Oklahoma's Travis Lewis, above, will battle with Texas A&M's Von Miller for the right to be called the conference's top linebacker.
There are disagreements about whether Lewis or Von Miller is the conference's top linebacker, and it's very, very close. But in the Big 12, the strength should be shifted slightly to the running game, especially among the conference's top-three teams --Nebraska, Oklahoma and Texas. In short, having a run-stopping linebacker is slightly more valuable than having a crazy-good pass rusher. That said, they're both -- by far -- the best at what they do. Lewis has 253 tackles in two seasons at Oklahoma and is entering only his junior year, while Miller has one season of excellence in three years at Texas A&M leading up to his senior season. Both were All-Big 12 first-teamers in 2009, and both should be again in 2010.
2. Von Miller, Texas A&M
Miller and Lewis are a step above the rest of the linebackers in the conference, and Miller has no returning contemporary when it comes to sacks. He had 5.5 more than any returning Big 12 player (Missouri DE Aldon Smith), and will play a position in new defensive coordinator Tim DeRuyter's 3-4 scheme built for his talents. The speedy, athletic 6-3, 240-pounder will be DeRuyter's "Joker," a hybrid defensive end/linebacker position.
3. Brian Duncan, Texas Tech
Duncan led the Red Raiders in tackles in 2009 with 87, and though he was held without a sack as a junior, the 6-foot-1, 240-pound senior may get big opportunities for game-changing plays in 2010. New defensive coordinator James Willis moved him to the outside of his 3-4, aggressive scheme, and Duncan should spend a lot more time in the offensive backfield with Willis' penchant for blitzing.
4. Keenan Robinson, Texas
Only two Longhorns had more tackles than Robinson's 63 from 2009, and both (Roddrick Muckelroy and Earl Thomas) were 2010 NFL draft picks. He'll be one of the leaders of a Texas defense that should be among the nation's best once again, with Robinson holding down one of the outside linebacker spots for the second season. His four tackles for loss and 1.5 sacks earned him All-Big 12 honorable mention.
5. Orie Lemon, Oklahoma State
Lemon missed all of the 2009 season after tearing his ACL, but he's back this spring and sounds back on track. He was second on the team in tackles in 2008 with 90 stops, and this spring, defensive coordinator Bill Young said his linebacker was among the best middle linebackers in the country. Based on his placement on this list, I don't agree 100 percent, but he's definitely one of the best in the conference. The 6-foot-1, 240-pound senior's injury delayed his career, but it gives the Cowboys some much-needed maturity and leadership on a defense that lost seven starters from a season ago.