Texas Longhorns: David Ash

AUSTIN, Texas -- Charlie Strong tried to play coy. Well, either that or he didn’t understand the question.

The question posed Tuesday was whether the first-year Texas coach can envision a quarterback joining this Longhorns program in the summer and competing for the starting job.

“I don’t know who that would be. You got somebody coming in for me?” Strong said before chuckling. “You got a secret guy coming here for me? We signed one in Jerrod [Heard]. He’s the only one.”

[+] EnlargeTyrone Swoopes
Matthew Visinsky/Icon SMITexas QB Tyrone Swoopes will now run the first-team offense and coach Charlie Strong told him "This is your team and it's up to you to go lead."
This was, of course, a veiled attempt at the question Horns fans have been chewing on for weeks and, in particular, the past five days: Is Max Wittek coming to Texas?

The Longhorns’ need for the former USC quarterback looms large now that David Ash has been lost for the spring. Right now, there’s a whole lot more interest in the three passers who won’t be playing in the Orange-White spring game this Saturday than the trio who will.

Finally recovered from the concussion-related issues that ended his 2013 season early, Ash was poised to once again take control of the Texas offense and he made a strong first impression on his new coaches.

Those efforts got put on hold when UT doctors discovered a fracture in his left foot that required surgery.

“It’s very tough because the injury for him, I don’t know how long he had it, but he said it had been bothering him,” Strong said. “He came in the other day, our trainers checked him and we were able to find out exactly what was wrong.

“You would’ve never known he had the injury with just how well he was practicing and the way he’s been carrying himself. He understands this: A team is going to come and go as its quarterback goes. He wants to be the leader.”

Strong won’t call Ash his clear-cut No. 1 quarterback, at least not publicly, and said he didn’t anticipate naming a starter this spring. That decision will come during fall camp. But Ash had learned the new scheme and terminology, and he’s led the offense before.

With Ash out, Texas is left with three passers for its Saturday scrimmage at Darrell K. Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium. Sophomore Tyrone Swoopes will run the first-team offense. Walk-on Trey Holtz and converted tight end Miles Onyegbule, who prior to this spring hadn’t played QB since 2010, will get the backup snaps.

After the news of Ash’s injury broke, Strong told Swoopes to get ready to roll. This is, for the final week of spring ball, his offense.

“I told Tyrone the key thing for you is it’s all about confidence and it’s all about you just doing everything we ask you to do and play within yourself,” Strong said. “Now that you are the quarterback, just take the field and know this: This is your team and it’s up to you to go lead.”

In his six appearances as Texas quarterback last season, Swoopes played like a freshman. With the exception of three drives in a Valero Alamo Bowl loss to Oregon, the dual-threat quarterback with tantalizing size (6-foot-4, 245 pounds) and intriguing speed wasn’t asked to do much. He was inconsistent in the mop-up minutes he did receive.

Swoopes will remain a project until he gets more comfortable throwing the ball. His legs usually did the job while he thrived in small-town Whitewright, Texas, and he still has plenty to learn about beating Big 12 defenses.

But Strong saw enough last Saturday during a spring scrimmage to be encouraged, calling his performances “outstanding.”

“I don’t know his numbers, but he had really good numbers and threw an unbelievable ball to Marcus [Johnson] down the sideline where he beat one of our defensive backs, laid it out there and it was a big throw,” Strong said. “He did a really good job and he settled in. He took it and had the confidence and just had a different air about him, and did a really good job leading the offense.”

Still, quarterback is atop the list of Strong’s biggest concerns as Texas finishes off its first round of practices. The addition of Wittek, who has taken multiple visits to Austin and is expected to decide in the near future, would alleviate some of the worry.

So would a strong summer from Heard, a two-time state champion at Denton (Texas) Guyer who arrives the first week of June. Strong said he’ll get a chance to win the job like everyone else, but first he’ll have to master his playbook.

Heard will be in the stands on Saturday afternoon, with the thousands of other Longhorns fans. They'll be watching closely for the first round of a Texas quarterback battle, but the truth is, it hasn't even begun.
David Ash's broken foot is yet another blow to the Texas quarterback and his chances of locking down the starting quarterback job in 2014.

Ash missed the majority of the 2013 with concussion-like symptoms but was looking to get off to a fresh, and healthy, start under new coach Charlie Strong. Instead, this injury puts Ash back on the sideline for the remainder of the spring.

It’s the worst-case scenario for Ash in a lot of ways, as it opens the door for other quarterbacks to put a stranglehold on the position or, at the very least, give themselves an edge in the race to start for UT this fall. Sophomore Tyrone Swoopes is one of three healthy quarterbacks expected to be available for the Longhorns’ spring game on April 19 and will get the chance to impress the new coaching staff while the other main competitors in the quarterback derby watch from the sidelines. Even though Ash will miss just the final week of spring football, his injury still removes competition in the final days of spring.

More competition is on the way with class of 2014 signee Jerrod Heard joining the mix in the summer and USC transfer Max Wittek possibly joining the fray if he decides to transfer to Texas.

For Texas, Ash’s injury makes the spring game a bit more difficult with just three healthy quarterbacks set to participate. But, more importantly, Ash’s injury has reaffirmed the Longhorns’ need for multiple options at the quarterback position. Ash has started 21 games during his UT career, giving him the experience edge over all of his competitors and the coaching staff a bit some peace of mind with a veteran option at the position. But he’s been unable to shake the injury bug during the past year, essentially putting all of the quarterbacks on even ground heading into the competition. This injury won’t help his case as he tries to win the job and prove himself as the best option during Strong’s initial season in Austin, Texas.

Don’t be surprised if UT’s pursuit of Wittek becomes an even higher priority, Swoopes’ development starts to accelerate and Heard’s summer is spent preparing the true freshman to play immediately.

Because if UT has learned anything from the past 12 months at the quarterback position, it's that one injury can turn Plan B into Plan A in a heartbeat.
It’s Take Two Tuesday again, when we give our takes on a burning question in the Big 12.

Today's Take Two topic: Which Texas player making a healthy return is more critical to the Longhorns’ fate in 2014 -- quarterback David Ash or running back Johnathan Gray?

Take 1: Brandon Chatmon

[+] EnlargeJohnathan Gray
David K Purdy/Getty ImagesJohnathan Gray's return to health would be big news for the Longhorns.
Ideally both players would return to good health and have the opportunity to become critical pieces of the Texas offense this fall.

But Gray’s return to good health could be the most important development of the offseason for the Longhorns, even if he doesn’t return to full health until the bulk of Big 12 Conference play.

Why?

Gray is, quite simply, a special talent. And the Longhorns offense wants to become one of the most physical units in the conference, which means they will want to lean on the running game in Charlie Strong’s first year in Austin, Texas.

We’ve seen how terrific quarterback play can transform a team’s destiny but Gray has similar ability as a running back. The Longhorns have several other talented running backs, including Malcolm Brown, but Gray bring traits to the table, along with his quick feet and vision, that are simply difficult to match. And defend.

The Longhorns have never lost a game when Gray had at least 20 carries including wins over Oklahoma and Kansas State in 2013. His 1,481 rushing yards during the past two seasons is the highest total among returning Big 12 running backs. He’s touched the ball on 17.6 percent of UT’s offensive plays since his freshman season, a team high.

Those numbers reveal Gray is a unique talent who could be the centerpiece of any offense and be consistently productive when healthy. Gray is a proven playmaker, so health could be the only thing standing between him and a breakout season for Strong’s Longhorns.

Take 2: Jake Trotter

[+] EnlargeDavid Ash
Ronald Martinez/Getty ImagesDavid Ash has all the tools to be a winning QB.
When healthy, Gray is one of the best backs in the Big 12. When healthy and on his game, Gray is one of the best in the country.

But the Longhorns have a better than adequate replacement for Gray in Brown. After Gray suffered the Achilles injury last season, Brown stepped in and rushed for more than 100 yards in Texas’ final three games. Brown might not have Gray’s full upside. But he’s more than capable of producing like an all-conference running back.

Quarterback for the Longhorns is a different story. The Longhorns currently have no proven replacement for Ash on the roster.

Sure, Max Wittek could – and probably will – wind up transferring to Texas. And yes, Wittek was a highly touted prospect coming out of high school three years ago. But Wittek has yet to achieve something that Ash has already 14 times in his career – and that’s win a game as a starting quarterback.

True, Ash has endured his share of forgettable moments. He’s yet to play well against Oklahoma. He’s been prone to the occasional, inexplicably awful performance (see TCU 2012, among others).

But other times, Ash has looked like the best player on the field. He was clutch leading the Longhorns to come-from-behind wins against Oklahoma State and Oregon State two seasons ago. He played at a high level in the first half against Kansas State last season before being pulled due to the recurring concussion issues.

With size, athleticism, experience and arm strength, Ash has the tools to be a winning quarterback at Texas. And right now, he’s the closest thing the Longhorns have got to that.
The Dallas Cowboys of the 1990s captured three Super Bowls on the backs of their triplets. Running back Emmitt Smith churned out yardage between the tackles. Wide receiver Michael Irvin hauled in receptions downfield. And quarterback Troy Aikman captained the unstoppable attack.

Like with the Cowboys, big-time triplets usually translate to big-time offense. And the Big 12 over the years has showcased several notable ones. Oklahoma’s Jason White, Adrian Peterson and Mark Clayton in 2004. Oklahoma State’s Brandon Weeden, Joseph Randle and Justin Blackmon in 2011. West Virginia’s Geno Smith, Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey in 2012. Even last season, Baylor boasted one of the best triplets in the country in Bryce Petty, Lache Seastrunk and Antwan Goodley.

So which Big 12 teams will feature the most prolific offensive triplets in 2014? We rank them below:

1. Baylor

QB Bryce Petty, RB Shock Linwood, WR Antwan Goodley

The Bears remain atop this list, even with Seastrunk bolting early for the NFL draft. Despite being Baylor’s third-string running back last season, Linwood still finished sixth in the Big 12 in rushing and shined as the featured back while Seastrunk and Glasco Martin were injured. After totaling 46 touchdowns throwing and rushing, Petty should be even better in his second season as a starter. Goodley is an All-American-caliber wideout.

2. Oklahoma

QB Trevor Knight, RB Keith Ford, WR Sterling Shepard

Knight finally live up to his preseason billing with a sparkling Sugar Bowl performance against Alabama. Knight has the talent and potential to be one of the best dual-threat QBs in the country. Ford was one of the top running back recruits in 2013, and would have played more as a freshman had the Sooners not also had four senior running backs on the roster. Shepard has been a dependable starter the last two seasons, and he already has 96 career receptions going into his junior season. He seems ready to take over for Jalen Saunders as the go-to receiver.

3. Texas Tech

QB Davis Webb, RB Kenny Williams, WR Jakeem Grant

Webb broke out with a tremendous performance in the National University Holiday Bowl, throwing for 403 yards and four touchdowns in an upset of Arizona State. He had his moments during the regular season, too, and could be in for a monster sophomore campaign in Kliff Kingsbury’s air-it-out offense. Williams is a solid pass-catching running back out of the backfield, and he led the Red Raiders with 497 rushing yards and eight touchdowns last season. Williams has been taking first-team snaps at outside linebacker this spring, so he could wind up deferring carries to DeAndre Washington, who has been a capable backup. Grant is electric with the ball, burning Arizona State with a pair of touchdown catches. Grant was sixth in the Big 12 last season in receiving, and with Jace Amaro and Eric Ward gone, should take on an expanded role offensively.

4. Texas

QB David Ash, RB Malcolm Brown, WR Jaxon Shipley

The possibilities of this threesome hinges heavily on the health of Ash, who missed virtually all of the 2013 season with concussion issues. Ash is back with the team this spring, and he has had moments before of performing at a high level. After Johnathan Gray’s Achilles injury, Brown took over as the starting running back and performed admirably, rushing for more than 100 yards in each of Texas’ final three games. Shipley has sure hands, is a precise route runner and is capable of catching 70-plus passes in the right quarterback situation.

5. Kansas State

QB Jake Waters, RB DeMarcus Robinson, WR Tyler Lockett

The Wildcats would be ranked second here if John Hubert had another season of eligibility. But running back is a major question, with no back on the roster holding much experience. Robinson might be the favorite to win the job, but he’ll have to fend off Jarvis Leverett and incoming freshman Dalvin Warmack. Lockett is the best receiver in the Big 12 and one of the best in the country. Waters improved dramatically in his first season as the starter in 2013. If a running back emerges, the Wildcats could surge up this list.

6. Iowa State

QB Grant Rohach, RB Aaron Wimberly, WR Quenton Bundrage

Rohach first must win the starting quarterback derby this spring over Sam B. Richardson. But he played well down the stretch while leading Iowa State to a pair of wins to finish last year. Wimberly was banged up for much of last season, but he can be dynamic when healthy. Bundrage was third in the Big 12 in receiving touchdowns in 2013, and with a little more consistency, could be an all-league receiver. This could be the best triplet combination coach Paul Rhoads has enjoyed in Ames.

7. Oklahoma State

QB J.W. Walsh, RB Desmond Roland, WR Jhajuan Seales

Walsh was fifth in college football in Adjusted Total QBR as a redshirt freshman, but he took a step back as a sophomore and eventually lost the starting gig back to Clint Chelf. If he plays like he did as a freshman, Walsh could be one of the five-best QBs in the league. If he performs like his sophomore season, he could lose the job again. Roland is a touchdown machine and is as good as any back in the league in short-yardage situations. Seales could be on the verge of breaking out in a big way after starting as a freshman.

8. West Virginia

QB Clint Trickett, RB Dreamius Smith, WR Kevin White

The Mountaineers have plenty of weapons, but they will only score more points with more consistent QB play. Trickett tops the projected depth chart for now, but he’ll have to outperform Paul Millard, Skyler Howard and William Crest to stick there. Smith was very impressive at times last season backing up Charles Sims. He’ll get the first crack at starting, but Pittsburgh transfer Rushel Shell will be looming if Smith sputters. White gets the nod as the No. 1 wideout, but Daikiel Shorts and Mario Alford are not far behind as part of a deep and balanced wide receiving corps.

9. TCU

QB Trevone Boykin, RB B.J. Catalon, WR Josh Doctson

Boykin is back at quarterback again after splitting time at receiver the last two seasons. Boykin struggled as the starting QB last season but got little help from his offensive line or receivers. Reports are that he has been sharp this spring in the new Doug Meacham/Sonny Cumbie offense. Catalon is a solid cog at running back, and he averaged 5.3 yards per carry despite playing in an anemic attack last year. Brandon Carter was supposed to be the No. 1 receiver last season -- and still could be in 2014 -- but he wasn’t reliable on or off the field. In Carter’s stead, Doctson surfaced after transferring in from Wyoming, and led the Horned Frogs with 36 receptions and 440 receiving yards.

10. Kansas

QB Jake Heaps, RB Brandon Bourbon, WR Nick Harwell

Harwell should give Kansas what it hasn’t had in a long time -- a go-to receiver. Harwell was the nation’s second-leading receiver in 2011 at Miami (Ohio), and he should give the Kansas offense a much needed shot in the arm. Heaps lost time to freshman Montell Cozart last fall, but he has reasserted himself this spring amid a three-way competition with Cozart and UCLA transfer T.J. Millweard. Bourbon is battling Taylor Cox and Darrian Miller to see who replaces All-Big 12 running back James Sims.

Top-10 player spring update: Texas

March, 27, 2014
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During the next two weeks, we’ll be breaking down the 10 best players at the moment on every team in the Big 12.

These lists won’t include junior college or freshman signees who haven’t arrived on campus yet. Rather, they will include only the players on their teams this spring. Some of these rankings might look different after the spring, but this is how we see them now.

On Thursday, we continue with the Texas Longhorns.

[+] EnlargeCedric Reed
John Albright/Icon SMIAfter a huge 2013 season, Cedric Reed will be the focus of the Longhorns' defense this fall.
1. Defensive end Cedric Reed: This is the guy Charlie Strong will build his defense around, a 6-foot-6, 258-pound senior who took his game to another level in 2013. During his monstrous junior campaign -- 79 tackles, 10 sacks, 19 tackles for loss and five forced fumbles -- Reed often played just as well as Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year Jackson Jeffcoat, and sometimes better. Reed elected to return for his final season to not only earn his degree, but also to make a run at all the awards Jeffcoat collected and get Texas back to its winning ways.

2. Defensive tackle Malcom Brown: Brown has looked like a future NFL player from the day he first stepped foot on campus, and he started playing like it in 2013. In his first season as a starter, Brown racked up 68 tackles, 12 tackles for loss, two sacks and five pass breakups. He'll be a menace for opposing Big 12 linemen, and the former top-15 recruit has a chance to get even better under new defensive line coach Chris Rumph.

3. Running back Malcolm Brown: Texas is going to run the ball plenty under new coordinators Joe Wickline and Shawn Watson, and Brown enters his senior season with a chance to become one of the Big 12's premier backs. He finished sixth in the league in total rushing and surpassed 125 yards in each of his final three games. Brown is in even better shape today physically and has a chance to do big things in 2014.

4. Defensive back Quandre Diggs: Entering his fourth season as a starter, Diggs has the potential to make a huge impact in the new defense that Strong and DC Vance Bedford construct. He led the Longhorns with 10 pass breakups from his nickel spot and added 2.5 sacks, but no interceptions, in 2013. Whether he ends up at corner, safety or back in the nickel, Diggs is hungry and out to prove he's one of the nation's best at his position.

5. Running back Johnathan Gray: The big question mark is, when will Gray get back on the field? He's still recovering from a torn Achilles suffered last November and is hoping to be full strength by the start of fall camp. Even if Gray misses a nonconference game or two, Texas will have big plans for him upon his return. He's one of the conference's most dynamic backs and a critical cog in the Longhorns offense. Don't be surprised if Gray, a freaky athlete, is back in pads earlier than expected.

6. Wide receiver Jaxon Shipley: Shipley is probably underrated at this point, even if his 2013 season wasn't too sparkling from a statistical standpoint (team-high 56 catches, 589 yards, 1 TD). But no matter who's starting at quarterback this season, Shipley is going to be the go-to guy. He's been a starter since he first arrived in Austin, and Texas' new offensive attack will find ways to get him in space.

7. Quarterback David Ash: Should Ash be higher on this list? When he's fully healthy, yes, he's one of this program's most important pieces. The junior is back on the field this spring but won't take any contact. His early efforts have been encouraging, but he still has some rust to shake off, and Strong has been somewhat noncommittal when it comes to calling Ash his starter. If USC transfer Max Wittek joins the program this summer, Ash will have to fight to hold down the job. But when he was healthy in 2012, Ash was a top-25 passer in several key metrics and still has a bright future if he can avoid another concussion.

8. Linebacker Steve Edmond: We finally saw Edmond take a big step forward in 2013, with 73 tackles and two interceptions, but his junior season ended early because of a ruptured spleen. In this multiple defense, it will be interesting to see if Strong and Bedford experiment with playing Edmond down at defensive end or in some hybrid roles. Dalton Santos will push Edmond, too, but expect the senior to play a major role in Texas' new-look defense.

9. Linebacker Jordan Hicks: It's hard to justify ranking Hicks any higher after he's missed 19 games in his past two seasons. He is not competing in spring practice right now while he completes his recovery from a torn Achilles, but once he's ready to go, Hicks should be one of Texas' best linebackers and one of its leaders on defense. He only has one season left to play up to his five-star potential, but staying on the field is more important.

10.Wide receiver Kendall Sanders: Several other Longhorns could take this spot on the list and have more playing experience, but Sanders is definitely worth keeping an eye on this fall. A smooth, speedy athlete capable of game-changing plays, Sanders has one year of game experience under his belt and a chance to take over as Texas' top deep threat.
It’s Take Two Tuesday again, when we give our takes on a burning question in the league.

Today's Take Two topic: Who has the best chance of jumping up and challenging Big 12 favorites Baylor and Oklahoma for the conference crown?

Take 1: Max Olson -- Texas

Oklahoma and Baylor should both be considered top-10 squads in 2014, there’s no dispute about that. They’re in terrific shape going forward. But the way this league is set up, it’s hard to see either emerging undefeated by December.

The team best built to challenge them is Texas, at least on paper. Remember, for all its flaws in 2013, the Longhorns were two quarters away from winning the Big 12 despite major injuries and inconsistent quarterback play. They lose key pieces, but could come back better than expected.

That’s because there’s a new sheriff in town. Charlie Strong is dedicated to changing the mentality of this program and bringing back the toughness and accountability that went missing in recent years. He put together an impressive staff and brought in a revered strength coach. This program is undergoing big changes.

And there’s enough talent on board to sustain another run at a conference title. Joe Wickline and Shawn Watson will build an offense around the run game trio of Malcolm Brown, Johnathan Gray and Joe Bergeron, and there’s good depth at receiver and on the line. What Texas needs most is a full year from David Ash, but Max Wittek seems likely to become the insurance option there.

If Texas is going to challenge the league favorites, it’ll be with a defense that brings back leaders at all three levels (Cedric Reed, Steve Edmond, Quandre Diggs) and is full of experienced talent. This is a unit that will line up a bunch of different ways and cause a lot of problems.

Revamping this Texas program will take time, but the Longhorns could have enough to make another run in 2014.

Take 2: Jake Trotter -- Kansas State

[+] EnlargeJake Waters
Peter G. Aiken/Getty ImagesJake Waters was one of the nation's most effective quarterbacks during the second half of last season.
The Longhorns certainly have the talent and supporting cast to seriously compete for a Big 12 title. But until they find the answer at quarterback -- and I’m dubious they will in Strong’s first season – it’s hard to see them doing so.

The Kansas State Wildcats have no such issues. And they too have the surrounding cast to make a run at the Bears and Sooners for the league championship.

After struggling early, Jake Waters settled in at quarterback the last half of the season and cut talented playmaker Daniel Sams out of the rotation. From Oct. 26 on, Waters produced the 13th-best Adjusted QBR in the country, according to ESPN Stats & Info, while leading the Wildcats to wins in six of their final seven games (he threw for 348 yards and three touchdowns in the lone loss, too).

Besides Waters, K-State also boasts one of the top wide receivers in the nation in the uncoverable Tyler Lockett, who had the third-most receiving yards in college football during the same Oct. 26-on stretch.

On the other side, Bill Snyder replenished his defense with a trio of ESPN JC 50 signees in defensive tackle Terrell Clinkscales, outside linebacker D'Vonta Derricott and cornerback Danzel McDaniel, who should fill the slots in the lineup where the Wildcats have holes.

K-State will have to earn its way into the conference title chase, with road trips to both Baylor and Oklahoma. But K-State gets the Longhorns in the Little Apple, where it hasn’t lost to Texas since 2002.

The Wildcats also get defending national runner-up Auburn in Manhattan, Kan., earlier in September. If they topple the Tigers in that Thursday night clash, the rest of the Big 12 will quickly realize that K-State is a legitimate contender.
In today’s mailbag, we discuss Texas Tech’s big recruiting prize, veteran quarterbacks at West Virginia and Texas and a cool idea for a Big 12-related “30 for 30.”

To the ‘bag:

Matt in Dallas writes: With news that Tech RB Kenny Williams is looking to move to OLB, will we be seeing Justin Stockton get carries as a true freshman in 2014?

Trotter: I have a hard time believing this move will stick. I suppose it’s possible Williams could help the Red Raiders in spots at outside linebacker next season. But I don’t believe it will come at the expense of his standing at running back. After Williams and DeAndre Washington, the Red Raiders aren’t exactly experienced at running back, either. Spring is the time for college football teams to experiment. For now, I don’t see this as anything more.


John in Boone, N.C., writes: Do you really think Paul Millard has any chance at winning back the QB job? Dana Holgorsen couldn't possibly make us sit through that again, could he?

Trotter: The way I see it, the only player who can beat out Clint Trickett to start the season opener is juco transfer Skyler Howard. It’s pretty clear the offense responds better to Trickett than to Millard. But it’s not clear yet how the offense might respond to Howard. With a banner spring followed up with a banner preseason, Howard could warrant a hard look.


Andy in Austin, Texas, writes: What are the chances David Ash hangs up his pads? With his NFL playing chances slim-to-none, wouldn't it be better for his health long term to retire and let Shawn Watson have more time to work with Tyrone Swoopes or Jerrod Heard?

Trotter: We’re not to this point with Ash. Sure, the concussion issues might resurface. That’s certainly a possibility. But those issues might be behind him, too. This is something that will be resolved here over the next few months. Either way, Texas is a better team with a healthy Ash. Jerrod Heard and Swoopes have potential, but Ash is the only QB on the roster who has proven he can quarterback Texas to wins in hostile environments.


Matty in Lubbock, Texas, writes: As a Red Raider fan looking forward to the future of the program, should I be more excited for Patrick Mahomes or Jarrett Stidham?

Trotter: There’s plenty to be excited about in Mahomes, who is a raw prospect for a quarterback that figures only to blossom in Kliff Kingsbury’s system. But Stidham is the No. 1 dual-threat QB recruit in the country for 2015 for a reason. Tech landed Stidham over Alabama, Auburn, Baylor, Florida, Ohio State, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Oregon and Texas, among a host of many other suitors. In other words, snagging Stidham is the most significant recruiting victory for Texas Tech in a long, long time. Armed with Davis Webb, Mahomes and now Stidham, the Red Raiders are going to be very good at quarterback for the next several seasons.


Jake Jones in Oklahoma City writes: Hey Jake, instead of the 10-second rule I think the coaches should propose a rule on size/speed limits. Since force equals mass times acceleration, a better rule for player safety would be no players over a certain weight that can run a certain speed would be eligible to play. Thereby, slower players with less mass would result in less force and thus make the game safer. Tell Nick Saban at least that idea has physics behind it.

Trotter: Poor Nick Saban. This is the second time this week he has gotten burned by someone from the metro Oklahoma City area.


Neo in Olathe, Kan., writes: With the improved OL and a strong running game, do you think the Jayhawks have the receivers to win a conference game or two? The defense is the mighty mouse of the Big 12, but can the offense put up numbers to actually win?

Trotter: I agree. I actually think the defense is good enough for Kansas to win two or three games in the league. The Jayhawks are actually pretty solid and experienced at linebacker and in the secondary. But the Achilles' heel has been receiver, which has been an utter disaster since Dezmon Briscoe and Kerry Meier left. There is reason for hope, however, things could be better in 2014. Nick Harwell was an all-conference player at Miami (Ohio) before transferring in. If he can become a viable No. 1 option at Kansas, too, that will go a long way in the Jayhawks scoring more points, and thus, being more competitive.


Bill in Manhattan, Kan., writes: How long until there is a 30 for 30 film about my "Miracle in Manhattan", the greatest turnaround in college football history?

Trotter: I don’t think this is a bad idea at all. I would definitely watch.

Spring primer: Texas Longhorns

March, 13, 2014
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Texas takes the field for its first spring practice next week, and it has plenty it needs to accomplish under new head coach Charlie Strong. Here are a few of the many, many items on the Longhorns’ to-do list for spring ball:

Offensive returner ready to take next step: Hate to state the obvious here, but David Ash needs to take one big step in the right direction this spring. After playing in only three games last season because of concussion issues, Ash will be cleared for full practice participation and wear a green no-contact jersey. His return to the weight room this winter was encouraging, but he has a brand-new offense to master and has a new quarterbacks coach for the third straight season. He needs to get comfortable and confident once again this spring.

[+] EnlargeMalcom Brown
John Albright/Icon SMIMalcom Brown is ready to become a star on Texas' defensive line.
Defensive returner ready to take the next step: Watch out for defensive tackle Malcom Brown, because the junior’s next step is to be an All-Big 12 and All-America-caliber player. He was clearly Texas’ most talented defensive tackle as a true sophomore and will be a focal point of the defensive line no matter if Texas is in a 3-4 or 4-3 defense. New defensive line coach Chris Rumph is ready to maximize Brown's potential.

Redshirt freshman to watch: Plenty to choose from, but cornerback Antwuan Davis stands out. Former coach Mack Brown was very tempted to throw the freshman from Bastrop, Texas, on the field in 2013 but held off. Great measurables, track speed and a fiery competitiveness make Davis a second-year guy capable of fighting his way into a role in this secondary.

Most significant position battle: We outlined that in this post, but it’s worth repeating: kicker and punter. With consensus All-American and Lou Groza Award finalist Anthony Fera gone, Texas faces some big question marks at both spots. New special teams coach Chris Vaughn wants to see all his options in action and put each kicker and punter through pressure situations to see who comes out on top.

Key midterm enrollee: This is a shorter list than usual this year, as only three signees joined the program in January. But tight end Blake Whiteley will be the most interesting to watch. The Arizona Western Community College transfer has everything you’d want in the size department -- 6-foot-5, 245 pounds -- and was a 1,000-yard receiver during his high school days. Texas hasn't had a feared pass-catcher at that spot in a long time.

Question that could be answered: Which players can hang with the new brand of Texas football? That’s been the critical question throughout offseason workouts, and Strong and his staff will get much more definitive answers in the next month. Those who can keep up will stand out. Those who can’t might not be on the roster much longer. Expect some attrition after spring ball ends, as is often the case with new regimes.

Question that won’t be answered until fall: The quarterback job. It’s possible USC transfer Max Wittek does not reach a final decision on his destination until April or May, and freshman Jerrod Heard arrives not long after that. Both will make a run at the job (if Wittek chooses UT), and we won’t know where things stand with Ash’s long-term health until he starts taking hits again. He won’t see any in spring ball, that’s for sure. Texas coaches are excited about having Ash for two more seasons, but they’ll also put a high value on competition.
Going into the 2013 season, quarterback was as big a question across the Big 12 as it had ever been.

Bryce Petty quickly proved to be the answer at Baylor. Kansas State’s Jake Waters, Texas Tech’s Davis Webb and Oklahoma’s Trevor Knight also eventually cemented their status as starters.

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Which of these veteran QBs is most likely to be his teams starter in 2014?

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    43%
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    13%
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    5%
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    10%
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    29%

Discuss (Total votes: 3,932)

But the rest of the teams in the league went into the offseason with quarterback still a question. Yet not without experienced options.

Texas’ David Ash was the most experienced quarterback returning to the league last year. Ash, however, suffered a concussion in the Longhorns’ second game and only appeared in one more game before being shut down for the season. Case McCoy took over and led Texas to five straight wins. But McCoy is now gone, and Ash’s health is still a concern.

Trevone Boykin has 15 career starts at quarterback for TCU. But it’s not clear what his position will be in 2014 with the new offensive regime of coordinators Doug Meacham and Sonny Cumbie. When Casey Pachall returned from injury, Boykin was effective as a receiver and a short-yardage, situational quarterback. But Pachall is now gone, and Boykin is the only returning quarterback with any experience, though talented freshmen Grayson Muehlstein and Foster Sawyer are on the way.

Jake Heaps was one of the most highly touted quarterback recruits coming out of high school four years ago. When Heaps transferred from Brigham Young to Kansas, he was supposed to solidify a position that had been a mess since Todd Reesing. Instead, Heaps’ completion percentage hovered around 49 percent, and he eventually lost snaps to true freshman Montell Cozart. Now in final season, Heaps is in a three-way battle with Cozart and UCLA transfer T.J. Millweard.

Like Heaps, Clint Trickett transferred with two years of eligibility left, jumping from Florida State to West Virginia. After originally losing the job to Paul Millard -- and then Ford Childress -- Trickett got the nod against Oklahoma State, and led the Mountaineers to one of the most stunning upsets of the entire Big 12 season. Trickett, however, only won one more game the rest of the year, and was banged up much of time. Now, Trickett is out for the spring after undergoing shoulder surgery to repair a torn labrum, opening the door for junior-college transfer Skyler Howard or Millard to gain ground.

J.W. Walsh, lastly, has too had his moments. Not many of them came last season, though. After leading the Big 12 in Adjusted QBR as a redshirt freshman, Walsh’s completion percentage dropped seven points as a sophomore, causing him to lose the job back to Clint Chelf. Walsh will have to fend off incoming freshman Mason Rudolph, who was the eighth-rated pocket-passing quarterback recruit in the country and has enrolled early to participate in spring ball.

So, we put the question to you. Which of these veteran quarterbacks is most likely to be his team’s starter in 2014?

Who to watch in spring: Tyrone Swoopes

February, 28, 2014
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Editor's note: This is the fifth and final part of a weeklong series taking a closer look at Texas players worth watching when the Longhorns begin spring practices in three weeks.

You might be wondering why a series about Longhorns who need to thrive this spring isn’t wrapping up with a treatise on quarterback David Ash and his comeback from the concussion-related symptoms that shut him down in 2013.

[+] EnlargeSwoopes
AP Photo/Eric GayCan Tyrone Swoopes impress the new Texas coaching staff?
Well, yes, he’s plenty important this spring and fall. But we know what Ash is capable of at his best -- he was a top-25 passer in several metrics as a true sophomore starter. We don’t know what’s next for Tyrone Swoopes.

He was put in an impossible situation last fall as a true freshman who needed to redshirt and get used to the college level. Swoopes’ cameo in the middle of the season, in the final minutes of a blowout win at TCU, was the first of his six appearances.

The experiment went about how we should’ve expected. Swoopes had too much to learn and never looked comfortable or confident. His practice performances improved late in the season, but that didn’t translate during his occasional playing time.

The last time we saw Swoopes, he completed 1 of 6 passes for 8 yards and rushed for 38 yards in the Valero Alamo Bowl loss to Oregon. A 26-yard rush was encouraging, and maybe the highlight of his season, but nothing else came easy for the first-year passer.

He has a chance to change things this spring, under a new quarterbacks coach in Shawn Watson, and he’ll get plenty of opportunity to get better. Here’s the best thing working in Swoopes’ favor in March and April: He’ll get a ton of snaps.

Once spring ball is over, freshman Jerrod Heard enters the program and the competition. USC transfer Max Wittek could, too. No matter who’s in the mix this summer and fall camp, Swoopes should be battling for the No. 2 job with the understanding he’s one snap away from being the starter.

Watson has experience with the inexperienced, preparing Teddy Bridgewater and Taylor Martinez to play as freshmen at his previous two gigs, and Swoopes appears to have some raw tools that can wow his new coach.

But it’s still going to take time and patience if Texas wants to see Swoopes reach his ceiling, and he’ll need to work hard to master this new scheme.

He’s got a chance to flash his potential in a more meaningful way this spring, while the Longhorns only have two scholarship QBs on campus. Time to take advantage and show the new coaches what he can become over time.

Spring preview capsules: Big 12

February, 24, 2014
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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: QBs

February, 18, 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, beginning Tuesday with quarterback. Some of these outlooks will look different after the spring. But here’s how they compare at the moment:

[+] EnlargePetty
Ronald Martinez/Getty ImagesBryce Petty's return leaves Baylor sitting pretty at the most important position on the field.
1. Baylor: The Bears have the reigning first-team All-Big 12 quarterback in Bryce Petty, who should be even better in his second season as a starter. In 2013, Petty led the Big 12 in QBR, and was on the short list of Heisman candidates until mid-November. His play dipped a bit late in the season, but Petty still finished with 44 total touchdowns to just three interceptions. He will start out on the Heisman short list again in 2014. The Bears also have a viable backup in Seth Russell.

2. Kansas State: Junior college transfer Jake Waters was one of the most improved players in the league over the course of the season. Waters split time with Daniel Sams through the first half of the year, but eventually took command of the starting position and spearheaded the Wildcats to wins in six of their last seven games to ride a wave of momentum into the offseason. Like Petty, Waters should only get better in his second season as a starter. Sams figures to be moved around this spring, but he has proven he can step in at QB, too.

3. Oklahoma: The Sooners were one of the most inconsistently quarterbacked teams in the league, notably during double-digit losses to Texas and Baylor. But with one game, OU’s situation looks completely different. In just his fifth career start, freshman Trevor Knight torched Alabama in the Allstate Sugar Bowl, leading the Sooners to one of the biggest upsets in BCS bowl history. Insiders in Norman always thought Knight had the talent. The switch just finally flipped in New Orleans. Even with Blake Bell moving to tight end, the Sooners have depth with former four-star QBs Cody Thomas and Justice Hansen.

4. Texas Tech: Davis Webb also delivered one of the best bowl performances of any quarterback. After Baker Mayfield transferred, the plan was for Webb to split snaps with Michael Brewer against Arizona State. But Webb played so well, that plan was scrapped. Webb had the fourth-best QBR of any bowl to lead Tech to the upset. Webb actually played pretty well before the bowl, too, and has a promising future in Lubbock. The Red Raiders, however, are thin here. With Mayfield and Brewer transferring, Patrick Mahomes is Tech’s only other scholarship QB, and he doesn’t arrive until the summer.

5. Oklahoma State: To enjoy success here, the Cowboys will need J.W. Walsh to return to his efficient 2012 form. Or, they will need Mason Rudolph to emerge as a true freshman the way Wes Lunt did two springs ago. Walsh took a step back as a sophomore. He completed 67 percent of his passes in 2012, but just 59 percent last season, and eventually lost his job back to Clint Chelf. Rudolph, the gem of the 2014 recruiting class, had no such issues completing passes in high school, connecting on 72 percent for 64 touchdowns while leading his team to a state championship. If Walsh’s arm strength continues to be a problem, Rudolph could quickly go from QB of the future to QB of the now.

[+] EnlargeDavid Ash
Ronald Martinez/Getty ImagesA healthy David Ash would be a welcome sight for Charlie Strong.
6. Texas: The Longhorns might have the most fluid quarterback predicament in the Big 12. Quarterback play haunted Mack Brown the last four years, but will it haunt Charlie Strong in his first season? That could hinge heavily on the health of David Ash, who missed almost all of last season because of concussion issues. The school says Ash will be ready to go for the spring. But if he suffers another head injury, the Longhorns could be in a fix. Tyrone Swoopes has wheels and a big arm, but still needs a lot of polish, and four-star signee Jerrod Heard won’t be in Austin until the summer.

7. West Virginia: The Mountaineers have no fewer than four quarterbacks with a reasonable chance of becoming the starter. Paul Millard and Clint Trickett shared duties last season, though neither seized the position. Millard is playing baseball, and Trickett is still banged up. That could open the door for junior-college transfer Skyler Howard to make a move on the job. Keep an eye on true freshman William Crest, though. Crest, the No. 11 dual-threat QB in the country, won’t arrive until after the spring. But the Mountaineers have had success with mobile freshman quarterbacks before.

8. TCU: The Horned Frogs first must decide what they’re going to do with Trevone Boykin. But they can’t afford to leave him at receiver until another viable option surfaces at QB. Tyler Matthews didn’t look ready in limited action, but the Horned Frogs have a pair of intriguing possibilities in Foster Sawyer and Grayson Muehlstein. Neither, however, will arrive until the summer, meaning TCU’s QB situation will remain unresolved past the spring.

9. Iowa State: The Cyclones have the requisite skill talent to bounce back from a disappointing season. But that won’t happen until they stop playing musical quarterbacks. The answer could be Grant Rohach, who played well late in his redshirt freshman season. Sam B. Richardson will also be in the mix. Richardson was never healthy last year, and had the same kind of promising finish in 2012 that Rohach delivered last season. The darkhorse will be Joel Lanning, who redshirted last year. Lanning, who signed with Iowa State over Nebraska, has the arm to make this a three-way battle.

10. Kansas: The Jayhawks add another player to the Jake Heaps/Montell Cozart timeshare in UCLA transfer T.J. Millweard. Neither Heaps nor Cozart did enough to warrant full-time snaps, so Millweard, a former four-star recruit, will have his chance this spring.

Texas position groups to improve: No. 1

February, 14, 2014
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Texas is getting off to a later-than-usual start to its spring practices this year, with Charlie Strong set to lead the Longhorns onto the practice field for the first time on March 18.

Until then, we’re counting down everything you need to know entering next season and the next era of Texas football. This week, we’re breaking down the five position groups with the most room to improve in 2014. We’ve already broken down the tight ends, defensive tackles, safeties and offensive line. Here’s No. 1 on the list.

David Ash
Max Olson/ESPNDavid Ash is likely to reclaim his starting quarterback job this spring.
1. Quarterbacks

The players: David Ash, Tyrone Swoopes, Jerrod Heard, Trey Holtz

Last year: You know the story. Ash suffered a concussion in the second game of 2013, played the first half against Kansas State and then was done for the season. Case McCoy led a six-game win streak and had Texas on the brink of a Big 12 title. Swoopes’ redshirt was burned midway through the season and he appeared in six games. Holtz, a walk-on, has never played.

What’s missing: Is there an addition on the way? Strong has acknowledged he would like to add a fourth quarterback to this group, and former USC starter Max Wittek will reportedly visit Texas this month. There have also been initial talks with former Houston QB Bram Kohlhausen about walking on. Texas is in need of another arm and another option after Connor Brewer transferred and Jalen Overstreet moved to tailback a year ago.

Another missing piece here: Heard was unable to enroll early. That leaves Texas with just Ash and Swoopes to learn the system and lead the offense in spring ball. Heard will arrive in May and get right to work, but that late start could make a redshirt more preferable.

Moving forward: Ash is the clear frontrunner to take back his starting job, and getting him fully cleared both for offseason workouts and spring ball is a huge step forward. Getting to work with quarterbacks coach Shawn Watson should be beneficial, but remember, this is Ash’s third quarterback coach in three seasons. He needs to get back to where he once was, and then he needs to get better.

Getting Swoopes a ton of reps is spring ball should be a very good thing for his development. He needs to make real progress in the next few months, because he’s one big Ash hit away from being the starting quarterback in 2014.

Signing day was kind to the Oklahoma Sooners.

A strong finish to its 2014 recruiting class has helped OU land at No. 5 in the ESPN.com Post-Signing Day Way-Too-Early Top 25. The Sooners are the Big 12’s top team, with Baylor and Texas joining them on the list. The Bears are ranked No. 10 and the Longhorns No. 22.

Florida State, Alabama, Oregon and Michigan State are the top four teams, in that order.

OU skyrocketing to the top five shows just how quickly things can change. In mid-November the Sooners were reeling after a 41-12 thrashing at the hands of the eventual Big 12 champion Bears. Almost three months later, the Sooners find themselves projected to be among the nation’s top five teams after four straight wins to end the season, including a 45-31 Allstate Sugar Bowl triumph over Alabama led by sophomore quarterback Trevor Knight. The Sooners used that momentum to land several top recruits, including running back Joe Mixon, athlete Michiah Quick and safety Steven Parker II.

Baylor will have to overcome the loss of running back Lache Seastrunk and defensive leader Ahmad Dixon, but running back Shock Linwood and safety Orion Stewart both made game-changing plays as backups. Linwood finished with 881 rushing yards and Stewart had a critical interception return for touchdown against TCU. Art Briles' team appears ready to handle those departures -- and the loss of All-American guard Cyril Richardson -- while adding a recruiting class full of talented athletes, including elite receiver K.D. Cannon, to its roster to earn a preseason top-10 ranking.

Texas is the wildcard team with a new coach in Charlie Strong but uncertainty at the quarterback position due to David Ash’s health concerns. But a solid finish to its recruiting class, including the late addition of ESPN 300 defensive tackle Poona Ford, combined with an exceptional coaching staff landed Texas in the Top 25. The Longhorns have the talent to rise into the top 10 or, if their struggles at the quarterback position continue, could tumble out of the rankings completely.

Oklahoma State could have a strong case for inclusion in the Way-Too-Early Top 25, but Kansas State has the strongest case of the Big 12 squads that find themselves left outside. The Wildcats have quarterback Jake Waters returning to man the offense, and receiver Tyler Lockett could be the Big 12’s top returning offensive playmaker. Add in several impact junior college signees and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see the Wildcats consistently ranked among the top 25 teams in college football this fall.
Our series on the 25 best players in the Big 12 comes to an end today when we reveal the conference's three best players.

We hope this list hasn't been too terribly controversial, but yes, there have certainly been some quality players who did not make the cut. Several can make a solid case for why they should've made our Top 25, including Texas defensive end Cedric Reed, Texas Tech defensive lineman Kerry Hyder, West Virginia safety Darwin Cook, Kansas linebacker Ben Heeney and Kansas State running back John Hubert.

We did not forget about you, guys. We tip our caps to your strong showings in 2013.

And let's not forget the many Big 12 players who would've been among the conference's 25 best had they stayed healthy. Here's a closer look at five big-time players who missed out due to injuries.

Devonte Fields, DE, TCU: The No. 3 player in the blog's preseason Top 25 did not have a sophomore season to remember. TCU shut him down for the season on Oct. 9 due to a foot injury that required surgery. He ended up appearing in just three games due to suspension and injury. The Horned Frogs were wise to end his season early and seek a medical redshirt, and let's hope Fields is back to his dominant self when he returns in 2014.

[+] EnlargeJohnathan Gray
Cooper Neill/Getty ImagesJohnathan Gray was well on his way to an all-Big 12-caliber season before succumbing to injury in early November.
Johnathan Gray, RB, Texas: A torn right Achilles suffered in a road win at West Virginia ended a sophomore season that could've ended with Gray earning All-Big 12 honors. He emerged as the workhorse of Texas' offense after David Ash was lost for the season and, at 780 yards and four touchdowns, was one pace to become the Longhorns' first 1,000-yard rusher since 2007. If he can get healthy in time for the start of the 2014 season, he'll be on the league's best rushers again.

Trey Millard, FB/RB/TE, Oklahoma: Millard, who ranked No. 11 in our preseason Top 25, brought so many things to the Sooners' offense both in production and intangibles. He was pretty much guaranteed a spot in our postseason list until Oct. 26, when a torn ACL suffered against Texas Tech ended his season and his OU career five games too early. It's a shame we only got to see him touch the ball 28 times is his final season, but Millard and his many niche contributions won't soon be forgotten by Sooners fans.

Jordan Phillips, DT, Oklahoma: Sure, you can argue that OU linebacker Corey Nelson deserves this spot as the Sooners' captain and possible defensive MVP prior to his injury. But losing Phillips to a season-ending back injury in the middle of October was just as damaging, not only to the middle of the Sooners line but also because he seemed on pace to developing into an All-Big 12 caliber talent. He played in four games, missed two, and then was done. Let's hope he can get healthy and back in track as a junior.

Tevin Reese, WR, Baylor: Reese came very close to making our Top 25 despite missing five games this season with a broken wrist. He was one of several Baylor players who went down during the stretch run, and arguably the most critical one. He finished the year with 867 receiving yards and eight touchdowns and only needed 38 receptions to get there. His 22.8 yards per catch average ranked No. 2 nationally, and three of his scores came from 60-plus yards.

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