Oklahoma Sooners: Wendell Smallwood

Every year, true freshmen enroll in college early to participate in spring ball, often with hopes of augmenting their chances for playing time in the fall. More times than not, it doesn’t work out that way.

Last year, 21 high school seniors enrolled early in the Big 12. Below is a breakdown of the outcomes from their first college seasons:

Baylor
QB Chris Johnson: A highly-touted, four-star signee, Johnson got a valuable extra spring working under coach Art Briles. But Bryce Petty was healthy and tremendous all season and Seth Russell proved to be a more than a viable backup, prompting Johnson to redshirt. After Petty and then Russell, Johnson appears to be the next in a budding line of superb Baylor QBs.

Iowa State
OT Shawn Curtis: Curtis was the top recruit in the Cyclones' 2013 class. Though Jacob Gannon and Brock Dagel seem entrenched at the tackle positions, Curtis will have ample opportunity to work into the two-deep this fall.

LB Alton Meeks: The versatile Meeks settled in as a linebacker in Ames. He too redshirted, and he too could step into the two-deep next season.

Kansas
DB Colin Spencer: Spencer, who redshirted last season, was recruited as a defensive back but has since been moved to halfback/flanker with the Jayhawks looking for pass-catching help.

Kansas State
K Matthew McCrane: Watched as Jack Cantele won the starting place-kicking job as a sophomore. Will have to wait awhile before getting another shot.

Oklahoma
WR Dannon Cavil: Cavil turned heads with his combination of size and speed in the spring, and he seemed primed to break into the receiving rotation. But that never happened, and he wound up redshirting. With 2013 starters Jalen Saunders and Lacoltan Bester gone, Cavil will have another chance at playing time this spring.

S Ahmad Thomas: Thomas created a buzz in the spring, but couldn’t topple veterans Quentin Hayes, Gabe Lynn and Julian Wilson. He is vying for a starting job this spring and figures to be a key part of the secondary in 2014.

DE D.J. Ward: The No. 1-rated player from the state of Oklahoma, Ward endured qualifying issues that kept him from participating for much of spring ball. Then during the preseason, he had to have his spleen removed, which forced a redshirt. Ward has talent, but he needs to catch a break.


Oklahoma State
DE Naim Mustafaa: The Cowboys swiped this four-star recruit just in time to get him enrolled for spring ball. But Mustafaa left the team over the summer. He landed at Miami, but he bolted from there too during the season.

Texas
LB Deoundrei Davis: Davis spent the year redshirting and recovering from a torn ACL he suffered in high school. The Longhorns remain stacked at linebacker, so Davis will have another season to improve his strength and agility.

C Jake Raulerson: Raulerson also redshirted, giving him the opportunity to bulk up as he moved to the interior of the line. He should back up senior Dominic Espinosa this season and is on track to be the center of the future.

QB Tyrone Swoopes: Former coach Mack Brown controversially pulled Swoopes’ redshirt midway through the season, but Swoopes never unseated Case McCoy and attempted only 13 passes the entire season. Swoopes has all the tools, but will need to show more polish this spring to make a serious run at Texas’ influx starting quarterback job.

TCU
QB Zach Allen: The Horned Frogs had massive issues at the quarterback spot after Casey Pachall suffered a broken forearm, but Allen never was called on for help and redshirted instead. He’s battling Trevone Boykin and Tyler Matthews for the job this spring, and the pressure will be on to make an impression to the new offensive regime, with Grayson Muehlstein and Foster Sawyer set to join the QB competition over the summer.

TE Bryson Burtnett: After redshirting last season, Burtnett could help the Horned Frogs as a blocking tight end this fall.

OT Eason Fromayan: Also redshirted last season. Tackle is a position of concern for TCU, but there are other options that appear to be ahead of him in the pecking order early in spring ball.

Texas Tech
QB Davis Webb: Kliff Kingsbury’s first QB signee, Webb had quite the rollercoaster first season. With the favorite to start, Michael Brewer, ailing with a back injury, Webb had a golden opportunity to seize the starting job. Instead, walk-on freshman Baker Mayfield beat him out. Webb made the most of his opportunities when they came, though. After Mayfield suffered a knee injury, Webb led Tech to a come-from-behind win at West Virginia. After Mayfield transferred, Webb delivered one of the best bowl performances of any QB, throwing for 403 yards and four touchdowns in a convincing win over heavily-favored Arizona State. As the only scholarship QB currently on campus, Webb is finally the clear-cut starter going into 2014. And if he builds on his bowl showing, he could have a monster sophomore campaign.

West Virginia
LB Hodari Christian: Christian redshirted last season. Considering the Mountaineers are loaded with experience at linebacker, it could be some time before Christian steps onto the field defensively.

S Malik Greaves: Greaves too redshirted in 2013 and is currently listed this spring as the third-team “spur” linebacker behind K.J. Dillon and Marvin Gross.

QB Chavas Rawlins: Rawlins went through spring ball with the Mountaineers, but he left the program after spring ball because the coach that had recruited him, Jake Spavital, left West Virginia to become the quarterbacks coach and co-offensive coordinator at Texas A&M. Rawlins ended up enrolling at Duquesne.

WR Daikiel Shorts: Shorts was arguably the most impressive true freshman during the preseason for West Virginia and ended up starting nine games. He also tied for the team lead with 45 receptions and figures to be a playmaking cornerstone in Morgantown.

RB Wendell Smallwood: Smallwood started out helping on special teams, but he eventually carved out a role on the offense as a third-team running back behind Charles Sims and Dreamius Smith. He finished the season with 221 rushing yards on 39 carries. Even though carries will be competitive to get again, Smallwood’s versatility should cement him a role in the offense.
As we await the start of spring ball, we’ve been examining and ranking the positional situations of every team in the Big 12. Thursday, we close this series out with special teams.

1. TCU: Honorable mention All-Big 12 place-kicker Jaden Oberkrom was 13 of 14 on field goals inside the 50 last season and drilled a 56-yarder late in the fourth quarter at Kansas State. B.J. Catalon was second in the league in kickoff returns and took one to the house in the opener against LSU. Freshman Cameron Echols-Luper took his first punt return 51 yards and had a 41-yarder in the season finale against Baylor. Brandon Carter has had moments in the return game in the past as well. Ethan Perry will be a three-year starter at punter, rounding out a formidable special teams unit.

2. Baylor: Corey Coleman led the league in kick returns, and Levi Norwood scored twice off punt returns. The Bears are loaded with potential game-breakers in the return game and welcome back All-Big 12 punter Spencer Roth. If Kyle Peterson proves to be a reliable replacement for departing kicker Aaron Jones, this special teams unit will have no weakness.

[+] EnlargeTyler Lockett
Christian Petersen/Getty ImagesAlong with being a top-flight wide receiver, Kansas State's Tyler Lockett can also provide big plays in the return game.
3. Kansas State: The Wildcats feature one of the best kickoff return men in the game in Tyler Lockett, who doubles as an All-American WR candidate. Jack Cantele, the younger brother of All-Big 12 K-State kicker Anthony Cantele, only missed two field goal attempts as a sophomore and nailed a 41-yarder as time expired to beat TCU. Defensive tackle Travis Britz also returns after leading the nation with four blocked kicks.

4. Texas Tech: The Red Raiders will feature a lethal one-two punch in the return game in Jakeem Grant and Reginald Davis, who took a kick back for a touchdown in the bowl game. Receiver Jordan Davis also has return experience. Kicker Ryan Bustin returns after garnering honorable mention All-Big 12 honors last year.

5. Oklahoma: The Sooners lose the most explosive return duo in the league in Jalen Saunders and Roy Finch. Sterling Shepard and Alex Ross could be among the players who replace them. Oklahoma boasts the league’s most efficient returning place-kicker in Michael Hunnicutt, who nailed 24 of 27 field goal tries last season. The Sooners have a secret weapon in Nick Hodgson, who led the league in touchback kickoffs last season. Jed Barnett, fifth in the Big 12 in punting average last season, returns as well.

6. Iowa State: The Cyclones had four players make first- or second-team All-Big 12 last season, and departing punter Kirby Van Der Kamp was one of them. Replacing his production won’t be easy, though incoming three-star freshman Colin Downing will try. DeVondrick Nealy, Jarvis West and Aaron Wimberly all had several dynamite moments returning kicks. Cole Netten was 13-of-18 on field goals as a freshman,

7. West Virginia: Nick O'Toole leads the Mountaineers on special teams. The “Boomstache” was 15th nationally in punting last season. The Mountaineers have all their returners back in Wendell Smallwood, Mario Alford and Jordan Thompson, though more big plays are needed from this group -- the Mountaineers ranked last in the league in both punt and kick returns in 2013. Josh Lambert comes back after making 17 of 23 field goals as a freshman. The Mountaineers also enjoy a luxury in Michael Molinari, who can do a little bit of everything.

8. Texas: The Longhorns lose their punter and their kicker in consensus All-American Anthony Fera. That hurts. Nick Jordan, who made nine of 15 field goals in 2012, could reclaim his job. Daje Johnson -- who returned a punt for a TD against Oklahoma -- Duke Thomas, Quandre Diggs, Marcus Johnson, Kendall Sanders and Jaxon Shipley all have experience returning.

9. Kansas: Return men Connor Embree (punts) and JaCorey Shepherd (kicks) both come back. The Jayhawks also return kicker Matthew Wyman, who connected on a game-winning 52-yard field goal to beat Louisiana Tech. The freshman, however, only made two field goals after that and eventually lost that job to departing senior Ron Doherty. Trevor Pardula was third in the Big 12 in punting as a junior and received votes for Big 12 Special Teams Player of the Year.

10. Oklahoma State: After enjoying All-Americans Dan Bailey and Quinn Sharp the last few years, the Cowboys were finally mediocre in the kicking game last season. Ben Grogan struggled as a freshman, making just 11 of 18 field goals while missing two critical attempts in the early-season loss at West Virginia. The Cowboys were also last in the league in punting. Oklahoma State signed three-star kicker Zach Sinor with hopes of curing some of those ills. The Cowboys were still dynamic in the return game, but with Justin Gilbert and Josh Stewart both gone, Oklahoma State could lean on juco transfer and track star Tyreek Hill for a jolt on returns.

Big 12 pre-spring breakdown: RBs

February, 19, 2014
Feb 19
3:45
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As we wait for the start of spring ball, we're examining and ranking the positional situations of every team, continuing Wednesday with running backs. Some of these outlooks will look different after the spring. But here’s how they compare at the moment:

1. Texas: The three-headed monster of Johnathan Gray, Malcolm Brown and Joe Bergeron gives Texas the best 1-2-3 punch in the league. Whether this group goes from good to great hinges on a healthy return for Gray, who is coming back from an Achilles injury and will sit out spring drills. Either way, this will be the backbone of Charlie Strong’s first offense.

[+] EnlargeShock Linwood
Matthew Emmons/USA TODAY SportsShock Linwood showed breakaway ability as a Baylor reserve in 2013.
2. Baylor: Shock Linwood takes over in the backfield after a dynamic freshman season in which he finished seventh in the league in rushing despite being a third-team running back. The competition for carries after Linwood will be interesting. Devin Chafin is the favorite to be Linwood’s wing man, but he could be pressed by Johnny Jefferson and/or incoming four-star freshman Terence Williams, who is already on campus.

3. Oklahoma: The potential of this running back crop has no bounds. But it will be young and inexperienced after seniors Brennan Clay, Roy Finch and Damien Williams (until he was kicked off the team) hoarded the carries last season. Keith Ford, who was the nation’s No. 3 running back recruit in the 2013 class, will take over the starting role. Joe Mixon, this year’s No. 6 RB recruit, won’t get to Norman until the summer, but he should supply the lightning to Ford’s thunder. Alex Ross, who was the nation’s No. 7 RB recruit in the 2012 class, rounds out a fearsome threesome with tremendous pedigree.

4. West Virginia: The Mountaineers lose All-Big 12 performer Charles Sims, but still claim a glut of capable rushers. Dreamius Smith and Wendell Smallwood thrived playing behind Sims last year. West Virginia also has Dustin Garrison and Andrew Buie, its leading rushers from 2011 and 2012, respectively. (Buie is back after leaving school for a semester.) On top of all that, Pittsburgh transfer Rushel Shell figures to be in the mix. Shell was the No. 26 overall recruit in the country coming out of high school after becoming the all-time leading rusher in Pennsylvania high school history. If that weren’t enough, the gem of the incoming recruiting class, Donte Thomas-Williams, is also a running back. Suffice to say, the competition for carries will be fierce in the league’s deepest backfield.

5. Oklahoma State: Desmond Roland helped fuel Oklahoma State’s midseason turnaround after seizing a starting role. Roland was great in short yardage and led the Big 12 with 13 touchdowns, but he wasn’t a big-play runner, with an average of only 4.6 yards per carry (14th in the league). The Cowboys are banking that Rennie Childs can complement Roland as the breakaway back. Childs showed flashes as a true freshman. Roland and Childs can form a solid combo, but four-star freshman Devon Thomas, who is enrolled for the spring, should not be discounted, nor should Sione Palelei, who has the good hands that past Oklahoma State running backs also possessed.

6. Texas Tech: The returning duo of Kenny Williams and DeAndre Washington won’t do much damage between the tackles. Both, however, are excellent pass-catchers, making them supreme fits for Kliff Kingsbury’s spread attack. Together they combined for 64 receptions, and that number should go up in 2014 as quarterback Davis Webb settles in as a sophomore.

7. TCU: The Horned Frogs were a disaster offensively last year, but the potential at running back is a reason why TCU could be equipped for a bounce-back season. Aaron Green, Kyle Hicks and incoming freshman Shaun Nixon were all ESPN 300 recruits. That doesn’t include B.J. Catalon, either, who led the Frogs with 569 yards and six touchdowns last season. With a new regime making the play calls, there’s reason to believe this could become one of the better units in the league.

[+] EnlargeDalton Santos
David Purdy/Getty ImagesIf Aaron Wimberly can stay healthy, Iowa State has a potentially dynamic returning running back.
8. Iowa State: When healthy, Aaron Wimberly can be a game-breaker. He torched Texas for 137 yards as the Cyclones nearly pulled off a Thursday night upset. Wimberly, however, was never really healthy the rest of the season, and never had the same impact. After Wimberly, though, the Cyclones don’t have much returning firepower. Firepower, however, could be on the way. Oklahoma native Michael Warren went overlooked in recruiting, but he can fly; he rushed for more than 2,500 yards as a high school senior.

9. Kansas: The Jayhawks gradated their heart and soul in James Sims, who was an all-conference selection even though Kansas won only one Big 12 game. Tony Pierson returns as an electric playmaker, but he has never been a full-time running back, often flexing out as a receiver. It will be interesting to see who emerges in Sims’ shoes. Brandon Bourbon (191 yards) will have the first crack in the spring, but newcomers De'Andre Mann and Traevohn Wrench could vie for time once they arrive in the summer.

10. Kansas State: It’s difficult to believe K-State will be at the bottom here once the season starts, but running back is a major hole for the Wildcats going into the spring. That’s because longtime starter John Hubert is gone. Hubert, senior backup Robert Rose and QBs Jake Waters and Daniel Sams combined for 492 carries last season. Nobody else had more than five. Rising senior DeMarcus Robinson, who has only 11 career carries, will probably be atop the depth chart going into the spring. It’s also possible that Sams will get a look at running back with Waters having nailed down the full-time QB job. But the player to watch here is freshman Dalvin Warmack, who rushed for more than 4,500 yards and 70 touchdowns his final two seasons in Blue Springs, Mo. Warmack isn’t big at 5-foot-8 and 185 pounds. But his size fits the mold of past K-State running backs Hubert and Darren Sproles.

Freshmen impact in the Big 12

September, 25, 2013
9/25/13
10:30
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Having a highly ranked recruiting class and a bunch of four-star signees sounds good in the spring and summer, but it's a different story when the season begins. The freshmen who are game-ready are the ones who get the playing time, no matter their star rating. Here's a look at the five Big 12 schools getting the most from their true freshmen:

[+] EnlargeBaker Mayfield
Cal Sport Media/AP ImagesFreshman Texas Tech signal-caller Baker Mayfield, a walk-on, has been the surprise of the Big 12 thus far.
1. Texas Tech: The Red Raiders practically earn this top spot by default by relying on two true freshmen at quarterback. Baker Mayfield made a big first impression, but it seems the battle is opening back up after two solid games from freshman Davis Webb, and the imminent return of Michael Brewer. Still, going 4-0 with two rookies behind center makes coach Kliff Kingsbury’s bunch a worthy No. 1 on this list.

Tech has played eight other true freshmen in 2013, and a few are making solid contributions. Receiver Dylan Cantrell has six catches for 56 yards, linebacker Malik Jenkins has recorded five tackles and a pass breakup and receiver Carlos Thompson already has a 73-yard kick return and 35-yard punt return.

2. Oklahoma: Is it possible Oklahoma’s best running back is its fourth-string freshman? Keith Ford, the gem of the Sooners’ class, has rushed for 66 yards and a touchdown on 11 carries and wowed in OU’s last game against Tulsa.

Fellow freshman Stanvon Taylor earned his first career start against Tulsa, and he’s one of several newcomers contributing in the secondary along with Hatari Byrd, Ahmad Thomas, L.J. Moore and Dakota Austin. Linebacker Dominique Alexander has also chipped in six tackles through three games.

3. West Virginia: Of all the new skill players who joined West Virginia’s offense this year, who would’ve expected Daikiel Shorts would be the Mountaineers’ leading receiver and Wendell Smallwood would be their No. 2 back? Shorts has 12 catches for 151 yards and two touchdowns, and Smallwood has 139 yards and a touchdown on 18 carries thus far.

A total of seven true freshmen have played for WVU this season, and four of them are defensive backs. Corner Daryl Worley is off to a nice start with six tackles, a tackle for loss and a pass breakup.

4. Oklahoma State: Many expected Ra’Shaad Samples to be OSU’s breakout true freshman receiver, but so far that distinction belongs to Marcell Ateman. He has hauled in eight passes for 92 yards, good for fourth-best on the team.

Freshman kicker Ben Grogan has hit all 19 of his extra-point attempts and is 1-for-2 on field goals, and defensive backs Jordan Sterns and Deric Robertson have combined for eight tackles this season.

5. Baylor: Baylor might have two of the conference’s most talented true freshmen in receiver Robbie Rhodes and defensive tackle Andrew Billings, but they haven’t had to do much so far. Rhodes has 65 receiving yards and Billings has recorded three tackles, including one tackle for loss. Kiante’ Griffin is also contributing at linebacker with three tackles and 1.5 tackles for loss.

TCU can also make a case for the No. 5 spot. The Frogs don’t have a Devonte Fields-caliber breakout star yet, but receiver Ty Slanina has two reception and is currently listed as a starter, and former ESPN 300 prospect Tevin Lawson is breaking into the rotation at defensive tackle with two stops already.

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