Dallas Colleges: Mario Alford
1. TCU: Honorable mention All-Big 12 place-kicker Jaden Oberkrom was 13 of 14 on field goals inside the 50 last season and drilled a 56-yarder late in the fourth quarter at Kansas State. B.J. Catalon was second in the league in kickoff returns and took one to the house in the opener against LSU. Freshman Cameron Echols-Luper took his first punt return 51 yards and had a 41-yarder in the season finale against Baylor. Brandon Carter has had moments in the return game in the past as well. Ethan Perry will be a three-year starter at punter, rounding out a formidable special teams unit.
2. Baylor: Corey Coleman led the league in kick returns, and Levi Norwood scored twice off punt returns. The Bears are loaded with potential game-breakers in the return game and welcome back All-Big 12 punter Spencer Roth. If Kyle Peterson proves to be a reliable replacement for departing kicker Aaron Jones, this special teams unit will have no weakness.
4. Texas Tech: The Red Raiders will feature a lethal one-two punch in the return game in Jakeem Grant and Reginald Davis, who took a kick back for a touchdown in the bowl game. Receiver Jordan Davis also has return experience. Kicker Ryan Bustin returns after garnering honorable mention All-Big 12 honors last year.
5. Oklahoma: The Sooners lose the most explosive return duo in the league in Jalen Saunders and Roy Finch. Sterling Shepard and Alex Ross could be among the players who replace them. Oklahoma boasts the league’s most efficient returning place-kicker in Michael Hunnicutt, who nailed 24 of 27 field goal tries last season. The Sooners have a secret weapon in Nick Hodgson, who led the league in touchback kickoffs last season. Jed Barnett, fifth in the Big 12 in punting average last season, returns as well.
6. Iowa State: The Cyclones had four players make first- or second-team All-Big 12 last season, and departing punter Kirby Van Der Kamp was one of them. Replacing his production won’t be easy, though incoming three-star freshman Colin Downing will try. DeVondrick Nealy, Jarvis West and Aaron Wimberly all had several dynamite moments returning kicks. Cole Netten was 13-of-18 on field goals as a freshman,
7. West Virginia: Nick O'Toole leads the Mountaineers on special teams. The “Boomstache” was 15th nationally in punting last season. The Mountaineers have all their returners back in Wendell Smallwood, Mario Alford and Jordan Thompson, though more big plays are needed from this group -- the Mountaineers ranked last in the league in both punt and kick returns in 2013. Josh Lambert comes back after making 17 of 23 field goals as a freshman. The Mountaineers also enjoy a luxury in Michael Molinari, who can do a little bit of everything.
8. Texas: The Longhorns lose their punter and their kicker in consensus All-American Anthony Fera. That hurts. Nick Jordan, who made nine of 15 field goals in 2012, could reclaim his job. Daje Johnson -- who returned a punt for a TD against Oklahoma -- Duke Thomas, Quandre Diggs, Marcus Johnson, Kendall Sanders and Jaxon Shipley all have experience returning.
9. Kansas: Return men Connor Embree (punts) and JaCorey Shepherd (kicks) both come back. The Jayhawks also return kicker Matthew Wyman, who connected on a game-winning 52-yard field goal to beat Louisiana Tech. The freshman, however, only made two field goals after that and eventually lost that job to departing senior Ron Doherty. Trevor Pardula was third in the Big 12 in punting as a junior and received votes for Big 12 Special Teams Player of the Year.
10. Oklahoma State: After enjoying All-Americans Dan Bailey and Quinn Sharp the last few years, the Cowboys were finally mediocre in the kicking game last season. Ben Grogan struggled as a freshman, making just 11 of 18 field goals while missing two critical attempts in the early-season loss at West Virginia. The Cowboys were also last in the league in punting. Oklahoma State signed three-star kicker Zach Sinor with hopes of curing some of those ills. The Cowboys were still dynamic in the return game, but with Justin Gilbert and Josh Stewart both gone, Oklahoma State could lean on juco transfer and track star Tyreek Hill for a jolt on returns.
2. Kansas State: The Wildcats have the Big 12’s finest receiver in Tyler Lockett, which warrants them a high ranking even if the supporting cast isn’t tantalizing. Lockett was basically uncoverable downfield last season, and exploded once QB Jake Waters got more comfortable. Curry Sexton has turned into a reliable possession target. The Wildcats also welcome one of the best juco receivers in the country in Andre Davis. If Davis pans out, this has a chance to be among the best receiving corps Bill Snyder has ever had.
3. Texas Tech: The Red Raiders lose an ultra-productive player in Eric Ward and a superstar in tight end Jace Amaro, but this position remains stocked with talent. Jitterbug slot man Jakeem Grant was sixth in the league last year in receiving, and showed in the Holiday Bowl how dangerous he can be when 100 percent focused. Bradley Marquez and Jordan Davis are reliable pass-catchers, but the player to watch here is Reginald Davis. A former high school quarterback, Davis has gradually picked up the nuances of playing receiver. But as he flashed in a kickoff return touchdown against Arizona State, Davis is a playmaker with the ball in his hands, and could be a major factor.
4. Oklahoma State: The Cowboys lose their top three receivers, but outside Baylor, no team in the Big 12 has more WRs ready to contribute in 2014 than Oklahoma State. Jhajuan Seales and Marcell Ateman combined for 61 receptions as freshmen, and will give the Cowboys a physical presence on the perimeter. Brandon Shepard and David Glidden were also part of the regular rotation, and Austin Hayes, who started nine games in 2012, would have been had he not missed virtually the entire season with injury. The two to watch here, though, have yet to play a down, but will bring major speed. Former ESPN 300 recruit Ra’Shaad Samples redshirted last year, but reportedly ran a 4.3-second 40 last summer. That might seem slow compared to Tyreek Hill, the nation’s No. 4 juco recruit, who doubles as a track phenom.
5. Texas: Jaxon Shipley isn’t his brother Jordan, but he’s still a quality college receiver. Even with all of Texas’ QB issues, Shipley already has 159 career receptions. The Longhorns have speed and playmaking elsewhere in downfield burner Marcus Johnson, Kendall Sanders and the versatile Daje Johnson. The Longhorns also signed one of three best incoming WRs in the Big 12 in Armanti Foreman. This group could really thrive with an uptick in QB play.
7. Iowa State: Quenton Bundrage is one of the more underrated receivers in the league despite ranking third in the league. With Amaro gone, E.J. Bibbs becomes the best receiving tight end in the league after hauling in 39 passes last year. Iowa State’s standing here, though, is contingent on incoming freshman Allen Lazard, one the most highly touted WRs Iowa State has ever signed. If Lazard can make an immediate impact, like the Iowa State coaching staff is banking on, this could become one of the better units in the league.
8. West Virginia: There’s no corps in the Big 12 that could move up more spots than West Virginia’s. The Mountaineers didn’t have a receiver rank in the top 15 in the Big 12 last year, but Kevin White, Mario Alford and Daikiel Shorts all ranked in the top 20. All three are back, too, as is the diminutive Jordan Thompson, who finally came alive the second half of the season. Former ESPN 300 recruit Shelton Gibson, who redshirted, will also join the rotation. The Mountaineers rank eighth for now, but they are closer to Kansas State than to Kansas.
9. TCU: This week, TCU kicked receiver LaDarius Brown off the team. Considering Brown tied for the team lead in receptions last year, it’s a tough loss. This unit is obviously better with Trevone Boykin, but he might have to play QB, at least until someone else emerges there. The Horned Frogs desperately need Brandon Carter to become a No. 1 receiver. After a promising sophomore year, Carter was basically a non-factor, before showing signs of bouncing back the last month of the season. TCU needs him back in a big way in 2014.
10. Kansas: The Jayhawks didn’t have a receiver with more than 11 catches last year. Some of that was the quarterbacks. Some of it was, well, the receivers. The group had little overall impact, which put tremendous pressure on James Sims and the running game. With Sims gone, the receivers have to elevate their game significantly for Kansas to have a chance of taking a step forward. The Jayhawks do have a solid tight end in Jimmay Mundine, who had five TD catches. And Tony Pierson could play more receiver this year. But somebody else needs to emerge.
Iowa State tight end E.J. Bibbs: The junior was the Cyclones' leading receiver with seven catches for 63 yards in ISU’s 21-17 loss to TCU. Bibbs provides a solid athletic target, particularly on third downs. He had three receptions for 28 yards (two first downs) on third down against the Horned Frogs.
Kansas linebacker Darius Willis: The senior was productive in spot duty for the Jayhawks in their 42-6 loss to Oklahoma State. He had a season-high six tackles, including four solo stops, and looked like one of the few KU players who was engaged and excited to compete against the Cowboys.
Kansas State cornerback Randall Evans: Playing alongside Ryan Mueller, who had three sacks, and Ty Zimmerman, who returned an interception for a touchdown, it was easy to overlook Evans’ performance. He had 10 tackles, one pass breakup and one interception in KSU’s 49-26 win over Texas Tech.
Oklahoma linebacker Dominique Alexander: Corey Nelson’s replacement has been growing into his role during his first four games as a starter. Even though he still shows his inexperience at times, he flashes the upside that had OU’s coaches raving about his ability earlier this season. He finished with 11 tackles, including eight solo stops, one sack and one forced fumble in OU’s 41-12 loss to Baylor.
Oklahoma State receiver David Glidden: The sophomore was terrific after standout receiver Josh Stewart left with an injury. Glidden finished with six receptions for 73 yards in OSU’s 42-6 win over Kansas. He entered the game with eight career receptions but filled in admirably against the Jayhawks. Three of his six receptions came on third down.
Texas defensive tackle Desmond Jackson: The junior stepped right in for the injured Chris Whaley with little drop off in the Longhorns’ 47-40 overtime win over West Virginia. He had eight tackles, including 2.5 tackles for loss, with two sacks and one forced fumble. It’s rare to lose a player like Whaley without taking a step backward, but Jackson seamlessly filled in to help UT remain undefeated in the Big 12.
Texas Tech running back Kenny Williams: The junior is a solid threat as a running back in the Red Raiders’ offense. Kansas State took control of the game and limited Williams’ opportunities, but he finished with 15 carries for 66 yards, averaging 4.4 yards per play. He hasn’t had a 100-yard rushing game this season, but he is a quality running and receiving threat in coach Kliff Kingsbury’s attack.
TCU linebacker Paul Dawson: The junior quietly has been playing as well as any linebacker in the Big 12 during the past month. He’s recorded double-digit tackles in four of his past five games, including the past three. Dawson had 14 tackles, including eight solo stops and two tackles for loss, in TCU’s 21-17 win over Iowa State.
West Virginia receiver Mario Alford: The junior had arguably the most explosive game by a Mountaineers’ receiver this season. He finished with 205 all-purpose yards, including 97 receiving yards, 88 kick-return yards and 20 rushing yards. His 72-yard touchdown catch and run in the fourth quarter looked like last season's WVU offense.
This season, we’ll sit back and watch as other names emerge and become difference-makers or even Heisman Trophy contenders for their teams. The Big 12 is littered with candidates who fit the bill, but none of them seems more prepared to make that leap than Baylor quarterback Bryce Petty. And if the Bears can compete for the Big 12 title, don't be surprised if Petty can work his way into the Heisman conversation.
Thanks to a talented surrounding cast, Petty doesn’t feel pressured to be as productive as Griffin and Florence.
“I really don’t,” he said. “I think that’s because [making plays] is what I was brought here to do. There’s no pressure to do that. I feel like the guys I have around me are going to make that happen, I just need to get the ball to them.”
The early returns are good for Petty, who was 11-of-16 for 166 yards and one touchdown in the Bears’ scrimmage on Aug. 10. He appears to be getting much more comfortable as a main man behind center.
“Bryce is more calm and collected,” Seastrunk said. “He’s making better decisions. It’s great to see.”
Petty isn’t the only relatively unknown name that could make major waves in the Big 12 in 2013. Here’s a look at one candidate from each school who could rise from unknown to game changer this season.
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TE Jimmay Mundine, Kansas: The junior enters the season with 21 career receptions in two seasons but might be ready for a breakout season in 2013. He could emerge as the favorite target of quarterback Jake Heaps as teams focus on slowing running back James Sims.
S Dante Barnett, Kansas State: He played in all 13 games as a true freshman, recording 24 tackles while helping the Wildcats earn a BCS berth. He should embrace a much larger role as a sophomore in KSU’s secondary.
WR Sterling Shepard, Oklahoma: Shepard was so impressive as a freshman, he helped transform the Sooners’ offense into a four-receiver attack. He finished his first year with 45 receptions for 621 yards and three touchdowns and is poised to become a primary target alongside Jalen Saunders as a sophomore.
WR Jhajuan Seales, Oklahoma State: As the next Cowboy to don No. 81, the name Justin Blackmon looms over Seales’ shoulder. Fortunately for OSU, he seems to have the size, power and athleticism to rise to the occasion. The buzz in Stillwater says Seales is destined to be a game changer in the future. And the future could be as early as this year.
WR Daje Johnson, Texas: Every time he touched the football as a true freshman, he was electric. With the Longhorns turning up the tempo, it could provide Johnson more opportunities to use his game-breaking speed to terrorize defenders.
RB Aaron Green, TCU: A well-known name out of high school, Green sat out last season after transferring from Nebraska. Even though the Horned Frogs have some quality running backs already in the fold, it wouldn’t be shocking to see Green rise to the top of the depth chart and emerge as one of the Big 12’s top runners.
LB Micah Awe, Texas Tech: One of two true freshmen to escape a redshirt season for the Red Raiders in 2012, Awe is poised to start at linebacker as a sophomore. With natural football instincts, a physical mentality and leadership skills, he could be the anchor of the Red Raiders' defense.
WR Mario Alford, West Virginia: The junior college transfer could help Mountaineers fans get over the loss of Tavon Austin. At 5-9, 175 pounds, Alford is another quick, versatile talent at the disposal of Dana Holgorsen.
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