Oklahoma Sooners: Jared Brackens

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.

Big 12's unsung heroes

September, 2, 2013
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It's that time of year.

September is the time when new names start to emerge in the Big 12 and prove themselves as players who will be key components of their teams' success. Here's a look at one player from each school whose season-opening performance might have been overlooked, yet they could become important playmakers for their teams this fall:

Defensive end Shawn Oakman, Baylor: The Penn State transfer could end up being a terror for Big 12 offenses this fall. At 6-foot-9, 275 pounds, he brings terrific size and athleticism to the Bears’ defensive front. He was extremely disruptive against Wofford, recording six tackles including 3.5 tackles for loss in Baylor’s 69-3 win.

Linebacker Jared Brackens, Iowa State: Against Northern Iowa, Brackens was one of the few bright spots in a disappointing loss for the Cyclones. He recorded 10 tackles and one sack,as he is trying to help Cyclone fans forget about A.J. Klein and Jake Knott. If Brackens continues to play like he did against UNI, the Cyclones should fell terrific about their linebacking corps with Brackens alongside Jeremiah George and Jevohn Miller.

Safety Dante Barnett, Kansas State: Lining up alongside preseason All-Big 12 safety Ty Zimmerman, Barnett could give the Wildcats the conference’s top safety duo if he continues to play like he did against North Dakota State. The sophomore finished with seven tackles including one tackle for loss and an interception. He was a shining light in the upset loss to NDSU.

Defensive end Charles Tapper, Oklahoma: Sooners’ coach Bob Stoops has been consistent in his praise of Tapper leading up to the season opener. The sophomore didn’t disappoint on Saturday as he was able to consistently get pressure on Louisiana-Monroe quarterback Kolton Browning in OU’s 34-0 win. Tapper had three tackles and one quarterback hurry in his first collegiate start.

Running back Desmond Roland, Oklahoma State: The junior could emerge as a solid No. 2 option in the Cowboys backfield this season. The buzz in Stillwater says he’s matured and found a renewed focus that should help him be an impact player in OSU’s offense. He had 10 carries for 46 yards against Mississippi State and saw extensive time alongside Smith and quarterback J.W. Walsh in the Pokes’ diamond formation.

Running back Jalen Overstreet, Texas: The Longhorns have so many explosive skill position players it’s unfair. Add Overstreet to the mix after his nine-carry, 92-yard, two-touchdown performance against New Mexico State. UT moved Overstreet from quarterback because the coaches recognized he was too talented to be standing on the sidelines, and now Overstreet gives the Longhorns another weapon to allow offensive coordinator Major Applewhite to be creative with his play calling.

Cornerback Kevin White, TCU: Returning All-Big 12 cornerback Jason Verrett gets all the headlines, but White was consistently around the ball against LSU. With the Tigers picking on him, he won some individual battles and lost some individual battles but held his own with four tackles, four pass breakups and a fumble recovery. White made a strong case that the Horned Frogs have the Big 12’s top cornerback duo.

Linebacker Micah Awe, Texas Tech: Awe could emerge as one of the key players in the Red Raider defense as a sophomore. He’s an athletic, quick linebacker who plays with a physicality that belies his size. He was consistently around the ball against SMU with 5.5 tackles including 0.5 tackles for loss. If Awe can make plays from sideline to sideline in the Big 12, he’ll become more than just the other No. 18 for the Red Raiders.

Receiver Daikiel Shorts, West Virginia: The true freshman had been the buzz of WVU’s preseason camp and backed up the praise he received by leading the Mountaineers in receptions in his first collegiate game. He had seven receptions for 63 yards in their 24-17 victory over William and Mary.

Big 12's biggest shoes to fill

August, 19, 2013
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Jeremy Smith isn’t the lone non-quarterback in the conference with big shoes to fill. As the Oklahoma State running back aims to replace Joseph Randle, here are some other Big 12 players looking to make a mark on the conference like their predecessors.

Receiver Robbie Rhodes, Baylor: As the Bears aim to replace Terrance Williams, coach Art Briles has been raving about Rhodes during preseason camp. The No. 35 player in the ESPN300 for the Class of 2013, Rhodes appears poised to become a featured receiver in BU’s offense after recording five receptions for 160 yards and one touchdown combined in the Bears’ first two scrimmages.

[+] EnlargeQuandre Diggs
John Albright/Icon SMIExpectations are high for Texas nickelback Quandre Diggs, who will take over the role previously filled by NFL rookie Kenny Vaccaro.
“As he gets more involved, the threat becomes more dangerous for our offense, no question,“ Briles said.

Linebacker Jared Brackens, Iowa State: A former defensive back, Brackens has moved down to play outside linebacker and will be counted on to help fill the void left by A.J. Klein and Jake Knott. A tad undersized, he’ll bring speed into the lineup, which will help handle the wide open spread offenses in the Big 12, but will have to adjust quickly to secure his spot in the defense.

Safety Isaiah Johnson, Kansas: Johnson chose KU out of Iowa Western junior college because the Jayhawks needed immediate help at safety. Now he’s set himself up to be a starter at free safety for KU, and the Jayhawks will need him to match the playmaking production of Bradley McDougald.

Linebacker Blake Slaughter, Kansas State: In a rare and unselfish move, Slaughter redshirted last season instead of finishing his Wildcat career as a backup to Arthur Brown. Now he enters his senior season set to replace him. He started four games as a sophomore in 2010, recording 47 tackles. It's unlikely Slaughter will be the defensive terror in the mold of Brown, but his maturity and experience will be key assets for KSU's defense.

Tackle Tyrus Thompson, Oklahoma: Thompson is the odds-on favorite to replace Johnson as the Sooners’ left tackle. Junior college transfer Josiah St. John was signed in February to ramp the competition at the position but didn’t arrive until right before preseason camp began, and Thompson appears to have a solid hold on the starting spot. Thompson is supremely talented so don't be surprised if there is not a major drop off at left tackle for the Sooners despite losing Lane Johnson, the No. 4 pick of the 2013 NFL draft.

Nickelback Quandre Diggs, Texas: Diggs has been anointed as the Longhorns’ new nickelback to replace Kenny Vaccaro, the New Orleans Saints' first-round pick. Fellow NFLers Earl Thomas and Aaron Williams have also manned the position, which has become a highlight spot in UT’s defense. Diggs has been a key part of UT's defense since his freshman year and the nickelback spot could be a terrific fit for the junior.

Receiver LaDarius Brown, TCU: The Horned Frogs have a bevy of talented receivers to replace Josh Boyce, but Brown could have the highest upside of any of them. He started seven games as a redshirt freshman and brings terrific size (6-foot-4, 220 pounds) and athleticism to the table. No Boyce could mean more opportunities for Brown to emerge in the Horned Frogs' offense.

Safety Tre' Porter, Texas Tech: Porter has played various different positions during his Red Raider career and could be the answer at free safety to replace ultra-productive former safety Cody Davis. He enters the season with 130 career tackles and has been a consistent performer since he stepped on campus in 2010. Porter's background at several different positions in the secondary make him the ideal guy to be the face of the Red Raiders' defensive backfield.

Receivers Kevin White and KJ Myers, West Virginia: The Mountaineers won’t be able to replace Stedman Bailey and Tavon Austin with just two receivers. But White and Myers are candidates to get plenty of opportunities in Dana Holgorsen’s offense. White, a junior college transfer, brings terrific size at 6-foot-3, 211 pounds and Myers, a redshirt sophomore, has stepped up during camp.

“He’s one of the guys that I’ve got a big plus by,” Holgorsen said of Myers' preseason performance.

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