Big 12 Power Rankings: Top 10 Linebackers
As one of college football's premiere conferences, the Big 12 figures to get even harder by next month's NFL draft.
In addition to record-setting quarterback Colt McCoy, Texas loses a wealth of talent, including a number of gangbusters on defense. Same goes for Nebraska and Oklahoma, each of which will have to press on without the services of its All-American defensive tackle.
Oklahoma State will have to replace the dynamic offensive trio of Zac Robinson, Dez Bryant, and Russell Okung.
Texas Tech must compensate for the departure of several impact defensive linemen. And the post-Todd Reesing era is officially underway in Lawrence, Kansas.
To be sure, the losses will not go unnoticed, but it's not as if the talent pool in the Big 12 is about to run dry. Speed, athleticism, and brawn still abound, and perhaps at no other position is this combo more evident than at linebacker, where a handful of players are geared to assume their place in the limelight.
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10. Andrew Gachkar—Senior (Missouri)
The roster says Gachkar stands at 6’3”, 235 pounds, which may or may not be accurate, but the senior linebacker from Overland Park, Kansas, runs with the ease and fluidity of a slim tight end or a thicker wide receiver.
In his first season as a starter, Gachkar flourished, posting 80 tackles and a team-high three fumble recoveries. But what Gachkar brings to the table can’t be measured numerically.
To help counter the pass-happy offenses of the Big 12, the Tigers in past seasons often fielded just two linebackers and instead relied on a safety to walk up and down the formation in a 4-2-5 alignment.
However, in 2009, MU defensive coordinator Dave Steckel was able to keep his 4-3 scheme mostly intact, relying on Gachkar to use his feet while covering an opposing slot receiver or tight end on the strong side of the Tigers’ defense.
With one year of solid experience under his belt, Gachkar should once again stand out amongst what could be one of the country’s deepest and most talented linebacking corps.
9. Orie Lemon—Senior (Oklahoma State)
In a perfect world, Lemon would be busy right now working out for NFL scouts, but an ACL injury prior to last season sidelined him for all of 2009, resulting in a fifth year of eligibility.
Set to return to action, Lemon (No. 41 pictured) will attempt to build on a breakout 2008 season during which he racked up 90 tackles, two forced fumbles, and eight pass breakups while starting all 13 games.
The Cowboys return just three players on both sides of the ball, but the ability to adequately replace starters on defense will prove crucial to OSU retaining relevancy in the brutal Big 12 South.
Patrick Levine and Andre Sexton, who combined for 150 tackles a season ago, are no longer around, so it becomes imperative that Lemon picks up the slack.
Lemon is mysteriously absent from OSU’s most current spring depth chart, but you can bet he’ll team with fellow senior Justin Gent to lead a linebacking corps that’s long on potential but short on valuable game experience.
8. Garrick Williams—Junior (Texas A&M)
It may seem odd to select a player from a defense that finished last season ranked no better than 11th in the Big 12 in every major statistical category, but let’s just say that Williams was one of the few Aggie defenders who actually showed up consistently.
Texas A&M nearly brought up the conference rear in both rush and pass defense, but the ineptitude can hardly be placed squarely on the shoulders of Williams. In 11 starts, he tallied 74 tackles, including 8.5 for loss. But as bad as 2009 was defensively, 2010 should be brighter at College Station, where 10 starters return and Williams leads a very serviceable trio of linebackers.
Simply put, Williams is to the Aggie linebacking corps what the spectacular Von Miller is to the defensive line, and he’ll be vital to the aggressive schemes that will be incorporated by new defensive coordinator Tim DeRuyter.
If nothing else, DeRuyter, head coach Mike Sherman, and the Aggies can rest assured that the upcoming season can’t possibly be marred by as many defensive gaffes as 2009.
Photo credit: Icon SMI
7. Brian Duncan—Senior (Texas Tech)
While new head coach Tommy Tuberville prepares for his first season in Lubbock, one of the burning questions has to be whether his SEC pedigree will translate into the Red Raiders becoming a consistent defensive force in the Big 12.
The answer to that particular question is likely a few years away, but Tuberville’s initial efforts should begin with Duncan. Duncan is a former Freshman All-American selection and received All-Big 12 honorable mention as a sophomore in 2008.
Postseason praise didn’t follow Duncan last season, but he was without a doubt one of the more consistent performers on the Tech defense. Starting all 13 games, Duncan posted a team-high 88 tackles, 66 of which were of the solo variety, and showed good coverage skills with five pass breakups.
Duncan is practically a shoo-in for All-Big 12 preseason recognition for 2010. The Red Raiders lose several impact players along the defensive line, but the linebacking corps, which also consists of senior Bront Bird and junior Sam Fehoko, should shine, with Duncan poised to do a majority of the damage as Tuberville sets out to place Tech at the next level defensively.
6. Will Compton—Redshirt Sophomore (Nebraska)
One of the crown jewels of head coach Bo Pelini’s first recruiting class, Compton is a talented youngster who is yet to even come close to realizing his potential.
As a redshirt freshman last season, the 6’2”, 225-pound Compton appeared in 13 games, including eight starts, and collected 40 tackles and two sacks from the Mike linebacker position.
The numbers don’t exactly jump off the page, but given an entire season to spread his wings, Compton could easily evolve into the difference-maker he was recruited to be.
That certainly should be the case in 2010, as Nebraska’s two leading tacklers from a season ago—defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh and linebacker Phillip Dillard—are now gone, leaving Compton to fill the void in the middle of that Husker defense.
Photo credit: Lincoln Star-Journal
5. Emmanuel Acho—Junior (Texas)
Acho may not get as much recognition as some of his teammates, but he was arguably Texas’ most opportunistic and disruptive defensive player a season ago, despite starting just two games.
Of his 49 tackles from the outside linebacker position and on special teams, more than 20 percent (10) accounted for a loss of yardage, and Acho’s three forced fumbles led the Longhorns.
As always, Texas will feature plenty of speed and athleticism on defense in 2010, but an exodus of several high-profile players to the NFL will test depth in the secondary and at defensive end, where Acho’s brother, Sam, collected a team-high 10 sacks a season ago.
Now one of the defense’s more experienced members, Acho, who has appeared in 24 career games, will be expected to build upon his sophomore campaign and, along with fellow linebacker Keenan Robinson, provide the Longhorns with an attitude in the middle third of the defense.
4. Will Ebner—Junior (Missouri)
Faced with the unenviable task of filling at least a part of the void left by Sean Weatherspoon, Ebner will be a focal point of the MU defense in 2010, but it’s not like he’ll be going in blind.
Voted by his teammates as the most improved linebacker during last year’s spring practices, the native of Friendswood, Tx., used the accolade as a springboard to a breakthrough season in 2009.
Despite starting only seven games, Ebner (foreground) finished his sophomore season third on the team in tackles (78) and sacks (3.5), and, like all good middle linebackers, earned a reputation for being bit of a sadist. He often admitted how much joy he gets out of crumpling opposing running backs.
Plus, the kid’s tough. Less than two weeks after undergoing surgery to repair torn meniscus cartilage in his right knee suffered on Oct. 8 against Nebraska, Ebner was on the field registering seven tackles versus the Texas Longhorns.
The question now is how Ebner will handle his encore as the No. 1 thumper in the middle of the Tigers’ 4-3 scheme. Has he already hit his ceiling, or will Ebner succeed in helping MU fans forget all about the departed Weatherspoon?
3. Travis Lewis—Junior (Oklahoma)
It would be absurd to insist that Lewis endured a dropoff similar to that of the entire Sooners team in 2009, but his team-leading 109 tackles appear mediocre when compared to his 2008 efforts, when he tallied 144 as a freshman during OU’s national title run.
As has been the case in the past, Lewis (No. 28 pictured) will once again be a key cog in the OU defense, only this season he won’t be accompanied by fellow standouts Keenan Clayton and Ryan Reynolds, both of whom have exhausted their eligibility. Instead, the two-time All-Big selection will headline a young but promising unit that will be under the microscope in 2010.
Regardless of who surrounds him, though, Lewis is talented enough that another huge season is certainly within reach, enabling him to retain his status as one of the Big 12’s top two or three overall linebackers.
2. Keenan Robinson—Junior (Texas)
On a defense as star-studded as that of Texas, it’s a monumental undertaking to land a starting spot, let alone make a name for yourself. But that’s exactly what Robinson has done.
As a sophomore last season, the 6’3”, 225-pound native of Plano registered 74 tackles and 1.5 sacks in 14 games, establishing a distinction as one of the conference’s up-and-coming defensive playmakers.
But the best is yet to come for Robinson, who earned All-Big 12 honorable mention in 2009 and figures to earn preseason recognition this year. Gone from Texas’ No. 12-ranked defense a season ago are Earl Thomas, Lamarr Houston, and Sergio Kindle, as is leading tackler Roddrick Muckelroy, leaving Robinson the opportunity to ascend to elite status as the Longhorns set out to defend their Big 12 title.
1. Von Miller—Senior (Texas A&M)
A fierce blend of size and speed, Miller was an absolute terror for opposing offenses in 2009. Spending much of his time manning the defensive end position in the Aggies’ mixture of 3-4 and 4-3 schemes, Miller recorded 48 tackles in 2009, a total that was a modest seventh-best among A&M defenders.
However, Miller finished with 17 sacks to rank first nationally, and he returns in 2010 not only as one of college football’s most freakish athletes, but a sure-fire preseason All-American selection.
But it’s possible even bigger things lie ahead for Miller, who decided to forgo entering the NFL draft to return for his final season at Texas A&M.
At 6’3”, 240 pounds, Miller is the perfect specimen for any defense, but his versatility seems an ideal match for Texas A&M and first-year defensive coordinator Tim DeRuyter, who has stated his intentions to institute the 3-4 as the Aggies’ full-time defensive scheme.
By definition, Miller isn’t a linebacker; heck, he may not even be a prototypical defensive end. And it’s this ambiguity that allowed Miller to occupy the JACK position in past seasons, where his comprehensive skill set can be best utilized.
But now, with the Aggies’ devotion to using only three down linemen, Miller should be afforded the luxury of roaming the formation more freely while furthering his stature as a standout defensive hybrid.
This should be a frightening proposition for any opposing Big 12 offense.