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July 22, 2008

Big 12 Notes: Freeman full of confidence

» MORE BIG 12 MEDIA DAYS: Mangino, Kansas want more | Day Two Photo Gallery

KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Missouri's Chase Daniel was a Heisman Trophy finalist. Texas Tech's Graham Harrell led the nation in passing. Oklahoma's Sam Bradford led the nation in passing efficiency. Kansas' Todd Reesing threw 33 touchdown passes and led the Jayhawks to an Orange Bowl victory. Texas' Colt McCoy has 51 TD passes in the past two seasons.

So who's the best quarterback in the quarterback-rich Big 12 Conference?

Kansas State's Josh Freeman.

Well, that's what he says.

"I'd say I'm the best," Freeman said Tuesday on the second day of Big 12 Media Days. "That's my opinion because of what I bring to the table. The other guys are good quarterbacks, but I have supreme confidence in my ability as a quarterback and a playmaker."

Before Freeman gets accused of being delusional, consider that an anonymous NFL scout recently said Freeman is the best NFL prospect among Big 12 quarterbacks.

Part of that is because Freeman, a junior, has JaMarcus Russell-like size at 6 feet 6 and 250 pounds, and his performance is on a dramatic upward trend.

As a true freshman in 2006, Freeman completed 51.9 percent of his passing attempts, while throwing for 1,780 yards, six touchdowns and 15 interceptions. Last season, he completed 63.3 percent of his throws for 3,353 yards, 18 touchdowns and 11 interceptions.

Some of that improvement was aided by All-American wide receiver Jordy Nelson, a second-round pick of the Green Bay Packers. Nelson had a knack for turning short passes into long gains and finished with 122 catches for 1,606 yards and 11 touchdowns last season.

His absence would figure to leave a void in K-State's offense. Freeman figures differently.

"He was a good player … a great player, I'd say," Freeman said. "I was supposed to throw him the ball, so I threw him the ball. … Jordy was the best player on the team, and you want to get the ball to the best player on your team. That's what Oklahoma did when they had Adrian Peterson. We did the same thing with Jordy Nelson. He was the first read. It was fun playing for him.

"But I won't miss him at all."

Freeman said that wasn't to imply that he and Nelson had a poor relationship. Freeman just has confidence in himself and K-State's current receivers.

Coach Ron Prince indicated he's expecting a banner performance from Freeman this season.

"The future is in front of him. The sky's the limit," Prince said. "I would not trade our quarterback for any quarterback in the country.

"There's a lot of really good ones. I think there's at least eight in our conference that are very confirmed on a national level as far as their ability and have the résumé to back it up. But I think our quarterback's right up with the very best ones nationally. And like I said, I wouldn't trade with anybody."

Great Scott

The anticipation for heralded Colorado freshman Darrell Scott, the nation's top-ranked running back prospect, is as high as the Rockies. Scott, who was named the Big 12's preseason newcomer of the year, is expected to provide a jolt to the Buffaloes' lethargic ground game.

Colorado coach Dan Hawkins first downplayed Scott's potential impact, then later acknowledged it could be tremendous.

"You love those guys that if you block it right, he can take it to the house," Hawkins said. "He's a guy that if you don't block it right, he might take it to the house."

Hawkins also said Scott is an accomplished punter and good enough to handle those duties. "He can bang it," Hawkins said. "(Opponents) wouldn't know whether to rush the punter or play defense."

Still, Hawkins said he has no plans to replace two-year starting punter Matt DiLallo.

Not yet, anyway.

Young at heart

Kansas didn't lose much from last season's 12-1 team, but it did lose defensive coordinator Bill Young, who now holds the same title at Miami.

Coach Mark Mangino responded by promoting safeties coach Clint Bowen to Young's position. Mangino doesn't expect there to be any significant differences with the defense under Bowen.

"Bill did a tremendous job for us," Mangino said. "But the transition was pretty simple. Clint Bowen behind the scenes had been a key player in the success of our defense. Clint was back there coaching the secondary people and connecting it with the linebackers, putting blitzes together, coverages.

"He is well-prepared for this challenge, and he'll do a great, great job."

It doesn't hurt that Bowen has nine returning starters with which to work.

Turning over a new leaf

Colorado committed 27 turnovers last season. Among Big 12 teams, only Nebraska (28) and Baylor (37) committed more. Getting that number reduced is a top priority for Hawkins.

"I don't know much about a lot of sports, like lacrosse and some of those things, but I know if you turn the ball over it's probably not a good thing," Hawkins said.

Next on Hawkins' list is allowing fewer big plays, getting more pressure on the quarterback and becoming more successful on third down – offensively and defensively.

Getting back to the subject

Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy still fields questions about his infamous rant last season in which he screamed, "Come after me. I'm a man. I'm 40," while protesting a newspaper column criticizing then-quarterback Bobby Reid. The rant came after a 49-45 victory over Texas Tech on Sept. 22.

Gundy said if he had it to do over again, he would deliver the same message but keep his voice at a monotone.

The rant sparked controversy and parodies, but it overshadowed that Gundy apparently made the correct decision in elevating Zac Robinson to starting quarterback ahead of Reid, who since has transferred to Division I-AA Texas Southern. Robinson passed for 2,824 yards and rushed for another 847 last season.

"The guy playing quarterback (Robinson) beat a guy out for the starting job and had as productive a year as any Oklahoma State quarterback ever has," Gundy said. "The better player started to play and kept the position. As a coaching staff, we have the responsibility to get the best players out there."

Coverage a concern

Prince said Kansas State needs to improve its coverage, and he wasn't talking about the secondary. Rather, Prince sees a big need to get better covering kickoffs. In '07, Kansas State ranked 64th nationally in kickoff coverage.

Oklahoma State's Perrish Cox had a 98-yard kickoff return for a touchdown in a 41-39 win over Kansas State. Missouri's Jeremy Maclin had a 99-yard touchdown return in a 49-32 win over the Wildcats. And Nebraska's Cortney Grixby had a 94-yard touchdown return in the Huskers' 73-31 victory.

"Our kickoff coverage really cost us maybe a couple of games last year from the standpoint that we gave up a really critical special-teams touchdown," Prince said. "When it happens on kickoff coverage, it really negates any momentum you might have gained by scoring on the previous play, and that really hurt us. I think the coverage units are the place where we're going to find the biggest growth opportunity for our team."

Prince hired Jeff Rodgers from the NFL's San Francisco 49ers to be special teams coordinator. Rodgers had been a special teams assistant with the 49ers.

"We're really hoping that will pay dividends for us," Prince said.

A boon to the Cowboys

Billionaire T. Boone Pickens has donated millions of dollars in recent years to the Oklahoma State program to enhance and construct facilities. Gundy said the results of those gifts will make the Cowboys more competitive.

"For the first time in 50 or 80 years, our facilities will be equal to the people we are playing against," Gundy said. "The reason for that is him."

Taking the rugged road

Some teams look for the easiest road to a championship. Colorado obviously isn't one of them.

The Buffaloes face a demanding schedule that includes a stretch in which they face West Virginia, Florida State, Texas, Kansas and Missouri during a six-week period. Those five teams were a combined 52-14 last season, including 4-1 in bowls.

Last season, Colorado faced Arizona State and Florida State in non-conference games.

"Colorado traditionally schedules that way," Hawkins said. "Like anything else in life, you can use that as a positive or a negative. We use it to recruit. We take our kids all over the country to play.

"I think a large reason we beat Oklahoma last year is because we played Arizona State and Florida State."

Wrapping it up

Wednesday is the final day of the event. Scheduled are players and coaches from Oklahoma, Texas, Iowa State and Baylor.

Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at olin@rivals.com.

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