Big 12 Football: Best Players at Every Position
It's mid-June. With no practice or anything else to speak of, college fans are left to their own devices. That usually means debating never-ending circles of subjectivity like which players are the best.
The Big 12 might not be the most heralded conference at the moment, but it has its fair share of talent. From TCU quarterback Trevone Boykin to Oklahoma running back Samaje Perine and Baylor defensive end Shawn Oakman, there's a lot of quality talent on the field.
But who is the best at each position?
We took 2014 stats into consideration, as well as preseason/postseason accolades, but players listed don't necessarily have to be stat leaders. Injuries, for example, can affect a player's numbers.
And so, let us go forth with the best players at every position in the Big 12—a list that surely will not start a single debate or incite angry responses. Nope, none at all.
Quarterback: Trevone Boykin, TCU
Imagine naming Trevone Boykin the Big 12's best quarterback this time last year. By now, you probably know about his transformation under co-offensive coordinators Sonny Cumbie and Doug Meacham. There's also a significant drop-off behind Boykin at quarterback in the Big 12.
In 2014, he led the Big 12 with 3,902 passing yards. He also accounted for 41 total touchdowns passing and rushing. A preseason Heisman candidate, he is everything a dual-threat quarterback should be: a solid passer and a legitimate rushing threat who can extend the play with his feet. Boykin has room to grow in his accuracy, but his pocket awareness and ability to read defenses were night and day from 2013.
With another year under Cumbie and Meacham's guidance, Boykin could be putting up 50 touchdowns in 2015.
Honorable Mention: Mason Rudolph (Oklahoma State), Skyler Howard (West Virginia)
Running Back: Samaje Perine, Oklahoma
This wasn't even supposed to be Samaje Perine's job a year ago. Joe Mixon was the running back who came into Oklahoma as a freshman in 2014 with all the hype. But with Mixon's legal trouble and Keith Ford's injury, Perine took over.
As a freshman, he led the Big 12 with 1,713 yards and 21 touchdowns. No other running back in the Big 12 came within 400 yards of Perine. He also broke Melvin Gordon's one-week-old, single-game rushing record by tallying 427 yards against Kansas last November.
The Sooners' running back depth chart is filled with talent, but Perine is a capable every-down back who is already cementing himself as the cornerstone of the offense.
Honorable Mention: Shock Linwood (Baylor), Aaron Green (TCU), DeAndre Washington (Texas Tech), Rushel Shell (West Virginia).
Wide Receiver: Sterling Shepard, Oklahoma
This was a tough one. The Big 12 has been a hotbed for great wide receivers over the years. Two great ones—Kevin White from West Virginia and Tyler Lockett from Kansas State—are gone. That leaves Oklahoma's Sterling Shepard as the best the Big 12 has to offer out wide.
Shepard's 2014 stats were good—51 receptions for 970 yards and five touchdowns—but he also dealt with a groin injury that hampered his production in the last month of the season. During that stretch, he caught just one ball for 13 yards, and that was in the bowl game loss to Clemson. In other words, his stats basically came through the month of October. He had an astounding 15 catches in a 31-30 loss to Kansas State.
At 5'10", 191 pounds, Shepard isn't the biggest receiver on the field, but he's fast and can shoot by many defenders. He's also a smart route-runner—the guy just knows how to play the position. If only he could find a reliable quarterback to get him the ball...
Honorable Mention: Corey Coleman (Baylor), Jakeem Grant (Texas Tech), Josh Doctson (TCU), KD Cannon (Baylor), Jordan Thompson (West Virginia).
Fullback/Tight End: Glenn Gronkowski, Kansas State
The Big 12 lacks playmakers at tight end with the departures of Iowa State's E.J. Bibbs and Kansas State's Zach Trujillo. However, the Wildcats have a nice passing option with fullback Glenn Gronkowski. Gronk only caught five balls last year but averaged nearly 20 yards per catch.
Whether or not Gronk will be the best player at his position at the end of the year remains to be seen. For now, though, the Big 12 has a lot of new faces at that spot.
Honorable Mention: Mark Andrews (Oklahoma), Laquan McGowan (Baylor).
Center: Kyle Fuller, Baylor
Kyle Fuller is only entering his second year as a starting center for Baylor, but he's already the Big 12's best player up front. As a redshirt sophomore, he started in all 13 games and was part of a unit that finished first in the conference in scoring offense, passing offense and rushing touchdowns. Baylor also finished fourth in the Big 12 with 1.83 sacks allowed per game.
According to his bio, Fuller recorded 49 total knockdowns and had an 87.3 grade by the coaching staff. If you think the Bears are only known for finesse offense, think again. Baylor has easily the best starting offensive and defensive line from edge to edge entering the season.
On offense at least, Fuller anchors that line.
Honorable Mention: Ty Darlington (Oklahoma), Tyler Orlosky (West Virginia).
Tackle: Spencer Drango, Baylor
Along with center Kyle Fuller, Baylor tackle Spencer is part of one of the best O-lines in the Big 12. Drango is entering his fourth year as a starter and has All-American and all-conference honors to boot. He could have left after the 2014 season if he wanted; instead, he opted to return for one more year.
Drango is capable of going up against some of the best pass-rushers in the Big 12, like Pete Robinson of Texas Tech and Emmanuel Ogbah of Oklahoma State. Without him, Baylor's passing game just isn't the same.
Honorable Mention: Le’Raven Clark (Texas Tech)
Guard: Alfredo Morales, Texas Tech
You wouldn't think of Texas Tech as a solid rushing team, but the Red Raiders finished third in the Big 12 a year ago with 5.17 yards per carry (even if they did only have eight rushing touchdowns). Paving those holes was redshirt senior guard Alfredo Morales.
Thanks in part to Morales, Tech had its first 1,000-yard rusher, DeAndre Washington, since 1998. In all, the Red Raiders rushed for more than 1,800 yards.
Morales doesn't get as much attention as, say, Le’Raven Clark at tackle, but he's a crucial part of the O-line. This is a group that finished second in the Big 12 in sacks allowed as well. Morales is entering his fourth year as a contributor and third year as a primary starter at guard.
Honorable Mention: Sedrick Flowers (Texas), Blake Muir (Baylor), Brady Foltz (TCU), Jamelle Naff (TCU).
Defensive End: Shawn Oakman, Baylor
Statistically, Baylor defensive end Shawn Oakman didn't have the most sacks in the Big 12 last year. That would be Pete Robertson of Texas Tech (13). However, Oakman wasn't far behind with 11 sacks. He also had 19.5 tackles for loss and eight quarterback hurries.
In short, you're not going to find a more feared edge-rusher in the Big 12 than Oakman. Pass rushing is his specialty. He has excellent quickness, is insanely athletic and is an overall disruptive force at the line of scrimmage and in the backfield with three forced fumbles and three passes broken up.
The scary thing about Oakman is that he's the best at his position in the Big 12—yet he still has so much room to grow as a run-stopper. Still, he's getting chatter as a No. 1 overall pick in next year's draft by people like Chris Burke of Sports Illustrated.
Honorable Mention: Pete Robertson (Texas Tech), Emmanuel Ogbah (Oklahoma State), Charles Tapper (Oklahoma).
Defensive Tackle: Andrew Billings, Baylor
For all the hype that Oakman gets, another freakish athlete resides in the interior of Baylor's defensive line: Andrew Billings.
Billings' role doesn't get a lot of attention—he only had two sacks in 2014—but he's versatile player who can disrupt in the backfield or chase players in open space. He had a team-best nine quarterback hurries, and as Max Olson of ESPN.com wrote last November, he can chase down running backs in the open field.
To have that kind of disruptive force in the middle of the line is what opens up opportunities for other guys to make plays. An offense knows it might have to double-team Billings—and that he still might get through or make a tackle. That's what you call a mismatch.
Honorable Mention: Hassan Ridgeway (Texas), Davion Pierson (TCU), Beau Blackshear (Baylor).
Outside Linebacker: Eric Striker, Oklahoma
Besides Oakman, no other pass-rusher is—or should be—feared like Oklahoma linebacker Eric Striker. At the very least, he is the most appropriately named defender in the Big 12, if not in all of college football.
Striker made a name for himself as a sophomore in 2013, leading the team with 6.5 sacks, 10.5 tackles for loss and seven quarterback hurries. His numbers for sacks (nine) and tackles for loss (17) went up last season. NFL.com's Mike Huguenin also named him as one of college football's hardest hitters.
To Striker's credit, though, he's more than just a force in the backfield. He finished fourth on the team with 68 tackles—18 more than his sophomore effort. His overall game as an outside linebacker is still improving, and his size (6'0", 223 lbs) is an issue, but he's an incredible player off the edge with unreal quickness.
Honorable Mention: Elijah Lee (Kansas State), Seth Jacobs (Oklahoma State).
Inside Linebacker: Nick Kwiatkoski, West Virginia
Wouldn't you know it, but West Virginia might rely on a stout defense to wins games in 2015—just like we all predicted would happen when the Mountaineers hired Air Raid guru Dana Holgorsen as their head coach.
On a serious note, though, the Mountaineers have built up a nice defense after fielding a historically bad one in 2012. Many of those players who were first-year starters then are now juniors and seniors. One of those veterans is linebacker Nick Kwiatkoski.
He is entering his third year as a starter and his fourth with meaningful playing time. He's a tackling machine, recording 71 solo takedowns last season. That's the most of any returning player in the Big 12. In all, he had 103 tackles in 2014, 11.5 of which went for a loss.
Today's middle linebacker isn't just someone who makes tackles in a phone booth; rather, Kwiatkoski is a player who can go sideline to sideline and make plays in open space.
"There were games last year where it felt like he was the only guy out there," defensive coordinator Tony Gibson told Brandon Chatmon of ESPN.com in May. "You look around and he's all over the field."
Honorable Mention: Dominique Alexander (Oklahoma), Jordan Evans (Oklahoma), Dalton Santos (Texas).
Cornerback: Nigel Tribune, Iowa State
Nigel Tribune won't get a lot of looks because Iowa State hasn't been bowl-eligible in a few years. Furthermore, Iowa State's pass defense ranked dead last in the Big 12 last year in yards per game allowed.
That said, the junior cornerback has been an important staple of the Cyclones defense. An All Second-Team Big 12 selection a year ago, Tribune has 18 starts to his name. According to his bio, he was the only "true freshman to play for ISU during the 2012 and 2013 seasons."
Tribune is one of the leading returning players in the conference in passes broken up (13). He also had three picks a year ago. The Cyclones defense hasn't been your traditional Paul Rhoads sort of group lately, but Tribune is one of the few bright spots on that team.
He's certainly an outstanding corner and has the possibility for NFL draft hopes as early as next year.
Honorable Mention: Duke Thomas (Texas), Zack Sanchez (Oklahoma), Danzel McDaniel (Kansas State).
Safety: Karl Joseph, West Virginia
West Virginia safety Karl Joseph is another one of those longtime starters for the Mountaineers who endured some lumps early. Now, Joseph, who has started 38 career games, is part of a defense that could be the best the program has seen in years.
From his first days as a freshman, he has impressed as a hard-hitting safety. Now, others are catching on. We mentioned Mike Huguenin's list of the most physical players in college football with Striker earlier. Well, guess who's No. 1?
Other than Kwiatkoski, no one on West Virginia's defense had more tackles last year than Joseph. (On that note, he actually led the Mountaineers in tackles as a freshman in 2012.)
Honorable Mention: Steven Parker (Oklahoma), Orion Stewart (Baylor), Dante Barnett (Kansas State).
What would a team be without specialists, right? How does the saying go—you never know the kicker's name until he wins the game? Here are the Big 12's top specialists in the kicking and return game.
Kicker: Josh Lambert, West Virginia: He made all 45 extra points and went 30-of-39 on field-goal tries. Two of those field goals were game-winners—against Maryland and Texas Tech.
Punter: Taylor Symmank, Texas Tech: Nick O'Toole of WVU might have the best facial hair in the Big 12—and don't think we didn't take that under consideration—but Symmank leads all returning punters with a 42.65 yards-per-punt average.
Returning: Alex Ross, Oklahoma: Ross led the Big 12 with 31.22 yards per return last season and took two kicks to the house.
Ben Kercheval is a lead writer for college football. All stats courtesy of cfbstats.com. All quotes cited unless obtained firsthand.