Sam Ehlinger departs Texas after leaving a lasting impression in the Longhorns' record books
The Oklahoma Sooners came up short of a College Football Playoff bid last season but continued a string of Big 12 dominance that dates back to 2015. Oklahoma beat Iowa State 27-21 in the conference championship game, avenging a 37-30 loss from the regular season to win its sixth straight title. Naturally given the success of the program under head coach Lincoln Riley, the Sooners will be tasked with replacing several important players in 2021.
But how does Oklahoma fare compared to its biggest challengers? Iowa State should have multiple players selected in the 2021 NFL Draft, but the Cyclones were among the most fortunate teams when it came to avoiding early declarations. Top rivals Texas and Oklahoma State weren't as lucky, each losing multiple starters among the 14 across the league who declared early for the draft.
Because seniors have until March 1 to officially decline the extra season of eligibility afforded them during the pandemic-impacted season of 2020, we don't have an official finalized list of the players coming back next season. However, 14 selected to the All-Big 12 first team and 11 second-teamers have made public their intentions to pursue a professional career. Here we explore the 10 players (one from each team) who should be the most difficult to replace in the Big 12 in 2021.
Charlie Brewer, QB, Baylor
Brewer's senior season didn't go as planned. He completed 61.7 percent of his passes for 1,958 yards and 14 touchdowns with eight interceptions, while averaging 6.1 yards per pass attempt and posting a 2-7 record in 2020. Each of those numbers moved in the wrong direction following a junior campaign in which Brewer led the Bears to 11 wins and a spot in the Big 12 title game. And while other important players like pass rusher William Bradley-King and offensive lineman Jake Burton left for the NFL and running back John Lovett opted to pursue his "super senior" season at Penn State, the biggest loss is still Brewer, who has said he's transferring to Utah. Former Georgia Southern signal-caller Shai Werts made 46 starts under center for the Eagles, but is expected to change positions following his transfer to Louisville, meaning Brewer's 39 career starts should be the most among all FBS quarterbacks in 2021. Regardless of his statistical regression, that's a huge amount of experience leaving Waco.
JaQuan Bailey, DL, Iowa State
Iowa State dodged quite a few potential NFL bullets. The 2020 Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year, linebacker Mike Rose, joined Offensive Newcomer of the Year Xavier Hutchinson and fellow first-team all-conference selections Brock Purdy and Charlie Kolar among the Cyclones that have already announced they are coming back to Ames, as well as Big 12 Coach of the Year Matt Campbell, who was a popular name for higher-profile FBS and a few NFL openings this offseason. ISU already knew that it was getting back Big 12 Offensive Player of the Year Breece Hall, who isn't draft-eligible yet.
Nevertheless, at least four Cyclones will test the professional waters: tight end Dylan Soehner, reserve running back and kick returner Kene Nwangwu, safety Lawrence White and the best of the bunch, Bailey. The pass-rushing specialist stayed a year later than expected after redshirting during an injury-shortened 2019. He leaves after appearing in 54 career contests, including 49 starts, during which he accumulated 31 career sacks and 44.5 tackles for a loss.
Pooka Williams Jr., RB, Kansas
Williams opted out after four games and was among the 98 players nationwide grated special eligibility (met the league's three-year eligibility rule) to enter the 2021 NFL Draft. After rushing for more than 1,000 yards during both his freshman and sophomore seasons, Williams was limited to 196 yards on the ground as a junior. He still finished third on the team, underscoring the Jayhawks' issues. Though Kansas grew used to playing without him during a winless 2020 campaign, Williams' continued absence makes it unlikely head coach Les Miles will be able to field a more competitive squad next season — especially since the Jayhawks also must replace receivers Stephon Robinson Jr. and Andrew Parchment, who announced their intentions to transfer to Northwestern and Florida State, respectively.
Wyatt Hubert, DL, Kansas State
Kansas State ranked second in the Big 12 and No. 27 nationally in scoring defense in 2019, allowing 21.4 points per game. The Wildcats surrendered 32.3 points on average last year, which finished eighth in the conference and 84th overall. Losing four defensive starters — headlined by All-Big 12 defensive lineman Hubert, the only unanimous selection on that side of the ball in 2020 — could force that trend to continue. Hubert joined linebackers Elijah Sullivan and Justin Hughes and cornerback A.J. Parker (plus kicker Blake Lynch) in the draft after a redshirt junior season in which he set new career highs with 8.5 sacks and 13.0 tackles for a loss. Hubert, who ranked third in the conference in sacks last year and second in 2019, brought down the quarterback 15.5 times over the last two seasons. Only Iowa State's Will McDonald (16.5) was more successful among Big 12 pass rushers over that span.
Creed Humphrey, C, Oklahoma
Ronnie Perkins was one of the most disruptive pass rushers in college football, and he and cornerbacks Tre Norwood and Tre Brown are all off in pursuit of professional football careers after helping the Oklahoma defense take a big step forward this past seaon. Those are all big losses, and must be addressed for OU to capitalize on its national championship potential in 2021. Elsewhere, running back Rhamondre Stevenson and offensive tackle Adrian Ealy also are making the jump to the NFL, but with Kennedy Brooks set to return after opting out in 2020 and former 5-star recruit and Tennessee starting offensive lineman Wanya Morris transferring in, the Sooners should be able to offset those losses. Oklahoma also took several hits to its depth with more than a half-dozen talented players leaving Norman via the transfer portal, including Charleston Rambo, who was once expected to emerge as Spencer Rattler's go-to receiver.
However, the most important player who must be replaced in 2021 is Humphrey. Humphrey was the Offensive Lineman of the Year in the Big 12 as a junior and a two-time first all-conference selection. He also earned All-American recognition from the Associated Press in both 2020 (third team) and 2019 (second), and leaves Norman after surrendering zero sacks across 1,297 pass-blocking snaps, including 37 career starts.
Tylan Wallace, WR, Oklahoma State
Oklahoma State entered 2020 with its best shot of winning its conference title since 2011. Running back Chuba Hubbard was the nation's leading rusher in 2019 and Wallace was a 2018 All-American who had climbed to the top of the '19 FBS receiving yardage leaderboard before a season-ending injury, and both chose to return to Stillwater as seniors. Unfortunately, Hubbard was hobbled last year and didn't play for the Cowboys after their 41-13 loss in Norman on Nov. 21. Wallace missed the regular-season finale against Baylor but caught 59 passes for 922 yards and six touchdowns, giving him three consecutive seasons with 900 or more receiving yards.
Both Wallace and Hubbard declined their extra year of eligibility for 2021, and though both seem destined for long pro careers, Wallace leaves the biggest hole. After all, Dezmon Jackson ran for 353 yards and four touchdowns combined in the first two games Hubbard missed last season and is set to return. LD Brown, a senior who some close to the team say is faster than the Canadian track star Hubbard, might also come back. But regardless of which star playmaker is more difficult to replace for head coach Mike Gundy, Hubbard and Wallace are headliners on a long list of important players leaving Oklahoma State for the NFL. Given the first-round potential of left tackle Teven Jenkins, and the experience of departing receiver Dillon Stoner, center Ry Schneider, and defenders Cameron Murray, Amen Ogbonbemiga, Calvin Bundage, and Rodarius Williams, the Pokes were among the hardest hit squads in the conference.
Garrett Wallow, LB, TCU
Wallow might be a surprise pick for the Horned Frogs, especially since NFL draft-bound underclassmen Trevon Moehrig and Ardarius Washington — both first-team All-Big 12 performers — were widely considered the best safety duo in college football in 2020. Moehrig earned a smattering of All-American recognition and has a strong case given he intercepted seven passes and was credited with 21 pass breakups over the last three years, but Wallow's production is tough to top. A 29-game starter, Wallow finished his career with 295 total tackles, 22.5 tackles for a loss and 9.5 sacks. He forced three fumbles in 2020 and was a first-team All-Big pick for the second consecutive season.
Sam Ehlinger, QB, Texas
Pass rusher Joseph Ossai was a consensus All-American and tackle Samuel Cosmi was one of only two offensive players to be unanimously selected to the 2020 All-Big 12 team. Both are likely to be early-round picks in the 2021 NFL Draft, and a case could be made that both are among the five toughest players to replace conference-wide. Ta'Quon Graham, Caden Stearns and Chris Brown, also multi-year starters who are set to turn pro, are big losses as well, as are receivers Brennan Eagles and Tarik Black. However, there's no contest when it comes to the most important player new head coach Steve Sarkisian will be tasked with replacing. A four-year starter at the most important position in the sport, Ehlinger finished his Texas career with 11,436 passing yards and 94 touchdowns — both second in school history — as well as 33 rushing touchdowns, which rank him fourth all-time for the Longhorns.
Jack Anderson, OL, Texas Tech
Texas Tech is a team in transition, which is a sticky situation for head coach Matt Wells entering his third season. In addition to quarterback Alan Bowman and promising freshman receiver Ja'Lynn Polk entering the transfer portal recently and wideout KeSean Carter making the move to Houston already, the Red Raiders must replace big target T.J. Vasher and starting defensive backs Zech McPhearson and Thomas Leggett, a trio of seniors who have already decided to forego the additional season of eligibility. But the biggest loss is Anderson, a guard who started 38 games over the last four years, including all 10 this season. Anderson was named first-team All-Big 12 in 2020 and ranked in the top 10 nationally in pass-blocking grade among guards who saw more than 100 pass-blocking snaps, according to PFF. He allowed just seven sacks in 1,816 career pass-blocking snaps and made progress as a run blocker as well.
Darius Stills, DT, West Virginia
Linebacker Tony Fields II was a first-team All-Big 12 selection and was named Defensive Newcomer of the Year after transferring in from Arizona. Fields won't be back for the extra year in 2021, as he's joining at least three fellow seniors, including receiver T.J. Simmons and offensive lineman Michael Brown, in the draft. And though Fields was arguably the best player for the Mountaineers last season, the biggest hole to fill in 2021 is that of Stills, the local product who blossomed into one of the best defensive players in the league. Stills recorded 25 total tackles, 7.5 tackles for a loss and 3.5 sacks as a senior, and though less impressive compared to his highly productive 2019 season (47 tackles, 15.0 TFLs and 7.0 sacks), was enough to earn Defensive Lineman of the Year honors in the Big 12.