Continuing the series on the top 5 returning players of each position in the Big 12, it was the linebackers turn. The Scout.com publishers and experts voted and the reports are in. The Top three vote-getters distanced themselves by quite a margin, with all three of them appearing on every ballot except one. Junior Eric Striker received the most votes, but his absence on one ballot hurt him.
Bryce Hager appeared in first or second place on 9-ballots, the most of any player, and the main reason why he is selected as the top returning linebacker in the Big 12. The only other player to receive a first place vote is Kansas senior Ben Heeney. He was also the only player outside of Bryce Hager to receive a vote on every ballot.
After the top 3, there is a very large drop. Fourth place Paul Dawson did not receive a single vote higher than 3rd place, but did appear on 7 ballots. No one else on the list appeared on more than 5 ballots. The highest vote for someone not in the top three came for Jonathan Truman, who received one 2nd place vote, and a 5th place vote, finishing 7th overall.
The other “Bryce” on the Baylor Bears, this one is the quarterback of the defense. After leading the Big 12 in tackles in 2012, Hager missed the last four games of the 2013 season. With Hager out of the lineup, the defense struggled to stop rushing attacks. When he was healthy, the Bears had a Top 10 defense, giving up just 15.4 points and 306.1 yards per game. However, with Hager out of the lineup, those numbers shot up to 36.6 points and 446.2 yards per game. A healthy Hager is one of the biggest keys to the Bears defense.
2013 Stats: 71 total tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss, 1 sack, 3 passes defended
With a dominant performance in the Sugar Bowl against Alabama, Striker finally broke out to the nation. He had three sacks, and 7 total tackles in the Sooners upset win. The 6-foot, 220 pound athlete is a new type of linebacker, one that would have been a strong safety last decade. However, the Sooners are lining Striker up all over the field in hopes of using his speed, and innate pass rushing ability, to put pressure on opposing offenses. Before a late season-fade, Striker recorded a sack in 6 straight Big 12 games. With linebacker Frank Shannon’s status uncertain for the Sooners, look for Striker to have a larger role for the 2014 squad.
2013 Stats: 50 total tackles, 10.5 tackles for loss, 6.5 sacks, 3 passes defended
“Captain Heeney” is one of the more underrated players in the Big 12. The leader of the Jayhawks defense is a quiet young man that doesn’t like a lot of attention or accolades. Well, that is starting to change. A preseason First Team All-Big 12, Heeney appears poised for a breakout season. Of course, anyone with their own website and awesome alter ego (The Diabolical Defender) has to be one of the best linebackers in the Big 12.
2013 Stats:87 total tackles, 11.5 tackles for loss, 2 sacks, 3 interceptions, 2 passes defended
The senior from TCU is the top tackler returning to the Big 12 this year, after posting the 8th best total in 2013. A preseason Butkus Award list nominee, Dawson is currently fighting for a starting position with Marcus Mallet.
2013 Stats: 91 total tackles, 10 tackles for loss, .5 sacks, 1 interception, 3 passes defended
A former wide receiver and safety in high school, Kwiatkoski has put on over 30 pounds since coming to Morgantown to grow into the linebacker position in the Mountaineers 3-3-5 defense. With good size at 6-foot-2 and 225 pounds to go along with good athleticism and speed, he has the tools to be a very good linebacker in the Big 12. The 2nd Team All-Big 12 linebacker in 2013, he is moving inside to middle linebacker to take advantage of his speed even more, after 2-years as an outside linebacker.
2013 Stats: 86 total tackles, 6.5 tackles for loss, 2 sacks, 2 interceptions
"Eric Striker is the highest rated player on the list, just missing the four-star cut as the No. 61 outside linebacker coming out of the powerful Seffner (Fla.) Armwood. Only rated as a two-star recruit coming out Austin (Texas) Westlake in 2010 high school Bryce Hager was dubbed the ‘steal of the class’ — a statement that has rung true."
----Scout.com National Analyst Greg Powers
The voter panel: Jeremy Clark - HornedFrog Blitz.com, Jarret Johnson - RaiderPower.com, Kevin Kinder - BlueGoldNews.com, Greg Powers - Scout.com, Bob Przybylo - SoonersIllustrated.com, Trey Scott - AllCyclones.com, Terry Tush - GoPokes.com, Tim Watkins - BearsIllustrated.com, William Wilkerson - HornsDigest.com, Derek Young - Scout.com