Every college football season, unheralded players come along and help elevate their teams to unexpected heights. In other cases, vaunted hotshots stumble, leaving their programs in a lurch.
They’re the wild cards. Every team has them, and whether they hit or miss can have a major effect on a conference race.
Here are one offensive wild card and one defensive wild card for every team in the Big 12.
Offense: Jalen Hurd, WR
When last we saw Hurd, he was splitting carries with New Orleans Saints star Alvin Kamara in the Tennessee Volunteers' backfield. Hurd’s trying his hand now at a new position with a new team. That’s the definition of a wild card.
Defense: Derrek Thomas, DB
Another transfer, Thomas comes to Baylor via Temple, head coach Matt Rhule’s former program. Rhule has raved about the graduate transfer’s physicality, and Thomas figures to provide depth in the secondary right away.
Offense: Julian Good-Jones, OL
Good-Jones is a repeat name from this last year's version of this list. Last year, he filled a huge void in the Cyclones’ offensive line by switching from tackle to center for the entire year. He’s now moving back to tackle to replace standout Jake Campos on the left side of the line. Good-Jones will need to shake off any rust quickly.
Defense: Matt Leo, Defensive Line
ISU landed the raw Australian out of junior college last season. With a year in the system under his belt, Leo could start to realize his potential as a pass rusher in 2018.
Offense: Marvin Saunders, TE
As a graduate transfer from Florida State, Saunders will take over a starting role immediately for the Jayhawks. This offense needs weapons, so Saunders will have an opportunity to show out for NFL scouts.
Defense: Corione Harris, DB
KU brings back nine starters from last season’s defense; however, it’s yet to be determined if that’s actually a good thing. Harris is a promising freshman cornerback who should make his way up the depth chart, especially if the coaching staff decides the returnees still aren’t cutting it.
Kansas State Wildcats
Offense: Isaiah Zuber, WR
It may seem odd to call a team’s leading returning receiver a wild card, but KSU’s aerial attack has sputtered lately. Last year’s corps underachieved, and the Wildcats need a veteran such as Zuber to stabilize the unit this season. Importantly, KSU is looking for a deep threat -- Zuber may be their best option.
Defense: Elijah Walker, Nickelback
The nickelback plays such a key role in KSU’s 4-2-5 defensive scheme that it has to raise some concerns when there’s changeover at the spot. Walker has a reputation as a sound, aggressive player, which is what the position requires.
Offense: Kyler Murray, QB
Murray’s unique arrangement with the Oakland A’s made headlines after the club drafted him with the ninth overall selection in this year’s Major League Baseball draft. He’s a full-time football player until the end of the year, but it bears watching to see if his looming baseball career impacts how he plays in the fall. His skill set also differs from what OU had in Baker Mayfield, so count on Lincoln Riley to work to tailor the Sooners’ scheme to the strengths of his presumed starting QB.
Defense: Caleb Kelly, LB
After an up-and-down season as a starting outside linebacker, Kelly has transitioned inside permanently. The change won’t do Kelly or his team much good if he can’t learn to play a more physical brand of ball inside the box. The Sooners will continue to struggle with downhill rushing attacks if Kelly can’t hold up inside.
Oklahoma State Cowboys
Offense: Dru Brown, QB
The Cowboys lost a four-year starter at quarterback with the graduation of Mason Rudolph, putting veteran Taylor Cornelius in position to get the starting nod. The arrival of Brown as a graduate transfer from Hawaii throws a wrench in that, though. How much will Brown’s two years of starting experience weigh on Mike Gundy’s decision?
Defense: Kenneth Edison-McGruder, DB
Now a senior, Edison-McGruder has shuttled back and forth between safety and linebacker throughout his career at OSU. He’s now back at safety under new defensive coordinator Jim Knowles. Edison-McGruder’s role in the new scheme may not differ significantly from what he was doing a year ago, but the Cowboys can’t afford for him to struggle right off the bat.
TCU Horned Frogs
Offense: Shawn Robinson, QB
Another quarterback. Robinson (above, right) might have the highest ceiling of any QB Gary Patterson has ever had in his program. He started a game last year, but he has yet to prove he can pass as well as Kenny Hill. Offensive coordinator Sonny Cumbie might need to adapt the playbook to take advantage of Robinson’s wheels and to use his arm judiciously.
Defense: Julius Lewis, DB
Lewis obtained a medical redshirt last season after an early injury knocked him out for the year. The Horned Frogs have to hope he gets back up to speed quickly, as he’s the most likely candidate to fill the open cornerback spot left by Ranthony Texada.
Offense: Keontay Ingram, RB
UT had a rough time filling the shoes of D’Onta Foreman last year -- none of the returning running backs did much to stand out heading into this year. Ingram was one of the most coveted backs in the 2018 recruiting class and will have a shot to start immediately. Head coach Tom Herman needs a productive threat out of the backfield in the worst way.
Defense: Caden Sterns, DB
Sterns is arguably the crown jewel of a loaded recruiting class for the Longhorns. Turnover at the safety position puts him in line to see the field immediately as a freshman.
Texas Tech Red Raiders
Offense: Antoine Wesley, WR
The Red Raiders are going through a massive overhaul at wideout. Speaking of massive, Wesley is 6-foot-5. Now a junior, Wesley has yet to show much in the way of production, but his size could turn him into a serious downfield threat.
Defense: Joseph Wallace, DL
Wallace was projected to be a key contributor heading into 2017, but an early-season injury led to the decision to redshirt him. He’s now stepping into the only spot on Tech’s defense that doesn’t have a starter returning from last season.
West Virginia Mountaineers
Offense: Alec Sinkfield, RB
The redshirt freshman’s name doesn’t sound much like a feature running back. His game, on the other hand, suggests he’s the best option for replacing ultra-productive Justin Crawford on the top line of the depth chart at WVU.
Defense: Kenny Bigelow, DL
Now a sixth-year senior, Bigelow was one of the most heralded players in the 2013 recruiting class when he picked USC. Multiple knee injuries at with the Trojans robbed Bigelow of much of his ability and explosiveness, but he’s making one last run at stardom with the Mountaineers. He could at least add some depth to a defensive line that has seen major upheaval.
-- 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.
(Top photo by Ty Russell, courtesy of www.soonersports.com)