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It could be the year of the individual linebacker in the conference.
With players like Travis Lewis, Keenan Robinson and Von Miller, the conference has plenty of individual talent. Even some of the units outside of the top five have players to be proud of. Kansas, Oklahoma State and Colorado expect big things from Justin Springer, Orie Lemon and Jon Major, respectively, after all three players battled injuries a year ago.
But for the most part, the league's top linebackers are spread out, meaning there aren't really any elite linebacking units. That could change for Texas and Oklahoma, both of which boast athleticism and skill in their units. But right now, both groups lack the experience to be considered among the elite.
Here are the Big 12's top linebacker groups:
Linebacker should always be a position of strength for the Longhorns. Not only does ace coordinator Will Muschamp coach the 'Horns' linebackers, but the state is known for producing players at the position. Linebackers Emmanuel Acho, Keenan Robinson and Dustin Earnest, Texas's projected starters, all hail from the Lone Star State, as do top backups Dravannti Johnson, Ryan Roberson and Tariq Allen. Robinson is an all-conference candidate. But the player with arguably the most potential on the unit is from out of state. The Longhorn coaches went to Ohio to land Jordan Hicks, who should quickly work his way onto the two-deep. Fellow freshmen Aaron Benson and Tevin Jackson help to ensure that the unit has a bright future.
Oklahoma boasts arguably the top overall linebacker in the league in Travis Lewis, and one of the most exciting young players in sophomore Ronnell Lewis, an athlete and huge hitter. Tom Wort should man the middle, where the redshirt freshman could lock down a long-term spot. Wort's a downhill player who finds the ball well. Junior Austin Box has starting experience on the outside, while Jaydan Bird and Daniel Franklin give the group two more talented young players. Corey Nelson, a true freshman, was a top-10 linebacker in his class.
3) Texas A&M
If Travis Lewis is the top overall linebacker in the conference, Von Miller is the most single-mindedly destructive. Miller does one thing, and he does it exceptionally well -- get to the quarterback. Miller had 17 sacks a year ago, and will continue to terrorize offenses off the edge in the Aggies' new 3-4. Michael Hodges and Garrick Williams, two returning starters who will plug into the middle of the defense, had strong springs. Sean Porter, Jonathan Stewart and Charlie Thomas will try to use their athleticism off the edge opposite Miller.
Missouri lost Sean Weatherspoon, the Tigers' top tackler and second-best sacker of a year ago to the NFL. But Andrew Gachkar and Will Ebner return from a year ago, with Ebner back at the middle linebacker spot. Gachkar, who was second on the team with 80 tackles a year ago, shifts from the strong side to Weatherspoon's vacated weak side position. Sliding into the strong side spot is Zaviar Gooden, arguably the top overall athlete on Missouri's team. Gooden, who has nice size at 6-foot-2, 225 pounds, has been clocked by the Missouri staff in the 4.3s in the 40-yard dash. Luke Lambert is tough and can play any of the linebacker spots, while Josh Tatum looks to return after a back injury. He came to Missouri from junior college last season, though his first year was spent at USC.
5) Texas Tech
The biggest adjustment facing the Red Raiders' linebacking corps is Brian Duncan's move from middle linebacker to the Buck position, a defensive end/outside linebacker hybrid spot in Texas Tech's new 3-4. Duncan (6-1 240) has the size to get to the quarterback off the edge, but the question is whether Tech will miss his instincts in the middle. He led Tech wiht 88 tackles a year ago. Bront Bird, who played on the strong side last year, is now on the interior. Also playing on the inside is Sam Fehoko, while Julius Howard, a former safety, is the other starter on the outside.
Best of the Rest
6) Kansas -- The Jayhawks struggled mightily at this spot a year ago, but are hoping that 2009 helped to get the growing pains out of the way. The group should be better immediately with the return of Justin Springer to full health. Springer, who has All-Big 12 potential, was recovering from an ACL injury last year. Drew Dudley is the team's reutrning tackler with 88 stops a year ago. He's undersized, and not terribly athletic, but can find the ball. Huldon Tharp played extensively as a true freshman and had several bright moments. The spring served as a launching ground for Steven Johnson, a powerful tackler who can play all three spots. Depth is an issue here, meaning that either Ed Fink or Jake Farley could play right away.
7) Nebraska -- The Cornhuskers are going to more of a 4-2-5 lineup this year, though safety Eric Hagg (6-2 210) will play a hybrid role from the nickel back spot. Will Compton will likely start on the weak side, with Sean Fisher (6-6 235) playing in the middle. He played on the strong side a year ago. Eric Martin, Mathew May and Alonzo Whaley could all factor in, as could junior college transfer Lavonte David. David has outstanding athleticism for the position.
8) Oklahoma State -- Defensive coordinator Bill Young crafted defenses around his linebackers at Kansas, and now he's doing the same for the Cowboys. Oklahoma State doesn't return a starter from last year, though Orie Lemon was slated as a starter before missing the 2009 season with a knee injury. He could be one of the league's top linebackers this season. Joe Mitchell had a hug spring and is penciled in to start at the Star linebacker spot, a linebacker/defensive back hybrid position. Justin Gent is the starter, for now, at the other outside position. Several young players, including Under Armour All-Ameircan Shaun Lewis, could also find on-field roles in 2010.
9) Colorado -- The Buffaloes return just one starter from a year ago, but have all three spots picked for 2010. B.J. Beatty and Michael Sipili are both experienced, with Beatty returning as a starter from a year ago. The other linebacker position will be filled by Jon Major, who is recovered from an ACL injury. Now a sophomore, Major was a big-time get for the Buffaloes out of Parker, Colo. The Buffs lack depth, with converted safety Patrick Mahnke and redshirt freshman Derrick Webb serving as the top backups.
10) Baylor -- The Bears must replace All-American Joe Pawelek and multi-year starter Antonio Jones, but bring in some nice pieces. Senior Antonio Johnson came on at the end of last year, while Chris Francis has nice size in the middle. Elliott Coffey and Earl Patin should take over at the other outside position. The incumbents will be tested by redshirt freshmen Chris McAllister and LeQuince McCall.
11) Kansas State -- The Wildcats will need several players to step up in a unit that only brings back one player with extensive experience in Alex Hrebec. Hrebec started three games last year, making 32 tackles. Kevin Rohleder and Jarell Childs should compete for starting spots, as should Kadero Terrell. All three have speed, though Childs and Rohleder don't boast a ton of bulk. Depth is also a concern, meaning that true freshman Tre Walker, an outstanding athlete, could play immediately.
12) Iowa State -- The Cyclones must replace all three starters from a year ago, with projected starters Jake Knott and A.J. Klein spending most of their time on special teams. But that makes the duo of sophomores more experienced than whoever fills the other spot. Matt Tau'fo'ou and Jacob Lattimer transfered from junior colleges last season, but didn't see much time. Kevin Hamlin, another sophomore, and Preston Kaufman, a senior, will supply the depth.