With less than six weeks left until the 2023 college football season kicks off, the time has come to start taking a serious look at the Big 12 landscape and where teams stack up against one another.
With 14 teams in the conference in 2023, there are a lot of new names and playmakers to get familiar with, but we are here to help. Leading up to the 2023 season, Heartland College Sports has taken the liberty of power ranking the position units in the Big 12 heading into the year.
Today, we continue the Power Rankings with the linebacker units from around the league. Let’s take a look.
Projected Starters: WLB Anthony Hill, MLB Jaylan Ford, JACK Barryn Sorrell
As the only group returning an All-American selection from 2022, the Texas Longhorns have the top linebacker corps in the Big 12. Jaylan Ford might be the best LB in the country and will be the unquestioned leader of UT’s defensive group in 2023. Add to that Anthony Hill, who looked like anything but a freshman in spring ball, JACK Barryn Sorrell, and Nickel (STAR) Jahdae Barron and you have a top 10 unit nationally.
Projected Starters: WLB Johnny Hodges, MLB Jamoi Hodge, STAR Namdi Obiazor
Just behind Texas’ LB corps is TCU, who returns two of the best players at the position in the Big 12. Johhny Hodges led the Horned Frogs with 87 tackles last season and earned 2nd-Team All-Big 12 honors. Jamoi Hodge was a 3rd-Team All-Big 12 selection and was third in tackles (82) and second in sacks (4.5). Namdi Obiazor started just two games a season ago but was heavily in the rotation with 49 total tackles. He’ll have an expanded role in 2023.
3. Oklahoma State
Projected Starters: SLB Collin Oliver, WLB Xavier Benson, MLB Justin Wright, ROVER Kendal Daniels
Three teams had an argument for the top spot at linebacker, and Oklahoma State was the final team on that list. With standout DE Collin Oliver moving to SAM, this unit is arguably as strong as there is out there. Xavier Benson leads all returners in tackles (76), followed closely by Kendal Daniels (71), who had a breakout year for the Pokes in 2022. Justin Wright comes in after 101 tackles and 10.5 TFLs for Tulsa last season. I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if this group leads the conference statistically in 2023.
Projected Starters: WLB Danny Stutsman, MLB Jaren Kanak, SLB Dasan McCullough
The Big 12’s leading tackler a season ago, Danny Stutsman (126, 10.5 TFLs), commands this group of extremely athletic defenders for Brent Venables. Jaren Kanak, a fan-favorite in 2022, will take over at MLB and was drawing rave reviews in the spring. Dasan McCullough transfers in from Indiana after receiving Freshman All-American honors with 49 tackles, 4.0 sacks, 3.5 TFLs, and three PBUs. OU also added two-time FCS All-American LB Konner Near, giving them good depth and experience at the position.
Projected Starters: JACK Byron Vaughns, WLB Matt Jones, MLB Mike Smith, STAR Bryson Jackson
Despite losing Dillon Doyle, Baylor’s situation at linebacker looks pretty good heading into 2023. Third-leading tackler Matt Jones returns, as does sack co-leader Garmon Randolph (4.5 sacks). The Bears add Mike Smith (Liberty), an experienced defender with 85 tackles and 10 TFLs a season ago. Bryson Jackson will need to step into a bigger role at the hybrid spot, but this unit should be one of the strengths of Baylor’s team.
6. Kansas State
Projected Starters: SLB Desmond Purnell, WLB Austin Moore, MLB Daniel Green, JACK VJ Payne
Austin Moore led K-State with 87 tackles and 8.5 TFLs in 2022 and returns after earning 2nd-Team All-Big 12 honors. Daniel Green, who was fourth in tackles (58), also returns after starting 13 games last season. Desmond Purcell will have an expanded role in 2023, as will VJ Payne, but this group should be just as strong, especially after the add Terry Kirksey, a Top 50 JUCO LB a season ago.
Projected Starters: BUCK Tre’Mon Morris-Brash, WLB Jason Johnson, MLB Rian Davis
If the production from this group translates to the Power Five level, UCF’s defense might be better than advertised in 2023. Jason Johnson returns after 126 tackles and 4.0 TFLs in 2022 and is joined by Tre’Mon Morris-Brash, who led the Knights in sacks (6.0) and TFLs (7.5). Both Johnson and Morris-Brash were 1st Team All-AAC a season ago, and their new companion, Rian Davis (Georgia) was a national champion a year ago. As a former blue-chip LB, Davis has high expectations, and if he lives up to them, UCF will surprise some folks.
8. Iowa State
Projected Starters: SLB Carson Willich, WLB Gerry Vaughn, MLB Jack Sadowsky, STAR Beau Freyler
The Cyclones return each of their top two tacklers from a season ago, with Gerry Vaughn (71) and Beau Freyler (68) both back in the fold. Freshmen Jack Sadowsky and Carson Willich have big shoes to fill with O’Rien Vance and Colby Reeder gone from a season ago. Iowa State’s defense will once again be at or near the top of the conference statistically, and if their young LBs can get up to speed quickly, this group could be great once again.
Projected Starters: ROVER Max Tooley, MLB Ben Bywater, SLB AJ Vongphachanh
BYU’s Ben Bywater led the Cougars in tackles (98) and co-led in interceptions (3) last season and returns to lead the LB corps in 2023. Max Tooley, who also had three INTs a season ago, was the fourth-leading tackler in ’22 and gives BYU a solid 1-2 punch at the position. Utah State transfer AJ Vongphachanh had 101 tackles and 10.5 TFLs last year, and figures to boost this unit, which was part of a struggling defense in 2022.
Projected Starters: DOG Daniel Grzesiak, WLB Dion Hunter, MLB Jack Dingle, NB Deshawn Pace
Let’s get one thing out of the way: Deshawn Pace is a stud, but replacing his brother’s production from a season ago (137 tkls, 10 sacks, 11.5 TFLs) is going to be a task. Deshawn started eight games a year ago and is Cincy’s leading returning tackler (62). Dion Hunter (New Mexico) and Daniel Grzesiak (Utah State) transfer in and will help offset the loss of four of UC’s top five tacklers from a season ago.
11. West Virginia
Projected Starters: WLB Travious Lathan, MLB Lee Kpogba, SPEAR Lance Dixon
The name to know in this group is Lee Kpogba, a 3rd team All-Big 12 selection in 2022 after leading WVU with 92 tackles, as well as 3.5 sacks and 2.0 TFLs. Travious Lathan figures to see an expanded role as a redshirt freshman, as does Hershey McLaurin, while Lance Dixon takes over as the Mountaineers’ hybrid LB. With Kpogba at the forefront, this unit could be a strength, but it will require new faces to make an impact.
12. Texas Tech
Projected Starters: WLB Jesiah Pierre, MLB Jacob Rodriguez, STAR CJ Bakersfield
One of the players I am most excited about in 2023 is Texas Tech linebacker Jesiah Pierre. In 2022, Pierre flashed in 10 starts, collecting 40 tackles, 4.5 sacks, 2.5 TFLs, and three QB hurries. He will need to lead an otherwise unproven group, with Jacob Rodriguez (29 tackles in ’22) and transfer STAR CJ Bakersfield (San Diego State) being projected as the other starters. Being behind a strong DL will certainly help their cause though, and could help the new faces get up to speed quickly.
Projected Starters: WLB Taiwan Berryhill, MLB Rich Miller, HAWK Craig Young
The good news? Kansas returns all three starters at linebacker from a season ago, with Miller (94) and Young (60) representing two of their top three tacklers in 2022. The bad news? Kansas’ defensive line got worse this offseason, and they allowed 209.2 rushing yards per game a year ago. If KU’s linebackers are forced to try and plug massive holes in the running game, it’s going to be a long season defensively, no matter how much experience they return.
Projected Starters: WLB Malik Robinson, MLB Jamal Morris, NB Alex Hogan
Coming into the 2022 season, Houston will have to replace eight of its top nine tacklers, including top tackler, LB Donovan Mutin. The Cougars have good depth at the position, with Jamal Morris and Trimarcus Cheeks both having starting experience at MLB. Alex Hogan will play nickel after playing CB last season, while Malik Robinson returns after missing the majority of the season with a torn pec.