The terms “on the hot seat” or “under pressure” usually apply to quarterbacks and head coaches. After all, there’s an enormous amount of pressure on quarterbacks and coaches for any college football team. And needless to say, it’s difficult to challenge for a conference championship or national title if the quarterback play is an issue all year or if the coaching staff’s status is uncertain after a slow start.
Despite most of the preseason focus on other positions, the battles in the trenches, at linebacker, cornerback or in the receiving corps are just as important to any team’s success in 2015.
With that in mind, let’s set aside the quarterbacks and head coaches for a moment and examine some of the other positions that must produce in 2015.
10 Big 12 Position Groups Under Pressure in 2015
Baylor Defensive Backs
The Bears return four starters from a secondary ranked 70th nationally in pass efficiency defense. Junior corner Xavien Howard and safety Orion Stewart are the group’s headliners and should perform at an All-Big 12 level in 2015. But coordinator Phil Bennett needs better overall play from this unit, with Howard and Stewart elevating their performance even higher. The Bears allowed 17 passing plays of 40 yards or more last season and 24 scores through the air. Those numbers have to decrease if Baylor is to earn a spot in the four-team playoff.
Related: Big 12 2015 Predictions
Iowa State Defensive Line
The Cyclones have several position groups in need of attention after a 2-10 campaign in 2014. While running back is a position with plenty of inexperience, the defensive line is an even bigger concern for coach Paul Rhoads. Iowa State allowed 246.3 rushing yards per game last year and generated only 15 sacks – the fewest in the Big 12. That’s the bad news. The good news? This group has experienced bodies returning, and two junior college recruits – Demond Tucker and Bobby Leath – should contribute in 2015.
Kansas Wide Receivers
Improving one unit isn’t going to be enough for Kansas to reach a bowl in 2015. There’s just too many holes for coach David Beaty to address in his first year in Lawrence. With the status of quarterback Michael Cummings uncertain after a spring game knee injury, the supporting cast on offense is even more critical to the development of this group. Senior Rodriguez Coleman was dismissed from the team in June, which leaves only two out of last year’s top 10 statistical receivers. Senior Tre’ Parmalee, sophomores Bobby Hartzog and Derrick Neal will be pressed to emerge as targets for Cummings, Montell Cozart or true freshman Carter Stanley or Ryan Willis in 2015.
Kansas State Wide Receivers
Kansas State returns six starters on offense, but this unit lost its top players from last year in quarterback Jake Waters and receiver Tyler Lockett. In addition to Lockett, the receiving corps also has to replace Curry Sexton and Zach Trujillo. There’s experience returning in the way of Kody Cook (20 catches last year), Deante Burton and Kyle Klein. But is one of these players capable of replacing the big-play ability that Lockett brought to the offense?
Oklahoma Defensive Backs
A couple of position groups could be listed here for Oklahoma, including the offensive or defensive lines or the receiving corps. But the secondary deserves a mention in this space, as the Sooners fell from 29th nationally in pass efficiency defense (2013) to 55th last year. Oklahoma also allowed 24 passing plays of 30 yards or more (tied for sixth in the conference). Junior Zack Sanchez should be a candidate for All-America honors, but who will step up around him? Sophomores Jordan Thomas (CB) and Steven Parker (S) are two names to watch.
Oklahoma State Offensive Line
Flip a coin between running backs and offensive line here. Considering it’s easier to reload at running back than in the trenches, we’ll go with the five guys up front in this space. Oklahoma State’s offensive line struggled last year, allowing 40 sacks in 13 contests. But there’s hope for quick improvement in 2015. UAB transfer Victor Salako is penciled in at left tackle, and sophomore Zachary Crabtree is a rising star on the right side. This group should be better with a full offseason to mesh, and will have plenty of time during the regular season to grow before three critical games in November.
There are few areas of concern for coach Gary Patterson. The Horned Frogs finished 2014 at 12-1 overall, and Patterson’s team is in good shape to push for a playoff bid once again. Although defense is usually a strength for TCU, this unit does have a few critical areas of concern. The secondary loses three All-Big 12 performers, and the linebacking corps must replace standouts Marcus Mallet and first-team All-Big 12 selection in Pawl Dawson. Proven experience is thin here, and true freshman Mike Freeze and junior Sammy Douglas finished spring as the favorites to start.
Related: Big 12 2015 All-Conference Team
Texas Wide Receivers
It’s no secret quarterback play is still the biggest concern for Texas headed into its second year under Charlie Strong. But quarterbacks also need a good supporting cast to succeed. Running back Johnathan Gray is a good place to start the ground attack, and the offensive line should improve with four starters back and better depth. But the receiving corps is a concern for Strong, as John Harris and Jaxon Shipley both expired their eligibility. Senior Marcus Johnson (27 catches) is the top returning target, and there’s promising youngsters in the mix, including sophomore Lorenzo Joe, junior Jacorey Warrick and true freshman John Burt.
Texas Tech Defensive Line
Fixing the defense was the top priority for coach Kliff Kingsbury this offseason. The first step was hiring David Gibbs to work as the team’s coordinator. Now, Gibbs has to find the right pieces to run his scheme and improve a defense that allowed a whopping 41.3 points per game in 2014. Winning the defensive battle starts up front, and the Red Raiders have a key senior returning in standout Pete Robertson. But outside of Robertson, who will step up? Seniors Rika Levi and Keland McElrath need to plug the interior better, while Branden Jackson should anchor the other end spot. Developing depth and better overall play is a must.
West Virginia Wide Receivers
It’s safe to assume a Dana Holgorsen-coached offense will continue to rank among the Big 12’s best even with a few personnel question marks. But in order for Holgorsen to elevate West Virginia in the conference standings, the play of the receiving corps will be under the spotlight. No. 1 target Kevin White (109 catches) and Mario Alford (65) have expired their eligibility, leaving Jordan Thompson, Daikiel Shorts and Shelton Gibson as the top returning options at wide receiver. Running back Wendell Smallwood may also see time on the outside to help alleviate the losses of Alford and White. Incoming freshmen Gary Jennings and Jovon Durante, along with junior college recruit Ka’Raun White (Kevin’s brother) may also crack the rotation.