Losing middle linebacker Joe Pawelek, who led Baylor with 109 tackles, is a big void as is the loss of fellow starter on the strong side, Antonio Jones, who had 81 tackles. However, outside backer Antonio Johnson returns after a 77-tackle, two-sack and one-interception showing as a junior, when he started 12 games. Senior-to-be Earl Patin (38 tackles in 12 games) looks like the top pick to replace Pawelek.
Chris Francis (45 tackles, one sack in 12 games) backed up Jones last fall and he too, appears poised to become a starter. Elliot Coffey is a solid backup to Johnson and had 35 tackles in 12 games last year as a sophomore. The Bears will also have three freshmen who could work their way into the rotation. Bryce Hager (6-1, 210) is the son of former Texas and NFL linebacker Britt Hager. Matt Ritchey (6-3, 215) is an outside LB who also played quarterback and punter in high school while Robert Singletary (6-4, 210) is the younger brother of Mike Singletary, who plays basketball at Texas Tech.
OU lost two solid members of their linebacking corps in outside man Keenan Clayton (75 tackles) and middle LB Ryan Reynolds (79 tackles, 3.5 sacks). However, as usual, the Sooners have more than enough talent to reload. After a standout year that was mostly spent on special teams, Ronnell Lewis (22 tackles in 13 games) gets a shot at replacing Clayton on the strong side. Junior-to-be Austin Box (33 tackles in 11 games) will also get a serious look there.
In the middle, redshirt freshman Tom Wort, who missed all of last year with a knee injury, will vie for the starting spot along with sophomore-to-be Daniel Franklin. Out wide, Travis Lewis returns after leading the Crimson and Cream in tackles for the second straight year with 109 stops. The first-team all-conference linebacker will be backed up by sophomore-to-be Jaydan Bird. Sophomore-to-be Joseph Ibiloye had 15 tackles last fall and he will provide depth. Three freshmen will also look to make their mark. Aaron Franklin (6-1, 205) is a four-star outside LB. Rashod Favors (6-1, 225) is a three-star recruit who also plays outside while Corey Nelson (6-0, 210) is a five-star signee from Dallas.
OSU will have three new starters at linebacker. At the strong spot, Andre Sexton (71 tackles) has graduated, which likely leaves junior-to-be James Thomas (18 tackles in 12 games) as his replacement. In the middle, leading tackler Donald Booker has departed with senior-to-be Justin Gent (27 tackles, one sack in 13 games) poised to step up. Out wide, Patrick Lavine (79 tackles) has also moved on, which leaves senior-to-be Tolu Moala (23 tackles in 13 games) to pick up the considerable slack.
Junior-to-be Kenny Alexander is the only other returnee with much experience from last year and he played in just one game. However, help might be on the way from the Cowboys’ impressive recruiting class. Inside LB Caleb Lavey (6-1, 227) was very sought after and the Celina HS product is going through spring drills. HS teammates Kris Catlin (6-1, 215) and Tommie Saunders (6-1, 195) are two more to watch. Catlin has nice speed while Saunders could also see time at safety. Shaun Lewis (6-1, 210) and Stephen Maeweather (6-3, 215) round out this solid and promising group.
Texas will have to replace star middle linebacker Roddrick Muckelroy, last year’s leading tackler with 102 stops. The good news is that after missing all but one game of his junior season with a shoulder injury, Jared Norton returns and could be a nice replacement for Muckelroy. In 2008, Norton made seven starts in the middle and last year, had six tackles in his only game against Louisiana-Monroe. At the outside spot, Keena Robinson is back for his junior season. In 14 starts last fall, he made 74 tackles and had 1.5 sacks.
Other members of the rotation include Emmanuel Acho, who had 49 tackles, two sacks and an interception as a sophomore. Dustin Earnest (26 tackles, one sack) will provide some senior leadership along with Norton while Ryan Roberson played in all 14 games as a true freshman. Speaking of freshmen, all three linebackers from the latest recruiting class could also contribute. This group includes Aaron Benson (6-2, 225), who happens to be Cedric’s cousin, Jordan Hicks (6-2, 220) from Ohio and Tevin Jackson (6-2, 230).
Mike Sherman’s Aggies return a good group of experienced backers. At one outside spot, junior-to-be Garrick Williams, who played in 13 games and made 11 starts in 2009, returns. Williams was third in tackles last year with 74 stops and also had one sack and one interception. Backing him up will be sophomore-to-be Sean Porter, who played in 12 games with one start. He had 42 tackles.
In the middle, Kyle Mangan returns after starting the last six games at that spot. In 12 games last year as a freshman, including nine starts, he had 70 tackles, 2.5 sacks and a pair of interceptions. At the other outside spot, senior-to-be Michael Hodges returns after making nine starts there last year. He had 67 tackles and one interception. Fellow senior-to-be Jonathan Stewart is also in the mix. He had 28 tackles while playing in 13 games last fall. A&M added just one linebacker in their latest recruiting class-Domonique Patterson (6-0, 210), who comes to Aggieland from Dallas powerhouse Skyline HS.
The Red Raiders have just one hole to fill in their linebacking corps. At the WILL spot, Marlon Williams, who was third on the team with 73 tackles, has graduated. Junior-to-be Riley Harvey, who played in nine games last year and logged five tackles, looks like the top candidate to replace him. At the SAM spot, senior-to-be Bront Bird is back after a stellar junior campaign where he had 56 tackles, one sack and one forced fumble. Junior-to-be Tyrone Sonier, who played in three games last fall, figures to be his backup.
At the MIKE spot, leading tackler Brian Duncan, who had 88 stops as a junior, returns. His backup, Sam Fehoko, played in all 13 games for Tech in 2009 and had 19 tackles. Seniors-to-be Jonathan Brydon and Blake Collier are two more who should contribute out of this group. Two incoming freshmen outside linebackers could also contribute. Joe Carmical (6-1, 220) is out of Arkansas and is effective on outside blitzes. Cqualin Hubert (6-1, 216) is an in-state recruit who is versatile and brings great size and strength to Lubbock.
Ranking the Big 12 South Linebackers (Once again, these are very subjective)
1) Texas A&M: Aggies return all three starters: Michael Hodges and Garrick Williams outside plus Kyle Mangan in the middle.
2) Oklahoma: OU returns the only first-team All-Big 12 LB-top tackler Travis Lewis. However, there are holes to fill.
3) Texas: ‘Horns lost top tackler Roddrick Muckelroy but juniors Keena Robinson and Emmanuel Acho are two to watch.
4) Texas Tech: Bront Bird and Brian Duncan are two solid starters but there is a lack of depth behind them.
5) Baylor: Losing Joe Pawelek and Antonio Jones is big but lone returning starter Antonio Johnson is solid.
6) Oklahoma State: Cowboys lost all three starters and there isn’t much experience returning from the rest of their linebackers.
For more information about the Big 12, check out FoxSportsSouthwest.com