Editor's note: This is the first of three articles providing an early-bird look at the 2012 Big 12 football season, which this year will include two new schools: TCU and West Virginia. Part I of the series (below) takes a look at some of returning stars and the newcomers who are expected to make an impact in 2012. Parts II and III will break down the teams and where they are expected to finish in the league, looking four months ahead.
Spring is here, and of course that means the start of the new college football season. No, I haven't lost my mind or stumbled into some kind of time warp. Spring is when the real preparations begin as the coaches and college gridiron warriors get the minds and bodies in pre-readiness form for the fall football season.
It's hard to think about college football in the spring, but if you're Charlie Weis at Kansas or Kansas State's Bill Snyder or any of the eight head football coaches around the Big 12 Conference, it doesn't matter what time of year it is, football is always top of mind. The reality is, as soon as one season comes to an end, preparations begin anew for the season ahead.
Some around the game refer to this time of year as the pre-preseason. There's spring football practice at campuses around the country and the annual spring games, but the football season, including the actual preseason conditioning drills and practice, is still a good four months away.
It just seems wrong that college football taunts us with all the hype and headlines surrounding the signing of new recruiting classes and spring scrimmages before seemingly going into hiatus until late in the summer, when the media begin saturating us with articles and talk about who's in and who's not in the preseason national polls and who are the teams to beat on the road to the BCS National Championship.
Both Kansas and Kansas State wrap up their spring practice schedules this Saturday with their annual spring scrimmages. The two Kansas schools are the last two in the conference to conclude their spring practices with the spring game.
The Big 12 is expected again this year to provide several first and early-round draft picks when the NFL annual spring draft gets under way Thursday in New York City. Most prominent among them is Heisman Trophy winner and 2011 Big 12 Offensive Player of the Year Robert Griffin III. Griffin, or Archie III (referring to two-time Heisman recipient Archie Griffin from Ohio State) as some are now calling the talented Baylor quarterback, is expected to be the second player selected in the 2012 NFL draft, by the Washington Redskins. That is, of course, if he's not taken first overall by the Indianapolis Colts, which is not out of the realm of possibility.
Another highly touted draft prospect out of the Big 12 is the country's top wide receiver last season, Justin Blackmon from Oklahoma State. Quarterbacks Ryan Tannehill of Texas A&M and 28-year-old Brandon Weeden of Oklahoma State also have impressed scouts in the workout sessions prior to the draft, as has wide-receiver Kendall Wright, Griffin's main man for three seasons at Baylor.
These players are all leaving the Big 12. While they will be sorely missed by their respective schools, the conference at large is expected to be fully loaded with top offensive talent in the coming season. Over the last decade, the Big 12 has been widely recognized for its high-powered spread offenses and the ability to put up points like it was a basketball game instead of an outdoor game played on a football field. Four conference schools ranked in the top-10 nationally in 2011 in passing offense, and West Virginia would have made it five.
Baylor and Oklahoma State will be debuting new quarterbacks to lead their offenses in the fall, but a handful of quality QBs will be returning in 2012, including Landry Jones of Oklahoma, who was No, 2 in the Big 12 last season in passing yardage (behind Weeden) and third in pass efficiency (behind Griffin and Weeden. Kansas State's Colin Klein, will be looking to step up his passing game in 2012, which might be good news for the Wildcats' opponents, who are well aware of how dangerous Klein can be when he takes off running with the ball. He was the league's fifth best rusher a year ago as a quarterback.
Texas Tech also has its starting quarterback, senior gunslinger Seth Doege, back for another season. Doege averaged 333 passing yards per game last season, third best in the conference.
The last two years, Texas has suffered through its worst two seasons since Mack Brown took over as the Longhorns coach in 1998. Even during those two down years, the Longhorns' defense has been one of the best in the conference. Offensively, the Longhorns have been well off their game the past two seasons, but that is about to change. They finally seem to have some stability at quarterback and they have made improvements in the offensive line. That should spell trouble for opposing defenses. The Horns add a freshman candidate as one of the conference's newcomers of the year in Jonathan Gray, rated as a top-10 player overall among high school prospects. A native Texan, Gray joins a bevy of talented Texas running backs.
Oklahoma expects to have surprise running-back sensation Dominique Whaley back and healthy at the start of the 2011 season. But someone you can expect to see much more of this year for the Sooners' all-purpose junior fullback Trey Millard. Quarterback Jones, who likely will be on the Heisman watch list to start the season, loses Ryan Broyles, OU's career leader in pass receptions, to graduation, but don't fret for the Sooners because they have an entire arsenal of talented receivers coming back, the best of which might be newcomer Trey Metoyer, who was ineligible for the 2011 season.
The two new schools that are joining the Big 12 this fall, TCU and West Virginia, both come in as experienced teams and two of the better teams in the conference. Both have their starting quarterbacks returning - Casey Pachall of TCU and Geno Smith of West Virginia - off of teams that won 11 and 10 games, respectively, in 2011.
While the strength quotient among Big 12 schools is geared more heavily to the offensive side of the ball, there are some outstanding defensive players in the league as well. Among those who will be back to wreak havoc on the offenses in the fall are Kansas State linebacker Arthur Brown, who was ninth in the league in 2011 with 101 tackles. Also, the K-squad at Iowa State, linebackers A.J. Klein and Jake Knott, who combined for 231 tackles between them. Another linebacker to keep an eye on in the fall is junior Tom Wort of Oklahoma.
Among the leagues' best in the defensive secondary are returning starters Nigel Malone of Kansas State and Oklahoma State's Justin Gilbert and Broderick Brown, who between them picked off 10 passes last season, and Quandre Diggs of Texas, the Big 12's 2011 Defensive Freshman of the Year.
On Monday, Part II in the series: Ranking the Big 12 in 2012, 1 through 10, starting with the bottom 5.