As we count down the days to the 2019 College Football Season’s opening kickoff, we have given our thoughts on the best players in the Big XII at several positions. So far, we have offered our thoughts on quarterback, running back, wide receiver, defensive line, linebacker, and cornerback. Now, we offer our final position group on the defensive side of the ball. Without further ado, we present our picks for the Big XII’s best returning safeties.
Big XII’s Best Returning Safeties
We had a tough time narrowing our list to just five, as the Big XII returns a number of talented safeties returning in 2019. Both of our honorable mentions for this group could have easily made the top five if the group was not so deep in 2019. And there are even a few more we would have liked to mention here. Alas, we had to stop somewhere. Our first honorable mention hails from Kansas, of all places. Bryce Torneden led all of the safeties on our list with 88 tackles last season. Five-and-a-half of those registered a loss, and Torneden added two sacks. He also returned his lone interceptions for a touchdown and recovered two fumbles in 2018.
And even though we have several Longhorns on this list, we could not justify omitting Brandon Jones. Jones missed three games last season, but still tallied 70 tackles (five-and-a-half for loss), two interceptions, and two fumble recoveries. Jones earned an honorable mention for the All-Conference team last year as a result. The senior returns with substantial experience, having started 23 games for the Longhorns. As a result, nobody should be surprised if he makes a leap forward in 2019.
The Texas Longhorns’ B.J. Foster was just a freshman in 2018. And while his raw numbers were slightly less impressive than Jones’ last season, Foster surrendered the fifth-lowest passer rating by opposing quarterbacks. Simply, Foster’s contributions go beyond raw statistics. That said, Foster impressed statistically as well. Despite only starting in six games, Foster registered 46 tackles, nine tackles for loss, and two-and-a-half sacks. He added five PBUs, and interception, and two forced fumbles. He forced one of those fumbles in the Longhorns’ defining win against Georgia in last season’s Sugar Bowl.
Iowa State’s Braxton Lewis turned in an impressive season in 2018 by any measure. That Lewis campaigned as a walk-on simply adds heart-warming color to his story. Lewis started in all 13 games in 2018, and he accumulated 70 tackles (four for loss) and a sack. He also added three interceptions, good for seventh in the conference. In one of the Cyclones’ defining moments of 2018, Lewis recorded eight tackles and a sack against West Virginia to help Iowa State pull off the upset. Lewis also finished the year surrendering the lowest passer rating by opposing quarterbacks in the Big XII. Now a redshirt senior, look for Lewis to take another step forward in 2019.
Yet another Jayhawk makes our list here. Kansas’ Mike Lee gave up the second-lowest passer rating for passes thrown in his direction of all safeties in the Big XII in 2018. Thus, while the Kansas pass defense as a whole performed poorly, Lee did all he could to plug the holes. Lee was named to Athlon’s Freshman All-American Second Team in 2016 and its All-Conference First Team that same year. Lee regressed slightly in 2017, but he performed extremely well in 2018. Look for Lee to improve upon his 67 tackles and an interception (which he returned for a touchdown) in 2019.
Greg Eisworth transferred to Iowa State from Trinity Valley Community College prior to the 2018 season. He picked the Cyclones over Colorado and West Virginia, among others, and Iowa State is undoubtedly thankful that he did. Eisworth finished the season as the Big XII’s Defensive Newcomer of the Year, and he also earned First-Team All-Conference honors. He finished the season with 87 tackles (four for loss), a sack, an interception, two forced fumbles, and 5 PBUs. Eisworth offered the Cyclones an immediate impact, and the redshirt junior seeks to improve upon that in 2019.
Don’t look now, but Texas might actually be “back.” If not, they are certainly closer than they have been in years. This makes the third safety for the Longhorns to make our list (including Jones as an honorable mention). And Texas undoubtedly features the deepest group of safeties in the conference in 2019. A five-star recruit out of Texas, Caden Sterns started the first 13 games of his true freshman season in 2018, missing the bowl due to an injury suffered in the Big XII Championship. Sterns proved to be both a ball hawk and a coverage specialist. He finished the season with the fourth-lowest opposing passer rating in the conference, and he recorded four PBUs to match. Sterns also finished with four interceptions, a sack, and 62 tackles (three for loss). His performance earned Sterns First-Team All-Conference Honors, and Sterns was named the Big XII Defensive Freshman of the Year. He is also at the top of our list of the Big XII’s Best Returning Safeties for 2019.