1. Texas Longhorns
One of the most talented single units in the conference is the Texas linebackers corps. Returning starter Steve Edmond did a little of everything last season, racking up 103 tackles/six for loss, two forced fumbles and an interception. Kendall Thompson provided adequate pressure in the backfield, and gives the Longhorn unit a big, athletic presence on blitz packages.
Peter Jinkens also contributed through various facets for the UT defense, recording 29 tackles, a sack and an interception. Jordan Hicks, who was suspended for the Alamo Bowl, was reinstated in January. Three of Hicks’ 23 tackles were for loss last year. He was a five-star prospect coming out of West Chester (Ohio) Lakota West, so expectations from him are high.
Texas suffered through a defensively disappointing 2012, but a solid group at linebacker is the critical component to rectifying that in 2013.
2. Baylor Bears
Arguably the best of the Big 12 linebackers calls Waco home. Baylor’s returning All-Conference selection Bryce Hager was a ball hawk in 2012, making 124 tackles, 11 for loss, four sacks, eight quarterback hurries and forcing a pair of fumbles.
Hager is one of three returning starters on a Bear linebackers unit vital to reversing BU’s defensive fortunes. Eddie Lackey was an All-Big 12 selection, and is one of the conference’s elite outside linebackers entering 2013. Lackey made 103 tackles, and led the team with 13 for loss.
Baylor has two of the most individually dynamic defensive play makers in the conference, but BU was still one of the most scored-on teams in college football. Reversing its fortune starts with the play of this unit. The potential is high.
3. Oklahoma State Cowboys
Shaun Lewis returns, primed for breakout as one of the conference’s premier linebackers. Lewis was an effective pass rush threat on the edge, recording 7.5 tackles for loss. Only linemen Calvin Barnett and Ryan Robinson had more. Lewis also made 2.5 sacks and four quarterback hurries.
He and Caleb Lavey complement each other well. Lavey is entering his third season as a starter. He was an integral part of the Cowboys’ Big 12 championship team in 2011, and provides invaluable veteran savvy that could help OSU push for another in 2013.
This group was very good against the run last season, allowing 3.8 yards per carry. It could be even better in the upcoming campaign.
4. Oklahoma Sooners
Outstanding linebacker play defined the celebrated Sooner defenses of the early 2000s, and a move to a 3-4 base means a reinvestment in that facet of the program’s glory days.
Corey Nelson returns. He was an All-Conference selection in 2011, but his production dipped last year with the change in defensive coaching staff. Jason Kersey of The Oklahoman reported during Sooner spring practice that Nelson is optimistic about the change in philosophy for 2013:
“Last year, I got down on myself. I got it back. I got my swag back … but I was down in confidence once upon a time.”
OU loses Tom Wort, a key contributor a season ago, but Frank Shannon moves into his place with breakout potential.
5. West Virginia Mountaineers
For the assorted other issues West Virginia’s defense had — and it had plenty — the Mountaineers were effective against the run. Opponents averaged just 3.8 yards per attempt and under 160 per game; the latter is hardly a bad yield, considering West Virginia defended 548 rushing plays.
Linebacker Isaiah Bruce was an active leader for the Mountaineers, contributing both in run pursuit and in pass protection. He made 94 tackles and two interceptions last year, and also broke up three passes. And, Bruce was just a freshman. The best is yet to come for him.
Bruce is the star of a veteran group, which also returns Doug Rigg (58 tackles), Shaq Petteway (42 tackles, 4.5 TFL) and Jared Barber (34 tackles, 2.5 TFL, one sack). The program is well stocked to effectively run the 3-4, a transition that came slowly in its first year moving away from the 3-3-5.
6. TCU Horned Frogs
Excellent play in the front seven has been a hallmark of the Gary Patterson-led TCU teams, and last year’s was No. 10 nationally against the run. Gone from the Frogs’ 2012 defense is leading tackler Kenny Cain, but returning Joel Hasley is more than capable as the unit’s leader. Hasley made 79 tackles last season, 8.5 for loss, manning the Horned Frogs’ inside linebacker position.
Marcus Mallet came on strong late in the season. If his momentum from an outstanding Thanksgiving Day performance against Texas carries over into the new season, Mallet will be a key contributing for this group. Paul Dawson saw action in all 13 games.
7. Kansas Jayhawks
Aside from running back, the strongest position on the Kansas depth chart is linebacker. Leading tackler Ben Heeney returns off a 112-tackle (12 for loss) returns to lead the Jayhawk defense. Along with Heeney is Jake Love, second among last year’s players with eight tackles for loss. KU would have had a nice veteran group had injuries not forced Huldon Tharp, a 2009 Freshman All-American, into early retirement. His absence leaves a void that a newcomer could immediately fill.
Among the assortment of JUCO transfers in which Charlie Weis has entrusted his future are linebackers Samson Faifili and Marcus Jenkins-Moore. Both are three-star prospects, and Jenkins-Moore is the JUCO teammate of touted defensive line addition Marquel Combs.
8. Kansas State Wildcats
A Kansas State team that under Bill Snyder is typically stout defensively lands at No. 10 largely by default. Slating the Wildcats when the dynamics of their linebacking corps are completely mysterious is a
During K-State’s 2012 Big 12 championship run were among the nation’s best. Arthur Brown’s sideline-to-sideline style set the tone for the conference’s premier run-stopping defense. Tre Walker’s return from injury is the major sub-plot for this defense. He could be the star K-State needs to emerge with so much turnover.
With every other starter gone, the Wildcat linebackers a whole lot of uncertainty. Expectations for incoming, four-star freshman Nick Ramirez are high. Both he and Isaiah Williams may need to fill immediate roles.
9.Texas Tech Red Raiders
Tech allowed 175.3 rushing yards per game and 4.4 per carry last season, both of which were right around conference counterparts Iowa State and Baylor. The Red Raider linebackers corps that contributed to those numbers is not as flush with experience as Baylor, but it’s not as depleted as Iowa State. Senior Will Smith is coming off a 55-tackle campaign. Joining Smith are junior Blake Dees and Zach Winbush. Dees played in every game last season and made 35 tackles.
10. Iowa State Cyclones
Iowa State’s dynamic duo of A.J. Klein and Jake Knott are gone, leaving behind 196 tackles worth of production — and that was with Knott missing five games due to injury.
Jeremiah George’s return does give a linebacker corps that last season was among the Big 12′s best reason for optimism. George made 87 tackles last season. Juniors Jared Brackens and Jevohn Miller saw action, and Miller made 22 tackles. Otherwise, this is a very young corps with 13 redshirt or true freshmen.