1. Oklahoma: The Sooners return three starters to their linebacker corps, and all three have star potential. In point of fact, Eric Striker and Dominique Alexander have already achieved stellar status with dynamic blitzer Striker having notched All-America notice. And third starter Jordan Evans is a smart player with a good nose for the football. Devante Bond looks to round out the group’s starters.
2. West Virginia: Nick Kwiatkoski isn’t as flashy as Eric Striker, but the hard nosed backer from western Pennsylvania is probably the more complete player. He’s a force against the run and is decent in coverage. Jared Barber, another returning starter, is a real bruiser, and former standout safety K.J. Dillon has been spun down to outside linebacker where the expectation is he will flourish. Shaq Petteway, who saw some action in 2014, will be the fourth starter in this excellent unit.
3. Oklahoma State: The Cowboys return starters Seth Jacobs and Ryan Simmons. The former is good and the latter is very good. In combination, they will be as good as any duo in the Big 12. JUCO transfer Jordan Burton figures to round out the lineup.
4. Texas: The Longhorns, as usual, do not lack for talent, but just how well that talent will actually perform is the question. Peter Jinkens, Dalton Santos and Malik Jefferson look like the probable starters, with Santos in the middle. Jinkens has started at various times throughout his career, but has never locked up a position. Much the same can be said for Santos. And Jefferson was generally regarded as the nation’s best high school linebacker last year. This group could be exceptional or exceptionally average.
5. Kansas State: Neither Elijah Lee nor Will Davis were fulltime starters in 2014, but both players gave indication of being very good when they do start full time. Well that time is now. Lee recorded 4.5 sacks as a freshman, while Davis, a former luminary at Southlake Carroll, started six games. This group could surprise.
6. Baylor: The Bears have had good ones at this position recently in the form of Eddie Lackey and Bryce Hager, but the talent doesn’t look quite so good in 2015. Taylor Young, returns at the weakside spot after earning Big 12 Freshman Defensive Player of the Year honors a season ago. Aiavion Edwards could move inside and start or add depth as a quality backup. Both players have talent, though. Junior college transfer Grant Campbell is being groomed to start opposite Edwards/Young.
7. TCU: One is always leery of ranking any TCU defensive unit this low, but the projected starting duo of Sammy Douglas and Mike Freeze just doesn’t have enough notches on their guns to merit a higher rank. Douglas recorded 17 tackles last season as a sophomore, while Freeze was playing high school ball in Graham. But knowing Gary Patterson, Douglas and Freeze will turn into monsters.
8. Iowa State: The only real reason to rate the Cyclones this high is the presence of Luke Knott, brother of All-American Jake Knott, and a good Big 12 linebacker in his own right. Problem is, Luke is currently sidelined with a recurring hip injury and his status as a football player is unknown. He could start every game in 2015 or his career may be over. If Knott can go, he’ll be joined by Reggan Northrup and Kane Seeley, neither of whom saw a great deal of action last season.
9. Texas Tech: The Red Raider linebackers will be green. That much is for sure. Micah Awe, who started four games in 2014, is the only one who has extensive experience. The current depth chart shows Malik Jenkins and Sam Atoe joining Awe in the lineup. Neither has seen played a great deal. Ohio State transfer Mike Mitchell and redshirt freshman Dakota Allen could conceivably elevate this group to a higher level.
10. Kansas: Kyron Watson was a ballyhooed recruit from East St. Louis, Illinois, who did nothing last season, while Courtney Arnick started four games in 2014, recording 45 tackles and four tackles for loss. As they say, meh.