Spring football offers a clean slate every year. Optimism is in the air and everyone’s 0-0. Though not every team holds a traditional spring game, a lot of the storylines are consistent. Can you get through the spring without injury? Can you find a few standout players? Can you settle some position battles?
In the Big 12, we get all of those questions and more. From a high-profile quarterback battle at Texas to standout performances on Oklahoma’s defense, there’s plenty of fodder for the next few months. With spring football largely in the rearview mirror, here are the angles we are projecting for each Big 12 team as they move closer to the 2021 season.
Baylor: Defense will carry the team
Dave Aranda was considered one of college football‘s top defensive minds when he took the Baylor job, and he has a group that should challenge to be the Big 12’s top defense in the fall. Back are linebackers Terrel Bernard and Jalen Pitre, and nose tackle Apu Ika transferred in from LSU. Together, along with many other starters coming back, there should be multiple All-Big 12 players on that side of the ball.
That’s a good thing because the offense, which was brutally bad in 2020, still looks like it has a ways to go. New offensive coordinator Jeff Grimes did some fantastic things with Zach Wilson and BYU’s offense, and he’ll have his work cut out for him in Waco. Quarterback Charlie Brewer transferred out of the program and Jacob Zeno had his ups and downs in the spring. Gerry Bohanon could be an option at quarterback if the competition extends to preseason practice.
Iowa State: WR group takes this team over the top
If there was a limitation for Iowa State in 2020, it was passing game explosiveness. It’s not that the Cyclones didn’t have weapons; it started with Xavier Hutchinson but ended with a tight end group of Charlie Kolar and Chase Allen. While having those players around is a good thing, Iowa State needs more help down the field from its pass-catchers. I think that help is on the way, however.
Joe Scates and Tarique Milton have game-changing ability, but they combined for 21 catches and two touchdowns last year. Milton was hampered by injuries, and now fully healthy, he feels like he can be a breakout player for the offense. There’s a lot to love about this team moving into next season, and they’re close to Oklahoma atop the Big 12 power rankings. A more potent downfield passing game could make up that difference.
Kansas: Freshmen lead the way for Jayhawks
With new coach Lance Leipold only observing the spring game, there’s no way to even speculate what Kansas will look like in 2021. (Well, we can speculate, and we probably know this team is going to be bad again.) In any case, don’t be surprised if some young players end up seeing significant playing time — namely, defensive backs Jayson Gilliom, Jacobee Bryant and O.J. Burroughs, who all made notable plays. The final score was 74-42, but Kansas really got creative with its scoring system. The 74 points were actually awarded to the defense with 42 points for the offense based on big plays, first downs and the like. A lot of the same storylines from years past hover over the program in 2021 — the quarterback battle chiefly among them — but Leipold may lean on some young players to set the tone for changing the culture of this program moving forward.
Kansas State: Thompson key to making surprise title game run
Kansas State was an enigma in 2020, losing to Arkansas State, then beating Oklahoma as part of a four-game winning streak, then losing the last five games of the year. Losing quarterback Skylar Thompson for the season three games in had a lot to do with that. Thompson had four total touchdowns against the Sooners and seven scores in those first three games. Will Howard, bless his heart, just didn’t provide the same level of playmaking ability, especially down the stretch.
Not much stands out about K-State exiting spring, but overall this looks like a capable team with some strong positions, including running back and in the secondary. Coach Chris Klieman is good enough to get this team to about .500 on his own. Thompson is the kind of player as a runner and thrower that can tack on a few more wins. His recovery from last year’s upper body injury is ahead of schedule, and he has the potential to hit 20 passing touchdowns/10 rushing touchdowns if the receiving unit picks up.
Oklahoma: Sooners can finally lean on their defense
Freshman quarterback and former five-star Caleb Williams was probably the biggest story from OU’s spring game, but unless (heaven forbid) Spencer Rattler goes down with an injury, we’re not going to see his impact for at least a season. Instead, Alex Grinch’s defense looks strong — particularly on the back end. Billy Bowman, Jordan Mukes and Bryson Washington, among others, were standout younger players showing up in the spring game.
Three years in with Grinch, the physical difference in many of Oklahoma’s defenders is noticeable. It’s fair to figure that the Sooners offense will be fine in 2021. What’s going to make them a legit national championship contender is having a defense that’s bigger (especially on the back end) and faster. This is as close as Oklahoma has been to getting that type of defense in a long time.
Oklahoma State: Cowboys ready to reload at receiver
Tylan Wallace is off to the NFL, which is a big loss by itself. Dillon Stoner, a truly underrated piece of the passing game over the last few years, is also gone. But if there’s one thing we know about Mike Gundy’s program, it’s that there’s always a new set of capable wideouts ready to take the place of those who departed.
There are two notable options at wideout: Tay Martin and Brennan Presley, the latter of who had a massive bowl game performance with six catches for 118 yards and three touchdowns. Two more players stood out during spring: freshman Jaden Bray, who caught two touchdowns, and Rashod Owens, who caught a nice 66-yard touchdown pass. If the wide receiver corps can reload, the Pokes should be an underrated team nationally come next fall.
TCU: Zach Evans will be a breakout star
It’s been a journey for Evans to arrive on TCU’s campus. The former five-star originally signed with Georgia in 2019 but decommitted and had overtures from other programs until ultimately signing with the Frogs. His freshman campaign was solid: 415 yards and four touchdowns, second among running backs. In TCU’s spring game, however, he looked the part of a true stud running back with a 75-yard touchdown run. He has it all: power, balance and speed.
He’ll need an improved offensive line and the passing game needs more downfield consistency to prevent defenses from zeroing in on him, but Evans showed flashes of why he was so coveted coming into college. He’s a 1,000-yard back and should be one of the most exciting offensive players in the league next fall.
Texas: Sark’s passing attack won’t click in 2021
Sure, there might be times when Texas’ offense looks unstoppable next fall. Sarkisian is a brilliant offensive mind and the Longhorns have some potential breakout stars on that side of the ball, like running back Bijan Robinson. But the spring game was also a glimpse at what could hold this team back. The quarterback competition between Casey Thompson and Hudson Card is likely to continue into preseason camp. Wide receivers were dropping passes, though Jordan Whittington could snag that No. 1 role, and pass protection left a lot to be desired.
It’s Sark’s first spring, so none of this should come as a massive surprise. Still, there are a lot of disjointed parts to the Texas passing game that will hold the Longhorns back in 2021, at least at times. Life’s a bit different when you don’t have Mac Jones, DeVonta Smith and Jaylen Waddle out there.
There’s only one Big 12 coach on the hot seat entering the 2021 season, and that’s Matt Wells. The offense has to be restored, and the first step was firing offensive coordinator David Yost. The second was bringing in Oregon transfer Tyler Shough at quarterback. Otherwise, Tech actually returns a lot of key production from last year’s team.
Under Wells, a lot of wins have been close calls while the losses have been embarrassing. Last year’s passing offense was the worst at Tech in eons. Shough saw his production dwindle at the end of 2020 with Anthony Brown coming into the mix for the Ducks, but he was a fairly effective passer for much of the year. If there’s one player that can keep Wells off the hot seat — or, at least, keep it a manageable temperature — it’s Shough.
West Virginia: Offensive line leads the way
“Trusting the climb” under Neal Brown at West Virginia has meant enduring a lot of bad offensive line play. This was true particularly in Brown’s first season, 2019, in what amounted to a Year 0. 2020’s O-line was better, but it was still Year 0.5. Heading into 2021, if the Mountaineers are to take any more steps, the O-line has to be even better. The good news is that it can be.
Zach Frasier, the first true freshman to start along the O-line for the ‘Eers in more than 40 years, was a freshman All-American last season and ended up starting eight games at guard and another at center. Tackle is also mostly solidified with Brandon Yates and John Hughes, and Virginia Tech transfer Doug Nester could play either guard or tackle. What was largely an inexperienced group last year has some starts and free eligibility under its belt now.
There are plenty of things about West Virginia’s offense that need improvement — more than can succinctly be listed here. But if West Virginia is going to win, say, seven or even eight games instead of five, it starts up front. The O-line should be better. By how much will largely determine whether a bowl game is on the horizon or not.