A versatile defender can make life significantly better for defensive coordinator. A defensive back who can blitz like a linebacker or cover like a cornerback can stop problems before they begin. A linebacker who is equally comfortable in coverage and rushing the passer can disguise things in ways that are a coordinator’s dream come true.
Earlier this week we looked at the Big 12’s most versatile offensive players. Today, we take a look at the five most versatile defensive players in the Big 12.
NB Travon Blanchard, Baylor: Watching Blanchard’s display against Oklahoma speaks volumes for his versatility. In the first quarter, he was collapsing the backfield to corral Sooners quarterback Baker Mayfield and drop him for a loss. In the second quarter, he was streaking in front of Oklahoma star receiver Sterling Shepard to intercept Mayfield’s short pass on an out route. His versatility and playmaking was a staple of Baylor’s defense a year ago as he locked down a spot among the Big 12’s best defenders. Blanchard finished the season with 84 tackles including 7.5 tackles for loss, two sacks, two interceptions, four forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries. With several Bears defenders moving on, Blanchard’s star will need to shine even brighter as a junior.
LB Jordan Burton, Oklahoma State: At 6-foot-3, 215 pounds, Burton looks more like a safety than a linebacker. But he plays much bigger than his size at times, sticking his nose into the running game with abandon yet also dropping into coverage or blitzing the quarterback with relative ease. A junior college transfer, Burton finished with 98 tackles including nine tackles for loss, 3.5 sacks, one interception, one forced fumble and one fumble recovery during his debut season. His perimeter presence and versatility could become even more important this fall with standout defensive ends Emmanuel Ogbah and Jimmy Bean no longer on the roster.
LB Elijah Lee, Kansas State: Lee burst upon the scene as a pass rush specialist during his true freshman season in 2014. As a sophomore, Lee showed he was much more than a specialist. The athletic linebacker became one of the most active defenders in the Big 12 from his linebacker spot while continuing to be one of the Wildcats’ top pass-rushers and making plays in coverage when called upon. Lee finished with 80 tackles (66 solo) including 7.5 tackles for loss, five sacks, three interceptions, two fumble recoveries and one forced fumble. Expect Lee to continue his do-it-all exploits as a junior even with offenses paying even more attention to him.
LB Malik Jefferson, Texas: The sophomore can pretty much do anything asked of him by Charlie Strong’s defense. Physical, aggressive and quick, Jefferson can play a spy role against athletic quarterbacks, cover running backs man-to-man or be deployed in a regular middle linebacker role and cause havoc in the running game. Jefferson finished his first season in burnt orange with 61 tackles including seven tackles for loss, 2.5 sacks, one forced fumble and one fumble recovery. If he makes a normal jump in performance from his freshman to sophomore season, Jefferson could have a even bigger impact for the Longhorns’ defense, particularly as the players around him develop and improve.
DB Nick Orr, TCU: The Horned Frogs' defense may not have survived an injury-riddled 2015 season without Orr's versatility. He was able to play cornerback or safety in Gary Patterson's secondary, allowing the veteran coach to move him to various spots to plug a gap in the defense or matchup better with an opposing offense. Orr had 50 tackles including three tackles for loss, one sack, one interception, one forced fumble and two fumble recoveries a year ago. Orr's versatility could come into play again in 2016 with uncertainty at the cornerback position heading into preseason camp.
DL Charles Walker, Oklahoma: The Sooners' standout defensive lineman can play anywhere along Oklahoma’s front line. He has the strength to play inside and the quickness to slide outside while combining both attributes to overwhelm offensive linemen on his way into the backfield. Walker finished his sophomore campaign with 36 tackles including 10 tackles for loss, six sacks and one forced fumble. His absence (concussion) was felt during the Sooners’ College Football Playoff loss to Clemson as Oklahoma was forced to play without one of the most disruptive forces in the Big 12. This season, Oklahoma should be able to continue to move Walker to various spots along the defensive line and target the weak link on opposing offensive fronts.