Texas Longhorns: Malcolm Brown

Best case, worst case: Texas

June, 25, 2014
Jun 25
3:00
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Last week, we started our series on the best-case and worst-case scenarios for each Big 12 team.

The premise of these fun posts is to examine what the season might look like if everything falls into place for each school -- the best-case scenario for 2014. Conversely, we’ll also show what might happen if everything goes wrong -- the worst-case scenario.

We continue the series today with Texas.

BEST CASE

Mack Brown’s debut season at Texas featured a Heisman Trophy winner (Ricky Williams), a 9-3 record and a win in the Cotton Bowl. Tough act to follow, but why not try?

To kick off this run, David Ash takes the boot off his left foot in early July and the word “injury” is never whispered for the rest of his career. The Longhorns don’t need much from him to beat down North Texas in the opener, not with Malcolm Brown and Johnathan Gray each rushing for 100 yards.

[+] EnlargeDavid Ash
AP Photo/Rick BowmerDavid Ash missed most of the 2013 season with a concussion and fractured his foot in spring practice.
The team doesn't need much motivation against BYU, either. Texas exorcises last year’s demons by holding BYU to an unprecedented minus-550 rushing yards.

Even with Ash’s physical invincibility, Texas is challenged by a top-10 UCLA team. Trailing 28-20 early in the fourth quarter, Charlie Strong elects to insert freshman Jerrod Heard. He goes off on the Bruins, throwing for a touchdown and rushing for two more to pull off the upset. Texas goes to 3-0 and No. 10 in the polls.

Strong sticks with Heard the rest of the season and he throws for 3,707 yards and 27 touchdowns, plus 1,411 rushing yards and 22 more TDs. It’s not enough to win the Heisman, but Heard does finish second and inspires a recruiting run in December and January the likes of which this state has never seen.

So Texas beats UCLA and then has a close call at Kansas – Ash’s fourth-quarter cameo saves the day – before the big home game against No. 4 Baylor. Final score: Texas 6, Baylor 3.

Next up: No. 2 Oklahoma vs. No. 5 Texas. Blake Bell – yes, the Sooners go back to Blake Bell – throws for 130 yards and two interceptions and Texas wins 49-17. That makes six games in a row that Gray and Brown have each gone for 100-plus.

Texas takes care of Iowa State and Kansas State, but a nail-biter in Lubbock ends in heartbreak when Davis Webb connects with Jakeem Grant for the game-winner with 1 second left, evoking comparisons to the ending in 2008. Texas is despondent, but still No. 9 in the College Football Playoff rankings.

They beat West Virginia, Oklahoma State and TCU but finish in the dreaded No. 5 spot. In an incredibly close vote, the committee’s sixth tiebreaker is Strong’s April 21 statement that Texas will not play for a national championship. Alabama secures the No. 4 spot and is one of three SEC teams in the inaugural playoff.

Texas settles for a spot in the Sugar Bowl and beats LSU 33-23. Gray and Brown each finish with 1,500 rushing yards and join Cedric Reed and Quandre Diggs in earning All-America honors. A record-breaking 15 Longhorns are selected in the NFL draft.

WORST CASE

Texas has no troubles against North Texas – in fact, a healthy Ash looks encouragingly good – and folks are feeling good about the beginning of the Strong era.

But then Texas loses to BYU thanks to more heroics from Taysom Hill and his knee brace-aided touchdown runs, and this reeling team isn’t ready for the big stage in Jerry World against UCLA. Brett Hundley raises his Heisman stock with a big game and the Longhorns’ inability-to-tackle woes are again a trend.

Texas coaches have two weeks to prepare Heard for the Big 12 opener against Kansas, but they stick with Ash the rest of the season and let the rookie redshirt. Ash’s final numbers are solid, all in all – he returns to putting up top-25 passing numbers in several metrics, as he did in 2012 – but by the end of the season the Longhorns have no more confidence in their quarterback situation than they did on June 25.

Texas gets to 2-2 with a win over Kansas, then gives up 45 points to Baylor in a game that gets out of hand in the second half. Art Briles wears his Big 12 title belt on the sideline the entire fourth quarter.

Despite a valiant effort in a closer-than-expected battle, Texas still comes up just short against Oklahoma and drops to 2-4.

Texas does get to six wins by beating Iowa State, Kansas State, West Virginia and Oklahoma State, but hardly anyone notices. The nation is too captivated by a playoff race that ends with Oklahoma, Baylor, Alabama and Florida State making the College Football Playoff. The Sooners win it all.

But Texas’ humiliation doesn’t end there. The AdvoCare Texas Bowl jumps at the chance to pit the 6-6 Longhorns against a 6-6 Texas A&M team in Houston. The Aggies get the last laugh on a field goal as time expires.
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 him. We're going down the roster from No. 1 Shiro Davis all the way to No. 99 Desmond Jackson.

[+] EnlargeTexas
Stacy Revere/Getty ImagesMalcolm Brown showed down the stretch in 2013 what he can do when healthy.
No. 28 Malcolm Brown
Senior running back


Recruitment rewind: A five-star recruit out of Cibolo (Texas) Steele High School, Brown was the No. 1 recruit in the state in 2011 and No. 7 in the ESPN 150. He eventually chose the Longhorns over Alabama right before the start of his senior season. He led Steele to a state title as a senior, rushing for 2,637 yards and 33 TDs to earn consensus All-America honors. Crazy sidenote: Of the top 10 backs in his recruiting class, Brown is one of only three who hasn't transferred.

Career so far: Brown has been an impact player from Day One. He ran for 742 yards and earned Big 12 Newcomer of the Year honors as a true freshman while splitting carries with Fozzy Whittaker and Joe Bergeron. He also has been somewhat of an injury-prone back since the beginning. An ankle injury cost him five games as a sophomore, and he finished third on the team in rushing.

After a slow start to 2013, Brown got healthy and stepped up when Texas badly needed him after losing Johnathan Gray. Brown led the Longhorns with 904 yards on the ground (1,099 all-purpose) and was a second-team All-Big 12 selection despite being credited with just four starts. Entering his final year, Brown leads all returning Big 12 players with 1,970 career rushing yards.

Best-case scenario for 2014: An All-Big 12 season that reminds everybody why Brown was once considered one of the nation's best young running backs. He put up consecutive 125-plus-yard games against Texas Tech, Baylor and Oregon to close out his junior campaign and averaged 112.8 rushing yards per game in the seven games he carried 20-plus times. With Texas' QB situation, Gray's injury and Bergeron's spring suspension, all signs point to Brown being the workhorse of this offense when the season begins.

Worst-case scenario for 2014: Injuries. Until Brown's re-emergence with a stunning 120-yard game against Oklahoma last year, he'd been either injured or a non-factor in 16 of Texas' previous 24 games. Brown produced a total of 43 rushing yards in those 16 games. Texas needs the Malcolm Brown who showed up for the second half of 2013.

Future expectations: Brown is going to get a look at the next level if he does have that statement-making senior season. But with how running backs are drafted these days, there's no telling what to expect when it comes to his NFL stock. Brown has ideal size for the pro level, solid speed (maybe mid-4.5s in the 40) and all the tools to be a potent inside-outside rusher. He didn't make Mel Kiper's initial list of the top senior RB prospects, but that's because Brown still has plenty to prove.
Phil Steele, the guru of preseason college football prognostication, has released his preseason All-Big 12 teams. As usual, he went four teams deep to break down the conference's top talent.

You can find the full list here. A recap of his first-team All-Big 12 selections:

QB Bryce Petty, Baylor
RB Malcolm Brown, Texas
RB Shock Linwood, Baylor
[+] EnlargeTyler Lockett
Peter G. Aiken/Getty ImagesHow will K-State wideout Tyler Lockett follow up his stellar junior season?
WR Antwan Goodley, Baylor
WR Tyler Lockett, Kansas State
WR Jakeem Grant, Texas Tech
TE E.J. Bibbs, Iowa State
C BJ Finney, Kansas State
OG Cody Whitehair, Kansas State
OG Quinton Spain, West Virginia
OT Le'Raven Clark, Texas Tech
OT Spencer Drango, Baylor

DL Cedric Reed, Texas
DL Chucky Hunter, TCU
DL Devonte Fields, TCU
DL Ryan Mueller, Kansas State
LB Bryce Hager, Baylor
LB Frank Shannon, Oklahoma
LB Ben Heeney, Kansas
LB Eric Striker, Oklahoma
CB Quandre Diggs, Texas
CB Zack Sanchez, Oklahoma
S Sam Carter, TCU
S Chris Hackett, TCU

K Michael Hunnicutt, Oklahoma
P Nick O'Toole, West Virginia
KR B.J. Catalon, TCU
PR Levi Norwood, Baylor

A few takeaways from the four teams Steele put together:

  • Baylor led the way in first-team honors with six players. In terms of which school had the most players honored over the four teams, Oklahoma led with 19. Baylor and Texas are tied for second behind OU with 14, with TCU (13) and Kansas State (12) rounding out the top five. Iowa State (six) and Oklahoma State (seven) had the fewest players selected, and OSU is the only program with no players on the All-Big 12 first team.
  • You're sure to get some disagreement from folks in Lubbock over these quarterback choices. Davis Webb is the fourth-team QB after Petty, Jake Waters and Trevor Knight were slotted ahead of him. No disagreement on Petty, of course, but realistically you could come up with any combination for those No. 2-3-4 QB spots and have a fair argument.
  • Steele does show some love for Big 12 newcomers. Kansas WR Nick Harwell, a Miami (Ohio) transfer, has yet to play a game for KU but earned a second-team slot. Same goes for RB Rushel Shell, the Pitt transfer now at West Virginia, who made third-team All-Big 12. Kansas State junior college transfer DT Terrell Clinkscales was a fourth-team selection, and that's probably a good call. Not so sure on Harwell and Shell just yet, but the hype is justified.
  • The Sooners had the most offensive selections (eight) and the most defensive selections (10) for the four teams. Baylor had the second-most offensive players with seven, and eight Texas defenders made the list.
  • The Big 12 units most disrespected by Steele's list? Iowa State's defense had only one player honored (Cory Morrissey), and he was a fourth-team selection. The Texas Tech defense also had just two selections, and both made the fourth team. On offense, TCU did not have any players on the first, second or third team.

Anything else stand out to you? What about significant snubs? Offer up your answers in the comments below. For the record, the official All-Big 12 preseason team will be released next month prior to the conference media days in Dallas.
The last two weeks, we’ve been examining the strongest and weakest positions for each team in the Big 12 heading into the fall.

We continue the series with the Texas Longhorns:

Strongest position: Running back

Not only does Texas have the best one-two punch at running back in the Big 12, the Longhorns might also have the league’s best two overall running backs.

[+] EnlargeJohnathan Gray
David K Purdy/Getty ImagesA healthy Johnathan Gray will make the Longhorns' backfield deep and talented.
Before suffering a season-ending Achilles injury Nov. 9 at West Virginia last year, Johnathan Gray was well on his way to having an all-conference-caliber season. Despite getting limited touches at times, Gray rushed for at least 89 yards during a six-game span and was well on his way to achieving the feat again against the Mountaineers until the Achilles injury.

Malcolm Brown picked up where Gray left off and rushed for 128, 131 and 130 yards in Texas’ final three games while averaging almost five yards per a carry. From the beginning of November to the bowl season, Brown was the Big 12’s leading rusher, with an average of 112 yards per game.

Soon, Brown will be getting his backfield mate back. Gray missed the spring while recuperating, but coach Charlie Strong has said he’s hopeful Gray will be cleared by mid-June.

Either player is a handful for an opposing defense. Together, when healthy, they’re a load.

Both can catch passes out of the backfield. Both can pound the ball between the tackles. Both can make opponents miss in the open field. Both have experience shouldering the rushing load.

And with veteran Joe Bergeron (assuming he rejoins the squad) and big-play threat Jalen Overstreet flanking Gray and Brown, as well, the running back position gives Strong a foundation piece on offense in his first season.

Weakest position: Quarterback

The Longhorns really only have one glaring weakness on their roster, but it’s a weakness that has plagued the program since Colt McCoy was behind center.

For the fifth straight year, quarterback once again is a position of concern for the Longhorns heading into a season.

David Ash, the only quarterback on the team with any meaningful experience, missed most of last season with lingering concussion issues, then missed most of this spring with a fractured foot.

Sophomore Tyrone Swoopes struggled mightily through the first half of Texas’ spring practice and doesn’t look ready to take over a Big 12 offense.

And since former USC Trojans QB Max Wittek appears unlikely to transfer to Texas now, that leaves incoming freshman Jerrod Heard as Texas’ only other quarterback option.

Ash has the ability to lead Texas into Big 12 title contention. At times in his career he’s been excellent, including in the 2012 Alamo Bowl victory over Oregon State. But over three seasons, Ash has yet to display the week-to-week consistency needed to guide a team to a conference title. Now, who knows how the concussion issues might affect the remainder of his career?

Swoopes, in place of Ash, ended up posting a decent box score line in Texas’ spring game. But facing the Horns’ second-team defense, Swoopes’ first four drives ended with an interception, a punt, a three-and-out and a missed field goal after his first three offensive plays failed to net a single yard. Swoopes’ only first-quarter completion came on a screen pass.

There's no doubt, Swoopes has potential, with good mobility and a big arm. But he seems at least another year in the system away from realizing any of that potential.

That leaves Heard, who is the sixth-best incoming dual-threat quarterback recruit in the country. Heard is skilled and a winner, having led his high school team to a pair of state championships. But he'll also be a true freshman. And if Texas is forced to play a true freshman at quarterback, it will only further underscore its weakness at the position going into the season.
Two weeks ago, we ranked every team in the Big 12 position-by-position coming out of the spring. Putting that together, we’ve ranked the overall league position-by-position. In other words, what is the league’s strongest position? What is its weakest?

[+] EnlargeCedric Reed
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesCedric Reed will anchor Texas' defensive line.
In 2013, there’s no doubt the strength of the league was in the defensive backfield. Oklahoma State cornerback Justin Gilbert and TCU cornerback Jason Verrett were the league’s two first-round picks. Safety Ahmad Dixon earned All-American honors and Texas cornerback Carrington Byndom, West Virginia safety Darwin Cook, Kansas State safety Ty Zimmerman and Oklahoma cornerback Aaron Colvin were longtime stalwarts in their defensive backfields.

Here’s how the positions of the league rank going into 2014:

1. Defensive line: This was easily the most difficult position to rank by team, as line figures to be the defensive strength of TCU, Oklahoma, Baylor, Texas, Kansas State and Oklahoma State. The Horned Frogs had the league’s best run defense last season, and on top of returning basically the entire unit, will be adding back 2012 Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year Devonte Fields. The Sooners are also loaded, led by All-Big 12-caliber ends Geneo Grissom and Charles Tapper and tackle Jordan Phillips, and the could also go three-deep across the board next year. The Longhorns have two potential first-round picks up front in tackle Malcom Brown and end Cedric Reed. And Baylor coach Art Briles is already on record stating his D-line could go toe-to-toe with any in the country. Collectively, this should be the best the conference has been at the position since Gerald McCoy and Ndamukong Suh roamed the middle five years ago.

2. Wide receiver: The league has two superstars at receiver in Baylor’s Antwan Goodley and Kansas State’s Tyler Lockett, who have the résumés to garner preseason All-American consideration. But they aren’t the only prolific playmakers here. Texas Tech’s Jakeem Grant, Oklahoma’s Sterling Shepard, Iowa State’s Quenton Bundrage, Oklahoma State’s Jhajuan Seales and Texas’ Jaxon Shipley are all capable of 1,000-yard receiving seasons. Baylor might feature the best receiving corps in the country, Oklahoma State is a solid nine deep and West Virginia returns its entire starting lineup from last season. Even Kansas has the nation’s second-leading receiver from 2011 in Miami (Ohio) transfer Nick Harwell. Assuming the league’s quarterbacks can get them the ball, this could be another banner year for the Big 12’s pass-catchers.

3. Linebacker: Oklahoma, Texas, West Virginia, Kansas and TCU return virtually their entire linebacker units from last year. And from Texas Tech’s Pete Robertson and Kansas State’s Jonathan Truman to Baylor’s Bryce Hager and Oklahoma State’s Ryan Simmons, the rest of the league basically has at least one proven linebacker coming back, too.

4. Offensive line: The strength of the Big 12's offensive lines resides in experienced centers and talented tackles. Kansas State’s BJ Finney, Texas’ Dominic Espinosa and Iowa State’s Tom Farniok are all four-year starters with a combined 113 career starts. At tackle, Baylor’s Spencer Drango, Texas Tech’s Le’Raven Clark and Oklahoma’s Daryl Williams have NFL futures. The league also boasts three other very stout and versatile players up front in Kansas State’s Cody Whitehair, West Virginia’s Quinton Spain and Oklahoma State’s Daniel Koenig, all three of which can man either guard or tackle.

[+] EnlargeDavis Webb
Donald Miralle/Getty ImagesDavis Webb seems like one of the few sure things at QB in the Big 12.
5. Quarterback: The Big 12 has one Heisman candidate in Baylor’s Bryce Petty, a proven performer in Kansas State’s Jake Waters and two budding stars in Texas Tech’s Davis Webb and Oklahoma’s Trevor Knight. The rest of the league is a big fat unknown at the game’s most-critical position. But if Oklahoma State’s J.W. Walsh and Texas’ David Ash regain their forms from two seasons ago, Iowa State’s Grant Rohach builds off his strong 2013 finish, Clint Trickett can stay upright at West Virginia, and transfer Matt Joeckel and sophomore Montell Cozart prove to be the answers at TCU and Kansas, the Big 12 could be on the way back to becoming the preeminent conference for quarterbacking once again.

6. Running back: Half the teams lost their leading rushers from last season, and that doesn’t include Texas Tech’s Kenny Williams switching positions to linebacker. The Longhorns pose a potentially devastating one-two punch in Malcolm Brown and Johnathan Gray, and the Mountaineers could go five-deep with Dreamius Smith, Wendell Smallwood, Rushel Shell, Dustin Garrison and Andrew Buie. But the rest of the league will be leaning on potential more than past performance. That said, there is a lot to like in Baylor’s Shock Linwood, Iowa State’s Aaron Wimberly, TCU’s B.J. Catalon, Oklahoma State’s Tyreek Hill and Oklahoma’s Keith Ford.

7. Defensive back: With Gilbert, Verrett, Dixon, Colvin, Zimmerman, Cook and Byndom all gone, this position took a major attrition hit. Thanks to Sam Carter, Chris Hackett and Kevin White, TCU remains well stocked in its secondary. Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas have veterans back, too. Everywhere else, there is rebuilding to be done. But the next wave of secondary stars appears to be on its way. Cornerbacks Nigel Tribune (Iowa State), Justis Nelson (Texas Tech) and Daryl Worley (West Virginia) all started as true freshmen. So did Oklahoma State corner Kevin Peterson and West Virginia safety Karl Joseph, who are now both juniors. It might not be long before defensive back is a strength of the league again like it was last season.
Though the 2014 NFL draft ended just last weekend, ESPN Insider Todd McShay posted his way-too-early 2015 mock draft Insider on Wednesday.

McShay had three Big 12 players going in his mock first round: Baylor QB Bryce Petty 15th overall to the Houston Texans, TCU DE Devonte Fields 25th overall to the San Francisco 49ers and Oklahoma LB Eric Striker 29th overall to the Green Bay Packers.

Though we have almost a full year to go, here are some of other top Big 12 prospects for the 2015 draft (in alphabetical order):

  • TE E.J. Bibbs, Iowa State: Three pass-catching tight ends went in the first two rounds last weekend, and that’s exactly what Bibbs is. He caught 39 passes last season and can far exceed that if QB Grant Rohach settles into new coordinator Mark Mangino’s offense.
  • [+] EnlargeMalcom Brown
    John Albright/Icon SMIMalcom Brown might be the best DT in the Big 12 this season and could make NFL scouts take notice.
  • DT Malcom Brown, Texas: Like his D-line teammate Cedric Reed, Brown has first-round talent. He was rated the second-best DT coming out of high school and began to realize that potential last season.
  • SS Sam Carter, TCU: Carter has manned strong safety at a high level in Fort Worth for the past two seasons and was the only underclassman defensive back to earn first- or second-team All-Big 12 honors in 2013. With teammate Jason Verrett gone, he won’t be as overshadowed next season.
  • OT Le'Raven Clark, Texas Tech: After starting his first two seasons in college at left tackle, Clark could get moved to guard this season. Clark has the strength to be a devastating run-blocking guard, and the NFL loves players who can play multiple positions.
  • CB Quandre Diggs, Texas: Diggs has been a starter in Austin since his true freshman season. He is fast, and he’s a solid tackler against the run. Diggs has an NFL pedigree, too. His brother, Quentin Jammer, was a first-round pick in 2002 after starring for the Horns.
  • OT Spencer Drango, Baylor: Drango will get plenty of attention protecting Petty’s blindside. The back injury from last season is a concern, but it also underscored how dominant Drango actually was. Baylor’s pass protection was leaky without him the rest of the year. Like Clark, Drango will just be a junior next season.
  • C BJ Finney, Kansas State: The Big 12 has some other draft hopefuls at center in Iowa State’s Tom Farniok and Texas’ Dominic Espinosa, but Finney seems like the best bet of the three to get drafted. The former walk-on and high school state wrestling champ will be a four-year starter, and has 39 career starts, which is tied for the Big 12 active lead.
  • WR Antwan Goodley, Baylor: He might not be tall at only 5-foot-10, but Goodley is physical and fast. With another ultra-productive season like last fall, he could be one of the top receivers on next year’s board.
  • WR Tyler Lockett, Kansas State: Lockett’s versatility both as an inside or outside receiver and in the return game only makes him a more attractive prospect. With Jake Waters now installed as the full-time QB, Lockett could have a monster statistical senior season.
  • DE Shawn Oakman, Baylor: At 6-9, 275 pounds, Oakman has intriguing size for an NFL defensive line. If he dominates in the fall the way Art Briles said he did in the spring, Oakman could quickly turn into a hot prospect even though he’ll only be a junior.
  • DE Cedric Reed, Texas: According to NFL.com, Reed was one of two players nationally in 2013 to record five sacks, five forced fumbles and four pass breakups. The other? Buffalo’s Khalil Mack, who was the fifth overall pick in last week’s draft. By coming back to school for another year, Reed could potentially become a first rounder, too.
  • DE Charles Tapper, Oklahoma: Tapper almost has the size of a defensive tackle and the athleticism of a linebacker. He didn’t have an overly huge statistical sophomore season but was the only underclassman defensive lineman voted All-Big 12 by the coaches. Tapper too will only be a junior.
  • OT Daryl Williams, Oklahoma: Even though Tyrus Thompson has manned the left side in Norman, Williams has the better pro outlook. Williams will be a three-year starter and has the athleticism to transition to the left side at the next level.
Others to watch: RB Malcolm Brown, Texas; DT James Castleman, Oklahoma State; C Dominic Espinosa, Texas; C Tom Farniok, Iowa State; ILB Bryce Hager, Baylor; FS Chris Hackett, TCU; LB Ben Heeney, Kansas; DT Chucky Hunter, TCU; FS Karl Joseph, West Virginia; DE Ryan Mueller, Kansas State; DT Jordan Phillips, Oklahoma; DT Davion Pierson, TCU; OG Quinton Spain, West Virginia; OT Tyrus Thompson, Oklahoma; CB Kevin White, TCU; OG Cody Whitehair, Kansas State
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
May 14
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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

For the past two weeks, we’ve been ranking the best units in the Big 12 by position.

Now, in our weekly poll, we’re asking for your opinion: Who has the league’s best offensive unit regardless of position?

We’re going to exclude the quarterback position, since that’s more about one player than the collective strength of an entire unit.

Sorry, Bryce Petty.

SportsNation

Who has the Big 12's best overall offensive positional unit?

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    19%
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    24%
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    16%
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    19%
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    22%

Discuss (Total votes: 5,751)

Petty’s receivers at Baylor, though, have a strong claim as the best offensive unit in the league. The Bears return four players who finished with at least 30 receptions last season, including Antwan Goodley, who produced 71 catches for 1,339 yards and 13 touchdowns in 2013. Baylor will also be adding arguably the deepest and most talented signing class at the position in the country, headlined by ESPN 300 receiver K.D. Cannon.

The Bears, however, aren’t the only ones loaded at receiver.

Texas Tech features the dynamic receiving trio of Jakeem Grant, Bradley Marquez and Reginald Davis, who combined for four touchdowns in the National University Holiday Bowl win over Arizona State. D.J. Polite-Bray emerged over the spring as a downfield burner on the outside. The Red Raiders have also added their top overall recruit from last year to the rotation in Devin Lauderdale, who was forced to attend junior college for a year after failing to initially qualify. Four-star slot receivers Byron Daniels and Ian Sadler will be joining the squad in the summer.

As deep as the Bears and Red Raiders are at receiver, there might not be a positional group in the Big 12 as deep as West Virginia’s running backs.

In their backfield, the Mountaineers have Dreamius Smith (the No. 1 juco back in 2013), Wendell Smallwood (who played as a true freshman), Rushel Shell (who before transferring in from Pitt, set Pennsylvania’s state high school career rushing record), Andrew Buie (the team’s leading rusher from 2012) and Dustin Garrison, the team’s leading rusher from 2011 who had a tremendous spring following a string of injuries the previous three seasons. If that weren’t enough, four-star signee Donte Thomas-Williams will be arriving in Morgantown this summer.

While not as deep, Texas’ three-headed monster in the backfield is more proven than West Virginia’s, though not without questions. Johnathan Gray is coming off an Achilles injury, and Joe Bergeron was barred from the team during the spring due to academics. But when together and healthy, the threesome of Malcolm Brown, Gray (both All-Big 12-caliber runners) and Bergeron is as fearsome as any in the country.

Last fall, the Texas backs ran behind the most experienced offensive line in the Big 12. This season, that distinction belongs to the Sooners, whose offensive line unit caps the poll.

All told, Oklahoma boasts 107 career starts along its offensive line, headlined by senior tackle Daryl Williams and guard Adam Shead, who have been starting since their redshirt freshman seasons. Guard/center Nila Kasitati and tackle Tyrus Thompson are also returning starters on an offense that placed second in the Big 12 in rushing last season.

So who does have the best offensive unit in the Big 12?

Baylor's or Texas Tech’s wide receivers? West Virginia's or Texas’ running backs? Or Oklahoma’s offensive line?

Texas spring wrap

May, 1, 2014
May 1
7:30
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A recap of what we learned about the Texas Longhorns following their first spring with new head coach Charlie Strong.

Three things we learned in the spring:

1. Strong isn’t messing around. From his high-intensity practices, to his willingness to stop and restart practice if the vibe isn’t right, to demanding players walk the half-mile uphill to the fields, the first-year coach is out to bring back a toughness that went missing with the Longhorns in recent years.

2. Texas will have two play-callers and, potentially, a handful of playmakers on offense in 2014. Offensive Joe Wickline and assistant head coach Shawn Watson will call plays, and Watson gets the final say. They know what they have in RB Malcolm Brown and WRs Jaxon Shipley, Marcus Johnson and Kendall Sanders, who all earned good reviews this spring.

3. Defensive line will be the strength of Texas’ defense, led by a pair of All-Big 12 caliber veterans in DE Cedric Reed and DT Malcom Brown. Senior Desmond Jackson is holding down the other interior spot, and Shiro Davis is emerging as the replacement for Jackson Jeffcoat. Depth behind them still a question mark, but those four starters are the real deal.

Three questions for the fall:

1. Quarterback. Duh. The foot fracture David Ash suffered before the final week of spring ball only amplified the scrutiny of this spot. Tyrone Swoopes had a few flashes and also some struggles in the spring game. Don’t be surprised if former USC QB Max Wittek joins the program in May and makes this a real competition, along with freshman Jerrod Heard.

2. The linebackers remain a source of uncertainty exiting spring ball, with Jordan Hicks among the three veterans at that spot who missed spring practice. DC Vance Bedford should feel good about Steve Edmond (his play, not his words), Dalton Santos and Peter Jinkens back there, and Demarco Cobbs is back from injury, but who’s starting by the end of August?

3. Wickline comes to Austin with a reputation for being one of the nation’s top offensive line coaches. He’ll have a nice challenge finding his best five this fall. Center Dominic Espinosa might be the only lock among the Longhorns’ potential starters up front, and Wickline could choose from any number of lineup combinations for the opener.

One way-too-early prediction:

Presuming that Texas gets its quarterback affairs in order, this has the look of a nine-win team coming out of spring ball. How the Longhorns players buy in this summer and into fall camp will go a long way toward raising (or lowering) those expectations. Three of Texas’ first six games in 2014 come against likely preseason top-10 teams, so the Horns have to get a lot better between now and then.
With spring ball done, we’re reexamining and reranking the positional situations of every Big 12 team, continuing Tuesday with running backs. These outlooks will look different in August. But here’s how we see them post-spring:


1. West Virginia (pre-spring ranking: 4): West Virginia running backs coach JaJuan Seider has one of the best and most difficult jobs in the Big 12. Seider has an embarrassment of riches at his position in Dreamius Smith (the No. 1 juco back in 2013), Wendell Smallwood (who played last year as a true freshman), Rushel Shell (who before transferring from Pitt set the Pennsylvania state high school rushing record), Andrew Buie (the team’s leading rusher in 2012) and Dustin Garrison, West Virginia’s leading rusher from 2011, who, finally healthy again, enjoyed a resurgent spring. The Mountaineers also will add four-star signee Donte Thomas-Williams in the summer. The difficult part for Seider will be divvying up carries to so many capable backs. But if the Mountaineers can keep everyone happy and find the right combination, this could become a devastating and versatile running back stable.

2. Texas (1): Coach Charlie Strong delivered promising news on Monday in San Antonio, suggesting Johnathan Gray could be cleared from his Achilles injury by mid-June. Strong also said that Joe Bergeron will be rejoining the team shortly, too, after sitting out the spring to focus on academics. When healthy and eligible, the trio of Malcolm Brown, Gray and Bergeron is a formidable bunch and the backbone of the Texas offense.

3. Baylor (3): Shock Linwood and Devin Chafin exited spring as the co-starters, but Johnny Jefferson left the biggest impression in the spring game. The Bears have a track record of spreading carries around, which means Big 12 fans will become very acquainted with the talented redshirt freshman next season.

4. Oklahoma State (5): One of the biggest surprises of the spring was how much the Cowboys used Tyreek Hill at running back. Oklahoma State is planning to utilize the nation’s top juco playmaker the way West Virginia did Tavon Austin two years ago. In other words, Hill could line up in the backfield one play then slot receiver the next. Either way, arguably the fastest player in college football gives the Cowboys a dynamic lightning component to complement the thunderous running of senior Desmond Roland, who led all Big 12 backs in touchdowns last season.

5. Oklahoma (3): There might not be a Big 12 backfield with more upside than Oklahoma’s. Of course, with that upside comes little experience. Sophomore Keith Ford has the potential to be a punishing inside runner, but he had fumbling issues last season as a freshman that re-emerged during the spring. If he can’t hang onto the ball, he won’t play, no matter how tough he runs between the tackles. After getting passed by Ford on the depth chart last year, Alex Ross bounced back with an impressive spring. Early enrollee Dimitri Flowers was a revelation this spring as a powerful run-blocking fullback in the mold of Trey Millard. If fellow incoming freshman Joe Mixon lives up to his recruiting hype, the Sooners could feature their most potent rushing attack in years.

6. Iowa State (8): The most underrated one-two punch at running back in the league resides in Ames. According to first-year offensive coordinator Mark Mangino, Aaron Wimberly and DeVondrick Nealy were sharp all spring and will spearhead an offense that could surprise in 2014. The key will be keeping the slight but explosive Wimberly relatively healthy, which he never really was before and after rushing for 137 and 117 yards back to back against Tulsa and Texas. Wimberly, however, was 100 percent all spring, and it showed, as he racked up 68 yards on just nine touches in the spring game.

7. TCU (7): TCU had to make do without its three top backs in the spring due to injuries. Aaron Green suffered a broken collarbone, Kyle Hicks had a shoulder bruise, and returning leading rusher B.J. Catalon dealt with a nagging hamstring injury. All three, however, should be fine for the fall, and could form a reliable rotation at running back. Four-star recruit Shaun Nixon could help out, too, once he arrives on campus.

8. Texas Tech (6): The Red Raiders dropped two spots, largely because returning starter Kenny Williams played outside linebacker all spring and could remain there for good. But even if Williams becomes a full-time linebacker, Tech still could be solid at running back with veteran DeAndre Washington, sophomore Quinton White and incoming four-star freshman Justin Stockton, whom the Texas Tech coaching staff is very high on. Head coach and offensive play-caller Kliff Kingsbury wouldn’t have given Williams the go-ahead to move to defense if he didn’t feel optimistic about what remained in the backfield.

9. Kansas (9): Though they come in ninth here, running back could be a position of strength for the Jayhawks next season. Brandon Bourbon, the favorite to start, rushed for 96 yards on 12 carries in the spring game, but Taylor Cox (63 yards on 15 carries) and Darrian Miller (50 yards on seven carries) had nice outings, as well. The Jayhawks also will welcome De’Andre Mann, the nation’s fifth-best juco running back, in the summer, as well as four-star freshmen Traevohn Wrench and Corey Avery. Until they start winning more games, it’s difficult to give the Jayhawks the benefit of the doubt in these position rankings. But with this collection of runners, they might not miss All-Big 12 performer James Sims as much as first thought.

10. Kansas State (10): The spring brought little clarity about who John Hubert’s primary replacement will be. Jarvis Leverett and Charles Jones both ran hard in K-State’s spring game, though neither broke a run for longer than 11 yards. Meanwhile, DeMarcus Robinson, who has the most experience of the three, sat out the scrimmage with an injury. As a result, incoming freshman Dalvin Warmack, who rushed for 4,500 yards and 70 touchdowns while averaging almost 9 yards per carry his final two years in high school, will have an opportunity to be a factor once he joins the team this summer.

Spring game review: Texas

April, 21, 2014
Apr 21
9:00
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AUSTIN, Texas -- Texas finished its first spring under new coach Charlie Strong with its annual Orange-White spring game on Saturday. The two-hour scrimmage was won by Texas' first-team offense 38-14, and while Tyrone Swoopes' up-and-down showing stole most of the attention, here are a few more takeaways from the Longhorns' spring finale:

[+] EnlargeTyrone Swoopes
AP Photo/Michael ThomasTyrone Swoopes should improve as he gains confidence.
Best offensive performance: With only one other scholarship back available, you knew Malcolm Brown was in for a big workload. He kicked off his critical senior season with a solid day, picking up 82 yards and a touchdown on 20 carries and adding 26 yards and another score on two screen passes. Texas will need Johnathan Gray (torn Achilles) healthy and Joe Bergeron (academics) back if this run game is going to lead the way, but Brown could be poised for an All-Big 12 caliber season if he stays healthy.

Best defensive performance: Strong didn't need to watch any film to know who stood out on his defense on Saturday. Defensive tackle Malcom Brown was a "handful," in his eyes, and that was obvious to everyone in attendance. The junior lineman racked up five tackles, one tackle for loss and a quarterback hurry, and he spent plenty of time in the backfield. "When he wants to play," Strong said, "he can create a lot of havoc and can make plays."

Best debut: Not many candidates for this, since Texas had just three early enrollees, so let's give a little love to a walk-on. Dylan Haines is a name most Longhorns fans had never heard entering Saturday, but the defensive back stole the show in the first quarter by intercepting Swoopes' overthrown first pass attempt and returning it 23 yards. Haines, a second-year scout team player in 2013, was rewarded for his big play with reps on Texas' first-team defense.

Notable play: Swoopes' best play of the day was his last. He took a low snap midway through the fourth quarter, faked a handoff and hurled a deep ball to Jaxon Shipley, fitting it in perfectly between defensive backs Chevoski Collins and Adrian Colbert. Shipley pulled it down over his shoulder for a 44-yard touchdown, giving Swoopes plenty to smile about after a frustrating start to the day. The pass was by far the best Swoopes has thrown in his first year of action and, to some extent, an encouraging sign he's not afraid to take shots downfield.

Developing storyline: Texas has a chance to have one of the Big 12's better offensive lines this fall under the guidance of Joe Wickline, but this summer and fall camp will be critical toward fortifying that line and establishing needed depth. The mammoth Desmond Harrison must continue to develop at left tackle after a rough 2013 season. Kennedy Estelle and the injured Kent Perkins can become some of UT's best linemen in time. And the battle at right guard, between Taylor Doyle and Rami Hammad, isn't over. Wickline will start his five best, and that five should reveal itself over the next few months.

Biggest question answered: Is Swoopes the heir apparent at quarterback for Texas? He showed flashes in the spring game, particularly in the second half, but he never faced a first-team defense Saturday and his play early on served as a reminder why a redshirt would have been the right move last fall. Shawn Watson is encouraged by his potential and still has plenty to teach him this summer and beyond. Swoopes has raw tools and will get better as he gets more confident, but his coaches and fans should stay patient.

Quotable: "When you look at the level of concern, you look at today and you go out and say defensively you would like to play a lot better and get stops and make sure you don't allow teams to just consistently drive the football on you. Then on offense it is all about executing, but that is going to come with focus and with preparation. What happens is that the players understand what we are looking for and what we are all about. So once we understand that, things are going to get much better because they believe in the system. When they trust and believe in the system, then we are always going to have a chance." -- Strong
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.

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