Oklahoma Sooners: Micah Awe

Last week, colleague Max Olson crunched the numbers on the total career starts each Big 12 team has coming back for next season.

What Max unearthed was that Texas (by far) leads the Big 12 in career starts returning, both offensively and defensively. TCU’s defense ranked second behind the Longhorns’ defense, while the Iowa State offense placed second. The Horned Frogs could have their most dominant defense yet in the Big 12, and the Cyclones could feature their best offensive attack in years, suggesting both teams could also be in for bounce-back 2014 campaigns.

Yet while revealing, compiling returning starts doesn’t tell the entire story when examining team experience, since the equation doesn’t account for those who played key roles as reserves. TCU safety Derrick Kindred, Texas Tech linebacker Micah Awe and Baylor end Shawn Oakman weren’t starters last year. But they were still valuable players on their respective teams.

To examine returning experience in another way, I’ve tallied up the percentage of tackles returning for every team in the Big 12:

With nine starters back, it’s not surprising the Sooners top this chart. But the number of returning starters isn’t the only reason why Oklahoma is optimistic about its 2014 defense. The Sooners also bring back several key defensive performers that weren’t full-time starters last season. End Geneo Grissom, who notched three sacks against Alabama in the Allstate Sugar Bowl, only started five games in 2013. Linebacker Jordan Evans thrived whenever his number got called as a freshman. And tackle Jordan Phillips only started four games but was playing at an All-Big 12-caliber level before suffering a season-ending back injury in early October.

On the flip side, Oklahoma State is at the cellar of this list, and not just because it graduated seven starters. The Cowboys also lost several defensive reserves that played a bunch, including linebacker Joe Mitchell, cornerback Tyler Patmon and safety Zack Craig.

Of course, like with returning starts, a high level of returning tackles doesn’t guarantee success. And it doesn’t necessarily preclude it, either.

Oklahoma ranked 119th nationally in returning tackles (40 percent) last season. But by the end of the season, the Sooners were wreaking havoc in the backfield of the two-time defending national champs.

The tackle equation can be an indicator of the defenses that might be formidable. Oklahoma State and Baylor both had 73 percent of their tackles returning from 2012 going into last season. Both wound up being formidable, ranking first and second in the league in both fewest yards per play and points per drive.

That bodes well for the defensive prospects of Oklahoma, Kansas, TCU, Texas and West Virginia, which all have like tackle rates coming back for 2014.
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
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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.
Bowl games provide opportunity. Veterans can showcase their skills for NFL scouts while younger players can make their mark. With a strong performance, a core contributor for a bowl team can transform himself into a household name in the Big 12 Conference. Here's a sophomore or freshman for each Big 12 bowl team who could have a big bowl game performance and set themselves up to have a breakout season in 2014.

Baylor receiver Corey Coleman: The redshirt freshman has shown flashes of game-changing ability this season. BU loses blazing-fast Tevin Reese after the Fiesta Bowl but Coleman has the speed to step right in for Reese in the future. He had 28 receptions for 439 yards and two touchdowns while adding a kickoff return for a score. He averaged 19.8 yards per touch this season and could set himself up as a main target for Bryce Petty in 2014 with a strong Fiesta Bowl performance.

Kansas State safety Dante Barnett: Another All-Big 12 safety at Kansas State? It could happen with Barnett. The sophomore has been an impact player since he stepped on campus and finished fourth on the team with 67 tackles after becoming a full-time starter this year. His athleticism and physicality at the safety position could be key against Michigan in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl because he has the ability to play the run and pass well without overcommitting to either. If he has a big game against the Wolverines, he could earn consideration for preseason All-Big 12 honors.

Oklahoma quarterback Trevor Knight: The Sooners don’t plan to announce a starter for the Sugar Bowl but it would be a surprise if Knight did not take a snap in New Orleans. The redshirt freshman has the ability to test the Crimson Tide’s defense in ways that Blake Bell cannot and could set himself up to be the Sooners’ quarterback of the future if he excels against Nick Saban’s defense.

Oklahoma State defensive end Jimmy Bean: The sophomore tied for the team lead with four sacks this season but he has the potential to be even better as a junior. At 6-foot-5, 245 pounds, Bean has unique size and athleticism that could help him become a consistent visitor to Missouri’s backfield during the Cotton Bowl. If he has a strong bowl game, Bean could be a name to watch in the Big 12 in 2014.

Texas Tech linebacker Micah Awe: Coming off a 11-tackle performance against Texas, Awe is one of the key playmakers for the Red Raiders defense. He recorded at least five tackles in five of the 10 games he played in this season and has the versatility that could eventually make him an All-Big 12 linebacker. In the Holiday Bowl against an Arizona State balanced offense, Awe will need to show that versatility and be extremely active for the Red Raiders to have a chance. Another productive game could set him up as one of the top young defenders in the Big 12.

Texas defensive tackle Malcom Brown: It’s somewhat surprising that Brown didn’t get more All-Big 12 notice this season but don’t expect him to remain unnoticed in 2014. He emerged as a factor in the Longhorns interior this season, finishing with 61 tackles including nine tackles for loss and two sacks. If he can consistently re-establish the line of scrimmage against Oregon in the Alamo Bowl, that could be one way to slow down the Ducks’ uptempo attack.

Big 12's unsung heroes

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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.

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