Top 10 returning units in the Big 12
Our series of the best returning units in each conference continues with the Big 12. Here are the league’s top 10 units based on 2015 production:
1. Oklahoma backfield
The Sooners have PFF’s top-graded returning quarterback from the 2015 season lining up behind center in Baker Mayfield. Outside of a below-average grade in OU’s playoff semifinal loss to Clemson, Mayfield was fantastic all season long. Perhaps the most staggering number was that his QB rating when facing pressure – when most QBs struggle – would still have ranked No. 1 in the country overall. He is joined by a pair of very talented running backs in Samaje Perine and Joe Mixon. Perine ranked seventh in yards after contact per attempt among returning Power-5 backs last season, while rushing for 1,354 yards and 16 touchdowns, while Mixon was even more productive on a per-touch basis in his reserve role.
2. Oklahoma State skill positions
This is primarily a recognition of Cowboys QB Mason Rudolph, who earned the No. 1 passing grade among all returning quarterbacks last season. 21 percent of his pass attempts – an incredibly high rate – traveled 20 or more yards downfield, yet he still led the nation in adjusted deep completion rate at 57 percent. Running back Chris Carson graded positively as a rusher in 2015, with 304 of his 523 yards coming after contact, but he will need to improve in pass protection after grading very poorly in that area. Starting wideouts James Washington, Marcell Ateman and Jhajuan Seales all graded well a season ago.
3. Oklahoma defensive line
The Sooners have one of the best returning run-defending trios up front in Matt Dimon, Matthew Romar and Charles Walker, all of whom graded well in that area of defense last season. Unlike Dimon and Romar, who struggled somewhat as pass-rushers, Walker was also very effective at getting after the quarterback. Among returning 3-4 defensive ends, he ranks first in run-stop percentage and tied for fourth in pass-rush productivity. Despite losing stars Eric Striker at OLB and Charles Tapper at DE, the Sooners should again have a very talented front seven.
4. Baylor backfield
Prior to his season-ending injury last year, Seth Russell was one of the top quarterbacks in all of college football, grading very well both as a passer and as a runner. He’s a breakout candidate entering 2016. Like Mayfield, Russell is joined in the backfield by some very productive returning players. Shock Linwood ranked sixth among returning Power-5 backs in elusive rating, after breaking 60 tackles on 197 attempts during his 1,326-yard, 10-touchdown season. Fellow RB Johnny Jefferson also graded well, including a breakout 23-carry, 299-yard, 3-touchdown performance in Baylor’s blowout bowl win over North Carolina.
5. Oklahoma secondary
OU returns a great safety tandem in Steven Parker, who graded out merely average in coverage but was among the best in the nation as a pass-rusher and in run defense, and Ahmad Thomas, whose passer rating allowed of 38.9 was third-lowest among returning safeties who were targeted at least 30 times. Cornerback is a little bit more of a question mark, as projected starters Jordan Thomas and P.J. Mbanasor both earned negative grades last season, but William Johnson performed well in a limited role, allowing 13 catches and one touchdown on 24 targets.
6. TCU secondary
Denzel Johnson ranks fifth in PFF’s overall safety grades among returning players entering the 2016 season, after performing well as a pass-rusher, in coverage and most notably against the run. He is the headliner of a productive group of returning safeties, along with the versatile Nick Orr and Ridwan Issahaku, both of whom graded well last year. Cornerbck is more of a question mark, although Ranthony Texada graded very well in coverage in the two and a half games before being lost to a season-ending injury.
7. West Virginia offensive line
The left side of the Mountaineers’ line is a bit of a question mark after both left tackle Yodny Cajuste and left guard Adam Pankey graded poorly in 2015, in both pass protection and as run-blockers. But center Tyler Orlosky might be the best player at his position this season, with the top overall grade among returners after allowing just four total pressures (including one sack) in pass protection and performing even better as a run-blocker. Next to him, right guard Kyle Bosch is coming off a very strong 2015 season, particularly as a pass-blocker, and right tackle Marcell Lazard showed good ability in the running game. This unit will be paving the way for new RB Rushel Shell and Skyler Howard, one of the best running quarterbacks in the country.
8. Baylor linebackers
The Bears return one of the best linebackers in college football in Taylor Young, who is undersized at 5-foot-10, 225 pounds but creates all sorts of havoc for opposing offenses. He is best as a run defender, ranking fourth among returning linebackers in run-stop percentage, while also frequently making plays as a pass-rusher. He is joined by another strong presence in Aiavion Edwards, who ranked 14th among LBs in run-stop percentage. When combined with safety hybrid Travon Blanchard, who struggled in coverage but fared well against the run and as a pass-rusher, Baylor is very strong at the second level of its defense.
9. Kansas State defensive line
The Wildcats’ selection here has to do with their having very productive returning players at both defensive tackle and on the edge. Will Geary owns the top run-defense grade among returning Power-5 D-tackles, recording 29 total stops and not missing a tackle all season long. Jordan Willis seventh in overall grade among returning Power-5 4-3 defensive ends, grading very well as a run defender and a pass-rusher, finishing with 47 total pressures, including seven sacks. Other projected contributors DT Matt Seiwert and DE Reggie Walker don’t give us much of a body of work to go off of just yet, but so long as Geary and Willis are healthy and playing to their 2015 levels, this D-line should be in good shape.
10. Texas Tech backfield
Patrick Mahomes II made our list of the best running QBs in college football on the strength of his 576 yards and 10 touchdowns last season. He was equal parts a scrambling threat – 386 of his yards and 14 of his 21 forced missed tackles came on scrambles, many of them highlight-reel plays – and a red-zone weapon as a runner. He showed good promise as a passer as well, ranking sixth in adjusted completion rate at 74.2 among returning Power-5 QBs. Running back Justin Stockton established himself as a gamebreaker, particularly as a pass-catcher, ranking third in yards per route run average among running backs, behind only Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey and Tennessee’s Alvin Kamara.