Tuesday, July 28, 2015

If Santa came to fall practices, what would each B12 team ask him for?

Fall practices always bring a surprise element to preseason prognostications that media and even coaches often struggle to account for.

Your typical preseason magazines are all written up after spring ball when the back-up players who have been in the program have already had their first crack at proving themselves worthy of filling the available roles for the following season.

However, these guesses always leave out the possibility of something major happening either in summer 7-on-7 drills or in fall practices that could have big ramifications for a team or even the entire league. It's difficult to anticipate how various freshman could impact a season before observing how they perform both in pads against college players and then on Saturday's in game situations.

There are also players and schemes that come alive in the summer and fall that no one anticipates. At this time last year no one would have guessed that senior Texas WR John Harris would finish 2014 with 1k receiving yards. In fact, no one would have necessarily guessed that he'd even start the whole year.

Coaches usually enter fall practices with a decent idea of what their team will be but also a wish list and list of goals that they know they need to accomplish in that time to have the kind of season that will everyone in their program is hoping for.

If Santa came and visited fall practices for every Big 12 team, here's what they'd all be asking him for:

Kansas: A spark of hope

This would most likely come from freshman QB Carter Stanley winning the job and demonstrating the ability to command the Air Raid offense. They also need some play makers to emerge at the skill positions in the worst possible way, to have a defensive line that can stop the run, etc. They need everything.

But nothing will invigorate their program more than finding a leader who they could start to build this program around.

Iowa State: A pass-rushing defensive end

Cory Morrissey was one of the better DEs Iowa State has had in the Paul Rhoads era and even he only had six sacks and 8.5 tackles for loss last season. Sometimes the Cyclones are able to build reasonably tough defenses that can force you to work the length of the field, but they have never had the kind of impact player in their front who can inflict negative plays that prevent their defense from having to absorb punches all day.

One of their best ends, Mitchell Meyers, has been receiving chemo this summer for Hodgkin's Lymphona and somehow still participating in summer workouts. It's an amazing story and you wish him the best.

There isn't an obvious talent here that stands out as a guy that can lead the defense though.

Texas Tech: A free safety

New DC David Gibbs' defense depends on having safeties that can own the middle of the field and bring their hats to the action. He had some feisty, if undersized, safeties at Houston that were willing to bring the wood even against big, physical teams like Pittsburgh.

He's got a ton of options at Texas Tech, including returning starters JJ Gaines and Keenon Ward, but no one who has shown major potential to be an eraser that will make their aggressive system work.

Kansas State: A new "Cat" safety

Randall Evans has owned the nickel position at Kansas State for three years. In that time he's averaged seasons with 66 tackles, three tackles for loss, one sack, nine pass break-ups, two INTs, and two forced fumbles.

That's strong nickel production, and the K-State system also depends on this player being able to play both as a run-force defender on the edge and as a de-facto corner. It can be hard to find a player worth blitzing on the edge who won't also get whipped when you ask him to play man coverage outside.

The early favorite seems to be Nate Jackson, who played well at the end of the year and served as the free safety against UCLA totaling four tackles and two break-ups in that game. At 5'11" 185 he's well built to play corner but is he also about that run-force life? What will K-State do against 11/20 personnel teams that might meet their nickel on the edge with a fullback or tight end?

Whoever plays QB for them will probably just be the guy that best allows them to pound the ball on the ground and move the chains, but if their D takes a step back then the routes to victory for K-State start to hit roadblocks. They really need to find a good Cat safety, again I suggest they just slide over Danzel McDaniel if Jackson isn't up for it.

West Virginia: A left tackle and shuffled OL

Dana Holgorsen gave us this answer in his B12 media day presser. The goal in Morgantown is to move last year's left tackle Adam Pankey inside to guard to ensure that they can run the ball and eliminate penetration inside with his 6'5" 312 pound frame.

West Virginia often throws the ball either behind the line of scrimmage, or downfield but protected with play-action or RPOs that can slow the pass-rush. Still, their power/zone game really needs some punch on the perimeter to make things work and an athletic upgrade at tackle could give them a chance to feature left side runs in their playbook.

The biggest victory here would be upgrading at left tackle and at guard with the emergence of Yodny Cajuste to play outside. I wasn't impressed with his high school tape but he's generated positive reports since he arrived in Morgantown.

Baylor: A leader in the middle of the defense

In addition to being rangy and productive playing from his middle linebacker spot, Bryce Hager was also the leader of the Baylor defense and responsible for many of the calls and adjustments on the field.

JUCO transfer Grant Campbell is first in line to replace him with Aivion Edwards waiting as another option to take over there after he was unseated at will linebacker by Taylor "Rocket" Young. Baylor should see even greater production from their experienced safety tandem of Orion Stewart and Terrell Burt, Taylor Young is an eraser at will, and they might get more athletic at nickel as well with Travon Blanchard taking over. With all that returning talent and a big DL covering them all up, the Bears probably won't need someone as productive as Hager back at mike but someone still needs to direct the traffic from the middle.

Texas: A new number one receiver

The Longhorns need an offensive identity and to get confident, effective play from a quarterback and their offensive line. Everyone knows this.

However, they should be able to run the ball some with a QB run game, RB Johnathan Gray, and a much more experienced OL. But they have to replace John Harris and Jaxon Shipley outside at receiver or that running game will hit a wall against the league's better defenses.

Oklahoma: Their defensive mojo

Ever since Mike Stoops came back the Sooners have been plagued by non-aggressive game plans that set them up for humiliating defeats. Big game Bob has started losing big games in Norman, which was nearly unthinkable before Brent Venables left, and Mike Stoops has been shuffled around on defense and moved away from coaching the DBs which was once his calling card.

It's not so much their scheme that's rotten but the way they have failed to develop their corners or aggressively deploy their athletes. If they can't find a worthy corner opposite Zach Sanchez and get aggressive play from all of their big, experienced safeties and linebackers they are going to pack into the middle of the field then they could have a supremely disappointing season that spells the end of the Stoops era. Mike Stoops has been coaching without confidence since he was fired from Arizona, you wonder if he needs a sabbatical away from football of if he'll recover his magic in 2015.

If they don't make it work you'll have to start wondering if ol' Bobby might need a change of scenery to recharge as well.

Oklahoma State: Sturdy play in the middle

The only hiccup to OSU deploying a really strong defense in 2015 is whether they'll have players in the middle that can clog things up for the linebackers, do some damage with the interior pass-rush, and make sure that the Pokes aren't soft down main street.

With returning LBs Seth Jacobs and Ryan Simmons they really don't even need these guys to be phenomenal, just to be capable of holding their ground and making plays when they are there to be made. Young tackle Vincent Taylor is one they hope will offer even more than that while JUCO transfer Motekiai Maile will probably find himself doing the dirty work at nose tackle trying to command double teams.

If they get steady play from both, OSU could contend for the Big 12 title. If one of them is excellent then you'd really better look out for Gundy's Cowboys.

TCU: A boundary cornerback

We just talked about TCU's "Baylor problem" which is really the problem that all quarters defenses have in trying to keep their DBs from getting isolated in man coverage with poor leverage when facing smashmouth spread teams.

They should benefit from being able to continue to play field corner Ranthony Texada in man coverage on the outside and focus some of their focus and efforts inside. They'd gain even more versatility from seeing a boundary corner emerge that could allow them to be creative with how they deploy their weak safety.

Ideally this player would be able to lock up a no. 1 receiver in man coverage without safety help, blitz the boundary edge, or be a underneath defender that can force the run. Jason Verrett could do all of this but Kevin White was a real downgrade in the same role despite his solid play. If TCU has two corners they trust to play man on the outside then everything gets simpler and easier for their young safeties playing in the middle.

Baylor, TCU, and Oklahoma State all stand out as teams that have more answers than questions heading into 2015. Consider those the three favorites to win the league in that order followed by West Virginia, Oklahoma, Texas Tech, Texas, Kansas State, Iowa State, and Kansas.

We'll see which teams were naughty or nice after fall practices conclude and this season finally gets underway.

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