This season saw plenty of players emerge throughout the Big East. But who was most improved among them?
It was tough in many cases to narrow this down to one player per team. My criteria might be different from yours. I am looking for players who were not on any preseason lists, who were not expected to have breakout seasons, who had yet to live up to their full potential.
For example, it would be easy to say West Virginia receivers Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey were among the most improved. There is no doubt they were, as they each got over 1,000 yards. But we all expected them to have big seasons because of Dana Holgorsen. So I went with a different player for West Virginia.
Here are my picks:
Cincinnati: Drew Frey, safety. Runner-up: Derek Wolfe, defensive tackle. This was an incredibly tough choice for me. Wolfe essentially doubled his stats from 2010, ranking No. 5 in the nation in tackles for loss (21.5) and No. 16 in sacks (9.5) en route to Co-Defensive Player of the Year honors. But Wolfe did make my preseason list of top 25 players in the Big East, as I anticipated he would be in store for a solid season. Frey, on the other hand, was a huge question mark going into the year because of the way the Cincinnati secondary played in 2010. He ended up second on the team in tackles (73) and had eight pass breakups. Do you know how many he had last year? One. Frey was first-team All-Big East and emerged as one of the best safeties in the league.
UConn: Trevardo Williams, defensive end. What a leap Williams made this season, leading the Big East with 12.5 sacks and winning second-team honors. Though he started seven games last season, it was no sure thing that Williams would emerge as the full-time starter. But he more than held his own, and worked in the offseason to use more than just his speed to get after the quarterback. It paid off.
Louisville: Preston Brown, linebacker. When the season started, Brown was not even penciled in as a starter. He played in 13 games in 2010 but coach Charlie Strong was waiting on him to emerge and prove he could be counted on. He most certainly did that in 2011, finishing third on the team with 84 tackles. He was consistently good for most of the season, and he and Dexter Heyman proved to be a great linebacker duo.
Pittsburgh: Aaron Donald, defensive tackle. Donald figured to be counted on to provide depth, but he went ahead and finished second in the Big East in sacks (11) and tackles for loss (16) -- both team-highs. He also added a team-high 11 quarterback hurries. He ended the season as a starter and a second-team All-Big East selection.
Rutgers: Khaseem Greene, linebacker. Runner-up: Mohamed Sanu, receiver. This was really, really, really hard to decide. Sanu set a Big East and school record with 115 receptions and was the best player on offense. Greene won Co-Big East Defensive Player of the Year after switching positions in the offseason. So why Greene? Well, Sanu was on my preseason top 25 players list and I thought he had a chance to have a good season because he was healthy and would be playing receiver. But Greene was more of a question mark because he had moved over from safety. He was on nobody's radar for Defensive Player of the Year when the season started, but emerged as one of the finest players in the league. So he gets the nod.
USF: Kayvon Webster, cornerback. Webster was one of the more highly touted prospects USF signed in 2009, but it has taken a while for him to live up to expectations. He did so this season, in his first year as a full-time starter. Webster had 49 tackles and seven pass breakups this season and made the All-Big East second team.
Syracuse: Alec Lemon, receiver. Lemon more than doubled his receiving and yardage totals from 2010 -- setting a school record with 68 receptions for 834 yards with six touchdowns, all career highs. He had seven or more receptions in six games; in 2009 and 2010 he had two games combined with seven or more catches. Lemon quickly emerged as a much-needed go-to receiver, especially with Marcus Sales out (suspension). His performance placed him on the All-Big East second team.
West Virginia: Tyler Bitancurt, kicker. Runner-up: Stedman Bailey. You can make the argument for Bailey and I would not disagree. Geno Smith and Tavon Austin were projected to have big seasons -- both were in my preseason top 25. Bailey was right on the outside. But the strides Bitancurt made were bigger than any other kicker in the Big East. He took his field goal percentage from 58.8 percent to 72.7 percent, moving him from last place to No. 4 in the league. He nailed a 28-yard kick with no time left against USF to give the Mountaineers a share of the Big East title and a BCS berth.