In 2009, it was all about the tackles.
In Nebraska's Ndamukong Suh and Oklahoma's Gerald McCoy, the Big 12 boasted two of the top three picks in April's NFL Draft. And players like Texas's Lamarr Houston and Suh's teammate Jared Crick meant that the position had outstanding depth as well.
But only Crick returns for 2010, meaning that when people look at Big 12 lines, they're more likely to be wowed by players on the outside. Ends like Jeremy Beal, Sam Acho and Aldon Smith return after grabbing double-digit sacks a year ago. And out of the top eight defensive line units ranked below, seven of them return a defensive end who accounted for at least five sacks a year ago.
Here are the Big 12's top defensive line groups:
The Sooners lost a top-three pick from last year's defensive line unit, and must also replace oft-injured but highly successful pass rusher Auston English. But the Sooners just reload on the defensive line, thanks to years of strong recruiting. Back is Jeremy Beal, who has paced the Sooners in sacks each of the last two seasons. And defensive tackle Adrian Taylor and end Frank Alexander are also highly experienced. Stepping into Gerald McCoy's role at the nose tackle spot will be Jamarkus McFarland, a former five-star recruit. The backups are largely inexperienced, though there is some young talent coming up through the ranks, like redshirt freshman end Justin Chaisson.
Like the Sooners, Nebraska must replace its top lineman from a year ago. And also like the Sooners, the Cornhuskers should be able to handle the loss. Nobody can replace the production lost from Ndamukong Suh, but a defensive tackle group that includes preseason Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year winner Jared Crick and former five-star talent Baker Steinkuhler should be pretty good. Crick must learn to handle being the offensive line's No. 1 focus, but he'll have some help. The end rotation of Pierre Allen, Cameron Meredith, Josh Williams and Jason Ankrah should be able to harass conference passers as well.
On paper, the Longhorns are replacing three linemen from a year ago. But games aren't played on paper, and on the field, Texas should boast another strong defensive line group. Sam Acho returns after leading the Longhorns with 10 sacks a year ago. Calvin Howell and potential all-conference candidate Kheeston Randall will man the middle. On the other end will likely be rising sophomore Alex Okafor, who earned some time as a true freshman. Speaking of true freshmen playing early, don't be surprised if several members of the Longhorns' stellar recruiting class find the field sooner rather than later. Jackson Jeffcoat, Ashton Dorsey and Taylor Bible could all spend time on this year's two-deep.
Few players in the league can get after the quarterback like defensive end Aldon Smith. And the best news for Tigers fans is that he's just a sophomore. As a redshirt freshman, Smith rang up 11.5 sacks to lead the team. Dominique Hamilton, a junior, is the top player on the interior, and he'll be joined by Terrell Resonno. On the other end, Jacquies Smith (no relation to Aldon) will assume the full-time role after starting part-time in 2009. The tackle position could use more depth, with incoming freshman Lucas Vincent a possibility.
Lost in Colorado's struggles a year ago was the fact that the Buffaloes actually managed to put a pretty strong line together. It all starts with All-Big 12 candidate Marquez Herrod, a 285-pound end who overwhelms offensive tackles with his strength. He had six sacks a year ago. He'll have some backup this year from Nick Kasa, a 6-foot-7, 270-pound presence with great speed. Kasa was one of Dan Hawkins's top recruits, but was derailed by a knee injury and mononucleosis. Sophomores Will Pericak and Nate Bonsu both saw time at defensive tackle a year ago, and both played well. Curtis Cunningham and Eugene Goree are the candidates at nose tackle. Depth and experience are both strong points.
Best of the Rest
6) Oklahoma State -- Defensive ends Ugo Chinasa and Jamie Blatnick combined to start 20 games a year ago, with Chinasa leading the Cowboys with 6.5 sacks. Darius Hart and Richetti Jones allow the Cowboys to have a strong rotation at the end spot. Tackle is another story. Chris Donaldson and Shane Jarka will be the likely starters, with Nigel Nicholas slated as the top backup. But beyond that, it gets hazy, likely the reason Cooper Bassett was moved from tight end to defensive tackle in the spring.
7) Texas A&M -- The Aggies are making the shift to a 3-4 under new defensive coordinator Tim DeRuyter, and they appear to have some of the pieces on the line to make for a smooth transition. Lucas Patterson and Eddie Jones give the Aggies a presence at the defensive tackle spot. Patterson clogs things up, while Jones, who was second on the squad with four sacks, brings more of a play-making element. Tony Jerod-Eddie has outstanding size (6-5 300) for the end position. Spencer Nealy should fit well at the other end spot.
8) Kansas -- The Jayhawks took a blow with the dismissal of Jamal Greene, likely the team's top tackle heading into 2010. Tackle will be handled by some combination of Richard Johnson Jr., John Williams, Darius Parish and Patrick Dorsey. Johnson Jr. and Williams have both shown flashes at times, while Parish also has talent. Dorsey is solid, if unspectacular. The situation is better at the ends, where Jake Laptad grabbed 12 tackles for loss and 6.5 sacks a year ago. Quintin Woods and Kevin Young give the Jayhawks a pair of young pass rushers on the other side. Don't be surprised if a newcomer finds his way into the rotation here.
9) Texas Tech -- The Red Raiders will also transition to a 3-4 in 2010, though Tech doesn't have the experience that the Aggies have at the position. The lone exception is Colby Whitlock, arguably the league's best nose tackle. Redshirt freshman Kerry Hyder and junior college transfers Scott Smith and Donald Langley will factor in at the other spots. Both were among the top JUCO recruits in the country. Langley is more of a defensive tackle, while Smith is a mobile 6-7, 275-pound end who had 14 sacks last season.
10) Baylor -- The Bears return three starters from a year ago. Huge (6-4 355) nose guard Phil Taylor was hyped by coach Art Briles a year ago after transferring from Penn State, but has yet to back up that hype on the field. End Zac Scotton and tackle Tracy Robertson bring some quickness to the line. The other end spot should also have plenty of athleticism, whether it is filled by sophomore Gary Mason Jr. or freshman Tevin Elliot, a converted linebacker.
11) Kansas State -- The Wildcats must replace three starters from last year, but do return another player, end Brandon Harold, who was slated to start last preseason. Harold missed all by one game a year ago with an injury, but was a Freshman All-American in 2008. The rest of the line spots should be filled with a mishmash of solid role players or newcomers. Prizell Brown and Raphael Guidry will help out in the middle, while Antonio Felder, a returning starter, will add depth at one end spot. JUCO transfers Javonta Boyd, Ray Kibble and Adam Davis will all compete for time, with Boyd and David boasting great chances to start. Davis was a big-time pass rusher who collected 23 sacks over two years at Hutchinson Community College.
12) Iowa State -- Two starters return from a year ago, with Bailey Johnson back to man the nose guard position and Patrick Neal returning at defensive end. Both players are undersized for their position. Rashawn Parker also lacks height -- he's listed at 6-foot -- but he can get to the quarterback. The Cyclones' line production took a dent in 2009 when Parker went out with an ACL injury. He's back for 2010 though, thanks to an extra year of eligibility awarded by the NCAA. Jake McDonough, a sophomore, has potential at defensive tackle, where his quickness should pay off. He just needs to stay healthy.