Texas Longhorns: Nick O'Toole

With spring ball done, we’re re-examining and re-ranking the positional situations of every Big 12 team, continuing Friday with special teams. These outlooks will probably look different in August. But here’s how we see them post-spring:

1. TCU (pre-spring ranking: 1): The Horned Frogs’ coverage units were pretty lousy last year. If they can shore those up, this could be an elite special-teams unit with kicker Jaden Oberkrom, punter Ethan Perry and returners B.J. Catalon and Cameron Echols-Luper.

2. Kansas State (3): Freshman Judah Jones, who was one of the stars of the spring game with a 51-yard touchdown catch, fielded kickoffs, too. Cornerback Morgan Burns also added a 39-yard kickoff return. They could take some pressure off Tyler Lockett in the return game and also him to get a breather when needed.

3. Baylor (2): The return units are going to be spectacular, and Spencer Roth is one of the best punters in the nation. But field-goal kicking is an unknown. Freshman Chris Callahan has taken over for now as the team’s kicker, but missed one chip shot badly in the spring game. Callahan could be fine. But as Oklahoma State found out last year, rolling with a first-time kicker can be dicey.

[+] EnlargeMichael Hunnicutt
Tim Heitman/USA TODAY SportsMichael Hunnicutt has the ability to become Oklahoma's first All-America kicker.
4. Oklahoma (5): Place-kicker Michael Hunnicutt (Moneycutt?) nailed field goals of 52 and 47 yards during a windy spring game. Amazingly, the Sooners have never had an All-America kicker. Hunnicutt has the potential to be the first.

5. West Virginia (7): Josh Lambert created plenty of buzz this spring, including his 53-yard field goal in the spring game. Mario Alford also took the opening kick in the spring game to the house. Punter Nick O’Toole is a proven commodity. If Lambert has a big sophomore year (he was really good as a freshman) and Alford’s TD is a sign of improvement in the return units, which ranked last in the Big 12 last year, this could become one of the league’s better special-teams units.

6. Texas Tech (4): The Red Raiders continued to have issues fielding punts during the spring, which is probably one reason why the return slots were left blank in the team’s post-spring depth chart. Incoming freshman Ian Sadler, who had six return touchdowns during his senior season of high school, could solidify that spot once he arrives on campus.

7. Iowa State (6): Sophomore kicker Cole Netten showed off his big leg in the spring game by making a 56-yard field goal. That came after coach Paul Rhoads gave him a shot at a 62-yard attempt. Netten, combined with the dynamic return trio of Jarvis West, DeVondrick Nealy and Aaron Wimberly, should translate into a strong special-teams unit. If incoming freshman Colin Downing can adequately step in at punter, the unit will be even stronger.

8. Texas (8): Nick Rose showed a strong leg on a missed 55-yard field goal try in the spring game and converted a 40-yarder. William Russ averaged 43.3 yards per punt in the spring game. Those were positive signs, but replacing All-American kicker/punter Anthony Fera will be one of the underrated storylines in Charlie Strong’s first season.

9: Oklahoma State (10): With so much turnover on both sides of the ball, the Cowboys need their special teams to be much better than last season. They just might be, though. With his speed, Tyreek Hill will be a major factor in the return game. Also, place-kicker Ben Grogan, after a shaky freshman season, drew praise for his improvement this spring from coach Mike Gundy.

10. Kansas (9): Special teams did not excel in Kansas’ spring game. Matthew Wyman made a 23-yard field goal but missed an extra point. The punting in the game was mediocre as well. The Jayhawks reportedly have preferred walk-on John Duvic enrolling this summer. After setting the Illinois state high school record with five field goals in a game, he could be a welcomed addition.
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.
Robert SealsAP Photo/LM OteroBaker Mayfield's combination of accurate passing and mobility might make Texas Tech a tougher out in the Big 12 than previously thought.
In today’s mailbag, we discuss West Virginia’s chances in Norman, Texas Tech’s new ceiling and the fallout from the Kansas State and Iowa State FCS losses.

To the ‘bag:

Chris Gibson in Morgantown, W.V., writes: After averaging over 50 yards per punt, has Nick O'Toole solidified his nickname as “Boomstache?”

Jake Trotter: I like the nickname. But isn’t a little concerning that West Virginia’s best player in the opener was its punter?

Ali H. in Fort Worth, Texas writes: Love the blog. Regarding conference expansion, has there been any rumors that the Big 12 will expand? If so, I think the Big 12 should go after Virginia, Virginia Tech, Clemson, Florida State, Georgia Tech and Louisville. Furthermore, create an East division and West division. That conference would go head-to-head with the SEC any day.

Jake Trotter: Why stop there? Why not add Notre Dame and Miami while we’re at it? Let’s be realistic: the Big 12 is not a destination conference for programs with wandering eyes at the moment. That said, I do think it’s possible the Big 12 and ACC merge into one conference down the line. Those two conferences have proven to be the most vulnerable to pilfering, and the momentum of conference realignment has been to settle at four superconferences. It’s doubtful, however, that the Big 12 would be able to just cherry-pick from the ACC. The more likely scenario is that one of the two conferences begins to crumble during the next realignment shift and is assimilated into the other.

Mr. Kingsbury in the Sunglass Hut writes: How concerned should I be that my top two rushers opening game were my QB and an inside receiver? I know run-stopping is SMU's defensive M.O., but I'm supposed to have two solid backs in DeAndre Washington and Kenny Williams. This is NOT the University of Texas where talented backs are allowed to underperform. The talent is there for our first 1,000-yard rusher in a decade, so ... not a good start. Thoughts?

Jake Trotter: I’m not sure Texas Tech has the offensive line to have a dominant run game. Baker Mayfield’s mobility is one of the many reasons he was the more attractive choice at quarterback, given what would be protecting him. Sure, the run game could be better. But I have a hard time seeing it becoming the M.O. of this Tech offense.

Wildcat Faithful writes: First off, welcome to the blog. Obviously K-State has Texas's number given that even under the Ron Prince’s guidance the ‘Cats still managed to beat Texas. So with that I fully expect this trend to continue even with Friday's disappointing start. What would you say the odds of this happening are? I would give it about a 70 percent chance, with the 'Cats winning by a late TD.

[+] EnlargeBrock Jensen
Peter G. Aiken/Getty ImagesThe lesson learned in the Big 12 this week: If you are going to schedule an FCS team, don't schedule the best one.
Jake Trotter: I appreciate the warm welcome, Faithful. However, I must advise against drinking and messaging the 'bag. Otherwise you end up saying things like K-State has a 70 percent chance to win in Austin days after it couldn't beat North Dakota State in Manhattan.

Wilfred in Beverly, W.V., writes: Well, what can West Virginia do to beat Oklahoma?

Jake Trotter: If they can somehow take away OU’s ground game and force Trevor Knight to beat them through the air, the game could get interesting. Knight was shaky throwing the ball in his debut last week, though did get batter as the game wore on. I just don’t know if the Mountaineers have enough offensive pop to pull if off. Charles Sims is big time, but he doesn’t appear to have much help up front. If West Virginia somehow could get its ground game rolling, then beat the Sooners deep with some playaction completions down field, well, the game could get really interesting.

Matt in El Paso, Texas, writes: Of the Big 12 wins in Week 1, I feel like Texas Tech's victory over SMU proved the most. Given the situation at quarterback and Kingsbury being a first-year head coach, preseason predictions were understandably lowered. Assuming they can maintain that level of play on a consistent basis, what do you think Texas Tech's ceiling is for 2013?

Jake Trotter: I can’t disagree. Getting the win wasn’t all that impressive. Tech’s performance, though, was. A top-half finish in the conference is certainly attainable, something I wouldn’t have predicted before the season. But this is a question to revisit in two weeks, after TCU comes to town. If the Red Raiders win that game, I might be willing to raise the ceiling again.

Craig in Ames, Iowa, writes: Iowa State HAS to fire their offensive coordinator after that game, right? Our offense has been just -- to quote Charles Barkley -- turrible since (Courtney Messingham) took over. Our defense played bad in the first half. But they're young, we knew there would be growing pains after losing (Jake) Knott and (A.J.) Klein. But how is the zone-read, bubble-screen, then-pass-short-of-the-sticks-and punt-offense still viable? We have five good running backs, and yet our QB rushed the ball 21 times! Messingham has got to go after that, doesn't he?

Jake Trotter: I did find it curious that no Iowa State running back had more than eight carries. Then again, Messingham put this game in Sam Richardson’s hands, which I have no problem with. He’s Iowa State’s best offensive skill player -- probably by far. And doesn’t that smack more of being a talent problem than a play-calling problem? Other than Richardson, is there anyone on the Iowa State offense that would scare you as a defensive coordinator?

Doug in Morgantown, W.V., writes: I was wondering who should be more concerned, us barely beating a bottom-dwelling FCS team, or K-State, having actually lost, but to the two-time defending champion FCS team?

Jake Trotter: Both teams should be equally concerned. If West Virginia played the way it did against William & Mary, it would have lost to North Dakota State, too. But West Virginia is 1-0. Which brings us to this next question…

Steve in Mission Hills, Kan., writes: As much as I want Big 12 members do to well in the non-conference, I feel no sympathy for the Wildcats, who have eight homes games year-after-year. When will they step it up?

Jake Trotter: The lesson to be learned here is, if you’re going to play an FCS school, play a bad one. Don’t play the best one. You have nothing to gain by winning. And everything to lose. At the end of the year, nobody will remember that West Virginia almost lost to William & Mary. But they will remember Kansas State’s loss to North Dakota State.

Anonymous writes: What is the injury status of Oklahoma State receiver Austin Hays?

Jake Trotter: Hays is dealing with a hamstring injury. He didn’t make the trip last week to Houston, but it’s not believed to be serious. He’s expected to be back before too long.

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