Texas Longhorns: Daje Johnson

Before Texas begins its first season under Charlie Strong, we're taking a deep dive into all the talent he inherits in 2014. Our Burnt Orange Breakdown series will take a closer look at each scholarship player returning this fall and what we can expect from them. We're going down the roster from No. 1 Shiro Davis all the way to No. 99 Desmond Jackson.

[+] EnlargeDaje Johnson 130612
John Albright/Icon SMICan the new Texas coaches get the most out of Daje Johnson?
No. 4 Daje Johnson
Junior receiver/running back


Recruitment rewind: Johnson was committed to TCU for 10 months and likely would've ended up playing boundary corner for the Horned Frogs. But he'd always wanted to be a Longhorn, and he committed on the spot when he got offered during his January official visit. The two-way star from nearby Pflugerville (Texas) Hendrickson scored 45 touchdowns in his final two high school seasons and put up a then-national-record SPARQ score of 146.5 at The Opening in 2011. He was sold by Texas coaches on the chance to be a true offensive weapon with multiple roles.

Career so far: There have been flashes of brilliance: Johnson's 84-yard touchdown run against Baylor in 2012, the 129 total yards in last year's opener, the 85-yard punt return TD against Oklahoma. There have also been immature setbacks, with three one-game suspensions in two years, including the Valero Alamo Bowl in December. The previous Texas staff had a difficult time finding ways to get the ball in Johnson's hands, but he still accounted for 808 total yards of offense on 94 touches in two seasons, and more than 1,300 yards when you include returns. Johnson spent most of 2013 working on his receiving skills but is still an all-purpose offensive weapon who's dangerous in the backfield.

Best-case scenario for 2014: The new coaching staff unlocks Johnson's De'Anthony Thomas-type potential. Everyone knows he has speed for days, but consistency has always been the issue. The new staff was fully invested in giving Johnson a fresh start and he's responded with responsibility. Get him in space and fully bought in this fall and you have an elite playmaker in the slot who can trick defenses on sweep and reverses, beat them deep on fly routes and dance around them on returns. On Johnson's best days, there aren't many like him in the Big 12.

Worst-case scenario for 2014: One thing Charlie Strong absolutely will not tolerate is players skipping class and ignoring their academic duties. If Johnson slacks off in that department, he'll fall out of favor with this coaching staff quickly. And folks close to Johnson have always said that if you leave him on the sideline -- if you fail to give him a meaningful role in the offense -- you're just asking for him to get distracted or get in trouble. It would be an absolute shame to see Johnson's talent go to waste, and it's on him to take care of business and ensure he gets his opportunities.

Future expectations: Guys like Thomas and Tavon Austin have proven there's a place for multi-position offensive weapons in the NFL if you're good at it. To confine Johnson to kick and punt return duties would be a misuse of his diverse skill set. If he stays in good standing with the coaches and stays healthy -- an injury at BYU last year cost him a big chance to be the focal point of the offense -- Johnson should become a highlight machine and a national name.
Earlier Thursday, we concluded our 22-round draft of current Big 12 players. Below are the three lineup outcomes of that draft, and as you can see, each of us went in different directions.

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Like the St. Louis Rams, Max and Brandon built up their defensive lines before worrying about the rest of their rosters. While I grabbed the best quarterback in the league and surrounded him with protection and weapons.

After each lineup, read our final takes on our teams. Then, decide who drafted best in the weekly Big 12 poll.

BRANDON CHATMON’S TEAM

OFFENSE
DEFENSE
What Brandon says about his team: “Offensively, as soon as Petty was gone with the first pick I knew I wouldn’t take a quarterback until my final pick. Knight could be the steal of the draft. Versatility is the name of the game with the rest of the offense. We can put Pierson and Smallwood in the backfield and go read option or really ruin your Saturday and throw Daje back there in the Diamond. When you bring more guys in the box, you leave Seales and Lockett one-on-one. Or we can just go five wide and you can try to cover running backs who run routes like receivers with your linebackers. And an experienced offensive line will be the foundation of it all. Defensively, it would be wise for opposing quarterbacks to tell their families to stay home when facing this group. We’re going to man up and have our mail forwarded to the opposing backfield and make you want to take your ball and go home. And with a secondary full of coverage guys, I’m not concerned about the back end of the defense holding up. We’ll win more battles than we lose. By the final whistle, my team will have earned the moniker 'Chatmon’s chaos creators' with Tapper, Reed, Brown, Hunter, Alexander and Robertson living in your backfield.”

MAX OLSON'S TEAM

OFFENSE
DEFENSE
What Max says about his team: “You do not want to play against my team. That was my goal going in, and I constructed exactly the team I wanted. I have a great QB in Webb who gets to throw to Goodley, one of the nation's best receivers, and he'd help Jaxon Shipley put up Jordan Shipley numbers. I have the two-back punch of Linwood and Gray. I have Hill, who can do everything, and a good line. We're going to spread the ball around like crazy. Good luck stopping that. On defense, you have Fields, Oakman and Grissom all rushing the passer. That's deadly. We can go three-man fronts or even put Oakman in the middle, letting the 6-foot-8 stud swat your passes down. And while you're worrying about him and Grissom, you have the Big 12's best defensive player [Fields] coming after you. Hager and Shannon will hold it down at the second level, and the secondary is full of playmakers. This is a fun team, plain and simple, and one that can frustrate the heck out of anybody.”

JAKE TROTTER’S TEAM

OFFENSE
DEFENSE
What Jake says about his team: “Max and Brandon are good at talking smack. I’ll give them that. But my players do their talking on the field. Once I was fortunate to land reigning Big 12 Offensive Player of the Year Bryce Petty as my quarterback, my goal was two-fold: to keep him upright from pressure off the edge; and, to surround him with firepower. I accomplished both ends, and then some. I wasn’t able to get either of the two elite receivers in the league in Goodley or Lockett. But I put together the best overall receiving corps in Grant, Shepard and Bundrage, who could all deliver 1,000-yard receiving seasons in 2014. On top of that, I snagged the best pass-catching tight end on the board in Bibbs, as well as Brown, so that we can pound the ball between the tackles when we need. Speaking of tackles, aware that Brandon and Max were focused almost solely on their pass rush in the early rounds, I also added two of the most reliable pass-protecting bookends in the league in Drango and Williams. Defensively, I can bring pressure, too, with Mueller and Striker, who last season respectively placed second and fourth in the Big 12 in sacks. Castleman and Britz are roadblocks, Heeney and Dawson are tackle machines and my entire secondary has All-Big 12 potential. We don’t talk. We just dominate.”
Following up on NFL draft weekend, we’ve been conducting our own draft, picking from current Big 12 players to fill out three 22-man lineups.

Below is a recap of the first 15 rounds of the draft from the past two days, followed by rounds 16-22.

As another reminder, this is NOT a Top 25 player ranking. It’s only an exercise in determining where the value of the league lies, and the different strategies to putting a team together from the league’s present talent pool.

Jake Trotter:
Brandon Chatmon:
Max Olson:
Round 16

  • Olson: WR/RB Tyreek Hill, Oklahoma State
  • Chatmon: OLB Pete Robertson, Texas Tech
  • Trotter: OLB Brandon Golson, West Virginia
  • Analysis: "To combat the offensive attacks I would face in the Big 12, I'm going with a 3-4 on defense. Golson, who led the Big 12 in forced fumbles last season, is another playmaking outside linebacker who would fit in nicely in this scheme opposite Striker." -- Trotter
[+] EnlargeJohnathan Gray, Tanner Jacobson
AP Photo/Eric GayGetting potential Big 12 rushing leader Johnathan Gray in the 17th round could be a big steal for Max Olson.
Round 17

  • Trotter: LB Paul Dawson, TCU
  • Chatmon: C Dominic Espinosa, Texas
  • Olson: RB Johnathan Gray, Texas
  • Analysis: “I ended up getting a potential All-Big 12 running back in the 17th round. So I feel pretty good about that. Gray should be healthy for the opener, and he leads all returning Big 12 rushers with 86 rushing yards per game last season." -- Olson
Round 18

  • Olson: OT Troy Baker, Baylor
  • Chatmon: SS Quentin Hayes, Oklahoma
  • Trotter: OG Mark Glowinski, West Virginia
  • Analysis: "I wanted a safety who is comfortable in holding his own in coverage, while also having the ability to make plays all over the field. Hayes is the guy. With Worley, Shepherd, White, Barnett and Hayes in the secondary, I can unleash the rest of my defense on the quarterback and feel comfortable about my secondary holding its own against anyone." -- Chatmon
Round 19

  • Trotter: OG Nila Kasitati, Oklahoma
  • Chatmon: WR Tony Pierson, Kansas
  • Olson: SS Terrell Burt, Baylor
  • Analysis: "With Max and Brandon hoarding centers, I needed to attack the interior of my offensive line. Kasitati can excel manning either guard or center, and Glowinski is one of the league’s top returning guards." -- Trotter
Round 20

  • Olson: OT Halapoulivaati Vaitai, TCU
  • Chatmon: WR Jhajuan Seales, Oklahoma State
  • Trotter: WR Quenton Bundrage, Iowa State
  • Analysis: "The guys I wanted for my second guard spot weren't available at this round, so I'm going with the mammoth "Big V" Vaitai (6-foot-6, 308 pounds) and moving one of my other tackle selections inside. I ended up with a fairly good offensive line, which was pretty much my plan going in." -- Olson
Round 21

  • Trotter: CB Nigel Tribune, Iowa State
  • Chatmon: WR Wendell Smallwood, West Virginia
  • Olson: LB Nick Kwiatkoski, West Virginia
  • Analysis: “I picked up Bundrage in the previous round to seal up what I feel is the best all-around receiving corps, even if I didn’t get Goodley or Lockett. Tribune, the only true freshman to play for Iowa State in the past two seasons, is a corner with a ton of upside and, paired with Kevin Peterson, should provide me plenty of tenaciousness against the pass.” -- Trotter
Round 22

  • Olson: WR Jaxon Shipley, Texas
  • Chatmon: QB Trevor Knight, Oklahoma
  • Trotter: C Jared Kaster, Texas Tech
  • Analysis: “I just got the steal of the draft, and I knew I would wait until the final round to do so. As soon as Jake snapped up Petty, I knew I would be content with Davis Webb or Trevor Knight and wouldn’t draft a quarterback until the final round. The fact that Max opted for Webb made things even better for me as Knight has the versatility to run a run-heavy offense or spread things out and use his arm. He fits perfectly with the versatility I was striving for with each pick.” -- Chatmon

Imaginary Big 12 players draft, Part II

May, 14, 2014
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Following up off of NFL draft weekend, we’ve been conducting our own draft, picking current Big 12 players with the premise of filling out three 22-man lineups.

So far, this draft has been revealing, accentuating the prospective strength of the conference (defensive line) in 2014, as well as some of the potential shortcomings.

As a reminder, this is NOT a top-25 player ranking. It’s only an exercise in determining where the value of the league lies, and the different strategies to cobbling a team together from the league’s present talent pool.

Below is a recap of the first seven rounds of the draft from Monday, followed by rounds 8-15. We’ll conclude the draft Thursday by picking the final seven rounds.

Jake Trotter:
Brandon Chatmon:
Max Olson:
Round 8

  • Olson: LB Bryce Hager, Baylor
  • Chatmon: CB Kevin White, TCU
  • Trotter: TE E.J. Bibbs, Iowa State
  • Analysis: "In Grant, Shepard and now Bibbs, I have three of the most difficult matchups for opposing defensive backfields in the league. With Petty at QB, and two of the best pass-protecting tackles in the country, I feel like I'll be able to fling the ball at will." -- Trotter
[+] EnlargeCody Whitehair
Peter G. Aiken/Getty ImagesKansas State's Cody Whitehair provides versatility on the offensive line.
Round 9

  • Trotter: RB Malcolm Brown, Texas
  • Chatmon: OG Cody Whitehair, Kansas State
  • Olson: DT Andrew Billings, Baylor
  • Analysis: “Whitehair should help solidify my offensive line. His ability to play multiple positions up front will be valuable and I had to start addressing my offensive line before all of the top guys were off the board. He’ll join Clark to give me a solid foundation.” -- Chatmon
Round 10

  • Olson: LT Daniel Koenig, Oklahoma State
  • Chatmon: SS Dante Barnett, Kansas State
  • Trotter: DT Travis Britz, Kansas State
  • Analysis: "Time to start building my offensive line. I don't love that many linemen in the league this year, honestly, so that's why I waited. But Koenig is a good one, and he can play either tackle spot." -- Olson
Round 11

  • Trotter: DT James Castleman, Oklahoma State
  • Chatmon: C Tom Farniok, Iowa State
  • Olson: CB Zack Sanchez, Oklahoma
  • Analysis: "With my offense looking strong across the board, I'm circling back to my defense. I have two of the league's very best getting to the quarterback in Striker and Mueller. Now, it's time to solidify the interior run defense. I got just the guys in Castleman and Britz." -- Trotter
Round 12

  • Olson: RB Shock Linwood, Baylor
  • Chatmon: LB Dominique Alexander, Oklahoma
  • Trotter: CB Kevin Peterson, Oklahoma State
  • Analysis: "I went with Alexander because I love his versatility and instincts. He should be able to hold up in coverage at times but can blitz too. To top it all off, he's just a sophomore who has barely scratched the surface of his ability. Win, win." -- Chatmon
Round 13

  • Trotter: SS Karl Joseph, West Virginia
  • Chatmon: CB JaCorey Shepherd, Kansas
  • Olson: C BJ Finney, Kansas State
  • Analysis: "After loading up on defense early, I'm collecting pieces offensively. I think I got two good ones in the veteran Finney, and the budding Linwood." -- Olson
Round 14

  • Olson: OG Quinton Spain, West Virginia
  • Chatmon: RT Tyrus Thompson, Oklahoma
  • Trotter: FS Chris Hackett, TCU
  • Analysis: “I got my lockdown corner a couple rounds ago in Peterson, and with these last two picks, got safeties capable of being All-Big 12 performers this season.” -- Trotter
Round 15

  • Trotter: LB Ben Heeney, Kansas
  • Chatmon: WR Daje Johnson, Texas
  • Olson: DE Geneo Grissom, Oklahoma
  • Analysis: "Daje makes plays. A lot of them. Nothing more needs to be said here." -- Chatmon

Editor's note: This is the first part of a weeklong series breaking down Texas’ most important spring position battles when the Longhorns begin practice in two weeks.

Moving on: Texas is losing, statistically, one of the best wide receivers in its program’s history in Mike Davis. He leaves Austin ranking No. 4 in the Longhorn record books in both career receptions and receiving yards, and fifth in receiving TDs. And imagine what he could have done had Texas enjoyed a little more stability at the quarterback position during his four years. He started 38 games and brought the deep threat needed to stretch Big 12 defenses.

The contenders: We know what Texas has in reliable longtime starter Jaxon Shipley. No reason to worry about him. And you could argue that Kendall Sanders and Marcus Johnson aren’t really competing with each other for snaps. They seem like logical choices to be the No. 2 and No. 3 guys in this unit, at least on paper.

Among those vying with Shipley, Sanders and Johnson to prove they should see the field in 2014: John Harris, Jacorey Warrick, Montrel Meander, Jake Oliver, Armanti Foreman, Lorenzo Joe, Dorian Leonard, Roderick Bernard and Garrett Gray.

And don’t forget Daje Johnson, the versatile weapon who focused on receiver in 2013, and the injured Bryant Jackson, who will miss spring practice. Even if a few of these wideouts leave for playing time elsewhere, it’s going to be a crowded receiver room this fall.

Moving forward: What makes this a battle is the stunning number of young backups who will compete for playing time this fall. There’s plenty of time for this number to change, and it will, but Texas could have as many as 14 scholarship receivers on the roster this fall.

Several of the incoming freshmen will redshirt, that much seems certain, but who knows what the Longhorns can expect from the rest. That’s the upside of signing so many wideouts with different skill sets. Throw them all onto a practice field, see which ones improve and stand out, and play the best of the best. That’s a luxury new receivers coach Les Koenning gets this fall.

Prediction: Many will point to Foreman and Joe as immediate contributors, and they’ll get a shot. But the trio of second-year receivers -- Warrick, Meander and Oliver -- will catch folks by surprise and find meaningful roles.

What’ll be fascinating to watch this spring is how the new staff puts Daje Johnson to use, and whether he can get his act together after two suspensions last season. If he does, he’s got a chance to become a nationally known and feared playmaker.
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.

Spring preview capsules: Big 12

February, 24, 2014
Feb 24
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Spring football is rapidly approaching.

Here's a team-by-team look at what to watch in the Big 12 this spring:

Baylor

Spring start: Feb. 28

Spring game: April 5

What to watch: Who will replace Lache Seastrunk? The Bears' running back was the engine that helped keep the Baylor offense balanced and defenses honest. Shock Linwood will step in, but is he ready to handle the burden of keeping the offense balanced? . . . Baylor, the 2013 regular-season champion, has to find key replacements on a defense that is losing half of its starters. But several second-teamers -- including Jamal Palmer, Shawn Oakman, Andrew Billings and Orion Stewart -- are poised to fill the void . . . The Bears need to replace guard Cyril Richardson along the offensive line. Several candidates, including junior college transfer Jarell Broxton, will battle for the job. Baylor has arguably the league's best group of skill position players, but that will mean nothing if its offensive line takes a step backward.

Iowa State

Spring start: March 10

Spring game: April 12

What to watch: New offensive coordinator Mark Mangino arrives in Ames to bring more points and creativity to the Cyclones’ offense. The spring is the first opportunity for Mangino to get a feel for the playmakers and the players to get a feel for Mangino’s expectations . . . The quarterback competition is another thing to keep an eye on. Grant Rohach ended the season as the starter, but Sam B. Richardson could take his job back with a strong spring. And there are other young quarterbacks on campus who could insert themselves into the mix . . . Defensively, the Cyclones need to replace linebacker Jeremiah George and safety Jacques Washington, who finished 1-2 in tackles in the Big 12 in 2013 and finished their careers with 59 career starts combined. Iowa State seems to always have quality linebackers, so finding a replacement for Washington could be the defense’s top priority in the spring.

Kansas

Spring start: March 4

Spring game: April 12

What to watch: Shuffling the offensive coaching staff has been the theme of the offseason. New offensive coordinator John Reagan, who was a KU assistant from 2005 to 2009, returns to the Jayhawks after running Rice’s offense last season. The spring is Reagan’s first chance to identify the playmakers who will be the foundation of his offense this fall. Expect wide-open competition across the board after KU finished 115th in the FBS in points scored ... The quarterback position will grab the headlines, with T.J. Millweard joining the competition with Jake Heaps and Montell Cozart, who each started games in 2013. Millweard transferred to KU from UCLA before the 2013 season.

Kansas State

Spring start: April 2

Spring game: April 26

What to watch: Finding John Hubert’s replacement sits high on the Wildcats’ priority list. The former running back carried the ground attack for the past three seasons, and there’s no clear favorite to step into his shoes. Will someone step up during spring football? . . . What will happen with quarterback Daniel Sams? The Wildcats have a proven Big 12 playmaker in Sams, a junior, and another proven quarterback in Jake Waters. Sams is an exceptional open-field runner who started two games in 2013, but look for Kansas State to start exploring ways to have both on the field together this spring . . . Replacing Ty Zimmerman’s playmaking and leadership on defense is another key this spring. The defense has to replace several starters in the secondary and at linebacker. Keep an eye on junior college defensive back Danzel McDaniel, who has the versatility to step in at several different spots.

Oklahoma

Spring start: March 8

Spring game: April 12

What to watch: With Trevor Knight poised to start at quarterback in 2014, Blake Bell moves to tight end after starting eight games under center in 2013. Bell’s transition to tight end will be the talk of the spring, with the senior’s commitment to the program and OU's need for help at the position . . . The battle to be the starting running back is another storyline, with sophomores Keith Ford and Alex Ross hoping to make a statement this spring before ESPN 300 running backs Joe Mixon and Samaje Perine arrive in the summer. Ford forced his way into the lineup as a freshman before an injury slowed him . . . The Sooners will be looking to shore up the secondary after the departure of All-Big 12 cornerback Aaron Colvin and starting safety Gabe Lynn. Sophomore Stanvon Taylor could be set to replace Colvin, while sophomores Hatari Byrd and Ahmad Thomas will battle to replace Lynn.

Oklahoma State

Spring start: March 10

Final spring practice: April 5

What to watch: Incoming freshman Mason Rudolph enrolled early to participate in spring football with the hope of replacing quarterback Clint Chelf. J.W. Walsh has won a lot of games in a Cowboys uniform, but will have to hold off stern competition to earn the starting spot as a junior . . . The Cowboys lose seven seniors off one of their best defenses in recent memory. The overall quality might be upgraded, but spring football will be the first chance to see if those talented yet inexperienced defenders are ready to step into the fire. Defensive end Jimmy Bean, linebacker Ryan Simmons and cornerback Kevin Peterson could emerge as the foundation of the defense . . . Who will step up at receiver? The Cowboys lose three of their top four receivers, with Jhajuan Seales as the lone returnee. But several youngsters appear poised to step in, including sophomore Marcell Ateman and redshirt freshman Ra'Shaad Samples.

TCU

Spring start: March 1

Final spring practice: April 5

What to watch: Doug Meacham and Sonny Cumbie have arrived to take over as co-offensive coordinators at TCU. The Horned Frogs need a jump start and could get it from the “Air Raid”-style offense the duo will bring to the table. This spring will be an important first step in improving the offense . . . Who will be the quarterback? Trevone Boykin started several games in 2013 but might actually be TCU’s top receiver. Tyler Matthews, a redshirt freshman, also saw time under center, but he faces stiff competition. Don’t expect the battle to end until fall camp . . . TCU needs someone to step up in the secondary, with Jason Verrett NFL-bound after spending the past two seasons as one of the Big 12’s top coverage cornerbacks. Ranthony Texada and Travoskey Garrett are among several young defensive backs who could try to fill the void.

Texas

Spring start: March 18

Spring game: April 19

What to watch: David Ash's health will be one of the main storylines of Texas’ first spring under coach Charlie Strong. Ash has the talent to be a key piece of the puzzle, but head injuries are always tough to overcome. If Ash is 100 percent healthy, the Longhorns will feel better about the overall status at quarterback . . . Strong has talked of instilling a tough mindset in Austin since he arrived in January, and spring football will be the first real taste of what the Longhorns’ new coach is trying to bring to the program . . . Where are the playmakers? Texas has a talent-laden roster, but didn’t have the exceptional talent who could consistently change games. This spring gives several returning skill players, including receiver Jaxon Shipley and all-purpose standout Daje Johnson, the chance to become the foundation of the offense in 2014.

Texas Tech

Spring start: March 5

Spring game: April 12

What to watch: Davis Webb's health is the No. 1 priority for the Red Raiders, who have seen three quarterbacks leave the program since the beginning of the 2013 season. Coach Kliff Kingsbury could have the toughest job of the spring as he tries to manage the lack of quarterbacks with the desire to have a productive spring for the roster as a whole . . . The Red Raiders have some consistency among the defensive coaching staff, meaning they could improve in 2014 despite losing multiple starters, including defensive tackle Kerry Hyder, linebacker Will Smith and safety Tre' Porter. Tech could start seeing dividends of that continuity . . . The Red Raiders have to replace Jace Amaro and Eric Ward, who combined to catch 189 passes for 2,299 yards and 15 touchdowns last season. Jakeem Grant and Bradley Marquez made a bunch of plays in 2013 and Devin Lauderdale, a junior college transfer and early enrollee, will get the chance to show why he had Texas Tech fans buzzing when he initially signed in February 2013.

West Virginia

Spring start: March 2

Spring game: April 12

What to watch: Finding a quarterback is critical for the Mountaineers, who have talent at the skill positions but won’t transform into an explosive offense without efficient quarterback play. Clint Trickett is recovering from shoulder surgery, meaning Paul Millard, junior college transfer Skyler Howard and former receiver Logan Moore will run the offense this spring . . . Tony Gibson takes over as WVU’s defensive coordinator after coaching the safeties in 2013. His promotion allows some continuity on the defense after former DC Keith Patterson left for Arizona State after the season . . . Replacing defensive tackle Shaq Rowell and defensive end Will Clarke, who started 56 combined career games for WVU, won’t be easy. The Mountaineers will lean heavily on veteran juniors Isaiah Bruce and Karl Joseph, who have started since their freshman seasons.

Big 12 pre-spring breakdown: WRs

February, 20, 2014
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As we wait for the start of spring ball, we’ll be examining and ranking the positional situations of every team, continuing Thursday with receivers (and tight ends). Some of these outlooks will look different after the spring. But here’s how we see them at the moment:

[+] EnlargeTyler Lockett
Christian Petersen/Getty ImagesTyler Lockett had seven games with more than 100 yards receiving and two games with more than 200.
1. Baylor: Antwan Goodley hauled in a Big 12-best 1,339 receiving yards and is back for his senior campaign. Levi Norwood filled in well as a second option after Tevin Reese’s injury, and, like Goodley, can also fly. The Bears are also about to enjoy the fruits of back-to-back monster recruiting classes in the position, including five ESPN 300 players in the last two years. The best of those, incoming freshman K.D. Cannon, has the talent to be Baylor’s next great receiver.

2. Kansas State: The Wildcats have the Big 12’s finest receiver in Tyler Lockett, which warrants them a high ranking even if the supporting cast isn’t tantalizing. Lockett was basically uncoverable downfield last season, and exploded once QB Jake Waters got more comfortable. Curry Sexton has turned into a reliable possession target. The Wildcats also welcome one of the best juco receivers in the country in Andre Davis. If Davis pans out, this has a chance to be among the best receiving corps Bill Snyder has ever had.

3. Texas Tech: The Red Raiders lose an ultra-productive player in Eric Ward and a superstar in tight end Jace Amaro, but this position remains stocked with talent. Jitterbug slot man Jakeem Grant was sixth in the league last year in receiving, and showed in the Holiday Bowl how dangerous he can be when 100 percent focused. Bradley Marquez and Jordan Davis are reliable pass-catchers, but the player to watch here is Reginald Davis. A former high school quarterback, Davis has gradually picked up the nuances of playing receiver. But as he flashed in a kickoff return touchdown against Arizona State, Davis is a playmaker with the ball in his hands, and could be a major factor.

4. Oklahoma State: The Cowboys lose their top three receivers, but outside Baylor, no team in the Big 12 has more WRs ready to contribute in 2014 than Oklahoma State. Jhajuan Seales and Marcell Ateman combined for 61 receptions as freshmen, and will give the Cowboys a physical presence on the perimeter. Brandon Shepard and David Glidden were also part of the regular rotation, and Austin Hayes, who started nine games in 2012, would have been had he not missed virtually the entire season with injury. The two to watch here, though, have yet to play a down, but will bring major speed. Former ESPN 300 recruit Ra’Shaad Samples redshirted last year, but reportedly ran a 4.3-second 40 last summer. That might seem slow compared to Tyreek Hill, the nation’s No. 4 juco recruit, who doubles as a track phenom.

5. Texas: Jaxon Shipley isn’t his brother Jordan, but he’s still a quality college receiver. Even with all of Texas’ QB issues, Shipley already has 159 career receptions. The Longhorns have speed and playmaking elsewhere in downfield burner Marcus Johnson, Kendall Sanders and the versatile Daje Johnson. The Longhorns also signed one of three best incoming WRs in the Big 12 in Armanti Foreman. This group could really thrive with an uptick in QB play.

[+] EnlargeJordan Thompson
AP Photo/Chris BernacchiJordan Thompson showed near the end of the season the type of weapon he can be in West Virginia's offense.
6. Oklahoma: The Sooners graduate Jalen Saunders, who was “Mr. Everything” for the OU offense. But Sterling Shepard seems primed to take over the No. 1 role after hauling in 51 passes and seven touchdowns. But who will surround him? Durron Neal is the only other player on the roster with much experience. The good news for the Sooners is they’ve recruited superbly at the position. Among many options, the player to keep an eye on is freshman Jordan Smallwood, who was turning heads last summer, until a foot fracture forced him to redshirt.

7. Iowa State: Quenton Bundrage is one of the more underrated receivers in the league despite ranking third in the league. With Amaro gone, E.J. Bibbs becomes the best receiving tight end in the league after hauling in 39 passes last year. Iowa State’s standing here, though, is contingent on incoming freshman Allen Lazard, one the most highly touted WRs Iowa State has ever signed. If Lazard can make an immediate impact, like the Iowa State coaching staff is banking on, this could become one of the better units in the league.

8. West Virginia: There’s no corps in the Big 12 that could move up more spots than West Virginia’s. The Mountaineers didn’t have a receiver rank in the top 15 in the Big 12 last year, but Kevin White, Mario Alford and Daikiel Shorts all ranked in the top 20. All three are back, too, as is the diminutive Jordan Thompson, who finally came alive the second half of the season. Former ESPN 300 recruit Shelton Gibson, who redshirted, will also join the rotation. The Mountaineers rank eighth for now, but they are closer to Kansas State than to Kansas.

9. TCU: This week, TCU kicked receiver LaDarius Brown off the team. Considering Brown tied for the team lead in receptions last year, it’s a tough loss. This unit is obviously better with Trevone Boykin, but he might have to play QB, at least until someone else emerges there. The Horned Frogs desperately need Brandon Carter to become a No. 1 receiver. After a promising sophomore year, Carter was basically a non-factor, before showing signs of bouncing back the last month of the season. TCU needs him back in a big way in 2014.

10. Kansas: The Jayhawks didn’t have a receiver with more than 11 catches last year. Some of that was the quarterbacks. Some of it was, well, the receivers. The group had little overall impact, which put tremendous pressure on James Sims and the running game. With Sims gone, the receivers have to elevate their game significantly for Kansas to have a chance of taking a step forward. The Jayhawks do have a solid tight end in Jimmay Mundine, who had five TD catches. And Tony Pierson could play more receiver this year. But somebody else needs to emerge.

Season report card: Texas

January, 13, 2014
Jan 13
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As bad as things got for Texas in 2013 -- and they did get bad -- the Longhorns played for a Big 12 championship on the final day of the regular season after rallying following a horrible nonconference slate. Nonetheless, 8-5 isn’t going to get it done in Austin, Texas.

Offense: C

The Longhorns offense was average in pretty much every area except running the ball. UT was third in the Big 12 with 196.2 rushing yards per game thanks to a deep group of ball-carriers. Johnathan Gray is one of the Big 12’s top running backs and his injury against West Virginia was a bigger loss than most realize as the Longhorns lost three of their final four games after his injury. They had won six straight games before Gray was hurt. Malcolm Brown and Joe Bergeron are solid runners in their own right and give the Longhorns quality running back depth.

UT’s quarterback play was terrific at times, like the Red River Rivalry win over Oklahoma, and horrible at other times, like the Longhorns' blowout losses to Baylor and Oregon. Case McCoy brought confidence and moxie but was too confident at times and hurt his team with some of this poor decision-making and throws. Outside of Jaxon Shipley, UT’s receivers struggled to be consistent and explosive for much of the season.

The Longhorns' offensive line was solid, allowing a sack just 3.6 percent of the time quarterbacks dropped back to pass, ranking second in the Big 12, and paving the way for their bevy of running backs.

Defense: C

Much like the offense, the defense wasn’t great at much of anything with the exception of getting to the quarterback. Texas finished first in the Big 12 with 39 sacks thanks to 23 combined sacks from Big 12 co-defensive player of the year Jackson Jeffcoat (13) and his opposite defensive end Cedric Reed (10).

[+] EnlargeJoe Bergeron, Will Smith
Brendan Maloney/USA TODAY SportsJohnathan Gray and the Longhorns finished the 2013 season 8-5 after losing to Oregon in the Valero Alamo Bowl.
The defensive line was great at times and subpar at other times. The lack of consistency killed the team and made the entire defense just as inconsistent. When its defensive front played well, however, the defense was much tougher to handle. Safety Adrian Phillips, linebacker Dalton Santos and linebacker Steve Edmond all finished among the top five on the squad in tackles and were active defenders. But the Longhorns didn’t seem to have many difference-makers on the defensive side of the ball.

In UT’s five losses the defense allowed 36.4 points per game, 497 yards per game, 6.3 yards per play, and 2.4 points per drive. Ugly numbers for a team with the talent the Longhorns possessed. Injuries played a role in the defense’s struggles but talent wasn’t the issue as it was clear the unit improved when Greg Robinson took over and simplified the system.

Special Teams: B-

Anthony Fera was the clear bright spot among an average group of special teams units. He handled the place kicking and punting and did both well for the Longhorns. Daje Johnson was a scary threat on kickoff and punt returns with his speed but didn’t rank among the Big 12’s best in either category.

Overall: B-

The Longhorns won eight games and competed for a Big 12 championship during a season that will be remembered for its faults. They could have, and should have, been better but they did dominate an OU team that defeated Alabama in the Allstate Sugar Bowl and had one of the Big 12’s most impressive stretches of the season during their six-game win streak. It was a disappointing season but it wasn’t the complete disaster that some would like to believe.

Ten plays that defined Texas' season

December, 12, 2013
12/12/13
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Counting down 10 of the biggest plays of Texas’ season, the ones that ended up defining the 2013 Longhorns:

10. McCoy’s no-look TD pass at Baylor: The epitome of Case McCoy’s moxie magic. On 4th-and-goal down big in Waco, McCoy faked a handoff but the pass was well-covered so he scrambled to his left, but the run was blown up quickly. McCoy turned back and, amid good pressure, fired off a long pass to a wide-open Malcolm Brown for the score. It’s about as a tough a 2-yard touchdown as you’ll find, and McCoy probably had no business making the throw. But it worked.

[+] EnlargeDaje Johnson
Cooper Neill/Getty ImagesDaje Johnson's TDs against New Mexico State in the opener displayed Texas big-play potential on offense.
9. Daje Johnson goes deep: Try to remember what this meant at the time. Late in the second quarter of a low-scoring game, Texas ran a four-verticals play, and David Ash hit an open Johnson from the slot. He found space and dash untouched past three New Mexico State defenders for a 66-yard score. At the time, it was a sign of Texas’ potential to become a big-play offense in its new up-tempo spread attack.

8. Justin Gilbert pick-sixes McCoy: The phrase “slim margin for error” came up a lot in the final weeks of Texas’ season. This play was certainly indicative. Down 21-10 to Oklahoma State, Texas was driving to trim the deficit before halftime, but Gilbert baited McCoy into forcing a pass to Kendall Sanders along the sideline, then picked it off and ran it back 43 yards. There would be no coming back from 28-10 against Oklahoma State.

7. Jeffcoat finishes off the Sooners: We had to get one of Jackson Jeffcoat’s 12 sacks on the list. This one came on 4th-and-13 late in the fourth quarter against OU. Blake Bell, in the red zone and threatening to possibly cut Texas’ lead to 36-28, dropped back but had no chance. Cedric Reed’s rush forced Bell to his left, where Jeffcoat dropped him for a sack and a 12-yard loss to kill the Sooners’ last-ditch rally. One of many times Texas’ defensive end duo made a big play.

6. Taysom Hill’s first touchdown run: A sign of big, bad things to come for Texas’ defense. Hill faked a handoff on 3rd-and-2 in the first quarter and darted around his left tackle. Adrian Phillips took a bad angle and missed. Sheroid Evans and Josh Turner both dove for Hill’s legs and missed. He scooted 68 yards for the first of his three rushing touchdowns. It was the beginning of the end for defensive coordinator Manny Diaz.

5. “Score pass” to beat West Virginia: Arguably Major Applewhite’s best play call of the season. The Longhorns’ first possession of overtime against West Virginia could’ve stalled after Brown was twice stopped on goal-line runs. But they caught WVU by surprise on 3rd-and-goal. McCoy faked a handoff and tossed a short pass to fullback Alex De La Torre for the 2-yard touchdown. The go-ahead score was DLT’s first career catch, and McCoy had missed on this exact same play vs. OU.

4. Ash goes down at BYU: We don’t know for certain when Ash suffered his concussion against BYU. But one play stands out: With less than nine minutes left in Provo, Ash scrambled out of the pocket and was hit hard from behind by end Bronson Kaufusi as another defender wrapped up his legs. Ash was helped up, went back down, knelt and put his head down as trainers rushed out. He missed the rest of the game and nearly the entire rest of the season.

3. McCoy’s Red River dime: In another example of McCoy’s infinite irrational confidence, he chucked a 30-yard pass down the sideline and perfectly hit Marcus Johnson in stride off a wheel route. Johnson burned his defender for a 59-yard score to put Texas ahead 17-3. It was a real game-changer both for momentum and for the confidence of the Longhorn offense.

2. The near-fumble at Iowa State: Paul Rhoads and his legion of Cyclone fans had a hard time getting over this one. It’s entirely possible Johnathan Gray lost a fumble at the goal line with less than four minutes left, but no camera angle could confirm this to game officials. and McCoy would later score. Imagine where this season would’ve headed had ISU won the review and the game, sending Texas to a 2-3 record.

1. Chris Whaley’s INT for a TD against Oklahoma: No play better sums up Texas’ six-game Big 12 win streak. Whaley, the 295-pound defensive tackle, slipped back into coverage in a heavy blitz front. Adrian Phillips got to Blake Bell, whose pass sailed wide and right into Whaley’s hands. He rumbled 31 yards for the touchdown that gave Texas a stunning 10-3 lead. Just a crazy, inexplicable play that led to an unexpected rout.
Thanks for your questions during my chat, you can read the full transcript here.

Jake (Dallas) OK I have a problem with the fact that Baylor can get beat (demolished) the same as A&M and Oregon and Bryce Petty becomes a ghost on the Heisman Watch list. With Johnny Manziel and Marcus Mariota still on there!! Yeah he had a tough (terrible) day but still put up 300+ yards 2 TDs and no interceptions. He posted an 80 QBR. He now has a better TD to INT ratio than both of those QBs, a better RECORD than both of those QBs and has not lost to an unranked opponent (Oregon). Please enlighten me with a logical answer that makes sense to a Baylor fan.

Brandon Chatmon I don't think he should be out of it because outside of Jameis Winston there is no clear favorites right now. However, he has to have great games against TCU and Texas. If he returns back to his normal, record-breaking self in the last two games, he deserves consideration in my opinion. And you're right his numbers weren't horrible against OSU.

James Johnson (Hong Kong) Brandon, you called the OSU-Stillwater game as Baylor's toughest game this year over a month ago (even before OSU was getting hot) in answering one of my questions. OSU played lights out, and Baylor played poorly. Both were related. How much of that was OSU vs. Baylor performance that night (e.g., 70/30)? Who was better: 2011 OSU team or the OSU team last Saturday night?

Brandon Chatmon I think a lot of it was OSU. They played an amazing game. But, I'd still take 2011 OSU over this year's squad.

Mike P (Greater KC) Which is more likely to happen … Oklahoma beats Okie State or Texas Beats Baylor?

Brandon Chatmon Oklahoma beats Oklahoma State.

Pete (Kansas City) How impressed have you been with K-State's season? Do you think the Wildcats will end up in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl, Holiday Bowl or Texas Bowl?

Brandon Chatmon I've been pretty impressed although I don't understand why they abandoned the run against OU. That said it's been a solid season overall for the Wildcats. I have them Holiday Bowl bound.

Daje Johnson (Austin, Texas) How badly did I mess up this game for us tomorrow by getting suspended?

Brandon Chatmon Bad move, Daje. And now you're missing the stadiums you're supposed to be running for punishment too?!?! I understand my chats are entertaining but do you ever want to play again?

Stats that matter: Texas Tech-Texas

November, 27, 2013
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Each week, we team up with the ESPN Stats and Info crew to dig into the numbers that matter most and find three statistics that could make a big difference this Thursday. Here are the numbers to remember going into Texas’ home finale on Thanksgiving against Texas Tech.

No. 1: Minus-12

That’s Texas Tech’s turnover margin this season. The Red Raiders have 28 turnovers, 16 takeaways and are minus-10 in Big 12 play. They’ve lost nine of their 11 fumbles. They’ve played only one game (Kansas, plus 3) with a positive turnover margin, and that number has been negative in each of Tech’s last six games.

You just can’t beat good teams with those kinds of numbers, and that has played a role in Texas Tech dropping four games in a row. There’s no doubt freshman quarterbacks Baker Mayfield and Davis Webb have contributed to this bug; they’re responsible for 23 of the 28 turnovers.

But they’re not solely to blame, because turnovers have become a long-term issue for this program. Texas Tech has a minus-35 turnover margin in the last five years, which ranks fourth-worst nationally and dead last among BCS conference schools. What’s remarkable is they’ve still won 37 games during that span.

No. 2: 297.25

Another glaring weakness that has developed during Texas Tech’s four-game slide: Run defense. Tech is giving up 297.25 rushing yards per game in its last four, with no team gaining less than 277.

Those four opponents -- Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Kansas State and Baylor -- have combined for 18 rushing touchdowns and 32 rushes of 10-plus yards. Good luck beating the best teams in the Big 12 when you give up 5.74 yards per carry and first downs on nearly 29 percent of your opponents’ rushes.

Texas will try to exploit that porous run D without its two most explosive rushers, Johnathan Gray and Daje Johnson. Malcolm Brown and Joe Bergeron ran relatively well against Oklahoma State, but they quickly became non-factors once Texas fell behind big. The key this week? Time of possession and turnovers. The run should be there for the taking if the Longhorns can hold onto the ball.

No. 3: Zero

The zero signifies two Texas stats worth noting going into this game. First, the Longhorns have recorded zero sacks in their three losses this season. That’s a problem. Texas has 26 sacks in its seven wins this season, and its defense line has played at a consistently high level in those games. Their pass rush can’t disappear again against a Tech team with young quarterbacks who turn the ball over.

Another zero: Since 2010, Texas is 11-1 in games when its offense doesn’t turn the ball over. Texas players insist the blowout loss to Oklahoma State could’ve been a much more even affair if not for three costly turnovers.

Three more to remember

7-0: Texas’ record against Texas Tech in games played in Austin under Mack Brown

18.7: Points per game Texas Tech has allowed in its seven wins.

50.5: Points per game Texas Tech has allowed in its four losses.

Gray positive Texas can run without him

November, 15, 2013
11/15/13
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AUSTIN, Texas -- Nearly two weeks ago, Johnathan Gray posed a question to a Texas assistant trainer out of pure curiosity.

“How does it feel if you tear your Achilles?”

[+] EnlargeJohnathan Gray
David K Purdy/Getty ImagesJohnathan Gray had become one of the top runners in the Big 12.
Who knows how long he’d wondered, but this came to mind sometime after Texas linebacker Jordan Hicks went down for the season with that tear.

The answer? It feels like somebody has kicked you from behind, like they’ve stuck a knife just below your calf.

Gray isn’t making up that anecdote. He says he asked the question. He got a much more definite answer a week later.

“I felt like I kind of jinxed myself,” Gray said Monday.

The sophomore running back’s season is over. He had surgery on Wednesday to repair the torn Achilles he suffered against West Virginia last Saturday, and by all accounts the operation went well. Now he’s in for a long road to recovery, carrying the hope he’ll be back in time for the start of the 2014 season.

“God puts us here in weird positions and we have to overcome them and get through adversity,” Gray said. “That’s what I plan on doing.”

And Texas, with three high-stakes games and a bowl left, must find a way to keep its run-heavy offense rolling without the third-leading rusher in the Big 12.

When he turned after hauling in a third-quarter pass from Case McCoy at West Virginia, Gray felt the pop. He’s seen the slow-motion TV replays that show a ripple in his right leg after trying to plant his foot. He skidded to the ground.

“Sure enough, I looked behind me and nobody was behind me. It felt like somebody kicked me,” Gray said. “I knew right then when I went down I’d tore it. It sucks, but you have to get through it.”

He’d notched more than 330 touches in two seasons and proved to be Texas’ most durable running back. Gray didn’t have much of an injury history in his time in Austin. That’s why his teammates were stunned.

“I was shocked. Like, damn,” tackle Donald Hawkins said. “It’s Johnathan, you know? The guy who's always smiling, always encouraging people. To see him on crutches was surprising.”

What didn’t shock fullback Alex De La Torre was the way Gray reacted. When he went down near the sideline, he unbuckled his chinstrap, took off his helmet and asked for some help.

“I don’t think he even yelled when he got hurt,” De La Torre said. “He was just like, ‘Hey, I’m hurt.’”

If the former five-star recruit is hurting right now, he’s hiding it well. Gray was all smiles on Monday, in his boot and crutches, and is staying overwhelmingly positive about the setback.

He believes in juniors Malcolm Brown and Joe Bergeron. He’s confident they can handle the workload and get the job done against No. 12 Oklahoma State on Saturday.

That duo is now responsible for powering an offense that has averaged more than 49 carries per game in the past month. And Gray will be with them throughout, barking out orders as a volunteer running backs coach in practice and offering his in-game encouragement when he returns to the sidelines.

“We've got a good thing going for us: defense playing well, offense playing well, special teams playing well. Anyone can step up and play any position on this team,” Gray said. “We have talent on this team. I told the guys to keep going forward and keep my goal in mind, and that’s to win out and make it to a good BCS bowl and win that.”

Co-offensive coordinator Major Applewhite said Gray has always been one to choose optimism. His running back had the same smile when Texas was 1-2 as he did after beating Oklahoma. The attitude is infectious, and Gray will have a presence in the locker room no matter his health.

And just as Gray will tell you, Texas isn’t necessarily sunk without him. The four backs left -- Brown, Bergeron, Daje Johnson and Jalen Overstreet -- have combined for 3,130 career rushing yards and 45 touchdowns.

Applewhite spent the last five years coaching Texas running backs. He knows what he’s working with. When it comes to Brown and Bergeron, the coaching staff will ride the hot hand on Saturday.

“The carries and the rotation, except for certain situations, is kind of handled by how they’re playing and how they’re taking care of the ball,” Applewhite said. “Both those guys will play a whole bunch.”

Gray wants to be there for them. He can't be on the sideline Saturday afternoon, but coach Mack Brown made sure Gray and defensive tackle Chris Whaley join everyone else at the team hotel this weekend. He wants them to miss out on as little as possible.

Teammates say they’ll miss Gray as much off the field as on it, but the ever-faithful back says he’ll be fine. He’s keeping his head up. He wants a Big 12 title more than ever now, and he believes his fellow Longhorns can deliver.

“Those guys have nothing but victory in their eyes,” Gray said. “I know they’ll get the job done.”

What to watch in the Big 12: Week 12

November, 14, 2013
11/14/13
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OSUJohn Weast/Getty ImagesClint Chelf and Oklahoma State have to beat Texas in Austin if they hope to keep their conference title hopes alive, as the Cowboys are a game behind the Longhorns and Baylor in the loss column.
Let's take a look at the top storylines in the Big 12 for Week 12:

1. Can Oklahoma State make this a race? The stakes for Oklahoma State this weekend are obvious: Beat Texas and we're looking at a three-team Big 12 title race. Lose, and the Cowboys join Oklahoma on the outside looking in, making the Dec. 7 Bedlam game irrelevant to the conference-title picture. We haven't said that in a long time, have we? The Cowboys have won five straight and face a Texas team missing several key cogs. They've won their last two games in Austin. Do it again and they just might sneak into the top 10.

2. Texas Tech goes for the big upset: The Red Raiders have plenty of motivation this week as the 27-point David to the conference's undefeated green-and-gold Goliath. The team that was once as hyped as any in college football at 7-0 is now staring down the real possibility of ending the season 7-5. Maybe being backed into a corner and underestimated is just what coach Kliff Kingsbury's squad needs this week to end a three-game slide and stun Baylor.

3. Texas offense without Johnathan Gray: One of the best running backs in the Big 12 is done for the season. How will the Longhorns' offense regroup? Expect a heavy workload for the junior duo of Malcolm Brown and Joe Bergeron, and perhaps a few more creative ways to put the ball in the hands of the speedy Daje Johnson. If OSU loads the box to stop the Gray-less run game, can Case McCoy make the throws to beat the Pokes' talented secondary?

4. Baylor's defense tries to do it again: Shutting down Oklahoma in a 41-12 victory last Thursday might've done wonders for the national perception of Baylor's much-improved defense. But there will always be detractors who say Oklahoma was flat-out inept in Waco and that the Bears' performance wasn't conclusive enough. Maybe shutting down Jace Amaro and the rest of the Tech attack in front of a national primetime audience at AT&T Stadium would quiet a few of those remaining doubters.

5. K-State goes for four in a row: Winners of three straight, all by convincing or impressive margins, the Wildcats are enjoying the fruits of their weekly improvement after a tough 2-4 start to the season. A win over TCU makes Kansas State bowl eligible, a feat that seemed unlikely one month ago. Don't sleep on this KSU team -- it might be the Big 12's fourth- or fifth-best squad by year's end.

6. Does West Virginia have gas left in the tank? The Mountaineers have gone to overtime in each of the past two weeks, one a win at TCU and the other a shootout home loss to Texas in which they came up just short. This West Virginia defense is as beat up from an injury standpoint as any in the league. Can the Mountaineers get up for a road game against a Kansas team that plays most foes close? Knowing they need to win out to reach a bowl should be sufficient motivation.

7. Oklahoma offense must answer criticism: As usual, Bob Stoops faced another week full of criticism and second-guessing following a Sooners loss. This time, the public's focus was on quarterback Blake Bell, play-caller Josh Heupel and the sputtering offense that duo is held responsible for, fair or not. This might be a good week to pound the rock and rediscover the run game that was less than impactful against Baylor.

8. TCU trying to keep its bowl hopes alive: If there are two teams nobody in this conference wants to play right now, it might be Kansas State and Baylor. That's all the Horned Frogs have left in 2013, and all they have to play for right now at 4-6 is a puncher's chance at bowl eligibility. The only time Gary Patterson hasn't taken his team bowling was 2004.

9. Is this the week Kansas finally wins? You might've noticed my colleague Jake Trotter boldly went out on a limb and predicted Kansas would pull off a victory over West Virginia on Saturday. The Jayhawks, you might have heard, have lost 27 consecutive Big 12 games and are 0-15 in conference games under Charlie Weis. Will KU reward the bravery of Trotter and its remaining fans and finally notch that elusive victory? If this isn't the week, don't worry, there’s still a game against Iowa State left.

10. Bring it on, Grant Rohach: We're trying to find reason to get excited about an Iowa State offense that just hasn't been able to figure things out this season. Quarterback Sam B. Richardson is still dealing with a thumb injury, so Rohach will get a chance to shake off the jitters from his first career start and give it a go on the road against Oklahoma. Not an ideal situation by any means, but perhaps he can give ISU a spark.

What we learned: Week 9

October, 27, 2013
10/27/13
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FORT WORTH -- Where exactly are we supposed to begin? The list of what we learned about the Longhorns after their 30-7 win over TCU is a long one. Here's a start:

1. No game, no problem

Think back to Sept. 7, when Texas got a late kickoff in Provo, Utah, due to a severe weather delay of 1:50. The defense played flat, Daje Johnson got hurt immediately, David Ash got hurt later, and BYU was flat-out more physical than Texas. This time, Mack Brown, his staff and players faced a game delay of more than three hours and were perfectly fine with the setback. Texas held onto and built upon its lead entering that long break, without giving up any more TCU scores. Players killed time with meetings, listening to music and eating, but once the game resumed it was same old Texas.

2. Front seven setting the tone

To heap all the praise on the defensive line wouldn't be too fair when you recognize how well these Texas linebackers are playing and how far they've come. Dalton Santos and Steve Edmond were both treated like scapegoats for the rest of the defense's troubles but are playing some great football right now. Together, they made life difficult for Casey Pachall in only the second career Big 12 start he's made. That Texas defensive line is playing lights out right now, and that'll need to continue over the final stretch.

3. Here comes Swoopes

Well, here we go. Texas burned the redshirt of the former four-star recruit with less than 5 minutes left against TCU. The results were more than modest -- 29 total yards on the eight plays he ran -- but what this means for the future is significant. We'll delve more into this on Monday, but just believe they wouldn't be taking this step if they didn't think he could help, and that he could use all the bonus snaps he can get. What does this mean for David Ash's long-term health? Brown isn't going into it other than to say Ash won't play against Kansas next week. But one thing is for sure: If that's the only time we see Tyrone Swoopes this season, it's a real shame for all involved, especially those who wholeheartedly believed Swoopes should redshirt.

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