West Virginia safety Dravon Askew-Henry's return from a knee injury could be a big boost to a young, inexperienced Mountaineers defense
A year ago, fresh faces such as Oklahoma edge rusher Ogbonnia Okoronkwo and West Virginia cornerback Rasul Douglas helped shape the Big 12 race. Other programs counted on newcomers and unknowns who ultimately didn’t have the same impact on the field.
Here are some of the wild cards who could have a hand in setting the course of the Big 12 this season.
Offense: Ryan Miller, Offensive Line
Miller, a true freshman, might have to step in at center for all-conference selection Kyle Fuller. That’s asking a lot for a rookie. Hope he’s hitting the weight room and training table.
Defense: Brian Nance, Defensive End/Linebacker
Nance missed the 2016 season with academic troubles. He’s poised to get back on the field this season and make good on his untapped talent. Defensive-minded head coach Matt Rhule has the know-how to draw it out of Nance.
Offense: Julian Good-Jones, Offensive Line
In his second season, Good-Jones is moving from offensive tackle to center. As the lone returning starter on the line, ISU needs Good-Jones to anchor the unit. That doesn’t leave much of an opening for him to suffer through any growing pains this year.
Defense: Joel Lanning, Linebacker
That’s right, the Cyclones’ 2016 starting quarterback now plays linebacker. Lanning drew praise from head coach Matt Campbell and the rest of the ISU staff for how well he picked up the position in the spring. He appears to have the starting middle linebacker spot in his sights, which might say more about the Cyclone D than Lanning.
Offense: Peyton Bender, Quarterback
Some coaches who move into desperate new situations try to jump-start their programs with unique schemes or styles. David Beaty cast his lot with the Air Raid, the default offense of the Big 12, with minimal success. The Jayhawks will need Bender, a Washington State transfer by way of Itawamba (Miss.) Community College, to take over behind center and ignite the attack. If he can’t, expect another dismal year in Lawrence.
Defense: Hasan Defense, Defensive Back
You could pick out just about anyone on KU’s D as a wild card. Defense (oh, the irony) is one of the biggest. The JUCO transfer is probably the most talented player in the secondary for the Jayhawks.
Offense: Alex Barnes, Running Back
The Wildcats spread the ball around a committee of backs a year ago. By the end of the season, Barnes proved to be the most explosive of the bunch by averaging almost eight yards per carry. Now a sophomore, he is in line to take over as KSU’s bell cow. He only carried the ball 56 times in 2016, so it remains to be seen if he can handle the role of lead back.
Defense: Elijah Walker, Defensive Back
Free safety Dante Barnett provided a stabilizing force on the back end of the Wildcats’ defense for four years. KSU is counting on Walker to play that role now.
Offense: CeeDee Lamb, Wide Receiver
Oklahoma signed a bumper crop of receivers in the 2017 class, and Lamb is the most intriguing prospect of the bunch. He won't dust any defensive backs with his speed, but Lamb has size, strong hands and excellent ball skills. He could make in impact in the rotation by the middle of the year.
Defense: Amani Bledsoe, Defensive Line
OU's defensive coaches have sung Bledsoe's praises since preseason practices started last year. He even got snaps early as a true freshman. Then, he reportedly tested positive for a banned supplement, which put him on ice midway through the year. He continued to impress in spring ball, though, and only has to sit out the first four games of this season.
Offense: Marcell Ateman, Wide Receiver
The Cowboys got a huge boost when quarterback Mason Rudolph and receiver James Washington opted to return for a final season in Stillwater. Their presence overshadows the fact that Ateman is coming back after a year lost to injury. He averaged 17 yards per catch with 45 receptions in 2015, so he can add some pop to an already explosive O.
Defense: Adrian Baker, Defensive Back
OSU’s defense went from bad to slightly worse against the pass last season. The Pokes are looking to Baker, a graduate transfer from Clemson, to help solidify the secondary. Baker should expect to draw tougher assignments week in and week out than he did in the ACC.
Offense: Shawn Robinson, Quarterback
Kenny Hill’s erratic play last season – including a slew of turnovers – helped push TCU down below .500. He now has serious competition for the QB position from the dynamic freshman Robinson. In fact, Robinson has a decent chance of unseating Hill before the season even starts. The dual-threat signal-caller possesses the skills to take TCU to another level.
Defense: Ben Banogu, Defensive Line
Josh Carraway, James McFarland and Aaron Curry are all gone. Head coach Gary Patterson is hoping that ULM transfer Banogu can make up for some of that lost production from last season. Banogu proved himself as a disruptor in the Sun Belt, but now he has to show he can do it in the Big 12.
Offense: Reese Leitao, Tight End
To call the Longhorns' depth at tight end shallow would be an affront to the kiddie pool. They almost lost freshman Leitao before he even got to campus, too. With Leitao's legal troubles in Oklahoma apparently resolved he'll have a chance to contribute right away and help solidify arguably the weakest position group in Texas' roster.
Defense: Brandon Jones, Defensive Back
Former head coach Charlie Strong left behind a multitude of playmakers on the defensive side of the ball. Coming out of high school, Jones was one of the most highly regarded. His athleticism will put him in position to earn his fair share of reps come fall.
Offense: Da’Leon Ward, Running Back
With quarterback Patrick Mahomes now a Kansas City Chief and wide receiver Jonathan Giles an LSU Tiger, head coach Kliff Kingsbury will lean more on an often neglected running game this season. Ward was Tech’s top threat on the ground in 2016, admittedly, that’s not saying much. Now a sophomore, he’ll have a shot to carry more of the load this fall.
Defense: Joseph Wallace, Defensive Line
Breiden Fehoko was expected to anchor Tech up front on defense this year. His transfer dealt a brutal blow to an already shoddy unit. Wallace showed a measure of promise, relatively speaking, in eight appearances as a freshman last season. He now has to hold it down for the Red Raiders in the middle against the run and cause disruption when opposing QBs drop back to throw.
Offense: Will Grier, Quarterback
Grier looked like a star in the making as a freshman at Florida in 2015, playing spectacular ball as he helped lead the Gators to a 6-0 start. Reports from Morgantown since his transfer have been positive as well. We’ll see this fall if he still has the same skills.
Defense: Dravon Askew-Henry, Defensive Back
The Mountaineers lost eight starters from a D that was surprisingly salty last year. Askew-Henry’s return now from a season lost to injury offers one clear sign of hope. Defensive coordinator Tony Gibson will count on Askew-Henry to settle an unproven secondary, but that requires the safety picking up where he left off in 2015.
— 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.