Before we get there, I think it'd be helpful if I explain what different positions in the Big 12 these days actually look like.
The most important thing that is most frequently overlooked in recruiting and team building is that the different players on the field have complementary skill sets and roles. Understanding those skill sets is important for understanding whether a recruiting class will fit together and over-achieve their rankings (Baylor, TCU) or whether they will under-achieve (Texas...).
So here's a sort of glossary and descriptors for some of the positions you find in the Big 12:
Big 12 defensive positions
The nose tackle
The demise of the nose tackle has been heavily exaggerated. Teams need a guy in the middle who can command a double team and protect the linebackers from getting run over by free releasing OL. The rise of RPOs in which the OL is run-blocking while the WRs run routes combined with the fact that teams tend to get the ball out quickly means that having a great pass-rusher at every DL position is overrated but having sturdy space-eaters is not.
This guy does need to have some stamina to hold up against tempo and of course it's great if he can rush the passer. The defining aspect here is less where he lines up (0-tech, 1-tech, 2i-tech, or even 3-tech) and more what he's asked to do. Your nose tackle is the guy who's asked to eat the double team by design.
Example: Baylor's Andrew Billings was a phenomenal nose tackle last season, Kansas State's Will Geary is one of the better looking ones for 2016.
|Nose tackle in a 3-tech alignment|
The interior disruptorSome teams will align their more disruptive DL as the 3-tech but in an Over front he might also end up as a 1-tech or 2i-tech on the backside where he's free to shoot a gap and try to make a play in the backfield while the three-tech is trying to stop a tackle or guard from blowing away the inside-backer.
Example: This kind of player is perhaps most rare in the Big 12 since the league's smaller demographic pool makes it harder to find 280+ pound players who are also great athletes. Oklahoma's Charles Walker is a really good one though.
|Interior disruptor in his natural habitat as a 3-tech on the weakside|
The protective DE
With this designation I'm talking about strongside 5-technique guys and odd front (3-4, 3-3) 4i-technique guys who's job requires facing double teams from TEs and tackles, to slide inside and fill interior gaps, and to generally help protect conflicted linebackers from getting killed inside.
Example: Kansas State will use their DEs both as pass-rushers and as protectors and Jordan Willis was effective here last year and will likely also be in 2016. OU uses Walker in this role to an extent but he's often fairly free to work inside.
The latter is the edge-rusher, who generally has one of three primary responsibilities. One, to get into the backfield and tackle whomever has the ball. Two, to be able to also drop into a shallow zone, typically just as a flat defender. Three, to contain the edge in the event of a quick pass or run.
The Big 12 loves to create this specialized role because it's the easiest way to get athletes in position to attack offenses.
Example: Eric Striker started here but then was moved wide to become a particularly disruptive space-backer due to his lack of size. Many of the better pass-rushers in the Big 12 last year were true DEs like Emmanuel Ogbah.
Watch for Texas' Naashon Hughes and Derick Roberson to make noise here in the future, also Rick DeBerry and Ogbonnia Okoronkwo of Oklahoma.
|Edge rusher in a stand-up 9-tech where he can attack the edge or drop into the flat|
The inside-backerJust as teams still need nose tackles, they also still need at least one guy in the LB corps that can blow up a lead block, battle with guards, and control the gaps between the tackles like an old school linebacker. Some teams will opt to have two linebackers who are more versatile, like the outside-backer described below, but if you have just one you can always align him to the more difficult coverage assignment and then leave your true inside linebacker to focus on stuffing the run.
He should still be capable as a zone dropper or chasing RBs in coverage but he doesn't need to be a space athlete, the priority is that he's good at smashmouth football. This guy is defined most by being tough and smart.
Example: Kansas State uses Will Davis in this role and he's alright. Notre Dame's Manti Te'o was one of the best at this we've seen in recent years but Alabama always has good inside-backer play, most recently from Reggie Ragland and Reuben Foster. The Big 12 hasn't been great yet at specializing one linebacker for this purpose and consequently we haven't seen a ton of great players in this role in the league since they've been driven out by the spacing of spread offenses.
Senior season Steve Edmond at Texas is perhaps the best in recent memory.
|Inside-backer who's primary assignments are the A-gap and covering the RB|
The outside-backerTeams are usually playing two classic linebackers now but one of them is often playing in a fair amount of space with serious coverage responsibility. That's your outside-backer.
This guy needs to be effective at typical inside linebacker roles, like filling interior gaps, beating blocks, and blitzing the A and B gaps. However, he also needs to be capable when it comes to picking up a RB or inside receiver in man to man coverage, or playing pattern-matching zone in space against horizontal stretch concepts. This is where your more athletic LB goes unless he's devastating on the edge, in which case he should probably be edge rusher.
Example: Kansas State has made Elijah Lee their outside-backer and he's taken to it pretty well thanks to his lateral agility and ability to run in space and blitz but still fight blockers at 6'3" 218 pounds. He'll likely get much better at it with another year of experience in the myriad assignments that this position can draw.
|Outside-backer who's primary assignments are B or C gap and boundary slot receiver|
The space-backerAs I've detailed in this useful piece over at Football Study Hall, different teams use different types of players in the nickel position to handle spread teams. Teams like Baylor, Oklahoma State, and now Oklahoma like to use what I call a "space-backer" which is a linebacker who can line up in the field and has the fluidity and speed to play in space but who's still a linebacker in skill set and not a DB.
By that I mean that his strengths are playing underneath zone coverage, blitzing, beating blocks on the edge, and tackling in space.
Example: Oklahoma State's Shaun Lewis was a great example of this, a 5'11" 225 pound little fireball that excelled at blitzing the edge or blowing up bubble screens. Ohio State's Darron Lee is one of the better space-backers I've ever seen, Eric Striker was moved into this role as a junior and has excelled.
|Space-backer who's assignments are defending the edge or playing zone in space|
The nickelOther teams prefer to play someone in the nickel that can play more man coverage. This player might still blitz the edge or have to beat blocks and make tackles in space but he's more of a true DB than the space-backer. He might be more a particularly versatile and coverage-savvy safety or third corner who's extra physical player and may or may not be good enough in coverage to play outside by his lonesome.
Example: KSU uses a true nickel in their defense, last year they mostly used Donnie Starks whom I didn't think that much of to be honest (poor force defender). Texas' Duke Thomas was probably the best in the league in 2015.
|Nickel position who's assignments are man coverage on Y and tackle in space|
The free safety who aligns to the fieldI'll have a column coming out soon on how this is probably the most demanding and most important position on defense in the spread era. The field safety generally finds himself operating in a lot of space with responsibility to handle vertical routes from slot receivers and TEs, which often requires playing at depth away from the line, but also to bring timely run support which requires tackling ability and a lot of range.
If this player is playing behind a nickel he can often be more of a rangy, tackler but if he's playing behind a space-backer then he needs to be very good in coverage.
Example: There is typically a glut of good field free safeties in the Big 12 since it's so demanding athletically. TCU's Derrick Kindred was the best in the league in 2015.
|Field free safety who has to cover Y on vertical routes, play deep zone, and make tackles in the alley|
The strong cover safetyThis would be a safety who might align more typically to the field but who's generally playing more man coverage because his team plays more man blitzes or MOFC coverages like cover 1 or cover 3. He is lining up and covering the opposing team's inside receivers in man coverage as his most typical assignment so he's basically a nickel but he may also end up playing deep zone which you don't see as much from a nickel.
Example: Oklahoma's Steven Parker was the best at this role in 2015, Oklahoma State will use them as well but haven't had anyone as effective as Parker and would often use Kevin Peterson in this role in 2015 in passing situations.
|Strong cover safety playing man coverage on Y, essentially the same as a nickel would|
The strong boundary/support safetyThis is a safety who lines up on the boundary, doesn't have to operate in as much space, and is always playing either deep zone over the top or dropping down into or near the box to provide run support and underneath coverage in a shallower zone or matched up with an inside receiver.
This is where you want a guy that can drop down, slice through the wash, and be an extra player to stuff the run. His major skills should be playing instinctively and making tackles.
Example: OSU's Jordan Sterns was effective in this role last year and this is where OU's Ahmad Thomas is at his best. This is the position where you can still see a traditional, thumping safety find a role on a team. Here or as a space-backer or even outside-backer.
|Strong boundary safety playing the boundary edge and covering the TE/boundary flat|
The boundary cornerSome teams play their corners left and right so that either corner might end up playing on the boundary or to the field depending on if the ball is on the right or left hash. Other teams will keep their corners glued to the right or the left side of the field to avoid getting burned by tempo when corners have to get to opposite ends of the field.
Regardless, the boundary corner has to have a little bit of nickel in him because he will often be a force defender on the edge or a guy blitzing the edge whereas the field corner virtually never has that assignment. Additionally, you'd like for the boundary corner to be excellent in man coverage so that you can either drop your boundary safety into the box rather than bracketing the boundary side receiver or else roll him over to the other side of the field to help cover all that space.
An elite boundary corner can be the foundation of a defense.
Example: Xavien Howard and Morgan Burns were two of the better boundary corners in 2015 in a year where the league was bereft of a particularly dominant DB. Oklahoma's Jordan Thomas might be this kind of player in 2016, although OU plays their corners left and right (the left corner often ends up on the boundary more often). Danzel McDaniel was great in the run support and blitzing aspects of this role but you didn't want to leave him on an island if you wanted to roll the boundary safety over to the field.
|Boundary corner playing run-force on the boundary OR playing X in man coverage without help|
The field corner
The field corner is playing in a lot more space than the boundary corner and while it's very useful if he's fast and good at open field tackling, he's most useful if he can take advantage of the wide expanse of field that a QB's passes have to cover and lock down the outside field receiver in man coverage without help.
Example: Zack Sanchez was good in this role although OU often had him on the boundary where he was just pretty good. Ranthony Texada has a lot of potential here for TCU. Texas' Holton Hill will almost certainly be the best field corner in the league in 2017 if he's not in 2016.
|Field cornerback playing man coverage on Z, potentially without help|
Got a question about a specific player and what position he plays in the Big 12? Ask away in the comments. We'll get to offensive positions in our next post.