Dallas Colleges: Jordan Phillips

Five plays that defined OU's 52-7 win

September, 6, 2014
Sep 6
6:15
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Oklahoma cruised to its second win of the season, hammering Tulsa 52-7 on Saturday afternoon at H.A. Chapman Stadium in Tulsa, Oklahoma. The Sooners dominated on the ground, through the air and without the football as Bob Stoops' team looked worthy of its No. 4 AP ranking.

Here's a closer look at five plays that changed the game, what they said and what those plays could mean for the future.

Trevor Knight's 54-yard pass to Sterling Shepard on OU's first play from scrimmage

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The Sooners sent a message from the start of the game with Shepard catching a flip pass from Knight and racing down the sideline, aided by a key block from Keith Ford, for a gain of 54 yards. Oklahoma grabbed immediate momentum with the play, which led to a seven-yard touchdown run from Ford to give Oklahoma a 7-0 advantage less than a minute into the game. The play removed any doubt about the Sooners' focus despite being a clear favorite heading into kickoff.

They said it: "Sterling is a special player; he has a chance to have a special year. He can run it, he can get behind you, he can return it, he's really pretty special." -- OU coach Bob Stoops

Knight's 31-yard touchdown run

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The Sooners had already taken control of the game before Knight's 31-yard gallop into the end zone, but the play was a glimpse at just how lethal their offense can become with Knight behind center. Oklahoma spread the field with an empty backfield, then Knight went right down the middle of the Golden Hurricane defense, made a man miss in the secondary and was gone. That will be difficult for any team on the Sooners' schedule to defend, because Knight is proving he has the ability to make teams pay with his arm and legs.

They said it: "They were just running out of there [the middle], so Heup [offensive coordinator Josh Heupel] dialed it up and it opened up for me." -- Knight

Alex Ross' 82-yard touchdown run

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One play after Jordan Phillips' fumble return for touchdown was erased by a penalty, Ross put the points on the scoreboard anyway with a 82-yard run that put his speed and strength on full display. The sophomore from Tulsa, Oklahoma, has created a buzz with his terrific speed and size at 6-foot-1 and 221 pounds, but this long touchdown score was the first time we've seen it in a game for the Sooners. His big-play ability could be a key asset this season.

They said it: "If I had gotten chased down, I never would have been able to see another day after that. I was trying to [make sure] I'd never get caught." -- Ross

Geneo Grissom's 38-yard interception return for touchdown

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Grissom looks like he's finally found a home as a hybrid defensive end/linebacker in Oklahoma's 3-4 defensive system. He drops back in coverage at times, yet plays in the defensive interior in the Sooners' pass-rush packages, a sign of his versatility. On Saturday, he dropped into coverage to intercept a pass from Tulsa quarterback Dane Evans and cruised into the end zone after stiff-arming Evans, who was the final Golden Hurricane standing between himself and paydirt.

They said it: "I started licking my chops. I feel like I'm more physical than most quarterbacks. I might even slow down just so I can get a stiff arm. It's all fun. I like making plays." -- Grissom, on what went through his mind when he saw Evans was going to try to stop him

They said it, part II: "Reporters always ask me, 'Have I found a home yet?' I think my home is the end zone." -- Grissom

Shepard's 48-yard reception in the third quarter

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It wasn't a game-changing play against Tulsa, but Shepard's 48-yard reception got Oklahoma out of trouble from deep in its own territory in the middle of the third quarter. It was a key play to give the Sooners some breathing room and an even bigger play for the future. Knight's accurate deep throw is a great sign, as he can keep defenses honest and become a defensive coordinator's nightmare if he can consistently drop accurate deep balls into the arms of OU receivers. Shepard finished the game with eight receptions for 177 yards and one touchdown.

They said it: "I think you're going to see all year that he's tough. If you're going to stop the running game, then you've got to play a lot more one-on-one with him. The fact they're very balanced in what they do makes him an especially tough matchup." -- Tulsa coach Bill Blankenship, on Shepard

They said it, part II: "Trevor's been doing a great job putting those on the money." -- Shepard

BONUS PLAY: Jordan Phillips' nullified touchdown

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The best touchdown of the day is nowhere to be found on the score summary. Phillips rumbled 69 yards for a touchdown that was erased by a penalty on Chuka Ndulue, who was blocking behind the play. Here's what Phillips had to say after the game:

On what he thought after he found out it didn't count: "Man... that's as G-rated as I can keep it."

On if Ndulue owes him dinner: "We're going to Chipotle tomorrow, so it's OK."

On his sack and forced fumble which started it all: "I knew which way they were going to slide, so I set up the guard and it just opened up for me. When he saw me, I saw the ball come out, so I pushed him and I got a good bounce, so I took it."
The unfortunate part of our Top 25 ranking of the Big 12’s best players is that only 25 players can make the cut.

We’re down to the unveiling of the final five players, which will come out Friday morning. You can review who has made the list so far by clicking here.

But what about the players who narrowly didn't make the list?

SportsNation

Who has the biggest gripe being left out of our top 25 ranking of the Big 12's best players?

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    33%
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    15%
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    18%
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    19%
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    15%

Discuss (Total votes: 6,088)

When putting this ranking together, we gathered a strong case for a dozen other players who didn’t make it -- standouts like Oklahoma receiver Sterling Shepard, Oklahoma offensive tackle Daryl Williams, TCU cornerback Kevin White, West Virginia safety Karl Joseph, Texas center Dominic Espinosa and Kansas wideout Nick Harwell, who once finished second in the country in receiving at Miami (Ohio).

But there were five players specifically who were the most difficult to leave out, including two of the league’s top returning running backs.

Malcolm Brown was previously known as Johnathan Gray's wing man in the Texas backfield. But Brown proved he could handle a starring role after Gray suffered a season-ending Achilles injury Nov. 9. Brown stepped in and rushed for 128, 131 and 130 yards in the Longhorns’ final three games. Gray, who did make our top 25 list, is back from the Achilles tear. But Brown will still be a big part of the Texas offense.

Baylor’s Shock Linwood also started out last season in a backup role. But when Lache Seastrunk and Glasco Martin both suffered injuries against Oklahoma, Linwood stepped in and the offense didn’t miss a beat. He rushed for 182 yards against the Sooners, then 187 the following week against Texas Tech. Despite being Baylor’s third-team running back, Linwood finished sixth in the Big 12 in rushing. With Seastrunk and Martin gone, Linwood will step into the starting lineup full time this season.

The other notable omissions from our top 25 reside in the trenches.

Oklahoma defensive tackle Jordan Phillips was on his way to an All-Big 12 type of campaign before suffering a season-ending back injury. Phillips is healthy again and might be the best player on one of the nation’s deepest and most disruptive defensive lines.

On the other side of the ball, West Virginia guard Quinton Spain and Kansas State tackle Cody Whitehair were on my preseason All-Big 12 ballot. Spain has 26 career starts and might be the best guard in the league after Texas Tech’s Le'Raven Clark. Whitehair is also a two-year starter and earned second-team All-Big 12 honors as a sophomore last year. Whitehair has moved to left tackle, where he’ll be protecting the blind side of quarterback Jake Waters.

Now, we put the question to you in our weekly Big 12 poll.

Who has the biggest gripe being left out of our Big 12 Top 25 player rankings?
There can be various signs of success in the Big 12.

Last week we took a look at potential stats from various offensive players in the conference that could be a sign of success for their respective teams. This week, we look at a stat from one defensive player per school that could be a sign of success this fall.

Here's a look at one stat from a defensive player on each Big 12 team that could be a sign of success for their teams.

Baylor defensive end Shawn Oakman's total sacks: The Penn State transfer has freakish ability. At 6-foot-9, 275 pounds, Oakman moves like someone half his size and was ultra-productive as a sophomore, compiling 12.5 tackles for loss in 13 games. But he only managed two sacks as a sophomore, although he was deployed in a backup role for most of the season. If Oakman can approach double-digit sacks with increased playing time as a junior, he could help Baylor’s young secondary overcome the mistakes they are certain to make as they gain experience.

Tackles recorded by Iowa State defensive tackle Brandon Jensen: The Cyclones have a potential hole in the middle of their defense with attrition since the end of the season destroying ISU’s depth. Jensen, who quit football after the 2013 season, returned to the team shortly after spring football. His return was much needed and if he’s able to match his production while starting all 12 games a year ago, it will give Paul Rhoads a foundation for his defense that he didn’t have during spring football. If he can raise his tackle total from 18 in 2013 to around 30 in 2014, it could be a sign he’s become a disruptive force in the middle of ISU’s defense.

Kansas linebacker/defensive end Ben Goodman's tackles for loss: The junior is a versatile talent who has moved closer to the line of scrimmage to make more of an impact with his ability to be disruptive and get into the backfield. He finished with 7.5 tackles for loss and three sacks in 2013. If he can at least double those numbers, his disruptive nature could combine with a talented secondary to make the Jayhawks defense better than expected this fall.

Kansas State linebacker Mike Moore's total tackles: The junior looks like he could be poised for a breakthrough season with the Wildcats. He’s an active and energetic linebacker who could pair with Jonathan Truman to give KSU one of the conference’s most productive linebacking duos. Moore only had seven tackles in 2013 but finished strong with two tackles, a sack and a forced fumble against Michigan in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl. If he can match or exceed Blake Slaughter's 110 tackles in 2013 it will be a good sign that the Wildcats’ defense won’t have a major drop off in 2014.

Oklahoma defensive tackle Jordan Phillips total tackles: If the junior exceeds his tackle total from 2013, that’s a great sign for OU’s defense. Phillips played in just four games as a sophomore, recording seven tackles before a back injury forced him to miss the rest of the season. Anything higher than seven tackles likely means Phillips has returned to the lineup and is healthy and productive. If he does return, he has the potential to take OU’s defense to another level.

Oklahoma State cornerback Ashton Lampkin's pass breakups: The likely replacement for Justin Gilbert will be tested early and often in 2014. If Lampkin responds to the challenge and ends up with double-digit pass breakups, it means he has made a seamless move into the starting lineup. That would be terrific news for the Cowboys because if he can join Kevin Peterson to help lock down the perimeter, OSU won’t have to count on its young and inexperienced safeties to make as many plays in the passing game.

Sack total from TCU defensive end Devonte Fields: If Fields returns to his 2012 form, he’s a game-changing talent. He managed three tackles, including two tackles for loss, before a foot injury ended his 2013 season. In 2012, Fields had 10 sacks and 18.5 tackles for loss. If he’s healthy and focused, Fields has the ability to put up career-high numbers in sacks and tackles for loss in 2014. If he does, he can transform TCU’s defense and take the unit to another level.

Texas linebacker Jordan Hicks' total tackles: The senior had 40 tackles in four games last season, so the Longhorns would love to see a full, healthy season from Hicks. If he surpasses 40 tackles in 2014, it’s a great sign for Charlie Strong’s defense. The 2011 season was the last time Hicks played in double-digit games, but he's in impact player when healthy. But he’s spent as much time on the sidelines as he has making plays during the past two seasons.

Texas Tech defensive end Branden Jackson's sack total: The Red Raiders will really need to lean on Jackson, who finished the 2013 season with 44 tackles, including nine tackles for loss, and four sacks. He’s a proven commodity along Tech’s defensive front so it will be critical for him to, at the very least, match those numbers this fall. If he struggles to be productive, the Red Raiders defensive line could be the weak link of the defense and hamper the team as a whole.

Tackles for loss by West Virginia defensive end Shaquille Riddick: The Gardner-Webb transfer has the talent to make a major impact. While it would be great for the Mountaineers if Riddick can register between 5-10 sacks, he could be a difference maker if he can record 15-20 tackles for loss. If he is consistently disruptive and getting into opponents' backfields, the Mountaineers’ talented secondary could take advantage of any mistakes by the quarterback with key turnovers. If Riddick is a matchup nightmare, he will change the future of WVU’s defense.

Stat crunch: Big 12 returning tackles

May, 27, 2014
May 27
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Last week, colleague Max Olson crunched the numbers on the total career starts each Big 12 team has coming back for next season.

What Max unearthed was that Texas (by far) leads the Big 12 in career starts returning, both offensively and defensively. TCU’s defense ranked second behind the Longhorns’ defense, while the Iowa State offense placed second. The Horned Frogs could have their most dominant defense yet in the Big 12, and the Cyclones could feature their best offensive attack in years, suggesting both teams could also be in for bounce-back 2014 campaigns.

Yet while revealing, compiling returning starts doesn’t tell the entire story when examining team experience, since the equation doesn’t account for those who played key roles as reserves. TCU safety Derrick Kindred, Texas Tech linebacker Micah Awe and Baylor end Shawn Oakman weren’t starters last year. But they were still valuable players on their respective teams.

To examine returning experience in another way, I’ve tallied up the percentage of tackles returning for every team in the Big 12:

With nine starters back, it’s not surprising the Sooners top this chart. But the number of returning starters isn’t the only reason why Oklahoma is optimistic about its 2014 defense. The Sooners also bring back several key defensive performers that weren’t full-time starters last season. End Geneo Grissom, who notched three sacks against Alabama in the Allstate Sugar Bowl, only started five games in 2013. Linebacker Jordan Evans thrived whenever his number got called as a freshman. And tackle Jordan Phillips only started four games but was playing at an All-Big 12-caliber level before suffering a season-ending back injury in early October.

On the flip side, Oklahoma State is at the cellar of this list, and not just because it graduated seven starters. The Cowboys also lost several defensive reserves that played a bunch, including linebacker Joe Mitchell, cornerback Tyler Patmon and safety Zack Craig.

Of course, like with returning starts, a high level of returning tackles doesn’t guarantee success. And it doesn’t necessarily preclude it, either.

Oklahoma ranked 119th nationally in returning tackles (40 percent) last season. But by the end of the season, the Sooners were wreaking havoc in the backfield of the two-time defending national champs.

The tackle equation can be an indicator of the defenses that might be formidable. Oklahoma State and Baylor both had 73 percent of their tackles returning from 2012 going into last season. Both wound up being formidable, ranking first and second in the league in both fewest yards per play and points per drive.

That bodes well for the defensive prospects of Oklahoma, Kansas, TCU, Texas and West Virginia, which all have like tackle rates coming back for 2014.
Two weeks ago, we ranked every team in the Big 12 position-by-position coming out of the spring. Putting that together, we’ve ranked the overall league position-by-position. In other words, what is the league’s strongest position? What is its weakest?

[+] EnlargeCedric Reed
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesCedric Reed will anchor Texas' defensive line.
In 2013, there’s no doubt the strength of the league was in the defensive backfield. Oklahoma State cornerback Justin Gilbert and TCU cornerback Jason Verrett were the league’s two first-round picks. Safety Ahmad Dixon earned All-American honors and Texas cornerback Carrington Byndom, West Virginia safety Darwin Cook, Kansas State safety Ty Zimmerman and Oklahoma cornerback Aaron Colvin were longtime stalwarts in their defensive backfields.

Here’s how the positions of the league rank going into 2014:

1. Defensive line: This was easily the most difficult position to rank by team, as line figures to be the defensive strength of TCU, Oklahoma, Baylor, Texas, Kansas State and Oklahoma State. The Horned Frogs had the league’s best run defense last season, and on top of returning basically the entire unit, will be adding back 2012 Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year Devonte Fields. The Sooners are also loaded, led by All-Big 12-caliber ends Geneo Grissom and Charles Tapper and tackle Jordan Phillips, and the could also go three-deep across the board next year. The Longhorns have two potential first-round picks up front in tackle Malcom Brown and end Cedric Reed. And Baylor coach Art Briles is already on record stating his D-line could go toe-to-toe with any in the country. Collectively, this should be the best the conference has been at the position since Gerald McCoy and Ndamukong Suh roamed the middle five years ago.

2. Wide receiver: The league has two superstars at receiver in Baylor’s Antwan Goodley and Kansas State’s Tyler Lockett, who have the résumés to garner preseason All-American consideration. But they aren’t the only prolific playmakers here. Texas Tech’s Jakeem Grant, Oklahoma’s Sterling Shepard, Iowa State’s Quenton Bundrage, Oklahoma State’s Jhajuan Seales and Texas’ Jaxon Shipley are all capable of 1,000-yard receiving seasons. Baylor might feature the best receiving corps in the country, Oklahoma State is a solid nine deep and West Virginia returns its entire starting lineup from last season. Even Kansas has the nation’s second-leading receiver from 2011 in Miami (Ohio) transfer Nick Harwell. Assuming the league’s quarterbacks can get them the ball, this could be another banner year for the Big 12’s pass-catchers.

3. Linebacker: Oklahoma, Texas, West Virginia, Kansas and TCU return virtually their entire linebacker units from last year. And from Texas Tech’s Pete Robertson and Kansas State’s Jonathan Truman to Baylor’s Bryce Hager and Oklahoma State’s Ryan Simmons, the rest of the league basically has at least one proven linebacker coming back, too.

4. Offensive line: The strength of the Big 12's offensive lines resides in experienced centers and talented tackles. Kansas State’s BJ Finney, Texas’ Dominic Espinosa and Iowa State’s Tom Farniok are all four-year starters with a combined 113 career starts. At tackle, Baylor’s Spencer Drango, Texas Tech’s Le’Raven Clark and Oklahoma’s Daryl Williams have NFL futures. The league also boasts three other very stout and versatile players up front in Kansas State’s Cody Whitehair, West Virginia’s Quinton Spain and Oklahoma State’s Daniel Koenig, all three of which can man either guard or tackle.

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Donald Miralle/Getty ImagesDavis Webb seems like one of the few sure things at QB in the Big 12.
5. Quarterback: The Big 12 has one Heisman candidate in Baylor’s Bryce Petty, a proven performer in Kansas State’s Jake Waters and two budding stars in Texas Tech’s Davis Webb and Oklahoma’s Trevor Knight. The rest of the league is a big fat unknown at the game’s most-critical position. But if Oklahoma State’s J.W. Walsh and Texas’ David Ash regain their forms from two seasons ago, Iowa State’s Grant Rohach builds off his strong 2013 finish, Clint Trickett can stay upright at West Virginia, and transfer Matt Joeckel and sophomore Montell Cozart prove to be the answers at TCU and Kansas, the Big 12 could be on the way back to becoming the preeminent conference for quarterbacking once again.

6. Running back: Half the teams lost their leading rushers from last season, and that doesn’t include Texas Tech’s Kenny Williams switching positions to linebacker. The Longhorns pose a potentially devastating one-two punch in Malcolm Brown and Johnathan Gray, and the Mountaineers could go five-deep with Dreamius Smith, Wendell Smallwood, Rushel Shell, Dustin Garrison and Andrew Buie. But the rest of the league will be leaning on potential more than past performance. That said, there is a lot to like in Baylor’s Shock Linwood, Iowa State’s Aaron Wimberly, TCU’s B.J. Catalon, Oklahoma State’s Tyreek Hill and Oklahoma’s Keith Ford.

7. Defensive back: With Gilbert, Verrett, Dixon, Colvin, Zimmerman, Cook and Byndom all gone, this position took a major attrition hit. Thanks to Sam Carter, Chris Hackett and Kevin White, TCU remains well stocked in its secondary. Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas have veterans back, too. Everywhere else, there is rebuilding to be done. But the next wave of secondary stars appears to be on its way. Cornerbacks Nigel Tribune (Iowa State), Justis Nelson (Texas Tech) and Daryl Worley (West Virginia) all started as true freshmen. So did Oklahoma State corner Kevin Peterson and West Virginia safety Karl Joseph, who are now both juniors. It might not be long before defensive back is a strength of the league again like it was last season.

Sooners' defensive MIPs: No. 3

May, 21, 2014
May 21
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Several players will decide the success of the Oklahoma Sooners this fall.

Some Sooners will have more of an impact than others and will be counted on to be the foundation of the 2014 squad. Last week we counted down the most important players on offense with quarterback Trevor Knight atop the list.

This week, we’ll count down the five most important players on defense, taking into account their expected contribution, the quality of their backups and their previous production. On Wednesday, we continue the countdown with No. 3.

No. 3: DT Jordan Phillips, junior

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Jackson Laizure/Getty ImagesIf he returns to health, Jordan Phillips could be one of the Big 12's best defensive linemen.
2013 role: Phillips began the season as a mainstay in the middle of OU’s defense, starting the first four games before a back injury forced him to miss the remainder of the season. In his four starts, Phillips had seven tackles including two tackles for loss and 1.5 sacks.

Expected 2014 role: If he returns to full health, he could be the centerpiece of OU’s defense. Before his injury he was emerging as a potential All-Big 12 first-teamer. He couples terrific size (6-foot-6, 338 pounds) with exceptional athleticism to be a matchup nightmare for almost any offensive lineman.

Why he’s important: It’s somewhat odd to put Phillips on this list after OU earned a BCS bowl berth on the shoulders of its defense, minus Phillips, in 2013. But the junior earns a spot here because he has the potential to transform OU’s defense from very good to dominant if he makes a healthy return to the field and raises his level of play another notch. His physical gifts make him the type of player that few offenses would have an answer for, thus opening up all kinds of opportunities for his teammates to make plays.

If he was missing: The Sooners have proven the wheels wouldn’t fall off if Phillips has any setback before the season. Jordan Wade was very solid in Phillips’ place last season and OU has other talented defensive tackles who could slide into his spot. But the Sooners have dreams of a College Football Playoff berth and those dreams become more attainable with a healthy Phillips. He’s an automatic mismatch in the middle of the field and has the ability to change games with his presence. There aren’t many Sooners, or Big 12 defenders, who can make the same claim.

The list

No. 4: S Quentin Hayes
No. 5: CB Zack Sanchez

Strong and weak: Oklahoma Sooners

May, 19, 2014
May 19
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Since last week we’ve been examining at the strongest and weakest position groups for each Big 12 team going into the fall.

We continue with the Oklahoma Sooners:

Strongest position: Defensive line

Pretty obvious choice here for Oklahoma, considering how this unit played in its greatest test yet against Alabama.

Eric Striker gives the Sooners an All-Big 12 defensive end who still has two years left to get even better. He's a playmaker, and senior Geneo Grissom proved against the Tide, with his two sacks and two fumble recoveries, that he can be, too.

We got to see Jordan Phillips in only four games last fall before he was shut down for the season, but the defensive tackle was one of OU's most promising defenders when he was on the field. The trio of Phillips, Chuka Ndulue and Jordan Wade is potent. Keep them healthy, and they can develop into a fearsome group.

What makes this group really stand out, and what probably gets overlooked, is the depth you don't see. While these starters form one of the conference's best defensive lines, the guys behind them will continue to develop in the background.

Some will be called upon when injuries hit, but having young linemen such as Matt Dimon, D.J. Ward, Dwayne Orso Jr. and Courtney Garnett waiting in the wings will mean an exciting future for this line.

Weakest position: Wide receivers

You can't lose a great talent like Jalen Saunders and key seniors Lacoltan Bester and Jaz Reynolds and not be a little concerned with this group.

The Sooners are essentially working with four experienced receivers going into 2014, led by Sterling Shepard. He can't do it all by himself. Among Durron Neal, Derrick Woods and Austin Bennett, quarterback Trevor Knight is going to need to find a couple guys he can trust. There are some redshirt freshmen waiting for their turn, too.

The good news is help is on the way, and it might be elite help. The Sooners signed three skyscrapers in Mark Andrews (6-foot-6), Jeffery Mead (6-6) and Dallis Todd (6-5) and then inked a four-star speedster in Michiah Quick on signing day. Three of those incoming freshmen are ESPN 300 recruits with big expectations.

If a couple are ready when they show up in Norman, this group will instantly get a lot better.

Spring depth chart analysis: Oklahoma

April, 29, 2014
Apr 29
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Over the next two weeks, we’ll be analyzing the depth charts of every Big 12 team coming out of the spring. On Tuesday, we continue the series with Oklahoma:

Offense (projected starters in bold)

QB: Trevor Knight (So.), Cody Thomas (RFr.), Justice Hansen (Fr.)

[+] EnlargeKeith Ford
Matthew Emmons/USA TODAY SportsAfter receiving only 23 carries last season as a freshman, OU's Keith Ford will likely be the starting tailback in 2014.
The Sooners feel great about putting the offense in the hands of Knight after his Allstate Sugar Bowl MVP performance against Alabama. The sophomore looked like a future star against the Crimson Tide while leading the Sooners to a 45-31 upset win. OU is inexperienced behind Knight with a pair of freshman in Thomas and Hansen. Former Texas Tech quarterback Baker Mayfield, who transferred to OU in January, would be the perfect fit behind Knight but won’t be eligible to play until 2015. If he plays consistent and remains healthy, Knight could lead his team to a College Football Playoff berth. If not, OU could flounder below expectations and look back upon the 2014 season as a missed opportunity.

RB: Keith Ford (So.), Alex Ross (So.), Daniel Brooks (So.)

Ford exits spring as the favorite to start in the backfield, but he didn’t take the job and hide during 15 spring practices. Ross was one of the stars of the spring as he continually made plays during scrimmages, and Brooks was one of the standouts during the spring game. OU has several talented options at running back and is poised to add two top freshman runners in Joe Mixon and Samaje Perine.

FB/TE: Aaron Ripkowski (Sr.), Dimitri Flowers (Fr.), Blake Bell (Sr.)

OU uses fullbacks and tight ends in similar ways as both positions spend their meeting time with tight ends coach Jay Boulware. Ripkowski is one of the unsung heroes on the entire roster. He played a critical role during the team's strong finish to the 2013 season. Flowers has stepped on campus ready to make an impact with his versatility and football IQ after enrolling in school early. Bell has moved over from quarterback and looks poised to make an impact as a pass catcher with his size and athleticism. It’s a talented and versatile group that is likely to get overlooked this fall but could be the foundation of any success the team has on offense.

WR: Sterling Shepard (Jr.), Derrick Woods (So.), Durron Neal (Jr.), K.J. Young (RFr.), Jordan Smallwood (RFr.), Austin Bennett (So.)

Shepard should be one of the Big 12’s top receivers if Knight continues to develop as a passer. OU badly needs someone to emerge alongside Shepard if it hopes to have a strong passing game to help make the 2014 version of the offense more balanced than the 2013 version. There’s talent on campus but nobody separated themselves during the spring, opening the door for a freshman like Michiah Quick to step on campus and into the lineup this fall.

C: Ty Darlington (Jr.)

G: Dionte Savage (Sr.), Nila Kasitati (Jr.), Tony Feo (Sr.), Adam Shead (Sr.), Tyler Evans (Sr.)

T: Tyrus Thompson (Sr.), Daryl Williams (Sr.), Josiah St. John (Sr.)

Darlington has been groomed to replace All-Big 12 center Gabe Ikard and could slide into the starting lineup with ease. Nonetheless, adding competition at this position would help the Sooners. OU is fairly deep at guard and tackle which should allow competition for playing time to help everyone improve. Williams is the anchor of the entire offensive line and should be one of the Big 12’s top tackles this fall. The Sooners should have one of the better offensive lines in the Big 12.

DEFENSE

DE: Charles Tapper (Jr.), Geneo Grissom (Sr.), Matt Dimon (So.)

DT: Jordan Phillips (Jr.) or Chuka Ndulue (Sr.), Jordan Wade (So.)

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Matthew Emmons/USA TODAY SportsSooners linebacker Dominique Alexander emerged as a playmaker as a freshman.
OU’s defensive line could be one of the most disruptive and deepest in the nation. The Sooners should easily go six or seven deep along the defensive line, particularly if Phillips returns to his early 2013 form after suffering a back injury last season. Tapper and Grissom have the ability to be disruptive against anyone, and the overall depth on the roster should allow OU to come at offenses in waves with fresh bodies rotating throughout games. If OU makes a national title run, the defensive line will likely be the driving force.

LB: Dominique Alexander (So.), Frank Shannon (Jr.), Eric Striker (Jr.), Jordan Evans (So.), Devante Bond (Jr.)

Striker could be the Big 12’s best pass rusher, Alexander has the potential to be one of the Big 12’s best before his career is over, Evans could take a major step forward as a sophomore and Bond impressed as a junior college transfer this spring. If Shannon returns to good standing after missing part of spring due to personal issues, this is a good, experienced group. OU’s linebackers are one of the main reasons its defense could be the most athletic and versatile in the conference this fall.

CB: Zack Sanchez (So.), Julian Wilson (Sr.), Dakota Austin (So.), Stanvon Taylor (So.), Cortez Johnson (Jr.)

Here’s where things get interesting for the defense. Wilson returns as the starting nickelback and a productive veteran in the secondary. Sanchez is solid and took his game to another level this spring as he strives to be the type of coverage cornerback that teams don’t want to test. But the Sooners need someone to step up on the opposite side of the field with Austin ending the spring as a starter but remaining untested. No matter who wins the job, they will be picked on repeatedly until they prove they aren’t the weak link of the secondary. Defensive back is one of the few unsettled and unproven spots on the entire roster.

S: Quentin Hayes (Sr.), Hatari Byrd (So.), Ahmad Thomas (So.)

Hayes was quietly one of the better safeties in the Big 12 in 2013. He was productive with 75 tackles and solid in coverage. Byrd and Thomas have matured and started to develop as sophomores and should be key contributors this fall. Nonetheless, freshman Steven Parker has the talent to step in an earn a role this summer. If Parker is as good as advertised, OU will go two deep with talented options.
It was a quiet and productive spring at Oklahoma. The Sooners emerged relatively free of injuries and were able to tinker with their systems on both sides of the ball. This week we'll review OU's spring.

On Monday, we began with five questions that were answered during the Sooners' 15 practices. On Tuesday, we reviewed five questions that remain unanswered. On Wednesday, we took a look at five surprising Sooners. On Thursday, we highlighted the five disappointing developments of the spring. Today we end the series with five things to keep an eye on when the Sooners return to their preparation for the 2014 season with summer workouts in June.

[+] EnlargeOklahoma
Jackson Laizure/Getty ImagesGetting junior DT Jordan Phillips healthy in time for preseason camp is a priority for Oklahoma.
Key injuries: The health of several banged up Sooners including tight end Blake Bell (MCL), defensive tackle Jordan Phillips (back), and defensive back Julian Wilson (shoulder) will be the biggest summer focus. OU needs Phillips to return to his pre-injury form of 2013. If he does the Sooners' defensive line could be dominant. Bell’s return to health could provide a big receiving target for Trevor Knight and Wilson’s return would add another experienced veteran to a Sooners secondary that spent a good portion of the spring seasoning younger players such as safety Hatari Byrd and cornerback Dakota Austin.

Summer quarterback development: Most eyes will be on redshirt freshman Cody Thomas and true freshman Justice Hansen as they battle for the backup job behind Knight. But don’t overlook the importance of the summer for Knight, a redshirt sophomore. The summer months and competitive workouts could help Knight’s continued development as a passer and decision maker. In addition, it’s an opportunity for Knight to really emerge as a key leader for the entire team, not just the offense.

Skill position battles: As the uncertainty at some receiver spots and in the secondary linger on into the summer, those Sooners battling for a spot at receiver, cornerback or safety will get the chance to go head-to-head with each other in an attempt to improve and distinguish themselves. It’s an important summer for players such as cornerback Stanvon Taylor and receiver K.J. Young, a pair of second-year players who could earn a starting role if they take their game to another level in the summer heat. In addition, summer arrivals such as safety Steven Parker II and receiver Michiah Quick could arrive on campus and impress immediately, much like Sterling Shepard did before he broke into the lineup as a true freshman.

Leaders emerging: Along with Knight, other leaders should emerge who could ultimately help decide just how successful the Sooners will be this fall. Terrific leadership a year ago from guys such as Gabe Ikard and Trey Millard was the foundation of OU’s 11-2 season despite the musical chairs at quarterback. If the Sooners can replace those departed seniors with similar leadership, their chances of a Big 12 title and national championship run will increase significantly.

No distractions: One of the most important goals of the rest of spring and summer is to limit and/or erase distractions caused by off-the-field decisions. The Sooners have a real chance to make a run at a College Football Playoff berth, so it will be important for the leaders of the team to emphasize the importance of good off-the-field decision making to their teammates so the Sooners can open the season with a roster full of eligible and hungry players.
NORMAN, Okla. -- Oklahoma is dreaming of a national title run that would make its Allstate Sugar Bowl destruction of Alabama an afterthought.

If that dream turns into reality, the Sooners will likely have their defensive line to thank. As the defensive line went, so went the Sooners in 2013, as the group sparked the Sugar Bowl win yet faltered in OU’s losses to Baylor and Texas.

[+] EnlargeGeneo Grissom
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesOklahoma's Geneo Grissom is hoping to build off a two-sack performance in the Sugar Bowl win over Alabama.
It’s hard to imagine the defensive line taking a step backward in 2014. In fact, the group could end up becoming one of the best defensive lines of Bob Stoops' tenure after entering the spring of 2013 as one of the biggest question marks on the roster.

“It has a chance to be one of our deeper and better ones,” Stoops said. “Imagine that, in a year's period of time.”

Every significant contributor returns along the defensive line, including All-Big 12 end Charles Tapper, and the group should be boosted even more if tackle Jordan Phillips, who was playing at an all-conference level early last season, returns to full health after a back injury ended his sophomore season early. From top to bottom, it’s one of the deepest units in years.

“Yeah, no question,” defensive coordinator Mike Stoops said when asked if this would be one of the deepest defensive lines he has coached.

“You get Jordan Phillips back and we can go two deep and not really slide much. Tapper and Geneo [Grissom] are difference-makers, and the other guys will be difference makers as they continue to grow too. Chuka [Ndulue] is the old, reliable horse in there that holds down the fort, he pushes things to the other guys. They all work together extremely well. We have a unique group and they play hard.”

The bowl win over Alabama was a glimpse at just how good OU's defensive line could be. Crimson Tide quarterback AJ McCarron, who was sacked seven times, probably still has nightmares of defenders setting up camp in the backfield. Make no mistake, OU won the game in the trenches and hopes to continue that trend in 2014.

The returnees have proven to be quality Big 12 defensive linemen, yet their playing time is far from secure. The development and growth of several young defensive linemen has spurred Mike Stoops' belief they can go two deep without a drop off. Matt Dimon, Mike Onuoha, Charles Walker and Matt Romar are just a few of the young defensive linemen on the roster who have increased the competition.

“There’s a huge competition,” Ndulue said. “There’s a bunch of great guys out there, and any one of them could be the starting man. There’s just more drive because you want to play, so we just know that your job is on the line each snap so it just makes you play to the best of your ability. As the defensive line, we know that there’s competition every day. It makes our [meeting] room a lot better.”

At the center of it all is defensive line coach Jerry Montgomery, who joined the Sooners in February 2013 to jump start a disappointing defensive front. He has done that and more, proving to be stellar position coach after arriving from Michigan with a reputation as an elite recruiter.

“The defensive line is where the game is played,” Mike Stoops said. “They are very disruptive and that is what you need to have. [Montgomery] is very good with technique and he has a great relationship with the players, and that has all been very positive. They play hard and they play with technique, and that is where it all starts up front. They have been a catalyst for us.”

Few envisioned the Sooners’ defensive line becoming one of the Big 12’s best in 2013. Yet it was.

“It wasn’t supposed to be a very strong group for us a year ago, but they really flipped it and now it is one of the best groups in the country,” Mike Stoops said. “Again, hopefully we can get [Phillips] back and make this group even stronger. It can be a dominating group if we can get him back healthy and playing at the level he was playing at a year ago.”

Now the defensive line is looking to be called the nation’s best, with the goal of being the driving force behind a College Football Playoff berth.

“It all starts with the big guys,” Ndulue said. “If we’re not being dominant, getting driven back into the linebackers, it’s going to be a long day for us. If we’re playing on their side of the line of scrimmage, we can do something great.”

Future appears bright for DT Walker

April, 8, 2014
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Oklahoma has a roster full of talented and experienced defensive tackles.

Jordan Phillips appears in line for a healthy return after his redshirt sophomore season was cut short. Jordan Wade was pleasantly productive in the middle in Phillips’ absence, and Chuka Ndulue can slide inside at a moment’s notice.

Yet Charles Walker might be the most physically gifted of the bunch.

The redshirt freshman had Sooners fans buzzing when he posted his 4.7 time in the 40-yard dash on social media during winter workouts. It was an early sign of the sheer physical talent of the 6-foot-2, 289-pound Walker. This spring, he has continued to impress.

[+] EnlargeCharles Walker, Quincy Russell
AP Photo/Sue OgrockiRedshirt freshman Charles Walker (left) has turned heads during spring practice and could figure into the DT rotation.
“He runs great,” coach Bob Stoops said. “He’s really picking things up. It’s too early to say he’s ready to go, but he physically is close. Now it’s just getting technique right and consistent on every snap.”

The definition of a hidden gem, Walker was a late addition to the Sooners’ Class of 2013. The Sooners battled New Mexico, Houston, New Mexico State and North Texas for his signature. His underwhelming offer list didn’t stop him from making an immediate impression when he arrived last summer, with the coaching staff recognizing his long-term upside right away.

But as talented as Walker is, it is far from a certainty for him to see the field in 2014.

“It is a learning progression for Charles,” defensive coordinator Mike Stoops said. “We are not seeing his full ability yet, and I don’t anticipate we will until next fall or he gets some more repetitions in this system. It is hard for your skill set to really show up when you are thinking all the time.”

Having veterans at the position helps the Sooners and Walker. Watching and learning from players who have proven to be productive Big 12 defensive tackles is a luxury for Walker, and one the Sooners did not have last spring. For OU, Walker’s presence ensures the veterans won’t get complacent with a talented youngster nipping at their heels for playing time.

“I think he is a guy that continues to improve, and hopefully by next fall, he will be part of the rotation,” Mike Stoops said. “But we have got all of those other guys back, so he is going to have to work his way, but he has shown great promise up until this point.”

The inexperience and lack of technique hasn’t stopped him from drawing raves from teammates, who consistently speak his name when asked about talented unknowns on the roster.

“Charles Walker is a beast,” said guard Dionte Savage, who battles Walker in practice. “He’s going to have a great career. He’s a great player, definitely a good player to go up against -- his moving ability and the way he moves his hips.”

We might not see it this season, but all signs are pointing toward Walker being a name to know in Norman, Okla., and, quite possibly, across the Big 12 region.

“Anyone that big and strong and fast, I think he will be a dynamic player,” Mike Stoops said. “Again, you are talking about a guy that has not even been here a year, so, you are asking a lot. Eric Striker was not Eric Striker until this year, if you remember right. Maybe that was our fault not playing him more the year before, but it takes a while, and hopefully with Charles that light will turn on and you will see him start to make more plays.”

Defensive swagger back at Oklahoma

March, 17, 2014
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NORMAN, Okla. -- It was a single play in a single game that signaled the imminent return of the Oklahoma defense to levels of its former glorious past.

With one minute to go in the Allstate Sugar Bowl, Sooner linebacker Eric Striker came barreling around the line. After beating left tackle Cyrus Kouandjio, who might be a first-round pick in the upcoming NFL draft, Striker leveled Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron and stripped the ball loose. Flying in from the other side, Sooner end Geneo Grissom scooped up the fumble and rumbled in for the game-clinching touchdown.

After several seasons of relative mediocrity, the Oklahoma defense finally rediscovered its swagger in that 45-31 Sugar Bowl win over the two-time defending national champs.

[+] EnlargeEric Striker
Sean Gardner/Getty ImagesEric Striker celebrated after sacking AJ McCarron in the Sugar Bowl.
And buoyed by nine returning starters, several rising stars and one giant feather in a houndstooth cap, the Sooners have carried that swagger into the spring.

“The Sugar Bowl gave us a good boost,” said defensive end Charles Tapper, who was the only defensive underclassman to earn first-team All-Big 12 honors last year. “Knowing we kinda dominated Alabama’s offensive line, that the whole defense just dominated Alabama a little bit -- just a great way to come into the 2014 season.”

It wasn’t long ago the swagger of the Selmon Brothers and “Superman” Roy Williams and “The Boz” seemed lost forever.

The Sooners ended the 2012 season capitulating to Heisman winner Johnny Manziel, who humiliated them in the Cotton Bowl while becoming just the second player ever to rush and pass for more than 200 yards in a bowl game (Vince Young in the 2006 Rose Bowl was the other). The final month that season, Oklahoma couldn’t pressure the passer. Couldn’t stop the run. And couldn’t win without getting a half-a-hundred from its offense.

But thanks a scheme change from four to three down linemen last offseason that commanded a more blitz-oriented style, as well as a successful bid to bring Michigan defensive line coach Jerry Montgomery to Norman, the Sooners rapidly improved defensively last season despite playing several new starters.

Spurred by the emergence of underclassmen like Striker, Tapper and the Big 12 Defensive Freshman of the Year, linebacker Dominique Alexander, that improvement finally culminated in New Orleans.

The Sooners didn’t play perfectly against Alabama. But they sacked the Heisman runner-up seven times, and forced three turnovers that all led to Oklahoma touchdowns, capped with Grissom’s fumble return.

“As a team, things started to come together,” said coordinator Mike Stoops, who resuscitated the Sooner defense at the turn of the millennium 14 years ago and has done it again in the present in his second stint in Norman. “I think our team came together in that last game. That let us play with more confidence and swagger in the second half. Even when things got tough, I felt like our players were in control.”

With the return of almost all those players, the Sooners figure to storm into 2014 with one of the best defenses in the country.

Who knows, maybe the best.

Virtually the entire defensive line comes back, including Grissom and Tapper, who team up to give the Sooners a destructive duo off the edge.

Inside, Oklahoma will also welcome back Jordan Phillips, who was playing at an All-Big 12 level before suffering a season-ending back injury, and redshirt freshman Charles Walker, who has been turning heads for months during closed practices. During the winter, Walker ran the 40-yard dash in 4.67 seconds, shattering the Bob Stoops-era defensive tackle record at Oklahoma set by All-American Tommie Harris (4.80) in 2003.

“We’re starting to gain quality players in our backup positions that can play a lot of different places trying to earn their way onto the field,” Mike Stoops said.

That hasn’t just manifested along the defensive line, either.

Oklahoma’s entire linebacking corps returns, including Striker, who has become the Big 12 version of Lawrence Taylor. The secondary is brimming with young talent, too, led by cornerback Zack Sanchez, who intercepted McCarron in the Sugar Bowl to set up a late Oklahoma touchdown at the end of the first half and give the Sooners a 31-17 lead.

“We’re so far ahead from where we were last year,” Striker said. “We got chemistry with each other. We know how to play off each other.”

That’s a scary thought for the rest of the Big 12, and maybe all of college football.

Especially if Oklahoma can keep getting to the quarterback the way it did late last season. In their final four games, the Sooners sacked opposing quarterbacks 16 times. According to ESPN Stats & Info, South Alabama’s was the only FBS defense with more during the same stretch.

“We like to get to that quarterback,” Tapper said. “On third down, we let the dogs loose. Like the cops let the dogs loose to get them bad guys, we let the dogs loose on third down.”

Though it wasn’t a third down, that’s exactly what Oklahoma did to McCarron at the end of the Sugar Bowl.

The play won the game for the Sooners. While sending a message that defensive swagger is finally back at Oklahoma.

“I feel like this is going to be a big year for us,” Tapper said. “Dominating every team in the Big 12 and just all over the country.”

OU spring predictions: No. 3

March, 5, 2014
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Oklahoma begins its spring football drills on Saturday.

An exceptional Sugar Bowl performance, a young and talented defense and renewed confidence in quarterback Trevor Knight has the Sooners eyeing a national title run in 2014. Yet that won’t happen without growth at several key positions, starting this spring. This week we’ll make five spring predictions, continuing with No. 3:

[+] EnlargeAmari Cooper
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesCharles Tapper's strength, speed and desire make him a potential All-America candidate at defensive end for Oklahoma next season.
No. 3: The defensive line shows it can be one of the deepest and best since Bob Stoops took over in 1999.

Why it matters: Games are won in the trenches; just ask Alabama. At this time last year, questions about OU’s defensive line sat atop the list of concerns heading into spring. Now the Sooners return a defensive line full of playmakers, including All-Big 12 defensive end Charles Tapper. How well that group continues to develop will have a major impact on OU’s national title hopes.

What it would mean: If the Sooners defensive front takes another step forward, it could become the foundation of a national title run. Tapper has NFL talent and a hunger to be great, Geneo Grissom played one of the best games of his career in the Sugar Bowl, and the two Jordans (Jordan Phillips and Jordan Wade) are a terrific potential duo in the defensive interior. Add in Chuka Ndulue and OU has all the making for an exceptional defensive line.

Yet how well the depth behind that group develops could be the key. Charles Walker's name repeatedly came up as a stellar scout teamer during his redshirting freshman season and could earn himself some playing time this spring. At defensive end, Matt Dimon, Mike Onuoha and D.J. Ward could show they are ready to play as well, which would make the Sooners three-deep at all three positions on the front.

It’s a talent-laden group that returns playmaking starters while still featuring several youngsters with terrific upside. If the competition for playing time raises the overall level of play of the entire group, they should provide nightmares for Big 12 offensive coordinators this fall while becoming one of the best defensive line groups in Stoops' tenure.

Big 12 pre-spring breakdown: DL

February, 24, 2014
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As we wait for the start of spring ball, we’re examining and ranking the positional situations of every team in the Big 12, continuing Monday with defensive line. Some of these outlooks will look different after the spring. But here’s how we see the defensive lines at the moment:

[+] EnlargeAmari Cooper
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesOklahoma end Charles Tapper will lead the Big 12's best defensive line in 2014.
1. Oklahoma: D-line began as a weakness but quickly turned into a strength under first-year position coach Jerry Montgomery. End Charles Tapper was an All-Big 12 selection as a sophomore, and tackle Jordan Phillips was on his way to earning similar honors before a back injury ended his season prematurely. Both players are back. So is Geneo Grissom, who had three sacks in the bowl win over Alabama. Nose guard Jordan Wade earned a starting role late in 2013, and Chuka Ndulue will be a starter for a third season. Basically, the entire rotation returns. If Phillips rebounds from the injury, this could prove to be Oklahoma’s finest D-line since 2009, when NFL All-Pro Gerald McCoy roamed the middle.

2. TCU: DE Devonte Fields, the Associated Press’ Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year as a freshman in 2012, had an empty season in 2013 thanks to a suspension, then a season-ending foot injury. If Fields can return to the player he was, TCU will be formidable up front. Chucky Hunter was a second-team All-Big 12 pick inside last season, and he’ll be flanked by an array of experienced tackles in Davion Pierson, Jon Lewis and Tevin Lawson, who were all part of the rotation last season. Ends Terrell Lathan, James McFarland and Mike Tuaua, who combined for 11 sacks in 2013, all return as well. TCU's D-line figures to be as deep as any in the league.

3. Texas: Cedric Reed, one of the best sack men in the Big 12 last season, returns after giving the NFL a cursory thought. The Longhorns have to replace Big 12 co-Defensive Player of the Year Jackson Jeffcoat on the other side, but ESPN 300 recruit Derick Roberson, the No. 8 DE in the Class of 2014, could help right away. The Longhorns should also be stout inside, with run-stuffing tackles Malcom Brown and Desmond Jackson back to clog the middle.

4. Kansas State: Ryan Mueller, who was eighth nationally with 11.5 sacks last season, comes back after a breakout All-Big 12 season. Travis Britz is an all-conference-caliber tackle and gives K-State one of the better one-two punches on the D-line in the league. Joining them will be Terrell Clinkscales, who was the No. 4 junior college DT in the 2014 class. The Wildcats pried Clinkscales away from Nebraska, and at 315 pounds he could be the perfect complement to Britz, who relies more on quickness.

[+] EnlargeShawn Oakman
John Rivera/Icon SMIBaylor defensive end Shawn Oakman will play a bigger role next season.
5. Oklahoma State: The Cowboys lose two-time All-Big 12 tackle Calvin Barnett. James Castleman, however, will be a three-year starter, and end Jimmy Bean had a career night in the Cotton Bowl with three tackles for loss. The key to the Cowboys fielding one of the better lines in the league again will be whether Ben Hughes, Vincent Taylor and/or Vili Leveni can emerge inside after redshirting in 2013. All three are promising prospects, especially Taylor, who was an ESPN 300 recruit in the 2013 class.

6. Baylor: The Bears feature two of the more intriguing defensive linemen in the league. DE Shawn Oakman, a former Penn State transfer with tremendous length at 6-foot-9, finished sixth in the league with 12.5 tackles for loss last season, but he tailed off in Big 12 play. Baylor will ask him to play a much bigger role along the line, and he has the potential to give the Bears a unique playmaker there. On the inside, Baylor will lean more on Andrew Billings, who was part of the DT rotation as a freshman. If both Billings and Oakman play up to their vast potential, Baylor could be a handful up front.

7. Texas Tech: The Red Raiders lose their two best defensive linemen in Kerry Hyder and Dartwan Bush, and Tech got pushed around up front anyway last season. Coach Kliff Kingsbury recognized this deficiency and signed four juco defensive linemen, all of whom have a chance to play immediately. Of the returning linemen, Branden Jackson was by far the most productive, totaling nine tackles for loss and four sacks as a starter.

8. Iowa State: Like Texas Tech, Iowa State loaded up on immediate defensive line help, signing three juco defensive ends in Dalyou Pierson, Terry Ayeni and Gabe Luna, who is enrolled already for spring ball. Those three together with All-Big 12 honorable-mention selection Cory Morrissey and sophomore Mitchell Meyers should give Iowa State a solid rotation at end. Rodney Coe, who started the last four games, will anchor the Cyclones inside.

9. West Virginia: The Mountaineers lose two of three starters along the D-line, including second-team All-Big 12 end Will Clarke. West Virginia is hoping for big things from DE Kyle Rose, who started as a sophomore last season. Dontrill Hyman will likely fill a starting role on the other side, though he could get pushed for time by Eric Kinsey and Noble Nwachukwu, who both will be in their third year in the program. The Mountaineers will lean on Christian Brown and Darrien Howard at nose guard. Howard was an ESPN 300 recruit last year and played as a freshman. There’s some talent and potential here.

10. Kansas: Despite also losing two starters, the Jayhawks have experience up front. Defensive captain Keon Stowers is back after manning the middle in 2013. Ben Goodman returns as well in Kansas’ “buck” role, and he is coming off a very solid sophomore season. Goodman’s backup, Michael Reynolds, and rotation players Tedarian Johnson and Ty McKinney give the Jayhawks depth.

Top 25 in Big 12: Five best injured players

January, 31, 2014
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Our series on the 25 best players in the Big 12 comes to an end today when we reveal the conference's three best players.

We hope this list hasn't been too terribly controversial, but yes, there have certainly been some quality players who did not make the cut. Several can make a solid case for why they should've made our Top 25, including Texas defensive end Cedric Reed, Texas Tech defensive lineman Kerry Hyder, West Virginia safety Darwin Cook, Kansas linebacker Ben Heeney and Kansas State running back John Hubert.

We did not forget about you, guys. We tip our caps to your strong showings in 2013.

And let's not forget the many Big 12 players who would've been among the conference's 25 best had they stayed healthy. Here's a closer look at five big-time players who missed out due to injuries.

Devonte Fields, DE, TCU: The No. 3 player in the blog's preseason Top 25 did not have a sophomore season to remember. TCU shut him down for the season on Oct. 9 due to a foot injury that required surgery. He ended up appearing in just three games due to suspension and injury. The Horned Frogs were wise to end his season early and seek a medical redshirt, and let's hope Fields is back to his dominant self when he returns in 2014.

[+] EnlargeJohnathan Gray
Cooper Neill/Getty ImagesJohnathan Gray was well on his way to an all-Big 12-caliber season before succumbing to injury in early November.
Johnathan Gray, RB, Texas: A torn right Achilles suffered in a road win at West Virginia ended a sophomore season that could've ended with Gray earning All-Big 12 honors. He emerged as the workhorse of Texas' offense after David Ash was lost for the season and, at 780 yards and four touchdowns, was one pace to become the Longhorns' first 1,000-yard rusher since 2007. If he can get healthy in time for the start of the 2014 season, he'll be on the league's best rushers again.

Trey Millard, FB/RB/TE, Oklahoma: Millard, who ranked No. 11 in our preseason Top 25, brought so many things to the Sooners' offense both in production and intangibles. He was pretty much guaranteed a spot in our postseason list until Oct. 26, when a torn ACL suffered against Texas Tech ended his season and his OU career five games too early. It's a shame we only got to see him touch the ball 28 times is his final season, but Millard and his many niche contributions won't soon be forgotten by Sooners fans.

Jordan Phillips, DT, Oklahoma: Sure, you can argue that OU linebacker Corey Nelson deserves this spot as the Sooners' captain and possible defensive MVP prior to his injury. But losing Phillips to a season-ending back injury in the middle of October was just as damaging, not only to the middle of the Sooners line but also because he seemed on pace to developing into an All-Big 12 caliber talent. He played in four games, missed two, and then was done. Let's hope he can get healthy and back in track as a junior.

Tevin Reese, WR, Baylor: Reese came very close to making our Top 25 despite missing five games this season with a broken wrist. He was one of several Baylor players who went down during the stretch run, and arguably the most critical one. He finished the year with 867 receiving yards and eight touchdowns and only needed 38 receptions to get there. His 22.8 yards per catch average ranked No. 2 nationally, and three of his scores came from 60-plus yards.

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