The Watch List: 2018 Big 12 Preview

Updated: July 21st 2018

Welcome to The Watch List, a resource to help RSO owners identify the players, storylines and matchups from the college game that deserve your attention.  Check back throughout the Summer for previews on each conference and my preseason predictions.  During the regular season, The Watch List will continue to update you on who is fantasy relevant and worth your draft capital next year. 

Storylines to Watch

  • Heisman Favorite:  Will Grier, QB, West Virginia.  It feels like cheating when I take the best passer in the conference as my Heisman favorite.  Alas, that’s the way it goes these days.  Grier threw for 3,490 yards in 2017 but he’ll need to approach 4,000 if he’s to be a true Heisman contender.
  • Darkhorse Heisman Candidate:  Kyler Murray, QB, Oklahoma.  Murray has name cachet already because of his impending baseball career.  He was selected 9th overall by the Oakland A’s but still plans to play football in 2018.  If Murray is playing well, which I anticipate, he will get a lot of buzz because he has a story media outlets can sell.
  • Offensive Player of the Year:  David Montgomery, RB, Iowa State.  No offensive player will mean more to his team this season in the Big 12 than Montgomery will to the Cyclones.  He is not a breakaway runner but he has amazing balance and tackle breaking ability.  He’ll have a number of “how did he do that” highlights again this season.
  • Defensive Player of the Year:  Joe Dineen, LB, Kansas.  Dineen was a Second-Team All-American last season after a 133 tackle season.  He led the Big 12 in tackles and tackles for loss in 2017 (and was top five in the nation in both stats).  He also added 2.5 sacks.  He may not draw the NFL Draft hype that Texas Tech LB Dakota Allen will but Dineen will again prove to be a bright spot on a poor Kansas team.
  • Newcomer of the Year:  Keaontay Ingram, RB, Texas.  Ingram was ranked the #6 running back in the class by 247Sports and #10 by Phil Steele.  Ingram is listed at 6010/190 which is good size for an incoming freshman.  He hails from Texas and received an offer from just about every school in the Big 12 and Big Ten so it was a good get for the rebounding Longhorns.  Per 247Sports, Ingram had 39 total TDs and over 2,500 total yards last season.  Texas’ leading rusher last season, with 385 yards, was QB Sam Ehlinger so the depth chart is wide open for Ingram to earn a role.
  • Underclassman to Watch:  Ceedee Lamb, WR, Oklahoma.  Lamb was the Sooners third leading receiver last year (46-807-7) as a true freshman.  While the numbers weren’t stellar, Lamb stood out to me a few times when I watched OU play, specifically against Texas Tech.  He took over that Tech game, earning 147 yards and 2 TDs on 9 receptions.  He was a bit inconsistent in 2017 but I would expect that to even out as he gains more experience.  He’ll need to adjust to a new quarterback again this season but I’m expecting a 60-1,000-8 season from Lamb which would put him in the NFL Draft conversation for 2020.
  • Best QB-WR Tandem:  Will Grier and David Sills, West Virginia.  I wanted to avoid listing West Virginia or Oklahoma here to add a little variety to the preview but there just aren’t enough good quarterbacks right now in the Big 12.  Grier and Sills are the name brand tandem to watch.  Grier also has WR Gary Jennings to target.  Last year Jennings led the team in yards and receptions but isn’t the scoring threat that Sills is while playing over the middle from the slot.  A sleeper QB-WR tandem to keep an eye on is Iowa State’s sixth year senior QB Kyle Kempt and WR Hakeem Butler.  Kempt battled injuries but was efficient when he played (145.9 rating, 15 TD to just 3 INT); Butler has great size at 6060 and averaged 17.0 yards per catch.
  • Best RB Corps:  Oklahoma.  The Sooners have one of the best backs in the conference in junior Rodney Anderson (more on him below) but it’s more about the supporting cast.  Lincoln Riley’s backfield also boasts sophomore Trey Sermon who had a great true freshman season (744-5 rushing and 16-139-2 receiving) and is a devy league darling.  New to the mix this season will be redshirt sophomore Kennedy Brooks and freshman TJ Pledger.  Both Brooks and Pledger were 4-star recruits according to 247Sports.  OU’s third-stringer was good for over 500 yards last year so I expect both to contribute.  Defenses will also need to be wary of QB Kyler Murray who has wheels; he rushed for 142 yards on just 10 carries last season in limited duty.
  • Coach on the Hottest Seat:  David Beaty, Kansas.  It should be no surprise to find Beaty in this ignominious position after a 1-11 season in 2017.  In his three seasons with the Jayhawks, Beaty has just 3 wins (and 33 losses).  Kansas won’t be good this season but they will be improved.  I’m thinking that four wins saves Beaty his job and that might not be a stretch given the experience this squad has.

Teams to Watch

 Kansas Jayhawks (1-11 in 2017)

As I mentioned above, Kansas is very experienced.  So much so that Phil Steele ranks them as #1 in his NCAA Experience Chart for 2018.  The Experience Chart is a favorite tool of mine to aid in finding under-the-radar teams for the upcoming season.  While the Jayhawks may not posses much talent, their consistency and maturity will help.  The team returns 19 starters but even more importantly is the depth that they return: they have the second most letter winners returning in the nation.  The two returning quarterbacks, Carter Stanley and Peyton Bender, split time last year due to ineffectiveness and injury.  Leading rusher Khalil Herbert (663-4) is back, as is WR Steven Sims (59-839-6) who also doubles as a return man.  The aforementioned LB Joe Dineen leads the defense.  Kansas should start with two wins against Nicholls and Central Michigan.  It’s feasible they split the next two games, home against Rutgers and at Baylor.  That could be the extent of their wins for the season but because of their experience I would not count out the possibility of getting to four and saving David Beaty’s job.

 Oklahoma State (10-3 in 2017)

I’ll be watching Oklahoma State closely this season, but not because I expect them to improve upon last season.  Instead, I’m half-expecting Mike Gundy’s team to implode in 2018.  The Cowboys lose QB Mason Rudolph, WRs James Washington and Marcell Atemen and three of their four top tacklers.  In contrast to Kansas, OK State is one of the least experienced teams in the nation (ranked #119).  They do return RBs Justice Hill and JD King but the offense may struggle for the first time in years.  Senior QB Taylor Cornelius is the presumed starter but graduate transfer Dru Brown could beat him out.  Whoever is under center will be hoping that WRs Jalen McCleskey and Dillon Stoner can pick up the slack after the departures of Washington and Ateman.  If you’re a bettor, Oklahoma State will be an interesting team to handicap.  The schedule starts favorable with four straight home games (Missouri State, South Alabama, Boise State, Texas Tech) and then features two winnable road games before their bye week (Kansas and Kansas State).  I would pick them to win most of those games, but chances are you can safely take the points against Boise State, Texas Tech and Kansas State.  It’s possible that the Cowboys are 6-1 and riding high heading into their October 27th matchup against Texas, but I think it will be fool’s gold so don’t let them sucker you into a late season bet.

Players to Watch

Honorable Mentions

  • Justice Hill, RB, Oklahoma State:  Hill has put together two very encouraging seasons in his first two years as a Cowboy. He averages 5.5 yards per carry and topped 200+ carries and 1,000+ yards in each season. In 2017 he increased his scoring production with 15 rushing TDs. He also got heavily involved in the passing game with 31 receptions and 190 receiving yards. He’s a bit undersized at 185lb but I would expect him to bulk up a bit after another offseason of training. Hill’s production was mostly overshadowed by the high powered passing offense led by former QB Mason Rudolph and WR James Washington. With that passing battery moving onto the NFL, Hill will see a larger share of the offense.
  • David Sills, WR, West Virginia: David Sills, listed at 6030/201, is a quarterback-turned-receiver who led the nation in touchdown receptions in 2017. Sills only caught 60 balls for 980 yards, both just third best on the team. Sills has had an interesting path to being one of the conference’s top receiver prospects. You may recall that years ago then USC head coach Lane Kiffin offered a scholarship to a middle schooler. That player was Sills. He ultimately went to WVU instead where he was unable to earn playing time as a quarterback. He left the school to go the JUCO route before returning to the ‘Neers for a second stint, this time at WR. You could spin this as either a positive (he’s determined) or a negative (he must not be that good if it took so long to find the field as a receiver) so I’ll reserve judgment for now. Sills has one of the leading quarterback prospects tossing him the ball so I anticipate another big season, although that touchdown rate will be impossible to keep up.
  • Collin Johnson, WR, Texas:  If you’re looking for a high upside X receiver at the next level, look no further than Collin Johnson. He is massive at 6060/220 and would have been one of the biggest receivers in the 2017 class. The Longhorn offense struggled at times in 2017 while they switched between Shane Buechele and Sam Ehlinger. Neither signal caller was particularly great last year but Ehlinger offers some dynamism as a rusher so he’ll likely be the starter (he led the team with 381 rushing yards). At least whoever starts will boast some experience which should help Johnson improve on his 54-765-2 campaign. I want to see Johnson prove himself to be a red zone threat with that size so let’s hope the offense overall is improved. As the cliche goes, you can’t teach size.
  • Denzel Mims, WR, Baylor:  Mims had a few huge games last year for an atrocious Baylor team. Against Oklahoma, he went for 11-192-3. Meanwhile, against Texas Tech he had 12 grabs for 152 yards and a score. Unfortunately, both of those outings, plus two other 100+ yard games, weren’t enough to push the Bears past their opposition. Part of me worries that too much of his production may have come in garbage time (full disclosure: I haven’t studied the play-by-play to see when the bulk of his yards came, it’s just a thought I had while researching). His 6030/200 frame comes with 4.50 speed so if he can prove his value to the team we’ll be talking about him as an NFL Draft hopeful.
  • Dalton Risner, OT, Kansas State:  Risner measures in at 6050 and 300lbs and was a potential NFL Draft prospect in 2018 before deciding to return to to school.  He had offseason shoulder surgery, surely one of the reasons he decided to return.  Risner is a two-time First-Team All-Big 12 performer who has starting experience at both C and RT.  That versatility will help increase his stock for the 2019 draft.
  • Dakota Allen, LB, Texas Tech:  Allen is a leading IDP prospect but that’s probably not why you might recognize his name.  In 2016, Allen transferred to East Mississippi Community College after being dismissed from Tech for burglary.  EMCC is better known as “Last Chance U” and is the topic of a popular Netflix documentary series.  Allen featured in the show’s second season.  Tech’s coaches thought enough of the young man to give him another chance so here we are.  Allen had 101 tackles in 2017 to go along with 2 sacks and 2 INTs.  It’ll be interesting to hear what his narrative is, whether a story of redemption or of character concerns.

Will Grier, QB, West Virginia

For much of 2017, Will Grier was overshadowed by Baker Mayfield and Mason Rudolph in the Big 12 but that all changes this year when Grier figures to be the conference’s best.  I briefly discussed Grier’s backstory last season so I won’t rehash it here and will instead focus on the stats and the tape.  Grier completes nearly 65% of his passes and has a 3:1 TD:INT ratio for his career.  Last season with West Virginia, Grier finished in the top ten in the NCAA in passer rating (162.7), yards per attempt (9.0) and touchdowns (34).  Those positive stats are backed up by some positive traits that I noticed while watching tape.
When you watch Grier, it’s immediately clear that he has a confidence and a swagger that not all quarterbacks share.  He trusts his arm and is not afraid to let it fly.  He has one of the strongest arms of QBs I have watched so far this offseason.  He can launch it 50 yards downfield on the run but can also quickly fire the ball to the sideline on a quick screen.  That arm strength costs him some touch though, which was evident on a number of fade patterns near the end zone.  As good as his arm strength is, Grier’s best attribute for me was his pocket presence.  He does not get rattled as he slides and steps up.  His feet are active while in the pocket which allows him to escape and evade with ease (his spin move reminded this Cowboy fan of one Tony Romo).  All the while, he keeps his eyes downfield and scans through his progressions.  I did note a few negatives in Grier’s game as well.  His short yardage accuracy and mechanics can improve.  He has a tendency to jump-pass short throws which often fell incomplete (or worse) in my study.  Grier also had a few balls batted down at the line of scrimmage.  The jump-pass tendency and the batted balls combine to lead me to believe he’s closer to 6000 than 6020 as listed.  Grier shows the ability to anticipate receivers and lead them, especially on deep post routes where he’s adept at splitting the safeties, but that anticipation can be inconsistent.  Grier is seemingly capable of the impossible, like his on-the-run hail mary touchdown against Kansas State, but he does have some work to do on the little things.
He’ll be hoping to continue on the path to the NFL Draft that Mayfield and Rudolph walked last season.  Grier is a top ten prospect at the position for me right now so I would anticipate him going sometime in Day Two come next April.

David Montgomery, RB, Iowa State

David Montgomery was one of my favorite players to watch last season even though I wasn’t writing about him in a fantasy context since he was just a true sophomore.  This year I’m excited to look at him through the fantasy lens.  Montgomery’s highlight reel runs last season were abundant.  According to Pro Football Focus, Montgomery broke their record for most missed tackles forced in a season, breaking Dalvin Cook’s record by more than 10%.  Montgomery rushed for 1,148 yards and added 36 receptions for 296 yards.  He had 11 rushing TDs which is good but not great, ranking 3rd in the conference.  The biggest cause for concern is Montgomery’s yards per carry: 4.4.  Of the fifty backs currently in my 2019 database, only two had averages lower than Montgomery and neither is remotely close to his quality.
The low yards per carry average, in my opinion, is a result of Montgomery’s boom-or-bust tendency.  I don’t actually track the stat but it felt like he had more no-gain runs than other running back prospects I studied this offseason.  When Montgomery breaks loose though, he’s dangerous.  He has fantastic change of direction, cutting ability and contact balance.  It doesn’t matter where on his body he is contacted, he can usually keep his progress moving forward for extra yards.  He repeatedly used a back cut at the line of scrimmage paired with enough acceleration to get around the whiffing defender.  Montgomery is such a good pass blocker that I stopped taking notes on positive blocks.  He’s also successful in the passing game, displaying good hands that he uses to snag the ball away from his body more often than not.  Iowa State trusted his route running ability enough to have him running patterns from motion or lined up wide.  When split out, he often runs a short stop route; out of the backfield he’s adept at finding space in the middle of the zone.  On numerous occasions, Montgomery flashed a nifty spin move as he caught the ball on swing passes; it was super effective at making the first defender miss.  He does lack elite speed but all of his other attributes help cover up the deficiency.
Since Montgomery is a factor in the passing game, he has the potential to be a three down back in the pros.  Right now he’s my RB1 for 2019 and I would anticipate him being in the 1.01 conversation for next season.  (Film watched: Texas 2017, Oklahoma State 2017)

Rodney Anderson, RB, Oklahoma

Before I get into Anderson’s successes on the field last year, I first need to touch on the injuries that kept him off the field in 2015 and 2016.  In 2015, Anderson suffered a broken leg in the second game of the season (he had just one carry before the injury).  Before the 2016 season even started, he broke a bone in his neck which forced him to miss the entire season.  At the time, coach Bob Stoops was quoted as saying, “there’s no paralysis or anything like that.”  Hardly reassuring.  Anderson also has a potential red flag in an alleged sexual assault from 2017.  Ultimately the district attorney declined to press charges, saying that they were “unwarranted,” but I can’t help but think it will ding his NFL Draft stock.  It’s a shame that his injury history may be disqualifying to many fantasy owners, myself included, because Anderson put out some great tape in 2017.
The word I wrote most often when watching Anderson’s tape was “momentum.”  He runs with great power and above average speed and often powers over and through defenders.  While he may not have elite top speed, his acceleration appears to be elite after my limited watch of his film.  Despite his 6020/220 size, Anderson is able to change direction and stop on a dime when necessary.  On numerous occasions he was stopped cold in the backfield only to step back to find a small seam to gain some positive yardage.  Anderson is a good pass blocker and I think with more experience could become one of the best at the position in next year’s draft class.  My biggest gripe with his film against Georgia was his poor showing in the passing game.  I am sure he has the talent, because he showed it in other games, but his routes rarely afforded him any space and his hands failed him on at least two plays against Georgia.  Hopefully further film study will put that concern to rest.
In 2017 when I was writing about Clemson WR Mike Williams, who also suffered a broken neck, I said: “Ultimately, I am too hesitant to take Williams…At this point, I’d rather be the guy who misses on Williams… [rather] than the guy who takes him despite the neck injury…and is stuck with a bad contract.”  That’s basically where I am with Anderson at the moment.  There’s no doubt he has talent but because of the sunk cost of drafting bust rookies in the RSO format, I will be avoiding him.  (Film watched: Georgia 2017, 2017 Highlights)

Notes: In an effort to standardize the description of key positional traits, I frequently use the following adjectives: elite, good, above average, average, below average, poor.  My experimental grading system uses a Madden-like approach by weighting position relevant traits on a 100-point scale; bonus or negative points are awarded based on production, size, injury history and character.  Heights listed are using a notation common among scouts where the first digit corresponds to the feet, the next two digits correspond to the inches and the fourth digit corresponds to the fraction, in eighths.  So, somebody measuring 5’11” and 3/8 would be 5113.  This is helpful when trying to sort players by height.  When watching film for a player, I typically pick two games at random to watch.  For top prospects I may add a third game, while for long shots I might only devote the time for one. If game film is not available I will search for highlight reels, but keep in mind these are the best plays that player had all season so they really need to jump off the screen. I do not necessarily want to watch games where they did very well or very poorly as that may not be a great illustration of their true ability. If possible, when comparing players at the same position I also like to watch film against common opponents. Full disclosure, I am not watching film of every single game any player plays, instead I am looking for a representative sample.  There are a lot of analysts out there who have a deeper depth of knowledge about certain players but I pride myself in a wide breadth of knowledge about many players.  When researching college players I use a number of resources, I would recommend bookmarking the below sites…

  • Stats: espn.com, sports-reference.com, cfbstats.com, herosports.com, fcs.football, foxsports.com
  • Film: 2019 NFL Draft Database by @CalhounLambeau, youtube.com (but be wary of highlight only reels)
  • Draft info and mocks: draftcountdown.com, draftscout.com, walterfootball.com, mattwaldmanrsp.com, draftek.com, ndtscouting.com
  • Draft history: drafthistory.com
  • Combine info: pro-football-reference.com, espn.com, nflcombineresults.com
  • Season preview magazines: Phil Steele, Lindy’s, Street and Smith’s
  • Podcasts: ESPN’s First Draft, Strong as Steele with Phil Steele, The Audible by Football Guys (specifically episodes w/ Matt Waldman), UTH Dynasty, Draft Dudes

Robert F. Cowper is a freelance writer who lives in New Jersey.  He is a proud member of the Football Writers Association of America and the Fantasy Sports Writers Association.  Robert works as a recreation professional, specializing in youth sports, when he isn’t acting as commissioner for his many fantasy sports leagues.

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