Despite Loss of Baker Mayfield, Oklahoma Can Still Torment Big 12
Spring practice is the chronological midpoint of the long college football offseason, but with signing day, the final spins of the coaching carousel and a substantial portion of the graduate transfer market in the rearview mirror, the balance of the offseason intrigue has been settled until the media day circuit begins in July. Before the on-field news slows to a trickle as schools break for summer, SI writers are examining the most notable storylines and performances from each Power 5 conference during the spring session. The first leagues under the microscope were the ACC and the Big Ten. Up next: the Big 12.
The Big Picture
Arguably no Big 12 program was hit harder by NFL draft-related departures this year than Texas. Linebacker Malik Jefferson, safety DeShon Elliott, cornerback Holton Hill, offensive lineman Connor Williams and punter Michael Dickson all turned pro at the end of their junior seasons, weakening a roster that managed only seven wins last fall. (That group excludes conference defensive lineman of the year Poona Ford, a senior who expired his eligibility.) Head coach Tom Herman restocked that roster by signing one of the nation’s top recruiting classes. For as highly touted as the newcomers are, they probably aren’t ready to fuel the revival in Austin that many envisioned when the Longhorns hired Herman in November 2016. A trio of early enrollee defensive backs—five-star safeties Caden Sterns and B.J. Foster and five-star cornerback Anthony Cook—made positive impressions this spring, and among returnees, junior wide receiver Lil’Jordan Humphrey offered hope that he could become a potent downfield threat by registering 114 total yards in the Orange-White game. No word yet, though, on who’ll be throwing to Humphrey and Texas’s other pass-catchers: Sophomore Sam Ehlinger and junior Shane Buechele will continue to compete for the starting quarterback job in fall camp.
State of the defending champs
A team that won primarily because of its blistering offense last season saw a potential star emerge on the other side of the ball. Brendan ‘Bookie’ Radley-Hiles, a 5’9’’, 187-pound defensive back out of IMG (Fla.) Academy who was rated the No. 5 cornerback in the class of 2018, according to the 247Sports Composite, enrolled early at Oklahoma after verbally committing to the Sooners at the U.S. Army All-American Bowl in January. This spring he flashed the versatility to line up at multiple spots in the Sooners’ defensive backfield. “Bookie continues to make plays,” defensive coordinator Mike Stoops said, according to the Tulsa World. “He’s gonna be a playmaker for us.”
Most compelling QB battle
This season will test Oklahoma State’s durability as a Big 12 power. Can the Cowboys win 10 games for the fourth consecutive season after waving farewell to the transcendent quarterback and third-round draft pick who posted a 32-9 record as their starter? Fifth-year senior Taylor Cornelius, a former walk-on, and redshirt sophomore Keondre Wudtee competed this spring, but the battle will heat up in fall camp, after the arrival of two other QBs. True freshman Spencer Sanders—a four-star dual-threat passer who was named Texas’s Gatorade Player of the Year as a senior—and Dru Brown—a graduate transfer from Hawaii—are set to push for the top spot on the depth chart in the lead up to Week 1.
Awesome highlight/adorable highlight
Chabastin Taylor served notice during the spring that he could be a major factor in Kansas State’s passing attack this season. The 6’4’’, 227-pound redshirt freshman wide receiver caught five passes for 118 yards in the Wildcats’ Purple/White scrimmage. Below is the second of his two TD grabs.
A cool moment here for Clint Lewis, a longtime Baylor equipment staff member who has Down syndrome. Lewis took a handoff and ran for a touchdown during the Bears’ spring game.
Awesome moment for Clint Lewis, who has Down Syndrome and has been around the Baylor program for more than 20 years. (????: @kwtxsports) pic.twitter.com/dYGniyreHO— Sports Illustrated (@SInow) April 22, 2017
Post-spring, pre-summer favorite
Baker Mayfield may be gone, but the loss of one player—even the Heisman Trophy winner, No. 1 draft pick and single-season pass-efficiency record-setter—won’t slow down Lincoln Riley’s explosive offense. In his second year as the Sooners’ head coach, the 34-year-old has a real shot to make his second consecutive appearance in the College Football Playoff. Whether it’s redshirt sophomore Austin Kendall or redshirt junior Kyler Murray (assuming he doesn’t leave to pursue a professional baseball career) filling Mayfield’s shoes under center, Oklahoma has enough playmakers back to torment Big 12 defensive coordinators. TCU and West Virginia project as the Sooners’ top challengers in the conference, with Kansas State and Oklahoma State looming as potential dark horses.