College Football: Best player on every Big 12 team heading into the 2023 season

2MAMKXH Kansas State offensive lineman Cooper Beebe (50) runs onto the field with teammates before an NCAA college football game against South Dakota Saturday, Sept. 3, 2022, in Manhattan, Kan. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

Estimated reading time: 7 minutes

The Big 12 is set to look very different in the near future.

The two premier programs in the conference, Texas and Oklahoma, are leaving for the SEC following this season. To help mitigate those losses, the Big 12 added four new members: BYU, Cincinnati, Houston and UCF. 

Here’s the best player on every Big 12 team heading into the 2023 season.

Baylor Bears: RB Richard Reese

Despite having just three FBS offers coming out of high school, Reese accounted for the second-most rushing first downs/touchdowns among FBS true freshmen last season (64). His 85.1 grade in 2022 tied for sixth in that same group. Reese was named to PFF’s preseason All-Big 12 first team.

BYU Cougars: OT Kingsley Suamataia

Suamataia was a five-star recruit in the 2021 class and transferred to BYU from Oregon after his true freshman season. In his first year with the Cougars, he earned an 80.9 pass-blocking grade at right tackle and didn’t allow a sack on 337 pass-blocking snaps. Suamataia now moves over to the left side and is a projected first-round pick in the 2024 NFL Draft.

Cincinnati Bearcats: DI Dontay Corleone

“The Godfather” was a dominant force in the middle of Cincinnati’s defensive line last season. Corleone was the highest-graded defender in the nation, earning a 93.8 grade. The redshirt freshman’s 94.7 run-defense grade was also the best mark by a defensive player since Micah Parsons in 2019. Despite ranking just 256th among interior defensive linemen in run-defense snaps (172), he had the sixth-most run-stops (27). 

Highest single-season run-defense grades in PFF College era (Since 2014 among DI, EDGE and LB)
Name School Position Season Run-Defense Grade
Quinnen Williams Alabama DI 2018 96.5
MauriceHurst Michigan DI 2017 95.0
Reuben Foster Alabama LB 2016 94.9
Micah Parsons Penn State LB 2019 94.8
Dontay Corleone Cincinnati DI 2022 94.7
Vita Vea Washington DI 2017 94.7

While best known for engulfing running backs, Corleone still posted the eighth-best pass-rush win rate among FBS interior defensive linemen as well (15.6%). He’s my No. 2 defensive tackle in college football heading into this season.

Houston Cougars: EDGE Nelson Ceaser

Houston’s defensive line rotation was fantastic last year, as the Cougars had four edge defenders that earned 80-plus grades on at least 200 snaps. Ceasar is the only returner to that group, earning an 82.7 mark in 2022. His 47 pressures last year were a top-15 mark among Group of Five edge defenders last season. Ceaser was named preseason first-team All-Big 12 by PFF. 

Iowa State Cyclones: CB T.J. Tampa

Tampa was an all-around star in Iowa State’s secondary last season. He was one of only five Power Five cornerbacks in 2022 that earned 80-plus grades both in coverage and as a run-defender. Tampa’s five tackles for loss/no-gain were tied for the most among Power Five corners, while his 27.9% open target rate allowed was second among Big 12 ones. He was on PFF’s preseason All-Big 12 first-team.

Kansas Jayhawks: QB Jalon Daniels

Kansas was able to play in its first bowl game since 2008 last season, thanks in large part to the leadership it had under center. Daniels’ 80.4 passing grade in 2022 wasn’t just second in the Big 12, it was also the best mark by a Jayhawk quarterback since PFF began charting college football in 2014. His 6.4% big-time throw rate was eighth among Power Five signal-callers last year. Not to mention, he also has the best bling in the country.

Kansas State Wildcats: OG Cooper Beebe

No matter where Beebe lines up, he produces elite play. He spent the 2020 and 2021 seasons at offensive tackle before kicking inside to left guard this past year. Beebe’s 94.0 pass-blocking grade since 2021 leads all offensive linemen in college football, as he hasn’t allowed a sack over the course of his 700 pass-blocking snaps since then. He’s easily the top returning interior offensive lineman in the nation.

Oklahoma Sooners: QB Dillon Gabriel

While it didn’t show up in the win-loss column, Gabriel’s first season in Norman was still a success. The UCF transfer took incredible care of the football, his 1.1% turnover-worthy play rate was second among FBS quarterbacks last year. He also led the Big 12 with 22 big-time throws. For my money, he’s the best quarterback in the conference.

Oklahoma State Cowboys: EDGE Collin Oliver

When I interviewed Notre Dame left tackle Joe Alt, the best offensive lineman in college football, I asked him to name the defensive linemen that gave him the most headaches. He gave me two answers. One was Myles Murphy, who was taken in the first round of the 2023 NFL Draft by the Cincinnati Bengals. The other was Collin Oliver.

For good reason too, as Oliver’s 16.7% pressure rate since 2021 leads all Big 12 edge defenders. His 15.9% pass-rush win rate in that span trailed only Tyree Wilson, who went seventh overall to the Las Vegas Raiders in the 2023 draft. Even more impressively, those were Oliver’s first two seasons of college football. 

TCU Horned Frogs: CB Josh Newton

Tre’Vius Hodges-Tomlinson won the Jim Thorpe Award last year, given to the best defensive back in college football. However, one can make a strong argument that he wasn’t even the best cornerback on his own team. 

Newton was fourth among Power Five corners in 2022 with a 35.3% completion rate allowed and is also the third-most valuable returning Power Five corner, per PFF’s wins above average metric. He’s a top-10 cornerback in college football.

Texas Longhorns: TE Ja’Tavion Sanders

Texas’ receiving corps is among the best in the country, so it’s only right that this decision comes down to a couple of pass-catchers in tight end Ja’Tavion Sanders and wide receiver Xavier Worthy. Since Worthy is coming off a down year while Sanders is riding a breakout one, I gave the nod to the tight end. 

Outside of Brock Bowers, Sanders is the best receiving threat at the tight end position. Only Bowers had more receiving yards than Sanders (613) among returning Power Five tight ends last season. The sophomore also caught 32 combined first downs and touchdowns in 2022, trailing only Dalton Kincaid, Michael Mayer and Bowers among all tight ends in the country. 

Texas Tech Red Raiders: DI Jaylon Hutchings

Good luck trying to run through the A-gap against Texas Tech.

At nose tackle, Hutchings stuffs whichever running back that dares to run at him. The senior’s 82 run-defense stops over the last four seasons are more than any other interior defensive linemen in the country. He’s more than just a dominant run-defender, too. Hutchings’ 78 pressures in that span are tied for 11th in that same group.

UCF Knights: QB John Rhys Plumlee

In 2022, Plumlee was one of the most dangerous quarterbacks in the country on the ground. The Ole Miss transfer’s 982 rushing yards were the second-most among FBS signal-callers, trailing only Jayden Daniels. As a passer, he was top-20 among Group of Five quarterbacks with 19 big-time throws.

West Virginia Mountaineers: C Zach Frazier

Frazier is the leader of a West Virginia offensive line that features three players on PFF’s preseason All-Big 12 first team. 

Among returning Power Five centers over the last two seasons, none have a higher grade than Frazier’s 82.0 mark. The junior is also the most valuable Power Five center in that span according to PFF’s wins above average metric. His 80.9 run-blocking grade ranked sixth among all centers in the country in 2022.

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