The Big 12 is really, really strong at linebacker, just as it is at receiver. Running back and defensive line are two of the Big 12's weakest positions, but linebacker might prove to be a true strength by season's end.
We might even see big, young talents like Corey Nelson, Tom Wort, Arthur Brown, Jordan Hicks and Huldon Tharp fight for spots on this list by season's end, but overall inexperience keeps them off for now.
Here are the top 10.
1. Travis Lewis, Oklahoma: Lewis took home the Big 12's preseason Defensive Player of the Year Award (as much as someone can take home an award with no actual hardware, anyway), but he'll be the easy favorite for the award entering the season. Of my postseason top 25 Big 12 players, Lewis is the only returning defensive player. He's made 100 tackles in each of his first three seasons at Oklahoma, and eschewed the NFL draft to try and win a title at Oklahoma.
2. Jake Knott, Iowa State: Knott doesn't get the national pub of some other guys on this list, but he should. In just his first year as a starter, Knott made 130 tackles, the most of any returning Big 12 starter. Just a junior, Knott should make even more improvement in 2011.
3. Keenan Robinson, Texas: Robinson has all the physical tools, and should be set loose in new coordinator Manny Diaz's aggressive scheme. Robinson made 106 tackles in 2010, but look for his sack totals (two in 2010) to get a big boost from spending more time in offensive backfields.
4. Shaun Lewis, Oklahoma State: Lewis exploded into the Big 12 fan's consciousness as a true freshman in 2010, sharing Big 12 Defensive Freshman of the Year honors with Oklahoma's Tony Jefferson after making 58 tackles with eight tackles for loss, despite not officially being a starter until the second half of the season. He's a bit faster than you might expect him to be at 5-foot-11 and 220 pounds, but he should be due for a big encore.
5. Emmanuel Acho, Texas: Acho joins Robinson in one of the best linebacker groups in the league, and will likely be a team captain alongside his fellow linebacker. Acho made 81 tackles to rank second on the team, and added 10.5 tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks for an underrated Texas defense in 2010.
6. Zaviar Gooden, Missouri: Gooden is easily the fastest guy out of this group, and should be due for a breakout year on the national stage if Missouri gets the ball rolling with James Franklin at quarterback and becomes a top 25 mainstay. He tied for the team lead in tackles last season (84, 49 solo) during his first year as a starter, and could see that number jump as a junior in 2011.
7. A.J. Klein, Iowa State: As little respect nationally as Klein's teammate, Knott, gets, Klein gets even less. Which is a shame. Klein, like Knott, was a first-year starter but became one of just 11 players in the Big 12 with more than 100 tackles. Was that number (111, 49 solo) aided by a weak defensive line? Sure, but somebody made those stops. And it was Klein. He'll get plenty more chances to further prove himself.
8. Garrick Williams, Texas A&M: Williams returns as one of the leaders of the Wrecking Crew after making 112 tackles in 2011, including five tackles for loss and a forced fumble. The Aggies need him to play well at inside linebacker in Tim DeRuyter's 3-4 scheme, if for no other reason than because of the uncertainty and likely inexperience at the inside linebacker spot.
9. Elliot Coffey, Baylor: Coffey should be one of the lynchpins of a maturing Baylor defense with lots of work to do under new coordinator Phil Bennett. Though there's no formal depth chart just yet, Art Briles admitted that if anyone has solidified a starting spot, it's Coffey. The 6-foot, 230-pounder made 61 tackles (34 solo) and 4.5 tackles for loss as a junior in 2010.
10. Steven Johnson, Kansas: Johnson emerged out of a good group of linebackers last season to lead the team in tackles, with 95 stops (62 solo). He loses fellow linebackers Justin Springer and Drew Dudley, but will get help with the return of Huldon Tharp. Johnson was a former walk-on, but in his first year as a starter in 2010, rewarded the Jayhawks' decision to put him on scholarship.
Just missed: Will Ebner, Missouri; Sean Porter, Texas A&M