In conjunction with Big 12 Media Days, the conference has released its media preseason honors, naming Texas’s Malik Jefferson as the Defensive Player of the Year.
It’s a safe bet on a recognizable player from a brand-name team that should be vastly better this season. Yet, that same sentence could also apply to other players at Oklahoma or TCU. What Jefferson has going for him is his position. Being a linebacker has created his high profile.
As the center of the defense, linebackers are expected to accumulate big stats. That pattern has become apparent in recent years based on the conference’s DPOY selections, primarily focusing on players that can rack up tackles and sacks with ease.
This isn’t to say all the selections are wrong, but they certainly have been skewed in favor of players whose highlight reels consist of big hits and quarterback body slams. In turn, defensive backs have taken a back seat. Only three cornerbacks in the past decade — Jason Verret (2013), Prince Amukamara (2010), and Aaron Ross (2006) — have taken home the Big 12 DPOY. Two were shared titles.
The Big 12 isn’t the only conference to favor the big bodies up front. The rest of the Power Five have crowned a combined four defensive backs as their top defenders over the past decade. (Charles Woodson was the last one to win the award in the Big Ten.) Based on that, players roaming the secondary seem to have it good in the Big 12, but considering the pass-heavy nature of the league, it’s surprising that only one cornerback has taken the crown outright since 2006.
It will take a certain type of player to break the barrier.
At the top of the list has to be TCU safety Denzel Johnson, who was (somehow) only an All-Big 12 honorable mention. As a junior for a depleted TCU roster, Johnson was a consistent contributor who logged five or more tackles in eight of 13 games last season for a total of 79 stops. Kansas safety Anthony Smithson put that number to rest with 111 tackles, but Johnson also ranked seventh in the league with 14 tackles for loss (two sacks), the only defensive back to rank among the top 20. He also logged eight passes defended and an interception.
Last season was his first as a full-time starter, showing remarkable growth that should serve him well in 2016.
Oklahoma’s safety duo — Ahmad Thomas and Steven Parker — has also excelled beyond the specific task of working over the top in coverage. Parker has been used in blitz packages the most, having four tackles for loss last season. The problem that emerges with these two players is how difficult it is to identify the production that feeds off each other; this is a central reason why defensive backs haven’t been well-repped in recent years.
Alternatively, one would figure that a slew of interceptions would do the trick in a DPOY race. Yet, when one realizes that seven interceptions didn’t do anything for Zack Sanchez last season as the conference’s best corner, the road to recognition doesn’t get any easier. This is especially true when cornerbacks keep getting burned by the league’s top-flight receivers.
It will take a monumental season from one of these players to break the code that gives linebackers an inside track to more hardware in the Big 12.