Stills and Jaz Reynolds have to play big for the Sooners to get the win.

2. Kansas State: The big question mark for this team is can it take care of business and not get stuck in close games in 2012? The Wildcats were 8-1 in games decided by a touchdown or less this season. They can't count on duplicating that in 2012. They should be better, and return most of the big pieces from this season's 10-win team, most importantly quarterback Collin Klein and linebacker Arthur Brown. Next season is the time to prove it.

3. West Virginia: Who else is excited to see Geno Smith, Dana Holgorsen and the Mountaineer Express show up in Big 12 country next season? Like I wrote last week, giving up 33 points and still winning by five touchdowns is the Big 12 way of life. The Mountaineers broke Baylor's week-old bowl scoring record with 70 points, and bring back most of a good Big East champion team in 2012. The transition won't be easy, but they've got a chance to make a big splash in their inaugural year. The Big 12 and West Virginia are both convinced that the Mountaineers will join the Big 12 in 2012 and are planning as if it will happen, though pending lawsuits with the Big East mean it's still unofficial.

(Read full post)

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