Our Big 12 position rankings head down the home stretch as we shift gears to the linebacker position. There are lots of different defenses used in the Big 12 with some teams deploying just two linebackers, some use three and some go with four. There’s a wide variety in the conference, so it’s tough to rank this position. But that’s why we get paid the big bucks, to make these massive, life-altering decisions. So let’s get to our rankings heading into the 2018 season.
Plus, if you missed our other position group rankings in the Big 12 Conference, here they are:
1. Oklahoma Sooners
The Sooners lost Obo Okornkwo and Emmanue Beal, but I don’t expect to see a dip in this unit. If anything, it’s deeper and maybe poised for a better season. Kenneth Murray was the first true freshman at OU to start at inside linebacker in over 40 years. He was named the co-Big 12 Defensive Freshman of the Year and is clearly becoming a leader as well as Lincoln Riley invited him to Big 12 Media Days. He finished second in the team with 78 tackles. It’s now time for the likes of Jon-Michael Terry and Caleb Kelly to step up and reach their full potential. Terry played in 13 games last season, but didn’t pile up many stats, while Kelly, the former five-star recruit, was an Honorable Mention All-Big 12 selection after 56 tackles, 3.5 TFL and one sack. Other depth from this unit comes from Levi Drapper, Addison Gumbs, Curtis Bolton and maybe even true freshmen four-star prospects DaSahun White and Nik Bonitto.
2. Iowa State Cyclones
Joel Lanning is gone after making one of the most impressive position changes in recent memory from quarterback to linebacker. Lanning finished fourth in the Big 12 in tackles. But there is still plenty of reason for excitement at this position with veterans like Marcel Spears and Willie Harvey. Spears was sixth in the Big 12 in tackles and Harvey ranked 17th. The Cyclones have high expectations for redshirt freshman O’Rien Vance, who was a top-50 linebacker nationally in the class of 2017 and was a top 5 player in the state of Iowa. Another redshirt from last season who was a top-50 linebacker is Cordarrius Bailey. He picked ISU over Louisville, Arizona and Mississippi State. Reggan Northrup should provide some depth on the outside, along with Jake Hummel, Tymar Sutton and Bobby McMillen.
3. Texas Tech Red Raiders
The duo of Jordan Brooks and Dakota Allen, the HCS Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year prediction, might be the best 1-2 in the conference at the position. Brooks finished 11th in the Big 12 in tackles with 89, while Allen was 7th with 101. It’s scary and impressive to think what these two can achieve this fall in Lubbock under another year of learning from David Gibbs. Riko Jeffers was one of just four true freshmen to see playing time last fall, playing in 13 games and even receiving two starts. Also, rising redshirt junior Christian Taylor can expect more playing time after seeing action in all 13 games last season.
4. Texas Longhorns
Malik Jefferson is off to the league, and while it’s not ideal to lose an NFL linebacker, it’s OK. Gary Johnson was the nation’s top JUCO transfer linebacker last year and became a key cog in the middle of the defense with 60 tackles. Anthony Wheeler joins Johnson as the leader of the unit after playing in 13 games last season with 8 starts and 47 tackles, 5.5 tackles for loss, plus 2.5 sacks. Increased expectations will be coming for Malcolm Roach, DeMarco Boyd and Jeffery McCulloch, but McCulloch is out for several weeks with a strained pectoral muscle. And keep an eye on true freshman Ayodele Adeoye who enrolled early, was an All-American, and a top-5 inside linebacker in the Class of 2018. However, speaking of injuries, he is dealing with an undisclosed knee injury that will at least keep him out for the opener against Maryland.
5. West Virginia Mountaineers
There’s David Long, who could be one of the best defensive players in the Big 12 this fall after finishing 9th in the Big 12 in tackles and 4th in tackles for loss, despite missing the first four games due to injury. But after Long, there are question marks. Meantime, key linebackers Quondarius Qualls and Brendan Ferns suffered injuries in spring, but Dana Holgorsen said last week, “Those guys are going to come back with about four games left to play.” If so, that’s huge for WVU, who plays Texas, TCU, Oklahoma State and Oklahoma in the final few weeks of the season. In the meantime, expect to see Dylan Tonkery get more action after playing in all 13 games and getting eight starts as a redshirt freshman. Also, Charlie Benton comes in as the 5th-ranked outside linebacker from the JUCO ranks at Butler Community College.
6. TCU Horned Frogs
Like Texas Tech, TCU typically only uses two linebackers, but they are darn good. Travin Howard is gone, but Ty Summers will step right in after earning Honorable Mention All-Big 12 last season after racking up 64 tackles and four sacks. Graduate transfer Jawuan Johnson transfers from Northern Illinois where he was a third team All-MAC player after compiling 98 tackles, 18 TFL, four sacks and led all FBS players with five forced fumbles. The Horned Frogs have some solid depth at the position thanks to Arico Evans and Montrel Wilson.
7. Oklahoma State Cowboys
Oklahoma State is also implementing a 4-2-5 scheme under new defensive coordinator Jim Knowles, but that just gives OSU a helluva 1-2 punch in Calvin Bundage and Justin Phillips. Phillips had 64 tackles on the season, while Bundage had 54. Bundrage won the 2017 Barry Sanders award, which is for the greatest contribution to the team with the least recognition. That’s a great way to describe him. Don’t sleep on Kevin Henry, who was supposed to be a big part of the defense last season before he was lost for the season after the opener against Tulsa. Redshirt sophomore Devin Harper and Amen Ogbongbemiga should see increased roles as well after playing on special teams and at linebacker last season.
8. Kansas Jayhawks
By KU standards, the Jayhawks should feel good about what they bring back at linebacker. Joe Dineen led the Big 12 by a wide margin (27, to be exact) in total tackles, along with tackles for loss by 7.5. The multi-year starter is the anchor of the defense both physically and emotionally. Meantime, Osaze Ogebor has turned himself into a nice Power 5 player after piling up a total of 46 tackles in 2017, including two sacks and five tackles for loss. Keith Loneker adds depth as a returning starter heading into 2018. Also, after playing in 12 games as a freshman on defense and special teams, expect to see more of Kyron JohnsonFlorida three-star prospect Kenny Bastida has a chance to come in and play right away after being named one of the best players in the Sunshine State.
9. Kansas State Wildcats
The Wildcats might certainly have more athleticism at linebacker, but they are also losing two veterans in Trent Tanking and Jayd Kirby, both players who ranked in the top 10 of total tackles in the Big 12 Conference last fall. However, there’s reason to be excited about Elijah Sullivan and Da’Quan Patton. Sullivan played sparingly the past two seasons, while Patton redshirted after transferring in as a JUCO All-American. Justin Hughes should see increased chances for playing time as well, along with Virginia transfer Eric Gallon, who also sat out last season to redshirt. Also, I’m curious to see what Daniel Green is all about and what he can do, or what he’s given an opportunity to do. He was K-State’s top recruit in the Class of 2017, but did not enroll until after the 2017 season due to academic issues. Overall, this unit can be solid, but it’s largely unproven at the moment.
10. Baylor Bears
I also like Baylor’s potential here, but once again, they have to prove it. Clay Johnston was lighting up the Big 12 last fall before he injured his hand and missed the last four games and then also missed spring with a foot injury. Lenoy Jones should see an increase in playing time as well after a career-high 27 tackles along with two TFLs, one sack and one forced fumble in 2017. Jalen Pitre is a returning starter as well after making eight starts as a true freshman where he racked up 37 tackles. Jordan Williams, Bryson Jackson and Henry Black add depth to a group of linebackers that struggled last season in allowing the second most rushing yards in the Big 12.
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