As we head deep into the offseason, now is a good time to dive more into what teams in the Big 12 will look like in 2019. We’ll do that by looking at position groups across the conference and ranking them from best to worst.
These rankings take into account as yet unseen potential, but tend to rely heavily on the proven production of seasons past. We start this series by looking into how defensive lineman across the Big 12 compare.
1. Iowa State
In 2018, the Cyclones had probably the best defensive line in the Big 12, one that allowed Iowa State to have the best rushing defense in the league and total more sacks in conference play than any of the other nine teams. The great news for Cyclones fans? Practically all of the lineman from last year’s two deep are back.
Included in that group is All-Big 12 defensive tackle Ray Lima, who will see his name on plenty of lists coming into this season. Lima constantly demands double teams, and has a knack for getting to the football, something to which his 34 tackles last season are an undoubted testament.
As far as defensive ends go, it would be hard to argue that Iowa State doesn’t have the best one in the entire Big 12 in JaQuan Bailey. After having put up some of the best statistics of 2018, Bailey is slated to have an All-Big 12 type of season this year. Last season, Bailey led the team with eight sacks and had 14.5 tackles for loss. This year, the senior should be one of the most productive defenders in the Big 12.
Every year Gary Patterson seems to have a group of developed defensive players ready to line up on the gridiron, and 2019 projects to be no different along the defensive line. After having one of the best defensive lines in the country last season, this year the Horned Frogs should be set, especially on the interior.
Corey Bethley and Terrell Cooper both return as starting defensive tackles. Bethley, who was a Freshman All-American in 2017, contributed 5 sacks and 9.5 tackles for loss in 2018 as a sophomore, and projects to possibly have a pro career eventually.
Some of the best news TCU fans go this offseason, though, was regarding the return of 329-pound Ross Blacklock, whose season cut short early last season. Blacklock was the 2017 Big 12 Co-Defensive Freshman of the Year, and the junior is on a trajectory to hear his name called at the NFL Draft one day.
Notably, TCU does have to find replacements for starters at both defensive end spots, but Brandon Bowen and Ochaun Mathis are by all accounts ready to step up into starting roles.
3. Kansas State
Despite all of their struggles last year, it went virtually unnoticed how much of a bright spot the Wildcats’ defensive line was for them in 2018. Kansas State didn’t finish second in the conference in rush defense for no reason, however, and with all four starters returning, this might be their best position group this season.
Senior Reggie Walker, who’s been on multiple All-Big 12 teams, was tied for third in the conference in sacks with 6.5 last year. Walker hasn’t had the type of career that his All-American freshman season might have indicated, but it’s reasonable to expect big things from him in his final year.
Trey Dishon, who is probably the best of the bunch, is a disruptive presence along the defensive line in both the running game and as a pass defender. According to Pro Football Focus, he had more quarterback pressures than any other interior lineman in the Big 12 last season.
Multiple senior starters and players with in-game experience also will hold down the line, including guys like Wyatt Hubert, Kyle Ball, Joe Davies, and Jordan Mittie. Of all the defensive lines in the Big 12, Kansas State probably has the most quality depth.
For the Longhorns, questions abound on defense headed into the 2019 season. With all three of last season’s starters gone up front, defensive line coach Oscar Giles, who’s produced his share of NFL-ready players in his career, will have his work cut out for him.
There is some starting experience in this group. The projected starters have a full 13 games worth of starts, and that includes senior Gerald Wilbon and junior Ta’Quon Graham. Graham is a former four star recruit whose playing experience should translate into a solid season for him in 2019.
The player ready to make the biggest name for himself is senior Malcolm Roach, who is somewhat of a hybrid between a linebacker and defensive lineman. Roach is surprisingly athletic for his 270 pounds and he was the Defensive Freshman of the Year in 2016. Even the senior can learn to be more consistent with his hand in the dirt, opposing backfields better beware.
Of all the defensive line groups on this list, the Sooners might have the most potential to move up a few notches. Like a lot of the players overall on the defensive side of the ball for the Sooners, up front Oklahoma has guys with many of the physical tools necessary to be high caliber defensive lineman in the Big 12 and possibly even the country.
With three of four starters back from last season, new defensive coordinator Alex Grinch will hope they can do something with all of the talent on hand. Defensive tackle Neville Gallimore is a beast of a presence at 330 pounds, and could even make next year’s NFL draft if he can make enough of a leap in his senior year.
Defensive end Kenneth Mann similarly could improve, but has yet to really be productive along the line. On the other end, sophomore Ronnie Perkins will look to continue the growth he had as a freshman, when he led the Sooners in sacks and was named a Freshman All-American by ESPN.
6. Texas Tech
New head coach Matt Wells will find both experience and depth on hand along the defensive line for the Red Raiders. That line helped Texas Tech notch 23 sacks in 2018, good enough for third in the Big 12.
Two of three starters along the line are back. One of them, Broderick Washington, is a quality defensive lineman who had 6.5 tackles for loss last season, tying him for second on the team in 2018.
Junior Eli Howard is one of the better defensive linemen in the Big 12, but has aspects of his game to work on to more often put himself in better position to make plays. He averaged over three tackles per game last year, and led the team in quarterback hurries.
Matt Rhule has a reputation as a defensive coach, but throughout his first two years, the progress has been inconsistent. With six of eight lineman from last year’s two deep returning, though, this season’s defensive line could take a step forward.
One key to that progress is James Lynch, who was consistently one of the best – if not the best – defensive players for the Bears last season. The junior was named to the AP All-Big 12 squad after leading Baylor in sacks and tackles for loss.
At 6’1” tall and 330 pounds, Bravvion Roy is a load for opposing linemen to try and move up front. He’ll be joined by “Rush” end B.J. Thompson, who had four sacks last season in conference play.
8. West Virginia
The performance of this group was boosted by some high-profile transfers last season, and new head coach Neal Brown could use that kind of added depth in 2019. The only returner with starting experience is senior defensive end Reese Donahue, who should have another solid season this year.
Junior college transfer Taijh Alston is expected to play along the defensive line as well, but at 245 pounds could add some bulk before August.
Darius Stills, the projected starter at nose tackle, has seen game action the past two seasons, but he’s yet to prove that he can be one of the better players in the Big 12. His brother, Dante Stills, had a strong freshman debut last season, and there’s no reason to think that the ESPN.com Freshman All-American won’t make even more strides in his second year.
9. Oklahoma State
This group is the major question mark for the Pokes headed into 2019. Last season, the defensive line was part of a defense that was statistically the worst run defense in the Big 12, and this year no starters return. Those players that have playing experience, which mostly includes projected starters Mike Scott (end), Cameron Murray (tackle), Brendan Evers (tackle) and Brock Martin (end), will hope to really make strides in the fall.
The overall youth and lack of experience along the defensive front is part of the reason why Mike Gundy went out and got two transfer players, including former Colorado starter Israel Antwine, an Oklahoma native who could grab a starting spot this year.
The Jayhawks were led by their defense a year ago, but that might not be the case this upcoming season. Senior Azur Kamara stands as the lone returning starter along the defensive line, where he’ll likely man the hybrid “Hawk” position in new defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot’s scheme. Kamara did not put up any eye-popping stats from his spot on the edge, but he’s set up to have the best year in 2019.
Kansas has a veteran presence up front, with all four projected starters being seniors this year, but a vast majority of that experience comes from the community college ranks. It’s now or never for them to make a splash at the FBS level.