Offensive production. Explosive passing games. High-scoring affairs. These are all phrases that come to mind when talking about the Big XII. It’s true. The league is historically known for being carried by high-powered offenses. However, there have been some quality playmakers produced on the defensive side of the ball, especially in the secondary. Teams have begun to target higher and higher profile recruits in order to contend with the potent passing attacks. As such, it’s always a chore to attempt to rank Big XII returning production in the defensive backfield every year. Here are the Big XII’s best returning defensive backs in 2023.
Big 12’s Top Returning Safeties:
Devin Lemear (Baylor) – 55 tackles, four PD, two INT, two FF, FR
Jerrin Thompson (Texas) – 83 tackles, seven PD, INT
Kobe Savage – Kansas State
KSU is coming off a huge 10-win season where they found themselves as Big XII champs. The Wildcats fielded one of the league’s best defenses last season, and Savage was a key contributor. The former JUCO star logged 58 tackles, good enough for fourth on the team. He also snatched three interceptions, second-most on the team behind defensive leader and second-round NFL draft pick Julius Brents. Savage also logged a forced fumble and three tackles for loss, rounding out his playmaking abilities. For his efforts, Savage was named Second Team All-Big XII. Heading into his senior season, he’ll need to step up in Brents’ departure, serving as the vocal leader.
Aubrey Burks – West Virginia
Burks was one of the lone bright spots on a Mountaineer defense that struggled throughout 2022. He finished second with 66 tackles, 4.5 of those coming for loss. He added an interception, a forced fumble, and two passes defended. Burks posted the second-highest grade (84.9) among returning Power Five safeties in 2022 according to Pro Football Focus. In fact, they have him slotted as the seventh-best returning safety in the country for this season. As a true hybrid safety, he’ll need to continue balanced production and lead the WVU defense in hopes of revitalizing the slumping program.
Kenny Logan, Jr. – Kansas
One thing is clear: Logan is the top tackler on this list. He’s logged over 100 total tackles each of the past two years. The fifth-year senior plays much bigger than his 6-0, 195-pound frame. His game mirrors that of an old-school safety or nickel-linebacker hybrid role. Adding two interceptions, five passes defended, and both a forced and recovered fumble in 2022 means this dude just makes plays. He did undergo offseason shoulder surgery, but fully healthy, Logan should return as the Big XII’s best-returning tackler in the defensive backfield.
Bud Clark – TCU
None of the breakout performers on TCU’s Cinderella 2022 squad had more interceptions than Bud Clark. In his first full year as a starter, Clark showed off his impressive ball-hawking skills with five interceptions, one of those going for a touchdown. That was the most by a TCU defender since Ar’Darius Washington had five in 2019. With 83 interception return yards, he ranked third in the conference. Clark also logged 45 tackles, five passes defended, and a fumble recovery. He’s the Big XII’s top returning pass coverage safety. Clark has also shown adequate run support ability and a willingness to improve. He’ll need to step up as a leader on the Horned Frogs’ defense with the departure of Tre’Vius Hodges-Tomlinson.
Kendal Daniels – Oklahoma State
Daniels’ position on this list may surprise some. However, it has everything to do with his age and potential. The former top 50 overall prospect and top recruit out of the state of Oklahoma has an elite ceiling. With 71 tackles (fourth most on OSU), six-and-a-half tackles for loss, three interceptions, five passes defended and a forced fumble, Daniels personified the “rover” position for the Cowboys. He was named to the All-Big XII Second Team, as well as voted the conference’s Defensive Freshman of the Year. Standing at a lanky 6-4, Daniels is one of the tallest safeties in the country, and utilizes every bit of that long frame, as well. The scary part is he could be even better in his second full year as a starter.
Top Returning Cornerbacks:
Billy Bowman (Oklahoma) – 60 tackles, three INT, five PD, FF, FR
Ryan Watts (Texas) – 51 tackles, four TFL, sack, INT, three PD
5. Jahdae Barron – Texas
Barron just might be one of the more underrated defensive players in the conference coming into the season. He flew under the radar and posted a solid stat line. 74 tackles were good enough for fourth-best on the Longhorns roster. He also posted two interceptions, three passes defended, a sack, a fumble recovery, and added two touchdowns. He’s the only player on this list with a touchdown from an interception and a fumble recovery. The most impressive statistic? 11.5 tackles for loss by far the most on this list and good for eighth overall in the Big XII. Look for Barron to continue making big plays for a highly-regarded Texas team this season.
Malik Dunlap – Texas Tech
Another big-bodied defensive back (6-3, 215 lbs), Dunlap really impressed in pass coverage in 2022. He’s the definition of a lockdown corner. While his statistics don’t seem too elite on the surface, he quietly collected 33 tackles. More importantly, he collected a career-best 12 passes defended (second in Big XII). For his efforts, he was named Second Team All-Big XII. Dunlap is one of the top returning pass defenders in the Big XII. Instead of filling up the stat sheet, breaking up passes has been the focal point of Dunlap’s career. He has the frame to properly contest 50/50 balls. His size also allows him to adequately match up with tight ends in the passing game. Dunlap has shined after being switched from safety to CB early in his career. However, he could potentially play both in his final season in Lubbock.
3. T.J. Tampa – Iowa State
Slightly more balanced than Dunlap, Tampa made his presence felt in 2022. Nine passes defended slotted him at fourth in the Big XII, and five tackles for loss placed him among the league’s best for a defensive back. His ability to diagnose both the run and the pass will be crucial for Iowa State moving forward. Tampa was also named Second Team All-Big XII for his efforts. The Cyclones finished the year as the best-scoring defense in the conference. Tampa and company will look to repeat that success.
2. Cobee Bryant – Kansas
Along with Logan, Bryant has helped revitalize this KU program on the defensive side of the ball. He had a stellar 2022 campaign, picking up 38 tackles, three interceptions, and nine passes defended, (fourth in Big XII). He also added some versatility with a forced fumble, fumble recovery, and a touchdown. Bryant really shined in picking up extra yardage for the Jayhawks’ offense. He logged 86 interceptions return yards (second in Big XII) and 37 fumble return yards (most among Big XII defensive backs). That puts him as the best returning defensive backs in the Big 12 in terms of defensive yardage. Bryant’s ability to prowl the field like a balanced safety was impressive to watch. He’ll serve as the leader of the Kansas defense, as the Jayhawks look to continue their upward trajectory.
Josh Newton – TCU
It goes without saying that having a higher grade than one of the most decorated defensive players in school history is an impressive feat. That’s exactly what Josh Newton was able to accomplish. Tre’Vius Hodges-Tomlinson, a sixth-round selection in the NFL Draft, won the 2022 Jim Thorpe Award. He was also a First Team All-American, and was named First Team All-Big 12 three years straight (2020-2022). Newton was still able to grade higher in PFF’s metrics (81.9), leading all Horned Frogs’ defensive backs. He was also fourth among Power Five corners with a 35.3% completion rate allowed. Newton finished 2022 with three interceptions, one of which was a 57-yard pick-six against Iowa State, and 12 passes defended, tied for 16th best in the country and second in the Big XII. PFF grades Newton as the top returning defensive backs in the Big XII, as well as the sixth-best returning CB for the upcoming season. PFF’s wins above average metric also grade him as the nation’s third most valuable returning corner. Newton and Bryant are the two remaining defensive backs left from the 2022 All-Big XII First Team. Along with teammate Bud Clark, he’ll serve as a leader in the secondary. The dangerous duo looks to build upon TCU’s surprising run to the playoff title game.
Photo courtesy: NATHAN J. FISH/THE OKLAHOMAN / USA TODAY NETWORK