Over the next two weeks, we’ll be breaking down the 10 best players at the moment on every team in the Big 12.
These lists won’t include junior college or freshman signees who haven’t arrived on campus yet. Rather, they will include only the players currently on their teams this spring. Some of these rankings might look different after the spring, but this is how we see them now.
On Monday, we start with the defending Big 12 champs: the Baylor Bears.
1. QB Bryce Petty: Petty is the reigning All-Big 12 quarterback and will begin the 2014 season on the Heisman short list after recording 46 total touchdowns throwing and running with only three interceptions last season. The Bears will start out as a legitimate playoff contender, and Petty will be a major reason why.
2. WR Antwan Goodley: Every big-time QB needs a go-to receiver, and Goodley is just that and more. He finished with 1,339 receiving yards last season, second in the Big 12 only to Texas Tech tight end Jace Amaro by 13 yards. Goodley is physical and he can fly, making him a nightmare matchup for opposing cornerbacks. Like Petty, Goodley will enter the season as an All-American candidate.
3. ILB Bryce Hager: With Eddie Lackey and Ahmad Dixon gone, Hager will be the clear-cut anchor of the Baylor defense once he returns from groin surgery. Hager is a tackling machine and will be a reliable piece for a defense that will be debuting several new starters.
4. LT Spencer Drango: Those outside the Baylor program learned just how valuable Drango was when he wasn’t in the lineup in 2013. After Drango suffered a season-ending back injury, Baylor’s pass protection of Petty slipped substantially the final month of the season. Even though he missed the final three games of the regular season, Drango deservedly was named first-team All-Big 12. With Outland finalist Cyril Richardson gone, Drango will be the headliner on the Baylor offensive line.
5. RB Shock Linwood: Despite being Baylor’s third-team running back last year, Linwood still finished sixth in the Big 12 in rushing with 881 yards. Some of that was due to Art Briles’ system and Baylor’s other offensive weapons. But some of it was due to Linwood’s talent, too. In his first significant action, Linwood shredded Oklahoma’s defense for 182 rushing yards, then followed that up with 187 yards against Texas Tech. Linwood is now the starter, and though he’ll likely share carries with Johnny Jefferson and Devin Chafin, he could put up a full season worth of big rushing totals.
6. WR Levi Norwood: When Tevin Reese was lost for the regular season with a wrist injury, more throws went Norwood’s way. And he capitalized on those opportunities, totaling 156, 83 and 83 receiving yards in three straight games near the end of the season to finish in the top 10 of the Big 12 in receiving along with teammates Goodley and Reese. Norwood is also a dangerous returner, taking two punts to the house last year. With Reese gone for good, Norwood will step into the No. 2 receiving role alongside Goodley, giving the Bears a formidable one-two punch for Petty to operate with.
7. DT Andrew Billings: Billings was one of the gems of the 2013 recruiting class and commanded a role along the defensive line as a true freshman. In his second year in the program, Billings could be primed for a breakout season. He has the talent, strength and quickness to be the best defensive tackle in the entire league.
8: DT Beau Blackshear: He might get overshadowed by Billings’ hype, but Blackshear has become a solid cog in Phil Bennett’s defense up front. Together, Blackshear and Billings could give the Bears a defensive tackle tandem as good as any in the Big 12.
9. DE Shawn Oakman: At 6-foot-9, 275 pounds, Oakman has the size and length to be a menacing defensive end. He flashed his immense potential several times last year and finished tied for sixth in the Big 12 with 12.5 tackles for loss despite being a part-time player. Oakman will take on a much bigger role on the defense this season, and he has the capability to be an All-Big 12 performer. The trio of Billings, Blackshear and Oakman is the foundation of what Baylor’s defensive line could be under Briles.
10. P Spencer Roth: The Bears featured one of the best special-teams units in the country in 2013, and Roth spearheaded that effort. The All-Big 12 punter was sixth nationally with an average of 45.8 yards per punt. Because of how prolific the Baylor offense is, Roth doesn’t get to punt often. But when he does, he usually swings field position the other way.