Every year, we see players take the leap. It's a natural progression in college. Contributors become impact players. Solid starters become superstars and there are plenty of moves in between. Only players who have played two full seasons in college football count. That means no freshmen or transfers. My regrets to guys such as Calvin Barnett, Lache Seastrunk and Devonte Fields.
Here are my picks for the Big 12's most improved players:
Josh Stewart, WR, Oklahoma State: Stewart takes the honor of being the Big 12's most improved player by a landslide. A year ago, he was a bit player on a high-powered offense, grabbing 19 catches for 291 yards. The Cowboys lost their three best receivers from last season's team (Justin Blackmon, Josh Cooper, Mike Harrison) and needed somebody to step up. This season, Stewart answered the bell for an offense that needed him, catching 101 balls for 1,210 yards and seven scores.
Kerry Hyder, DL, Texas Tech: Hyder was arguably the biggest reason for Texas Tech's defensive resurgence this season, racking up 14 tackles for loss to rank fifth in the Big 12. A year ago, he had just five among his 42 tackles. This year, he made 56 stops, but had 5.5 sacks alone and broke up four passes.
Terrance Williams, WR, Baylor: Williams was a really good receiver a year ago, putting together maybe the quietest 900-yard receiving season ever. This year, though, he was better than anyone could have predicted. I voted for him for the Biletnikoff Award after leading the nation with 1,832 yards and 12 scores on 97 catches, up from 59 a year ago. He made the jump from great player to true superstar. He'll be an NFL first-rounder.
Jason Verrett, CB, TCU: Verrett had a nightmare start to 2011, getting burned by Robert Griffin III in a painful loss in Waco to begin the season. This year, he was unquestionably the Big 12's best shutdown corner and arguably one of the best in the country. Ask any Big 12 receiver. He's fast, physical and his great hands helped him grab six interceptions (fifth-most nationally) and break up a ridiculous 16 passes. That's 22 pass defenses. No other Big 12 player had more than 15.
Tony Pierson, RB, Kansas: Pierson was a great complement to power back James Sims, and ranked 10th in the league with 760 yards on just 117 carries. While Sims was suspended to begin the season, he had a pair of 120-yard games and topped 200 yards against Texas Tech, but his yards per carry (6.5) gets him on this list. Among the 25 Big 12 backs with at least 75 carries this year, only Seastrunk had a higher yards-per-carry average.
Lane Johnson, OT, Oklahoma: Johnson was a good tackle last season, but he made a decent argument for being the best in the Big 12 this year. He was solid all season long, but seeing him shut down Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year Devonte Fields in the regular season finale made a big impact on me. He also played well against possible top-five pick Damontre Moore, who was largely quiet in the Cotton Bowl loss to Texas A&M.
Bryce Hager, LB, Baylor: Hager's tackle numbers are a little inflated because of Baylor's early defensive struggles, but he led the Big 12 with 124 stops after making just 13 in limited duty a year ago as a freshman. If you watched him late in the year against K-State or UCLA, you saw how good Hager and his partner in crime at linebacker, Eddie Lackey, could be. It seemed like he was in Collin Klein's face all day, and the game may have been different without him.