- Jake Trotter, ESPN Staff Writer
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The 2013 season featured one of the most competitive races for Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year, with at least a half-dozen defenders in the mix.
Ultimately, Texas defensive end Jackson Jeffcoat and TCU cornerback Jason Verrett shared the award. Both are now gone, leaving the race wide open again in 2014. But the league will still have several formidable candidates for the award.
Going into last season, returning TCU defensive end Devonte Fields was actually the favorite to grab the honor. After all, as a true freshman in 2012, he captured the Associated Press’ Defensive Player of the Year award in the league (Kansas State linebacker Arthur Brown won the coaches' honor). But after wreaking havoc as a rookie, Fields was not a factor in his second year. He was slapped with an offseason suspension that sidelined him in the opener against LSU. When he returned, he looked out of shape and was hardly the same player. And then Fields suffered a foot injury that ultimately forced a season-ending procedure in October. Despite a disappointing sophomore campaign, he still has the talent to be one of the most destructive defensive forces in college football.
Fields isn’t the only league defender coming back who is capable of getting to the quarterback.
In his first season as a starter, Mueller emerged from nowhere to become one of the best all-around defenders in the conference. He led the Wildcats in sacks, tackles for loss, quarterback hurries and forced fumbles. In a league stacked at defensive end, Mueller became a first-team All-Big 12 selection.
Reed was just as prolific as Mueller, but was overshadowed playing alongside Jeffcoat. Reed led the Big 12 in forced fumbles, and was virtually unblockable around the edge by the end of the season. Reed considered an early jump to the NFL, but elected to return to anchor coach Charlie Strong’s first defense at Texas.
But as good as Mueller and Reed were, no Big 12 defender had a stronger finish to the season than Striker. In his first year as a starter, the sophomore flashed signs of his potential in September, hammering Notre Dame quarterback Tommy Rees on the game’s third play to force a pick-six. By the bowl season, not even two-time defending national champion Alabama could contain him. Striker racked up three sacks in the Allstate Sugar Bowl, and jarred the ball loose from Crimson Tide quarterback AJ McCarron in the final minute that led to an Oklahoma touchdown to seal the stunning win.
Several other players in the conference are capable of breaking into the Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year discussion. The Baylor defensive line duo of tackle Andrew Billings and end Shawn Oakman is stacked with potential. Oklahoma’s Geneo Grissom finally unlocked his with three sacks and a touchdown fumble recovery return in the Sugar Bowl, and could be primed for a big senior season. Fellow Sooners defensive end Charles Tapper was the only underclassman to earn first-team All-Big 12 honors last season. Texas’ Jordan Hicks could be as good as any linebacker in the league if he could ever stay healthy. And on top of Fields, the TCU defense features safety Sam Carter and tackle Chucky Hunter, who have been stalwarts in the Big 12 the last two years.
But only five players can be included in this poll. And Baylor inside linebacker Bryce Hager, who has as much experience as any player in the league, netted the final slot. Hager will be a three-year starter, and he led the Big 12 in tackles his sophomore season, in which he earned second-team all-conference honors. Hager repeated the honor last year despite missing the final month of the season with a hernia injury that required offseason surgery. When healthy, Hager is as sure a tackler as any returning defender in the league.
Now, it's your chance to weigh in: Of Hager, Fields, Mueller, Reed and Striker, who is the best bet to capture Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year honors next season?