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West Virginia's Geno Smith ranks as the Big 12's No. 1 player.
The Big 12 welcomes West Virginia and TCU as new members in 2012, and both teams will add to the already deep and talented league. The Mountaineers bring one of the nation's best offenses, while the Horned Frogs have been strong on defense in the Mountain West.
Even though the Big 12 loses some big names like Oklahoma State's Brandon Weeden and Justin Blackmon and Baylor's Robert Griffin, there's no shortage of talent in the league. The offenses should rule the day again, but Texas, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State should have a handful of defensive players in the top 50 at the end of the season.
Compiling the top 50 players of any conference is never an easy task. However, Athlon established a criteria to help compile the rankings.
(Published July 26, 2012)
Athlon's Top 50 Big 12 Players for 2012
1. Geno Smith, QB, West Virginia
After throwing for 4,385 yards and 31 touchdowns in his first year working in Dana Holgorsen’s spread attack, Smith is primed for an even bigger 2012 season. He finished 2011 by throwing for 407 yards and six touchdowns in the 70-33 rout over Clemson in the Orange Bowl. Smith tied or set 21 career, season or game school records last year and earned first-team All-Big East honors. With one of the nation’s top receiving corps returning, the senior quarterback should be in for an even bigger statistical season. The Big 12 is known for its offense, and West Virginia should fit in well in 2012, especially with Smith more comfortable in the second year of Holgorsen’s offense.
2. Jackson Jeffcoat, DE, Texas
Few players ever enter the college ranks ready to play like Jeffcoat was. Obviously, his long-standing NFL legacy helps, as his fundamental understanding of the game is superior to most players his age. His 6-foot-5, 250-pound frame helps too. Jeffcoat started all 13 games as a sophomore, earning second-team All-Big 12 honors after recording 54 total tackles, 16.5 tackles for a loss and 7.5 sacks. With another stellar season on the 40 Acres, JJ-44 will likely take his talents to the next level.
3. Collin Klein, QB, Kansas State
Klein emerged from obscurity last season to account for 40 total touchdowns, leading the Wildcats to 10-3 season and the Orange Bowl. Kansas State’s emotional leader, Klein rushed for 27 touchdowns, tying the Division I record held by Navy’s Ricky Dobbs, and became the first Big 12 quarterback to rush for 1,000 yards since Missouri’s Brad Smith in 2005. The Wildcats also learned they could rely more on his arm as the season went along.
4. Joseph Randle, RB, Oklahoma State
With Brandon Weeden and Justin Blackmon playing on Sundays now, Randle will have to carry the offense. He rushed for 1,216 yards and 24 scores, while catching 43 passes for 266 yards and two touchdowns last year. Randle earned second-team All-Big 12 honors in 2011 and is an Athlon Sports first-team All-Big 12 selection for 2012. With freshman Wes Lunt taking over under center, defenses will be gearing up to stop Randle, but the junior back’s all-around ability makes him one of the top 10 players in the conference for 2012.
5. Tavon Austin, WR, West Virginia
At 5-foot-9 and 174 pounds, Austin isn’t your prototypical wide receiver. Don’t be fooled though, the Baltimore native is one of college football’s top playmakers and will give Big 12 defenses plenty of headaches in 2012. He led the team with 101 receptions, ranked second with 1,186 yards, while catching eight touchdowns and taking two returns for a score on special teams. Austin closed out 2011 on a high note, catching 12 passes for 123 yards and four touchdowns in the Orange Bowl victory over Clemson. The senior is one of college football’s top all-purpose threats and should top 100 receptions once again in 2012.
6. Alex Okafor, DE, Texas
Jeffcoat’s partner in crime hails from an Austin suburb called Pflugerville. “Big Oak” has played in 39 games in his Longhorn career and is coming off his best season. The 6-foot-4, 265 pound end set career highs in tackles (56), tackles for a loss (14.0) and sacks (7.0) to go with 14 quarterback hurries. He earned AFCA All-American honors and was a unanimous first-team All-Big 12 selection. Okafor and Jeffcoat might form the best defensive end duo in the nation this fall.
7. Tony Jefferson, S, Oklahoma
Few players exhibit as much raw athletic ability as the 5-foot-11, 200-pound safety. After playing a hybrid safety position which required much more time in the box, Jefferson has moved to his natural position of free safety. He will be allowed to flow all over the field and make plays now that Mike Stoops and Tim Kish are calling the plays. Jefferson has loads of talent supporting him, so the Sooners should be vastly improved in the secondary this fall.
8. Jake Knott, LB, Iowa State
If not for a nagging injury last year that eventually required surgery and kept him out of spring practice, Knott was on the verge of back-to-back All-American caliber seasons. Over the last two years, the Waukee, Iowa native has 245 total tackles, 10.0 tackles for a loss, eight forced fumbles and six interceptions. And he helped led Iowa State to a bowl berth last fall. He is a watch list candidate for every major defensive national award and should have his best season to date alongside A.J. Klein.
9. A.J. Klein, LB, Iowa State
The combination of Jake Knott and A.J. Klein might be the best one-two linebacking duo in college football. Klein earned Big 12 Co-Defensive Player of the Year honors last season, recording 116 tackles, two sacks and 7.5 tackles for a loss. He delivered a key performance in Iowa State’s biggest win over 2011, recording 14 tackles in the 37-31 overtime upset of Oklahoma State. He will shift from outside to man the middle linebacker spot in 2012
10. Arthur Brown, LB, Kansas State
A highly regarded recruit when he signed with Miami in 2008, he struggled to earn regular playing time before he transferred to Kansas State. Back in his home state, Brown anchored the Kansas State linebacker group. He finished with 101 tackles and 9.5 tackles for a loss, using his speed to help K-State finish 37th nationally in rush defense.
11. Landry Jones, QB, Oklahoma
Jones wasn’t the same near the end of the season when injuries to Ryan Broyles and Dominique Whaley took their toll on the Sooners offense. On Nov. 5, Jones had 28 touchdown passes and nine interceptions, but threw one touchdown pass and six picks over the final four games. After passing for 12,379 career yards and 93 touchdowns, Jones could set a number of Big 12 records, but can he lead Oklahoma to a national title.
12. Stansly Maponga, DE, TCU
Even before last season, Maponga was tabbed as the next defensive star for the Horned Frogs. He delivered in his second season as a starter and looks to continue his improvement as a junior. Maponga had nine sacks and five forced fumbles last season. In one season, he jumped from three tackles for a loss to 13.5. The Big 12 awaits.
13. Stedman Bailey, WR, West Virginia
Bailey was a high school teammate of quarterback Geno Smith, and the chemistry showed. Bailey caught 72 passes, including 12 touchdowns. His 1,279 receiving yards set a school record and his eight 100-yard receiving game tied one. He’s the other half of the Big 12’s best receiving tandem along with Tavon Austin.
14. Gabe Ikard, OG, Oklahoma
With Ikard leading the way, Oklahoma expects to have one of the Big 12’s top offensive lines. He started 12 games as a freshman in 2010 and earned first-team All-Big 12 honors for his performance in 2011. Ikard’s value to the team was on full display after he moved from guard to center to replace the injured Ben Habern last year. The junior is an Athlon Sports first-team All-American for 2012.
15. Kenny Vaccaro, S, Texas
A stable force at the back end of Mack Brown’s defense since 2009, Vaccarro has played in 38 games in three seasons. The Brownwood, Texas safety nearly claimed the league’s Defensive Player of the Year award (honorable mention POY). He did a little bit of everything for Manny Diaz last fall as he set career highs in tackles (82) but also proved to be able to get into the opponent’s backfield with 8.0 TFL and 2.0 sacks. With loads of starting experience, and plenty of talent around him, the 6-foot-1, 220-pounder is easily one of the best safeties in the nation.
16. Cyril Richardson, OG, Baylor
Circle Richardson’s name if you are looking for someone who could emerge as one of the nation’s best linemen in 2012. He started all 13 games at left tackle last season and earned honorable mention All-Big 12 honors. Richardson will move back inside to guard this year, and has massive frame (6-foot-5, 335 pounds) should give quarterback Nick Florence plenty of protection, while opening up rushing lanes for Jarred Salubi and Lache Seastrunk.
17. Brodrick Brown, CB, Oklahoma State
It’s never easy being a cornerback in the Big 12, especially when you have to face offenses at Oklahoma State, Baylor, Texas Tech, Oklahoma and now West Virginia. Brown has been one of the league’s top corners over the last two years, earning first-team All-Big 12 honors in 2011. The senior isn’t the biggest corner (5-foot-8), but he broke up 15 passes and is a physical presence on the outside.
18. Quandre Diggs, CB, Texas
Just a freshman, Diggs stepped into one of the best defensive backfields in the country last season and fit right in. The younger brother of former Longhorn and San Diego Charger Quentin Jammer, Diggs had four interceptions last season. With Diggs a year older, the Texas secondary could be even better than the one that finished 10th nationally in pass efficiency defense.
19. Nigel Malone, CB, Kansas State
The senior from Manteca, Calif., didn’t take long to prove to be another JUCO gem for Bill Snyder. The first-year player led the Big 12 in interceptions a year ago with seven and is the leading returnee in what is a depleted secondary. Expect quarterbacks to avoid Malone’s side of the field this time around.
20. Casey Pachall, QB, TCU
In filling in for the greatest QB in the history of TCU football, all Pachall did as a sophomore was set single-season school records for yards, completions and completion rate. The burly — 6-5, 226 — passer has above average athletic ability and led the Frogs to a conference championship that featured a brilliant 473-yard, 5-TD road performance against then unbeaten Boise State. Now, he steps into a league known for its quarterback play. Yet, Pachall should have no problem fitting right in. His 2,921 yards, 66.5% and 25:7 TD:INT ratio plays no matter what league he is in.
21. Jordan Hicks, LB, Texas
Few linebackers have the sheer explosiveness of the West Chester, Ohio native. He saw his first significant starting action last fall and should be ready to step into a bigger role as a junior. He racked-up 64 tackles in only eight starts and will undoubtedly make more plays in 2012.
22. Trey Millard, FB, Oklahoma
Several coaches on the Sooners’ staff consider Millard to be the best all-around player on the roster and Athlon doesn’t disagree. Intangibles, leadership and poise are difficult to measure, but his 6-foot-2, 249-pound frame isn’t — be it running, receiving, blocking or tackling.
23. Kenny Stills, WR, Oklahoma
Bob Stoops said Landry Jones’ late-season swoon wasn’t all on the shoulders of the quarterback. Certainly, that means Stills needs to improve his consistency. He was more productive last season as a No. 2 receiver to Ryan Broyles, but failed to catch a touchdown or produce a 100-yard game after the calendar turned to November. He has great potential, so now it’s time to put it all together.
24. Terrance Williams, WR, Baylor
Robert Griffin and Kendall Wright are gone, but the Baylor passing attack shouldn’t suffer too big of a drop in 2012. Williams will take over as the team’s No. 1 receiver after catching 59 passes for 957 yards and 11 touchdowns in 2011. At 6-foot-3 and 205 pounds, the senior has the size and speed combination that will be very attractive for NFL teams next April.
25. Seth Doege, QB, Texas Tech
It was easy to overlook Doege with Brandon Weeden, Landry Jones, Collin Klein and Robert Griffin all lining up under center in the Big 12. Doege finished 2011 with 4,004 yards and 28 touchdowns, including 441 yards and four scores in the upset win over Oklahoma. The senior should have a chance to push those numbers even higher in 2012, as the Red Raiders bring back receivers Eric Ward, Darrin Moore and Alex Torres, while running back Eric Stephens should be near full strength for the opener in his return from a torn ACL.
26. Josh Boyce, WR, TCU
Boyce is TCU’s top big-play threat at receiver, with nearly twice as many yards last season than the Horned Frogs’ No. 2 wideout. Boyce finished last season with 61 catches for 998 yards for an average of 14.9 yards per catch. Three of his nine touchdowns came in the upset of Boise State, including two touchdowns that torched the Broncos secondary for 74 and 69 yards.
27. Demontre Hurst, CB, Oklahoma
Improving the pass defense is one of the top priorities for new coordinator Mike Stoops. The Sooners allowed 241.5 yards per game through the air last season, including 485 in the loss to Baylor. Hurst was a second-team All-Big 12 selection last season and has started 27 games over the last two years. The senior should be Oklahoma’s top corner, but this unit will have an uphill battle to earn first-team all-conference honors with Quandre Diggs, Brodrick Brown, Nigel Malone and Carrington Byndom all returning.
28. Ben Habern, C, Oklahoma
Note: Habern retired after this article was published.
Oklahoma’s offensive line was one of the best in the Big 12 last year and will only get better with Habern’s return. The Texas native missed five games due to an arm injury in 2011, but was one of the top centers in the conference in 2010. Assuming Habern can shake off the injury bug, he will finish 2012 ranked as the Big 12’s No. 1 center and one of the leaders for one of the nation’s top offensive lines.
29. Shaun Lewis, LB, Oklahoma State
An outside linebacker with a nose for ball, Lewis was the best of the three returning starters in that group. In two seasons, Lewis has five career interceptions, returning two for touchdowns, to go with 17.5 career tackles for a loss.
30. Carrington Byndom, CB, Texas
The Lufkin, Texas native has appeared in 25 games during his two-year career. He started every game last fall and recorded 57 tackles, 8.0 tackles for a loss and two interceptions.
31. LaAdrian Waddle, OL, Texas Tech
The Red Raiders anchor up front is this senior from Columbus, Texas. Waddle has started 25 consecutive games and enters his final season in Lubbock as a reigning second-team All-Big 12 selection. Fans can bet on a first-team-type of season from the 6-foot-6, 320-pounder.
32. Lane Taylor, OL, Oklahoma State
The leader of the Pokes offensive line, Taylor returns for his final season with 36 career starts under his belt. As the only returning starter up front for one of the most prolific offenses in the nation, the Arlington, Texas native will be counted on for more leadership this fall.
33. Malcolm Brown, RB, Texas
The talent is there, the offensive line is there and the one full year of experience is there. The only real question surrounding Brown's potential breakout sophomore campaign is his workload. Mack Brown has such a loaded backfield to work with that Brown may not get the full compliment of touches.
34. Tom Wort, LB, Oklahoma
Entering his third season as a starter, Wort has become a complete linebacker over the years. He’s topped 60 tackles both seasons and added his first two career interceptions last season. He’s tough and physical, but he’s filling a leadership void left by Travis Lewis.
35. Corey Nelson, LB, Oklahoma
As a sophomore, Nelson started 11 games and recorded 60 tackles, but the Sooners used him both at linebacker and as a stand-up defensive end. Now that he’s a junior in a linebacker corps missing Travis Lewis, Nelson’s role could be more defined.
36. Ahmad Dixon, S, Baylor
Dixon was a huge catch for Baylor on the recruiting trail and the former top 100 recruit is poised for his best season in Waco. He made 89 stops and recorded one interception last year, while earning honorable mention All-Big 12 honors. Dixon will man Baylor’s hybrid linebacker/defensive back position and should make a push for first or second-team all-conference honors.
37. David King, DE, Oklahoma
An intriguing prospect for his first three seasons on campus, King started only eight games. Last season hinted at his potential as he finished with 31 tackles and four for a loss as a backup. Both starting ends are gone in Norman, so it’s his turn to emerge.
38. Toben Opurum, DE, Kansas
Opurum was the rare bright spot for the KU defense, with 10.5 tackles for a loss and four sacks last season. Not bad for a guy who started his career at running back and led the Jayhawks in rushing in 2009. Now in his third season on defense, he could be a breakout player.
39. Joe Madsen, C, West Virginia
The offensive line wasn’t a strength for the Mountaineers last season, and this unit must improve for West Virginia to win the Big 12. Madsen has been a consistent performer in his career, starting all 38 games and earning second-team all-conference honors last year. The senior should make a push to be the No. 1 center in the Big 12 this season.
40. Quinn Sharp, K/P, Oklahoma State
Sharp had a huge miss against Iowa State last year, but there’s no denying he’s one of the top special teams players in college football. Sharp connected on 22 of 25 field goals and averaged 46.3 yards per punt last season. He earned Big 12 Special Teams Player of the Year honors in 2011 and is an Athlon Sports third-team All-American punter for 2012.
41. Meshak Williams, DE, Kansas State
Williams was an instant impact junior college transfer for the Wildcats last year. He led the team with seven sacks and ten tackles for a loss in 13 contests. Expect Williams to see a bigger role in Kansas State’s defense in 2012.
42. Justin Gilbert, CB, Oklahoma State
Gilbert’s ability to cover wide receivers on the edge isn't the only thing he does extremely well. He is one of the league's fastest players and can be a dangerous return specialist as well — as indicated by his OSU record four kick return touchdowns.
43. Jaxon Shipley, WR, Texas
The younger brother of Jordan is a carbon copy of skillsets. He is short in stature but has great quickness, hands and acceleration. Both are good return men and both are dependable.
44. Tracy Moore, WR, Oklahoma State
Justin Blackmon is gone, and so is Josh Cooper and their 193 catches between them. Moore is the Cowboys’ top returning receiver with 45 receptions for 692 yards and four touchdowns. The early returns on his move from inside receiver to outside have been positive.
45. Aaron Colvin, CB, Oklahoma
The junior started at strong safety last season after playing his freshman season at cornerback. Colvin, who had 84 stops last season, might be best suited for corner, but that might depend on the rest of the personnel in the secondary.
46. Darrin Moore, WR, Texas Tech
A suspension for a DWI arrest has clouded Moore’s status with the team for 2012. Before a leg injury against Nevada last year, Moore was one of college football’s leading receivers with 21 receptions through the first two games. If he avoids a length suspension, the senior should finish 2012 ranked higher on this list.
47. Mason Walters, OL, Texas
The top blocker on a unit that has underachieved, Walters has started all 25 games of his two-year career at right guard. He is hoping to build upon his honorable mention All-Big 12 selection from last year.
48. Tanner Hawkinson, OT, Kansas
Hawkinson hasn’t gained much national recognition, but he’s quietly emerged as a solid lineman in the Big 12. He enters 2012 with 36 consecutive starts and is an Athlon Sports second-team All-Big 12 selection for 2012.
49. Steve Edmond, LB, Texas
If there’s a hole in the Texas defense, it’s at linebacker where Emmanuel Acho and Keenan Robinson are gone. The sophomore Edmond is a hard-hitter who will need to emerge as a full-time difference-maker this season.
50. Tyler Lockett, WR/RS, Kansas State
Lockett missed significant time with an injury but still earned Freshman All-American honors based on huge special teams play. Expect an expanded role in 2012.
Team Breakdown of the Top 50 Players
Baylor - 3
Iowa State - 2
Kansas - 2
Kansas State - 5
Oklahoma - 11
Oklahoma State - 7
TCU - 3
Texas - 10
Texas Tech - 3
West Virginia - 4
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