Oklahoma Sooners: Dalton Santos

With spring ball done, we’re re-examining and re-ranking the positional situations of every Big 12 team, continuing Tuesday with linebackers. These outlooks will look different in August. But here’s how we see them post-spring:

1. Oklahoma (pre-spring ranking: 1): While the future of inside linebacker Frank Shannon remains unclear, the Sooners have a tailor-made replacement in Jordan Evans ready to go. Shannon was OU’s leading tackler a year ago, but Evans was the defensive MVP of the spring game in his place. Blitzing outside linebacker Eric Striker had a huge spring coming off his three-sack performance in the Allstate Sugar Bowl. And the Sooners had another blitzing linebacker in juco transfer Devante Bond emerge in March, which could give them flexibility to move Striker around. Dominique Alexander, the reigning Big 12 Defensive Freshman of the Year, solidifies OU’s perch atop this positional ranking, even with Shannon’s future in limbo.

2. Texas (2): Steve Edmond sparked controversy with his Baylor comments, but he also impressed coach Charlie Strong this spring with his knack for making tackles. Edmond and Dalton Santos team up to give the Longhorns a reliable combination on the inside. Athletic sophomore Timothy Cole took advantage of his opportunities with the first-team defense during the spring but should fall back into a spot role once Jordan Hicks returns this summer from a second consecutive season-ending injury. This will be a good group of linebackers, but Hicks playing up to his five-star potential is what could make it great.

3. West Virginia (3): After struggling at the “Spur” linebacker spot in 2013, Isaiah Bruce moved back inside this spring, where he starred as a freshman All-American two years ago. Bruce said he didn’t feel as comfortable playing outside and that showed, as he didn’t record a sack last season despite playing off the edge. Taking over in the Spur is converted safety K.J. Dillon, who was as impressive as any West Virginia defender this spring. With the ability to drop back in coverage, attack the run and rush the quarterback, Dillon seems to be a much better fit at the Spur. If he continues to progress at his new spot and Bruce gets back to his old self playing alongside tackling machine Nick Kwiatkoski inside, the Mountaineers will be stout at the second level.

4. Kansas (5): If the Jayhawks finally climb out of the Big 12 cellar for the first time in six years, it will be on the back of Ben Heeney and a Kansas defense that returns nine starters. One of those nine returners is Heeney’s linebacker wingman, Jake Love, who delivered a strong spring game with a scrimmage-high 10 tackles. The Jayhawks have several weaknesses, but the tackling of their linebackers is not one of them.

5. TCU (6): They get overshadowed by the units in front of and behind them, but linebackers Paul Dawson and Marcus Mallet simply fulfill what’s asked of them. The Horned Frogs were surprisingly solid at linebacker last year. They should be even better in 2014.

6. Texas Tech (7): The Red Raiders received a huge boost in the spring from Kenny Williams, who made a seamless -- and voluntary -- position switch from running back to the “Raider” linebacker position. With honorable mention All-Big 12 pick Pete Robertson on the other outside spot and veterans Sam Eguavoen and Micah Awe and Utah transfer V.J. Fehoko manning the middle, the Red Raiders have a solid foundation. Ex-Ohio State linebacker Mike Mitchell, who attended Tech’s spring game, could give the unit another boost in the summer. He was an ESPN 300 recruit last year and could be eligible immediately at his next school.

7. Kansas State (8): Coach Bill Snyder seemed to be reasonably pleased with returners Jonathan Truman and Will Davis, who have locked up two of the linebacker spots. If D'Vonta Derricott, who was in the ESPN Junior College 50 and had offers from Miami, Wisconsin, Arizona State and a host of Big 12 programs, can make an impact at the third linebacker spot, the Wildcats could quickly solidify their biggest question spot defensively.

8. Baylor (4): Middle linebacker Bryce Hager will be fine once he finally recovers from a groin injury. That means Aiavion Edwards, who exited spring as the starter on the weak side, will be the key as the Bears attempt to overcome the graduation of All-Big 12 performer Eddie Lackey. Baylor, though, still has big expectations for juco transfer Grant Campbell, even though he finished spring as a backup on the depth chart. After a shaky first few practices, Campbell began to come on late in spring drills.

9. Oklahoma State (9): The Cowboys picked up a valuable transfer during the spring in former Michigan safety Josh Furman, who will be eligible immediately after getting his degree. Furman isn’t a star, but he has plenty of experience and could be a real asset teamed with juco transfer D'Nerius Antoine at Oklahoma State’s “Star” linebacker spot. On the weak side, fellow juco transfer Devante Averette really shined before suffering some mild injuries at the end of spring ball. The Cowboys will be even better there if 2012 four-star signee Seth Jacobs emerges.

10. Iowa State (10): The Cyclones remain in transition mode at linebacker while working to replace the production of departed All-Big 12 performer Jeremiah George. Redshirt freshman and former QB Alton Meeks was one of the defensive surprises of the spring; he currently sits atop the depth chart at middle linebacker. The other big defensive surprise was walk-on senior Drake Ferch, who beat out returning starter Jared Brackens on the strong side. Jevohn Miller is the third starting linebacker, but he figures to be a placeholder on the weak side until Luke Knott returns from last year’s season-ending hip injury.

Big 12 pre-spring breakdown: LBs

February, 25, 2014
Feb 25
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As we await the start of spring ball, we’re examining and ranking the positional situations of every team in the Big 12, continuing Tuesday with linebackers. Some of these outlooks will look different after the spring. But here’s how we see the linebacking corps going into the spring:

[+] EnlargeDominique Alexander
William Purnell/Icon SMIDominique Alexander was a star as a true freshman and leads a loaded Oklahoma linebacking corps.
1. Oklahoma: After a couple of lean years, the Sooners are loaded at linebacker again. Dominique Alexander was the Big 12 Defensive Freshman of the Year, Frank Shannon led the defense in tackles as a sophomore, and Eric Striker is budding into the most ferocious blitzing linebacker in the country (just ask Alabama). Jordan Evans played extensively as a true freshman, too. This is an athletic group that can cover, stop the run and get to the quarterback.

2. Texas: This will be as deep as any linebacking corps in the league, with starters Peter Jinkens, Dalton Santos and Steve Edmond all returning off a unit that improved dramatically after the rocky nonconference start. After allowing a school-record 550 yards rushing to BYU, Texas had the Big 12’s fourth-best rush defense in conference games. Whether this group can take another step up will depend on what happens with Jordan Hicks, who enters his fifth year in the program after suffering season-ending injuries in back-to-back years. Hicks was the No. 1 linebacker in the country coming out of high school and has played well when healthy.

3. West Virginia: This will be the strength of the defense, as Brandon Golson, Isaiah Bruce, Jared Barber and Nick Kwiatkoski all return with significant starting experience. Kwiatkoski was West Virginia’s leading tackler last season, and Bruce was a freshman All-American the season before. Wes Tonkery and Jewone Snow also have starting experience, and Shaq Petteway, who missed last season with a knee injury, was a key rotation player the previous year. This level of experience and production with give the new defensive regime of Tony Gibson and Tom Bradley a foundation to build around.

4. Baylor: Bryce Hager is one of the best returning linebackers in the league. He was a second-team all-conference pick two years ago and would have earned similar honors last season had he not missed the final three games of the regular season with a groin injury. Grant Campbell, a three-star juco signee, is already on campus and will vie for the vacancy of departing All-Big 12 linebacker Eddie Lackey. Kendall Ehrlich and Aiavion Edwards are the only other players at the position with any meaningful experience, but Raaquan Davis, a former four-star recruit who redshirted last season, could be a factor.

5. Kansas: Middle linebacker Ben Heeney was a second-team All-Big 12 selection after finishing fourth in the league in tackles per game. His wingman, Jake Love, got beat out by juco transfer Samson Faifili during the preseason but took over when Faifili suffered an injury and was solid. As long as Heeney remains healthy, the Jayhawks will be solid here.

6. TCU: Projected to be the Achilles’ heel of the TCU defense last season, Paul Dawson, Marcus Mallet and Jonathan Anderson actually gave the position stability. Dawson led the Horned Frogs with 91 tackles, Mallet was third with 70 and Anderson was fourth with 66. All three will be seniors in 2014 and should give the Horned Frogs a solid, reliable linebacking unit again.

7. Texas Tech: The Red Raiders and their 3-4 scheme graduate two very productive players in Will Smith and Terrance Bullitt. Smith was second in the Big 12 in tackles, and Bullitt led all Big 12 linebackers in pass breakups. Austin Stewart and Micah Awe go into the spring as the favorites to replace Bullitt and Smith, respectively. Two starters do return in Sam Eguavoen and Pete Robertson, who was honorable mention All-Big 12 thanks to his impact off the edge. Tech also has several intriguing young players, including Jacarthy Mack, Malik Jenkins and Kahlee Woods, who will all be second-year players.

8. Kansas State: The Wildcats lose two stalwarts to graduation in captains Blake Slaughter and Tre Walker. The only returner is former walk-on Jonathan Truman, who was second on the team in tackles from the weak side. The Wildcats will be hoping for big things from D'Vonta Derricott, an ESPN JC 50 signee who had offers from Miami and Wisconsin, among many others. Will Davis, who was Slaughter’s backup as a freshman last season, could thrive if he secures the starting role in the middle.

9. Oklahoma State: The Cowboys are somewhat decimated here with the graduations of all-conference veterans Shaun Lewis and Caleb Lavey. The only returning starter, Ryan Simmons, could move inside, which would open the door for hard-hitting jucos D'Nerius Antoine and Devante Averette to start on either side of him. Seth Jacobs, who was a four-star recruit two years ago, should jump into the rotation, and the Cowboys could get an instant boost from freshman Gyasi Akem, who was an ESPN 300 signee. The potential ascension of this group, though, hinges on what Antonie and Averette accomplish.

10. Iowa State: The Cyclones graduate their defensive cornerstone in Jeremiah George, who was a first-team all-conference performer after leading the Big 12 with 133 tackles. Replacing George won’t come easy. But there’s reason to believe that Luke Knott can become Iowa State’s next cornerstone at the position. The younger brother of Cyclone LB great Jake Knott, Luke Knott started five games as a freshman and quickly racked up 45 tackles before suffering a season-ending hip injury, which required surgery. If he makes a full recovery, Knott has the talent to become the next in a growing line of All-Big 12 Iowa State linebackers. Seniors Jevohn Miller and Jared Brackens, who combined for 19 starts last season, flank Knott with experience.
With the 2013 season officially in the books, we’ve begun looking ahead to identify potential breakout performers for 2014.

This morning, we took a look at 10 Big 12 offensive players to watch in 2014. Now it’s time to spotlight 10 possible breakout defenders.

As a reminder, these lists include players who can take that step into greatness next season, much as Baylor’s Ahmad Dixon and Oklahoma State’s Justin Gilbert did in 2013. Players who have earned first-team or second-team All-Big 12 honors from either the coaches or the media were not eligible for this list, as the focus is limited to guys who have yet to make that leap. In other words, players such as TCU's Chris Hackett or Oklahoma's Eric Striker weren't eligible, as they were both second-team selections this year.

Below are 10 players to watch on the defensive side of the ball in 2014 (in alphabetical order):

[+] EnlargeDante Barnett
John Rieger/USA TODAY SportsDante Barnett had four interceptions as a sophomore.
Kansas State S Dante Barnett: The last couple of years, Ty Zimmerman was the anchor of the K-State secondary. With Zimmerman out of eligibility, Barnett appears ready to take over. Barnett had a banner sophomore season, leading the Wildcats with four interceptions and finishing third with 75 tackles. He was especially impressive in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl, delivering a team-high eight tackles and a 51-yard interception return that proved to be the exclamation point. Barnett is one reason why the Wildcats should be better defensively in 2014.

Texas DT Malcom Brown: Often confused with the Texas running back with the same name, Brown was a force in the middle as a sophomore. With more improvement, the former blue-chipper who was the No. 2 DT in the nation coming out of high school has a chance to be Texas’ first All-Big 12 defensive tackle since Roy Miller in 2008.

Oklahoma State DT James Castleman: The last two seasons, Castleman has operated in the shadows of All-Big 12 DT Calvin Barnett. With Barnett – and virtually the rest of the Oklahoma State defense – gone, Castleman will be the Cowboys’ top returning defensive player next season. Castleman has the talent to be an all-conference tackle, and will need to be for the Cowboys to avoid a significant defensive drop-off.

Oklahoma DE Geneo Grissom: Last year, Grissom was so dubious on his prospects of making the rotation at end that he asked to play tight end. That experiment failed, and the Sooners have to be glad that it did. The switch finally flipped for Grissom in the Allstate Sugar Bowl. In that game, he played like a man possessed and finished with two sacks and two fumble recoveries. He returned the second eight yards for a game-clinching touchdown. Grissom has only year left, but it could be a special one if he plays the way he did against Alabama.

West Virginia S Karl Joseph: After starting every game at safety as a true freshman in 2012 and leading the team in tackles, Joseph didn’t make the kind of leap the Mountaineers hoped he would as a sophomore. Still, there’s no denying the talent here. Joseph has the skill to be an all-conference safety, something that might need to happen for West Virginia to avoid another disappointing season in the Big 12.

Iowa State LB Luke Knott: Knott started five games as a redshirt freshman this year before suffering a season-ending hip injury that should keep him out of spring ball as well. But if he can make a healthy return, look out. Knott came to Iowa State as a quarterback but has made a seamless transition to linebacker, showing plenty of instinct with 11 tackles in Iowa State’s 31-30 loss to Texas. His older brother Jake was an All-Big 12 linebacker for the Cyclones. As long as that hip doesn’t get in the way, Knott could become one an all-conference selection as well.

Baylor DE Shawn Oakman: The Penn State transfer has the tools to become a dominant player in the league. Oakman had his moments as a rotation player in 2013, finishing sixth in the Big 12 in tackles for loss. But the potential is there for so much more from the 6-foot-9, 275-pound Oakman. If he can put it all together in 2014, he could become one of the league’s most disruptive defenders.

[+] EnlargeDalton Santos
David Purdy/Getty ImagesThe new Texas coaching staff will have to find the best position for Dalton Santos.
Oklahoma State CB Kevin Peterson: While All-American Justin Gilbert deservedly received the accolades this season, Peterson quietly had a very stout sophomore season on the other side of the field. Peterson, who flipped his commitment from Oklahoma to Oklahoma State in recruiting, had two interceptions and was solid in coverage all season in Glenn Spencer’s aggressive, man-to-man defense. With Gilbert gone to the NFL, Peterson will be Oklahoma State’s No. 1 cornerback in 2014. So far, he looks up to the challenge.

Texas LB Dalton Santos: After Jordan Hicks went down with yet another season-ending injury, Santos elevated his game at linebacker. The sophomore finished fourth on the team with 74 tackles, including 10 for loss. It will be interesting to see what happens with the Longhorns at linebacker. The entire group of linebackers will return, including Hicks. But the way Santos played late in the year, the new Texas regime will have to find a way to get him on the field.

Oklahoma LB Frank Shannon: Even though injuries plagued Shannon the second half of the season, he still led the Sooners with 92 tackles as a sophomore. In Shannon, blitzer extraordinaire Eric Striker and Big 12 defensive freshman of the year Dominique Alexander all back, Oklahoma might have the best linebacker corps in the country next season.

Big 12 unsung heroes: Week 7

October, 14, 2013
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Here are this week’s unsung heroes:

Linebacker Eddie Lackey, Baylor: Overshadowed by Bryce Hager’s 18-tackle performance, Lackey had a solid game in the Bears’ 35-25 win over Kansas State. He finished with 10 tackles, including eight solo stops, and a forced fumble. His active play is one of the reasons the Bears’ defense is playing better in 2013.

[+] EnlargeJarvis West
Jerod Foster/Icon SMIJarvis West's efforts on special teams provided a major boost for Iowa State.
Receiver Jarvis West, Iowa State: The Cyclones’ wideout helped keep his squad in the game with his special teams’ prowess. He had a 95-yard kickoff return for a score and added 46 punt return yards including a 38-yarder. West finished with 177 all-purpose yards, more than 100 yards more than the next best Cyclone.

Cornerback JaCorey Shepherd, Kansas: Shepherd did it all in the Jayhawks’ 27-17 loss to TCU. He had seven tackles, one sack, one forced fumble and a 32-yard interception return for a touchdown. It was a terrific performance in his return home for the former Mesquite (Texas) Horn standout.

Running back John Hubert, Kansas State: An overlooked aspect of Daniel Sams’ explosive day was Hubert’s increased production. The senior had 15 carries for 90 yards to provide a solid 1-2 running punch alongside Sams. Hubert clearly becomes a more productive player with a running threat at quarterback.

Linebacker Frank Shannon, Oklahoma: The sophomore had the quietest 16-tackle performance in recent memory. Shannon continued to be a consistent playmaker on OU’s defense, recording those 16 tackles and forcing a fumble in the Sooners’ 36-20 loss to Texas. He’s proving to be a player the Sooners can count on, week in and week out.

Linebacker Dalton Santos, Texas: The Longhorns were stout against the run in their 36-20 win over OU, and Santos played a key role. The sophomore made plays from sideline to sideline and was consistently around the football. He finished with six tackles including 1.5 tackles for loss. Santos has helped offset the loss of Jordan Hicks for the Longhorns’ defense.

Running back B.J. Catalon, TCU: Catalon continues to be a playmaker for the Horned Frogs, accounting for a team-high 122 yards. The sophomore averaged 9.38 yards per touch in TCU’s 27-17 win over Kansas. On an offense searching for playmakers, it seems like the Horned Frogs can’t get the ball in Catalon’s hands enough, particularly if he can take better care of the football.

Running back Sadale Foster, Texas Tech: One of three Red Raiders to rush for more than 80 yards, Foster averaged 9.7 yards per carry in Tech’s 42-35 win over Iowa State. He had nine carries for 87 yards and one touchdown. He averaged 14.8 yards per carry on first down (five carries, 74 yards), including a 38-yard touchdown scamper in the fourth quarter to put the game away.

Note: Oklahoma State and West Virginia did not play in Week 7.

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