With spring ball having come and gone, we'll be updating our Big 12 position group rankings over the next two weeks.
We continue this series with the linebackers:
1. Kansas State (pre-spring ranking: 1): Elijah Lee, Charmeachealle Moore and Will Davis return after combining for 189 tackles a year ago. Lee is one of the Big 12’s best defenders after a sophomore season that included 80 tackles (66 solo), 7.5 tackles for loss, five sacks, three interceptions, two fumble recoveries and one forced fumble. The Wildcats linebackers give K-State a terrific base to build upon.
2. Texas (2): The No. 1 spot is within reach if the Longhorns young linebackers develop. Sophomore Malik Jefferson is a budding star (61 tackles, seven tackles for loss, 2.5 sacks) while fellow sophomore Anthony Wheeler started a pair of games as a true freshman. Senior Timothy Cole should play a key role and Edwin Freeman is another sophomore with talent. Add ESPN300 linebacker Jeffery McCullough and Texas looks like it has a deep and talented linebacker corps.
3. TCU (3): The Horned Frogs are another unit that could rise to the top spot after a rollercoaster 2015 season that should pay off in 2016. Montrel Wilson, Travin Howard, Ty Summers and Sammy Douglas gives TCU a group of four linebackers as good as any foursome in the conference. Howard, Summers and Wilson combined for 252 tackles a year ago and Douglas returns from injury after entering the 2015 season as a starter.
4. Oklahoma State (4): Jordan Burton and Chad Whitener are a terrific start to any linebacking corps. Whitener stepped in for an injured Ryan Simmons and excelled a year ago along with Burton making a seamless transition from junior college signee to impact playmaker. Seth Jacobs’ retirement hurts but Oklahoma State has some quality options to replace him including Devante Averette and Justin Phillips. Nobody stepped up and seized the open spot during the spring but the competition is good enough to keep it from being a major concern.
5. Baylor (5): Taylor Young might be the Big 12’s most underrated linebacker with 80 tackles, 13.5 tackles for loss, four sacks and a pair of fumble recoveries a year ago. Aiavion Edwards looks ready for a bigger role after an 17-tackle performance in the Russell Athletic Bowl win over North Carolina. With Baylor shifting to more three-man fronts, the depth at linebacker will be tested but other guys like Pat Levels and Raaquan Davis should contribute along with Travon Blanchard, an all-conference level defender, seeing more time in a linebacker/defensive back role thanks to his versatility.
6. Oklahoma (6): Despite being limited by injury for much of the spring, Jordan Evans returns for his third season as a starter with 188 career tackles under his belt. There were encouraging signs with Ogbonnia Okoronkwo, Eric Striker’s likely replacement, becoming an emerging leader who is ready for an increased role and Tay Evans looks ready to step into the void left by Dominique Alexander. The Sooners have the potential to rise up this list, particularly with reinforcements, including Kapri Doucet and Caleb Kelly, set to arrive before the season.
7. Iowa State (7): The Cyclones are loaded with experience and feature Jordan Harris to build around after he finished his junior season with 70 tackles and five tackles for loss. One of the best developments of the spring was the progress of Willie Harvey, who has impressed new coach Matt Campbell with his playmaking. Brian Mills and Kane Seeley also bring experience to the table. Those four linebackers accounted for 193 tackles in 2015 and are a solid foursome to build around.
8. Kansas (9): Marcquis Roberts and Joe Dineen Jr. are among the Jayhawks' best players with a terrific combination of playmaking and aggression to set the tone for the defense. Dineen Jr. was outstanding after his move from linebacker, finishing with 86 tackles, 6.5 tackles for loss and three sacks. Roberts, a South Carolina transfer, had 71 tackles including 3.5 tackles for loss.
9. West Virginia (10): The Mountaineers had some positive signs in the spring as Al-Rasheed Benton stepped up to show he’s ready for a bigger role in the defense. Justin Ardnt and Sean Walters join him to give West Virginia three upperclassmen who appear ready to seize the opportunity for a starting role while Xavier Preston needs to improve to become a bigger part of the defense.
10. Texas Tech (8): Dakota Allen’s dismissal is a step backward, prompting the Red Raiders slide to the bottom of the rankings by removing the leading returning tackler from a defense that struggled a year ago. D’Vonta Hinton and Malik Jenkins ended the spring in the other starting positions. Early enrollee Johnathan Picone could be asked to take on a key role as a true freshman in Allen’s absence.