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Despite win total, KU football boasts a handful of All-Big 12-worthy performers
In the coming days, various media organizations that cover college football will be releasing their all-conference teams and a year's worth of hard work, sweat and sacrifice will pay off for a whole bunch of college athletes.
For some, landing on this all-conference team or that one will represent just another accolade in a long list that has been growing since they first started playing the game as teenagers.
For others, the honor will go down as the highlight of their career, the one memory they'll keep talking about until they're old and gray.
Often times, the teams that turn in the best seasons also produce the most all-conference players and that seems logical given the fact that the best players typically produce the best teams. But it's not always the case. And it's a shame when top-tier talent gets overlooked because it plays for a team that struggled to win games.
That's the story with Kansas football, which finished 2013 with a 3-8 record, 1-8 in Big 12 Conference play. Despite those low win totals, the Jayhawks had at least a handful of guys worthy of being placed on the all-Big 12 teams, be it the first, second, third team or honorable mention.
Here's a quick look at the most worthy candidates in order of most likely to least.
• Junior punter Trevor Pardula •
For much of the 2013 season, the first-year punter from De Anza College in California was among the best in the country. His net averages soared well into the 42-44-yard range and his ability to flip the field and pin opponents deep was a bona fide weapon. While Pardula was penalized by the national awards committees because he did not land enough punts inside the 20, it's worth pointing out that the struggles of the KU offense often forced Pardula to punt from deep in his own end, making the task of dropping kicks inside the 20 next to impossible even for NFL punters. By season's end, Pardula finished with a 43.7-yard average. He has a strong case for first-team all-Big 12 honors.
• Sophomore safety Isaiah Johnson •
It's entirely possible that I'm overlooking someone on another Big 12 team, but I think Johnson has as good a case as anyone for the Big 12 Defensive Newcomer of the Year award. The former Iowa Western safety started all 12 games during his first season of Div. I football and finished second in the Big 12 in interceptions (5), 21st in tackles (73) and also added three tackles for loss. Johnson was definitely one of the bright spots for the Jayhawks' defense this season, a game-changer, who still has two years of eligibility remaining and should become one of those guys that opponents can't quite believe is "still around."
• Senior running back James Sims •
Although he did not rattle off 100-yard game after 100-yard game during his final season as a Jayhawk, James Sims was every bit as productive as he had ever been, despite running behind an offensive line that experienced its share of growing pains and in an offense that struggled to throw the ball. Sims' 1,110 yards ranked first in the Big 12 and represented a career-high for the fourth consecutive season. In topping the 1,000-yard mark in 2012 and 2013, he became the first running back in KU history to rush for quadruple-digit rushing yards in back-to-back seasons and came within a couple hundred yards of eclipsing June Henley for the top spot on KU's career rushing list. As was the case throughout his career, Sims gained most of his yards against defenses that knew what was coming. The fact that he still was able to churn out productive games and finish with 7 touchdowns and a 4.8 yards-per-carry average speaks to his skill and desire. A strong case could be made for Sims to land on the all-Big 12 first team. I know I'd put him there, but because of KU's win total he could be a second-teamer.
• Junior linebacker Ben Heeney •
If not for a midseason injury that forced him to miss two games, Heeney no doubt would've racked up triple-digit tackles for the second year in a row and kept his spot near the top of the Big 12 tackle list. As it turned out, Heeney still enjoyed a monster season, finishing with 87 tackles in 10 games and 11.5 tackles for loss, two sacks and three interceptions. But it's more than Heeney's stats that make him a virtual lock for inclusion on one of the all-Big 12 teams. Anyone who watches him play, whether it's opposing coaches, media members or even his own teammates, easily can recognize that Heeney is one of the top players in the Big 12 and plays harder than nearly everybody.
• Junior cornerback Dexter McDonald •
McDonald was one of the top cover corners in the Big 12, especially early in the season. There were several games where opposing quarterbacks chose not even to test the junior-college transfer who returned to KU for a second go-around this season. And his size, speed and physicality made him a tough match-up for opposing wide receivers. McDonald finished with two interceptions and 10 pass break-ups (7th in the Big 12) and also should be given credit for helping JaCorey Shepherd — KU's starter on the other side of the field — develop his corner skills, both from a perspective of showing him the ropes and also from encouraging opponents to attack Shepherd instead.
• Junior cornerback JaCorey Shepherd •
The former wide receiver's 13 pass break-ups and two interceptions put him third in the Big 12 in passes defended, no small feat for a guy who entered fall camp still adjusting to his new position. Last season, Shepherd showed he had the raw skills to hang in the secondary and this season he showed he could play cornerback. Tested on a weekly basis, Shepherd always seemed to be up for the challenge. He may not land on any of the teams but I think he deserves at least honorable mention. Another area he could make an appearance is at kick returner, where he finished fifth in the conference with an average of 22.8 yards per kick return.
• Junior punt returner Connor Embree •
Three guys finished ahead of him in the Big 12 Conference punt return rankings and he wasn't nearly as good late in the season as he was early on, but the former walk-on at least deserves mention as a possible honorable mention candidate for his 11.4-yard average in 16 attempts.
Before we close this one down, here's a little deeper look at the job McDonald and Shepherd did this season at the cornerback position, which, in my eyes, merits both of them spots on the all-conference teams.
The following is a look at the Big 12's top pass catchers, their season averages and how each performed against Kansas:
Player (Receptions-Per-Game, Yards-Per-Game) — vs. Kansas
• Antwan Goodley, Baylor (5.4, 109.5) — 2 catches for 43 yards
• Tyler Lockett, Kansas State (6.5, 104.2) — 3 catches for 43 yards
• Jace Amaro, Texas Tech (8.2, 103.3) — 9 catches for 96 yards
• Mike Davis, Texas (4.6, 70.1) — 1 catch for 5 yards
• Jalen Saunders, Oklahoma (4.6, 55.9) — 4 catches for 47 yards
• Josh Stewart (4.5, 55.5) — 0 catches (left with injury)
• Eric Ward, Texas Tech (6.7, 75.3) — 7 catches for 122 yards and 1 TD
• Jaxon Shipley, Texas (4.7, 51.8) — 6 catches for 77 yards
• Quenton Bundrage, Iowa State (4.0, 56.3) — 3 catches for 63 yards
• Tevin Reese, Baylor (4.1, 103.0) — 4 catches for 110 yards
• Jakeem Grant, Texas Tech (5.4, 64.3) — 7 catches for 92 yards