The Big 12 may have missed out on the inaugural College Football Playoff last season, but that doesn’t mean the conference lacks for impact players. While some are more household names than other, each Big 12 team has their “wild card” players that figure to play a big role in how their respective season will pan out.
Related: Big 12 Football 2015 Predictions
There are different interpretations when it comes to a “wild card” player. Sometimes it’s a do-everything, x-factor type guy that everyone is well aware of. Other times it may be a player who is flying under the radar or someone who is poised to break out this season.
Whatever the definition, here is “wild card” offensive and defensive player for each Big 12 team for the 2015 season:
Offense: KD Cannon, Wide Receiver
As a true freshman Cannon averaged 17.8 yards per catch last season. His speed alone makes him a nightmare matchup, forcing teams to game plan to try and slow him down. He led the nation in receptions longer than 60, 70 and 80 yards. Don’t expect anything less from him this season.
Defense: Shawn Oakman, Defensive End
Oakman is just scary, period. At 6-foot-9, 280 pounds Oakman is not just big but also strong and athletic. With a school-record 11 sacks and 19.5 tackles for a loss last season Oakman will lead a defense that is again stacked with talent.
Iowa State Cyclones
Offense: Quenton Bundrage, Wide Receiver
Bundrage’s performance in the spring has stirred up some optimism for Cyclones fans. After sitting out most of last season with a torn ACL he now seems to be 100 percent. Bundrage caught 20 passes for 232 yards in 2012 and will lead a much-improved receiving corps in Ames this fall.
Defense: Sam E. Richardson, Cornerback
Not to be mistaken for QB Sam Richardson, Sam E. Richardson will have to take the reigns as a defensive captain this season after losing teammates to graduation and dismissals. Kamari Cotton-Moya, last season’s Defensive Freshman of the Year in the Big 12, returns as well but he has been limited since being hospitalized for a head injury sustained in the spring.
Offense: Taylor Cox, Running Back
It just keeps getting worse for Kansas with the announcement that leading rusher Corey Avery has left the program. That leaves the running responsibilities to Cox, who was recently granted a sixth year of eligibility. Cox hasn’t played since rushing for 464 yards on 91 carries in 2012. Now he will be tasked with leading a Kansas offense that desperately needs some playmakers to emerge.
Defense: Fish Smithson, Free Safety
Smithson, who finished fifth last season in tackles, is one of the unit’s top returning contributors. Kansas is going through a large rebuilding process on defense and this unit will likely lean on Smithson for both leadership and production.
Kansas State Wildcats
Offense: Cody Whitehair, Tackle
Probably the most versatile offensive lineman in the Big 12, Whitehair has played almost every position on the line. His athleticism and size makes him a nightmare for defensive linemen. Even though he never touches the football, Whitehair is one of the Wildcats’ offensive players that must be accounted for by opposing defenses.
Defense: Dante Barnett, Safety
Along with Danzel McDaniel, Barrett may be part of the best secondary in the Big 12. Second on the team with 77 tackles last season, Barnett will be looked upon to lead a defense that lost most of its front seven from 2014.
Offense: Samaje Perine, Running Back
Perine burst onto the scene last season when he rushed for 242 yards and four touchdowns against West Virginia in Morgantown. He topped that later by rushing for an FBS single-game record 427 yards against Kansas. Perine is no longer an “under the radar” player, as his production will be key for an onffense that’s transitioning under new coordinator Lincoln Riley.
Defense: Eric Striker, Linebacker
Striker is the heart and soul of the Sooners’ defense, known for his ability to excel as a pass rusher or in pass coverage. While his stats were not indicative of his play, he was disruptive presence last season whenever he was on the field. Expect more of the same this season.
Oklahoma State Cowboys
Offense: Mason Rudolph, Quarterback
Forced into action earlier than head coach Mike Gundy wanted, Rudolph proved he was the future under center for the Cowboys last season. With an improved offensive line and veterans at the receiver position everything appears in place for Rudolph to have a breakout season.
Defense: Emmanuel Ogbah, Defensive End
The reigning Big 12 Defensive Lineman of the Year, Ogbah is back looking to not only improve his stock for the 2016 NFL Draft, but also help his Cowboys win another conference title. Ogbah impressed with his 11 sacks last season, but now he must do the same against offenses that will game plan and scheme against him as the anchor of a defensive line featuring two new starting tackles.
TCU Horned Fogs
Offense: Trevone Boykin, Quarterback
Make no mistake, every defense is fully aware of who Boykin is and what he’s capable of doing. But as the early favorite to win the Heisman Trophy and the most important player on a team with College Football Playoff aspirations, Boykin’s margin for error is razor thin. The “wild card” factor lies in what happens if Boykin doesn’t match his production from last season, even if the Horned Frogs keep winning? How much do “style points” matter when it comes to Heisman voters and the Playoff selection committee? We may find out this fall.
Defense: Davion Pierson, Defensive Tackle
As the most experienced player for the Horned Frogs entering this season (31 career starts), Pierson will be looked upon to lead a defense that must replace six starters and several other key contribtors. He may not get the accolades he deserves but if there are linebackers getting into the backfield rest assured Pierson is helping to make that happen.
Offense: Tyrone Swoopes, Quarterback
Many Longhorn fans probably don’t want to see this name as their offensive wild card this season but the truth is Swoopes will HAVE to perform. Texas is returning just one starter at the skill positions, so the junior signal-caller will need to take the lead on offense. He has the athletic ability to be great, but has yet to develop the consistency necessary to produce on a week in, week out basis. If he performs like he did in the bowl loss to Arkansas last season, Swoopes could lose his job to redshirt freshman Jerrod Heard.
Defense: Malik Jefferson, Linebacker
Jefferson hasn’t even played a down in a Longhorns uniform yet but is already expected by many to immediately make an impact. Rated the best LB recruit in the nation in the 2015 class, Jefferson enrolled early in Austin and has already impressed. With the Longhorns set to replace six starters on defense Jefferson figures to get every opportunity to play right away, and he appears to have the skill set to be a difference-maker sooner rather than later.
Texas Tech Red Raiders
Offense: DeAndre Washington, Running Back
Known for their passing attack, the Red Raiders will be young at the outside receiver position and will continue to deal with a QB situation that was unstable last season. Washington’s 1,103 yards rushing last season made him the program’s first 1,000-yard rusher since 1998. Until Texas Tech can dial in its passing attack expect to see a heavy dose of Washington.
Defense: Pete Robertson, Linebacker/Defensive End
Among those defenders named on the preseason watch lists for both the Bronko Nagurski Trophy and Chuck Bednarik Award, Robertson will anchor a defense that as much room for improvement this season. The Big 12’s sack leader in 2014 (12), Roberston will need to continue to make plays for new defensive coordinator David Gibbs, if the Red Raiders want turn around lasts season’s 4-8 record.
West Virginia Mountaineers
Offense: Jordan Thompson, Wide Receiver
While the Mountaineers will try and replace first-round NFL Draft pick Kevin White on the outside, look for Thompson to be a primary target out of the slot. Thompson has shown flashes of greatness while sometimes leaving fans scratching their heads. The best aspect of Thompson is that he is ready to be that impact player and fully embraces the responsibility, as West Virginia also will have a new face at quarterback.
Defense: Karl Joseph, Safety
Joseph is undoubtedly the most punishing safety in the Big 12 and possibly the country. He will anchor a defense that should be one of the best in the conference and has the ability to be a difference-maker whenever he is on the field. If Joseph doesn’t play up to his level, West Virginia’s defense will probably struggle.
— Written by Jeremy Simon, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and editor-in-chief of BlueGoldSports.com, a must visit for any and all West Virginia Mountaineer fans. Follow BlueGoldSports.com on Twitter @Blue_GoldSports.