The return game figures to play a prominent role in the Big 12 race this season.
By BLAIR KERKHOFF
The Kansas City Star
Not kickoff returns – there won’t be as many of those under new safety-inspired rules – but talented running backs who will back on the field after season-ending injuries in 2011.
Texas Tech’s Eric Stephens, Oklahoma’s Dominique Whaley and Iowa State’s Shontrelle Johnson were off and running to excellent seasons when misery struck. None made it to November.
Stephens (knee), Whaley (ankle) and Johnson (neck) are expected to play in Saturday’s opening games.
On Monday’s Big 12 coaches teleconference, Red Raiders Coach Tommy Tuberville said Stephens, who was the conference’s second leading rusher at 113 yards per game when he went down at Texas A&M in the fifth game, is at “90-95 percent.”
Whaley was having a breakthrough season in his first year as a starter, averaging 89.6 yards per game, when he broke his ankle at Kansas State.
“In my mind, he looks to be what he’s always been, explosive, fast and strong,” Sooners Coach Bob Stoops said.
Johnson was averaging 4.8 yards per carry and 62 yards per game when he suffered a neck injury in the fourth week. Johnson wasn’t cleared to play until late July, but Cyclones Coach Paul Rhoads said he’ll play in the opener.
“He’s done an excellent job and there are zero ill effects,” Rhoads said.
As is often the case with players returning from a serious injury, finding the game speed gear will be a challenge. With Stephens, the knee was so damaged, surgery had to wait for five weeks to allow for reduced swelling.
“He’s been through every practice with a knee brace and the doctors will decide if he needs to wear it in a game,” Tuberville said.
Kansas State Coach Bill Snyder announced freshman quarterback Tay Bender is no longer part of the program. “He chose not to be here,” Snyder said of the highly touted recruit from Lincoln, Neb. “He returned home a couple of weeks ago.”
“Just envision I’m going to tell my (future) wife that we’re getting married in February but I’m going to date these three other girls in September, October and November. It doesn’t work that way.”
Oklahoma Coach Bob Stoops responding to a question about a prospect that commits to his program but says he’s taking visits to other schools.
“We’ve worked on him having confidence in himself.”
Kansas Coach Charlie Weis on quarterback Dayne Crist, the Notre Dame transfer who lost his starting job in the opening week last season.
RANKING THE BIG 12
1.Oklahoma (this week: at UTEP) Only Big 12 roadie
2. West Virginia (Marshall) No stumble here
3. Oklahoma State (Savannah St.) Wes Lunt era begins
4. Texas (Wyoming) Running backs stable unleashed
5. Kansas State (Missouri St.) Flavorless attack with Miami next
6. TCU (open) Extra week to prepare
7. Baylor (SMU, Sunday) Lots of offense to replace
8. Texas Tech (Northwestern St.) Doege should amass numbers
9. Iowa State (Tulsa) Dangerous foe for Clones
10. Kansas (South Dakota St.) Weis era should start fast