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Big 12 spring battle spotlight: Texas Tech LBs

Texas Tech needs to build a strong defense if the Red Raiders hope to surprise in 2015 and the linebacker position will be a critical piece of the puzzle under new defensive coordinator David Gibbs.

Departed: Tech lost 139 tackles with the departure of Sam Eguavoen and V.J. Fehoko. Even though Fehoko and Eguavoen were productive linebackers, they weren't difference makers for a Red Raider defense that finished No. 121 among FBS teams while allowing 295.5 rushing yards per game in 2014.

Spring contenders: Senior Sam Atoe, senior Micah Awe, sophomore Jacarthy Mack, sophomore Mike Mitchell, redshirt freshman Dakota Allen, junior Malik Jenkins, senior Pete Robertson, senior Andre Ross, sophomore Kahlee Woods, junior Kris Williams.

Summer contenders: Incoming freshman D'Vonta Hinton.

The skinny: This position needs a major playmaking upgrade if Kliff Kingsbury's squad hopes to surprise in 2015. Robertson is a star who led the team in tackles and who also excelled as a pass-rusher, so taking him out of that role in Gibbs new defense would be unwise. Awe joins Robertson as a returning starter who had 69 tackles a year ago and brings plenty of experience. Mitchell is the ray of sunlight and hope for the entire defense yet remains unproven. The Ohio State transfer has the athleticism and playmaking to help spark the defense to new heights if he maximizes his unique talent. Allen, Atoe, Ross and Jenkins are among several candidates who could make the spring interesting as they battle for playing time.

Prediction: Robertson and Mitchell have the potential to be the top two players on Tech's defense. Robertson already ranks as one of the Big 12's best so Gibbs' task will be finding the right role to allow him to match or even exceed his 2014 production and Mitchell can transform a defense that badly needs a playmaker. Awe's experience will be hard to replace, so Robertson, Awe and Mitchell could be the trio that emerges from spring football atop the depth chart. With Mitchell's addition expect Tech's linebackers to be much improved in 2015.