1) Iowa State
Ask a Big 12 coach for the best linebacker duo playing in the conference, and it's no contest: all fingers point north to Ames, where A.J. Klein and Jake Knott serve as a two-man wrecking crew. It's tough to pick which one is better. Many point to Klein in the middle, the co-Big 12 Player of the Year who made 116 stops a year ago, but Knott made just one fewer tackle, and has shown more of an aptitude in pass coverage. Either way, they're a great pair to have. The other spot is (obviously) less settled, with the Cyclones choosing between a pair of hybrid safety types in C.J. Morgan or Deon Broomfield. Jeremiah George and Jevohn Miller have experience, but won't see a ton of time behind the big two. Next year though, they'll be counted on.
2) Kansas State
Any top league linebacker conversation that doesn't pick Klein or Knott will typically shift toward Wildcat star Arthur Brown (6-1 228). Blessed with a linebacker's nose for the ball and a cornerback's speed, Brown makes plays from sideline-to-sideline from his middle spot. Tre Walker is a big-play linebacker who provides even more speed. He made a couple of huge plays in the final goal-line stand that beat Miami. The SAM linebacker spot is up for grabs between one-time running back Jarrell Childs and converted quarterback Justin Tuggle. Also keep an eye on true freshman Mike Moore. The Dallas product enrolled early and had a great spring.
Tom Wort gives the Sooners a physical presence in the middle of the defense, but it's the emergence of talented athletes like Corey Nelson and Frank Shannon that could take this group to the next level. Both are big-time athletes who can really run, with Nelson looking like the starter to replace departed all-everything tackle machine Travis Lewis. But the Sooners also have depth in terms of the different kinds of players they can go to in different situations. Jaydan Bird is a tough run-stopper, while Joseph Ibiloye and Lamar Harris are basically hybrid safeties. And don't leave on a player like P.L. Lindley, who could come in for pass-rushing situations.
Strong-side 'backer Shaun Lewis could be the most underrated linebacker in the league, if only Cowboy weak-side linebacker Alex Elkins didn't beat him to it. The duo will team with middle linebacker Caleb Lavey to give the Cowboys three returning starters. Elkins was the team's second-leading tackler a year ago and seems to get better by the minute, while Lewis is a tremendous big-play threat. But this group is stronger than just its front-line guys, thanks to the emergence of players like Ryan Simmons, Nico Ornelas and Lyndell Johnson as the backups. Simmons was one of the best linebackers in the state of Texas just a few short years ago. This ranking could end up being too low.
Based on returning production, this is probably a good spot for the Longhorns, who must replace Keenan Robinson and Emmanuel Acho, but return Jordan Hicks. But Texas's potential ranges much higher, particularly if Hicks and fellow outside linebacker Demarco Cobbs — one of the team's fastest defenders — can stay healthy. The other key will be whether monster middle-man Steve Edmond (6-3 260) can play anywhere near his limitless ceiling. He was tremendous in the spring. The question here is depth: can the Longhorns find a quality second line? If they do, expect it to be built around true freshman Dalton Santos in the middle.
Best of the Rest
6) TCU — Losing Tanner Brock to the drug scandal was a tough blow. But the Horned Frogs should be able to find some solid players to pair with returning starter Kenny Cain. Deryck Gildon may be the favorite, but also watch out for a younger player like true freshman A.J. Hillard.
7) Kansas — Speedy Michael Reynolds was a revelation in the spring, but who does Kansas trot out with him? Huldon Tharp, Darius Willis and Tunde Bakare have all spent time as starters, though Notre Dame transfer Anthony McDonald and true freshman Schyler Miles are safe bets.
8) West Virginia — Terence Garvin mans the aptly named STAR position. A 6-3, 223-pound hybrid, Garvin is arguably the Mountaineers' top returning defender. At the BUCK spot, Josh Francis could start to stand out as a playmaker. The middle trio of Jared Barber, Doug Rigg and Isaiah Bruce has some talent but needs to produce more.
9) Texas Tech — Eliminating the 4-2-5 could prove to be a good move, as could moving safety Terrance Bullitt, an athletic 215-pound presence to the extra linebacker spot. Another position will be manned by spring revelation Will Smith, a JUCO transfer. Sam Eguavoen is the likely starter at the WILL spot, while Daniel Cobb and JUCO transfer Chris Payne could add depth.
10) Baylor — By the end of the season, this could be too low of a ranking. Hybrid safety Ahmad Dixon looks like a serious playmaker at one linebacker spot, while Bryce Hager has a chance to emerge in the middle JUCO transfer Eddie Lackey is ready to step in at the other position, giving the Bears a ton of speed, but little proven production.