The Big 12 is trying to build back its’ reputation of defensive credibility.
The days in the league of high-flying offenses moving the ball all over the field are now in the rearview mirror. With the plethora of star defenders returning to the conference, expect a ton of bone-jarring hits and jaw-dropping plays.
These 20 individuals are bullies, have intimidated ball carriers and dominated in the trenches. They are no nonsense on the gridiron and quick to lay the wood, so opposing offenses better tighten up the chin straps.
20. Krishon Merriweather, LB, Texas Tech: The former JUCO led the Red Raiders with 75 tackles last season, and established himself as one of the best inside linebackers in the Big 12. Merriweather started out on fire, with 12 stops, including seven solo in the win over Houston Baptist. The former three-star prospect left a lasting impression, with 12 tackles, including nine solo in the season-finale victory over Kansas. Merriweather is also a menace at getting to ball carrier in the backfield. The six-foot, 240-pounder is poised for a monster senior year this fall with a full slate of games.
19. Kenny Logan Jr., S, Kansas: The former three-star prospect started eight games for the Jayhawks last season, and led the team with 58 tackles. Logan generated 12 stops, including eight solo against Oklahoma State. The Florida native picked off a pass against Iowa State and Oklahoma. Not to mention Logan is a demon at returning kickoffs and took the ball 100 yards to the house against the Cyclones. With Karon Prunty no longer with Kansas, it’s going to be up to Logan to be the enforcer of the secondary and set the tone against the pass.
18. Jahron McPherson, S, Kansas State: He had no stars behind his name coming out of the JUCO ranks, but molded himself into one of the Wildcats’ best defenders. McPherson led Kansas State in tackles and made plays all over the field last season. The Kansas native combined for 12 solo tackles and two interceptions in wins over Oklahoma and Texas Tech. McPherson also recorded seven solo tackles apiece against West Virginia and Oklahoma State. The six-foot-one, 200-pound McPherson has started 23 games, recorded 109 tackles and four interceptions in three seasons.
17 Akheem Mesidor, DT, West Virginia: He’s one of two star-studded Canadians on the Mountaineers’ defense. The six-foot-two, 272-pounder is very versatile along the interior. Not to mention he led West Virginia in sacks last season and earned second-team All-Big 12. The former three-star prospect put the quarterback to the turf twice in the victory over Kansas. Mesidor also generated a sack in wins over Eastern Kentucky, Baylor and TCU. Mesidor and Dante Stills give West Virginia a two-headed monster at defensive tackle, so expect offensive linemen to get mauled.
16. Kolby Harvell-Peel, S, Oklahoma State: He was impressive over the Cowboys’ final five games last season. Harvell-Peel stockpiled 20 solo tackles during that span. Not to mention the former three-star prospect finished the year with second-team All-Big 12 honors. Harvell-Peel is a true ballhawk with 167 career tackles and seven interceptions. The six-foot, 210-pounder is also very versatile. Harvell-Peel is arguably one of the best playmakers on Oklahoma State’s defense. Now he’s poised for an All-American caliber season this fall and the Cowboys’ secondary should be legit.
15. Jalen Pitre, S, Baylor: The former three-star prospect blossomed into a stud under Dave Aranda’s watch. Pitre led the Bears in stops and tackles for loss last season. The Texas native had a jaw-dropping, 11 solo tackles against West Virginia. Pitre also combined for 15 solo tackles over Baylor’s final three games. He generated a sack against Oklahoma and Oklahoma State. Not to mention Pitre returned two interceptions for touchdowns. Pitre ended the year with first-team All-Big 12 honors. However, this will be his second season in Aranda’s scheme, which will help his numbers.
14. Malcolm Rodriguez, LB, Oklahoma State: The former three-star prospect led the Cowboys with 82 tackles, including seven for loss last season. Rodriguez recorded two double-digit tackling performances in two different games. He also got to the quarterback against Tulsa, Oklahoma and Iowa State. The 5-foot-11, 220-pound Rodriguez earned second-team All-Big 12 in 2020. Rodriguez has been a very productive defender, with 268 tackles, including 19 for loss over the past three years. The Oklahoma native will move into the program’s top-five of all-time leading tacklers by season’s end.
13. Alonzo Addae, S, West Virginia: The Canadian emerged from the shadows, started all 10 games and finished second on the team in tackles last season. Addae picked off a pass in wins over Eastern Kentucky and Kansas. He generated nine tackles apiece against Baylor and Oklahoma State. Not to mention Addae recorded eight stops, including five solo tackles in the blowout victory over Kansas State. He made such an impact in his first season with the Mountaineers, that he earned second-team All-Big 12 honors. Now he’s poised to make even bigger noise for West Virginia this fall.
12. Keondre Coburn, DT, Texas: The six-foot-two, 348-pounder is a huge space-eating, run-stuffing monster, who’s coming off two solid seasons. Coburn racked up 53 tackles, including nine for loss and three sacks during that span. His size requires him to be double-teamed on every play. The Houston native had an 11-tackle performance against TCU and recorded a sack against Iowa State last year. Coburn will anchor the big boys up front again this fall, and with no Ta’Quan Graham or Joseph Ossai this time around, look for the sophomore to have his best season yet.
11. Greg Eisworth, S, Iowa State: He’s one of the most experienced defenders in the Big 12. Eisworth is a three-time, first-team All-Big 12 performer. The former three-star prospect has amazing instincts and a knack for making the big play. Eisworth is the enforcer and tone-setter in the Cyclones’ secondary, with 199 tackles under his belt. In 2020 Eisworth generated six tackles apiece against Louisiana, Oklahoma State and West Virginia, plus he recovered a fumble and picked off a pass against Kansas. The six-foot, 198-pound Eisworth is a leader and vital piece for the Cyclones.
10. Khari Coleman, DE, TCU: He doesn’t have the ideal size of an elite pass rusher, but makes up for it with tenacity and a killer instinct. Coleman displayed a knack for getting in backfields and led the Horned Frogs with 15 tackles for loss. The New Orleans native made the quarterback eat grass against Oklahoma, Baylor and Kansas. Not to mention he generated five solo stops off the edge against the Sooners. It’s a shame that Coleman didn’t earn more accolades for what he accomplished in 2020. However, he’ll be be using it as motivation this fall, which is bad news for ball carriers.
9. Tre Sterling, S, Oklahoma State: He has the skills and talent to blanket half of a field. Sterling can do it all, from stopping the run, to breaking up passes and he’s very productive. The Texas native had eight solo tackles apiece in wins over Iowa State and Miami. Sterling also picked off a pass in victories over Kansas State and Texas Tech. The 5-foot-11, 205-pound Sterling is a very underrated defender, with 144 tackles, including 20 for loss and three interceptions over the past two seasons. Sterling is an enforcer, who’s always around the ball, waiting to deliver for his team in the clutch.
8. Tre’Vius Hodges-Tomlinson, CB, TCU: His name ring bells because he’s the nephew of the best player to have ever put on a Horned Frogs jersey. However, Hodges-Tomlinson proved he was the real deal in TCU’s secondary. He started all 12 games last season and broke up a jaw-dropping, 13 passes, which ranked first in the Big 12 and second in the FBS. With skills to blanket an entire side of the field, the Texas native dares signal-callers to throw the ball his direction. Hodges-Tomlinson also earned first-team All-Big 12 and second-team All-America for his heroics last season.
7. Will McDonald, DE, Iowa State: The former three-star prospect led the FBS with 10.5 sacks and earned first-team All-Big 12 last season. Not to mention the edge rusher stockpiled 13.5 tackles for loss in 12 games. McDonald generated two sacks apiece against Louisiana and West Virginia. He also made the quarterback eat grass against TCU, Texas Tech, Kansas, Kansas State, Oklahoma and Oregon. With no Jaquan Bailey playing alongside him this time around, who was also the program’s all-time sack leader, look for McDonald to boost his productivity and numbers off the edge.
6. Terrel Bernard, LB, Baylor: The Texas native is a two-time All-Big 12 performer. Although Bernard suffered a shoulder injury last year, that forced him to miss the Bears’ final four games, he still made his presence felt in the league. Bernard stockpiled 13 tackles against West Virginia and 19 against Texas. He’s the enforcer of the Bears’ front seven and always seem to be in the right place at the right time. The former three-star prospect has 214 career tackles, including 19 for loss and nine sacks. Now that he’s back fully healthy, look for Bernard to set the tone every game.
5. Isaiah Thomas, DT, Oklahoma: The Tulsa native had a breakout season last year and held his own in the trenches. Thomas led the Sooners in sacks, tackles for loss and earned second-team All-Big 12. The former four-star prospect caught fire late, and dominated through a four-game stretch that included Texas Tech, Kansas, Oklahoma State and Baylor. Thomas combined for six tackles for loss and 6.5 sacks during that span. The six-foot-five, 266-pound Thomas is very versatile for his size, plus he’s a natural at wreaking havoc off the edge and along the interior on ball carriers.
4. Dante Stills, DT, West Virginia: The West Virginia native won’t be playing alongside his brother this fall, which should give him more opportunities to pad his stats. Stills surprisingly has only started three games in his career, but has a boatload of experience. Over the past three seasons he has stockpiled 75 total tackles, including 28.5 for loss and 12 sacks. Stills is a beast, who commands a double-team on every play, and most of the time that’s not enough to contain him. There’s a reason he was selected to the AP’s preseason All-America team this week.
3. Nikolas Bonitto, LB, Oklahoma: He’s one of the league’s best playmakers behind the line of scrimmage and always brings the pain to quarterbacks. Last season Bonitto generated three sacks against Kansas, two in the win over Texas and one apiece against Oklahoma State and Iowa State. The Florida native is arguably the best outside linebacker in the Big 12, and the way he dominates in the trenches remind fans of former Sooner Erik Striker. With 75 stops, 17 tackles for loss and 11.5 sacks over the past two years, it’s no surprise Bonitto earned second-team All-America honors.
2. Ochaun Mathis, DE, TCU: He’s a defender along the edge that makes quarterbacks tremble in their shoes. The six-foot-five, 247-pound Mathis was named the Big 12’s Defensive co-Freshman of the Year, after he led the league in sacks per game last season. Mathis had three sacks against Texas Tech, plus two apiece against Kansas and Louisiana Tech. The Texas native also put the quarterback to the turf against Kansas State and West Virginia. Over the past two seasons Mathis has 86 tackles, including 23 for loss and 11.5 sacks. He earned second-team All-Big 12 honors in 2020.
1. Mike Rose, LB, Iowa State: In three seasons with the Cyclones he has stockpiled 251 tackles, including 29 for loss and picked off six passes. Rose has a stellar background in basketball, and he uses that athleticism to make clutch plays all over the field. The former three-star prospect excels against the run and in pass coverage. Rose is very productive and recorded double-digit tackling performances in five conference games in 2020. The Ohio native earned first-team All-Big 12, second-team AP All-America and was named the league’s Defensive Player of the Year.
Perrion Winfrey, DT, Oklahoma: The former JUCO made an immediate impact on the Sooners’ defensive line last season. Winfrey tallied 19 tackles, including six for loss and earned second-team All-Big 12.
Isheem Young, S, Iowa State: The Philadelphia native recorded 50 tackles for the Cyclones last season. Young also picked off a pass in the win over Oklahoma.
Israel Atwine, DT, Oklahoma State: The six-foot-three, 305-pounder has been a consistent force in the middle for the Cowboys, with 60 total tackles over the past three seasons.
Delarrin Turner-Yell, S, Oklahoma: He finished second on the team with 52 stops last season. Turner-Yell has stockpiled 127 total tackles over the past two years, and he’s due for a monster campaign this fall.
C.J. Caesar II, CB, TCU: The Louisiana native emerged from the shadows over the Horned Frogs’ final three games, and led the team with three interceptions, including two in the bowl victory.