Oklahoma Sooners: Isaiah Johnson

It was an unusual year in the Big 12 in 2013, with several defenses carrying their teams to success in a conference known for high-scoring offense a year ago. Yet every Big 12 defense will head into 2014 with room to improve.

We looked at key offensive stats each school could improve this fall on Tuesday. On Wednesday, with the help of ESPN Stats and Information, we take a team-by-team look at one key defensive stat from last season and how to improve the number in 2014.

Baylor

Key stat in 2013: Much like its offense, BU’s defense finished atop the Big 12 in most categories but still had room to improve. The Bears allowed touchdowns on 5.2 percent of opponents’ pass attempts, ranking No. 9 in the Big 12 and No. 78 in the nation. Baylor’s struggles to stop the passing game were particularly apparent in its losses to Oklahoma State and Central Florida.

How to improve in 2014: It’s not going to be easy with Baylor forced to replace the bulk of its starting secondary this fall. But BU could have one of the top defensive lines in the Big 12, possibly the nation, which could help drop this number significantly with disruptive pressure that knocks quarterbacks out of their comfort zone.

Iowa State

Key stat in 2013: The Cyclones' defense wasn’t very good in 2013, finishing near the bottom of the Big 12 in almost every category. ISU allowed touchdowns on 28.9 percent of opponents' drives, ranking last in the Big 12 and No. 93 nationally.

How to improve in 2014: It’s going to require the unit playing as a whole as opposed to a few standout individuals making most of the plays like linebacker Jeremiah George and safety Jacques Washington did in 2013. ISU has a lot of unknowns on defense but if they jell as a unit, the defense could improve.

Kansas

Key stat in 2013: Big plays were a problem for the Jayhawks defense. KU allowed 10 yards or more on 21.4 percent of opponents' plays last season, ranking last in the Big 12 and No. 92 nationally.

How to improve in 2014: The Jayhawks defense is too talented to allow so many big plays. The defense has several veteran playmakers, including linebacker Ben Heeney and safety Isaiah Johnson, so a season playing together should help this number drop.

Kansas State

Key stat in 2013: The Wildcats struggled to get off the field at times in 2013. KSU forced opponents to go three-and-out on just 13.8 percent of drives last season, last in the Big 12 and No. 118 nationally. The other seven teams that joined K-State in the bottom eight of the FBS in this category combined for 13 wins in 2013.

How to improve in 2014: KSU added speed and playmaking to its defense with several junior college signees in February which should help its defense be more aggressive and athletic. The Wildcats are losing some veterans, but the overall athleticism of the defense should be improved. A more talented defense should help improve this number this fall.

Oklahoma

Key stat in 2013: The Sooners defense was strong in 2013 but could have been more opportunistic. OU forced a fumble on just 1.5 percent of opponents’ running plays, ranking last in the Big 12 and No. 103 nationally.

How to improve in 2014: One of the Sooners’ spring goals was to be more physical in the running game. If they are, more forced fumbles are likely to be the result in 2013. Improving this category is one way OU can strive to field the Big 12's and possibly the nation’s top defense in 2014.

Oklahoma State

Key stat in 2013: The Cowboys had one of the Big 12’s best defenses last season but one of the worst pass rushes. OSU had a 4.4 sack percentage, ranking No. 8 in the Big 12 and No. 103 nationally.

How to improve in 2014: OSU could have one of the better defensive lines in the conference this fall, particularly with improvement from defensive ends Jimmy Bean and Emmanuel Ogbah. That duo finished 1-2 in sacks for the Pokes and could be much improved this fall, helping improve OSU’s pass rush and helping a young and inexperienced secondary.

Texas

Key stat in 2013: Texas' defense struggled to step up in key moments last season. UT allowed opponents to score 68.4 percent of the time once they got inside the Longhorns’ 40-yard line. UT ranked ninth in the Big 12 in that category and No. 79 nationally. Baylor, OSU and OU ranked 1-2-3 in the category in 2013.

How to improve in 2014: The arrival of Charlie Strong will be a huge help. His Louisville squad finished tied for third nationally with Florida State, allowing opponents to score on 50 percent of drives inside the 40-yard line in 2013.

TCU

Key stat in 2013: TCU’s defense finished among the top three in several categories last season. The Horned Frogs could improve however, allowing 12.71 yards per completion in 2013, ranking No. 8 in the Big 12 and No. 91 nationally.

How to improve in 2014: The TCU defense doesn’t need much improvement but the return of defensive end Devonte Fields should help, particularly if TCU can replace cornerback Jason Verrett, an NFL first-round draft pick.

Texas Tech

Key stat in 2013: The Red Raiders' defense finished in the middle of the Big 12 in most categories, but one major area of improvement is missed tackles. Texas Tech missed 82 tackles in 2013, the third-most in the Big 12 behind Texas (88) and Kansas (85). For comparison’s sake, Baylor (68) and Oklahoma (71), ranked 1-2 in missed tackles.

How to improve in 2014: Working on tackling fundamentals will help, and Tech will need each defender to take pride in his individual tackling prowess. Texas Tech is replacing several starters so the Red Raiders could see more playmakers emerge to help lessen the number of missed tackles.

West Virginia

Key stat in 2013: The Mountaineers’ defense was horrible on third down. WVU allowed opponents to convert an eye-popping 46.6 percent, ranking last in the Big 12 and No. 118 nationally.

How to improve in 2014: Improving its third-down defense has to be a focus for new defensive coordinator Tony Gibson. Shuffling on the defensive staff should help as will the addition of transfer defensive end Shaquille Riddick, who should help improve the pass rush.
With spring ball done, we’ve been re-examining and re-ranking the positional situations of every Big 12 team. Wednesday, we finish up with defensive backs. Once again, these outlooks could look different in August. But this is how we see them post-spring:

1. TCU (pre-spring ranking: 1): Juco safety Kenny Iloka was one of the storylines of the spring in Fort Worth, augmenting an already loaded secondary. In TCU’s spring game, Iloka scored a touchdown off a fumble return and picked off a pass, underscoring pretty much how he performed all spring. Iloka could probably start for the majority of teams in the Big 12. At TCU, he’s a backup. Coach Gary Patterson seemingly praised Ranthony Texada more than anyone else on his roster this spring, and the redshirt freshman cornerback looks poised to step into the starting role vacated by All-American Jason Verrett. At 5-foot-9, Texada isn’t big. Then again, neither was Verrett. Safeties Sam Carter and Chris Hackett and cornerback Kevin White could play for anyone in the conference. In other words, this TCU secondary is stacked.

2. Texas (2): Texas is one of the few teams in the Big 12 without really any position battle in its secondary coming out of the spring. Senior safeties Mykkele Thompson and Josh Turner have been up and down throughout their careers, but they really buttoned up their play in the spring. Thompson delivered a pick-six in the Orange-White game. Turner had the hit of the day and intercepted a pass. At cornerback, Quandre Diggs isn’t an All-American, but he’s developed into a solid veteran leader. Duke Thomas can really run at the other cornerback spot. This is a sound group.

3. Oklahoma (3): The Sooners return two proven players in cornerback Zack Sanchez and nickel back Julian Wilson. Sanchez was erratic at times last season, but he displayed mental toughness and usually came back with big plays of his own after getting burned. Wilson will be a three-year starter. Safety Quentin Hayes had a decent junior season, too. After that, things get murky, and that’s not necessarily a negative. Dakota Austin, who was an unheralded two-star signee last year, is probably the favorite coming out of the spring to start at cornerback opposite Sanchez and over more heralded classmate Stanvon Taylor. Sophomores Ahmad Thomas and Hatari Byrd are both talented young safeties, but they have yet to prove they’re every-down players. Steven Parker II will be the player to watch here. Insiders in Norman believe the incoming true freshman has the talent and the temperament to win a starting job by the opener the way Tony Jefferson did in 2010. If he does, that will allow coordinator Mike Stoops to utilize Byrd and Thomas in certain sub-packages where the scheme will be more simplified.

4. Kansas State (4): K-State already boasts one of the best nickel backs in the league in Randall Evans and an up-and-coming safety in Dante Barnett. The Wildcats had a productive spring elsewhere in their secondary, as Morgan Burns stepped up to essentially nail down a starting job at corner. Coveted juco transfer Danzel McDaniel progressed after arriving on campus and exited spring ball on the cusp of earning the other starting cornerback gig. Dylan Schellenberg, who started the two games Ty Zimmerman missed last season, will go into the fall as the favorite to start at safety alongside Barnett.

5. West Virginia (5): The Mountaineers might have the best underclassman cornerback in the league in sophomore Daryl Worley, who locked up Mario Alford in West Virginia’s spring game. Worley was fabulous all spring, and he brings a maturity and attitude that defies his age. Like Worley, Karl Joseph started as a true freshman, and he could be on the verge of turning into one of the best safeties in the Big 12 as a junior. It will be interesting to see if incoming blue-chip freshman Dravon Henry can break into the rotation at cornerback, which would only make this secondary better.

6. Kansas (6): Senior cornerback Dexter McDonald put in the work during the offseason, and it showed in Kansas’ spring game. He's become a technically-sound player. Fellow cornerback Kevin Short, a juco transfer forced by the NCAA to sit out last season, can fly. Safety Isaiah Johnson, who became the Big 12 Defensive Newcomer of the Year after picking off five passes last season, had another pick in the spring game. With four starters back from last fall, plus the addition of Short, Kansas’ secondary will be the team's strength next season.

7. Oklahoma State (7): The emergence of Ashton Lampkin was a positive development for the Cowboys. Lampkin had a pick-six in the “Orange Blitz” scrimmage, and after two seasons as a key backup, looks ready to take over as a starting cornerback opposite All-Big 12 hopeful Kevin Peterson. The Cowboys are completely inexperienced at safety, with second-year players Jordan Sterns, Deric Robertson, Jerel Morrow and Tre Flowers basically comprising the position. Only time will determine how effective the Cowboys can be at the back end.

8. Texas Tech (8): The Red Raiders have to feel good about their safeties coming out of the spring. Keenon Ward was the defensive MVP and brought the hammer all spring. J.J. Gaines will soon be completely back from a season-ending shoulder injury. He played extremely well through five games last season. Justis Nelson is oozing confidence after earning a starting job as a true freshman last fall. The biggest question is at the other cornerback spot. Sophomore La’Darius Newbold is currently the starter, but speedy true freshman Nigel Bethel II could make noise once he arrives this summer.

9. Baylor (9): The rebuild of a secondary that graduated four starters remains a work in progress. Sophomore Orion Stewart had the best spring of the young players and looks primed to take over the deep safety role held by All-American Ahmad Dixon. Sophomore cornerbacks Terrence Singleton and Xavien Howard also won starting jobs, but they’ll have to fend off juco transfer Chris Sanders in the preseason. Walk-on senior Collin Brence was the surprise of the spring and is listed as the starter at nickelback. This a group, though, that still has more questions to answer.

10: Iowa State (10): Nigel Tribune, who was the only true freshman to play at Iowa State in the past two seasons, is one of the best young cornerbacks in the league and a cornerstone defender for the Cyclones. The rest of the secondary is a big fat unknown. Juco transfer Devron Moore, whom Iowa State beat TCU, Texas Tech and West Virginia for, left school in the middle of spring ball with homesickness. He is dubious to return. That leaves juco transfer Qujuan Floyd, redshirt freshman Kamari Cotton-Moya and T.J. Mutcherson, who suffered an MCL injury in the spring game (he should be back in June), as Iowa State’s only remaining options at safety.

Big 12's lunch links

April, 17, 2014
Apr 17
12:00
PM ET
I'm guessing this is how Usain Bolt plays soccer.

Big 12 lunchtime links

April, 14, 2014
Apr 14
12:00
PM ET
It's not like bringing a cat to the spring game but Kliff Kingsbury is still winning ...

Big 12 pre-spring breakdown: DBs

February, 26, 2014
Feb 26
3:00
PM ET
As we await the start of spring ball, we’re examining and ranking the positional situations of every team in the Big 12, continuing Wednesday with defensive backs. Some of these outlooks will look different after the spring. But here’s how we see the defensive back groups going into the spring:

1. TCU: TCU has been tenacious defending the pass since joining the league, and even without potential first-round pick Jason Verrett, that shouldn’t change in 2014. Sam Carter was the only non-senior to earn first-team or second-team All-Big 12 honors in the secondary last season, and Chris Hackett was one of the best underclassman defensive backs in the league last year. Derrick Kindred is primed to step into TCU’s third safety spot after playing a key role in the rotation. The Horned Frogs also add the nation’s No. 3 juco safety in Kenny Iloka. Throw in senior Geoff Hooker, and the Horned Frogs have an impressive five-man rotation at safety. At corner, Kevin White was honorable mention All-Big 12 last year, and will take over for Verrett as the primary corner. The Horned Frogs have several options at the other corner, including incoming three-star recruit Nick Foster.

2. Texas: After playing the nickel role last year, Quandre Diggs will settle back at cornerback in place of Carrington Byndom. Opposite Diggs will be the ultra-athletic Duke Thomas, who was so good in spring ball last year, he forced the coaches to move Diggs to nickelback. Together, Diggs and Thomas could give the Longhorns the best cornerback tandem in the league. Antwuan Davis, who redshirted in his first year, was an ESPN 300 signee and figures to play a big role somewhere in the secondary. Josh Turner (37 appearances) and Mykkele Thompson (12 starts in 2013) each bring a lot of experience at safety.

3. Oklahoma: Oklahoma graduates the heart and soul of the secondary in cornerback Aaron Colvin, who gutted his way through an array of injuries last year. But if the Sooners can find an adequate replacement for him, the Big 12’s best pass defense statistically in 2013 should be stout again. Julian Wilson (nickelback), Zack Sanchez (cornerback) and Quentin Hayes (strong safety) all return as starters, though Hayes could be pushed by Ahmad Thomas and incoming freshman Steven Parker for time. Hatari Byrd, an ESPN 300 signee last year, should step into the vacant spot at free safety. Cortez Johnson will try to fend off Stanvon Taylor, who played as a true freshman, for Colvin’s spot in the only real uncertain area of this secondary.

4. Kansas State: The Wildcats will miss All-Big 12 performer Ty Zimmerman, but his cohort, Dante Barnett, was one of the best young safeties in the league last year. Barnett was third on the team with 75 tackles and first with four interceptions. Randall Evans also returns after leading the team in pass breakups and gives the Wildcats a versatile defensive back. As usual, Bill Snyder will also be looking for some juco impact. He should get it in Danzel McDaniel, who was the No. 4 juco CB recruit in the country. Cornerback Jesse Mack also could prove to be a key juco signee. If both players pan out, this could become one of the better defensive backfields in the league.

5. West Virginia: The bad news is the Mountaineers had the Big 12’s worst pass defense last year. The good news is they bring back three starters. Karl Joseph has started the last two seasons at free safety, though he could slide to the strong side with Darwin Cook gone. Joseph has All-Big 12 potential, and he needs to elevate his game for the West Virginia defense to take another step forward. Veteran K.J. Dillon could be the front-runner for the job alongside Joseph, though Jeremy Tyler and Jarrod Harper will also be in the mix. West Virginia also brings back both starting cornerbacks in senior Ishmael Banks and Daryl Worley, who started as a freshman. The Mountaineers also signed Keishawn Richardson, the No. 8 juco CB, and Jaylon Myers, the No. 9 juco safety, for depth. Cornerback Dravon Henry, an ESPN 300 signee who had offers from Alabama, Florida State and Ohio State, could play immediately if one of West Virginia’s veterans struggle.

6. Kansas: The Jayhawks return all five starters from their secondary, including last year’s Big 12 Defensive Newcomer of the Year, strong safety Isaiah Johnson. Returning cornerbacks Dexter McDonald and JaCorey Shepherd, a converted wide receiver, were both honorable mention All-Big 12 selections and give the Jayhawks one of the better corner duos in the league. Free safety Cassius Sendish started every game and had 12 tackles in Kansas’ only Big 12 victory in 2013, over West Virginia. Nickelback Courtney Arnick started in six games as a redshirt freshman. If this group collectively improves, Kansas could field a solid defense in 2014.

7. Oklahoma State: The Cowboys lose All-Big 12 cornerback Justin Gilbert, who might be selected high in the first round of the NFL draft after a stellar combine performance. The Cowboys welcome back one of the best young corners in the league in Kevin Peterson, who was terrific as a sophomore in coverage opposite Gilbert. Ashton Lampkin has experience, and he will likely fill the other corner spot unless someone else emerges. Lyndell Johnson, who made a transition from linebacker to safety last season, will take over full time at strong safety. The Cowboys will need someone else to emerge at the other safety in place of departed veteran starter Daytawion Lowe. Deric Robertson, Tre Flowers, Jordan Sterns, Taylor Lewis and Darius Curry, all from the 2013 recruiting class, are possibilities.

8. Texas Tech: How the Red Raiders retool here will be on one of the bigger spring storylines in Lubbock. Keenon Ward and Justis Nelson were thrown in the fire as freshmen last year, and they will be counted on to fill bigger roles. The gem of the incoming recruiting class, four-star cornerback Nigel Bethel II, could be asked – and has the capability – to play right away. The Red Raiders have to replace both starting safeties, including freshman Tanner Jacobson, who is going on a Mormon mission. To compensate, Tech signed six safeties, including Josh Keys, the No. 5 juco safety in the country, who had offers from Auburn, Georgia and Oklahoma State. Getting strong safety J.J. Gaines back from a season-ending injury will be a boost, too.

9. Baylor: The Bears are one of several teams in the league that were decimated in the secondary by graduation. Baylor loses four of its five starters, including All-American safety Ahmad Dixon. Safety Terrell Burt is the only returning starter, leaving the other four spots up for grabs. The Bears signed juco corners Tion Wright and Chris Sanders to help fill the void. Both are already on campus and will be battling Xavien Howard, Ryan Reid and Tyler Stephenson for a starting job. Orion Stewart, who backed up Dixon as a redshirt freshman, will likely step in his role, and fellow sophomore Kiante’ Griffin will be the favorite to take over at the nickel.

10. Iowa State: Cornerback Nigel Tribune was the only true freshman to play for the Cyclones last year, and he received votes as Big 12 Defensive Freshman of the Year. Tribune, however, is the only returning starter. Veteran safety mainstays Jacques Washington and Deon Broomfield are gone. In response, the Cyclones will look for Devron Moore and Qujuan Floyd, the Nos. 6 and 7 juco safety recruits, respectively, to step in immediately.
Immediately after the national championship game, colleague Mark Schlabach released his Way-Too-Early Top 25. In concert, below is our Way-Too-Early Big 12 power poll. This could change between now and the end of the spring. In fact, it probably will. But this is a first look at how the Big 12 teams stack up against one another for 2014:

1. Oklahoma Sooners

In the Allstate Sugar Bowl, freshman Trevor Knight finally played like the quarterback that had been drawing comparisons to Johnny Manziel behind Oklahoma’s closed practices. The Sooners lose some cornerstone players to graduation, notably running back Brennan Clay, center Gabe Ikard, receiver Jalen Saunders and cornerback Aaron Colvin. But with Knight and budding running back Keith Ford returning to man the backfield, and nine starters coming back defensively, including menacing outside linebacker Eric Striker, Oklahoma could be a favorite in every game next season -- and a force once again on the national stage.

2. Baylor Bears

Even with running back Lache Seastrunk going pro, the Bears return plenty of firepower offensively. Bryce Petty will be the reigning All-Big 12 quarterback, and Antwan Goodley will be coming off a monster junior season. Rising sophomore Shock Linwood showed he could shoulder the rushing load, too, when Seastrunk and Glasco Martin were banged up late in the season. The Bears, however, could take a step back defensively. Baylor, which got torched for 52 points in the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl, loses six starters there, including All-American safety Ahmad Dixon and All-Big 12 linebacker Eddie Lackey. Former blue-chip defensive tackle recruit Andrew Billings will need to step up and become more of a force. Even if the defense stumbles, Baylor should be capable of scoring enough points to win every game on its schedule, thanks to coach Art Briles being back on its sidelines.

3. Kansas State Wildcats

Along with Missouri, the Wildcats were the first two teams left out of Schlabach’s Top 25. But they make a compelling case for inclusion. Quarterback Jake Waters improved dramatically during the second half of the season, eventually squeezing Daniel Sams out of the QB rotation. Wideout Tyler Lockett could be a preseason All-American, after torching Texas, Oklahoma and Michigan for a combined 631 receiving yards and six touchdowns. The defense should be better, too, with sack artist Ryan Mueller back at end, and rising junior safety Dante Barnett set to take over for the outgoing Ty Zimmerman as leader of the secondary. The Wildcats will be tested early with national runner-up Auburn visiting Manhattan on Sept. 20. If K-State can win that game, the rest of the Big 12 will be on notice.

4. Texas Longhorns

During his introductory news conference on Monday, new Texas coach Charlie Strong said Mack Brown left him with a team that could win right away. Strong might be right. The Longhorns return eight starters off a defense that found its stride under interim coordinator Greg Robinson. Texas also brings back six starters offensively and its entire running back corps, including Malcolm Brown, who rushed for more than 100 yards in the Valero Alamo Bowl. A big part of Mack Brown’s downfall, however, was quarterback play, and that once again will be a huge question mark in Strong’s first season. David Ash sat out most of this season with concussion issues, making his football future tenuous. Tyrone Swoopes is athletic with a big arm but needs polish. The other option will be incoming freshman Jerrod Heard, who just led his high school team to a Texas state championship. If one of those three emerges, Strong could have Texas on the way back ahead of schedule.

5. Oklahoma State Cowboys

The Cowboys were 19 seconds away from playing in a BCS bowl game. But two losses to end the year soured what could have been a stellar season. Now, Oklahoma State must replace the bulk of its team, including quarterback Clint Chelf and seven starters defensively. Star slot receiver Josh Stewart is also reportedly mulling over leaving early, too. Either way, 2014 will be a retooling season for coach Mike Gundy, whose first order of business will be settling on a quarterback. J.W. Walsh, who started the first half of the season before losing the job back to Chelf, would have to be considered the favorite. But Gundy has shown before he’s not afraid of turning the keys of the offense to a true freshman, and the Cowboys have an intriguing freshman QB enrolling for the spring in Mason Rudolph, who threw 64 touchdown passes this fall as a high school senior in South Carolina. That could result in some growing pains for Oklahoma State, which opens the season against defending national champion Florida State. But if Rudolph proves to be the long-term answer at QB, it shouldn’t be more than a year before the Cowboys are contending in the Big 12 again.

6. Texas Tech Red Raiders

Texas Tech completely changed the tenor of its offseason with a dominating 37-23 win over Pac-12 South Division champ Arizona State in the National University Holiday Bowl. Finally healthy again, the Red Raiders showed they were better than a five-game losing streak to end the regular season indicated. Now, Tech returns eight starters offensively, including quarterback Davis Webb, who torched the Sun Devils and had several other encouraging moments as a true freshman. Tech has to replace most of its defense. But if Webb settles in at quarterback, the Red Raiders should be improved in coach Kliff Kingsbury’s second season in Lubbock.

7. TCU Horned Frogs

TCU was the 2013 preseason pick of many people to win the Big 12. Instead, injuries ravaged the roster, and the Horned Frogs failed to go to a bowl game for just second time with Gary Patterson as coach. Patterson shook up his offensive staff after the season, bringing in Houston’s Doug Meacham and Texas Tech’s Sonny Cumbie as co-coordinators to revamp TCU’s offensive attack. TCU should be stout again defensively, especially if 2012 Big 12 defensive freshman of the year Devonte Fields returns to form from a broken foot. But the key to a better season will be whether Meacham and Cumbie can squeeze more offense out of the Horned Frogs and find the answer at quarterback. The answer, however, might not be on campus yet. Trevone Boykin has 15 career QB starts, but is probably a better fit as a receiver. Meanwhile, TCU’s top incoming recruits, Foster Sawyer and Grayson Muehlstein, are both quarterbacks, and could factor into the wide-open competition.

8. Iowa State Cyclones

Even though Iowa State just finished in the bottom three of the Big 12 in points per game (24.8), yards per game (363), yards per play (4.82), rushing yards (143.8) and passing yards (219.2), the Cyclones return some offensive firepower. Tailback Aaron Wimberly was effective when healthy, and Quenton Bundrage flashed signs of a legit No. 1 receiver. The key will be QB, and whether Grant Rohach builds on his late-season surge. But with a proven offensive coordinator in Mark Mangino now on board, the Cyclones have the pieces to form one of the better offenses in the league next season.

9. West Virginia Mountaineers

The Mountaineers careened off the road late this season with back-to-back losses to Kansas and Iowa State. Now, the pressure is on coach Dana Holgorsen, who will have to win games to keep his job even though the 2014 schedule is brutal. Like so many other teams in the Big 12, West Virginia must find a solution at quarterback. Holgorsen has options. Clint Trickett, Paul Millard and Ford Childress are all back after getting at least two starts apiece last year. Junior-college transfer Skyler Howard will be enrolling early and joining the fray. Four-star recruit William Crest will be in the mix, too. Even if Holgorsen finds his answer at quarterback, a winning season won’t come easy. The Mountaineers have one of the toughest schedules in the country, beginning with the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game against Alabama in Atlanta.

10. Kansas Jayhawks

Kansas showed only modest improvement in Charlie Weis’ second season as head coach. This will be a key season for Weis as he attempts to rebuild the program. He desperately needs Montell Cozart to develop into the answer at quarterback. Cozart still has a ways to go with his passing, but he showed he could hurt defenses with his legs. Defensively, the Jayhawks bring back some solid players, notably linebackers Ben Goodman and Ben Heeney and safety Isaiah Johnson. But Kansas will take the next step only if Cozart -- or somebody else -- emerges at quarterback.

Big 12 releases all-conference honors

December, 11, 2013
12/11/13
4:35
PM ET
Baylor quarterback Bryce Petty was named the Big 12’s Offensive Player of the Year, and Texas defensive end Jackson Jeffcoat and TCU cornerback Jason Verrett shared defensive honors.

Big 12 champ Baylor led the league with a school-record 10 first team players and earned three individual awards, including Coach of the Year (Art Briles) and Offensive Lineman of the Year (guard Cyril Richardson).

Oklahoma State had a league-high 11 players named to the first or second teams. The awards were voted on by the league’s coaches.

Chuck Neinas Coach of the Year
Art Briles, Baylor

Defensive Lineman of the Year
Ryan Mueller, Kansas State

Offensive Newcomer of the Year
Charles Sims, West Virginia

Co-Defensive Players of the Year
Jason Verrett, TCU; Jackson Jeffcoat, Texas

Offensive Freshman of the Year
Baker Mayfield, Texas Tech

Defensive Newcomer of the Year
Isaiah Johnson, Kansas

Offensive Player of the Year
Bryce Petty, Baylor

Defensive Freshman of the Year
Dominique Alexander, Oklahoma

Offensive lineman of the Year
Cyril Richardson, Baylor

Special teams Player of the Year
Tyler Lockett, Kansas State

First-team offense

QB – Bryce Petty, Baylor
RB – Lache Seastrunk, Baylor
RB – Charles Sims, West Virginia
FB – Trey Millard, Oklahoma
WR – Antwan Goodley, Baylor
WR - Tyler Lockett, Kansas State
WR – Tevin Reese, Baylor
TE - Jace Amaro, Texas Tech
OL – Spencer Drango, Baylor
OL – B.J. Finney, Kansas State
OL - Gabe Ikard, Oklahoma
OL - Cyril Richardson, Baylor
OL - Parker Graham, Oklahoma State
PK –Anthony Fera, Texas
KR/PR – Tyler Lockett, Kansas State

First-team defense

DL - Ryan Mueller, Kansas State
DL - Calvin Barnett, Oklahoma State
DL – Chris McAllister, Baylor
DL - Charles Tapper, Oklahoma
DL - Jackson Jeffcoat, Texas
LB - Jeremiah George, Iowa State
LB – Shaun Lewis, Oklahoma State
LB – Eddie Lackey, Baylor
DB – Jason Verrett, TCU
DB – Justin Gilbert, Oklahoma State
DB – Ahmad Dixon, Baylor
DB – Ty Zimmerman, Kansas State
DB – Aaron Colvin, Oklahoma
P – Spencer Roth, Baylor

Second-team offense

QB – Clint Chelf, Oklahoma State
RB – James Sims, Kansas
RB – Malcolm Brown, Texas
FB – Kye Staley, Oklahoma State
WR – Jalen Saunders, Oklahoma
WR – Josh Stewart, Oklahoma State
WR – Jaxon Shipley, Texas
TE – E.J. Bibbs, Iowa State
OL – Cody Whitehair, Kansas State
OL – Daryl Williams, Oklahoma
OL – Donald Hawkins, Texas
OL – Trey Hopkins, Texas
OL - Le’Raven Clark, Texas Tech
PK –Michael Hunnicutt, Oklahoma
KR/PR – Josh Stewart, Oklahoma State

Second-team defense

DL – Tyler Johnson, Oklahoma State
DL – Chucky Hunter, TCU
DL – Cedric Reed, Texas
DL – Kerry Hyder, Texas Tech
DL – Will Clarke, West Virginia
LB – Ben Heeney, Kansas
LB – Eric Striker, Oklahoma
LB – Caleb Lavey, Oklahoma State
DB – Jacques Washington, Iowa State
DB – Daytawion Lowe, Oklahoma State
DB – Sam Carter, TCU
DB – Carrington Byndom, Texas
DB – Darwin Cook, West Virginia
P – Nick O’Toole, West Virginia

Big 12 unsung heroes: Week 3

September, 16, 2013
9/16/13
3:00
PM ET
Here are the Big 12's unsung heroes in Week 3.

Receiver Quenton Bundrage, Iowa State: Overshadowed by the Cyclones’ struggles against Iowa, Bundrage could be emerging as a go-to target for quarterback Sam Richardson. He finished with seven receptions for 146 yards and three touchdowns. Four of his catches resulted in first downs for the Cyclones. He could be a reassuring option for Iowa State's offense if he can be consistent for the rest of the season.

Safety Isaiah Johnson, Kansas: The junior college transfer had a strong showing against Rice. He had nine tackles, including seven solo stops, and one interception against the Owls. It was a disappointing 23-14 loss for the Jayhawks, but coach Charlie Weis praised the performance of his defense and hopes that unit will continue to play well when Big 12 play opens. Secondary play is critical in this league, and Johnson could help the Jayhawks in that regard.

Running back John Hubert, Kansas State: It’s odd to call Hubert an unsung hero, but the Wildcats’ use of their star running back should be noted. He’s gotten more opportunities to get the ball in space and has seen the ball more in the passing game since KSU's season-opening loss to North Dakota State. Hubert had 168 all-purpose yards (118 rushing, 50 receiving) and one touchdown in KSU’s 37-7 win over UMass. With KSU facing Texas this weekend, Hubert could be a key guy to watch for the Wildcats.

Cornerback Zack Sanchez, Oklahoma: Sanchez is quietly off to an outstanding start in the first three games of his college career. He had six tackles, including 0.5 tackles for loss, and one pass breakup against Tulsa. The redshirt freshman has been competitive, trustworthy and confident as the starter opposite All-Big 12 cornerback Aaron Colvin. Sanchez gone from potential weak link for the Sooners to a potential strength in the secondary.

Running back Jeremy Smith, Oklahoma State: The senior had the quietest three-touchdown performance in recent memory with 10 carries for 40 yards and three scores. Smith makes the list because he will be critical for the Cowboys offense moving forward. If he can continue to be a physical, slashing runner who takes the attention off quarterback J.W. Walsh, the entire field opens up for OSU’s offense on the ground and through the air.

[+] EnlargeJohnathan Gray
Cooper Neill/Getty ImagesTexas RB Johnathan Gray rushed for 91 yards and a TD in the Longhorns' loss to Ole Miss.
Running back Johnathan Gray, Texas: Gray had a productive day against Ole Miss despite the Longhorns’ 44-23 loss. He finished with 19 carries for 91 yards and one touchdown while adding four receptions for 12 yards. The Longhorns leaned more on Gray with Daje' Johnson out, and the sophomore responded with a solid showing. Nonetheless, UT will need even more from Gray if it hopes to get the ship turned back in the right direction.

Defensive back Derrick Kindred, TCU: The sophomore, a backup safety, was all over the field in the Horned Frogs’ 20-10 loss to Texas Tech on Thursday. He finished with five tackles, including one tackle for loss, while adding an interception and a pass breakup. Playing in a defensive backfield that features big names like cornerback Jason Verrett and safety Elisha Olabode, Kindred is looking like he can provide quality depth in TCU’s secondary.

Safety Tre' Porter, Texas Tech: The Red Raiders senior was a key reason Texas Tech was able to limit TCU to 10 points. He had a team-high nine tackles, all solo. His ability to tackle in space and limit game-changing plays by opponents could be critical for the Red Raider defense when it starts facing Big 12 offenses. He was moved to safety to provide a consistent playmaker at that position for the Red Raiders, and that's exactly what he's done.

Defensive end Kyle Rose, West Virginia: Rose had six tackles, including 1.5 tackles for loss, and one sack for WVU in the Mountaineers' 41-7 win over Georgia State. The sophomore provided quality depth last season and could become a key contributor along the defensive line if he continues to play well. He could also help lessen the burden and double-team opportunities on defensive tackle Shaq Rowell in the middle.

Note: Baylor did not play in Week 3.

Big 12's biggest shoes to fill

August, 19, 2013
8/19/13
3:00
PM ET
Jeremy Smith isn’t the lone non-quarterback in the conference with big shoes to fill. As the Oklahoma State running back aims to replace Joseph Randle, here are some other Big 12 players looking to make a mark on the conference like their predecessors.

Receiver Robbie Rhodes, Baylor: As the Bears aim to replace Terrance Williams, coach Art Briles has been raving about Rhodes during preseason camp. The No. 35 player in the ESPN300 for the Class of 2013, Rhodes appears poised to become a featured receiver in BU’s offense after recording five receptions for 160 yards and one touchdown combined in the Bears’ first two scrimmages.

[+] EnlargeQuandre Diggs
John Albright/Icon SMIExpectations are high for Texas nickelback Quandre Diggs, who will take over the role previously filled by NFL rookie Kenny Vaccaro.
“As he gets more involved, the threat becomes more dangerous for our offense, no question,“ Briles said.

Linebacker Jared Brackens, Iowa State: A former defensive back, Brackens has moved down to play outside linebacker and will be counted on to help fill the void left by A.J. Klein and Jake Knott. A tad undersized, he’ll bring speed into the lineup, which will help handle the wide open spread offenses in the Big 12, but will have to adjust quickly to secure his spot in the defense.

Safety Isaiah Johnson, Kansas: Johnson chose KU out of Iowa Western junior college because the Jayhawks needed immediate help at safety. Now he’s set himself up to be a starter at free safety for KU, and the Jayhawks will need him to match the playmaking production of Bradley McDougald.

Linebacker Blake Slaughter, Kansas State: In a rare and unselfish move, Slaughter redshirted last season instead of finishing his Wildcat career as a backup to Arthur Brown. Now he enters his senior season set to replace him. He started four games as a sophomore in 2010, recording 47 tackles. It's unlikely Slaughter will be the defensive terror in the mold of Brown, but his maturity and experience will be key assets for KSU's defense.

Tackle Tyrus Thompson, Oklahoma: Thompson is the odds-on favorite to replace Johnson as the Sooners’ left tackle. Junior college transfer Josiah St. John was signed in February to ramp the competition at the position but didn’t arrive until right before preseason camp began, and Thompson appears to have a solid hold on the starting spot. Thompson is supremely talented so don't be surprised if there is not a major drop off at left tackle for the Sooners despite losing Lane Johnson, the No. 4 pick of the 2013 NFL draft.

Nickelback Quandre Diggs, Texas: Diggs has been anointed as the Longhorns’ new nickelback to replace Kenny Vaccaro, the New Orleans Saints' first-round pick. Fellow NFLers Earl Thomas and Aaron Williams have also manned the position, which has become a highlight spot in UT’s defense. Diggs has been a key part of UT's defense since his freshman year and the nickelback spot could be a terrific fit for the junior.

Receiver LaDarius Brown, TCU: The Horned Frogs have a bevy of talented receivers to replace Josh Boyce, but Brown could have the highest upside of any of them. He started seven games as a redshirt freshman and brings terrific size (6-foot-4, 220 pounds) and athleticism to the table. No Boyce could mean more opportunities for Brown to emerge in the Horned Frogs' offense.

Safety Tre' Porter, Texas Tech: Porter has played various different positions during his Red Raider career and could be the answer at free safety to replace ultra-productive former safety Cody Davis. He enters the season with 130 career tackles and has been a consistent performer since he stepped on campus in 2010. Porter's background at several different positions in the secondary make him the ideal guy to be the face of the Red Raiders' defensive backfield.

Receivers Kevin White and KJ Myers, West Virginia: The Mountaineers won’t be able to replace Stedman Bailey and Tavon Austin with just two receivers. But White and Myers are candidates to get plenty of opportunities in Dana Holgorsen’s offense. White, a junior college transfer, brings terrific size at 6-foot-3, 211 pounds and Myers, a redshirt sophomore, has stepped up during camp.

“He’s one of the guys that I’ve got a big plus by,” Holgorsen said of Myers' preseason performance.

SPONSORED HEADLINES

Sooner Commit Hits 66-Yard FG
Oklahoma Sooner commit Austin Seibert hits a 66-yard field goal to win a competition at Kohl's 2014 Kicking Camp.
VIDEO PLAYLIST video