In a conference known for prolific offenses and shootouts galore, the Big 12
features more than its fair share of wild card players.
Related: Big 12 Football 2016 Predictions
Some are stepping in for departed stars. Others are intriguing youngsters looking to make their mark ahead of schedule. Still others want to re-establish themselves following seasons lost to injury.
The circumstances may vary, but these wild cards could make the difference in helping their teams live up to potential.
Offense: Ishmael Zamora, Wide Receiver
Zamora didn’t catch many balls last year as a freshman, but when he did, he made them count. He averaged nearly 15 yards per each of his nine receptions. Two went for touchdowns. Known commodity KD Cannon will bear the responsibility of taking over for Corey Coleman, but Zamora appears to be a front-runner to step in as the Bears’ No. 2 target.
Defense: Brian Nance, Defensive End
Once a promising linebacker recruit, Nance started to come on last season as defensive end. His size (6-3, 245) precludes him from being much more than average against the run, but his speed off the edge makes him a formidable rusher.
Iowa State Cyclones
Offense: Oge Udeogu, Offensive Line
A consensus 3-star junior college prospect out of the City College of San Francisco, Udeogu has a chance to step in right away at guard to help shore up the Cyclones’ turnstile offensive line. The big Nigerian (6-4, 310) is raw, but he has the physical tools to be one of ISU’s best blockers for the next two years.
Defense: Jhaustin Thomas, Defensive End
New head coach Matt Campbell inherits a salty defense from Paul Rhoads. It starts with a seasoned defensive line. Thomas (6-6, 265) has physical gifts that make him a tantalizing option as an edge rusher. Whether or not he can put everything together to produce a solid season is another story.
Offense: D’Andre Banks, Offensive Tackle
Banks started nine games at guard in 2015. After moving outside, he now has the inside track on first-string right tackle. Promising young quarterback Ryan Willis will need the senior Banks to help keep him upright for KU to avoid another disastrous campaign.
Defense: Isi Holani, Defensive Tackle
On a defense seriously wanting for signs of hope, Holani at least gives KU an interesting prospect. The 6-3, 300 pound defensive lineman comes to Lawrence from Riverside (Calif.) Community College, and coordinator Clint Bowen needs all the help he can get to shore up a run defense that surrendered a putrid 5.7 yards per rush.
Kansas State Wildcats
Offense: Byron Pringle, Wide Receiver
The Wildcats passing attack didn’t evoke much fear from opponents last season. Blame for that falls equally on the quarterback position and a smattering of fair to below-average wideouts. Bill Snyder has a couple promising QB options in Jesse Ertz or Alex Delton. Receiver is a different story, with nary a Lockett to be found in the bunch. Pringle, a JUCO transfer, turned heads in Manhattan during spring camp and could put a little extra punch into KSU’s aerial attack.
Defense: Dante Barnett, Safety
Kansas State’s season got off to a horrible start with the loss of Barnett, who was considered a team leader in addition to being its best defensive player. The secondary fell apart without Barnett, allowing a putrid 8.2 yards per passing attempt, second worst in the Big 12. So long as his shoulder holds up, he will provide a steadying presence for youngsters like promising cover man Duke Shelley.
Offense: Geno Lewis, Wide Receiver
In 2012, Penn State refugee Justin Brown played his senior season for the Sooners and turned into one of the squad's most dependable targets in the passing game. OU is hoping to catch lightning in a bottle twice with Lewis, a graduate transfer from PSU. Lewis didn't get many chances to shine in the Nittany Lions' offense, but he showed flashes of being a vertical threat when he called upon.
Defense: Ogbonnia Okoronkwo, Outside Linebacker
"Obo" has made waves in practice in his years as a Sooner, but playing behind Eric Striker and Devante Bond prevented him from seeing regular action on Saturdays. He logged a total of eight tackles while appearing in nine games in 2015. Bob Stoops is hoping that Obo (6-2, 238) is ready to make the leap from raw physical specimen to every-down disruptor as a fourth-year junior.
Oklahoma State Cowboys
Offense: Barry Sanders, Running Back
Not long ago, you could count on Mike Gundy and his staff to turn unheralded running backs into NFL-caliber prospects. Lately, the Cowboys have struggled to find a backfield bell cow: OSU hasn't produced a 1,000-yard rusher since 2012. Sanders probably won't end that drought - he's more of a big-play threat. So long as he provides the Pokes with a credible presence next to quarterback Mason Rudolph, though, he'll represent an upgrade over his immediate predecessors.
Defense: Darrion Daniels, Defensive Tackle
Freshman defensive tackles generally get a redshirt year to acclimate themselves to life in the big leagues. Daniels, a four-star space-eater, saw the field in all 13 games for the Pokes last year. With a year under his belt, he'll likely take on a bigger role this season in Glenn Spencer's defense.
TCU Horned Fogs
Offense: Kenny Hill, Quarterback
Hill faced high expectations after inheriting the starting quarterback job at Texas A&M from the record-setting Johnny Manziel in 2014. He set a new standard for the Aggies as the first in a line of touted signal-callers to transfer out of College Station in the past two years. He founded a promising landing spot at TCU, where the offense is guided by respected gurus in Doug Meacham and Sonny Cumbie. If Hill can beat out Foster Sawyer this year, he'll offer the Horned Frogs a mobile presence in the same vein as departed star Trevone Boykin.
Defense: James McFarland, Defensive End
Gary Patterson could field one of the best defenses he has had at TCU, thanks in large measure to the wealth of depth created last season. The injury bug bit the Horned Frogs hard, including McFarland, who was lost early in the year to a foot injury. McFarland’s return means Patterson gets one of best pass rushers back this season. TCU’s defense didn’t cause the same level of chaos a year ago that college football fans have come to expect, which speaks to the lift McFarland should give the team.
Offense: Shane Buechele, Quarterback
Yes, it feels like cheating to pick a quarterback here, but it wouldn't be right to go any other direction. Tyrone Swoopes and Jerrod Heard don't fit new offensive coordinator Sterlin Gilbert's Baylor-inspired scheme, so it stands to reason that the true freshman Buechele will have to take the reins right away. There’s no time for growing pains. If Buechele doesn't have the goods, it could mean Charlie Strong will get his walking papers at the end of the season.
Defense: Charles Omenihu, Defensive End
Disruptors along the defensive line have been noticeably lacking for Texas lately. The upperclassmen in this year’s group don’t offer much star power, either. Omenihu, a lanky sophomore, looks like the best candidate to make some noise this season. A strong spring put him squarely in the mix for a starting spot at defensive end.
Texas Tech Red Raiders
Offense: Devin Lauderdale, Wide Receiver
As a sophomore in 2015, Lauderdale snagged 43 balls for 639 yards and four touchdowns. However, head coach Kliff Kingsbury suspended him late in the season, and the indefinite ban was only lifted in early June. In an offense predicated on spreading the ball around to multiple receivers, Lauderdale should make for one of quarterback Patrick Mahomes’ more reliable targets--assuming he stays on the field, of course.
Defense: Johnathan Picone, Linebacker
The dismissal of Dakota Allen this spring will put pressure on Picone to grow up fast. After losing his top returning tackler, coordinator David Gibbs will likely look to the incoming freshman from Mandeville, La., to join the rotation at linebacker immediately. Picone (6-1, 216) can probably hold up to the physical requirements of playing right away in the Big 12.
West Virginia Mountaineers
Offense: Jovon Durante, Wide Receiver
Durante may be as much of a wild card as you can find. He showed flashes of greatness as a freshman last season, including five touchdown receptions in 12 games. Apparently, however, he has taken up residence in Dana Holgorsen’s dog house. Durante was suspended for the Cactus Bowl at the end of year and WVU’s spring game. If he can stay in the coaching staff’s good graces, Durante will add another weapon to a growing offensive arsenal.
Defense: Rasul Douglas, Cornerback
NCAA clearance questions sidelined Douglas in the preseason last year, which put him too far behind to contribute much in 2015. The Mountaineers sustained heavy losses across the board on defense this offseason, including departures from one of the more underrated secondaries in the country. With the top three cornerbacks from last year now gone, WVU needs Douglas to play like the All-American he was at Nassau (N.Y) Community College before coming to Morgantown.
— Written by Allen Kenney, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Kenney is founder and editor of BlatantHomerism.com and host of the Blatant Homerism Podcast. Follow him on Twitter @BlatantHomerism.