For college coaches, spring football is a time for finding answers to difficult questions.
Baylor already has begun its search for a successor to quarterback Bryce Petty, who is headed to the NFL after leading the Bears to consecutive Big 12 titles.
The inside track belongs to Seth Russell, a junior who has been Petty’s backup the past two seasons. But the situation is far from settled, just like lots of issues facing football teams from the Big 12 and other Texas-based FBS schools preparing for the 2015 season.
As things stand, four football teams from the Lone Star State have started spring drills: Baylor, TCU, Texas Tech and Texas State. Texas A&M and UT El Paso join the fray Monday.
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TCU, which shared last year’s Big 12 title with Baylor during a 12-1 season, heads into 2015 with the state’s loftiest expectations because the Horned Frogs return quarterback Trevone Boykin, a Heisman Trophy candidate, and lots of significant surrounding parts.
That marks a far cry from the situation at this juncture last year, when the Frogs were coming off a 4-8 record and there was speculation that Boykin would move to wide receiver. Instead, he became the centerpiece of a TCU spread offense that found fresh life under new co-offensive coordinators Doug Meacham and Sonny Cumbie.
“We were coming off the 4-8 season, and things weren’t looking too good. But then Meacham & Co. stepped on campus and they changed the whole atmosphere on that side of the ball,” Boykin said during a recent interview at the Davey O’Brien Awards dinner, where he was recognized as a 2014 finalist. “Guys just took it and ran with it.”
Because the same turnaround potential exists elsewhere, Boykin said he will counsel teammates “to go in with the same mindset we had a year ago” as TCU builds on Sunday’s initial spring practice and seeks to live up to projections that the Frogs will contend for the 2015 national title.
“If we can get guys to buy in the same way they did a year ago, it will go good for us,” Boykin said.
If not, TCU could be eclipsed by other teams that make major spring strides. Below is a look at unsettled spring questions in other locales that will determine if those teams enjoy a 2015 turnaround similar to the one TCU posted in 2014:
New defensive coordinator David Gibbs, who spent last season at Houston, will become the eighth person to call defensive signals for the Red Raiders in the past eight seasons. He inherits a mess. In 2014, Tech finished in the bottom four among the nation’s 125 FBS teams in total defense (517.7 yards per game), rushing defense (259.5 avg.) and scoring defense (41.3 avg.). Gibbs, who has NFL coaching experience, brings his 4-3 scheme to Lubbock as well as an aggressive mindset that allowed the Cougars to rank among the national leaders in turnovers forced (30) in 2014.
“I expect things to be much improved on defense,” coach Kliff Kingsbury said. “Defensive backs have been coach Gibbs’ forte. There’s a spark about him and a heavy emphasis on creating turnovers. We need that.”
After wallowing at the bottom of the SEC in total defense (480.8 yards per game) and rushing defense (216.0 avg.) for a second consecutive season, coach Kevin Sumlin brought in a proven producer in the Aggies’ new neighborhood: first-year defensive coordinator John Chavis, who held the same title at LSU the past six years. Chavis, who has worked in the SEC since the 1989 season, will bring a 4-3 scheme and a proven track record to Aggieland when drills open Monday.
The Aggies return lots of promising young defenders, led by DE Myles Garrett, an Arlington Martin graduate who earned Freshman All-America honors last season by collecting 11.5 sacks. If the offense continues clicking under quarterback Kyle Allen, who posted a 3-2 record after winning the starting job at midseason in 2014, Chavis’ anticipated impact on the Aggies’ defense should help them improve on last year’s 8-5 record.
The Longhorns need an offensive spark after a 6-7 season marked by recurring struggles under first-year starting quarterback Tyrone Swoopes. Swoopes will battle Jerrod Heard, a redshirt freshman from Denton Guyer, for the starting job when spring drills open March 25. Freshman signee Kai Locksley will not join the mix until summer, giving Heard and Swoopes extra practice snaps this spring.
Both must improve on last year’s efforts when coaches said Heard struggled to learn the offense in practice (hence the redshirt) and Swoopes struggled in games. Among FBS teams, Texas finished 110th nationally in total offense (337.3 avg.) and No. 106 in scoring (21.4 avg.). Swoopes, who started the final 12 games, completed 58.3 percent of his passes with 13 touchdowns and 11 interceptions.
Few teams nationally can match the Bears’ total of 18 returning starters (eight on offense, nine on defense, one kicker/punter) from an 11-2 team that harbors national title hopes in 2015. But the Bears have a huge void at quarterback, with Russell the only candidate on the roster who has taken snaps in a college game. The junior is 1-0 as a starter after replacing an injured Petty in last year’s 70-6 rout of Northwestern (La.) State.
But a candidate to track will be Stephenville graduate Jarrett Stidham, a freshman who enrolled in January and is taking part in spring drills. Briles said Stidham is a driven player who “has a dynamic quality that allows him to push himself for greatness.” Baylor fans can gauge the quarterbacks March 20 during a “Friday Night Lights” scrimmage at McLane Stadium.
First-year coach Chad Morris takes over the nation’s toughest rebuilding project. He inherits a 1-11 team that finished last nationally in scoring (11.1 avg.) and next-to-last in scoring defense (41.3 avg.) among FBS schools in 2014. But he returns intriguing dual-threat quarterback Matt Davis, a Texas A&M transfer, as well as freshman signee Ben Hicks, who enrolled in January and will take part in spring drills. The defense will be asked to make strides under first-time coordinator Van Malone, a former Texas defensive back who has been on staffs at Oklahoma State and Texas A&M.
Because of season-ending injuries, new coach Tom Herman tweaked the offense to account for three quarterbacks who started last season while serving as offensive coordinator at Ohio State. The Buckeyes won the national championship, making Cougars’ fans envision an immediate offensive infusion in H-town.
Jimmy Burch, 817-390-7760
Spring football schedules
A rundown of spring football dates for Big 12 schools and other FBS programs in Texas:
Dates subject to change