The Big 12 has been long ridiculed for its lack of defensive prowess.
Last season, though, that tide began turning.
Only one team ranked in the top 20 in the NCAA in defense — Oklahoma (No. 20) — but four teams ranked in the top 30, including much maligned Baylor, which had struggled during the early portion of Art Briles’ tenure in Waco.
Last season, the Bears were ranked 28th in the nation in total defense. TCU, as usual, was one of the few stalwarts of defense in the conference and ranked 24th. Kansas State was 26th.
This season, all four defenses should be strong again. And TCU might have one of the best defenses in the nation with the return of Devonte Fields, who sat out all of 2013 with a broken foot.
Meanwhile, Texas was ranked 68th last season despite huge struggles defending the run. That should change with Charlie Strong, who helped lead Florida to two BCS national titles as defensive coordinator, in charge of the defense.
The bottom half of the conference could make those negative perceptions a reality, though. Texas Tech, Kansas, West Virginia and Iowa State were all ranked between 84th and 105th in total defense last year.
However, except Iowa State, each of those teams has one of the top 10 defensive players in the conference. Here are my preseason rankings of the top 10 defensive players, who could impact the Big 12 this season.
1. DEVONTE FIELDS, DE, TCU
A broken foot robbed Fields of an encore performance from his freshman season. However, all signs point to Fields returning as strong as ever — he was the Big 12’s preseason defensive player of the year. Fields earned a medical redshirt following an injury last season. But his freshman year was more than enough proof of the kind of havoc he can create for offenses.
Fields had 10 sacks, 18.5 tackles for loss, an interception, two forced fumbles and a fumble recovery in 2012 and was the Big 12’s Defensive Freshman of the Year. His absence in 2013 was a major blow to the TCU defense, but with him back on the edge, the Horned Frogs will once again sport one of the league’s fiercest pass rushes.
2. CEDRIC REED, DE TEXAS
Reed had a career year in 2013 with 10 sacks, 19 tackles for loss and five forced fumbles. He had three games with multiple sacks and could be poised to have an even bigger 2014 with Strong in charge. Louisville, Strong’s former team as head coach, had the No.1 ranked defense last season. Though Texas’ defense was maligned at times last year, Reed should once again thrive in the pass-rushing department. If he can stop the run, too, he could give Fields a run for his money for defensive player of the year in the Big 12.
3. RYAN MUELLER, DE,
Ryan Mueller began his Kansas State career as a walk-on. That seems to be what Bill Snyder does. He recruits two-star players and makes them five-star guys. Last season, Mueller had 11.5 sacks and 18.5 tackles for loss among his 62 tackles (53 solo). The 11.5 sacks tied the school record, and with another year like that in 2014, he would finish in the top three in Kansas State history.
4. ERIC STRIKER, LB, OKLAHOMA
Eric Striker, much like QB Trevor Knight, made his mark in the Sooners’ Sugar Bowl win over Alabama. Striker sacked A.J. McCarron three times and also forced a fumble against the Crimson Tide. Though undersized, Striker is fast. He had 6.5 sacks and 10.5 tackles for loss last season even though he only had 50 tackles on the season.
5. SAM CARTER, DB, TCU
TCU suffered through one of its worst seasons in recent memory in 2013, going 4-8. But it wasn’t Carter’s fault. The senior has started 26 games for the Horned Frogs. Last season, he led TCU with five interceptions and also got into the backfield on occasion, registering four sacks and 7.5 tackles for loss.
6. SHAWN OAKMAN, LB, BAYLOR
Oakman redshirted at Penn State and then transferred to Baylor, giving the defensive lineman two years off of the playing field. It didn’t show. Even though he was a backup in 2013, Oakman still managed to finish among the Big 12 leaders in tackles for loss with 12.5. He is expected to start on the right side of the Bears’ defensive line this fall and perhaps take the Bears defense to the next level.
7. KENNY WILLIAMS, LB,
Williams was the Red Raiders’ leading rusher the past two seasons, but moved to linebacker in the spring. I’m sure he envisions playing a little at running back this season, but with the way he played in the spring, he might be the Red Raiders’ best defensive player (along with fellow linebacker Pete Robertson). Heck, he made 13 tackles on special teams alone last season. And he gets the nod over Robertson here based on pure potential. Williams should rack up plenty of tackles as Tech could struggle to stop the run again. (Last season during its five-game losing streak, Tech gave up an average of 294 yards on the ground.) Of course, he is also the best running back on the team and might have to go back on offense if others struggle to fill his void in the offensive backfield.
8. CHUCKY HUNTER, DT, TCU
Hunter was dominate along the defensive line last season. With Fields coming back, he should do nothing but open up holes for the TCU linebackers and pass rush again in 2014. Hunter is a two-time All-Big 12 selection, and he led the TCU defensive line last season with 43 tackles, including six tackles for loss with two sacks.
9. BEN HEENEY, LB, KANSAS
Injuries kept him out of two games last season, but Heeney still led the Jayhawks with 88 tackles. He also had 11.5 tackles for loss and three interceptions, showing his continued development from a pass-rushing linebacker to someone who can play the entire field. The two-time Big 12 second-team linebacker has been an anchor in the middle of Kansas’ defense and will be heavily relied on this fall, especially if the Kansas offense sputters once again.
10. KARL JOSEPH, DB,
Joseph might be one of the hardest hitters in college football. In the last two years, Joseph has had 172 tackles with the Mountaineers, and last season he lead the Big 12 with four fumble recoveries. This season he is expected to move from free safety to the bandit position this fall — and that could make him even more dangerous and make the West Virginia defense at least respectable.
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