A recent article from Athlon had us 8th in their preseason Big 12 power rankings. While that doesn't feel entirely unfair, it got me thinking: how do each of our position groups stack up with others around the conference? Since the summer is more content-barren than the Sahara, I went ahead and wrote those thoughts down.
Quarterbacks - 7th
This first one's a bit tricky considering that we don't actually know who our quarterback is yet, but that actually seems to be an oddly pervasive problem in the Big 12 this year after how loaded the conference has been at the position over the last two or three.
The top 5 seems relatively set - Jalen Hurts and Sam Ehlinger are locked in at the top of the class, while Brock Purdy, Charlie Brewer, and Alan Bowman should all be better in their second years as starters. However, most other teams are a bit of a mystery.
At the top of the mystery group is probably highly-rated redshirt freshman Spencer Sanders, who seems set to take over at Oklahoma State. Sanders gives the Pokes much more athleticism at the position than we're accustomed to, and though he didn't get any game time a year ago they certainly have the weapons for him to be successful right away. At TCU, Mike Collins didn't impress me much last year, and the fact that he's still in a battle with graduate transfer Alex Delton, who never really impressed me at Kansas State, and Justin Rogers, who I've never heard of, makes me think that their situation is even more dire than ours. Ditto for Kansas State, who returns the mostly shaky but occasionally special Skylar Thompson, and Kansas, who returns
nobody of note Carter Stanley.
The optimist in me would like to think that both Austin Kendall and Jack Allison have the pedigree to push our ceiling into that second tier with Purdy, Brewer, and Bowman, while the pessimist in me (read: the guy who attended the Spring Game) thinks that our floor is lower than everybody except Kansas and maybe TCU. Realistically we probably end up in that third tier with Oklahoma State and Kansas State, which if our defense and running game are solid is hopefully enough to get us to a bowl game.
Running Backs - 2nd
This one may surprise some outsiders but I don't think it's overly homerific - we legitimately have more depth than anybody in the conference and our ceiling is as high as anybody not named Oklahoma, who is again the class of the conference with Kennedy Brooks and Trey Sermon.
That's not to say that there aren't talented backfields elsewhere in the league. Iowa State is a bit of an unknown following the departure of David Montgomery (fucking finally), but outside of them I honestly can't think of anybody who won't have at least one established difference maker toting rock this year. Oklahoma State's Chuba Hubbard, Texas' Keontay Ingram, Kansas' Pooka Williams, and Texas Tech's Ta'Zhawn Henry are all going to be absolute handfuls as sophomores this year, Alex Barnes is always solid at Kansas State, Baylor has a talented trio in Hasty, Ebner and Lovett, and TCU's one-two punch of Darius Anderdon and Sewo Olonilua always seem to give us trouble. However, as strong as those backfields are, I'll take our group over any of those others any day of the week.
Consider that we were the only team in the league that had three separate backs (Kennedy McKoy, Martell Pettaway, and Leddie Brown) go over 100 yards in multiple games last year, and that all three guys are back. Also consider that we have a fourth guy (Alec Sinkfield) who may actually be the most explosive of the bunch, and a fifth (true freshman Tony Mathis) who probably won’t play but could realistically end up being better than all of them. The TL;DR here is that we’re absolutely loaded, and best of all, the skills sets are complimentary enough that we shouldn't have any trouble playing several of them at the same time. If the offensive line can hold up their end, watch out.
Pass Catchers - 8th
The Big 12 is predictably loaded with playmakers on the outside. CeeDee Lamb at Oklahoma, Tylan Wallace at Oklahoma State, and Jalen Raegor at TCU are rightfully the headliners, but there's more than enough talent to go around with Texas, Texas Tech, Iowa State, and Baylor also returning multiple guys who did things last year.
As I detailed in my recent #TakeMeHome20 piece, we're dealing with a bit more uncertainty than most, with the departure of Sills, Jennings, Simms, and Wesco understandably making pass catching playmakers one of our biggest areas of need. TJ Simmons made some plays last year and Jovani Haskins and Tevin Bush are relatively established in that we know they exist and have hands, but outside of those three, we don't really have anybody who has gone out and performed when the bullets are flying. And considering the previous paragraph, that objective reality puts us squarely at the bottom of the conference above only Kansas and Kansas State.
However, we're not without cause for optimism, and I actually think that this is the area where we stand to improve the most over the course of the year.
First, I think it's safe for us to start getting legitimately excited about the development of Sam James. He received a ton of breakout hype this spring, but then he went out and validated it with a strong performance in the Spring Game, flashing some much-needed ability to get behind the defense and make plays. The momentum has carried over into the summer, and though it's not fair for us expect him to be Marcus Simms right away, he definitely looks like he's ready to start making a name for himself.
We also have a number of guys who on paper look like they're capable of providing some physicality in the passing game. 6'3 220 lb Bryce Wheaton is another redshirt freshman who's started to separate himself, and we also have graduate transfers Sean Ryan (6'4 195) and George Campbell (6'4 205) to consider. Hopefully between the three of them we can find one that can use his size to punish smaller defenders on contested balls, but failing that, at the very least they give us three big bodies to swallow up cornerbacks when we run the ball.
Finally, we have a pair of true freshmen that I'm excited about. Ali Jennings may ultimately be a year away from contributing, but looks like he has the frame and athleticism to grow into a Gary Jennings-type of player at some point. Winston Wright, however, could have a much more immediate impact. A two-time Georgia sprint champion, Winston obviously has the speed to play (w)right away, but it's actually his wiggle that might force us into giving him touches. Simply put, he's probably the most talented guy with the ball in his hands that we've had since Tavon Austin, and given Real Deal Neal's emphasis on getting the rock to those kinds of guys in space, it's easy to see us trying to manufacture 4-5 touches for him each game just to see what happens.
We definitely need a lot to go right, but it's not completely unrealistic that we hit on a couple of the "what-if's" described above and move up into the middle of the pack in the Big 12.
Offensive Line - 6th
I'm not going to pretend to know a ton about the other offensive lines in the Big 12 so this section will be relatively short.
West Virginia returns some good pieces along the offensive front. Colton McKivitz will have All-Conference, if not All-American aspirations at left tackle, and both Josh Sills and Kelby Wickline performed well enough last year to expect to be in the mix for All-Conference selections, as well. Chase Behrndt has racked up a ton of experience at a variety of positions and makes sense as the guy to step in at center, and Mike Brown provides a massive body at the other guard spot. I think the coaches feel good about those five, and if we can keep them healthy we should be just fine.
Unfortunately that almost never happens, so our biggest question mark becomes depth. Outside of Jacob Buccigrossi, who was serviceable in spot duty last year, the second half of our two-deep is filled with complete unknowns, so as good as that first group might be, that uncertainty is enough to push us into the bottom half of the conference.
Defensive Line - 4th
Keenan Cummings of WVSports made this case the other day and I was inclined to agree before even reading it: our defensive line is going to be the backbone of a surprisingly good defense. I'm sure it'll be another surprise for some, and this one may actually be a bit homerific, but in my defense I truly feel like we're going to be a handful up front this year.
4 of our top 6 guys up front are either multi-year starters or contributors for us (Donahue, Stills bros, Pooler), and the two that aren't are highly-touted transfers Taijh Alston and VanDarius Cowan, who look as good in a uniform as anybody on our team in addition to being two of our top performers this spring. Behind them we have Quondarius Qualls, Stone Wolfley, and Brenon Thrift, a trio of redshirt seniors who should be able to provide solid depth at end, end, and tackle, respectively, while Michigan graduate transfer Reuben Jones adds a little blue blood pedigree into the mix. You can argue that the star power maybe isn't up there with the teams at the top of the conference like Kansas State, Iowa State, Texas, and probably even TCU and Texas Tech, but I just named at least eight very serviceable players and we haven't even gotten to true freshmen Jordan Jefferson, who is reportedly going to play right away, and Jalen Thornton, who as the son of Mountaineer legend John Thornton has some lofty expectations of his own. I think they're going to be easily the stingiest bunch we've had up front since at least 2016, when Noble Nwachukwu and Christian Brown helped us to 10 wins.
Linebackers - 9th
It's my opinion that the Big 12's unwarranted reputation as a no-defense league has especially been a disservice to the level of linebacker play we've seen over the past few years, and based on what's coming back, the conference should again be well-stocked in 2019. Therefore, please consider my rating us 9th as mostly a reflection of the fact that every other team besides Kansas, who's in understandably dire straits following the graduation of tackling machine Joe Dineen and his PIC Keith Loneker, has established lynchpins at linebacker who have shown they're capable of playing a full season. Simply put, I think we'll be fine, I just think the rest of those groups are probably better.
There's Marcel Spears and Mike Rose at Iowa State, Jordyn Brooks and Riko Jeffers at Texas Tech, Calvin Bundage at Ok State, Clay Johnston and Blake Lynch at Baylor, Garrett Wallow at TCU, DaQuan Patton at Kansas State, and the conference's leading tackler in 2018, Oklahoma's Kenneth Murray. All of those guys fly around and make plays as well as anybody, and I didn't even include anybody from Texas, who I'm sure has a fleet of 5-stars just chomping at the bit to make a name for themselves, as well.
So, while I'm optimistic that our linebacker play can end up being somewhere in the middle of that above pack, we can't put ourselves there just yet. We also can't just replace a guy like David Long. The dude spent the last three years as our #AlphaDawg and it's not fair to expect the next man up to fill his shoes. But there are a couple of guys that we can and should be excited about.
First, we should have a healthy Dylan Tonkery back at middle linebacker. Tonkery has had some well-documented injury issues over the last two years, but he's been a solid performer when on the field and his experience at the Mike should be invaluable to a defense that may be a bit lacking in that department. Shea Campbell and Zach Sandwisch are both back as well after filling in admirably when others got hurt last year. Tonk is the only one of the three that's above average, but they're all "do-your-job" guys who we can count on to put in a shift and get themselves and others into the right spots.
The Will is where we have some potential difference makers. Charlie Benton should hopefully be back healthy following a knee injury in last year's season opener against Tennessee, and you'll remember that he was part of the first-team defense in that game prior to getting hurt. Redshirt senior Deamonte Lindsay and Exree Loe are both multi-year program guys who should provide valuable experience, as well. The man of the hour though is sophomore Josh Chandler, who's been getting a ton of hype after finishing the Spring as the defensive MVP. Chandler spent last year learning under the aforementioned Long and is reportedly as close to his mentor as we could hope for. If he can live up to the hype and be a playmaker for us at the second level, then workmanlike output from the Mikes will be enough to get us to where we need to be.
Secondary - 5th
The defensive backfield is another area where I would opine that the national perception of the Big 12 doesn't really match reality. I get that the offenses put up points, but they put up points on everybody. The fact of the matter is that there is plenty of quality defensive back play around the league.
Oklahoma State might have the best group in the conference, led by cornerbacks AJ Green and Rodarius Williams and emergent safety Malcolm Rodriguez. Texas is loaded, as well, boasting one of the best safety tandems in America in Big 12 Freshman DPOY Caleb Sterns and Brandon Jones, while Iowa State's Greg Eisworth might be the best individual safety in the conference now that Kenny Robinson is in the transfer portal. TCU's Jeff Gladney, Kansas' Bryce Torneden, and Kansas State's Denzel Goolsby are all worth a mention, as well.
As for us, I probably would've had us a spot or two higher prior to the departures of Robinson and Derrek Pitts, but I still feel like we have plenty of talent to plug those holes.
Jovani Stewart was one of our standout defensive performers a year ago, and the Spear safety role he now occupies seems tailor-made for a guy with his skillset. Josh Norwood, who was arguably our top corner last year, has been moved to the Cat safety position and seems well-suited to that role, as well. On the outside, Keith Washington and Hakeem Bailey are a pair of 5th-year seniors who should be solid if unspectacular. We have a pretty good idea of what to expect from those four guys, but it's the next group's ability to take a collective step forward that will validate my ranking.
That group is headlined by JUCO corner Dreshun Miller and redshirt freshman safety Kwantel Raines. Miller, who we somehow flipped from LSU, has absolutely prototypical size, and if his on-field performance comes anywhere close to his off-field swagger then I’d expect him to be a week 1 starter at corner. Raines was one of the crown jewels of our 2018 class along with Dante Stills, and at 6'3 215 he has the size and athleticism to help us at any of the safety or hybrid positions.
We also need redshirt juniors like Jake Long and Sean Mahone to come good. Those guys haven't gotten much playing time due to the guys they had in front of them, but they're entering their fourth year in the program and we need them to start contributing in a meaningful way.
As for the newcomers, we're certainly not lacking for talent. Charleston native Kerry Martin was a pleasant surprise this spring, while Tykee Smith, Tae Mayo, and Nicktroy Fortune all look physically ready to play right away.
There are clearly a lot of different ways things can shake out, but we do have an experienced foundation so if some of those other guys can play to their potential we have a chance to be pretty good.
Specialists - 7th
Disclaimer: I don’t know much about the individuals filling these roles for our conference rivals, and after 2500+ words I don't have the energy to research them and find out. This ranking is based on how good I expect us to be compared with how good those other teams usually are.
Evan Staley is back and gives us one of the most reliable legs in the conference, but we're replacing nearly everyone else. In Billy Kinney's case that may not necessarily be the worst thing, but in Marcus Simms' case it means replacing one of the most dangerous return men in the conference. Regarding the latter, I think we have plenty of likely candidates who will be able to step in and do a decent job, but the former is somewhat trickier. We've seen time and again over the years the importance of winning the field position battle, so our ability to find (or not find) a serviceable punter could be a make-or-break issue this year for a team without much margin for error.
Coaching - 1st
Real Deal Neal. Big Dick Vic. Need I say more? LET'S GOOO!