Big 12 Football: 10 Most Terrifying Defensive Players of the BCS Era

Brian LeighFeatured ColumnistFebruary 25, 2014

Big 12 Football: 10 Most Terrifying Defensive Players of the BCS Era

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    The Big 12 underwent plastic surgery during the BCS era, ceding teams like Nebraska, Texas A&M, Missouri and Colorado to other leagues as a result of conference expansion.

    But those programs were still an important part of the Big 12's BCS-era narrative, even if none ever found the same success as Texas and Oklahoma (and even Oklahoma State) as a member of the league. They still have a distinct place in its history.

    Thus, making this list was a difficult chore. Someone like former Nebraska linebacker Lavonte David might have been included without conference expansion, but he only played one year in the Big 12 before his team moved to the Big Ten.

    Likewise, four of the players who actually did make the list play for teams that are no longer in the conference, and the six who did all played for one of two current members. This list makes vivid how much the Big 12 has lost.

    But with new powers like Baylor starting to rise, perhaps the future isn't quite as bleak as it seems.

10. LB Dat Nguyen, Texas A&M

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    Dat Nguyen played only one season—his last—during the BCS era, which is why he doesn't place even higher on this list. If his first-team All-Big 12 seasons in 1996 and 1997 were counted, Nguyen would no doubt be included in the top five.

    Still, even with just one year of eligibility in 1998, it would feel wrong to construct this list and ignore Nguyen entirely. That one season he did play during the BCS era, Nguyen was voted a consensus first-team All-American and won the Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year Award, the Lombardi Trophy and the Bednarik Award.

    Knocked for his size (5'11'') before he ever stepped on the field (and long after), Nguyen led one of the strongest defenses in Texas A&M history and is generally acknowledged as one of the best defenders to ever play in the conference. He is a legend in the state of Texas.

    (Though, on that front, playing for the Dallas Cowboys didn't hurt.)

9. DB Michael Huff, Texas

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    KEVORK DJANSEZIAN/Associated Press

    Michael Huff was an all-around safety at Texas, equally capable of making a form tackle, covering a receiver down the field, blowing up a tight end in the seam or forcing a turnover that altered the complexion of the game.

    His four career interceptions returned for a touchdown are tied for the most in the Big 12 since 2000. Two of those came in his All-America senior season of 2005, when Huff was also bestowed with the Thorpe Award as America's top defensive back.

    In the last game of his career—the then- and still-famous Rose Bowl win over USC for the BCS national title—Huff recovered a momentum-shifting fumble on a botched lateral by Reggie Bush and stopped LenDale White on a crucial fourth down to give the ball back to Texas.

    It was a fitting end to his time with the Longhorns.

8. LB Sean Weatherspoon, Missouri

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    Jeff Roberson/Associated Press

    Sean Weatherspoon had 100-plus tackles in three straight seasons from 2007-2009, including a near-school-record (and NCAA-high) 155 in 2008. That season, he also finished second in the Big 12 with 18 tackles for loss and tied for first in the NCAA with two interceptions returned for a touchdown.

    A three-time All-Big 12 first-teamer, 'Spoon led the Tigers through two of their most successful campaigns as a member of the conference in 2007 and 2008, though the 2009 team disappointed at 8-5. 

    He was never properly showered with postseason accolade, but Weatherspoon made opposing running backs quiver in their socks and was one of the most physical, intimidating linebackers of the BCS era.

    Bar none.

7. DE Brian Orakpo, Texas

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    Brian Orakpo made a difference in Austin for four seasons, bookending his career with a Big 12 Freshman of the Year Award in 2005 and a Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year Award in 2008.

    The latter season, Orakpo swept some of the bigger awards on the national circuit as well, winning the Bronko Nagurski, the Ted Hendricks, the Bill Willis, the Lombardi and being named a first-team All-American after racking up 11.5 sacks and 17.5 tackles for loss.

    A terrifying blend of strength and speed, Orakpo could out-run a tackle to the edge then use that momentum—and his chiseled body mass—to punish the quarterback in the pocket. Rightfully so, he was a player that every Big 12 passer hated to face.

6. LB Rocky Calmus, Oklahoma

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    Rocky Calmus finished his career with what every linebacker, defender, overall player and coach in college football is seeking: A blend of personal and team achievements.

    He was named a first-team All-American and finalist for the Butkus Award in 2000, leading the Sooners to a national championship. In the Orange Bowl game against Florida State, he swatted the ball out of Chris Weinke's hands for a fumble deep in Florida State territory that was recovered by a member of this list to be named later.

    The following season, so as not to be proven a fraud, Calmus came back and did one better—in terms of personal achievement—making another All-America team and this time winning the Butkus Award as the nation's top linebacker.

    The picture above perfectly sums up Calmus. From the neck pad to the clubbed hand to the manic expression on his face, he played the game with a certain joie de vivre that made him terrifying to go up against.

5. DE/LB Von Miller, Texas A&M

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    Mike Fuentes/Associated Press

    The scariest thing about Von Miller's time in College Station?

    He could have been even better.

    Moved from defensive end to linebacker to "Jack" and then back to linebacker by three different defensive coordinators during his four-year career, Miller helped ease the flux in the coaching ranks by doing whatever he was asked—even if it might have held him back.

    Still, as a junior and senior in 2009 and 2010, Miller was varying degrees of awesome. He led the nation with 19 sacks and the Big 12 with 22 tackles for loss in his junior season, and he was named a first-team All-American and won the Butkus Award as a senior.

    His off-field troubles have extended from college to the professional ranks, but whenever he's been allowed to take the field, Miller has always been a menace to block.

4. DB Roy Williams, Oklahoma

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    Let's start with the tangible, personal achievements; afterwards, we can get to the iconography.

    Roy Williams was an important starter on the 2000 Sooners that went undefeated and won the national title, wreaking havoc in opposing backfields all season and recovering the fumble forced by Rocky Calmus against Florida State in the Orange Bowl.

    The following season, Williams was named a first-team All-American and won the Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year Award, the Jim Thorpe Award (nation's top DB) and the Bronko Nagurski Award (nation's top defensive player).

    All of these things matter—but none as much as what he did against Texas in the 2001 Red River Shootout. With the Longhorns starting a potential game-winning drive at their own 5-yard line, Williams timed a snap perfectly and went flying over the top of the line like Superman to jar the ball loose and force an OU pick-six.

    He was known as "Superman" from that moment on.

3. LB Teddy Lehman, Oklahoma

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    Teddy Lehman is the one who caught and scored the pick-six on Roy Williams' "Superman" play against Texas, which was just the first step in his process of replacing and eventually surpassing Rocky Calmus on the hierarchy of great OU linebackers in the BCS era.

    He replaced Calmus at weakside linebacker in 2002 and the drop-off was negligible (if not non-existent), going on to be named a first-team All-American that season. He showed up huge in the Rose Bowl game to end that year, notching a couple of timely sacks to help the Sooners beat Washington State.

    The following season, Lehman was named a first-team All-American once again, this time winning both the Butkus and Bednarik as the nation's top linebacker and all-around defensive player, respectively.

    He and Calmus are two of the all-time Big 12 greats, but Lehman gets the nod because he was more consistent making plays behind the line of scrimmage. He had a nose for the football and a penchant for bringing the pain.

2. DT Ndamukong Suh, Nebraska

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    DAVE WEAVER/Associated Press

    Especially given the level of competition he was facing and consistently producing against, Ndamukong Suh's senior season in 2009 might have been the finest by an interior defensive lineman of the entire BCS era. And that might actually be an understatement.

    Suh finished that year with 85 tackles, 20.5 tackles for loss and 12 sacks and won the Lombardi, Outland, Chuck Bednarik and Bill Willis Awards. He also finished fourth in Heisman voting and was the first defensive player in college football history to win the AP Player of the Year Award.

    Again...he was a defensive tackle!

    The signature performance of that season came in the regular season finale against undefeated Texas, which Nebraska almost upset, 12-13.

    The Longhorns eventually played and lost the national championship game to Alabama, but no one on the Tide made their interior linemen look like blocking sleds the way that Suh—who finished the game with six tackles for loss—was able to.

    And Alabama had a fellow first-team All-American and future NFL player in Terrence Cody up the middle.

1. LB Derrick Johnson, Texas

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    LM OTERO/Associated Press

    That anyone places ahead of Ndamukong Suh on this list is impressive, and is a testament to the breadth and dominance of Derrick Johnson's college career. This wasn't an easy choice.

    But it was the right one.

    Johnson was a three-time All-Big 12 First-Team linebacker and a two-time first-team All-American. He won the Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year, Butkus and Nagurski Awards in his senior season of 2005, leading Texas to a Rose Bowl victory over Michigan.

    But it wasn't all about stats and awards that made Johnson so fearsome. It was, of course, also about his famous punch-out move, which was (and still is) one of the best in the history of football.

    No ball-carrier was ever safe around Johnson, no possession ever sure to end in points or a punt. Whenever he locked an unprotected ball in his sights, he would find a way to put it on the turf. He was constantly breathing down people's necks. He was always forcing players—or at least the prudent ones—to look back over their shoulders.

    He was someone worth having nightmares about.