Spring football can be tedious. It’s all about honing technique, installing new plays and allowing younger players to test their green skills.
But we love it because in all its forced banality, it’s still football, even if it’s March. The blare of an air horn signaling the end of a practice period is a blissful sound, given that the real season is five months away.
TCU, Texas Tech and West Virginia were the first two league teams to hit the fields. Oklahoma started Saturday. Kansas State and Baylor start this next week. By the end of the month, all league teams will be in action, with Texas starting March 20. All the Saturday spring games will be played from April 7-28.
Here’s a glance at the questions we’d love for the Big 12 to answer by the final spring exhibition.
First, the obvious. Who will be the Big 12’s glitziest star? There aren’t a ton of proven candidates in the conference constellation.
Former Oklahoma standout Baker Mayfield, last year’s Heisman Trophy winner, is prepping for the NFL. Whether he was winning games or trolling opponents, Mayfield managed to tug the spotlight his way.
But all the conference national award winners have departed. Only seven players who made the league’s all-conference first team (counting offense, defense and special teams) are returning for the fall.
So coronating a Big 12 king in the spring is going to be difficult.
Best guess, the best player in the league plays for West Virginia.
Maybe it’s Will Grier, the Mountaineers quarterback who suffered a bad finger injury against Texas late last season. Or maybe it’s his teammate David Sills V, who topped the country in touchdown receptions last year.
Other names to ponder: Oklahoma State running back Justice Hill, who will be a junior, led the league in rushing last season with 1,467 yards. TCU defensive end Ben Banogu, who will be a senior, garnered 8.5 sacks and 16.5 tackles for losses last fall.
Is the second-year a charm for Texas’ Tom Herman and Baylor’s Matt Rhule?
Herman and Rhule, at best, had mixed results in their debut seasons.
Herman’s Longhorns were 7-6. He was expected to quickly flip the Longhorns’ fate. However, last fall looked more like a battleship making a slow turn. A victory over Missouri in the Texas Bowl was a start.
Herman signed the third-best recruiting class in the country in February, so talent is on the way. He’ll have to spiff up an offense that ranked only seventh best in the league. Quarterbacks Shane Buechele and Sam Ehlinger will be vying for the starting job. Highly-regarded freshmen Cameron Rising and Casey Thompson are early enrollees and will be competing for playing time.
Over in Waco, Baylor’s expectations for Rhule don’t have the same immediate timeline. But it’s a safe bet another 1-11 year won’t be tolerated.
Rhule recruited well, signing a class that ranked 30th in the country per 247Sports’ composite ratings. The Bears’ fortunes will ride on sophomore-to-be Charlie Brewer, the quarterback who was the league’s freshman of the year last fall. Brewer will have help. The line is experienced. Baylor returns its top three tailbacks and dynamic receivers Chris Platt and Denzel Mims. Plus, Tennessee transfer Jalen Hurd, a one-time starting running back, will be eligible to play for Baylor. But he’s moved to receiver.
What will the Sooners offense look like without its stars?
Mayfield is gone. So is tight end Mark Andrews. Offensive linemen Orlando Brown and Erick Wren also have departed.
Kyler Murray is the heir apparent to Mayfield, although he’ll have to hold off Austin Kendall for the job. Murray is the former five-star recruit and Texas A&M legacy who transferred from the Aggies to OU in December 2015. Mayfield recently described Murray as the best athlete in the country.
Murray is splitting time between football and baseball this spring, like he did a year ago. But he’s tweaked his workouts somewhat, doing his weight-room exercises with the baseball team instead of football.
Will Iowa State sustain the success from a year ago?
The Cyclones were a surprise 8-5 in 2017 with wins over Oklahoma and TCU, the conference’s top two teams. There’s a decent chance Iowa State continues its good fortune.
The school locked up coach Matt Campbell, who had been a hot name nationally for various vacancies. He received a $1.4 million a year raise to his base salary. The school also provided an additional $1 million for staff raises.
Quarterback Kyle Kempt, who helped generate the magic, was granted a rare sixth year of eligibility by the NCAA last month. Iowa State also returns tailback David Montgomery, who was second in the Big 12 in rushing.
Will the Big 12 still be a receiver-oriented league?
Think about this stat: There were 14 receivers in Power 5 leagues who eclipsed 1,000 yards in 2017. Half of them played in the Big 12.
But of the seven, only three of them return for 2018 — West Virginia’s Gary Jennings, Oklahoma’s Marquise Brown and Mims.
Keep an eye on OU’s CeeDee Lamb, who averaged almost 18 yards a catch last season as a freshman. Texas’ Collin Johnson also still teases with his talent. Maybe a solid presence at quarterback will help him. He led the Longhorns with 54 receptions for 765 yards, which ranks sixth best among the league’s returning receivers.
Another receiver capable of big stats is Kansas’ Steven Sims, who had 58 catches for 839 yards last fall.
Will the defense at Texas Tech outshine the offense?
Kliff Kingsbury has some offensive work to do. He hired Kevin Johns as the new offensive coordinator to replace Eric Morris, the former Tech receiver who became the head coach at Incarnate Word.
Tech’s top skill players, including quarterback Nic Shimonek, have departed. Former junior college transfer McLane Carter and Jett Duffey will compete for starting quarterback, as will Alan Bowman, an early enrollee.
But the good news is that the offensive line returns all of its starters.
Tech’s defense jumped from worst in the Big 12 in 2016 to seventh last fall. All but one starter returns from that group a year ago.
Is there a darkhorse team to challenge Oklahoma for the Big 12 title?
Yep. West Virginia is setting up to have the most dynamic offense in the league. The Mountaineers return their starting quarterback, a 1,000-yard rusher and three big-play receivers.
Texas wants to pull up to the OU level. But the defense was devastated by early defections to the NFL, losing defensive backs DeShon Elliott and Holton Hill and linebacker Malik Jefferson. Tackle Poona Ford graduated. There are youngsters in place to replace them, but it’s too soon to tell, pre-spring.
Oklahoma State would love to challenge the Sooners. But the Cowboys lost so much talent from last season, including record-setting quarterback Mason Rudolph and receiver James Washington, last fall’s Biletnikoff winner.
Dru Brown, a graduate transfer from Hawaii, could be Rudolph’s replacement. But he can’t get to Stillwater until the summer. LSU transfer Tyron Johnson also could add some sizzle to the receivers.
Kansas State’s fortunes likely will rely on Alex Delton, who came off the bench to lead the Wildcats over UCLA in the Cactus Bowl. He’s the perfect Bill Snyder quarterback, rushing for 158 yards, throwing for 52 and accounting for four touchdowns against the Bruins.
Then there’s TCU, last fall’s conference runner-up. And like so many league teams, the Horned Frogs must find a new starting quarterback. Sophomore Shawn Robinson, a dual-threat player who started one game last fall, is the favorite for the job. Justin Rogers, an early enrollee, is a four-star prospect who also is in the mix. But when the Frogs started spring practices last week, the quarterback who stood out was Michael Collins, a transfer from Penn, as in the Ivy League school.
Big 12 spring football
West Virginia: Started on Feb. 27, spring game is April 14
TCU: Started on March 2, spring game is April 7
Texas Tech: Started on March 3, spring game is April 14
Kansas State: Starting on March 13, spring game is April 21
Baylor: Starting on March 15, spring game is April 21
Iowa State: Starting on March 19, spring game is April 14
Texas: Starting on March 20, spring game is April 21
Oklahoma State: Starting on March 27, spring game is April 28
Kansas: Starting on March 31, spring game is April 28