Pick Six: Pivotal players who could help decide Big 12 title
FILE - In this Nov. 28, 2015, file photo, West Virginia running back Rushel Shell carries during an NCAA college football game in Morgantown, W.Va. Shell is a bruiser at 220 pounds and a former four-star recruit. Hes been a good player for the Mountaineers, sharing carries the last two seasons but never emerging as the best of a bunch. With Wendell Smallwood (and his 1,519 yards rushing) gone, Shell is the go-to-guy. The senior will be running behind one of the best lines in the league, too. (AP Photo/Raymond Thompson, File)
As Charlie Strong has learned in two years as Texas coach, the Big 12 is not a conference for a team trying to find an offensive identity. In a league filled with fast-paced spread attacks, it is difficult to hide deficiencies at quarterback.
So before diving into identifying six pivotal players in the Big 12 this season, it should be noted: It is a given that whomever plays quarterback (sophomore Jerrod Heard or freshman Shane Buechele) for the Longhorns could end up as the most important player in the conference.
As usual, the Big 12 has some star quarterbacks. None bigger than Oklahoma's Baker Mayfield. Though Oklahoma State's Mason Rudolph and Texas Tech's Patrick Mahomes will likely put up numbers to rival the Sooners' Heisman Trophy contender.
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Looking past the stars, here six players whose performances will be pivotal for their Big 12 teams in 2016.
Denzel Johnson, S, TCU
Johnson is one of those of those hybrid-type defensive players that every good defense needs when facing spread offenses. Looks like a safety (6-foot-2, 205 pounds), often plays like a linebacker up near the line of scrimmage (two sacks, eight passes broken up, 11 1/2 tackles for loss). While the Horned Frogs' retool their offense this season, a defense that ranked second in the Big 12 in yards per play allowed (5.16) can help pick up any necessary slack, with Johnson as a prominent playmaker.
Seth Russell, QB, Baylor
Russell is coming off neck surgery that ended his 2015 season just as he was starting to get rolling (2,104 yards and 29 touchdown passes). He's been cleared to play, but the senior hasn't taken a hit since last season. Making Russell's recovery even more vital is the fact that Jarrett Stidham, last season's promising freshman backup, has decided to transfer. The Bears are a hard team to predict after a tumultuous offseason, but this much is certain: Russell must be as good as new for Baylor to have any shot to finish near the top of the Big 12.
Ian Sadler, WR, Texas Tech
Jakeem Grant, maybe the fastest player in college football last year, is gone and the Red Raiders need to replace 1,268 yards and 10 touchdowns from their inside receivers. No one is saying Sadler (42 catches for 596 yards and three touchdowns) needs to double his production and make up for what Grant did alone. But Mahomes will need reliable slot guys who can turn a short gain into a big one occasionally and either Sadler or Cameron Batson will be asked to fill that role.
Rushel Shell, RB, West Virginia
Shell is a bruiser at 220 pounds and a former four-star recruit. He's been a good player for the Mountaineers, sharing carries the last two seasons but never emerging as the best of a bunch. With Wendell Smallwood (and his 1,519 yards rushing) gone, Shell is the go-to-guy. The senior will be running behind one of the best lines in the league, too.
Charles Walker, DE, Oklahoma
The Sooners were second in the Big 12 in sacks last season with 39, but Erik Striker and Charles Tapper (combined 14.5 sacks) need to be replaced. That means a bigger role for Walker (six sacks in 2015). The Sooners will need the junior to turn into a terror. At 6-foot-2, 305 pounds, he has the potential to be the best defensive lineman in the conference.
Michael Wilson, OG, Oklahoma State
The Cowboys running game was awful last season (3.58 yards per rush, ninth in the conference) and a line filled with new starters was a big part of the problem. The good news is all those guys are back with a year of experience. Or is that the bad news? Singling out Wilson is not entirely fair. The whole group needs to play better, and maybe the senior can lead the way.
Follow Ralph D. Russo at www.Twitter.com/ralphDrussoAP