Oklahoma Sooners: Zack Craig

Last week, colleague Max Olson crunched the numbers on the total career starts each Big 12 team has coming back for next season.

What Max unearthed was that Texas (by far) leads the Big 12 in career starts returning, both offensively and defensively. TCU’s defense ranked second behind the Longhorns’ defense, while the Iowa State offense placed second. The Horned Frogs could have their most dominant defense yet in the Big 12, and the Cyclones could feature their best offensive attack in years, suggesting both teams could also be in for bounce-back 2014 campaigns.

Yet while revealing, compiling returning starts doesn’t tell the entire story when examining team experience, since the equation doesn’t account for those who played key roles as reserves. TCU safety Derrick Kindred, Texas Tech linebacker Micah Awe and Baylor end Shawn Oakman weren’t starters last year. But they were still valuable players on their respective teams.

To examine returning experience in another way, I’ve tallied up the percentage of tackles returning for every team in the Big 12:

With nine starters back, it’s not surprising the Sooners top this chart. But the number of returning starters isn’t the only reason why Oklahoma is optimistic about its 2014 defense. The Sooners also bring back several key defensive performers that weren’t full-time starters last season. End Geneo Grissom, who notched three sacks against Alabama in the Allstate Sugar Bowl, only started five games in 2013. Linebacker Jordan Evans thrived whenever his number got called as a freshman. And tackle Jordan Phillips only started four games but was playing at an All-Big 12-caliber level before suffering a season-ending back injury in early October.

On the flip side, Oklahoma State is at the cellar of this list, and not just because it graduated seven starters. The Cowboys also lost several defensive reserves that played a bunch, including linebacker Joe Mitchell, cornerback Tyler Patmon and safety Zack Craig.

Of course, like with returning starts, a high level of returning tackles doesn’t guarantee success. And it doesn’t necessarily preclude it, either.

Oklahoma ranked 119th nationally in returning tackles (40 percent) last season. But by the end of the season, the Sooners were wreaking havoc in the backfield of the two-time defending national champs.

The tackle equation can be an indicator of the defenses that might be formidable. Oklahoma State and Baylor both had 73 percent of their tackles returning from 2012 going into last season. Both wound up being formidable, ranking first and second in the league in both fewest yards per play and points per drive.

That bodes well for the defensive prospects of Oklahoma, Kansas, TCU, Texas and West Virginia, which all have like tackle rates coming back for 2014.

Big 12's unsung heroes: Week 2

September, 9, 2013
9/09/13
3:00
PM ET
Here's a look at some of the Big 12's unsung heroes in Week 2.

Entire offensive line, Baylor: Anytime you gain 781 yards -- including 329 rushing yards with just 13 yards lost rushing -- the big guys up front deserve a lot of credit. Led by All-America candidate Cyril Richardson, the Baylor offensive line is better than people think and has been for several seasons. As explosive as BU’s offense is, it would struggle to get off the ground without a quality group of linemen.

Running back Darrian Miller, Kansas: Looks like the Jayhawks found another one. KU already features terrific running backs in James Sims and Tony Pierson, but Miller showed he’s a name to watch with 14 carries for 72 yards in the Jayhawks’ 31-14 win over South Dakota. If Miller continues to emerge, it will allow Charlie Weis to get even more creative when divising ways to get the ball to his various playmakers in Lawrence.

Receiver Tramaine Thompson, Kansas State: His two-reception, 46-yard performance on offense wasn’t earth-shattering. Yet Thompson single-handedly sparked the Wildcats in KSU’s 48-27 win over Louisiana-Lafayette. He opened the third quarter with a 94-yard kickoff return for a touchdown., then returned ULL’s next punt 79 yards to the ULL 3-yard line. Thompson finished with 234 all-purpose yards.

Safety Quentin Hayes, Oklahoma: Sooners defensive coordinator Mike Stoops has praised the athleticism and range of Hayes in the OU secondary. The junior finished with eight tackles and a forced fumble in OU’s 16-7 victory over West Virginia. His versatility and coverage skills could help make the Sooners’ secondary even better than last year’s unit.

Safety Zack Craig, Oklahoma State: The senior safety quietly played a key role in the Cowboys' 56-35 win over Texas San-Antonio. Craig, a backup safety, finished with seven tackles and two pass breakups, including a pass breakup that led to a Shaun Lewis interception. At one point, the Pokes were without both starting safeties because of injury and Craig stepped in to fill the void. He brings a veteran presence to OSU’s secondary and special teams.

Receiver Mike Davis, Texas: Overshadowed by the Longhorns' defensive collapse in Provo, Davis is off to a superb start in his senior season. He had eight receptions for 114 yards and two touchdowns in UT’s 40-21 loss to BYU. If Davis continues to consistently produce, it should open up opportunities for UT’s running backs.

Defensive tackle Terrell Lathan, TCU: Lathan stepped in and stepped up after Chucky Hunter was injured during TCU’s 38-17 win over Southeastern Louisiana. The sophomore had four tackles, including two tackles for loss and one sack. If the backup defensive lineman continues to progress, he could provide quality depth along the defensive front for TCU.

Receiver Bradley Marquez, Texas Tech: The junior had just two receptions for 94 yards and one touchdown in the Red Raiders’ 61-13 victory over Stephen F. Austin. But Marquez could be a key piece in Kliff Kingsbury’s offense with defenses focusing on Eric Ward, Jace Amaro and Jakeem Grant. Marquez has the speed and athleticism to make defenses pay if they leave him one-on-one.

Receiver Kevin White, West Virginia: He didn’t play a perfect game in his first outing in a WVU uniform, but the junior college transfer showed signs he could emerge as a playmaker who will test Big 12 defenses this season. He finished with seven receptions for 80 yards and one fumble in WVU’s 16-7 loss to Oklahoma. White is big, athletic and physical, so it won’t be easy for Big 12 defenses to match up with him, giving Dana Holgorsen another one-on-one mismatch to exploit in 2013.

Note: Iowa State did not play in Week 2.

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