The start of the college football season is a little less than three months away, making now a good time to dive more into what teams in the Big 12 will look like next season.
We’ll do that here by looking at position groups and ranking them from best to worst. First up, we’ll start with defense and look at how defensive backs across the Big 12 compare as we begin to move towards fall.
The Longhorns land the top spot here because the combination of returning, high caliber players and blue chip talent waiting in the wings. Even though Texas has been somewhat young in their defensive backfield for the past several years, in 2018 their will be older faces in the lineup.
Senior Kris Boyd, who led the Big 12 in pass breakups last season with 15, will look to be a lock-down corner on one side of the field. Fellow senior Davante Davis, who’s started 14 games in his collegiate career, will hold up the other cornerback spot. Davis shined as a freshman at Texas and will look to play up to that standard again.
Safety P.J. Locke III will also be a senior and could have an All Big 12 type of season as well. Fellow upperclassman John Bonney will hold down another safety spot. Both will hope to have the kind of season enjoyed by the departed DeShon Elliot last season, who helped Texas get 16 interceptions, second only to Oklahoma State in the conference.
Outside of the seasoned players, Texas also signed one of the most talented defensive back classes that they’ve had in February of this year. Players like Caden Sterns and B.J. Foster will compete for playing time, but they’ll have to edge out sophomores like Kobe Boyce and Josh Thompson, both highly ranked recruits who’ve already had a year in Todd Orlando’s defense.
Over the years, Gary Patterson has established a reputation for molding underrated yet athletic players into high-caliber college defensive backs. This season, it looks like he’ll have the pieces to do that again. Cornerback Jeff Gladney will probably find himself on his share of preseason watch lists, and fellow returning starter Niko Small graded out as one of the best safeties in the Big 12, according to Pro Football Focus.
Innis Gaines, who stood out in TCU’s bowl game against Stanford, was reportedly impressive at safety. Ridwan Issahaku, who started at strong safety last season and was third on the team in tackles, is also back.
That kind of returning experience is what could make this defensive backfield the best in the conference (again) next season. Even though the Horned Frogs will be without departed seniors Nick Orr and Ranthony Texada, TCU has plenty of players ready to step up who’ve logged quality snaps.
3. Iowa State
Jon Heacock’s 3-3-5 defense was revolutionary for the Big 12 last season and was arguably the biggest reason for Iowa State’s resurgence. The play of the secondary was the biggest surprise, particularly players like Brian Peavy, who could be the best cover corner in the conference.
Peavy and fellow returning starter D’Andre Payne make a formidable duo, one that opposing quarterbacks won’t want to throw at any time soon.
Of course, there are issues that Heacock needs to resolve. One is the lack of returning starters at the two safety positions and the “Star” defensive back. Of course, last season he turned the Cyclones into one of the top three pass defenses in the Big 12. With younger players like safety Lawrence White, who started against pass-happy Memphis in the Liberty Bowl, there are indications that he can probably do so again.
The secondary really seemed to come on late last season for the Sooners as younger players began stepping up their game. Cornerback Parnell Motley could be poised to have an All Big 12-type season as a junior and is probably the best of the bunch.
Tre Norwood covered well as a freshman and has reportedly put on some needed weight. The Sooners also have players like Jordan Parker, Robert Barnes, and Tre Brown coming back, who showed flashes as young players that logged starting time last season. Parker, who missed most of last season, will be coming off an injury.
The most interesting storyline involving this unit, however, might be that of Brendan “Bookie” Radley-Hiles, a five star prospect out of IMG who has a good shot at starting for the Sooners at nickel back next season. If the true freshman can live up to his billing this year, he provide a boost to a secondary that only gave up 238 yards per game through the air last season.
5. Texas Tech
David Gibbs’s defense is trending upward as of late, and having so much returning next season should help the Red Raiders take another step forward. Texas Tech has five seniors from the two deep in their defensive backfield returning.
That includes Jah’Shawn Johnson and Justus Parker, who were All Big 12 Second Team last season. Parker had a monster year, accounting for over half of his team’s turnovers as he grabbed four interceptions and forced four fumbles.
All the starters return from last year’s group, so it’s reasonable to expect the Red Raiders to step into the middle of the pack in the Big 12 after years of having issues at defensive back.
6. Kansas State
Last season was not a great year for the Wildcats in defending the pass. Kansas State gave up over 300 yards of offense through the air in 2017 with a lot of new faces on the back end.
They are poised to take a step forward this year, however. Safeties Kendall Adams and Denzel Goolsby had the best grades in their position group in the whole of the Big 12.
Losing corner D.J. Reed, who left early for the NFL, hurts. Duke Shelley, who received a Big 12 Honorable Mention last season, will be back for his senior season. Along with him will be four players from last season’s two deep who can help the Wildcats make progress in 2018.
7. Oklahoma State
The secondary for the Pokes is one of the major wildcards on this list, mostly because it’s not totally clear what this defense will look like after a full offseason with new defensive coordinator Jim Knowles.
Knowles effectively employs five defensive backs, so there are more spots to fill in 2018. He inherits a defense that led the Big 12 in interceptions last season, but the bad news is that some of the key pieces of that effort are gone.
The good news is that A.J. Green, who led Oklahoma State in interceptions in 2017, returns. Redshirt sophomore Rodarius Williams will also be back and he should be improved after starting last season.
8. West Virginia
Even though the Mountaineers had one of the better pass defenses in the Big 12 last season, West Virginia lost several pieces from their secondary. Kyzir White was one of the best players on the team last season, so he will be missed. A slew of other veterans are gone as well.
Kenny Robinson was possibly the second best defensive back on the team last year as a freshman, so he will likely be even better in 2018. Returning starter Dravon Askew-Henry is a solid defensive back, but there’s a question about the depth around these two and how they’ll hold up against Big 12 offenses.
Players like Hakeem Bailey or UCLA transfer Denzel Fisher could provide quality snaps at cornerback, but overall this feels like a bit of a rebuilding year in the defensive backfield.
The Jayhawks will have the deepest group of defensive backs in the conference next season, with the entire two deep coming back in 2018. Will that lead to improved results? One would hope so, especially after Kansas gave up nearly 300 yards and over two touchdowns per game last season through the air.
Efforst to do so will be boosted by returner Tyrone Miller, a sound tackler at the safety position, and the aptly-named Hasan Defense. Defense had one of Kansas’s only picks of the year against West Virginia last season, a game in which the Jayhawks only trailed by eight points headed into the fourth quarter.
Even though they occupy the bottom spot here, the secondary is one area where Baylor will almost certainly be better next season. Grayland Arnold is one of the better cornerbacks in the Big 12 and Harrison Hand is sure to improve after his freshman season.
Give converted wide receiver Blake Lynch a second year in the defensive backfield, moreover, and the Bears will have some legitimate depth on the outside.
Still, there’s no getting around the fact that the Bears probably have the smallest secondary in the conference. Four players on the two deep are under six feet tall, something that might be more of a liability in run support than pass coverage.