Dallas Colleges: Luke Lambert
At this position, depth is a major factor in these rankings. Additionally, I included nickelbacks in this grouping. Hybrid defensive end/linebackers will be grouped with defensive lines.
2. Texas: The Longhorns will sorely miss an outstanding duo of their own with tons of experience. Keenan Robinson and Emmanuel Acho are both NFL-bound after combining for 215 tackles.
3. Oklahoma: The Sooners weren't quite as good as expected in 2011, but part of that was because of a Travis Lewis preseason toe injury that slowed him for much of the season. Lewis, Tony Jefferson and Tom Wort all topped 70 tackles in 2011, and are a solid group.
4. Kansas State: Arthur Brown reinvigorated this group, finishing eighth in the Big 12 with 101 tackles, but the Wildcats linebackers were more than just Brown. Tre Walker and converted safety Emmanuel Lamur combined for 135 stops and helped lead one of the league's most underrated units and a much-improved run defense.
5. Texas A&M: The Aggies' backers were big pass-rushers, though they struggled in coverage this season. Sean Porter was the Big 12's sack champion with 9.5, and Caleb Russell and Jonathan Stewart combined for six more. Damontre Moore is the rawest talent of the bunch, but built on that in 2011, making 72 tackles.
6. Oklahoma State: OSU's group was good, but not great. Alex Elkins' crazy story came to an end with 90 stops in 2011. He showed up everywhere for the Cowboys, but reigning Big 12 Freshman of the Year Shaun Lewis didn't quite have the sophomore season some had hoped. Caleb Lavey added some solid play for the turnover-hungry unit, producing 74 tackles and five tackles for loss.
7. Missouri: Zaviar Gooden wasn't quite the impact player Mizzou had hoped, but he was solid alongside a group that's been injury prone over the past two years. Sophomore Andrew Wilson emerged as the team's top tackler with 98 stops, and Luke Lambert added 82 more. A high ankle sprain in the season opener kept Will Ebner off the field, but he'll be back in 2012 after the NCAA granted him a fifth year of eligibility.
8. Kansas: Steven Johnson led the Big 12 with 119 tackles, but the rest of the unit left a lot to be desired. Darius Willis has some potential, but the rest of the team's linebackers have their work cut out for them in 2012. Tunde Bakare also returns from a unit that ranked ninth in the Big 12 in rushing defense.
9. Baylor: The Bears needed help just about everywhere. Elliot Coffey was solid, and finished tied for fourth with 114 stops, but Baylor was eighth in the Big 12 in rush defense. Baylor has solid athlete in the secondary and on the defensive line, but at linebacker, Rodney Chadwick and Brody Trahan leave a bit to be desired. Ahmad Dixon was better in 2011, but still has a lot of potential that needs to be filled.
10. Texas Tech: The Red Raiders are looking for a new defensive coordinator and the 4-2-5 made a short stop in Lubbock. The Red Raiders were awful everywhere on defense, but especially up front. Nobody in college football was worse at stopping the run, and D.J. Johnson, Daniel Cobb and Cqulin Hubert turned in forgettable performances. Time to get better for 2012.
There's a lot of turnover in this space, and the bottom half was pretty hard to sort out. We haven't seen a lot of these new faces on the field for extended periods of time, so it's somewhat of a crapshoot. I don't feel like there's a wide gap between teams 7-10, and each of those squads have at least one linebacker who could be due for a huge year and shoot them up this list.
I see Nos. 1-3 possibly being great, with dropoffs before the No. 4 and No. 7 teams.
Also, if you missed them, here are the other position rankings we've done so far.
So, without further ado, here's how I ranked the linebackers. (Nickel backs are included in this list, hybrid DE/LBs will be with defensive lines)
2. Iowa State -- The Cyclones boast two of the Big 12's best in Jake Knott and A.J. Klein, who combined for more tackles than any two teammates in the Big 12 last season. They had 241 stops, and, after healing from a broken leg suffered midseason last year, Matt Tau'fo'ou should join them at middle linebacker.
3. Texas -- Texas' offense may be lacking, but the defense will be strong once again, led by two others likely to earn spots as some of the Big 12's best. Keenan Robinson and Emmanuel Acho were Texas' top two tacklers last year with 187 stops, and return as likely captains come fall camp. Texas' depth chart is wide open, but look for former blue-chip recruit Jordan Hicks to emerge as another star this year, despite being forced to sit out spring camp with a broken foot. Dravannti Johnson played some defensive end last year at the Buck position for the Longhorns, but may find his way back to linebacker. Tevin Jackson was ineligible last year, but he's ready for 2011, and could make an impact.
4. Oklahoma State -- The Cowboys "Star" linebacker is occupied by co-Defensive Freshman of the Year Shaun Lewis, and sophomore Caleb Lavey is charged with replacing Orie Lemon, the leader of last year's defense. Oklahoma State has questions on the weak side, but LeRon Furr and Chris Dinkins will compete next fall. Kris Catlin could be a factor, too.
5. Texas A&M -- The Aggies must replace their leading tackler, Michael Hodges, and don't have a clear replacement heading into fall camp. The good news: They've got two others with lots of experience in the linebacking corps that look like budding stars. Garrick Williams should be one of the defense's leaders and Sean Porter returns after making 74 tackles last year to rank third on the team.
6. Missouri -- The Tigers have lots of experience at middle linebacker, where a pair of seniors (albeit frequently injured seniors) Will Ebner and Luke Lambert will be on the field a lot. One of the Big 12's most exciting players, junior Zaviar Gooden, will hold down the weakside and perhaps become a household name by season's end. Sophomores Andrew Wilson and Donovan Bonner, who missed all of last season with a knee injury, will likely compete for strongside duties in fall camp. Andrew Gachkar, the team's leading tackler, is gone, but here's guessing Gooden emerges as the defense's top playmaker.
7. Kansas -- The Jayhawks linebackers were solid last year, and could be pretty good again, despite losing Drew Dudley and Justin Springer, two of the team's top four tacklers. Steven Johnson, the team's leading tackler in 2010, is back and he'll be joined by possible star Huldon Tharp, who missed all of last season with a leg injury. Fellow sophomore Darius Willis earned a starting role after spring.
8. Kansas State -- K-State's front seven struggled last year, but will get a big boost from Arthur Brown. One man won't be enough to totally fix the Wildcats rush defense problems, though. K-State gave up 26 more yards on the ground per game than any other team in the Big 12 (more than 231 per game) but Brown may be playing in a 4-3 next fall rather than the 4-2-5 the Wildcats have employed since Snyder's return. Alex Hrebec, Emmanuel Lamur, Tre Walker and Blake Slaughter will likely fill the rotation along with Brown.
9. Baylor -- Baylor's defensive depth chart, like Texas', is a bit amorphous after bringing in a new coordinator, but Elliot Coffey figures to be the Bears biggest playmaker at linebacker. Chris McAllister should be solid and Ahmad Dixon is promising at nickelback, too. Brody Trahan is a great story, but him going from third-string quarterback to starting linebacker isn't a ringing endorsement for Baylor's depth at the position.
10. Texas Tech -- Tech will be moving to a 4-2-5 this year under new coordinator Chad Glasgow, and could rise up this list, but the Red Raiders lose a lot of talent from last season's team, which ran the 3-4. Bront Bird and Brian Duncan are both gone, and youth will be a big factor with this group. Cqulin Hubert's outstanding potential is matched by his more outstanding first name, and freshman Blake Dees showed promise after arriving early this spring. They'll likely be the rotation at middle linebacker spot alongside Daniel Cobb and Zach Winbush. Terrance Bullitt could be a playmaker at his new safety spot, listed as a strong safety but with plans to spend lots of time near the line of scrimmage, a la nickelback.
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