College Football 2011: Finding The Big 12's Best Returning Players

Kelly CohenCorrespondent IFebruary 17, 2011

College Football 2011: Finding The Big 12's Best Returning Players

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    The Big 12 Conference spans across five states in the Midwest and was officially formed in 1994.  Since then, the college football world has seen only three BCS National Champions come from the conference.

    Nonetheless, many view teams in the Big 12 as powerhouses - not only are they talented, but many of the household names we know came from a Big 12 school.  In fact, the opening day rosters of 2010 had almost 200 players from the conference.

    The departures of Nebraska and Colorado starting in 2011 leave the Big 12 looking weak compared to other conferences.  Regardless of how the remaining ten teams (Iowa State, Kansas State, Kansas, Missouri, Baylor, Oklahoma State, Texas A&M, Texas Tech, Oklahoma, Texas) finished the 2010 season, they showcased exceptional players in every position.

    30 Big 12 players may have been selected in the 2010 NFL Draft (and the first four players selected in the history of the common draft), but many worthy players are returning as well. 

    Here is a list of 20 of the best returning players in the Big 12, in no particular order.

Landry Jones (Oklahoma)

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    Jones, one of the highest ranked quarterbacks in the 2008 class, appeared to us when he became the 2009 starter do to an injury to Sam Bradford.  That same year, he dominated in the 2009 Sun Bowl victory against Stanford.   

    Constantly compared to his predecessor Sam Bradford, Jones excelled in 2010: he threw for over 4,000 yards and 38 touchdowns. The Sooners finished 12-2, with a Big 12 Championship and BCS Bowl game victory.  His improvement, coupled with the return of other players, signals he may be ready to lead his team to a BCS Championship game in 2011.  

Robert Griffin (Baylor)

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    This redshirt junior quarterback has not only managed to keep his quarterback rating above 140.0 in his less than three years of play, but in 2010, he threw for 22 touchdowns and over 3,500 yards.  He picked up many awards as a freshman, including Big 12 Offensive Freshman of the Year, and this past season, he rebounded after a shortened sophomore season to be named to the All-Big 12 Second Team.

    Although the Bears finished 7-5 and 4th in the Big 12 South, Griffin did put up numbers that make him recognizable against the other conference quarterbacks.  His 2011 season will be one to watch.

Ryan Broyles (Oklahoma)

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    The Sooners number one wide receiver was a unanimous selection to the All-Big 12 First Team.   With over 1,600 yards receiving and 14 touchdowns, he helped lead Oklahoma to Big 12 Championship and a Fiesta Bowl win against Connecticut.

    Many thought he would declare, but when he said he would return for his senior season, the Sooner nation cheered.  This decision makes their offensive even more dangerous as they will make a run to the BSC Title game.

Justin Blackmon (Oklahoma State)

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    After winning the 2010 award for the nation’s top wide receiver (the Fred Biletnikoff Award), Stillwater thought they could be experience deja-vu with Blackmon (think junior Dez Bryant after 2009).  Yet, his decision to return can only mean Oklahoma State’s offense will be a force to be reckoned with.

    With 20 touchdowns and over 1,700 yards receiving, it is not a surprise that he was a unanimous choice for the All-Big 12 First Team.  The Cowboys are clearly doing something right with their receivers; his third year with them will be one to remember.

Tony Jefferson (Oklahoma)

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    This number four-ranked safety in the country showed us why in 2010.  Not only did he win Big 12 Co-Defensive Freshman Player of the Year, but also The Sporting News and named him to the first Freshman All-American team.

    On the season, he finished with 65 tackles and two interceptions; he will lead a talented Oklahoma defense into 2011.

Shaun Lewis (Oklahoma State)

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    Lewis, who co-won Big 12 Defensive Freshman Player of the Year, played in all 13 games as an outside linebacker for the Cowboys.  He finished the season with 55 tackles (7 for a loss), three interceptions, and three forced fumbles.

    The Oklahoma State defense forced 30 turnovers in 2010, which ranked 4th in the country.  Lewis clearly was instrumental in this and will definitely help continue their defensive dominance in 2011.

Jeff Fuller (Texas A&M)

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    This wide receiver was the only Aggie selected to the All-Big 12 First Team.  His 1,066 recieving yards led the team, and his twelve touchdowns put him in a tie for 3rd most offensively.

    Though the Aggies only finished third in the Big 12, they did have impressive wins over ranked Oklahoma and Nebraska.  With a talented and experienced senior quarterback at the helm, the door is wide open for Fuller.

Michael Egnew (Missouri)

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    Egnew, the only Tiger to make All-Big 12 First Team, was not only a finalist for the John Mackey Award (nation’s most outstanding tight end), but was selected to the AP All-America First Team. 

    While leading the nation's tight ends with 90 receptions, he also put up staggering numbers of almost 800 yards catching and five touchdowns.  Despite the departure of quarterback Blaine Gabbert, the potential for this rising senior is just the same.

Levy Adcock (Oklahoma State)

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    The Cowboys ranked tenth in the nation in fewest sacks allowed, and Adcock certainly was a reason.  At right tackle, he was named to the All-Big 12 First Team.

    Despite the loss of six defensive starters, Adcock is a senior who will be able to lead the offensive line, which returns five starters.

T.J. Moe (Missouri)

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    Sophomore Moe burst onto the Missouri offense after a less than impressive freshman year.  Compared to a mere two receptions in 2009, he had 92 receptions for 1,045 yards and six touchdowns in 2010.  On the depth chart, he is ranked at the new number once receiver and will definitely be a target in the upcoming season.

    Moe also lead the team in receptions in his breakout season, helping the Missouri offense to be known as dangerous.  Losing quarterback Blaine Gabbert be hard to recover from at first, but the Tigers are talented enough to do so.

Brandon Weeden (Oklahoma State)

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    Why was Weeden named the quarterback for the All-Big 12 First Team?  Winning this award can be contributed to his season's performance of throwing for over 4,200 yards, with 34 touchdowns and only 13 interceptions.  His 154.10 passer rating helped propel the Cowboys to a 10-2 finish and a bowl win against Arizona.

    The return of his number one target Justin Blackmon may be a reason why the Cowboys give the Sooners a legitimate run for Big 12 Champion in 2011.  Big 12 Coach of the Year Mike Gundy will also help lead Weeden, who has all the potential to perform even better than he did in 2010.

Jacquies Smith (Missouri)

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    The number sixth ranked defense would have lacked without help from defensive end Smith.  Although he’s averaged only about 30.0 tackles per season, he’s made some amazing plays.  In 2010, he had 10 tackles for loss, two forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries, three passes broken up, and one blocked kick.

    With the departure of star Aldon Smith, as senior, J. Smith will undoubtedly have to step up.  If he continues to develop, his 2011 season will be very memorable for the Tigers.

Travis Lewis (Oklahoma)

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    This rising senior is without a doubt a stud at outside linebacker.  His decision to not declare is based on the fact that he not only loves the Sooner football program, but wants to leave with a BCS Title. 

    In 2008, he was Big 12 Defensive Freshman of the Year and named to the All-Big 12 First Team.  In 2009, he was also named to the All-Big 12 First Team.  Despite only being named to the All-Big 12 Second Team in 2010, he had 62 solo tackles (109 total), two sacks, and three interceptions.  His performance in 2010 helped move him to ninth in school history for career tackles (362).  His dedication to not only football, but also Oklahoma proves that he will be one of the Big 12’s best linebackers in 2011.

Ty Zimmerman (Kansas State)

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    The Cyclones, who finished 5-7, may have something positive to look at with linebacker Jake Knott.  He ranked 3rd in the Big 12 with 130 tackles, including one sack, four forced fumbles, and four interceptions.

    Knott also got a place on the All-Big 12 Second Team, highlight just one of two Iowa State players to get any All-Big 12 mention.  It will be interesting to see how both he and his team improve in 2011.

Cyrus Gray (Texas A&M)

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    Gray, who started the season sharing the running back role with Christine Michael, made a name for himself with six straight 100-yard games.  After becoming the Aggie with the most rushing yards (223) in a win against rival Texas, many thought he would declare. 

    But this All-Big 12 Honorable Mention player decided to return for his senior season in hopes of having a more successful season.  Look for the Aggies to improve their 5th place finish in rushing offense in the Big 12 in 2011, especially with highly regarded running back Gray in the backfield.