With the offseason moving along, we’re getting a glimpse of what teams in the Big 12 will look like in 2019. Here, we look at position groups across the conference and rank 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 continue this series by looking into how linebacker corps across the Big 12 compare.
A caveat probably needs to come with these rankings that there is a lot of room for movement, particularly in the middle. A lot of the standout linebackers from 2018 have moved on from their respective schools, and it’s yet to be seen what kind of impact many of the new defensive coordinators will have on their respective units.
Given that, these rankings are based more on last season’s results, and not on how different players will perform under new coaches.
1. Iowa State
The Cyclones had some of the best linebackers in the Big 12 last season, and with two of three starters returning, they look to be at the top again in 2019. Marcel Spears Jr. and Mike Rose graded out as two of the top five returning linebackers in the conference according to Pro Football Focus, and the only real question for Iowa State is who will fill that third linebacker spot in Jon Heacock’s 3-3-5.
There’s a feeling that the spot will go to redshirt freshman Will McDonald, who was explosive in his limited game time last season. Other than McDonald, there are other players in the Cyclone two deep who bring some playing experience with them, and at this point it’s difficult to believe the Iowa State coaching staff won’t find a solid piece to fill in there.
Whoever gets the start, don’t be surprised to see one or more All-Big 12 defenders in this unit. Rose was a Freshman All-American in 2018, and Spears is the second most experienced player on the Iowa State defense. Together, the two notched 144 tackles last year and had 17 tackles for loss. Expect the Cyclones to have one of the best defenses in the country next year, and the linebackers should have a lot to do with it.
2. Texas Tech
Despite their losses from last season, the Red Raiders should once again have a solid group of linebackers. Jordyn Brooks and Riko Jeffers were Texas Tech’s top two tacklers last season, and they’re both back. Outside of Iowa State, Texas Tech has the most proven production at linebacker in the Big 12.
Senior Jordyn Brooks averaged 84 tackles per season in his first three years with the Red Raiders, and according to Pro Football Focus, he’s the highest graded Big 12 linebacker who returns this fall. Brooks hasn’t received the type of accolades that probably should be coming his way while he’s been in Lubbock, but he has NFL potential.
After breaking out last year, Riko Jeffers will be a junior and should be expected to excel again. Behind them are seniors who’ve logged some snaps, so new defensive coordinator Keith Patterson will have depth to work with.
3. West Virginia
The new defensive staff under Neal Brown is in pretty good shape when it comes to linebacker. None of the linebackers in this group have stood out on the conference level (possibly due in part to injury), but the overall collection of experience and depth here should make it one of the better units in the Big 12 in 2019.
At the hybrid “Bandit” position, West Virginia has two third year players that should both be able to provide quality depth. Zach Sandwisch has playing time and one start under his belt, but keep an eye on Alabama transfer VanDarius Cowan, who was a heralded recruit out of Florida, and very well could be the official starter in the Mountaineers’ season opener.
Middle linebacker will be the most experienced for West Virginia in 2019. Dylan Tonkery and Shea Campbell have more starts combined than anyone in the unit, and they’ll be competing for playing time into the fall and possibly after that. Sophomore Josh Chandler is expected to man the outside linebacker spot. He reportedly looked good during the spring, but next season would be his first as a starter.
Talent seems to always be on hand in Austin, but at linebacker a lot of that talent is untested as we head into 2019. Senior Jeffrey McCulloch stands as the only returning starter in the Texas linebacker corps, and after having played in 36 games in his career, the upperclassman should be ready to have a standout year.
After earning two starts last year, sophomore Joseph Ossai is expected to start full time at the “B backer” spot for the Longhorns this year. Ossai was a highly touted recruit who had a significant impact for the Longhorns in 2018, and this year he could really step up.
The middle linebacker spot has a little more uncertainty. The expected starter is redshirt freshman Ayodele Adeoye, who saw limited game action in 2018. Adeoye was a highly touted four star recruit, but it’s yet to be seen how he’ll fare under third year defensive coordinator Todd Orlando.
After losing almost the entire two deep from a year ago, linebacker might be the biggest question mark for TCU headed into 2019. It’s especially an issue with regards to depth, but expect there to be production from the starters.
One expected starter is senior Montrel Wilson, who has struggled with injuries in his time at TCU. After a stellar freshman campaign, Wilson’s had issues staying on the field, and did not see any game action until the Cheez-It Bowl last season.
Garret Wallow, who will likely start at the other linebacker spot, is a name for Big 12 fans to keep an eye on. As a sophomore, he tied for fourth on the team in tackles with 72 and earned six starts in 2018. Wallow is smaller for a linebacker at 212 pounds, but he’s exactly the kind of athletic, hybrid player that usually excels in a Gary Patterson defense.
Youth was once a major problem for the Bears all across the board, but they’ll have experience this season with every player from the two deep returning. That should help the unit overall be improved from a year ago, when they were part of a rush defense that gave up 4.9 yards per rush in Big 12 play.
Senior Clay Johnston, one of the most technically sound linebackers in the Big 12, has more than solidified his starting spot in the middle. There might be some competition for the other two spots, but Blake Lynch, Terrell Bernard, and Jordan Williams should be able to provide quality play.
The three together combined for 148 total tackles last season, and their contributions could make linebacker the strength of the Bears defense in 2019.
There should probably be an asterisk beside this position group ranking, given that it’s largely unknown how this group is going to look under new defensive coordinator Alex Grinch. If Grinch is able to develop the Sooners at linebacker, they could definitely jump up this list. Oklahoma has a better shot to improve dramatically than probably any team on this list, but there are still plenty of unknowns for the Sooners.
What is known is that junior Kenneth Murray should be one of the starters come fall. Murray, who averaged 11.1 tackles per game last season, has all the tools necessary to succeed beyond the college ranks. He’s still got room to develop under Grinch, and the new DC will hope to settle on a pecking order among the rest of the linebacking corps.
With the unsure future of Caleb Kelly, who was injured in the spring, the overall outlook of this group is a little up in the air. Sophomore DaShaun White, who saw game action last season, may end up starting beside Murray.
8. Kansas State
This group took a real hit when senior Justin Hughes was injured in the spring, and is now expected to miss the entire 2019 season. His absence leaves a definite gap at linebacker for new defensive coordinator Scott Hazelton.
Da’Quan Patton, an athletic linebacker, should be the best of the bunch in this unit and will be expected to start this season as a redshirt senior. Patton led the team with 70 tackles last year, and there’s reason to believe he’ll do so again this fall. Elijah Sullivan and Cody Fletcher return some experience from 2018, but they likely need more development under Hazelton in Klieman’s first year.
9. Oklahoma State
Breaking in a new defensive scheme probably didn’t go as planned last season, when Oklahoma State gave up 213.8 yards rushing per game. The play of the linebackers had something to do with those less than favorable results, and this unit will really need to take a step forward in the fall.
Calvin Bundage is the lone returning starter among Oklahoma State’s linebackers, having totaled 62 tackles in 2018. He’s the most impactful returning player, but might have competition in junior Devin Harper. Harper racked up 44 tackles and 2.5 sacks as a backup in 2018, and could have a bright future with the Pokes.
However it plays out, defensive coordinator Jim Knowles will likely do all he can to make sure this group overall takes a big step forward in 2019.
Les Miles likely knew he’d be taking on a challenge in trying to turn the Jayhawks around, but the lack of experience among Kansas’ linebackers. Projected starters junior Drew Harvey and senior Dru Prox have played limited snaps at the FBS level, and they combined for only six tackles in 2018.
That’ll make things tough on a new coaching staff, which will hope to field a group of linebackers that can improve on the 459.9 total yards of offense given up by the Jayhawks per game in conference play last season. This position group will be an interesting one to watch once fall camp begins.