In the wake of spring practice around the Big 12, we're updating our positions rankings for the league.
The series continues with the linebackers (previous ranking in parentheses):
1. TCU (1): The Big 12’s best linebacker duo before the spring remains in the pole position to enter summer. Senior Travin Howard is a returning first-team all-conference pick, and junior Ty Summers earned second-team honors. They ranked 1-2 in the Big 12 in tackles last season and complement each other especially well in the TCU system, which most often uses just the two linebackers. Sammy Douglas and Montrel Wilson rate as solid backups.
2. Texas (3): The Longhorns actually make a strong case for the top spot, but it’s primarily based on potential over production. Anthony Wheeler and Breckyn Hager, Texas’ top returning tackler and pass-rusher, respectively, are battling for the job in the middle. Malik Jefferson has All-America talent at the weakside spot. Senior Naashon Hughes adds experience, and touted juco transfer Gary Johnson may jump immediately into a starting role.
3. Oklahoma State (4): Lots of options exist for the Cowboys, despite the departures of Jordan Burton and Devante Averette. Senior Chad Whitener is back in the middle, and Oklahoma State coaches expect at least one star to emerge from the group of Justin Phillips, Calvin Bundage and Kenneth Edison-McGruder. Phillips is especially versatile and could play alongside his backup, Kevin Henry. Linebacker should rate as the Pokes’ strongest defensive position group.
4. Oklahoma (2): We placed returning second-team All-Big 12 linebacker Ogbonnia Okoronkwo, in his revised role as the “Jack” rusher, among the Sooners’ line. Hence the drop. But Caleb Kelly is a fast-rising star, evidenced by his breakout performance in Oklahoma’s bowl win over Auburn. Freshman Kenneth Murray may follow Kelly’s path in 2017 as a backup, for now, to senior Emmanuel Beal. Redshirt freshman Jon-Michael Terry also emerged from the spring as a projected starter.
5. West Virginia (5): Senior Al-Rasheed Benton and sophomore David Long are the headliners, but don’t overlook senior Xavier Preston, whose playing time was limited last year behind top tackler Justin Arndt. Not yet among the expected playing rotation, Brendan Ferns, a former ESPN 300 signee who sat out last season with a knee injury, will strengthen this corps when he’s ready to contribute.
6. Baylor (6): Taylor Young ranks as the Bears’ best player, regardless of position, after accumulating 265 tackles in three seasons. But Baylor is thin behind the senior, with Travon Blanchard's availability in question and the spring departure of Raaquan Davis. Sophomores Clay Johnston and Lenoy Jones Jr. are ready to contribute. Freshman Jalen Pitre impressed as an early enrollee, and classmate Demarco Artis could get a look right away.
7. Texas Tech (7): There’s more to work with than you’d imagine for a defense that struggled to make stops in 2016. Jordyn Brooks and D'Vonta Hinton have learned on the fly, and juco transfers Dakota Allen and Tony Jones offer viable options. Jamile Johnson and Christian Taylor showed some playmaking ability in the spring, providing a luxury of depth that Tech did not enjoy last year,
8. Kansas State (8): The Wildcats are relying heavily on Trent Tanking, a fifth-year senior, former walk-on and special teams standout, to take over for first-team All-Big 12 pick Elijah Lee in the middle. Sam Sizelove and Jayd Kirby are slated to start on the outside, though K-State usually plays with two linebackers. If juco transfer Da'Quan Patton and sophomore Elijah Sullivan grow into more prominent roles, it figures to boost the overall strength of this group.
9. Iowa State (9): The lack of depth is a concern, but the Cyclones received a big boost when former starting quarterback Joel Lanning transitioned smoothly to middle linebacker in one of the more interesting spring storylines. He’s got NFL talent and smarts. Willie Harvey at the weakside made the jump to rate as a leader of the linebackers. Reggan Northrup is also in position to start.
10. Kansas (10): Joe Dineen is back as a junior after taking a medical redshirt, stemming from a September hamstring injury. He ranked second on the team with 86 tackles in 2015 and looks set to start alongside classmate Keith Loneker, a homegrown defender who began his career at Baker University and earned four starts last year. Juniors Denzel Feaster and Osaze Ogbebor are the backups.