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The Big 12’s 18 most important players for 2018

Maybe not the best, maybe not the most heralded, but these guys will determine the conference race.

NCAA Football: Iowa State at West Virginia Ben Queen-USA TODAY Sports

The Big 12 is as wide-open as it’s been in some time; as the vast majority of the ten teams replace QBs, it really is anyone’s crown to win. Though Oklahoma is certainly favored, and rightfully so, they have plenty of question marks on both sides of the ball, while the Mountaineers, picked second, will look to finally prove themselves down the stretch.

As we inch closer to opening day, we take a look around the conference at some of the players, and figures, that we expect to play significant roles in how the season shakes out. I will readily admit that I do not know everything about Kansas Football’s roster, nor am I intimately familiar with the ins and outs of what’s going on in West Texas. But, based on preseason lists, conversations with friends at other schools, and my own research, I present the 18 Most Important Figures in the Big 12 in 2018.

Skewer me in the comments, if you must.

18. Jeff Long, AD: Kansas

Again we go off the beaten path, but is anyone in a more untenable position than the newly-minted, highly-paid athletic director in Lawrence? Long, who definitely hates your team, is most famously remembered by Big 12 fans for infamously dropping TCU from 3rd to 6th after the Horned Frogs manhandled Iowa State during the last game of the regular season in 2014. Now, he joins the league’s most moribund football franchise at a school embroiled in an FBI-led scandal, trying to salvage the embarrassment that is Kansas Football. In all likelihood, he will make a coaching hire this offseason (Les Miles, anyone), and for $1.5 million annually, he will be expected to find a way to find some wins for Rock Chalk.

17. Duke Shelley, CB/KR (Kansas State)

Kansas State has a lot of good defensive players, but Duke Shelley is the coach on the field that holds it all together. And, it doesn’t hurt that he’s a feared return specialist in his own right, too. Shelley isn’t the biggest player for the Cats; at just 5’9” and 178 pounds, the Georgia native has started 30 games across the first three years of his career, collecting 132 tackles and five interceptions in the process. But, he’s not a guy opponents throw towards very often, and will need to be even better - and even more of a leader - in his final season in the Little Apple. With a bunch of new faces lining up alongside him, his role is more important than ever.

16. Jawuan Johnson, LB (TCU)

The TCU defense is solid at all three levels, but few teams are looking to replace a player as productive as Travin Howard in the middle of their most important unit. The Frogs were picked to finish third in the conference this year, but unless the defense more than lives up to its billing, they likely won’t reach those heights behind a first time starter at QB and one of the least experienced offensive lines in the country (just 26 starts). Johnson can solve a lot of those ills though; if he is as productive in Fort Worth as he was at NIU - graded as the best LB in the country in 2017 - and he should be under the tutelage of Gary Patterson, the Horned Frogs defense should be a top ten unit in the country. That’s a lot of pressure to put on a grad transfer, but he won’t have to do it alone - TCU has some of the most fearsome defenders in the country between Ross Blacklock, Ben Banogu, Ty Summers, and Niko Small.

15. Austin Siebert, K/P (Oklahoma)

A kicker/punter in the top 15? For one of the best teams in the country (maybe)? Sure, why not. The fact of the matter is, the Sooners probably aren’t going to run as roughshod over the conference as they did a year ago, not with all the new faces on both sides of the ball - though they do return over 100 starts on the offensive line which is insane. But with so many questions marks around Kyler Murray - and the fact that he isn’t Baker Mayfield - there’s a good shot that the Sooners will have a game or two come down to the kicking game, and thus, their first team all conference kicker/punter. Not many specialists do both anymore, and fewer still do both at an all-conference level. If Oklahoma is going to be great, they’ll need Siebert to be great, too. And he should be up to the challenge.

14. Caden Sterns, S (Texas)

The true freshman will be called upon to QB a Texas secondary that should be as good as any in the country, as part of a defense that should be one of the top two in the league. Not many true freshmen safeties get the starting nod in a conference that slings it around as much as the Big 12, but the former five star recruit, the number one safety in the country, appears to be special. If he can slide in day one as an impact player, the Longhorns could take a jump in year two under Tom Herman, and go from middling squad to legit BACK.

13. Yodney Cajuste, OL (WVU)

His job is to protect my vote for the most important player in the conference, and he does it well. A senior out of Miami, FL, Cajuste is an all-Big 12 preseason selection in 2018 after finishing 2017 on the second team. A likely early-round draft pick in 2019, the 6’5”, 321 pound tackle is part of a unit that returns 65 starts and should pave the way for one of the most efficient and explosive offenses in the country. And that’s a good thing, as it appears the Eers D won’t be able to stop many teams.

12. Denzel Mims, WR (Baylor)

The Bears won’t be good in 2018, but they might be good enough to find six wins and get to a bowl game. If that’s going to happen, it will be because Denzel Mims was an All-American wide receiver. One of the most explosive athletes at a position, and in a conference, that is full of them, Mims stands out for his talent and natural ability. If he improves his route-running, and Charlie Brewer grows as a QB in year two, Mims could vault himself onto the national stage and into the conversation of one of the best pass-catchers in the country. He’s also good enough to have the kind of 300 yard, three touchdown game that enables Baylor to pull off the kind of upset win that throws the whole conference race into chaos (WVU, Oklahoma State, and TCU, you’re all on notice).

11. Anthony McKinney, OL (TCU)

Three Horned Frogs in the top 18? Well, this is a TCU blog, and what - do we need another Jayhawk? Plus, McKinney is a huge factor in the conference race, but figuratively and literally. Either McKinney or returning starter Lucas Niang will be called upon to protect Shawn Robinson’s blindside, and with so little returning production along the offensive line, the highly-regarded juco transfer needs to slide in and be great immediately. He should certainly be up to the challenge. At 6’8” and more than 300 pounds, he certainly looks the part of a future pro at tackle, but the jump from Independence to Ohio State isn’t an easy one. And with some of the top edge rushers in the country suiting up against his on Saturdays, he will have his work cut out for him. That being said, if he’s as good as he’s capable of being, TCU might find themselves ahead of schedule and working towards 10+ wins once again in 2018.

10. Dakota Allen, LB (Texas Tech)

We have heard it before, but maybe, just maybe, this time it’s true. The Red Raiders are actually going to have a serviceable defense in 2018. Well, maybe. If they do, it will likely be because of Dakota Allen, an incredibly talented player who seems to have handled some off the field issues and is all in in West Texas. Allen certainly looks the part of a prototypical LB, and he can be a one man wrecking ball in the middle of a Tech D that should be flying all over the field. For once, it might be the offense holding the Red Raiders back from competing near the top of the Big 12. Also, Texas Tech has as many all-conference preseason selections (3) as TCU (1) or Texas (2) combined. What is this world?

9. Reggan Northrup, LB (Iowa State)

You are probably saying to yourself, “who?” And that’s for good reason, as Northrup is in the unenviable position of replacing one of the most well-known and well-respected players in recent Big 12 history, do-it-all QB/LB Joel Lanning. Lanning is off to pro football, leaving a gaping hole in the middle of a Cyclones defense that was surprisingly stingy in 2017. If they want to continue their upward trajectory, that defense will need to be just as good, or better, this fall, which means Northrup has to be just as good, or better, than Lanning. A former three star recruit, Northrup isn’t the biggest guy (6’1”, 208), but he appears primed to slide into the starting position vacated by Lanning, and be impactful. To this point, he has played in 34 games, primarily on special teams, amassing 88 tackles, two sacks, and six TFLs. He will need to take a leap in 2018, should he win the starting job.

8. Tre Watson, RB (Texas)

Texas’ offense has clearly been holding the Horns back for some time now, and despite signing a bevy of talented running backs over the last several years, they have yet to find a player that can carry the rock in a way that elevates that side of the ball. Instead of risking their potential on another unproven freshman, Tom Herman went to the transfer ranks instead this year, courting former Cal Bear Tre Watson - a former three star prospect who had just under 1400 yards in 31 games, scoring eight touchdowns on a 5.1 per carry average. Though his numbers don’t pop off the page, he’s better than anything the Horns have, and nothing helps a young, inconsistent QB more than a veteran running back. Watson should make Texas better immediately, or at the very least, make them more competent on that side of the ball.

7. Andre Coleman, OC (Kansas State)

Sure, he is far removed from his playing days, but the former standout WR for the Wildcats will have as big an impact as anyone suiting up on Saturdays calling the plays for Bill Snyder/s team. K State is sneaky good in 2018, and everything seems to be lining up to make a big run in what could be the Wizard’s last hurrah. Loaded at running back, competent at QB, and nasty (though young) on defense, the Cats have the tools to be a top team in the Big 12. And with the way they finished in 2017, there’s no reason to doubt them. If Coleman can figure out how to maximize his running game to keep the pressure off of whoever starts at QB, KSU could win a ton of games and make things really difficult for the rest of the conference.

6. Justice Hill, RB (Oklahoma State)

It’s odd how little Justice Hill is appreciated, shoot, his brother Dax is currently drawing more attention as a recruit than the elder does as a player. A freshman All-American, Hill set the first year rushing record at a school that has produced some pretty well-known running backs with over 1,100 yards, including six 100+ yard games on a 5.8 yards per carry average. As a sophomore, he added nearly another 1,500 yards, 15 touchdowns, and was named a first team All-Conference member and a Doak Award semifinalist. Heading into his junior season, the 5’10”, 185 pound speedster is one of the most feared backs in the conference, if not one of the most talked about. In the shadows of guys like Rodney Anderson, Darius Anderson, and David Montgomery, Hill has a chance to put up better numbers than all three - and do it while maintaining his status as an Academic All-American (as a finance major!). If OSU wants to continue their streak of 10 win seasons, they’ll lean heavily on Hill to do it. And he can certainly shoulder the load.

5. David Montgomery, RB (Iowa State)

Kyle Kempt got a 20th year of eligibility (okay, it was just a sixth, but seems like he’s been in football forever, despite being relatively unknown until last year), but he’s not exactly a guy that’s going to put fear into his opponents all by himself. Montgomery on the other hand? He’s a guy you game plan for. Arguably the best back in the conference (the Andersons - Rodney and Darius - may have something to say about that), Montgomery is big, strong, and fast, and can single-handedly change a game. The Cyclones wear the burden of expectation for the first time in a long time; their star running back will go a long way in determining if they wear it well.

4. Mike Gundy’s Mullet, Hair Style (Oklahoma State)

A joke, you say? Ah, but that glorious mane is so much more than that. Gundy’s Mullet becomes a signature character in the conference in its own right for what it represents - the swagger of a program that has been oh-so-close to breaking out of Big Brother’s shadow so many times over the last few years. The modern glory era of Cowboy Football has seen 12 consecutive bowl invites, eight bowl wins - including one BCS, six double-digit win seasons, and one Big 12 Conference Championship. But... and it’s always the but... Oklahoma State is 18-87-7 all time against the Sooners, and just 2-11 under Gundy. The Sooners are recruiting at an obscene level currently, and Lincoln Riley looks like a rising star - that isn’t going anywhere. If the Cowboys want to get a piece of the pie, they have a window in which to do it, but replacing a pair of all-time greats in Mason Rudolph and James Washington won’t be an easy task, and the competition will be as fierce as ever. Gundy, and his mullet, will need to carry all the swagger they can muster into their November matchup with the Crimson & Cream.

3. Kyler Murray, QB (Oklahoma)

A lot of people might argue that Kyler should be higher on this list, but, at the end of the day, all he has to do is not screw things up. The Sooners are absolutely loaded on offense, and only the inexperience - or distraction level - of their first round MLB Draft pick QB (and a shaky-ish defense) can prevent them from winning the Big 12 for a fourth consecutive year. We will learn a lot more about Lincoln Riley in year two, without Baker Mayfield (why aren’t more people worried about his managing of the second half of the Rose Bowl?), but if he’s as good as advertised and Murray is just not a disaster, the two year window teams see to sneak in and overpower OU could be much shorter than that.

2. Shawn Robinson, QB (TCU)

The Frogs are loaded at the skill positions on offense, led by potential all-conference running back Darius Anderson and rising super-soph Jalen Reagor at WR. But TCU’s success in 2018 will fall significantly on the shoulders of another sophomore, dual-threat quarterback Shawn Robinson. With just one start under his belt, and a handful of garbage time pass attempts, Robinson is an unknown in general. If the Frogs want to compete with, or unseat, the Sooners, Robinson will have to be good. Really good.

  1. Will Grier, QB (West Virginia University)

Once again, the Mountaineers come into a season with big expectations. But, this season is different than past failures for one big reason - the guy behind center. One could argue that WVU is the only Big 12 team rolling out a QB in week one that has a proven track record of success - the rest of the league is littered with young gunslingers, first time starters, or returners that weren’t all that good. But Grier is special, and had he not gotten hurt late in the season, maybe the Eers are in the hunt to play in the conference championship game. Despite some key losses to graduation, WVU has plenty of talent at the skill positions and should be solid enough defensively for an offense that will have no problem regularly scoring in the 40s. For the Mountaineers to win big though, Grier will have to play at an MVP level. He certainly has shown he is capable of it.