Big 12 FootballDownload App

Big 12 Football: Top 50 Returning Players in the Conference

Alex JosephAnalyst INovember 14, 2016

Big 12 Football: Top 50 Returning Players in the Conference

1 of 51

    ***NOTE: This article was written and submitted BEFORE Landry Jones declared that he was returning to school. This article assumes that both he and Robert Griffin III would be gone.***

    In what should be known as the "Year of the Quarterback," the Big 12 conference might have been the front-runner for most consistent quarterback play. 

    Many of these quarterbacks would have finished near the top of this year's list of the best players in the conference, but very few are returning next season.

    Oklahoma State quarterback Brandon Weeden and Texas A&M quarterback Ryan Tannehill will be graduating, Baylor quarterback and Heisman Trophy winner Robert Griffin III and Oklahoma quarterback Landry Jones are both likely leaving, and up-and-coming Missouri quarterback James Franklin will be playing in the SEC next season. 

    With Missouri and Texas A&M leaving for the SEC, this list loses quite a few talented players. However, in order to compensate, this list will include TCU (who is definitely going to be in the Big 12 next season) and West Virginia (who is almost assuredly going to be in the Big 12 next season). 

    The Big 12 will undergo a major change next season with all the elite quarterbacks leaving and new teams coming in, but one thing will remain the same: The conference will still be loaded with talent. 

50. Tress Way: Oklahoma

2 of 51

    Position: Punter 

    What's a better way to start off a top-50 list than with a punter?

    Junior punter Tress Way snuck his way onto this list after being the best player in Oklahoma's victory over Iowa in the Insight Bowl.

    Due to the Oklahoma's offensive struggles, Way was forced to punt the ball six times in that game, but he was able to average 50.3 yards per punt with a season-long punt of 67 yards.

    Iowa had enough offensive struggles on their own, as well, but it was Way's punting that kept forcing them into bad field position.

    Way has averaged over 40 yards per punt for three straight seasons now at Oklahoma.

49. Jeff Braun: West Virginia

3 of 51

    Position: Offensive Tackle 

    Junior offensive tackle Jeff Braun is a really big guy. I chose this picture because I think it's comical to see him next to freshman running back Vernard Roberts.

    Braun is 6'4" and 322 pounds. Roberts is 5'9" and 184 pounds. I would like to think Roberts is feeling good (in the picture) with Braun blocking out in front of him.

    West Virginia quarterback Geno Smith gets sacked quite a bit—26 times this season, to be exact. Currently, Braun is trying to move his way up the draft board. Right now, Braun looks like a sixth- or seventh-round selection at best.

    Braun will have one more season with an experienced line to prove he is worthy of a draft pick. He certainly has the size to play at the next level, although he may have to move to guard or center. 

48. Sam Holl: Baylor

4 of 51

    Position: Defensive Back 

    Baylor's secondary wasn't exactly known for being a group of lockdown defenders this season. 

    However, somebody who did show promise was sophomore safety Sam Holl. After an almost nonexistent freshman season, Holl recorded 113 tackles, three interceptions and one forced fumble.

    Against Kansas in Week 11, Holl recorded 21 tackles. Yes, you read that right—21 tackles.

    Now, I'm not going to act like I saw every tackle Holl recorded in that game. He very well could have been beaten 21 times by a Kansas receiver and had to make easy tackles to save giving up more yards.

    Still, 21 tackles is 21 tackles is 21 tackles is 21 tackles...

    It's a good stat. 

47. Eric Ward: Texas Tech

5 of 51

    Position: Wide Receiver 

    Much like Texas Tech teams of the past, this Red Raiders club really liked to spread the ball around. 

    While quarterback Seth Doege was busy throwing for over 4,000 yards, sophomore wide receiver Eric Ward silently became his favorite target. 

    Even though seven Red Raiders had at least 200 yards receiving this year, Ward was the best of the bunch with 84 receptions for 800 yards and 11 touchdowns. 

    After only catching six balls as a freshman, Ward's production came out of nowhere. If he and Doege can keep the chemistry going into next season, the two will once again be a lethal combination. 

46. Dustin Garrison: West Virginia

6 of 51

    Position: Running Back 

    As was shown in West Virginia's Orange Bowl victory, the Mountaineers are a pass-first offense. 

    However, when they did elect to run the ball this season, freshman Dustin Garrison was their go-to guy. Garrison ran the ball 138 times for 742 yards and six touchdowns while also catching 24 passes for 201 yards.

    It was a better-than-average year for the freshman, and with three years remaining at West Virginia, he is just going to keep getting better.

    Unfortunately for Garrison, a sprained ACL/MCL kept him from performing in the Orange Bowl. At least he'll have a few more chances to get back to a bowl game.  

45. Demontre Hurst: Oklahoma

7 of 51

    Position: Defensive Back 

    Coming into his junior season, Demontre Hurst was looking forward to a great season. Along with senior cornerback Jamell Fleming, the two were supposed to be two of the top cornerbacks not only in the Big 12, but in the entire country.

    Needless to say, that didn't really happen. Fleming finished with a better-than-average season and is likely headed off to the NFL, but Hurst will return for his senior year with the hopes of bettering his production.

    Hurst finished the year with 55 tackles and one interception, which he returned 55 yards for a touchdown (see: picture on this slide).

    Hurst will have to step up next season and be a senior leader for Oklahoma's secondary, especially if he and the team want to be better.

44. Jaxon Shipley: Texas

8 of 51

    Position: Wide Receiver 

    Even with the inconsistencies at quarterback the Texas Longhorns had to deal with the season, it was easy to see that freshman wide receiver Jaxon Shipley was well on his way to being something great.

    He has some big shoes to fill, though. Jaxon's brother Jordan, who is currently with the Cincinnati Bengals, had a fantastic career at the University of Texas. 

    Fortunately for Jordan, he also had Colt McCoy throwing him passes. Jaxon has Colt's younger brother Case throwing the ball his way, but it appears that freshman David Ash may be the better choice. 

    Regardless, Jaxon was still able to manage 44 receptions for 607 yards and three touchdowns this season. If the Longhorns can find a quarterback, Jaxon has all the possibility in the world to be as good or better than his brother. 

43. Joe Madsen: West Virginia

9 of 51

    Position: Center 

    I've already talked about one West Virginia offensive lineman, Jeff Braun, who needs to have a big senior year in the Big 12 to boost his draft status.

    Junior center Joe Madsen is in the exact same boat, only he's a little bit better than Braun already. Madsen is going to be a top-10 center prospect at the end of next season.

    At 6'4" and 300 pounds, somebody is going to take a chance on him at the next level.

    Madsen is the best lineman for the Mountaineers, and he will continue to protect quarterback Geno Smith through next season. 

42. Tanner Hawkinson: Kansas

10 of 51

    Position: Offensive Tackle 

    I'm sad to say that Tanner Hawkinson is the only Kansas Jayhawk that made this list. I really tried to put somebody else on here, but it's simple: They aren't very good. 

    Hawkinson, however, is one of the best offensive linemen in the conference. At 6'6" and 293 pounds, Hawkinson has the prototypical size for an NFL offensive lineman. 

    According to CBS sports' NFL draft prospects list, Hawkinson is the No. 8 offensive tackle in the 2013 class. 

    If the Jayhawks can get some help to build around their decent offensive line, Hawkinson could get more noticed and move up that draft board relatively quickly. 

41. Daytowian Lowe: Oklahoma State

11 of 51

    Position: Defensive Back 

    After sitting out the entire 2010 season with a shoulder injury, there was concern with how sophomore defensive back Daytowian Lowe would handle his return.

    I think it's safe to say that all concerns can be put to rest. Lowe led the Cowboys this season with 97 tackles. Lowe was also able to rack up two sacks, one interception and three forced fumbles. 

    While Brodrick Brown and Justin Gilbert may be the more talked-about guys in the Cowboys secondary, Lowe has proved that his name needs to be in that conversation as well.

    With two more seasons still to go, Lowe has a great chance to be one of the best defenders in the Big 12.

40. Quandre Diggs: Texas

12 of 51

    Position: Defensive Back 

    Freshman defensive back Quandre Diggs is the first of many Longhorns defensive players on this list. That defense is just so young and raw; they're going to be really, really good next season. 

    Diggs stepped onto the scene at Texas this year with a bang, totaling 49 tackles, four interceptions (team high), 15 broken-up passes (tied for team high) and two forced fumbles. 

    This guy was a freshman this season? 

    Yeah, I don't buy it, either. Even though the Longhorns offense has hit a brick wall, their defense is going to be just fine. 

39. Blake Bell: Oklahoma

13 of 51

    Position: Quarterback 

    You might know Blake Bell the best as "The Belldozer," or maybe that nickname is just popular around Norman, Oklahoma. Whatever the case, "The Belldozer" is going to be uttered out of a lot of mouths in the next few years. 

    Bell, Oklahoma's third-string quarterback, saw virtually no playing time until the season was halfway over. The Sooners were struggling in the red zone, and Bell just so happened to be the answer. 

    Bell's Wildcat package was introduced in Week 9, and in six games Bell rushed the ball 41 times for 153 yards and 13 touchdowns. 

    When Ryan Broyles had to miss the final four games due to injury, starting quarterback Landry Jones really struggled. Bell was the primary source for scoring, and that held true through the Sooners' bowl game.

    In the Insight Bowl, Bell ran 10 times for 51 yards and three scores. Now, if only he could pass the ball... 

38. Trey Millard: Oklahoma

14 of 51

    Position: Fullback 

    Oklahoma sophomore fullback Trey Millard was graced with All-Big 12 first-team honors this season, and it's not because of his flashy numbers.

    If the judging were based on statistics, Millard wouldn't stand a chance. However, his numbers aren't too bad for a fullback who rarely touches the ball: 24 carries for 169 yards and two touchdowns; 13 receptions for 127 yards and one touchdown.

    Instead, Millard got first-team honors for his production that goes unnoticed, such as his blocking. Millard is a fantastic lead-blocker, and at 6'2" and 249 pounds, he's a monster to deal with.

    Just ask Missouri defensive back Matt White: Click here for domination.

    I really, really love that video.   

37. LaAdrian Waddle: Texas Tech

15 of 51

    Position: Offensive Tackle  

    And the winner of the coolest name of the top 50 returning Big 12 players list goes to: Texas Tech offensive tackle LaAdrian Waddle! 

    Okay, you guys can stop reading now. I know that's what you were waiting for. 

    However, if you must continue, here's what I like about Waddle (other than his name, of course): 

    The guy is a monster. At 6'6" and 332 pounds, Waddle most definitely has the size to produce at the next level. 

    Waddle was certainly the best lineman on the Red Raiders this season, and for a team that passes as much as they do, giving up 19 sacks isn't such a bad thing. 

    Also, did I mention the guy's name is LaAdrian Waddle? What a neat name. 

36. Jaz Reynolds: Oklahoma

16 of 51

    Position: Wide Receiver 

    Sophomore wide receiver Jaz Reynolds was one of the bright spots in an otherwise underwhelming Oklahoma Sooners season. 

    Reynolds blew out all preset expectations, catching 41 passes for 715 yards and five touchdowns. He was a more-than-perfect No. 3 receiver behind All-American Ryan Broyles and fellow sophomore Kenny Stills. 

    In fact, Reynolds became really popular among Oklahoma fans for his spectacular one-handed catches (as seen in the photo). 

    The Sooners can only hope that Reynolds returns to the lineup healthy and ready to work in the offseason, as he had to miss the Sooners' bowl game due to liver problems. 

35. Darwin Cook: West Virginia

17 of 51

    Position: Defensive Back 

    If you didn't see Darwin Cook's 99-yard touchdown scamper from the Orange Bowl, please click here.

    This touchdown had to be the highlight of Cook's sophomore season, but that doesn't mean that he didn't impress all year long.

    In his first season as a full-time starter, Cook recorded 81 tackles (second best on the team), two interceptions and broke up four passes. 

    Cook will have time to develop his skills in the offseason and even over the course of the next two seasons. He will face better competition in the Big 12, and facing better talent always creates better talent. 

    Cook will thrive in the West Virginia secondary during his two seasons to come. 

34. Josh Boyce: TCU

18 of 51

    Position: Wide Receiver 

    After a solid freshman season with TCU, Josh Boyce turned up his production as a sophomore.

    Boyce proved to be the Horned Frogs' No. 1 receiver and sophomore quarterback Casey Pachall's favorite target. Boyce caught 61 passes for 998 yards and nine touchdowns.

    In his first season in the Big 12, Boyce will surely have something to prove. He will have some competition for best receiver in the conference, but he's going to make his presence felt.

    Being that Boyce and Pachall are both sophomores, the two will have two more years to create a connection, and that could prove to be deadly.

33. Terence Garvin: West Virginia

19 of 51

    Position: Defensive Back 

    Like Darwin Cook, Terence Garvin had a pretty great year playing in West Virginia's secondary. Unlike Cook, Garvin did a little bit extra this season. 

    Garvin finished the year with 72 tackles (third best on the team), 3.5 sacks, two interceptions (one returned for a touchdown) and three broken-up passes. 

    Garvin, who plays strong safety for the Mountaineers, has great size at 6'3" and 222 pounds. If Garvin's junior year is an indication of how his senior year is going to go, things are looking good for West Virginia's defense.

    He has the size, the speed and the ability to play at the next level. A big year against Big 12 competition could be the icing on the cake. 

32. Gabe Ikard: Oklahoma

20 of 51

    Position: Offensive Guard 

    Sophomore offensive lineman Gabe Ikard was the only underclassman to make the All-Big 12 first team. That speaks heavily about Ikard's attitude and ability.

    After the Sooners' starting center Ben Habern went down with an injury that sidelined him for a few games, Ikard made the switch from guard to center with no repercussions. 

    Ikard's ability to adapt to any position on the line makes him one of the best linemen in the Big 12, and his talent at each position is what puts him over the top. 

    Also, Ikard is apparently a really smart guy. If you want to know more about Ikard, read Sooner sportswriter Brandon Chatman's article on Ikard's aspirations. 

31. Michael Hunnicutt: Oklahoma

21 of 51

    Position: Kicker 

    Michael Hunnicutt is actually one of two kickers that are on this list, and both cracked the top 30! To all the kickers out there: Laugh at those who didn't believe you were important, because here you are! 

    Hunnicutt, a freshman, filled in for injured senior kicker Jimmy Stevens early in the season and never looked back. 

    He finished 21-of-24 on field goals and 55-of-56 on extra points. A great kicking game has been long awaited at the University of Oklahoma, and with Hunnicutt on campus for another three years, things are looking up for the Sooners special teams. 

30. John Hubert: Kansas State

22 of 51

    Position: Running Back 

    Quarterback Collin Klein accounted for the majority of Kansas State's offense. All the rest fell on the shoulders of sophomore running back John Hubert.

    Hubert, the starting running back for the Wildcats, ran the ball over 100 times fewer than Klein this season. However, when he got the opportunity, he didn't disappoint.

    Hubert ran the ball 188 times for 933 and three touchdowns. To go along with that, Hubert also caught 23 passes for 193 yards and one touchdown.

    The versatile back played a huge part in the Wildcats' sudden success this season, and with two years left to go, Hubert could become a household name.

29. Roy Finch: Oklahoma

23 of 51

    Position: Running Back 

    When Ryan Broyles was injured and out for the season, sophomore running back Roy Finch instantly became my favorite player to watch on Oklahoma's roster.

    Finch is only 5'7" and 168 pounds, but there is no way you'd ever guess that by watching him play. Finch is the definition of a running back who never gives up. Whether he's spinning out of a tackle, or driving his feet (and a pile of defenders) for extra yards, Finch is constantly trying hard. 

    Watching Finch run the ball is sometimes like watching a live video game. He is quick, makes cuts, spins on a dime and is super exciting. 

    Finch only ran the ball 111 times for 605 yards and three touchdowns this year, but technically Finch only really played in six-and-a-half games this year. Finch backed up Dominique Whaley to start the year, but took over the starting job after Whaley was injured halfway through the season. 

    After averaging 5.5 yards per carry, it's a wonder why the Sooners didn't try to get the ball in his hands more often. 

28. Jeremy Smith: Oklahoma State

24 of 51

    Position: Running Back 

    Fellow sophomore running back Joseph Randle may be Oklahoma State's starter, but Jeremy Smith showed this season that he is more than capable of taking over once in a while. 

    At 5'10" and 205 pounds, Smith is bulkier and stronger than Randle. For that reason, Smith was used more as a short-yardage back. However, with just 91 carries, Smith was able to gain 646 yards—an average of 7.1 yards per carry—and score nine touchdowns. 

    Smith also made himself available as a receiver out of the backfield this season, catching 11 passes for 81 yards in the time he was on the field. 

    With quarterback Brandon Weeden and wide receiver Justin Blackmon gone, it may be time for Smith and Randle to take control of the Cowboys offense.

27. Stedman Bailey: West Virginia

25 of 51

    Position: Wide Receiver 

    Sophomore wide receiver Stedman Bailey has a fantastic career at West Virginia ahead of him, and he and Tavon Austin (soon to come in this slideshow) make up one of the best receiving duos in all of college football. 

    Bailey caught 72 passes for 1,279 yards and 12 touchdowns this season—going far and beyond his production from his freshman year. 

    At 17.9 yards per catch, Bailey was quarterback Geno Smith's best deep threat this season. Bailey went over the 100-yard mark seven times this season.

    Bailey may find it a little more difficult to get deep so often in the Big 12 next season, but then again, the Big 12 isn't really known for its defenses. 

26. Alex Elkins: Oklahoma State

26 of 51

    Position: Linebacker

    Alex Elkins has a pretty remarkable backstory, and you can read a great account of it here

    The abbreviated version of that story is basically that Elkins had never played football before trying out for Blinn junior college two summers ago. He had the size, the speed and the ability, but he was lost when it came to basic football fundamentals and assignments.

    Blinn took a chance on him, and two years later, Elkins is the starting outside linebacker at one of the best football programs in the nation. 

    Elkins' fearless attitude and overall tenacity earned him 90 tackles this season. He also accounted for one sack, one interception, one forced fumble, one fumble recovery and two broken-up passes. 

    In just one season with the Cowboys, Elkins has become one of the best linebackers in the conference. If he continues working in the offseason, the sky is the limit. 

25. Seth Doege: Texas Tech

27 of 51

    Position: Quarterback 

    Junior quarterback Seth Doege stepped in for the graduated Graham Harrell and didn't miss a beat this season. 

    Doege became another quarterback to benefit from Texas Tech's spread offense, throwing for just over 4,000 yards and 28 touchdowns. 

    Doege did throw 10 interceptions on the year, but his 68.5 completion percentage proves that he is an accurate quarterback. 

    With weapons like Eric Ward and Alex Torres returning, Doege could be in for a big senior season. 

24. Kenny Vaccaro: Texas

28 of 51

    Position: Defensive Back 

    Texas Longhorns safety Kenny Vaccaro earned All-Big 12 first-team honors with his performance on the field this season.

    Vaccaro led the Longhorns secondary with 71 tackles. He also recorded two interceptions, two sacks, broke up eight passes and forced five quarterback hurries. 

    The Longhorns defense loses senior linebacker Emmanuel Acho, but they have several great players returning. 

    To put it bluntly, the Longhorns defense is going to be scary next season. If they can get consistent quarterback play, there's no doubt they'll challenge for a Big 12 title. 

23. Waymon James: TCU

29 of 51

    Position: Running Back 

    Sophomore running back Waymon James was one of three Horned Frogs running backs to amass at least 700 yards rushing and six touchdowns.

    James, however, was the most impressive of the bunch. 

    James was able to run the ball 121 times for 875 yards—an average of 7.2 yards per carry—and six touchdowns. His 7.2-yards-per-carry average was the best on the team. 

    He's built like Maurice Jones Drew (5'8", 203 pounds) and runs just as hard. Because all three of TCU's featured running backs are returning next season, it will be interesting to see how their running game contrasts with the rest of the Big 12's pass-first style. 

22. Tom Wort: Oklahoma

30 of 51

    Position: Linebacker 

    Tom Wort plays with more aggressive energy than any college player I've seen in a long time. Wort is a bit undersized at 6'0", 225 pounds, but his tenacity more than makes up for it.

    With senior linebacker Travis Lewis graduating, Wort will need to take control of his defense and become a leader. He is the best linebacker returning for Oklahoma, and will be a definite candidate to be the Sooners' defensive captain. 

    This season, Wort became a full-time starter. He was able to up his production to 71 tackles, 3.5 sacks and two interceptions. 

    Wort only missed one game this season, but he did seem to be constantly injured. Wort missed many defensive series for the Sooners this season after getting shaken up after a big hit. 

    Wort will need to fix whatever it is that he's doing to get himself injured, whether he's over-exerting himself or using bad technique, because the Sooners will need him on the field as much as possible next season. 

21. Lane Taylor: Oklahoma State

31 of 51

    Position: Offensive Guard 

    With All-Big 12 first-team offensive linemen Levy Adcock and Grant Garner both graduating, it will up to Oklahoma State offensive guard Lane Taylor to take over the reins. 

    After giving up only 12 sacks on the year, the Cowboys offensive line remained one of the best in the country. It was Adcock, Garner and Lane who gave senior quarterback Brandon Weeden so much time to throw in the pocket this season. 

    Losing Adcock and Garner means the Cowboys line will be young and inexperienced, but Lane will be a senior leader and one of the best linemen in the conference. 

    Adcock will be one of the most important players on the Cowboys offense next season and should be one of the top linemen for next year's draft. 

20. Tavon Austin: West Virginia

32 of 51

    Position: Wide Receiver 

    Tavon Austin showed off his skills during West Virginia's Orange Bowl victory over Clemson. In the game, Austin caught 11 passes for 117 yards and four touchdowns. 

    On the season, Austin hauled in 100 passes for 1,180 yards and eight touchdowns. Austin is definitely making his case to be the Big 12's best receiver next season, and with a guy like Geno Smith throwing to him, he very well could be. 

    Austin is more than just a great receiver, though; he is also West Virginia's primary kick and punt returner. 

    He has racked up 268 punt return yards and 938 kick return yards throughout 13 games. On top of all that, Austin has somehow also managed 188 rushing yards on the season. 

    Austin is a workhorse and he will continue to dominate in the Big 12 next season. 

19. Casey Pachall: TCU

33 of 51

    Position: Quarterback 

    I, like I assume most, thought that TCU would be down this year. All signs pointed to a rebuilding year, and then turn around and win the Mountain West Conference over foe Boise State. 

    Filling in for a four-year starter is never an easy task, especially when that four-year starter is Andy Dalton, current starting quarterback of the Cincinnati Bengals. 

    Sophomore quarterback Casey Pachall did a better-than-average job at filling Dalton's shoes. 

    Pachall threw for 2,921 yards, 25 touchdowns and only seven interceptions this season in his first year as a starter. This included a 473-yard, five-touchdown game against Boise State.

    I think it's safe to say that TCU isn't missing Dalton too much. Pachall will be coming into the Big 12 as the third-best quarterback (the other two still to come in this slideshow), at least in my opinion. 

    It may take a while for TCU to get adjusted to playing Big 12 opponents every week, but with Pachall manning the offense, the Horned Frogs are in good shape. 

18. Ben Habern: Oklahoma

34 of 51

    Position: Center 

    Before Ben Habern was sidelined with a broken bone in his forearm, the junior center was the best offensive lineman on the Sooners roster. 

    Since the injury in early September, Habern has struggled to get back to the high level of play he was accustomed to before. His injury let sophomore Gabe Ikard sneak in and steal what should have been Habern's All-Big 12 honors. 

    There's no doubt that Habern will use the offseason to rehab his arm, work out and get prepared for his senior season. He has great size for a center (6'4", 292 pounds) and if he can get back to his normal playing style, he has the ability to be a first-round draft pick. 

    Habern will be one of the best centers in the country next season, and because of this, he's the only offensive lineman in my top 10 returning players to the Big 12. 

17. Quinn Sharp: Oklahoma State

35 of 51

    Position: Kicker/Punter 

    Never underestimate the importance of a great kicker, which is exactly what junior kicker/punter Quinn Sharp provides for the Oklahoma State Cowboys.

    Sharp earned All-Big 12 first-team honors as both a kicker and a punter. It's rather unheard of for a player at the college level to do both the punting and the kicking for his team, but it's even more unheard of when that player excels at both. 

    Sharp made 22 of his 25 field goals this season and 79-of-80 extra-point attempts. He also had 114 kickoffs this season that he turned into 61 touchbacks. 

    In regards to punting, Sharp booted 47 for 2,175 yards—an average of 46.28 yards per punt. 

    To go along with all of his All-Big 12 honors, Sharp was also rewarded with the Big 12 Special Teams Player of the Year award. 

    The Cowboys should be happy to see Sharp back on the sidelines next season. 

16. Dominique Whaley: Oklahoma

36 of 51

    Position: Running Back 

    What would have happened had junior running back Dominique Whaley had the full season to produce? Would the Sooners have won their close games against Texas Tech and Baylor with Whaley around?

    Those questions will remain unanswered, but what's certain is that Whaley was off to a tremendous start before going down with a season-ending injury in Week 7. 

    Whaley began the year as a backup to sophomore Brennan Clay, but his 131-yard, four-touchdown, season-opening performance quickly led him to the head of the depth chart. 

    Oh yeah, did I mention this guy was a walk-on? That's right, a walk-on was the starting running back at the University of Oklahoma, a school that is renowned for their former star running backs.

    Whaley was certainly headed in that direction. In six games, Whaley totaled 627 rushing yards and nine touchdowns. He also had 15 receptions for 153 yards. 

    Will he be able to bounce back from his injury next season and regain his starting spot? Time will tell, but my guess is yes. 

15. Stansly Maponga: TCU

37 of 51

    Position: Defensive End

    Senior linebacker Tank Carder may have been the heart of TCU's defense this season, but sophomore defensive end Stansly Maponga was its best player.

    After getting his fair share of playing time during his freshman season, Maponga stepped up into a starting role and delivered this year.

    Maponga had a team- and conference-high nine sacks this season to go along with his 55 tackles (13 for loss), two broken-up passes and a remarkable five forced fumbles. 

    As TCU prepares to enter the Big 12, Maponga will be challenged more than he has been in his first two seasons. I'm curious to see how he fares, because he is a monster in the Mountain West. 

    Maponga should be one of the best defensive linemen in all of college football for the next two years. 

14. Kenny Stills: Oklahoma

38 of 51

    Position: Wide Receiver 

    Oklahoma is losing All-American Ryan Broyles to the NFL draft this season, but fortunately the Sooners have a bevy of talented receivers returning, and sophomore Kenny Stills is at the head of the class. 

    Stills caught the same number of passes as he did during his freshman season (61), but he was able to improve on yards (849) and touchdowns (eight). Stills was the perfect complement to Broyles for quarterback Landry Jones.

    However, after Broyles went down with a season-ending injury, Stills never looked like the "go-to guy" that most people expected him to be. Instead, Stills finished the season on an underwhelming note—uncharacteristically dropping passes he normally grabs with ease. 

    Stills has the offseason to improve, but my guess is that he'll still be the No. 1 receiver for the Sooners next season. 

    There's no doubt he's going to have some competition, though. 

13. Terrance Williams: Baylor

39 of 51

    Position: Wide Receiver 

    Pictured: Terrance Williams burning the Oklahoma secondary for the 230,248,234 time—about to catch the game-winning touchdown pass with eight seconds remaining. 

    Not pictured: me, in the stands, ripping my hair out. 

    Senior wide receiver Kendall Wright may have garnered more attention for the Baylor Bears this season, but junior Terrance Williams produced at a high level every game, as well. 

    Of course, some of this can be credited to his quarterback, Heisman Trophy winner Robert Griffin III, but Williams stepped up this season and proved he is talented enough to be the best receiver in the conference next year.

    Williams caught 59 passes for 957 yards and 11 touchdowns this season. He caught a touchdown pass in all but three games, and if Griffin decides to return to school (even though I left him out of this article because it's almost guaranteed that he won't), Williams is going to get a lot of attention from draft scouts and opposing defenses. 

12. Brodrick Brown: Oklahoma State

40 of 51

    Position: Defensive Back 

    Brodrick Brown may have been the best defensive back on the Oklahoma State Cowboys' surprisingly good defense this season, but he still only comes in at No. 14 on this list. 

    On top of that, Brown isn't the highest-rated defensive player on this list, either. 

    Regardless, Brown had a fantastic season. He recorded 68 tackles (four for loss), five interceptions and he broke up a team-high 15 passes. 

    Brown really stepped up in Oklahoma State's win over Stanford. His nine tackles was his second-highest total for a game this season. 

    Along with Oklahoma State's senior safety Markelle Martin, Brown was awarded with All-Big 12 first-team honors. He will be looking forward to getting his name back on that list next year as a senior. 

11. Arthur Brown: Kansas State

41 of 51

    Position: Linebacker 

    Meet Arthur Brown: junior linebacker for the Kansas State Wildcats and Big 12 Defensive Newcomer of the Year.

    After two years of never really getting a fair shot at the University of Miami, Brown transferred to Kansas State and found a nice home at middle linebacker.

    Brown led the Wildcats in tackles this season with 95. He also recorded two sacks, one interception and broke up two passes.

    Senior defensive back Tysyn Hartman had this to say about Brown:

    "He's the best linebacker I've seen in person, seen on film, played with or played against. Hands down. He's so fast when he's reading his keys and getting to the ball, he makes the rest of us look slow."

    As a senior himself next season, Brown will be leading the Wildcats defense, which hopes to be one of the best in the conference. 

10. Justin Gilbert: Oklahoma State

42 of 51

    Position: Defensive Back 

    Like I said in a few slides previous, junior Brodrick Brown may have been the best defensive back on Oklahoma State's roster this season, but sophomore Justin Gilbert did more for the team. 

    His work on the field earned All-Big 12 honorable mention honors, but, if you ask me, Gilbert was more than deserving of at least second-team honors. 

    Like Brown, Gilbert recorded five interceptions this season while breaking up 10 passes. He also produced 59 tackles on the year and was the team's primary kick returner. 

    Gilbert amassed 703 yards on 26 kick returns for a 27.04 average. He also returned two kickoffs for touchdowns this season.

    To put it bluntly, Gilbert is a game-changer, and he will continue to get better in his next two seasons with the Cowboys. 

    All-Big 12 first-team honors aren't out of the question next season for Gilbert. 

9. AJ Klein: Iowa State

43 of 51

    Position: Linebacker 

    Junior linebacker AJ Klein is the first of two Iowa State linebackers in my top 10. That can only mean one thing: Iowa State's defense might be pretty good next season. 

    Klein recorded a team-high 117 tackles this season while also getting two sacks and breaking up six passes. 

    This was the second year in a row Klein has recorded at least 110 tackles—a statistic that bodes well as he heads into his senior year. 

    Klein was awarded with All-Big 12 first-team honors, but he was also named Co-Defensive Player of the Year along with Oklahoma senior defensive end Frank Alexander.

    Klein is a great player, but, for the second year in a row, he got outplayed by his teammate... 

8. Jake Knott: Iowa State

44 of 51

    Position: Linebacker 

    Along with junior linebacker A.J. Klein, fellow junior Jake Knott anchored the Cyclones defense this season. 

    Knott has the size to be a solid NFL linebacker (6'2", 243 pounds), and he has certainly proved he has the skills. Even though Knott took a minor step back from his remarkable sophomore season, he was still able to produce at a high level.

    Knott made 114 tackles this season while forcing three fumbles and making two interceptions. As a senior next season, Knott will be one of the best defensive players in the Big 12, and he can hopefully take his leadership role to the next level. 

    Iowa State did make a bowl this season after finishing 6-6, but a loss to Rutgers was not the way the Cyclones wanted to finish the season. 

7. Nigel Malone: Kansas State

45 of 51

    Position: Defensive Back  

    Arthur Brown may be the best defensive player on the Wildcats roster, but junior defensive back Nigel Malone had a better year. 

    Malone played in his first season with the Wildcats after transferring from City College of San Francisco, where he was a two-year starter at one of the best JUCO programs in the country. 

    Malone let his presence be felt early; in his first game with the Wildcats, Malone snagged two of his conference-leading seven interceptions. 

    He was an absolute ball hawk this season. Malone made it seem easy, but that's because he was also one of the best cover cornerbacks in the nation. 

    To go along with his seven interceptions, Malone also recorded 57 tackles and broke up a team-high nine passes.

    Welcome to the Big 12, Mr. Malone. 

6. Alex Okafor: Texas

46 of 51

    Position: Defensive End 

    The Longhorns defensive line was a force to be reckoned with this season.

    While erratic quarterback play plagued their offense, their young, talented defense led them to seven victories this season, including a 21-10 bowl victory over California. 

    Anchoring the line was junior defensive end Alex Okafor. Okafor's leadership and experience made the way for his 52 tackles, six sacks and team-high 13 quarterback hurries. 

    At 6'4" and 260 pounds, Okafor is a prime NFL prospect. As a senior, he will be the leader of the Big 12's best defensive unit. 

    However, he has some competition for the "best player" award on his own team, and he plays the same position...

5. Jackson Jeffcoat: Texas

47 of 51

    Position: Defensive End 

    Sophomore defensive end Jackson Jeffcoat stepped up in a major way this season. 

    While Alex Okafor may have been more hyped coming into the season, Jeffcoat made a stronger case for best defensive lineman in the Big 12. 

    In his first year as a starter, Jeffcoat tallied 63 tackles (17 for loss), eight sacks and seven quarterback hurries. He was a problem for every opposing offensive line this season. 

    Jeffcoat and Okafor will balance the Longhorns defensive line next season, and they should be candidates for the best defensive end in the country. 

    Soon enough, both will be playing on Sundays. 

4. Tony Jefferson: Oklahoma

48 of 51

    Position: Defensive Back

    There's no denying sophomore defensive back Tony Jefferson's talent and ability. Along with senior cornerback Jamell Fleming, Jefferson led the Sooners secondary this season.

    However, with the way Oklahoma's secondary played for the majority of the season, that's really not saying much. Being a journalist for the Sooners, it irks me to put anyone from that secondary on this list, especially this high. 

    Jefferson is a special player, though. He is the ultimate hybrid defensive back who can hit like a safety but cover like a corner. 

    His playmaking ability didn't go unnoticed, as Jefferson did garner All-Big 12 honorable mention honors after he recorded 74 tackles, 4.5 sacks and four interceptions. 

    Jefferson will be the leader of the Sooners defense as a junior, so he will need to rally his troops to put together a much better season. 

3. Joseph Randle: Oklahoma State

49 of 51

    Position: Running Back

    There's no denying that the Big 12 is a pass-heavy conference, and the Oklahoma State Cowboys have certainly benefited from running the spread offense.

    However, sophomore running back Joseph Randle held his own in his pass-first offense, and he quickly became one of the best running backs in the entire conference, if not the best.

    Randle amassed 1,216 rushing yards and 24 touchdowns while catching 43 passes for 266 yards and two touchdowns. With quarterback Brandon Weeden and wide receiver Justin Blackmon getting all the spotlight, Randle was the team's unsung hero. 

    Randle filled in great for Kendall Hunter (who is now with the San Francisco 49ers), and he is just going to get better over the next two years.

    That's a scary thought. 

2. Collin Klein: Kansas State

50 of 51

    Position: Quarterback 

    Junior quarterback Collin Klein almost single-handedly made Kansas State's offense this season. Klein was the Big 12's version of Tim Tebow, only without as good of an arm. 

    Klein completed 145-of-251 passes this season for 1,745 yards and 12 touchdowns, but he also ran the ball 293 times for 1,099 yards and a remarkable 26 touchdowns. 

    Surprisingly enough, his 293 rushing attempts was the most by any player in the conference this season. Klein's relentless play on the field led Kansas State to a 10-2 record—much better than the Wildcats' 7-6 finish a year ago. 

    Kansas State finished just outside of getting a BCS bowl berth, but playing No. 6 Arkansas in the Cotton Bowl is great nonetheless. 

    If Klein works on his arm in the offseason, there's no doubt he'll challenge to be the best player in the conference next season. But for now... 

1. Geno Smith: West Virginia

51 of 51

    Position: Quarterback 

    After all the elite quarterbacks in the Big 12 leave, West Virginia quarterback Geno Smith will come into the conference looking to take over. 

    Smith will be a senior, and he will be leading a West Virginia team that will be excited to be out of the Big East. The Big 12 is sure to take a hit next season with all the talent leaving this year, so West Virginia is coming in at the right time.

    As a junior, Smith threw for 3,978 yards, 25 touchdowns and only seven interceptions. It can be argued that his numbers could be inflated due to the lack of elite talent in the Big East, but Smith also threw for 463 yards against LSU—who many consider to be the best defense in the country. 

    West Virginia finished 9-3 in the regular season for the third season in a row. Finishing 9-3 in its first year in the Big 12 may be asking a lot, but Smith is the perfect candidate to lead the Mountaineers next season. 

    PS: How about that Orange Bowl performance? Throwing for 31-of-42 for 401 yards and seven total touchdowns? I think Smith is going to do just fine in the Big 12. 

Where can I comment?

Stay on your game

Latest news, insights, and forecasts on your teams across leagues.

Choose Teams
Get it on the App StoreGet it on Google Play

Real-time news for your teams right on your mobile device.

Download
Copyright © 2017 Bleacher Report, Inc. Turner Broadcasting System, Inc. All Rights Reserved. BleacherReport.com is part of Bleacher Report – Turner Sports Network, part of the Turner Sports and Entertainment Network. Certain photos copyright © 2017 Getty Images. Any commercial use or distribution without the express written consent of Getty Images is strictly prohibited. AdChoices