Look no further than returning starting quarterbacks to get a handle on Big 12 football as it exits spring, heads into summer workouts in preparation for the fall.
Where teams return starters, the stock is pointed up, starting with defending champion Oklahoma.
Baker Mayfield returns for his senior season. He finished fourth in the Heisman Trophy voting after a season in which he averaged 285 yards per game with 36 touchdowns in his first year of eligibility after transferring from Texas Tech.
Baylor’s season turned after quarterback Seth Russell was lost because of a neck injury at midseason. The Bears were undefeated before the injury, and lost three afterward. Look for the Sooners and Bears to receive most of the attention as conference favorites.
Also back are Oklahoma State’s Mason Rudolph (290 yards per game) and Texas Tech’s Patrick Mahomes, who revived the crazy Tech quarterback numbers from the Mike Leach days. Mahomes threw for 368 yards per game with 36 touchdowns.
Mahomes, son of former major-league pitcher Pat Mahomes is one of two sons of former big-league players who could start at quarterback in the Big 12 this season. Shane Buechele, son of third baseman Steve Buechele, is fighting to become the Texas starter.
Tech should battle for the upper division along with Texas, TCU, West Virginia and Kansas State. Of the group, only the Red Raiders and the Mountaineers, with Skyler Howard, are set at quarterback.
A team-by-team review of spring football developments in projected order of finish:
Star wide receiver Sterling Shepard is gone and a new favorite target must emerge, but few in the nation are better stocked at running back. Samaje Perine and Joe Mixon are a dynamic duo. Rodney Anderson, who sat out last season with a medical redshirt, is a promising new face whose talent will put him in the mix for carries.
The Bears lose impact players such as wide receiver Corey Coleman, defensive tackle Andrew Billings, offensive lineman Spencer Drango and cornerback Xavien Howard. You’ll hear their names and others from Baylor in the NFL Draft next week. But this is a program that now reloads. Russell should pile up enormous numbers in this offense and KD Cannon is the next of the great Baylor wide receivers. One of the top players in the spring: Redshirt freshman cornerback Jameson Houston, a former Texas high school sprint champion.
There’s plenty to like about the Cowboys, starting with the battery of Rudolph and wide receiver James Washington. Plenty of experience returns on the offensive line but the unit had a difficult time opening holes for the running attack in the spring game. The backfield gets a boost this summer from the expected arrival of Barry Sanders Jr. Yes, the son of the former Cowboys’ Heisman Trophy winner has transferred from Stanford.
Kenny Hill, the Texas A&M transfer, started the spring game, but coach Gary Patterson said the competition with Foster Sawyer remains. The Frogs welcome back defensive end James McFarland, the defensive MVP of the Peach Bowl two years ago. He broke a toe and missed all of last season. Many Big 12 teams are looking for answers on defense. TCU has fewer than most.
Patrick Mahomes played on the Red Raiders baseball team as a freshman, but this spring there was no diamond time. Mahomes concentrated on quarterbacking the Red Raiders through spring ball.
“A little part of me is sad just because I played baseball my whole entire life and just grew up around it,” Mahomes said. “But I kind of determined with my family that I want to just focus on football and take my game to the next level and put all my focus there.”
Mahomes looks to build on what’s shaping up as an outstanding career. He led by the conference in total offense at 393 yards per game. Tech was one of two teams to score at least 25 points in every game last season.
Will the Longhorns be led by a true freshman quarterback? Shane Buechele threw for 299 yards and two touchdowns in the spring game.
“ ‘My man’s a baller,’ that’s what a lot of (Texas players) say,” Texas coach Charlie Strong said.
Whoever runs the Longhorns will be operating with a new offensive coordinator, Sterlin Gilbert, hired from Tulsa to shape a more up tempo attack.
The Mountaineers led the Big 12 and tied for fifth nationally in turnovers gained at 31. The defense helped West Virginia to a solid 8-5 season capped by a victory over Arizona State in the Cactus Bowl. But with four defensive starters returning, the objective is to maintain. The bulk of the reconstruction is happening with the back seven.
Bill Snyder doesn’t often single out players during spring workouts, so wide receiver Byron Pringle, a transfer from Butler Community College, must be doing something, or many things, right.
“You see the skill level enhance itself a great deal,” Snyder said. “He sticks out in my mind.”
The Wildcats are in the market for go-to targets.
With no returning starters, offensive line was a priority for new coach Matt Campbell.
“We’re still a work in progress, but we feel a lot more comfortable, especially on the interior.”
The Cyclones will welcome a quarterback to the competition this summer when Jacob Park, a transfer from Northeastern Oklahoma A&M, arrives in the summer. Park started his career at Georgia.
Small victories matter, like having 51 players who can bench press 300 pounds, instead of 20; and 24 running a 4.5-second 40-yard dash time and not three, which was the case at this time a year ago, according to coach David Beaty.