One of the neat things about following college football each season is watching players provide unexpected contributions to their teams.
The Big 12 was full of these contributors in 2009, with some emerging to become some of the best players in the country.
Here's a look at 15 of those under-the-radar players, in no particular order, who achieved much more than their coaches ever would have expected coming into the season.
Missouri wide receiver Danario Alexander: Beset by injuries much of his career, Alexander never fulfilled much of the promise expected for him. The departure of Jeremy Maclin provided a chance for him to become Missouri’s featured receiver and Alexander took advantage. In the process, he produced conference-best totals of 107 receptions, 1,644 yards and 13 touchdowns. Alexander finished with a flourish with three 200-yard receiving games in his final four contests.
Nebraska cornerback Prince Amukamara: Amukamara was a nickel back for the Cornhuskers last season who notched 34 tackles, but only five in his final four games. From those struggles, he emerged as a prime playmaker in 2009, tying for the team lead with five interceptions and leading the Blackshirts with 11 pass deflections.
Oklahoma State linebacker Donald Booker: A season-ending knee injury sustained by Orie Lemon a week before the season started was expected to ground the Cowboys’ defense. Booker took advantage of the opportunity by leading the team with 86 tackles, eight tackles for losses and five sacks.
Nebraska defensive tackle Jared Crick: After producing only two tackles in nine games as a freshman in 2008, Crick won the starting job next to Ndamukong Suh in fall camp. Crick responded by setting the school record with five sacks and seven tackles for losses against Baylor en route to a season with 9.5 sacks, 15 tackles for loss and 70 tackles.
Nebraska linebacker Phillip Dillard: After struggling with injuries last season, Dillard was as low as No. 4 on Nebraska’s depth chart during spring practice. The senior earned a starting position early this season and nabbed 76 tackles to tie for second on the team.
Colorado tight end Riar Geer: His earlier career had been marked by injuries and legal woes. But Geer rebounded to lead all Big 12 tight ends with 37 receptions and 426 yards.
Texas A&M quarterback Jerrod Johnson: During a streaky sophomore season, Johnson struggled with his consistency in running the Aggies offense. But Johnson took advantage of the offseason, leading the conference and setting a school record with 28 touchdown passes. He also smashed school records with 3,217 passing yards, 3,672 yards of total offense and five 300-yard passing games.
Colorado wide receiver Scotty McKnight: Josh Smith’s abrupt departure this spring left the Buffaloes needing a breakaway receiver. McKnight had led the team in receiving in each of the last two seasons, but responded with a huge season of 76 receptions to tie for second-most in school history for 893 yards.
Texas A&M defensive end/linebacker Von Miller: Defensive coordinator Joe Kines knew that Miller could develop into a prime playmaker if he could find a spot for him. Kines developed the hybrid “jack” position that combined elements of linebacker and defensive end. Miller took advantage by leading the nation with 17 sacks and ranking fifth nationally with 21 tackles for losses.
Texas Tech defensive end Brandon Sharpe: The former Fresno City College player posted only four tackles last season. But he blossomed this season into the top pass-rushing threat in the league’s top sack-producing defense with 15 sacks, ranking second nationally.
Iowa State linebacker Jesse Smith: The former walk-on linebacker was a strong producer last season, but wasn’t expected to have the monster season he had in 2009. The undersized Smith had a conference-leading 128 tackles, becoming the only Big 12 player to average more than 10 tackles (10.67) this season.
Iowa State center Reggie Stephens: Even after enduring a mid-season appendectomy, Stephens emerged as the foundation of an offensive line that allowed only 14 sacks to rank tied for 21st nationally. He earned All-Big 12 honors by the Associated Press and had a string of 36 consecutive starts before he missed the Texas A&M game.
Kansas State tailback Daniel Thomas: When he was recruited from Northwest Mississippi Junior College, Thomas was expected to contend at quarterback. Instead, he developed as the Wildcats’ top offensive threat at tailback, rushing for a league-best 1,265 yards and 11 touchdowns.
Texas Tech wide receiver Alex Torres: The transfer from the Air Force Academy returned home to El Paso where he worked as a server at Red Lobster as he awaited another opportunity. Texas Tech provided it to him and he produced team-leading totals of 65 receptions and 791 yards in his first season.
Oklahoma State running back Keith Toston, Oklahoma State: His early career had been marked by struggles as he labored in the shadows of Kendall Hunter. But after the 2008 Big 12 rushing leader went down with a foot injury, Toston rushed for 1,177 yards and 11 touchdowns to serve as the Cowboys’ top offensive threat.