Fields had an amazing freshman season, racking up 18.5 tackles for loss and 10 sacks and earning first-team All-Big 12 honors. But there's still plenty of room for improvement here. As good as Fields was, just 4.5 of his sacks came in the nine-game conference season. That's not a bad number … it tied for the third-most sacks in Big 12 play last year. But Fields was a better pass-rusher in non-conference play, snagging 5.5 sacks in just four games. Continued development of his pass-rush arsenal could make him an even more deadly threat on Big 12 Saturdays, though it could be difficult to produce at that season-long level this year, in part because of his two-game suspension.
Defensive tackle is a difficult position to gauge because of the many different roles that a player can play there. Is a penetrating three-technique more valuable, or better, than, say, a massive nose tackle who controls two gaps? Certainly, West Virginia's Shaq Rowell caused the Longhorns some issues a year ago in the latter role. And players like TCU's Chucky Hunter and Texas Tech's Kerry Hyder have been pretty good as well. But I'm giving the nod here to Barnett, who put together an All-Big 12 season a year ago by showing the ability to play both roles. Here's the thing:
LB: Kyle Van Noy, BYU
One of the country's top pass-rushers, Van Noy probably hasn't quite gotten the publicity that he's deserved, even though he gets consistent mention as a potential All-America candidate and a potential high draft choice. How good as he been? Take a look at number set 'A': 121 tackles, 37 tackles for loss and 20 sacks. Now, take a look at number set 'B': 90 tackles, 35.5 tackles for loss, 21 sacks. Set A belongs to Van Noy over the past two seasons. Set B belongs to Jadeveon Clowney over that same time period. Granted, they play different roles, Clowney does it against better competition and Van Noy doesn't have Clowney's explosive athleticism (who does?). The point is that Van Noy has been unbelievably productive, and has played at an All-America caliber level, including last year when he had 22 stops in the backfield and 13 sacks. And lest you think he's a one-trick pony … Van Noy also has nine forced fumbles and five interceptions over the past two seasons, while scoring three defensive touchdowns.
CB: Jason Verrett, TCU
Verrett emerged as the Big 12's top cover corner a year ago, every week taking on the opponent's top receiver and typically shutting that player down. In addition to his speed and athleticism, Verrett's competitive nature and outstanding ball skills allowed him to defend 22 passes, making six interceptions in the process. If the Big 12 has shown anything over the last several years, it's that it's tough to hold up as a top corner on a year-to-year basis. The league's passing attacks, and top receivers, can be humbling. But Verrett should again be the conference's top cover guy, and a natural foil for the Longhorns' Mike Davis.
Tapped as a third-team All-American by the Associated Press, Zimmerman picked off five passes, all in league play, last year. In addition, Zimmerman showed off his nose for the ball by making three tackles for loss and recovering two fumbles. He missed two games with injury, but still placed eighth on the team in tackles, and it wasn't a coincidence that one of his absences was the Baylor game, likely the Wildcats' worst defensive performance. Zimmerman is yet another example of Kansas State coach Bill Snyder getting the most out of his players. He originally signed with the Wildcats as a greyshirt candidate at quarterback, but moved across the ball to safety and has been a mainstay in the lineup since.