With the offseason moving along, we’re getting a glimpse of what teams in the Big 12 will look like in 2019. Here, we look at position groups across the conference and rank them from best to worst.
These rankings take into account as yet unseen potential, but tend to rely heavily on the proven production of seasons past. We continue this series by looking into how secondaries across the Big 12 compare.
None of the teams in the bottom half of these rankings, it should be noted, really separate themselves out definitively. It’s entirely possible that things look very different when the end of the season rolls around.
No matter how much attrition Gary Patterson’s defenses sustain, the head ball coach always seems to have answers. That’s true of his defensive backfield, at least. Seniors Jeff Gladney and Julius Lewis are probably the best cornerback pair in the Big 12, and together they accounted for a third of the Horned Frogs’ 12 interceptions in 2018.
Both were also second and third, respectively, in yards per cover snap allowed in the conference last year, according to Pro Football Focus. They’ll be joined by two other seniors in Vernon Scott and Innis Gaines at a couple of safety positions.
Gaines, who returns this season from missing time last year with injury, has eight starts under his belt, while Scott tallied an interception in the Cheez-It Bowl last December.
Sophomore Trevon Moehrig is the most unknown commodity amongst the projected starters, but even he’s got a pick in limited action. With such a veteran group of proven players, there’s every reason to project this defensive backfield to the top of the Big 12.
2. Iowa State
Last year, the secondary for the Cyclones allowed 6.9 yards per pass attempted, which was second in the league, and seven of the ten defensive backs from last year’s two deep return. Among the returning starters is junior “Star” defensive back Greg Eisworth, a First Team All-Big 12 selection last season and the Big 12 Defensive Newcomer of the Year in 2018.
In addition, safeties Braxton Lewis and Lawrence White bring 20 starts worth of experience at the FBS level. Both should be ready to lead in 2019 in the back of the defense. Along side the returning starters is sophomore Anthony Johnson, who allowed the fewest yards per cover snap in the Big 12 last year according to Pro Football Focus and is expected to step up this season in a major way.
Awards for the most raw talent in the conference would probably go to the Longhorns, but Texas will definitely be dependent on youth in the back end in 2019. Sophomore safety Caden Sterns looks like he might be the star secondary player in Austin. Sterns was both the Defensive Freshman of the Year in the Big 12 and first team All-Big 12 in 2018, fitting awards for a true freshman that led the team with four interceptions.
At the other safety spot, senior Brandon Jones is back for Texas. Jones is one of the most veteran defensive backs in the entire conference, and has the kind of talent and athleticism that will likely have him selected in next year’s NFL Draft.
Highly touted defensive backs B.J. Foster and Anthony Cook both played well as freshman last season, and could be ready to make major contributions as they get more playing time.
4. Kansas State
The Wildcats notched 10 interceptions in Big 12 play last season, averaging just over a pick per contest. Two of those came from sophomore standout A.J. Parker, who was impressive in 2018. Returning backups Jonathan Durham, Jahron McPherson, and Kevion McGee also accounted for interceptions last season, so new coordinator Scottie Hazelton will have proven production in his defensive backfield.
Senior Denzel Goolsby represents the headliner in the secondary for the Wildcats. Goolsby is a multi-year starter who was the Cactus Bowl Defensive MVP in 2017, and could be in for a strong final year in Manhattan.
Matt Rhule has familiar faces in his secondary, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t question marks. Six of eight players from last year’s two deep return, but the defensive backs for the Bears are largely unproven.
Junior Raleigh Texada is the most veteran of the entire group, and his two interceptions last year were a team-high. Texada is probably the best cover corner in Waco, having locked down opposing quarterbacks more than most all defensive backs in the Big 12, according to Pro Football Focus.
Other returners with experience, like seniors Grayland Arnold and Chris Miller, have starts under their belts, but will each likely get some competition this fall from many of the younger defensive backs in the group. They’ll contribute to a defensive backfield that should be solid next season, but could definitely benefit from progress all around.
6. Oklahoma State
The Pokes were one of the worst Big 12 teams at turning the ball over in 2019, and a lot of that has to do with the fact that they only managed four interception in conference play, a number that makes them the second-worst in the conference.
With four of five starters coming back in the Oklahoma State secondary and another year with coordinator Jim Knowles, some improvement in the back end should be expected.
Many of those struggles could perhaps be chalked up to youth among the defensive backs, but the Cowboys likely won’t have to start any true freshman this year. Senior A.J. Green is the most seasoned player in the secondary, and for both he and redshirt sophomore Rodarius Williams, 2019 is an opportunity to have an All-Big 12 type of year.
7. West Virginia
A bit of uncertainty exists for the Mountaineers in their secondary, where All-Big 12 safety Kenny Robinson Jr. just recently entered his name into the transfer portal. Robinson totaled four interceptions last season for West Virginia, and has the kind of NFL potential that Neal Brown would no doubt love to have in Year One.
At both cornerback spots, the Mountaineers have battle-tested seniors in Josh Norwood and Keith Washington. Washington had two picks last season, and an all-conference type of season isn’t out of the question for him in 2019. Norwood, meanwhile, was the team’s third-leading tackler in 2019, and is a quality defensive back at the other spot.
If both Robinson and fellow projected starting safety Derek Pitts leave, though, West Virginia will have some significant attrition to work with in their first year with a new head coach
Alex Grinch’s tallest task might be improving the pass defense for the Sooners, which was by multiple measures the worst in the Big 12 in 2018. With five starters back this season, the only way to go for Oklahoma should be up.
There’s of course a lot of athleticism for the Sooners in the secondary, but Oklahoma frequently struggled to get on the same page in the back end last year. Both junior cornerbacks, Tre Brown and Tre Norwood, have shown flashes of ability while in Norman, but have struggled to be consistent.
Nickelback Brendan Radley-Hiles stepped as a true freshman last year, and played a freshman at times, but it’s reasonable to believe that the talented sophomore could take a step forward in 2019.
9. Texas Tech
With a new, slightly more defensively-minded coaching staff in place, it’s certainly possible that the Red Raiders finish higher than ninth in 2019. After all, the Red Raiders allowed the lowest completion percentage of any team in Big 12 play.
There are a couple of starters to replace from 2018, but defensive coordinator Keith Patterson will have some pieces to work with. Adrian Frye, a Freshman All-American last year, should be expected to start in 2019 as a sophomore. Douglas Coleman III logged quality snaps in his limited time as a starter, and will likely be solid as a senior.
Throw in players like long time starter Justus Parker, and Texas Tech could very well have the capacity to do more reloading than rebuilding in the defensive backfield this year. The proof come fall will be in the actual on-the-field results, however.
In addition to 9.2 yards given up per pass attempt in 2018, the Jayhawks allowed almost a 70 percent completion percentage through the air while giving up 22 touchdowns in Big 12 play. Kansas, however, also managed to find nine interceptions last season, something that should give new head coach Les Miles hope for the future.
Returning tarters Mike Lee and Bryce Torneden have both been solid for Kansas, and as seniors they could be in for a high quality year in 2019. Corione Harris mostly lived up to his highly touted billing as a freshman last season, but a step forward in his second year is certainly possible if the Kansas defense isn’t on the field as much as they were last season.