Top 10 Big 12 Players Poised to Have a Breakout Year
The Big 12 has belonged to the Oklahoma Sooners, who have rattled off five straight conference championships.
The Sooners begin the season at No. 5 in the initial AP poll, which still features teams from the conferences that have postponed their 2020 fall sports.
Joining them in the Top 25 are fellow Big 12 teams Texas (No. 14), Oklahoma State (No. 15) and Iowa State (No. 24), while Baylor (No. 36) and TCU (No. 38) received votes.
With so many viable contenders on Oklahoma's heels, there's no telling how the Big 12 standings will shake out, and individual breakout performances could have a significant impact on the conference landscape.
Ahead, we've highlighted 10 potential breakout players to know in the Big 12 conference.
In order to be considered for inclusion, a player must not have earned All-Big 12 First Team or Second Team honors in 2019.
Let's get to it.
S Tykee Smith, West Virginia
A 3-star recruit and the No. 43 safety in the 2019 recruiting class, Tykee Smith made a significant impact as a true freshman at West Virginia.
He tallied 50 tackles (36 solo) with two interceptions, one sack, one forced fumble and four pass deflections, putting him on the path to be playing on Sundays.
"Smith had a remarkable true freshman season that led him to being named an FWAA Freshman All-American and recognition on the All-Big 12 Honorable Mention list. He flew from sideline to sideline and always seemed to be near the ball. If he continues this rate of production, he will get serious consideration for the NFL," wrote Schuyler Callihan of Sports Illustrated.
The Mountaineers secondary struggled at times last season, finishing 88th in the FBS with 239.9 passing yards allowed per game. The young defensive backs gained some valuable experience, though, and that unit should be improved in 2020 as Smith helps to lead the way.
CB Anthony Johnson Jr., Iowa State
Iowa State was the only Power Five team to offer Anthony Johnson Jr. during the 2018 recruiting cycle.
After a strong sophomore season, he looks like a diamond in the rough, and he'll look to build on that performance during his junior campaign.
One of just four true freshmen not to redshirt for the Cyclones in 2018, he joined the team as a 3-star recruit and quickly played his way into a complementary role.
He took over as a starting cornerback last year and tallied 60 tackles, seven tackles for loss, two sacks and two forced fumbles while tying for the team lead with 10 pass deflections.
Iowa State also returns fellow starting cornerback Datrone Young, along with first-team All-Big 12 safety Greg Eisworth II, so there is no shortage of experience in the secondary.
WR Jake Smith, Texas
Devin Duvernay hauled in 106 receptions for 1,386 yards last season for the University of Texas before the Baltimore Ravens selected him in the third round of the NFL draft.
Replacing that level of production won't be easy, but if the passing game continues to employ a slot-heavy approach, Jake Smith could be the biggest beneficiary of Duvernay's departure in 2020.
The 2018-19 Gatorade National Football Player of the Year, Smith joined the Longhorns as a 4-star prospect and the No. 49 overall player in the 2019 recruiting cycle.
He hauled in 25 receptions for 274 yards and six touchdowns as a true freshman, and he could become the go-to guy for senior quarterback Sam Ehlinger in the passing game.
"Smith showed the staff enough as a true freshman to have everyone internally believing he can carry a potentially heavy load at H, a position Duvernay and Lil'Jordan Humphrey have shown each of the last two seasons can be the focal point of the offense," wrote Jeff Howe of 247Sports.
The All-Big 12 First Team is not out of the question.
WR Tyquan Thornton, Baylor
Another wide receiver who stands to benefit from the departure of a high-volume target, Tyquan Thornton is now the clear No. 1 option in the Baylor passing game.
Senior Denzel Mims had 66 catches, 1,020 yards and 12 touchdowns for the Bears last season, and the New York Jets selected the three-year starter in the second round of the NFL draft.
Thornton finished second on the team in receptions (45), yards (782) and receiving touchdowns (5), and his 17.4 yards per catch trailed only CeeDee Lamb (21.4) and Tarique Milton (20.6) among all qualified Big 12 receivers.
R.J. Sneed (42 catches, 437 yards, 3 TD) and Josh Fleeks (25 catches, 262 yards, 1 TD) will also pick up some of the slack in the passing game. Still, Thornton looks like the clear No. 1 option.
RB Zachary Evans, TCU
Zachary Evans had one of the stranger recruiting odysseys in recent memory. He committed to Georgia during the early signing period, was let out of his letter of intent, narrowed his list of schools to Ole Miss, Tennessee and Texas A&M after another recruiting push, and finally landed at TCU.
In the end, it might be the best fit for the 5-star running back and No. 16 player in the 2020 class.
Running backs Darius Anderson (151 carries, 823 yards, 6 TD) and Sewo Olonilua (134 carries, 537 yards, 8 TD) are both gone from a Horned Frogs team that went 5-7 last year.
That leaves quarterback Max Duggan (130 carries, 555 yards, 6 TD) as the team's top returning rusher, which should open the door for Evans to make an immediate impact.
With a strong 5'11", 200-pound frame and elite speed, he looks like a future NFL running back.
WR Jadon Haselwood, Oklahoma
Charleston Rambo is the most talked-about receiver in the high-powered Oklahoma offense. A big season from him is almost a foregone conclusion after he hauled in 43 catches for 743 yards and five touchdowns lining up alongside CeeDee Lamb as a sophomore.
Don't sleep on Jadon Haselwood, though.
His upside is no secret after he joined the Sooners as the top wide receiver and the No. 4 overall recruit in the 2019 cycle.
He had 19 catches for 272 yards and one touchdown as a true freshman, including three catches for 25 yards against LSU in the Peach Bowl.
His 6'2", 196-pound frame and high-point skills make him an attractive target for new quarterback Spencer Rattler, and he could take a significant step forward in 2020.
DE Trace Ford, Oklahoma State
Trace Ford played a much bigger role than expected as a true freshman last season, recording 29 tackles, four tackles for loss, three sacks, one forced fumble, one interception and four pass deflections.
Not bad for a 3-star recruit ranked as the No. 26 weak-side defensive end in the 2019 recruiting class.
As Charles Power of 247Sports wrote:
"If we're being honest, I didn't expect Ford to be this good, this quickly, given his inexperience. He took off at Oklahoma State and continued to add size, going from 6-foot-3, 227 pounds to 6-foot-4, 248 pounds. He's fluid and athletic enough to play linebacker and drop into space, but really shined in his pass rush opportunities, registering the highest pressure rate among freshman edge defenders in 2019 – ahead of former five-stars like Kayvon Thibodeaux, George Karlafitis and Nolan Smith."
A young Oklahoma State defensive line grew into a strength as the season progressed last year, and Ford has a chance to be one of the nation's breakout stars on the defensive side of the ball in 2020.
LB Joseph Ossai, Texas
This one kind of feels like cheating, but Texas linebacker Joseph Ossai technically meets the criteria for inclusion.
After playing sparingly as a true freshman, Ossai put together a huge sophomore season for the Longhorns, racking up 90 tackles (61 solo), 13.5 tackles for loss, five sacks, two interceptions and one forced fumble.
Despite those stellar numbers, he settled for All-Big 12 Honorable Mention honors last year, making him eligible to be included in this article.
"Texas junior Joseph Ossai is poised for a breakout season. New position will allow him to show off his pass-rush moves and if you watched the bowl game you saw how dangerous he can be when unleashed. 2021 draft could be weak at EDGE. Ossai is a name to remember," B/R's Matt Miller tweeted in May.
Ossai put up an absurd nine tackles, six tackles for loss and three sacks against Utah in the Alamo Bowl.
That could prove to be the jumping-off point for one of college football's rising defensive stars.
QB Spencer Sanders, Oklahoma State
Spencer Sanders flashed intriguing potential as a redshirt freshman last season, racking up 2,065 passing yards, 628 rushing yards and 18 total touchdowns, the 10th-most in the Big 12.
He started the season with 453 passing yards, 160 rushing yards and six touchdowns with zero interceptions in wins over Oregon State and McNeese State. He also led the Cowboys to conference victories over Kansas State, Iowa State, TCU and Kansas.
However, he also tied for the Big 12 high with 11 interceptions, and he missed the final three games of the regular season with a hand injury.
With a clean bill of health and new quarterbacks coach Tim Rattay to aid in his development, Sanders looks poised to lead an experienced Oklahoma State team to big things in 2020.
QB Spencer Rattler, Oklahoma
Spencer Rattler has a grand total of 81 passing yards and one touchdown in his college career.
Despite that scant resume, he enters the 2020 season as one of the most hyped quarterbacks in college football, thanks in large part to the Oklahoma system that has turned Baker Mayfield, Kyler Murray and Jalen Hurts into Heisman Trophy contenders the past three seasons.
A 5-star recruit and the top pro-style quarterback in the 2019 recruiting class, Rattler came to Norman with considerable upside and lofty future expectations.
That future is now, and after starting running back Kennedy Brooks opted out of the 2020 season, there will be added pressure on Rattler to lead an effective passing game.
He's a bit undersized at 6'1", 205 pounds, but he has an accurate arm and a quick release to go along with the athleticism to extend plays and move around the pocket. The tools are there to be the next star under center for the Sooners.
All stats courtesy of Sports Reference, while recruiting rankings come via 247Sports.