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June 2, 2009

Weekly Whispers: Post-spring Big 12 issues

Spring practice is finished across the nation, but not every question was answered. Every school has one big, vexing query that hangs over its program.

This is the four installment of a series examining the biggest question each "Big Six" squad faces.

This week, we look at the Big 12.

Baylor: Will the offensive line hold up this season? For the most part, coach Art Briles liked what he saw from the big guys in the spring. But the Bears signed a few prospects who won't arrive until August, and they're expected to challenge for spots created by the departures of tackles Jason Smith and Dan Gay. Keep an eye on junior college transfer tackle Danny Watkins and redshirt freshman tackle Cameron Kaufhold.

Colorado: Will a quarterback emerge? At the end of spring drills, coach Dan Hawkins had son Cody and sophomore Tyler Hansen in a dead heat for the job. If CU had to name a starter now, it likely would be Hawkins, a junior. He was a tad more consistent than Hansen, throwing for 669 yards and 10 touchdowns with no picks during scrimmages. A possible negative dynamic is the recent departure of offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach Mark Helfrich to Oregon. Hawkins promoted receivers coach Eric Kiesau to take over, so the quarterbacks have some familiarity with him.

Iowa State: Are there enough linebackers? Defensive coordinator Wally Burnham, who was hired away from USF, admits there's a lack of depth and that his linebackers lack speed. Burnham says he thinks he can build depth by having most players learn two positions. He's counting on players such as Jesse Smith, Freddie Garrin, Derec Schmidgall and Josh Raven anchoring the position on a defense that features several players learning the third scheme of their careers.

Kansas: Can the running backs carry a big load? Some may say an overhauled linebacking corps is the biggest worry, but there's good young talent and concern may be diminished somewhat because the defense likely will run a lot of 4-2-5 to counter the myriad spread offenses in the Big 12. The spring suspension of senior Jocques Crawford hurts at running back. Crawford is potentially a special talent. The staff likes senior Jake Sharp, but he isn't a big-play threat. The running backs also could be hampered by a line that is breaking in new starters at center and both guard spots.

Kansas State: Will the secondary hold up? Junior Joshua Moore is an all-conference-caliber cornerback, but he lacks a complement on the other side. The staff thinks free safety Tysyn Hartman is a player, but more quality options are needed for a Wildcats squad that will play a 4-2-5 defense this fall. It's almost a given some of the seven newcomers at defensive back will have a chance to play early for the coordinator tandem of Vic Koenning and Chris Cosh.

Missouri: Who will make plays? The Tigers arguably lost more star power than any team in the nation, with quarterback Chase Daniel, tight end Chase Coffman and receiver Jeremy Maclin departed. Sophomore Blaine Gabbert is Daniel's heir apparent; Gabbert looks like an NFL quarterback, but does he have poise, toughness and an ability to consistently make the right decision? Mizzou will look to senior wide receivers Jared Perry and Danario Alexander to pick up some slack, and sophomore tight end Andrew Jones has potential.

Nebraska: Will a strong linebacking corps emerge? Finding a decent set of wide receivers is a priority, too, but solidifying the linebackers is more vital for the Huskers. Exiting spring drills, all three starting spots were open. Senior Colton Koehler and redshirt freshman Will Compton are battling for the middle linebacker slot. Junior Blake Lawrence and sophomore Matt Holt are the front-runners on the outside. The Huskers will use a lot of nickel defense, and redshirt freshman Sean Fisher and sophomore Matthew May have emerged as the nickel linebackers. Holt and May are converted safeties.

Oklahoma: How will a rebuilt offensive line perform? The unit lost four starters, meaning quarterback Sam Bradford could be in peril of being punished. The coaches like the available talent, but only two players have starting experience. One of those is LSU transfer Jarvis Jones. The lone returning starter is Trent Williams, who is moving from right to left tackle. Cory Brandon is one to watch at right tackle.

Oklahoma State: Will the defensive line step up? The Cowboys ranked eighth in the Big 12 in tackles for loss and 12th in sacks last season. More big plays from the line are needed if the Cowboys hope to be this season's Texas Tech. Coaches have moved Derek Burton from end to tackle to help. Redshirt freshman end Nigel Nicholas had a terrific spring, and it's hoped tackle Swanson Miller blossoms as a senior in his second season after transferring from a junior college.

Texas: Will the defensive line hold up its end of the bargain? Three of four starters are gone: ends Henry Melton and Brian Orakpo and tackle Roy Miller; each was picked in the first four rounds of the NFL draft. A fourth player, tackle/end Aaron Lewis, also is gone, and he was an NFL free-agent signing. The staff will look to senior tackle Lamarr Houston, the lone returning starter, to lead the way. The move of Sergio Kindle to end from linebacker should keep the pass rush potent.

Texas A&M: Are there any blockers? Returning starters Kevin Matthews (center) and Lee Grimes (guard) missed spring drills with injury. And there were no true tackles on campus. This is a young and untested line that by the end of spring drills had only seven scholarship linemen who were healthy and available. Stay tuned for what quickly is shaping up to be a make-or-break year in Mike Sherman's second season.

Texas Tech: Can junior quarterback Taylor Potts keep the offense humming? He's talented and bright, but Potts has been inconsistent and he isn't a loud and vocal leader. But many Tech insiders feels Potts will be fine. Instead, a bigger worry may be finding a pass rush. Brandon Williams (13 sacks) turned pro early and McKinner Dixon (eight sacks) may not be back from an indefinite suspension. The safety spot also is dicey.

Tom Dienhart is a national senior writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at dienhart@yahoo-inc.com.

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