- Jake Trotter, ESPN Staff Writer
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With spring ball a month away, we've been ranking position groups in the Big 12. These evaluations have been based on past performance, future potential, and quality depth. We continue the series below with linebackers:
1. Oklahoma: The Oklahoma linebackers didn’t quite live up to expectations last season. But Dominique Alexander and Jordan Evans are two of the top five returning tacklers in the league. Eric Striker was also tops among Big 12 linebackers with nine sacks, and has All-American potential even if the production wasn’t quite there in 2014. The Sooners are also banking on getting back 2013 leading tackler Frank Shannon, who was suspended from school last year for violating the school’s Title IX conduct policy. Ogbonnia Okoronkwo and Devante Bond bring depth and speed off the edge.
2. Oklahoma State: Ryan Simmons will be a three-year starter and brings plenty of speed from the inside. Seth Jacobs is also back after a breakout sophomore season. Simmons and Jacobs ranked 11th and 13th in the league in tackles last season, respectively. The Cowboys should also begin to feel the effects of their outstanding 2014 linebacking recruiting class. Gyasi Akem and Justin Phillips both played as true freshmen and warrant bigger roles in 2015. ESPN 300 signee Kevin Henry and junior-college transfer Jordan Burton could both challenge for time at the "star" outside linebacking spot.
3. Texas: The Longhorns graduated leading tackler Jordan Hicks, who chose not to seek a sixth year of eligibility. But veterans Dalton Santos and Peter Jinkens are back to anchor the unit. The Longhorns also signed perhaps the best linebacking class in the country this month, headlined by four-star prospects Malik Jefferson, Anthony Wheeler and Cameron Townsend.
4. West Virginia: No returning linebacker has more tackles the last two years than Nick Kwiatkoski's 189. Kwiatkoski is a tackling machine. K.J. Dillon had a solid season after moving down from safety to outside linebacker. Seniors Isaiah Bruce, Jared Barber, Shaq Petteway, and Edward Muldrow all have starting experience, as well. No Big 12 team has a deeper corps than the Mountaineers.
5. Baylor: Taylor Young is the AP’s reigning Big 12 Newcomer of the Year. As a redshirt freshman, he produced 91 tackles, eight tackles for loss, and a fourth-quarter interception against Michigan State in the Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic. Who will start alongside him remains a question after the Bears graduated longtime stalwart Bryce Hager. Grant Campbell will probably get the nod starting out in the middle, but Aiavion Edwards, Kendall Ehrlich, Raaquan Davis, and Xavier Phillips will all have opportunities.
6. Kansas State: Elijah Lee shined while getting significant snaps as a true freshman as a pass-rushing specialist. He has a chance to be the Big 12’s next version of Striker. Will Davis started out the season starting alongside Jonathan Truman, but lost snaps to Dakorey Johnson late in the season. The Wildcats will need Davis to bounce back to fill some of the massive production Truman supplied. A healthy return of Charmeachealle Moore from a season-ending injury would help, too.
7. Texas Tech: All eyes in Lubbock will be on Ohio State transfer Mike Mitchell, whom the Red Raiders are hoping will deliver big. The Plano, Texas, native was an ESPN 300 prospect before signing with the Buckeyes. He has the potential to be a difference-maker. Micah Awe was third on the team in tackles last season from the inside. Redshirt freshman Dakota Allen and incoming freshman D'Vonta Hinton could both step into the rotation.
8. Kansas: The Jayhawks graduated one of the best defensive players in school history in linebacker Ben Heeney, who topped the Big 12 with 88 solo tackles last season. To help replace him, Kansas will have to hope that Jake Love can more consistently produce the kind of performance he delivered early last year against Central Michigan, when he had four tackles for loss and a sack. Courtney Arnick returns after finishing sixth on the defense in tackles. Former ESPN 300 signee Kyron Watson figures to play a much bigger role as a sophomore.
9. TCU: There wasn’t a better linebacking tandem in the Big 12 last season than All-American Paul Dawson and Marcus Mallet. Both, however, are gone, leaving a gigantic void in the middle of the TCU defense. For the Horned Frogs to challenge for a playoff spot again, someone will have to emerge from the likes of Sammy Douglas, Paul Whitmill, Ty Summers, and incoming freshmen Alec Dunham, Mike Freeze and Semaj Thomas.
10. Iowa State: The Cyclones had one of the worst run defenses in the country last season. Better linebacking will help correct this Achilles' heel. Brian Mills eventually won a starting job as a redshirt freshman last season. He and Luke Knott have the chance to develop into a quality one-two punch from the outside. In the middle, Kane Steely, Jordan Harris, and Alton Meeks will battle for time. Whoever is most consistent will get the majority of the snaps.