Big 12: The Irreplaceables (And Their Replacements)
By Mike Casazza
TCU was 4-0 last season before quarterback Casey Pachall ran afoul of the law and the program to earn a suspension that preceded a 3-6 finish.
West Virginia’s passing offense was frightening during a 5-0 start, but receiver Stedman Bailey rolled an ankle in a loss to Texas Tech and wasn’t right for a while after that. He missed a start and a bunch of snaps and the field was effectively cut in half, which heightened the attention given to Tavon Austin.
Texas’ defense wasn’t as bad as many made it out to be, or as bad as it would end up, when defensive end Jackson Jeffcoat had two good shoulders to attack the pocket off the edge.
Jace Amaro was just starting to realize his vast potential with 156 yards receiving and a touchdown against WVU, but he was injured in that game and missed the next six. Texas Tech went 2-4.
Every team in the Big 12 had and has irreplaceable players, the person an offense or a defense can’t afford to lose because of injury, discipline or a slump. Not every team has replacements for the irreplaceable.
What teams are set and what players are on the spot if something happens to the irreplaceables in 2013?
Irreplaceable: Safety Ahmad Stewart
Stewart is perhaps Baylor’s best defensive player, which isn’t exactly high praise. But he was good enough to play safety as a freshman, nickelback as a sophomore and then nickelback and the team’s hybrid Bear position last year. That defense wasn’t particularly good, though, and the coaches moved Dixon back to safety in the spring. It worked and the other cornerbacks did their part to fill in and make sure the idea stuck. He has to play to solidify the secondary in the Big 12 and to help those cornerbacks.
Replacement: Orion Stewart
Right now, all Stewart and Dixon have in common is that they’re homegrown talents who played at Midway High in Waco. Stewart wasn’t really in the conversation when spring football started, but the redshirt freshman earned big praise and is No. 2 on the depth chart now. Stewart’s a lanky athlete who at 6-foot-2 and 185 pounds can run and reach to cover a lot of territory in the secondary, but he is nowhere near Stewart’s statistics — 191 tackles and three interceptions the last two seasons.
Irreplaceable: Quarterback Sam Richardson
Coach Paul Rhoads spent a lot of time and energy swapping quarterbacks and trying to find the right guy the last few years. Richardson doesn’t scream out that he’s the answer, but he got the ball late last season and did well enough (541 yards, eight touchdowns, one interception in three games) to get some preferential treatment prior to the 2013 season. The Cyclones plan to make use of the Pistol this season and Richardson is a better runner than recent Iowa State quarterbacks. He was also the only player to rush for more than 100 yards against WVU in the regular season last year.
Replacement: Grant Rohach
Rohach ran behind Richardson throughout the spring and he’s a different player, better with his arm than his legs, but certainly skilled. Rohach was an Elite 11 pick in high school, where he also swam, competed in track and field and played basketball in California. Despite his most recent home, he’s a local product. Rohach was born in Iowa City and that never hurts the backup quarterback. He threw for 3,718 yards and 26 touchdowns his final two prep seasons and was the scout team’s offensive player of the year last season with Iowa State.
Irreplaceable: Quarterback Jake Heaps
Heaps, the BYU transfer, hasn’t even played for the Jayhawks yet, but he’s their most valuable player. Kansas couldn’t pass last year with Dayne Crist and had to reinvent the offense and base it on the running game with Michael Cummings after making a switch. Kansas has Division I and junior college transfer receivers ready to contribute, Tony Pierson set to mimic Tavon Austin and a solid tight end to balance things out, but not much else in the line of passing behind Heaps, who was good enough with the Cougars to set significant freshman passing records.
Replacement: Michael Cummings
When the Jayhawks installed Cummings last season, they did so knowing he’d be handing off a lot to Pierson, James Sims and Taylor Cox. Cummings could carry the ball, too, and use his feet outside the pocket to facilitate a really weak passing game. He’s not inept and the argument could be made his 45.7 percent completion percentage was a product of the talent around him, but maybe also rust. He missed time as a senior with a torn ACL and redshirted in 2011. As a three-year starter in high school in Killeen, Texas, Cummings was a thrower who racked up 5,237 yards and 45 touchdowns while running for 2,321 yards and 33 touchdowns.
Irreplaceable: Running back John Hubert
Hubert’s backups carried just 77 times last season while Hubert turned 189 carries into 952 yards and 15 touchdowns. It was quarterback Collin Klein who led the team in carries and whether Daniel Sams, who is in the Klein mold, or Jake Waters, who is a big-time passer, is named starter, neither will replicate Klein’s 207 carries. That means more work for Hubert, a senior, but still a mere 5-foot-7 and 190 pounds. And as much work as he got last season, he carried 200 times in 2011 while his backups got just 53 carries.
Replacement: Jarvis Leverett
Leverett likely would have been a bigger recruit, and not one of those sneaky Kansas State finds, if not for an ACL injury early in his junior season. He impressed at a Kansas State camp that summer and then proved he was back to normal when he ripped off 500 yards and scored five times in a span of three games his senior season. He wound up rated as one of Houston’s best players and redshirted last season. At 5-foot-11 and 210 pounds, he can supply some thunder Hubert cannot and Klein no longer will.
Irreplaceable: Center Gabe Ikard
The Sooners fired their seven-year offensive line coach in the offseason, which says a lot about the concern up front. Ikard would be one of the Big 12’s best guards if he wasn’t the conference’s premier center. He fits nicely in the middle with his experience elsewhere and the understanding of what the others are going through, but also because he’s a smart player who made all the academic all-star teams. That helps a lot with all the decisions and communication the center has to make, but also in having his teammates trust him and what he says.
Replacement: Ty Darlington
We might be seeing Darlington one way or another. He was ranked the No. 2 center by Rivals.com, Scout.com and 247Sports.com in the 2012 recruiting class and he played as a true freshman, so there’s no question he’s a talent. Ikard missed time because of a concussion last season and a broken finger this spring and Darlington fared well, which is interesting because there has been talk about moving Ikard back to left guard to get the best group of five players on the field.
Irreplaceable: Inside receiver Blake Jackson
The last time a Big 12 receiver had a season like Jackson did in 2012, Nebraska was still in the conference. In his first season with the Cowboys after two junior college seasons, Jackson led the Big 12 with 19.9 yards per catch, a mark none of the league’s long list of star receivers had met since Niles Paul also averaged 19.9 yards in 2009. Jackson is a tight end, though that didn’t stop him from giving Oklahoma State’s passing game a threat over the middle and down the field.
Replacement: Torrance Carr
Technically, Jackson is an inside receiver, even though he’s 6-foot-3 and 235 pounds. That’s tight end size in college. His combination of speed and agility complements his size to craft mismatches inside. Carr is similar, a 6-foot-2, 215 pounder who is big enough to play outside, but fast enough that he might be too much to handle inside. We might know for sure by now, but Carr, a dual threat quarterback in high school who redshirted in 2011, was hurt in the preseason last year while tracking for a starting spot.
Irreplaceable: Safety Sam Carter
The pick would seem to be All-America cornerback Jason Verrett, but TCU would still have veteran Kevin White on the opposite side of the field. Carter is harder to replace and there’s proof to support that. Normally a starting safety, he was used as an extra linebacker against WVU last season to combat short pass routes. He missed a quarter after he was poked in the eye and WVU averaged more than five yards per play. When Carter was in the game, WVU averaged 2.66 yards per play and he made 10 tackles. Carter is that versatile, which shouldn’t be a surprise. He was one of the country’s top dual threat quarterbacks in 2009.
Replacement: Derrick Kindred
As good as Carter was against the Mountaineers, Kindred managed to make 10 tackles as well. And two pass breakups. In his first career start. As a true freshman. A running back and a safety in high school, he only made 10 other tackles during the season, mostly because Carter doesn’t leave the field too often. Much of Kindred’s potential rests in how many times the coaches can get him on the field.
Irreplaceable: Quarterback David Ash
The Longhorns have the sort of depth they’re used to at most of their skill positions and on defense, but not at quarterback. The spin is that Ash gives Texas its most stable quarterback situation since Colt McCoy led the team to the 2010 national title game. If the Longhorns are to make it back to the top this season, Ash can’t miss time because he’s hurt or lousy.
Replacement: Tyrone Swoopes
It seemed as though Swoopes might redshirt with Ash apparently settled, Case McCoy still on hand and 2012 recruits Jalen Overstreet and Connor Brewer ready to go, but Swoopes enrolled early and won people over during spring football. He hopped Overstreet on the depth chart and would have to be a threat to Brewer because they’re so different. Brewer was a two-time high school All-American who passed for more than 7,500 yards and 100 touchdowns his final three seasons. Swoopes was an All-American and a top 10 quarterback nationally in high school and had 5,341 yards and 73 touchdowns rushing and 3,850 yards and 41 touchdowns passing. At 6-foot-4 and 245 pounds, he triggers Vince Young memories, and that will work in his favor.
Irreplaceable: Defensive end Kerry Hyder
At 6-foot-2 and 281 pounds, Hyder was actually smallish for an interior defensive lineman last season. But, boy, was he productive with 56 tackles, 5.5 sacks and 14 tackles for a loss. With that success in mind, he’s been moved outside to defensive end, where coaches are certain his tools will be put to better use. He’ll encounter fewer blockers and get additional help with the pass rush from outside linebackers in the 3-4 defense.
Replacement: Dartwan Bush
The Red Raiders moved Hyder knowing they had a solid insurance policy in Bush. He, too, had 5.5 sacks last season and added 41 tackles and 12 tackles for a loss. Bush does pass rushing differently. Where Hyder can use power and aggression to get through and around blocks, Bush is 6-foot-1 and 255 pounds and will use speed and moves to get to the quarterback.
Irreplaceable: Safety Karl Joseph
As a true freshman playing last season for a defense that was repeatedly beaten and embarrassed, Joseph nevertheless started all 13 games, led the team with 104 tackles and ranked No. 14 nationally in solo tackles. Joseph made many of the high impact plays to stop plays short or force or recover fumbles and also played the whole game just about every week. WVU is doesn’t have much experience without its 2012 defensive MVP. Joseph played 89.8 percent of the defensive snaps.
Replacement: K.J. Dillon
Dillon has gifts, but hasn’t been able to get on the field or convince coaches to keep him there. That struggle was a surprise. The first time Dillon bowled, he cracked 200. He took batting practice just once with his high school baseball team and hit 15 of 20 fastballs from a pitcher headed to UCF on a scholarship. The one time he did stub his toe, when he placed eighth at the state track meet in the 300-meter hurdles, Dillon was angered and emboldened and ended up with state titles in the 110 and 300 hurdles and the 400-meter relay. The Mountaineers hope for something similar in 2013.