Here are the Big 12's top defensive line groups:
It isn't often that a team loses a first-rounder off their defensive line and expect to improve, but that's where the Tigers find themselves heading into 2011. Despite losing Aldon Smith, the Tigers return the league's top defensive end duo in Jacquies Smith and Brad Madison. Madison led Missouri in sacks a year ago despite not starting. The return of Dominique Hamilton from injury buffs up the interior, and the Tigers return his replacement in Jimmy Burge and the other tackle starter in Terrell Resonno. But this is also a strong group because of the depth. Sheldon Richardson could add a high level tackle to the three-man rotation, while Kony Ealy is emerging as another strong end behind Smith and Madison.
The Longhorns lost both starting defensive ends from a year ago, including a playmaker in Sam Acho. But the defensive line has a chance to improve with Alex Okafor moving back out to end from last year's starting spot at tackle. Kheeston Randall is the Big 12's most active defensive tackle, and Jackson Jeffcoat showed glimpses of his massive potential a year ago. Dravannti Johnson started multiple games a year ago and Reggie Wilson gives the Longhorns a quick situational pass rusher. The tackle spot next to Randall is open, though Calvin Howell looks like he might be up for the part. The Longhorns have a number of young bodies on the interior, including highly touted prospect Desmond Jackson.
It all starts with the ends. The Sooners have a pair of explosive pass rushers in Frank Alexander, who had seven sacks last year, and hard-hitting Ronnell Lewis. Former top recruit R.J. Washington and David King supply depth, while Geneo Grissom has also heard positive reviews. The picture isn't as rosy inside, where Stacy McGee returns as a starter. Casey Walker has some experience, but Jamarkus McFarland needs to live up to his massive potential. Watch out for a freshman class that includes Jordan Phillips and Jordan Wade at defensive tackle.
4) Texas A&M
The Aggies' defensive line was a big part of the reason their defense turned a corner in 2010, and two of those three starters return. That includes Jonathan Mathis and Tony Jerod-Eddie, both of whom do their jobs as 3-4 ends well, eating blocks so the linebackers can make plays. Senior Eddie Brown will step in for the departed tackle Lucas Patterson, with massive JUCO transfer LaMarc Strahan (6-4 365) also also auditioning for the job. Spencer Nealy has seen some practice time at tight end, though he'll likely be back as a backup end this fall.
The Cowboys return only one starter on the defensive line, but expect to field a strong defensive end duo in Jaime Blatnick and Richetti Jones. The two combined for 10 sacks a year ago. JUCO transfer Ryan Robinson had eight sacks at Jones County (Miss.) CC last season and earned a spot on the two deep in the spring. Defensive tackle has question marks, though redshirt freshman Christian Littlehead should be able to hold up at the point of attack, and Nigel Nicholas is athletic. If James Castleman can put on a bit of weight before the start of the season, he could see the two deep as a true freshman.
Best of the Rest
6) Texas Tech — Texas Tech doesn't return any starters, though the Red Raiders do have four strong defensive ends in Dartwan Bush, Jackson Richards, Scott Smith and JUCO transfer Leon Mackey. Tackle is an issue after the graduation of Colby Whitlock, though incoming freshman Delvon Simmons should help.
7) Baylor — If Tevin Elliott and Gary Mason Jr. can stay healthy, this group goes up a spot or two. Elliott started last year on a tear and finished with five sacks. Tracy Robertson and Nicolas Jean-Baptiste return on the inside, but will have to replace Phil Taylor's presence.
8) Iowa State — The Cyclones need to get better at rushing the quarterback, but that could come with the return of ends Jacob Lattimer, Patrick Neal and Roosevelt Maggitt and with Rony Nelson back after a redshirt season. There's experience at tackle with Stephen Ruempolhamer and Jake McDonough, and Quinton Pompey and Henry Simon should add an influx of talent.
9) Kansas — Kansas's coaches expect big things out of DE Toben Opurum on his second year on the job, and the Jayhawks return a lot of experience at tackle with Richard Johnson Jr., Patrick Dorsey and John Williams. Redshirt freshman Pat Lewandowski emerged as an interior pass rusher in the spring. Also watch young ends Keba Agostino and Julius Green.
10) Kansas State — Brandon Harold and Ray Kibble return from a defensive line that struggled mightily against the run, and neither generated much pass rush. Raphael Guidry should be solid on the interior, but pressuring the quarterback might come down to a pair of incoming recruits in JUCO transfer Meshak Williams and freshman Ian Seau.