Big 12 Football: Power Ranking Best Defensive Players Pre-2014 Spring Practice

Ben KerchevalCollege Football Lead WriterFebruary 26, 2014

Big 12 Football: Power Ranking Best Defensive Players Pre-2014 Spring Practice

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    Matt York/Associated Press

    To say what the controversial defensive substitution rule can't on its own: How about some love for the defense?

    Though the Big 12 has been known for potent offenses, it was defense that had a big year in 2013. Cornerbacks like Oklahoma State's Justin Gilbert and TCU's Jason Verrett made life difficult for opposing receivers.

    Or how about Texas defensive end Jackson Jeffcoat, the Big 12 Co-Defensive Player of the Year? He was constantly in the backfield creating pressure. 

    While guys like Gilbert and Jeffcoat will be missed, there are still a ton of solid defenders coming back to the Big 12 in 2014. Can the conference shake its offense-first reputation and become better known for its defenses?

    With so many quarterbacks coming back, there's a chance. 

    Who are the best Big 12 defensive players heading into spring practice? (You can also check out B/R's Big 12 quarterback and running back pre-spring power rankings.)

6. Oklahoma Linebacker Eric Striker

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    LM Otero/Associated Press

    It says something about your style of play when "heat-seeking missile" is the first adjective that comes to mind. It's appropriate, then, that Oklahoma has a linebacker named Eric Striker. 

    And he strikes more fear into opposing offenses than any other defender in the Big 12. 

    Striker led the Sooners with 10.5 tackles for loss and 6.5 sacks, finishing tied for fourth in the conference in the latter category. He also had seven quarterback hurries. 

    Striker is a pass-rushing specialist, there's no doubt about that. Perhaps that makes him one-dimensional, but he's one of the best at what he does. 

    He just knows how to find his way into the backfield. 

5. TCU Safety Sam Carter

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    Brandon Wade/Associated Press

    The scariest part about TCU's secondary, which is the best in the conference, is that three-fifths of it are coming back. 

    Sam Carter is an important member of the Frogs' returning defense.  He finished first on the team and second in the Big 12 with five interceptions, one of which he returned for a touchdown. 

    Carter also finished third on the team with four sacks, had a pair of pass breakups and a forced fumble. A starter in every game last year, Carter was named second-team All-Big 12 for the second consecutive season. 

    Simply put, Carter is one of the premier safeties in the Big 12. 

4. Kansas Cornerback JaCorey Shepherd

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    Orlin Wagner/Associated Press

    Kansas had not one, but two excellent cornerbacks last season: Dexter McDonald and JaCorey Shepherd. 

    Shepherd is actually a converted wide receiver, but he's done an outstanding job on defense. He was All-Big 12 Honorable Mention, but consider the other corners (Gilbert, Verrett, Aaron Colvin, etc.) who were named first- and-second-team selections. 

    That's a loaded group.

    Shepherd finished tied for second in the Big 12 in pass breakups (13) and passes defended (15). It just didn't get more attention because Kansas was 3-9 with a, statistically speaking, below-average pass defense (79th in the country). 

    Still, Shepherd is one of the better corners in the conference. He should pick up right where he left off. 

3. Oklahoma Linebacker Dominique Alexander

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    Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

    If you want an example of coming off the bench in a big way, look no further than Oklahoma linebacker Dominique Alexander. 

    Alexander was already seeing playing time as a true freshman, but he became a full-time starter when Corey Nelson sustained a season-ending torn pectoral muscle. 

    All Alexander did was finish second on the team in tackles (80) and bring home the Big 12 Defensive Freshman of the Year Award. In a 36-20 loss to Texas, he accounted for an astounding 19 tackles. 

    The biggest attribute Nelson brought to the Sooners was veteran leadership; Alexander showed he had no issue stepping in and picking up where Nelson left off. 

    He has a bright future ahead of him. The Sooners are fortunate to go from one outstanding linebacker (Nelson) to another with hardly a transition. 

2. Texas Defensive End Cedric Reed

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    Brendan Maloney-USA TODAY Sports

    Jackson Jeffcoat got a majority of the attention last year, but Longhorns defensive end Cedric Reed was every bit as important to Texas' pass rush. 

    Reed, a second-team All-Big 12 selection, finished second on the team in tackles for loss (16.5) and sacks (10). Reed finished fourth and third in the conference in those categories, respectively. 

    Reed really helped the Longhorns when he announced that he, along with cornerback Quandre Diggs, would be returning for his senior year. With new head coach Charlie Strong's defensive background, Reed is primed for a bigger chunk of the spotlight in 2014. 

1. Kansas State Defensive End Ryan Mueller

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    Jackson Jeffcoat was statistically the best pass-rusher in the Big 12 last season, but Kansas State defensive end Ryan Mueller wasn't far behind. 

    In fact, Mueller finished second in the conference with 18.5 tackles for loss—a mere 0.5 TFL behind Jeffcoat. Mueller also finished first on the team with 11.5 sacks, basically amounting to just under one sack per game. 

    Not to mention he had the baddest individual defensive play in 2013: his strip forced fumble/recovery of Baylor quarterback Bryce Petty. 

    Mueller is a former walk-on, so his success is that much more fascinating. The guy simply doesn't stop playing. Ever. 

    He had a legit case to be the conference's Defensive Player of the Year last season. He'll undoubtedly be in the running for it again barring injury. 

Honorable Mentions

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    OK, we're softies. 

    There are simply too many good defensive players to narrow the list down too much. Consider this a "best of the rest" in the Big 12:

     

    TCU cornerback Kevin White: Overshadowed by Verrett, White finished second on the team in pass breakups (eight) and passes deflected (11). He's still one of the best corners in the Big 12. 

     

    West Virginia linebacker Nick Kwiatkoski: He led the Mountaineers with 86 tackles but missed a couple of games due to injury. 

     

    Kansas Linebacker Ben Heeney: An All-Big 12 Second Team selection, Heeney led the Jayhawks in tackles (87) and tackles for loss (11.5). He also finished second on the team with three interceptions. 

     

    Ben Kercheval is the lead writer for Big 12 football. All stats courtesy of cfbstats.com