- Jake Trotter, ESPN Staff Writer
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With spring ball a month away, we've been ranking position groups in the Big 12. These evaluations have been based on past performance, future potential, and quality depth. We continue the series below with defensive backs:
1. West Virginia: Strong safety Karl Joseph, the hardest hitter in the league who will be a four-year starter, is a Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year candidate. Free safety Dravon Henry is coming off a freshman All-American season. Daryl Worley is an All-Big 12 caliber cornerback. The Mountaineers also inked two more dynamic corners in Tyrek Cole (ESPN 300) and Rasul Douglas (ESPN 50 JC). This unit is loaded.
2. Oklahoma State: The Cowboys own the deepest cornerback group in the league, with four players boasting FBS starting experience in Kevin Peterson, Ramon Richards, Ashton Lampkin and Michael Hunter, a graduate transfer from Indiana. Jordan Sterns is a rising star at free safety.
3. Kansas State: Danzel McDaniel and Morgan Burns quietly formed one of the league's top cornerback tandems last season. Both are back, too. McDaniel brings the hammer; Burns can cover ground. Dante Barnett is among the Big 12's top returning safeties with a nose for the ball. With better hands, he could have finished with double-digit interceptions last year. The Wildcats do have to find a replacement for Randall Evans, who was an anchor at nickelback.
4. TCU: The Horned Frogs were hit hard by attrition. All three of its All-Big 12 defensive backs are gone in cornerback Kevin White, strong safety Sam Carter and weak safety Chris Hackett, who bolted early for the draft. Still, this unit has the remnants to be stout again. Ranthony Texada had a banner freshman season playing opposite of White, and seems primed to take over as TCU's No. 1 corner. Free safety Derrick Kindred has been a cog the past three seasons, and former juco transfer Kenny Iloka was a key reserve in 2014. Those three form the core of what figures to be another stout TCU secondary.
5. Baylor: The good news is the Bears return four starters in the secondary; that might be the bad news, too. Pass defense was Baylor's Achilles heel last season, culminating with Texas Tech true freshman Patrick Mahomes torching the Bears for almost 600 passing yards. Deep safety Orion Stewart is the best of the bunch; he's a playmaker. Cornerbacks Ryan Reid and Xavien Howard should be better in their second years as starters. Cover safety Terrell Burt has the most experience, but struggled greatly in coverage late last season. It will be interesting to see whether this group collectively improves off a shaky 2014 performance.
6. Texas: Outside West Virginia, no secondary in the league has more upside than Texas. Safety Jason Hall was one of the league's top true freshmen last season, and incoming cornerbacks Holton Hill and Kris Boyd and safeties DeShon Elliott and Davante Davis are all elite blue-chip prospects. The Longhorns will lean on Duke Thomas, Sheroid Evans and Dylan Haines until the young guns are ready. But when they are -- look out.
7. Oklahoma: The Sooners ranked ninth in the Big 12 in pass defense last season, easily Oklahoma's worst finish in the Bob Stoops' era. The best player of the group is cornerback Zack Sanchez; he gives up big plays, but he makes some, too. The Sooners desperately need their young defensive backs to coalesce around him. Ahmad Thomas, Hatari Byrd, Steven Parker and Jordan Thomas all looked discombobulated at times in their first seasons as rotation players. The antidote could be this month's signing class. P.J. Mbanasor was the No. 6 CB recruit in the country; William Johnson was the No. 2 juco CB. Safety Will Sunderland Jr. was another ESPN 300 addition. If any of those three contribute right away, the chance is there for dramatic improvement.
8. Texas Tech: The Red Raiders return the entire two-deep from a secondary that held up reasonably well. Of course, opponents were also merely content to just hand the ball off most of the time against Tech's porous run defense. Still, this secondary has potential. Cornerback Nigel Bethel II leads the way in the potential department. After serving a three-game suspension he held his own as a true freshman starter. Bethel II, Justis Nelson and Tevin Madison, who was also a true freshman last season, have promise and a ton of experience for their age. If they can stay healthy, Keenon Ward and J.J. Gaines have the chance to form a competent safety duo. ESPN 300 signee Jamile Johnson Jr. could be an immediate factor there, too.
9. Iowa State: Safety Kamari Cotton-Moya is the reigning Big 12 Defensive Freshman of the Year; he and cornerback Nigel Tribune are quality players. T.J. Mutcherson, Cotton-Moya's wingman at safety last season, has since been dismissed from the team. But Sam Richardson returns at corner opposite Tribune. This unit looks good on paper and should be the strength of Iowa State. And yet, the Cyclones are coming off a season in which they ranked last in the league defending the pass.
10. Kansas: The Jayhawks graduated All-Big 12 performer JaCorey Shepherd, who was one of the best corner covers in the league last season. With Shepherd gone, the Jayhawks will be counting on a big sophomore season from Matthew Boateng, who started opposite Shepherd as a true freshman last year. The Jayhawks also need safety Isaiah Johnson, who was the Big 12 Defensive Newcomer of the Year two seasons ago, to return to his 2013 form.