The Big 12's returning ball hawks in 2012


If you've missed our look back at the projections from 2011, here's what you've missed.

Predicting interceptions is near impossible, so we don't even try. Don't believe me?

Of the Big 12's seven leading returning ball hawks in 2011, only Iowa State LB Jake Knott (No. 1) and Kansas State safety Ty Zimmerman (No. 7) had more than one interception that season.

Sometimes players disappoint or suffer injuries. Sometimes quarterbacks refuse to throw their way.

Want a fun stat from 2011 that'll give you hope for Big 12 defenses? Of the league's top 10 interception leaders, nine return. We'll break down the top six right here. Each of the players have at least four interceptions. Newcomers TCU and West Virginia don't have a single player with more than two picks.

So what do we know from this list? We'll find out soon. Either way, here are the Big 12's best returning ball hawks in 2012.

1. Nigel Malone, CB, Kansas State: Don't act like you're not impressed. Malone walked in last spring as a junior college transfer and earned a starting spot. Try to restrain your shock, but he had a huge year under Bill Snyder, who's got as good of a nose for jucos as anyone in college football. Malone's seven interceptions were two more than any other player in the Big 12 and ranked third nationally.

2. Justin Gilbert, CB, Oklahoma State: Gilbert was already a physical freak, one of the fastest players in the league and a lethal kick returner. Like Malone, Gilbert was a first-year starter and finished his first year in huge fashion. Gilbert picked off five passes and returns as a junior with sky-high expectations and NFL scouts peering in his direction.

3. Brodrick Brown, CB, Oklahoma State: They call him the Bulldog around Stillwater, and for good reason. While the speedy, 6-foot, 194-pound Gilbert has all the measurables, Brown is all heart at 5-foot-8, 183 pounds. Every week, he goes up against bigger, physical receivers and he still ended the season with five picks, just like Gilbert. OSU and Texas both have arguments as the league's best set of corners, and Brown, who will be a senior, is half the reason why.

4. K.J. Morton, CB, Baylor: Morton is one of four Big 12 talents with four picks in 2011. The juco transfer came on late in 2011, picking off all four of his passes in Baylor's final three regular-season games. There's plenty of excitement for what he could do in 2012, too.

5. Tony Jefferson, S, Oklahoma: Jefferson's four picks feel a bit unfair, considering that he picked off three of them in three consecutive possessions in a 62-6 shellacking of Ball State. His fourth came a week later. Jefferson was quiet late in the season on the interception front, but made plenty of plays elsewhere for the defense. Look for him to pick off passes with more consistency as a traditional safety in 2012 in Mike Stoops' defense, as opposed to playing linebacker last season in Brent Venables' defense.

6. Quandre Diggs, CB, Texas: Diggs is the only freshman on this list, and that says a whole lot. Diggs showed big promise as an early enrollee this time last spring and validated it in the fall, earning a starting job and leading the team in interceptions. Diggs picked off passes in comeback wins over BYU and Texas A&M, and grabbed his fourth in the bowl win over Cal. I'd venture to say Diggs has more upside than any player on this list. His sophomore season should be really fun to watch.