But don't discount groups like the Sooners and Cyclones, both of whom are hot on the Longhorns' heels. If the Big 12 is strong at one defensive position, it's linebacker.
The Big 12's best linebacking corps are:
This group will have to fill gaps better than last year to reach its full potential, though there's plenty for defensive coordinator and position coach Manny Diaz to like. Both Keenan Robinson and Emmanuel Acho will find themselves on the short lists for All-Big 12 at the end of the season, while Jordan Hicks could be there next year. Injuries allowed sophomore Demarco Cobbs and true freshman Chet Moss to see plenty of time in the spring, and both showed well. Steve Edmond is a big-time get at middle linebacker, while both Kendall Thompson and Tevin Jackson could play early in their careers.
Travis Lewis returns for his senior year, and he's seemingly been the top non-pass rushing linebacker in the league for three years. Tony Jefferson plays OU's version of a nickel back, a combination safety-linebacker and is one of the league's most explosive young defensive players. Tom Wort played well at times as a freshman. Corey Nelson is a potential All-Big 12 player with tremendous upside. Joseph Ibiloye would be a major player at other schools, and supplies quality depth.
3) Iowa State
It's hard to find a more instinctual pair of linebackers then A.J. Klein and Jake Knott. Not only did the two combine for 241 tackles and serve as the Cyclones' top two tacklers, but they also were one-two on the team in interceptions. Matt Tau'fo'ou missed the second part of 2010 with a broken leg but should be back to man the middle. If Tau'fo'ou can't go for whatever reason, don't look past up-and-comer Jeremiah George. Jevohn Miller was in for the spring and is an athletic option on the outside.
Zaviar Gooden is the league's most physically gifted linebacker, a 225-pounder who has clocked sub-4.4 40 times. He led the team in tackles last year with 85 and could be gearing up for an all-conference run as a junior. Will Ebner and Luke Lambert have started a combined 32 games between them, while Andrew Wilson started another three. This is a solid group with the potential to be even better than that, thanks to an overabundance of experience.
5) Texas A&M
There's no replacing Von Miller's gamebreaking ability. And it will be difficult to replace the tackles and leadership provided by Michael Hodges. But don't weep for the Aggies, who return an excellent middle linebacker in Garrick Williams, who made 112 tackles last year, and Sean Porter on the outside. Miller's oversized shoes will be filled by Damontre Moore and Caleb Russell. Moore had 5.5 sacks last year, while Russell, a former walk-on, might have taken the lead for the job with a strong spring. Jonathan Stewart and Kyle Mangan will push for the other middle linebacking job. Also keep an eye on freshmen Donnie Baggs and Shaun Ward.
Best of the Rest
6) Oklahoma State — The Cowboys return one linebacking starter, but Shaun Lewis is a great place to start. He's one of the Big 12's best young defensive players. Keep an eye on Tyler Johnson, a former baseball player, in the middle. The battle for the WILL spot is packed with bodies.
7) Kansas State — Miami transfer Arthur Brown hopes to supply some stability to the defense. He's athletic and a hard worker. Alex Hrebec and Jarell Childs return as starters, while former safety Emmanuel Lamur moves down to add depth. Tre Walker and Blake Slaughter will fight for starting spots as well.
8) Kansas — Steven Johnson is back from last year's starting lineup, and the Jayhawks also get back Huldon Tharp, a projected starter who missed last year with an injury. Transfer Darius Willis is a big, strong middle linebacker. JUCO transfers Malcolm Walker and Tunde Bakare should add some much-needed athleticism.
9) Baylor — There's some potential here, but little proven production outside middle linebacker Elliot Coffey. Two years ago, Ahmad Dixon was a big recruiting get for the Bears, and now he'll start at one of the linebacker spots to add athleticism to the group. Brody Trahan is a former quarterback and could start at WILL.
10) Texas Tech — The Red Raiders don't return any starters at the position, and one of the projected starters, Sam Fehoko, spent last year working as a pass-rushing linebacker/end hybrid. Daniel Cobb is slated to start next to him, with true freshman Blake Dees also in the mix.