The guys that take over in spring when everything is simplified to a fundamental level and base install is the name of the game are generally the ones that determine the team's identity over the summer and into the fall.
Here's the main developments and positional battles I'm keeping an eye on in the Big 12 this spring:
The eyes of Texas are still on the quarterbackFor Texas it has to be the QB position, which will set the ceiling for what this team can become and determine whether Charlie keeps his job. You can read some of my breakdowns on that positional outlook at Texas here.
May not get to the QB Sooner than last year but it still needs to be fast
Sterling Shepard was a phenomenal WR and probably underrated last year due to sharing the spotlight with Josh Doctson and Corey Coleman, but OU can replace him in the passing game "in the aggregate" as Brad Pitt says in Moneyball by targeting Mark Andrews more inside and up and comers like Jeffrey Mead outside.
The bigger issue in my mind is replacing Eric Striker's pass rush and overall versatility on defense. In addition to being the best pass-rusher on the team, Striker (and safety Steven Parker) allowed Oklahoma to play some base 3-4 personnel against spread teams thanks to his ability to handle playing in space.
When I want to get a glimpse of what's going on in Okie-land, I always turn to thefootballbrainiacs.com who recently had some notes on the solutions here.
It would seem that rather than playing another space-backer and using the 3-4 as much this year they'll just play more 3-3-5 nickel with Will Johnson essentially replacing Striker. That leaves just one edge- or outside-backer on the field for the Sooners, Obo Okoronkwo. He'd better be a very good pass-rusher for this to work out.
The rest of the Sooner defense I'm projecting to end up being either "stout" or "possibly dominant" depending on the position.
Breaking the defeated streak will require an impact receiver
Kansas needs to find a skill player on offense that can threaten defenses. The Jayhawks leading receiver in 2015 was Tre' Parmalee, who had 41 catches, 599 yards, three touchdowns, and was someone I'd never heard of in my life before looking up those stats for this blog post. He was a senior in 2015, so I'll probably forget about him pretty soon as well.
It sounds like they'll be counting on A&M transfer LaQuvionte Gonzalez to be the guy next year who causes match-up problems in the passing game.
They've got some interesting TEs on campus like Kent Taylor, Ben Johnson, and Jace Sternberger that might also arise in the coming seasons, although my view here is clouded by the fact that they did some work against Texas last year by throwing stick routes to Taylor when he was matched up against the slowest linebacker in the Big 12.
Lots of work with combo blocks for Campbell's Cyclones
How do you make the most of an offense with Joel Lanning at QB, Allen Lazard at WR, and Mike Warren at RB? With inside zone and a TE/H-back who can move around, block at different angles, and get out into the flat as a check down target for Lanning on play-action rollouts.
There's a ton that Iowa State could do with inside zone to set these guys up for success with zone read, rollouts, and deeper play-action shots, and as a guy who came up from Mount Union you can be sure that Matt Campbell knows it.
The only problem is that Iowa State's OL was obliterated by graduation, injuries, and transfers and the only returning starter (LT Jake Campos) was injured for the start of spring practice.
The Cyclones can't sit back and let Joel Lanning try to win them games throwing from the pocket unless they are okay with only winning three games next season, they need to get the run game going. That means that this young OL is going to be drilling combo blocks on inside zone all spring and they'd better get pretty good at it (or some other run scheme) or "Midwestern football" isn't coming to Ames, IA in 2016.
Can Tech's safeties make a tackle?
Word on the street in Lubbock is that there's a position battle at strong safety between Keenon Ward and redshirt freshman Payton Hendrix. This is key because Tech was horrendous at safety last year and really needs to find some guys that make an impact in the alley if they want to win any games next season.
Jah'Shawn Johnson was alright at free safety, and since he was a 175 pound redshirt freshman last year, I'm inclined to believe he can continue to grow and become a worthy player. Payton Hendrix was a guy I thought was a worthy tackler in high school so it'll be interesting to see if he can make a dent.
Their front was devastated by graduation but NBD, they weren't good last year. Losing Pete Robertson hurts but Notre Dame transfer Kolin Hill is ready to go there and should be solid. The biggest issue for their defense next year is going to be that sophomore D'Vonta Hinton is going to start and immediately elevate their play at inside-backer from a D to a B+ or higher.
Tech will be better on defense next year, bank on it, but they need these position battles at safety to turn out well.
K-State's "cat" safety
Assuming Dante Barnett is back and on form in 2016, the biggest question for the Wildcats might be at "cat safety" which is their nickel position.
Now granted the Wildcats lost 4/5 of their OL, including star left tackle Cody Whitehair, but that offense is going to be much better next year when they have a real QB depth chart again. The departed OL were mostly JUCOs and former walk-ons anyways, there are always more of those coming up the ranks in Manhattan.
But losing Randall Evans at nickel and failing to get great play from replacement Donnie Starks was an under-appreciated part of the problem for the 2015 Wildcats' disappointing season.
The Wildcats actually ask quite a bit from that position, the player doesn't need to be great at anything but he does need to be good at a lot. In particular this player needs to be able to play some man coverage on a slot AND be a good force defender.
Starks was alright in coverage and poor at forcing the run, which shouldn't be a huge shock since he's about 5'10" and 180. That can be a tough gig.
When your nickel isn't a great force player that can contain ball-carriers within a narrow alley that sets up the safety behind him to look really silly when he's trying to close with speed on a moving target. When that safety trying to hit a moving target is Sean Newlan? Forget about it.
The free safety (KSU calls it their "strong" safety but whatever) who is typically trying to navigate that space should be Barnett next year, so that will be a major upgrade, but the Wildcats still need to set him up better underneath with their force player.
The candidates are Donnie Starks, who played the position last year but wasn't terribly good at it, Sean Newlan, who'd be a disaster in man coverage, and...
K-State needs to figure this out in the midst of replacing their best cover corner (Morgan Burns) and finding some more safeties after Kaleb Prewett left the program. My money is on Sean Newlan winning the strong safety job while promising young Kendall Adams backs him up and Barnett is backed by one of the incoming JUCOs.
That TCU run game
Because they are an Air Raid team with a potent passing attack, people don't tend to talk much about the Frog running game. This is a mistake since they sprung Aaron Green for 1200 yards last year and Boykin for another 600.
Earlier this week on Twitter myself and the Frog Twitter community talked about all the returning talent at WR in Ft. Worth and mused that if Kenny Hill's life and work ethic are back on track that TCU could have a much better than expected passing attack.
What about that run game though? Hill is a solid runner but he's no Boykin, Green has graduated, and the OL is losing 4/5 of their starters. They did get some of the back-up OL some action down the stretch as injuries took out the starters and they do return fullback Trevorris Johnson and TE Buck Jones.
All of that helps, but how will the run game be in 2016 and is Kyle Hicks or any other TCU RB ready to be a feature back in this offense? That could be the facet of the 2015 TCU offense that's hard to replace.
Are there still great athletes in Stillwater?
Oklahoma State pretty much knows what they've got on both sides of the ball going into 2016. They return their entire OL (for what that's worth), their starting QB, their best receiver (James Washington), and their top running backs on offense. On defense they could potentially be pretty stout up the middle with their DTs back, fairly experienced LBs in Chad Whitener and Devante Averette, and both safeties and their space-backer Jordan Burton all returning.
They know who's likely to start at corner with Ramon Richards and Ashton Lampkin both returning with starting experience, they even know who's likely to step in at DE to replace Emmanuel Ogbah and Jimmy Bean (redshirt sophomores Jarrell Owens and Jordan Brailford).
What we don't know is whether any of these guys, especially at DE or CB, have NFL caliber athleticism. Building an interior of stout veterans is very, very valuable, but you aren't dominating anyone without a pass-rusher and a coverage guy that can consistently win 1-on-1 match-ups.
I loved Owens and thought Richards and Brailford had potential coming out of high school...we'll see.
Hey Dana, about that contract extension...
West Virginia lost 2015's starting nose tackle and every single member of the defensive backfield. Granted Karl Joseph's replacement Jarrod Harper started eight games last year after the hard-hitting safety went down, but those are some serious losses.
I'm not sure what to even say here. We're talking about a defense that was good in 2015 but has been absolutely gutted and most now build cohesion and chemistry in their pass defense with all new players and without a particularly fearsome DL to help them out.
Meanwhile the offense returns tons of exciting pieces, including a very solid interior OL, but also returns Skyler Howard at QB. What's the ceiling for this offense with Howard at the helm and question marks at both tackle positions?
This is a year when West Virginia needs to win for Dana and they are poorly set up to do it. On the bright side, at least their 2016 schedule isn't designed to ruin them like the 2015 slate.
I'm interested in hearing about anyone that can be an impact player on the Mountaineer team, especially on defense where I'm not sure they have any such guys.
Baylor's alien quotient
The Bears need to find a nose tackle to replace Billings (uh...) and get some pass-rush (Brian Nance, you ready, bruh?) and really need to upgrade their play at cover safety (spring highlights are heavy on Chance Waz getting abused in that spot).
But it's probably safe to assume however all that shakes out, the Bear D will be "alright" and the big issue will be who "the man" is now that Corey Coleman has gone.
I've mentioned in this space before the Manny Diaz "alien quotient" which ultimately determines whether anyone can defend Baylor or not. They're going to get their WRs in 1-on-1 match-ups in space, the question is whether those WRs are good enough to abuse you when it happens. Do they have any "aliens" that just can't be handled 1-on-1?
Last year either Baylor only had one "alien" in Corey Coleman or else Stidham wasn't capable of finding the others because OU got away with shading coverage to Coleman and playing everyone else in what basically amounted to cover zero man coverage.
You assume KD Cannon will have another big year but who else is stepping up for the Bears? Besides rising players like Chris Platt and Ishmael Zamora, Blake Lynch is also getting some buzz.
Whether or not Seth Russell is fully healthy and ready to go come fall is another big question but honestly, I think Stidham would probably be really good even if the answer is "no."