Oklahoma Sooners: Darwin Cook

Two weeks ago, we ranked every team in the Big 12 position-by-position coming out of the spring. Putting that together, we’ve ranked the overall league position-by-position. In other words, what is the league’s strongest position? What is its weakest?

[+] EnlargeCedric Reed
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesCedric Reed will anchor Texas' defensive line.
In 2013, there’s no doubt the strength of the league was in the defensive backfield. Oklahoma State cornerback Justin Gilbert and TCU cornerback Jason Verrett were the league’s two first-round picks. Safety Ahmad Dixon earned All-American honors and Texas cornerback Carrington Byndom, West Virginia safety Darwin Cook, Kansas State safety Ty Zimmerman and Oklahoma cornerback Aaron Colvin were longtime stalwarts in their defensive backfields.

Here’s how the positions of the league rank going into 2014:

1. Defensive line: This was easily the most difficult position to rank by team, as line figures to be the defensive strength of TCU, Oklahoma, Baylor, Texas, Kansas State and Oklahoma State. The Horned Frogs had the league’s best run defense last season, and on top of returning basically the entire unit, will be adding back 2012 Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year Devonte Fields. The Sooners are also loaded, led by All-Big 12-caliber ends Geneo Grissom and Charles Tapper and tackle Jordan Phillips, and the could also go three-deep across the board next year. The Longhorns have two potential first-round picks up front in tackle Malcom Brown and end Cedric Reed. And Baylor coach Art Briles is already on record stating his D-line could go toe-to-toe with any in the country. Collectively, this should be the best the conference has been at the position since Gerald McCoy and Ndamukong Suh roamed the middle five years ago.

2. Wide receiver: The league has two superstars at receiver in Baylor’s Antwan Goodley and Kansas State’s Tyler Lockett, who have the résumés to garner preseason All-American consideration. But they aren’t the only prolific playmakers here. Texas Tech’s Jakeem Grant, Oklahoma’s Sterling Shepard, Iowa State’s Quenton Bundrage, Oklahoma State’s Jhajuan Seales and Texas’ Jaxon Shipley are all capable of 1,000-yard receiving seasons. Baylor might feature the best receiving corps in the country, Oklahoma State is a solid nine deep and West Virginia returns its entire starting lineup from last season. Even Kansas has the nation’s second-leading receiver from 2011 in Miami (Ohio) transfer Nick Harwell. Assuming the league’s quarterbacks can get them the ball, this could be another banner year for the Big 12’s pass-catchers.

3. Linebacker: Oklahoma, Texas, West Virginia, Kansas and TCU return virtually their entire linebacker units from last year. And from Texas Tech’s Pete Robertson and Kansas State’s Jonathan Truman to Baylor’s Bryce Hager and Oklahoma State’s Ryan Simmons, the rest of the league basically has at least one proven linebacker coming back, too.

4. Offensive line: The strength of the Big 12's offensive lines resides in experienced centers and talented tackles. Kansas State’s BJ Finney, Texas’ Dominic Espinosa and Iowa State’s Tom Farniok are all four-year starters with a combined 113 career starts. At tackle, Baylor’s Spencer Drango, Texas Tech’s Le’Raven Clark and Oklahoma’s Daryl Williams have NFL futures. The league also boasts three other very stout and versatile players up front in Kansas State’s Cody Whitehair, West Virginia’s Quinton Spain and Oklahoma State’s Daniel Koenig, all three of which can man either guard or tackle.

[+] EnlargeDavis Webb
Donald Miralle/Getty ImagesDavis Webb seems like one of the few sure things at QB in the Big 12.
5. Quarterback: The Big 12 has one Heisman candidate in Baylor’s Bryce Petty, a proven performer in Kansas State’s Jake Waters and two budding stars in Texas Tech’s Davis Webb and Oklahoma’s Trevor Knight. The rest of the league is a big fat unknown at the game’s most-critical position. But if Oklahoma State’s J.W. Walsh and Texas’ David Ash regain their forms from two seasons ago, Iowa State’s Grant Rohach builds off his strong 2013 finish, Clint Trickett can stay upright at West Virginia, and transfer Matt Joeckel and sophomore Montell Cozart prove to be the answers at TCU and Kansas, the Big 12 could be on the way back to becoming the preeminent conference for quarterbacking once again.

6. Running back: Half the teams lost their leading rushers from last season, and that doesn’t include Texas Tech’s Kenny Williams switching positions to linebacker. The Longhorns pose a potentially devastating one-two punch in Malcolm Brown and Johnathan Gray, and the Mountaineers could go five-deep with Dreamius Smith, Wendell Smallwood, Rushel Shell, Dustin Garrison and Andrew Buie. But the rest of the league will be leaning on potential more than past performance. That said, there is a lot to like in Baylor’s Shock Linwood, Iowa State’s Aaron Wimberly, TCU’s B.J. Catalon, Oklahoma State’s Tyreek Hill and Oklahoma’s Keith Ford.

7. Defensive back: With Gilbert, Verrett, Dixon, Colvin, Zimmerman, Cook and Byndom all gone, this position took a major attrition hit. Thanks to Sam Carter, Chris Hackett and Kevin White, TCU remains well stocked in its secondary. Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas have veterans back, too. Everywhere else, there is rebuilding to be done. But the next wave of secondary stars appears to be on its way. Cornerbacks Nigel Tribune (Iowa State), Justis Nelson (Texas Tech) and Daryl Worley (West Virginia) all started as true freshmen. So did Oklahoma State corner Kevin Peterson and West Virginia safety Karl Joseph, who are now both juniors. It might not be long before defensive back is a strength of the league again like it was last season.
Seventeen Big 12 players heard their names called during the 2014 NFL draft. Many other Big 12 alums will have a chance at the next level as undrafted free agents.

Below is a list of undrafted players who reportedly have agreed to free agent deals. This is not a final list, as teams are still working to sign undrafted free agents. But these are the players we know of so far.

Baylor
Iowa State
Kansas
Kansas State
Oklahoma
Oklahoma State
TCU
Texas
Texas Tech
West Virginia
Our series on the 25 best players in the Big 12 comes to an end today when we reveal the conference's three best players.

We hope this list hasn't been too terribly controversial, but yes, there have certainly been some quality players who did not make the cut. Several can make a solid case for why they should've made our Top 25, including Texas defensive end Cedric Reed, Texas Tech defensive lineman Kerry Hyder, West Virginia safety Darwin Cook, Kansas linebacker Ben Heeney and Kansas State running back John Hubert.

We did not forget about you, guys. We tip our caps to your strong showings in 2013.

And let's not forget the many Big 12 players who would've been among the conference's 25 best had they stayed healthy. Here's a closer look at five big-time players who missed out due to injuries.

Devonte Fields, DE, TCU: The No. 3 player in the blog's preseason Top 25 did not have a sophomore season to remember. TCU shut him down for the season on Oct. 9 due to a foot injury that required surgery. He ended up appearing in just three games due to suspension and injury. The Horned Frogs were wise to end his season early and seek a medical redshirt, and let's hope Fields is back to his dominant self when he returns in 2014.

[+] EnlargeJohnathan Gray
Cooper Neill/Getty ImagesJohnathan Gray was well on his way to an all-Big 12-caliber season before succumbing to injury in early November.
Johnathan Gray, RB, Texas: A torn right Achilles suffered in a road win at West Virginia ended a sophomore season that could've ended with Gray earning All-Big 12 honors. He emerged as the workhorse of Texas' offense after David Ash was lost for the season and, at 780 yards and four touchdowns, was one pace to become the Longhorns' first 1,000-yard rusher since 2007. If he can get healthy in time for the start of the 2014 season, he'll be on the league's best rushers again.

Trey Millard, FB/RB/TE, Oklahoma: Millard, who ranked No. 11 in our preseason Top 25, brought so many things to the Sooners' offense both in production and intangibles. He was pretty much guaranteed a spot in our postseason list until Oct. 26, when a torn ACL suffered against Texas Tech ended his season and his OU career five games too early. It's a shame we only got to see him touch the ball 28 times is his final season, but Millard and his many niche contributions won't soon be forgotten by Sooners fans.

Jordan Phillips, DT, Oklahoma: Sure, you can argue that OU linebacker Corey Nelson deserves this spot as the Sooners' captain and possible defensive MVP prior to his injury. But losing Phillips to a season-ending back injury in the middle of October was just as damaging, not only to the middle of the Sooners line but also because he seemed on pace to developing into an All-Big 12 caliber talent. He played in four games, missed two, and then was done. Let's hope he can get healthy and back in track as a junior.

Tevin Reese, WR, Baylor: Reese came very close to making our Top 25 despite missing five games this season with a broken wrist. He was one of several Baylor players who went down during the stretch run, and arguably the most critical one. He finished the year with 867 receiving yards and eight touchdowns and only needed 38 receptions to get there. His 22.8 yards per catch average ranked No. 2 nationally, and three of his scores came from 60-plus yards.

Big 12 Power Rankings: Week 15

December, 11, 2013
12/11/13
9:00
AM ET
The final power rankings before bowl season:

1. Baylor (11-1, 8-1 Big 12, last week 2): The Bears have a chance to put the finishing touches on a tremendous season with a favorable matchup in the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl against Central Florida. Baylor better win for conference pride/bragging rights, as the Big 12 is an underdog in four of its other five bowl matchups.

2. Oklahoma (10-2, 7-2 Big 12, LW 4): If Bob Stoops somehow pulled off the upset of Alabama, it would constitute his best coaching job since the national championship season in 2000. That Stoops even got OU in the Allstate Sugar Bowl is remarkable. This might be the least talented 10-win team Stoops has ever had. But this is also a team that found a way to get to 10 wins when it didn’t look possible.

3. Oklahoma State (10-2, 7-2 Big 12, LW 1): Oklahoma State’s football history is filled with Bedlam disappointments. But 2013 will rank at the very top. The Cowboys were in control for most of the game against Oklahoma. But they were a disaster on special teams and third downs, and when the game was on the line, a defense that had been terrific all year capitulated against a third-string quarterback. A win over Missouri in the AT&T Cotton Bowl will ease the sting, but this one will sting for awhile.

4. Texas (8-4, 7-2 Big 12, LW 3): With a chance to win the Big 12 outright, Texas’ up-and-down season ended with a thud in Waco. As a result, Mack Brown’s seemingly impending resignation will dominate the conversation in Austin while the Longhorns attempt to prepare for a very difficult matchup in the Valero Alamo Bowl against Oregon.

5. Kansas State (7-5, 5-4 Big 12, LW 5): The Wildcats won’t have the matchup with old conference rival Nebraska in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl. But they will have the chance to beat a name program (Michigan), which would cap a very nice end to a season that began very badly.

6. Texas Tech (7-5, 4-5 Big 12, LW 6): Losing five in a row after a top-10 ranking is not how Kliff Kingsbury wanted to close out his first season. Losing six would be even worse. But the Red Raiders have an opportunity against Arizona State in the National University Holiday Bowl. Win that game, and nobody will be talking about the five-game losing streak. Instead, they’ll be talking about one of the biggest upsets of the bowl season, which would give Tech some momentum going into the winter.

7. TCU (4-8, 2-7 Big 12, LW 7): The Horned Frogs will have a new offensive coordinator (reportedly Doug Meachem) and a new quarterback (who knows?), but will that translate into more points? It better if TCU is to bounce back from two mediocre-to-bad years in the Big 12.

8. Iowa State (3-9, 2-7 Big 12, LW 8): With wins over Kansas and West Virginia to finish out the season, along with their impending stadium expansion, the Cyclones have some momentum again. Head coach Paul Rhoads getting the right offensive coordinator to jump-start a unit that has talent is the next step.

9. Kansas (3-9, 1-8 Big 12, LW 9): Did the Jayhawks show improvement in Year 2 of the Charlie Weis era? Not really. Which is why Year 3 will be a defining one. Kansas needs to win more than one Big 12 game. The key will be rising sophomore QB Montell Cozart. If he can make a jump to the next level, so too will the Jayhawks.

10. West Virginia (4-8, 2-7 Big 12, LW 10): Last week, athletic director Oliver Luck issued a statement backing coach Dana Holgorsen. But Luck’s statement sure seemed to emphasize the 2014 season. Problem is, West Virginia opens with Alabama, goes to Maryland, Texas Tech, Oklahoma State and Texas, and plays Oklahoma and Baylor at home. The Mountaineers would have to win one of those games just to become bowl eligible. On top of that, they’ll be replacing easily their best offensive (running back Charles Sims) and defensive (safety Darwin Cook) players from this past season. Good luck, Dana.
In today’s mailbag, who has the best safety duo, possibilities of a three-way tie, and Andy from Austin with a not-so-triumphant return.

To the 'bag:

Matt in Kansas writes: The Kansas Jayhawks are going to prove you wrong. Can't wait for the Hawks to prove the non-believers wrong!!

Jake Trotter: It wasn’t me who called your squad a “pile of crap.”




Dan in Atlanta writes: It seems the comments from the West Virginia coaching staff about true freshman WR Daikiel Shorts mirror the camp praise heaped on Karl Joseph last year. Déjà vu all over again?

Jake Trotter: Shorts has turned heads this fall, no doubt. It would not surprise me at all if he eventually earned a starting job -- especially if he stays at inside receiver, where he was moved to last week. The Mountaineers have an opening there, and Shorts could fill it.




Pete in Paw Paw, Mich., writes: I see that Jake’s chats are very Texas and Oklahoma heavy. He mentioned it in one the week previous. I would suggest putting a notice that one is coming up with him on the Big 12 Blog to get more diverse questions. It can only help. Thanks.

Jake Trotter: Quick PSA announcement: starting next week, my Big 12 chat on SportsNation will be moved to Tuesdays at 11 a.m. CST. Colleague Brandon Chatmon will also be holding a chat on Wednesdays at 3 p.m. CST.




Randall in Arlington, Texas, writes: There is no doubt that the SEC has outperformed the Big 12 in football over the last decade and appears they will continue to do so in the near future. Looking at how the SEC has only expanded in recent years into states with rich football cultures, how reliant do you think the Big 12 is on Texas players for their talent and how will their inability to pull away talent away from southern states continue to factor into the disparity between the SEC and Big 12?

Jake Trotter: Texas high school talent is the lifeblood of the Big 12. When SEC powers pluck players away from the Lone Star State, those are players that otherwise would be going go the Big 12. Texas A&M’s SEC exodus has placed the Big 12 in precarious position with respect to recruiting. The Aggies have a strong pitch they can now make to prospects: stay close to home and play in the best conference in college football. It’s an appealing case. Texas A&M being in the SEC has also cracked the door wider for the likes of LSU and Alabama to make inroads in Texas. The Big 12 must continue opening up other pipelines, while reinforcing to Texas kids that staying in the Big 12 is the best thing for them.




Zion in Chester, Va., writes: Hey man! Love the mailbag! Do you think that Karl Joseph and Darwin Cook are the best safety combination in the big 12?

Jake Trotter: I might give TCU the slight edge here. Sam Carter and Elisha Olabode are All-Big 12-caliber players. But West Virginia’s twosome is right there. Iowa State, Kansas State and Oklahoma State all have solid safety duos, as well.




Michael in Clyde, Kan., writes: Are there really no Big 12 teams that have top 10 potential this year? Or is the polls just overrating and putting the SEC teams in there too high? I know the SEC is actually good, but with Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina in the same division they can't all be a top 10 teams.

Jake Trotter: Well, five SEC teams finished in the top 10 of the final AP poll last year, so actually they can. But the Big 12 has almost as many top 10 potentials, even if just one team finishes there.




Tom in OKC writes: Will 10-2 win the Big 12 title this year? If so, do you think there is a possibility of a 3-way tie?

Jake Trotter: I don’t really see a 12-0 team in the conference this season; so yeah, 10-2 could definitely win the league. And yeah, because of the parity, there’s opportunity for the first three-way tie since 2008. One obvious scenario in which this happens: OU beats Texas in Dallas; Texas beats OSU in Austin; OSU beats OU in Stillwater; and they all lose one other game along the way. All three would then be 7-2 in the league.




Andy in Austin writes: OK, my nickname for Jaxon Shipley tanked last mailbag. But I will make believers of you all! Let me explain: Shipley is smooth like caramel, his playmaking makes your eyes pop, and, let’s be honest, you've got to be a bit nutty to hang yourself out there for a catch over the middle. Also, I have another UT player nickname for you: Quandre “The Giant” Diggs.

Jake Trotter: Last week, I put Andy on a mailbag ban. The masses, however, clamored for me to give him another chance. So I did. And behold, look what happened. This is not my responsibility. It’s yours. Own it.

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