Sports

Spring football practice begins new era for Big 12

An unprecedented football season is on the horizon for the Big 12.

The first steps toward determining next year's champion already have begun for three teams taking part in spring football drills: Texas Tech, Texas and TCU. Oklahoma opens today, and Baylor on Tuesday. The rest begin by April 4, with the final spring games set for April 28 (Kansas, Kansas State).

Because of conference realignment, the Big 12 will feature a 10-team configuration with a unique set of credentials: Three reigning conference champions and two BCS bowl winners will battle for the 2012 title. And none of the schools in that mix are perennial league powers Oklahoma and Texas.

Instead, the teams flashing 2011 conference championship rings hail from Oklahoma State (Big 12), TCU (Mountain West) and West Virginia (Big East). TCU and West Virginia join the league July 1. West Virginia, along with Oklahoma State, capped last season with victories in BCS bowl games.

Of the 10 teams that will compete for the 2012 Big 12 title, six won at least 10 games last season: OSU (12-1), TCU (11-2), West Virginia (10-3), Oklahoma (10-3), Baylor (10-3) and Kansas State (10-3). Eight of the 10 went to bowl games.

Realignment will make it difficult to repeat those totals. Realignment also makes it difficult to predict a favorite in a league where six schools are candidates to begin the season in the Top 25. An early Top 25 released after National Signing Day by ESPN.com included No. 4 Oklahoma, No. 7 West Virginia, No. 12 Kansas State, No. 15 TCU, No. 19 Oklahoma State and No. 22 Texas.

Among that group, OSU is the only team that does not return its starting quarterback. TCU, which has won the past three Mountain West titles, moves to the Big 12 with the best combined four-year record of any league team (47-5) over that stretch.

What will all of this mean in September? That depends how much progress each school makes during spring drills.

Baylor

2011 record: 10-3, 6-3

Spring football status: Begins Tuesday

Spring game: April 14

Key returnee: WR Terrance Williams

Key loss: QB Robert Griffin III, 2011 Heisman Trophy winner

Notable newcomer: RB Lache Seastrunk (transfer from Oregon)

2012 outlook: A successful journey toward a third consecutive bowl berth depends on an improved defense, the leadership of quarterback Nick Florence and the emergence of a big-play running back -- or tandem -- to replace Terrance Ganaway (1,547 yards, 21 TDs). Florence started seven games in 2009. Candidates to fill the running back void include Jarred Salubi, last year's backup, and Lache Seastrunk, a five-star recruit who transferred from Oregon. But the defense, which returns defensive back Ahmad Dixon and defensive end Tevin Elliott, cannot continue to allow 488.5 yards per game. Newcomers to watch this spring include linebacker Eddie Lackey and defensive back Lynx Hawthorne.

Iowa State

2011 record: 6-7, 3-6

Spring football status: Begins March 20

Spring game: April 14

Key returnee: LB A.J. Klein

Key loss: LT Kelechi Osemele

Notable newcomer: DE Cory Morrissey (JC transfer)

2012 outlook: A clouded quarterback situation should come into focus as two players who started games last season (Jared Barnett, Steele Jantz) battle for the position. The Cyclones will miss NFL-bound left tackle Kelechi Osemele, a three-year starter, and field-stretching wide receiver Darius Reynolds. Dependable targets Aaron Horne and Josh Lenz return, but the Cyclones' strength is on defense, where linebackers A.J. Klein (116) and Jake Knott (115) are the league's top two returning tacklers. The Cyclones need more pass rush, an area buoyed by defensive end Cory Morrissey, a JC transfer. Key stat: ISU is 15-1 under coach Paul Rhoads when holding teams under 24 points and 3-19 when allowing more than 24.

Kansas

2011 record: 2-10, 0-9

Spring football status: Begins March 27

Spring game: April 28

Key returnee: WR/KR D.J. Beshears

Key loss: Former coach Turner Gill

Notable newcomer: QB Dayne Crist (transfer from Notre Dame)

2012 outlook: No team has undergone a greater off-season transformation than Kansas. First-year coach Charlie Weis will be reunited with transfer quarterback Dayne Crist, who began his career under Weis at Notre Dame. Dave Campo, a former Dallas Cowboys' head coach and longtime assistant, is the Jayhawks' new defensive coordinator. Crist's primary target could be wide receiver Justin McCay, a fellow transfer who will take part in spring drills while awaiting NCAA approval to compete in the fall. Expect lots of fresh faces on both sides of the ball this spring after KU lost six games by 30 points or more under former coach Turner Gill, a Fort Worth native who was fired after two seasons.

Kansas State

2011 record: 10-3, 7-2

Spring football status: Begins April 4

Spring game: April 28

Key returnee: QB Collin Klein

Key loss: S Tysyn Hartman

Notable newcomer: WR Marquez Clark (JC transfer)

2012 Outlook: Dual-threat quarterback Collin Klein (6-foot-5, 226 pounds) returns to lead a run-first offense that could transition from adequate to explosive if Klein boosts his completion percentage (57.3). He'll need more help from his wide receivers to make that happen, but the return of Tyler Lockett (lacerated kidney) and the addition of wide receiver Marquez Clark from the JC ranks should help. A tenacious defense will miss defensive lineman Ray Kibble and S Tysyn Hartman but returns two All-America candidates: cornerback Nigel Malone, last year's Big 12 leader in interceptions (7), and linebacker Arthur Brown. Expect immediate dividends from four JC line additions (two defensive linemen, two offensive linemen).

Oklahoma

2011 record: 10-3, 6-3

Spring football status: Begins today

Spring game: April 14

Key returnee: QB Landry Jones

Key loss: DE Frank Alexander

Notable newcomer: WR Trey Metoyer (January enrollee)

2012 outlook: Several key playmakers have moved on to the NFL. But the offense still revolves around quarterback Landry Jones, the school's career passing leader (12,379 yards), and the defense is back in the hands of Mike Stoops, OU's defensive play-caller on the 2000 national championship team. Wide receiver Trey Metoyer, a five-star recruit, enrolled in January and could contribute immediately to a rotation that loses standout Ryan Broyles. Two proven pass rushers, defensive ends Frank Alexander and Ronnell Lewis, have gone to the NFL. Likely replacements include David King and R.J. Washington, a Keller Fossil Ridge graduate, but quality depth could be an issue. Short-yardage quarterback Blake Bell (eight rushing TDs last season) remains an intriguing wild card.

Oklahoma State

2011 record: 12-1, 8-1

Spring football status: Begins March 12

Spring game: April 21

Key returnee: RB Joseph Randle

Key loss: WR Justin Blackmon, 2010-11 Biletnikoff Award winner

Notable newcomer: WR C.J. Curry (2012 signee)

2012 outlook: The defending champs no longer have the prolific pass-and-catch duo of quarterback Brandon Weeden and wide receiver Justin Blackmon, the offensive cornerstones for the Cowboys' combined 23-3 record the past two seasons. Both will be difficult to replace, with Weeden's leadership skills a huge missing intangible. OSU plans a quarterback competition between Clint Chelf, last year's backup, redshirt freshman J.W. Walsh and freshman Wes Lunt. The winner will work behind a rebuilt offensive line and throw to some young receivers, although four-star signee C.J. Curry will be in the mix. The defense also has holes to fill, notably the void left by safety Markelle Martin.

Texas

2011 record: 8-5, 4-5

Spring football status: Ongoing

Spring game: April 1

Key returnee: DE Alex Okafor

Key loss: LB Emmanuel Acho

Notable newcomer: RB Johnathan Gray (2012 signee)

2012 outlook: Coaches plan to give ample spring snaps to both returning quarterbacks who started games last season: David Ash (six) and Case McCoy (five). But the early edge goes to Ash, who took every snap in the team's bowl victory over California. Freshman quarterback Connor Brewer, who enrolled in January, also will get some snaps. A pair of JC transfers, offensive tackle Donald Hawkins and defensive tackle Brandon Moore, are expected to contribute immediately. A group of young playmakers that includes running back Malcolm Brown and wide receiver Jaxon Shipley will add running back Johnathan Gray, a five-star signee from Aledo, during fall drills. The defense, which returns its top two pass rushers (Alex Okafor and Jackson Jeffcoat), needs leadership and playmakers at linebacker. Jordan Hicks is expected to take over at middle linebacker.

TCU

2011 record: 11-2, 7-0 in Mountain West

Spring football status: Ongoing

Spring ends: April 5

Spring game: TBD

Key returnee: QB Casey Pachall

Key loss: LB Tank Carder

Notable newcomer: WR LaDarius Brown (redshirt freshman)

2012 outlook: TCU has built a strong defensive reputation in recent years but will arrive in the Big 12 with more proven commodities on offense. The 2012 defense lost three key pieces when linebacker Tanner Brock, defensive tackle D.J. Yendrey and safety Devin Johnson were dismissed from the team after drug-related arrests. Young linebackers must develop, with Deryck Gildon, Antonio Graves, Danny Heiss, Marcus Mallet and Laderice Sanders in the mix. Returning quarterback Casey Pachall is established (25 touchdowns, seven interceptions last season). Proven wide receivers Josh Boyce, Skye Dawson and Brandon Carter will be joined by LaDarius Brown (6-foot-4, 220), a redshirt freshman. The offense also boasts three productive returning running backs: Wayman James (875 yards, six TDs), Ed Wesley (726 yards, six TDs) and Matthew Tucker (702 yards, 12 TDs).

Texas Tech

2011 record: 5-7, 2-7

Spring football status: Ongoing

Spring game: March 24

Key returnee: QB Seth Doege

Key loss: OL Mickey Okafor

Notable newcomer: Art Kaufman, defensive coordinator

2012 outlook: The Red Raiders, who gave up 485.6 yards and 39.3 points per game last season, need an immediate turnaround on defense. First-year defensive coordinator Art Kaufman is installing a 4-3 system and is looking at multiple January enrollees to contribute. Coaches praise the early returns from linebacker Chris Payne and linebacker Will Smith, although other fresh faces could emerge. Nine newcomers are taking part in spring drills, with impact offensive additions expected to be wide receiver Javon Bell and running back/wide receiver SaDale Foster. Quarterback Seth Doege is a proven commodity (28 touchdowns, 10 interceptions last season) but two running backs (Eric Stephens, DeAndre Washington) are out with knee injuries, allowing extra snaps for Bradley Marquez, Javares McRoy and Foster.

West Virginia

2011 record: 10-3, 5-2 in Big East

Spring football status: Begins Sunday

Spring game: April 21

Key returnee: QB Geno Smith

Key loss: LB Najee Goode

Notable newcomer: WR Deontay McManus (2012 signee)

2012 outlook: The speedy Mountaineers have more returning offensive weapons than any Big 12 team, led by QB Geno Smith (65.8 percent passer, 31 touchdowns, seven interceptions last season). Prime targets Stedman Bailey (72 catches, 1,279 yards, 12 touchdowns) and Tavon Austin (101 catches, 1,186 yards, eight touchdowns) return, along with veteran RBs Dustin Garrison and Shawne Alston. Garrison (knee) will miss spring drills but is expected back in August. But the defense is in transition. Seven starters return but will play a new scheme under co-defensive coordinator Joe DeForest, an Oklahoma State assistant the past 11 seasons. Three departed defenders (linebacker Najee Goode and defensive linemen Bruce Irvin and Julian Miller) combined for 19 sacks last season.

Jimmy Burch, 817-390-7760

Twitter: @Jimmy_Burch

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