Big 12 power still rests north of the Red River

Interesting story lines popped up on several Big 12 campuses this spring, but one overriding thought remains for the 2017 football season.

The Oklahoma teams will be tough to beat.

The two-time defending champion Sooners must replace their 1,000-yard running backs and All-American receiver and the runner-up Cowboys lost important members of their defense, but both head coaches expressed optimism Tuesday on the Big 12’s annual spring teleconference.

Oklahoma State, a 10-game winner last year, is so enthused that it has launched an official Heisman Trophy campaign for quarterback Mason Rudolph.

“The success we’ve had with Mason over a three-year period, we kinda feel like he deserves it,” coach Mike Gundy said. “He’s a leader and he’s working on his mental approach, watching a lot of tape on his own and he’s really gotten into footwork.

“With the skill players coming back, the talent and some depth there, we’re very excited about our group. We had a great spring. We need our corners to mature more quickly and there are a few depth issues, but I think we are where we need to be moving into the summer.”

OU’s Bob Stoops was sounding bullish, as well, especially considering he’s having to replace Sooners all-time leading rusher Samaje Perine, Joe Mixon and Dede Westbrook.

“We feel really good about the running backs,” he said. “Rodney Anderson, who was injured last year, should step in, with Abdul Adams. The new guys, especially Trey Sermon, had a good spring. Same thing at receiver. We feel like we’ll have more guys able to step in and make plays than last year.”

Stoops also raved about the spring game.

“I saw more players ready to make a contribution,” he said. “Overall, I was pleased how clean we played, few penalties and assignment-correct ball.

Coaches at the Texas schools didn’t seem quite as confident.

“The buy-in level is there, but the consistent ‘want-to’ is missing,” the Longhorns’ Tom Herman said of his new team. “Late in practice they forget about their teammates and coaches and worry about just getting through it.

“Physically, we’ve got to get stronger in the legs and hips. We need leg strength because we can’t play so high on defense.”

Texas and TCU return a league-best 17 starters, but Gary Patterson didn’t see a lot of his guys.

“We had 10 guys who didn’t go through spring ball because of surgeries or rehabs,” the Horned Frogs coach said. “We signed 24 guys, so we’ll have 34 new faces in summer camp.

“On offense we return everyone but (tackle) Aviante Collins. So the good news is everybody’s coming back. The bad news is everyone’s coming back from a 6-7 team.”

Patterson said the Frogs “tweaked a lot” on offense and overhauled all their signals because he was concerned other teams knew them. He also said there was a defensive emphasis on toughness because “we weren’t as physical as we needed to be last year.”

New Baylor coach Matt Rhule acknowledged there are serious depth concerns, especially at offensive line and running back. He also said players had to adapt to a culture change to a more disciplinarian environment.

“When I first got here, the attitude was sort of mixed,” he said. “Like ‘who is this guy? and “all he does is run the ball?’ There was apprehension about some of the things we asked them to do: mandatory meals, class-wise and time-wise policies. But a lot of them have come to appreciate having some stability. This is their third head coach in under a year.”

Texas Tech’s Kliff Kingsbury and staff are trying to rebuild the nation’s worst defense. He has seen some things that give hope.

“The biggest area is creating turnovers. I really like the way they took the ball away this spring,” he said. “This is their third year in this system, so there is a comfort level. We have more depth.”

Kingsbury singled out nose guard Broderick Washington, an offensive guard at Longview, as “a big strong guy who showed flashes.”

Around the league: West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen said new quarterback Will Grier, a transfer from Florida, dazzled in the spring game. “I think he’s as good as advertised,” Holgorsen said. “He can make all the throws. It’s been fun to watch.” Grier is still awaiting official word on his NCAA eligibility, but Holgorsen said that should be no problem.

Kansas State’s starting quarterback isn’t on the field. Jesse Ertz is recovering from shoulder surgery. Bill Snyder said although “Jesse retains the upper hand because of experience, it will be a competition between he and Alex Delton this summer.”

Kansas coach David Beaty said the difference in talent level from when he arrived in 2015 is “night and day” because “we’re developing guys who are starting to look like Big 12 football players.”

Iowa State’s Matt Campbell said holding spring camp earlier than ever “helped us get organized and execute a better plan for our recruiting cycle.”

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