A year ago, the big question in Big 12 country was whether the Oklahoma Sooners could continue their streak of conference championships with star quarterback Baker Mayfield off to the NFL. Kyler Murray came along and racked up a second consecutive Heisman Trophy for the program while piloting OU to another Big 12 title and a spot in the College Football Playoff.
Unknowns like Murray often end up playing major roles in the trajectory of their team. With so much uncertainty hanging over the Big 12 this season, every squad will be looking to wild card players on both sides of the ball to take steps forward. In many cases, the players on this list will determine if their teams boom or bust in 2019.
Offense: Denzel Mims, WR
Mims was a second-team All-Big 12 selection in 2017 and looked like the next great Baylor receiver. That player showed up on occasion last season, but Mims took a noticeable step back. With Jalen Hurd off to the NFL after one season with the Bears, Baylor needs to Mims to regain his '17 form and anchor the receiving corps.
Defense: James Lockhart, DE
A one-time member of the Texas A&M Aggies, Lockhart steps into the spotlight on the Baylor defensive line this year. The Bears already have one of the best defensive linemen in the conference in junior James Lynch. If Lockhart develops this year, that combo will pose serious problems for offensive lines.
Offense: Jirehl Brock, RB
Junior Kene Nwangwu saw limited action in 2018 backing up star ISU runner David Montgomery. He may get the first shot at stepping into the bell-cow role for the Cyclones, but Brock could supplant him at some point in the season. The highly regarded freshman would probably be the more explosive candidate of the two, but how long will it take him to contribute?
Defense: Will McDonald, LB
You won't find many weak spots in the ISU defense, but the Clones are counting on McDonald, a redshirt freshman, to take over for Willie Harvey. McDonald will need to grow up quickly to make up for the savvy Iowa State is losing with the departure of a four-year starter on defense.
Offense: Pooka Williams Jr., RB
A lone bright spot for KU's offense in '18, Williams rushed for more than 1,100 yards as a freshman. The wild card comes from his disciplinary status: Williams is suspended for the first game of the season after being brought up on a domestic battery charge earlier this year. New KU head coach Les Miles probably won't give Williams another shot with the Jayhawks if he steps out of line again.
Defense: Malcolm Lee, DE
KU is shifting to a 3-4 defense this season, so wild card candidates on that side of the ball are plentiful. None can top Lee in terms of potential. At 6-foot-5, 270 pounds, the Jayhawks need Lee to hold it down on the edge of the defensive line and find his ceiling as a player right away.
Offense: Nick Kaltmayer, OT
Once a walk-on, Kaltmayer will get his shot to start on the offensive line in 2019. He will have to fill the enormous shoes of Dalton Risner to do so. In new head coach Chris Klieman's offense, the Wildcats will be counting on Kaltmayer to bring physicality up front.
Defense: Elijah Sullivan, LB
Sullivan came to Manhattan in 2016 with an uncommon level of fanfare for one of Bill Snyder's recruits. Since then, he has shown promise – when he's not sidelined with injuries. Sullivan played in just three games last season before getting shut down for the year. A healthy Sullivan at linebacker would provide a huge boost for the Wildcats on defense.
Offense: Rhamondre Stevenson, RB
Thousand-yard rusher Kennedy Brooks missed significant time with the team in the offseason as he was subjected to a Title IX investigation. Brooks has been cleared, but his absence might have opened the door for Stevenson to make his way into the backfield rotation this fall. Adding the beefy (5-11, 235) junior college transfer to the mix along with running back Trey Sermon and quarterback Jalen Hurts would leave defenses smarting after tangling with OU's rushing attack.
Defense: Jalen Redmond, Edge
As a freshman last year, Redmond put himself in position to start as an edge rusher. A medical condition kept him from making much of an impact, but all signs point to Redmond being good to go when the Sooners open camp in August. If the redshirt freshman can work his way into playing shape, OU will gain a desperately needed disruptor.
Offense: Dru Brown, QB
Brown arrived at OSU with two years of starting experience from Hawaii. That earned him all of one snap and a redshirt in '18. He's now battling underclassmen Spencer Sanders and Brendan Costello for the QB job. Sanders probably has the inside track to start, but Brown's tenure could make him a compelling alternative if the youngsters prove not ready for prime time.
Defense: Israel Antwine, DL
The Cowboys need reinforcements on the defensive line, so Antwine's arrival couldn't come at a better time. The Oklahoma City native started 11 of 12 games as a freshman at Colorado in '18 before opting to return to his home state. After being granted immediate eligibility this season, Antwine will compete right away for playing time. If he lives up to billing, it will give the Pokes a jolt.
Offense: Justin Rogers, QB
When Rogers committed to the Horned Frogs in high school, he was going to be the QB who reignited the TCU offense. A gnarly leg injury during his senior season in 2017 put that on hold and essentially wiped out his freshman campaign. He's now among the smorgasbord of candidates to start behind center for the Frogs this year. Getting Rogers at full speed would be the best outcome for TCU in its QB derby.
Defense: Shameik Blackshear, DE
Gary Patterson previously scored big at defensive end in the transfer market when he nabbed Ben Banogu from ULM. He's hoping for a similar payoff with Blackshear, who graduated from South Carolina in May and will use his final season of eligibility at TCU. Blackshear accumulated 34 tackles in '18, but Patterson is hoping to unlock the former Gamecock's potential this fall.
Offense: Parker Braun, OL
Compared to higher-profile transfers such as Jalen Hurts and Justin Fields, Braun's move from Georgia Tech to Texas flew under the radar. Nevertheless, Braun stands a chance to make a huge impact in '19 for the Longhorns, who have struggled for about a decade to put together a strong offensive line. Braun earned All-ACC honors twice with the Yellow Jackets while blocking for Paul Johnson's triple-option offense. How steep will the learning curve be in a different scheme?
Defense: Malcolm Roach, DL
Roach has bounced around UT's defense in the last three years. This season, he'll take on a key role in the defensive interior. In light of the turnover throughout Texas' defense, the Horns need Roach to provide leadership and a steadying presence on the field.
Offense: McLane Mannix, WR
Tech never fails to groom quality receivers, but in the case of Mannix, the Red Raiders are acquiring a polished product from a different program. Mannix can step into the void left by Antoine Wesley and help keep Tech's aerial attack dangerous. His 50 receptions last year at Nevada resulted in 875 yards and seven touchdowns.
Defense: Justus Parker, NB
Parker was a second-team selection to the 2017 All-Big 12 Team, but the former walk-on failed to make the same impact for Tech last year. Notably, after picking off four passes in '17, he had zero interceptions in '18. New defensive coordinator Keith Patterson may move Parker around on the field to find where he fits best.
Offense: Austin Kendall, QB
Kendall's intra-conference move from Norman to Morgantown generated a level of controversy disproportionate to his on-field production in three years with the Sooners. Sitting behind Kyler Murray and Baker Mayfield doesn't tell us much about how good of a quarterback he is. Kendall now has an opportunity to show what he's really made of, and he's playing for a strong offensive tactician in head coach Neal Brown. With all of the turnover on the WVU roster, Kendall can stabilize the Mountaineers with a solid season.
Defense: VanDarius Cowan, OLB
Cowan has all the physical tools required for stardom playing the Bandit position in the Eers' new defensive scheme. A coveted prospect coming out of high school in 2017, Cowan got booted from Alabama last July following an offseason arrest. WVU defensive coordinator dogged Cowan's work ethic and maturity in the spring, suggesting he still has work to do before he can reach his considerable potential.
— 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 courtesy of @TexasFootball)