The start of the college football season is a little less than three months away, making now a good time to dive more into what teams in the Big 12 will look like next season.
We’ll do that here by looking at position groups and ranking them from best to worst. First up, we’ll start with defense and look at how linebacker corps across the Big 12 compare as we begin to move towards fall.
1. Iowa State
The Cyclones solidify one of the top spots in these rankings because of the two players they have at the top of the depth chart in Marcel Spears and Willie Harvey. They represent two of the top five tacklers from a team that only gave up 10 rushing touchdowns last season.
Harvey provides a veteran presence and Spears is quietly getting the attention of NFL scouts. Spears had a breakout season in 2017 for Iowa State, registering a big time interception late against TCU to help seal the upset for the Cyclones.
Aside from some newcomers who logged time on special teams last season, Iowa State also has a solid senior backup in Reggan Northrup. Northrup is an experienced linebacker who has made multiple starts in his tenure in Ames.
It’s no secret that the loss of Joel Lanning hurts this group in particular. If the departed two-way player was returning, Iowa State would have one of the undisputed best group of linebackers in the country.
With the loss of Travin Howard, the Horned Frogs don’t have a definitive headliner headed into 2018, but Ty Summers is the most likely candidate to fill that role. Summers started alongside Howard last season and might be the best run defender in the Big 12.
The reason TCU gets a top spot here is due to the depth they have at this position. Arico Evans and Montrel Wilson are vying to replace Howard, and both made plenty of plays last season.
Gary Patterson also went out and landed a top graduate transfer in the offseason, nabbing Juwaun Johnson from Northern Illinois. Johnson was the highest graded linebacker according to Pro Football Focus last season, meaning that he will provide the Horned Frogs with some of the best depth in the Big 12 next fall.
3. Texas Tech
Many will scratch their heads to see Texas Tech this high on the list, especially given the team’s well-known defensive struggles. Yet, with linebackers Dakota Allen and Jordyn Brooks, the Red Raiders return two experienced upperclassmen who have earned spots on All-Big 12 teams. Allen is the top talent in this group, owing to his capacity to track down ball carriers and play well in pass coverage.
One reason why it’s difficult to say that the Red Raiders have the best linebacking corps in the Big 12 is the lack of depth behind Allen and Brooks.
If there was a player in the second string with anywhere near the same level of production of those two, this would undoubtedly be an elite unit. Getting some reps for guys like Brayden Stringer and Christian Taylor will undoubtedly be key for this defense to take another step forward.
Under defensive coordinator Todd Orlando, linebacker was one position group that saw the most improvement last season for the Longhorns. Even though Texas loses a couple of starters, there’s enough starting experience and talent here that this could be one of the top units in the conference next season.
Senior linebacker Gary Johnson will take over for Malik Jefferson, who departed for the NFL, and he might actually be better at the position than the guy he’s replacing. Johnson logged seven starts last season, but he needs to stay healthy in 2018.
Juniors Jeffrey McCulloch and Malcolm Roach have both shown flashes of talent, and will look to solidify a spot alongside Anthony Wheeler. Wheeler has had a consistent but not stellar career at Texas. If he can repeat the effort he had in the Texas Bowl last year, however, the senior could be on some conference lists come December.
Both of Oklahoma’s starting linebackers have prototypical size and physical attributes for their position, but they’ve struggled, for various reasons, to consistently play at a high level. Caleb Kelly is one of the best linebackers in the conference and benefits from the ability to hold up in pass coverage as well. Kelly’s had issues staying on the field, though, and still needs to make more strides before he becomes the disruptive presence Mike Stoops would probably prefer.
Fellow returner Kenneth Murray was up and down as a freshman, but he has potential. Playing the middle linebacker spot was not a role that Murray was used to, so this season he will likely improve.
It’s feasible that the Sooners could jump into one of the top spots if players like Jon-Michael Terry are able to have a breakthrough season or if Murray and Kelly make serious strides in 2018. For now, however, this unit remains part of the middle of the pack.
6. Oklahoma State
The Cowboys’ new defensive coordinator Jim Knowles will have a group of experienced upperclassman linebackers in Justin Phillips and Calvin Bundage.
The Pokes will miss the departed Chad Whitener, but Phillips had the third most tackles on the team a year ago and is a relentless blitzer. That kind of productivity will hopefully translate into improved results under Knowles in 2018.
In a lot of ways, the Cowboys could be better at this position next season because they will only be fielding a couple of “true” linebackers in Knowles’s 4-2-5 defense. Even though last season the performance of this group was average-to-above average, this unit is one that could make a significant jump under a new coach.
7. West Virginia
The Mountaineers find themselves in the middle of this list because of that noticeable lack of experienced defensive players. If any of this year’s newcomers were to take a leap, however, this position group could be well above average for West Virginia.
Starter David Long Jr., who made the Pro Football Focus All-Big 12 Defense last season, is one of the best players at his position. The rest of the West Virginia roster, however, has less proven depth.
Fellow starter Dylan Tonkery is the only other returning linebacker who can come approach Long’s level of performance at the position. Backups Quandarius Qualls and Brendan Ferns might eventually be able to get there, but both suffered offseason injuries that will cause them to miss time in 2018.
The Jayhawks can make the case to be closer to the middle of the conference here because they’ll have the Big 12’s leading tackler from a year ago on the sidelines. Joe Dineen Jr. had the most stops in all of FBS during the 2017 regular season, registering 53 total.
Despite not having the speed of some of the players on this list, Dineen has a nose for the ball and might be the best player on his team. Unfortunately for the Jayhawks, Dineen will likely have to carry much of the load again this season.
9. Kansas State
Bill Snyder always seems to find a way to field a front seven that can be effective, especially at stopping the run. The Wildcats will have their hands full developing new linebackers this year, however, as redshirt junior Elijah Sullivan is the only returning starter.
Kansas State comes in lower on this list precisely because their linebackers are a bit of an unknown quantity right now.
It’s time for players like Sam Sizelove and Da’Quan Patton to thrive, however. A lot is unknown about how those two will perform in new leadership roles, but newly promoted defensive coordinator Blake Seiler could mold them into quality defenders.
Baylor brings back a lot of experience from last season’s defense, but is that necessarily a good thing? The Bears ranked ninth against the run last season and now have to deal with the loss of star linebacker Taylor Young.
Players like Clay Johnston, and Henry Black were all relatively young last season, being forced into starting roles as young sophomores. Hopefully a full year under Matt Rhule’s staff will seem them improved, but this unit overall needs to stay healthy. Johnston and fellow junior Lenoy Jones, Jr. were held out of much of spring practices.
It also didn’t help that Eric Ogor, who was not projected to start next season, was dismissed from the team in March.
Getting this unit to be in middle of the pack next season will undoubtedly be on Rhule’s to do list if he hopes to get Baylor to a bowl.