Ranking top 10 returning players in Big 12

TCU QB Trevone Boykin makes Kevin Connaghan's ranking of the 10 best returning players in the Big 12.

| 2 years ago
(AP Photo/David Goldman)

(AP Photo/David Goldman)

Ranking top 10 returning players in Big 12

A conference left hurting after missing out on selection for the inaugural College Football Playoff, the Big 12 is determined to make amends in 2015, and there is plenty of talent to help make that happen. The bulk of that talent is clustered in just three schools: Baylor, TCU and Oklahoma.

Here are the top 10 returning Big 12 players for 2015:

  1. Andrew Billings, DT, Baylor

Billings is a huge, strong defensive tackle, and with a 86.7 overall grade, our third-highest rated interior defender. Officially listed as a nose tackle, Billings has the strength to be stout against the run, as his 20 run stops attest. But he’s at his best as a pass-rusher, whether shooting gaps into the backfield or driving his blocker there. Don’t be fooled by the modest tally of two sacks in 2014 — Billings led all defensive tackles with 45 total pressures in 2014. He was disruptive all season, but his best game came against West Virginia, where he dominated the interior of the Mountaineers offensive line.

  1. Joey Hunt, C, TCU

TCU has a number of reasons for optimism in 2015, and one of those is the return of senior center Joey Hunt, the key performer on their offensive line. Hunt’s 86.2 pass-protection grade, and 86 run-blocking grade are each top-7 marks for returning centers. Hunt had some struggles early in the year, giving up one sack, one hit and four hurries in back-to-back games against Oklahoma and Baylor, but that Week 7 game against the Bears was the final time that Hunt allowed a single pressure, keeping a clean sheet for the final eight games and earning a berth as a PFF second-team All-American.

  1. Spencer Drango, OT, Baylor

Drango is the third-highest-graded left tackle in college ahead of the 2015 season. An excellent technician at LT who has started there for four years, Drango plays with excellent balance and power, rarely losing out once he has his hands on a defender. He moves well but can be beaten by quick moves when the pass-rusher has space. That was the case when Michigan States Shilique Calhoun beat him for the sack twice during the Cotton Bowl. However, those were the only two sacks Drango conceded all season, helping him to a 98.3 Pass Blocking Efficiency score, fourth in the nation among tackles in 2014.

  1. Eric Striker, OLB, Oklahoma

Striker was among the most dynamic and persistent pass-rushers in the nation in 2014, notching seven sacks and 62 total pressures from 331 rushes. His 91.8 pass-rush grade makes him the third-most dangerous edge rusher returning to college, and the best in the Big 12. He was held without a pressure on just one occasion (against Kansas State), and recorded six or more pressures in six games. Striker’s undersized frame means that he lacks the bulk to be a consistent factor against the run, and raises concerns about his eventual impact and position in the NFL, but his importance as a rush linebacker for the Sooners defense is unquestioned.

  1. Trevone Boykin, QB, TCU

Coming off a terrific 2014 season in which he accounted for 3,901 yards through the air, 707 on the ground and 41 total touchdowns, Boykin needs little introduction. A converted wide receiver, Boykin’s accuracy and decision-making can definitely stand to improve, but an 82.1 passing grade in 2014 shows he is definitely on the right track. As a passer alone he might not make this top 10 list, but Boykin is as dangerous with his feet as he is with his arm, with an 83.2 rushing grade in 2014.

  1. Sterling Shepard, WR, Oklahoma

Based on numbers alone, Shepard wouldn’t be the top wide reeiver on this list. With 970 receiving yards and five touchdowns, Shepard finished behind Baylor WRs Corey Coleman, KD Cannon and TCU’s Josh Doctson in both categories. However, while those WRs were playing in high-functioning offenses, Shepard was dealing with inconsistent quarterback play, and was the only legitimate receiving threat on his team. However, despite those handicaps, Shepard still earned an 84.9 overall grade, fifth-best among returning receivers. He was also hugely productive on a per-snap basis, with 3.94 yards per route run against Power 5 schools, fourth in the nation. He also had just one drop from 52 catchable passes.

  1. Shawn Oakman, DE, Baylor

At 6-foot-8 and 280-pounds, Oakman is an absolute prototype of NFL prospect, and a more complete edge defender than Striker. Oakman lacks explosive burst off the edge, but he has excellent athleticism for his size and puts his length and power to good use. Oakman is equally adept against the run, making 23 stops, as well as earning negative run defense grades in just two games in 2014. That balanced play makes Oakman one of six returning edge defenders to rank in the top 15 as both a pass-rusher and run defender. The next step for Oakman is to become more consistent as a pass-rusher. He recorded 10 sacks in 2014, but was held without a sack or a hit on four occasions, and with just 45 total pressures his production on a per-snap basis has room to improve.

  1. Samaje Perine, RB, Oklahoma

Perine opened the 2014 season as a backup for the Sooners and he finished as a star, including claiming the single-game rushing yard record (427 against the Jayhawks). With his bruising running style he forced 74 missed tackles on runs in 2014, tied for second in the nation. His 101.3 elusive rating against Power 5 schools ranked fourth in the nation, and his average of 3.7 yards after contact tied for fifth. The Sooners offense is changing, and Perine will share the backfield with Alex Ross and Joe Mixon, but even if his workload declines he should be a very productive runner.

  1. Cody Whitehair, OT, Kansas State

Whitehair is a relative unknown to the others on this list, but he belongs based on his 2014 play. A versatile lineman, Whitehair impressed in stints at right tackle and left guard in the past, but last year he was a rock for the Wildcats at left tackle, showing excellent technique and tenacity. His 91.8 pass protection grade was the highest mark among returning LTs, while his 86 run-blocking grade ranked in the top 10. Whitehair conceded just two sacks and seven total pressures all season, keeping a clean sheet six times, and never allowing more than one pressure in a game. Listed at 6-4, Whitehair may have to move inside at the next level, but he excelled as an edge protector for the Wildcats and should continue to do so as a senior.

  1. Corey Coleman, WR, Baylor

Unlike Shepard, Coleman had everything going for him in 2014, with excellent quarterback play and a favorable system, and he took full advantage. His 146.9 WR rating was the best in nation. Coleman proved particularly prolific from the slot, where his superb 3.67 yards per route run against Power 5 schools was second in the nation. Coleman has the speed to blaze by defensive backs even when they give him a cushion, as evidenced by his eight touchdowns on deep passes (those that travel 20-plus yards in the air), tied for second in the nation. The one weakness in Coleman’s game has been drops, as he had seven in 2014.

| Analyst

Kevin has been an analyst at Pro Football Focus since 2014, with a particular focus on college football.

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