I'll take a page from fellow blogger Chris Low out east in the SEC and take some time to recognize the elder statesmen of the Big 12. We'll tackle the North right now and the South a bit later today.
There's plenty of talented underclassmen across the Big 12 -- 10 members of the All-Big 12 first team carry the designation -- but every program needs solid seniors on the field and in the locker room.
With the exception of junior college transfers, these are players who gave everything they had to a program for four and five years. As such, here's a salute to guys who meant a lot to their teams this year:
Nate Solder, LT, Colorado: Solder spent his first two years in Boulder as a tight end, but he'll leave as an All-American left tackle, an Outland Trophy finalist and the team's MVP for 2010. If you've gotten to read much about him, talk to him or caught any of his interviews during the College Football Awards last week, you'd see why his personality could serve as a calm for the young Buffaloes dealing with Dan Hawkins' exit in the middle of the season. Also, he's enormous. That will make him plenty of money very soon.
Austen Arnaud, QB, Iowa State: Arnaud had to deal with three different coaches in his five years at Iowa State, but helped get the Cyclones to a bowl in 2009 and get the program's first-ever win against Texas this season. A three-year starter, Arnaud holds plenty of school records as a passer. His career met a sad end with a knee injury against Colorado, but his letter to fans after the injury was only further evidence of how much the program meant to him. The feeling is mutual from everyone else, and even the university president was moved to commend Arnaud after his injury ended his senior year.
Jake Laptad, DE, Kansas: The Jayhawks suffered a rough season, but Laptad was one of its bright spots. He finished with 4.5 sacks, leading Kansas' defense for a second consecutive year, as well as 8.5 tackles for loss. He earned the teams only non-special teams All-Big 12 nod, and will finish his career with 21 sacks, never amassing fewer than three in any season, including his freshman year. Not many players can say that.
Daniel Thomas, RB, Kansas State: Thomas walked into the Big 12 last year and led it in rushing, and only got better in 2010. He took the roundabout route to FBS football, but coach Bill Snyder has commended Thomas for committing himself to academics to get to Kansas State, and as a result, he's been the team's workhorse for two seasons. He's racked up 523 carries, 2,760 yards and 27 touchdowns in two years as a Wildcat. Where would Kansas State be without him these past two seasons? I'm not sure anyone in Manhattan wants to know the answer to that question.
Kevin Rutland, CB, Missouri: When Sean Weatherspoon left Missouri's program, it was left searching for a leader on defense. It didn't need to look for long. Rutland emerged both on and off the field this spring and was one of the big reasons, along with fellow corner Carl Gettis, that the secondary, once the biggest weakness of Missouri's defense, became one of its strengths in 2010. Missouri intercepted eight passes in 2009. Only Kansas had fewer in the Big 12. The Tigers picked off 16 this year. Only Oklahoma and Nebraska were better. Rutland was one of five Tigers with a pair of picks.
Roy Helu Jr., RB, Nebraska: Helu's quiet confidence carried the Huskers all season while Taylor Martinez and a dominant secondary soaked up all the headlines. This senior saved his biggest day for Nebraska's most important, rumbling for 307 yards and three touchdowns in what ended up being every bit the Big 12 North Championship it was advertised. Helu was the difference that day and has made a difference since arriving in Lincoln in 2007. Put it this way: The world would be a better place if there were more Roy Helu's running around.