As we count down the days to the 2019 College Football Season’s opening kickoff, we have given our thoughts on the best players in the Big XII at several positions. So far, we have offered our perspective on quarterback, running back, wide receiver, and defensive linemen. Now, we keep our focus on the defensive side of the ball. Without further ado, here are our picks for the Big XII’s best returning linebackers.
Big XII’s Best Returning Linebackers
Before jumping into the top five Big XII linebackers, we want to mention a few players who deserve honorable mention. First, Oklahoma State’s Calvin Bundage deserves attention here. Honestly, Bundage just barely misses our top five best returning linebackers in the conference. The Big XII coaches gave him an Honorable Mention on their All-Conference Team last year. Bundage definitely earned the recognition, as he racked up 62 tackles, registering losses on eight of those. He added 1.5 sacks to his totals. Seemingly healthy after being slowed by injury last season, the rising senior should prove to be one of the conference’s best linebackers this season.
Next, we focus on a serious candidate for defensive newcomer of the year: West Virginia’s VanDarius Cowan. Surprisingly, a few pundits identify the Mountaineers’ linebacker group as a top four unit in the conference, despite losing stud David Long to the NFL. Cowan is a large part of the reason. He stands at 6-4, 235 pounds and provides a mix of speed, athleticism, and power that earned him a high 4-star composite ranking by 247Sports. He was the sixth highest-rated linebacker in the 2017 class, and he is the third highest-rated returning linebacker at the position in the entire conference. After sitting out last season upon his transfer from Alabama, Cowan should make plenty of noise this season.
Mike Rose – Iowa State
Iowa State offered two of our top five defensive linemen, and it also brings players who join our list of best linebackers in the Big XII. Simply, the Cyclones defense has been really good the past two seasons. Mike Rose closely edges out Bundage for fifth on our list at this position. Rose is only a rising sophomore, but he put up big numbers last season. He finished the season with 75 tackles, nine for loss, 1.5 sacks, and returned a fumble recovery for a touchdown. He proved to be a disruptive forced and earned a spot on both The Athletic’s and the FWAA’s Freshman All-American team as a result. The Big XII coaches also gave Rose an Honorable Mention on their All-Conference team. And Rose has plenty of room to improve.
Jordyn Brooks – Texas Tech
Texas Tech certainly has not been known for its defense for the last decade, (or longer), but it has still featured plenty of bright spots over the years. Senior Jordyn Brooks offered a bit of light on the Red Raiders’ much-maligned defense last season. He finished with 78 tackles, six-and-a-half tackles for loss, and two-and-a-half sacks. Brooks also added an interception. The versatile Brooks should anchor the Red Raiders defense again this year. Brooks has been an Honorable Mention on the All-Conference team each of the last three years. Expect him to improve upon that this season and earn his spot as one of the best returning linebackers in the Big XII.
Marcel Spears, Jr. – Iowa State
As strange as it feels to include yet another Cyclone on our top five lists, (this makes the fourth in just two defensive lists), we repeat that the Iowa State defense really has looked that good. Last season, Marcel Spears regressed slightly from his monster 2017 season. Even so, he still put up good numbers, finishing with 69 tackles (down from 107 in 2017!), eight tackles for loss, two-and-a-half sacks, two interceptions (one for a touchdown), and a fumble recovery. Simply, Spears disrupted opposing units early, often, and in a number of ways. Spears has earned an Honorable Mention each of the past two seasons on the All-Conference team, and he should challenge for a first-team nod this season.
Clay Johnston – Baylor
Though Baylor’s defense finished near the bottom of the conference last season, Clay Johnston certainly contributed plenty. Johnston finished the season with 99 tackles, five-and-a-half tackles for loss, and a sack. He uses his speed well to find the ball, seemingly on every play. After earning a spot on the All-Conference Second Team last season, the fifth-year senior will look to leave his mark yet again on a Bears team that should be plenty improved from 2018.
Kenneth Murray – Oklahoma
We pointed out in our list of top five defensive linemen that Oklahoma’s defense was, simply, bad last season. But Kenneth Murray did his best to improve the unit. Murray had a monster season, racking up 155 tackles, 12.5 of which went for a loss. He added four-and-a-half sacks and a fumble recovery, too. Murray finds the gaps, applies pressure, and tackles well. In 2017, Murray earned a spot on the Freshmen All-American Teams by both USA Today and the Football Writers Association of America (FWAA). Last season, he earned a spot on the All-Conference Second Team. Those who finished in front of him have moved on, and the rising junior has nobody left in front of him. As a result, Murray tops our list of best returning linebackers in the conference. Look for Murray to shine on a defense rejuvenated by the hire of Alex Grinch.