1. Malik Jefferson, sophomore LB, Texas
Texas was right in the middle of the pack last year in scoring defense, allowing 30.3 points per game and finishing fifth in that category. Malik Jefferson, as a freshman, was a huge part of it. He recorded 61 total tackles and 2.5 sacks. Jefferson will have a lot of weight on his shoulders this year, a year that could be critical for head coach Charlie Strong’s job security.
2. Jordan Thomas, junior CB, Oklahoma
Oklahoma is going to be a top team in this conference. You could say that is because of Baker Mayfield and Samaje Perine, but don’t forget about the Sooners’ defense, which Jordan Thomas will help lead. Thomas recorded 46 total tackles from his corner spot and tallied five interceptions. That type of a pass defender will be huge for a conference known for throwing the ball all around the field.
3. Jordan Willis, senior DE, Kansas State
Jordan Willis was a monster for Kansas State last year. Willis only had 36 total tackles, but those numbers are skewed by the fact that Willis drew multiple double-teams throughout the year because of his size. And he got bigger, too. Willis is listed at 6 feet 5 inches and weighed in at 258 pounds. He has the capability to burst off the paper this year, if he can overcome those double-team matchups that teams will put on him.
4. Jordan Evans, senior LB, Oklahoma
Another part of the talented Sooners’ defense is linebacker Jordan Evans. Evans was one of the most feared linebackers among the entire Big 12 as a junior. Eighty-three total tackles from the linebacker spot made him the 11th-best linebacker statistically.
5. Dante Barnett, senior DB, Kansas State
After a shoulder injury ended his season in the first game of 2015, Dante Barnett is healthy and will look to guide the K-State defense in 2016. The Wildcats’ defense clearly struggled to find success without Barnett, who was frequently called the “quarterback of the defense.” The one thing Barnett will have to overcome is the fear of re-injuring himself.
6. Fish Smithson, senior DB, Kansas
Due to how bad the Jayhawks were in 2015, it is no surprise how many tackles Fish Smithson recorded. At the same time, Smithson was the No. 1 ranked player in solo tackles with 87 total. Kansas might be able to win a few games this year, and Smithson will be a huge part of that.
7. Josh Carraway, senior DL, TCU
TCU has stout defenses year in and year out. That’s just a fact. The Horned Frogs were third in the Big 12 last year defensively, and Josh Carraway was part of it. He only recorded 46 tackles, but also had a monstrous nine sacks. An intimidating pass rush could be huge to have in this conference.
8. Chad Whitener, junior LB, Oklahoma State
I think Oklahoma State is going to be right up there with Oklahoma for the Big 12 Championship this year. To do that, they’ll need a stout defense. Chad Whitener will be part of that. Whitener finished with 93 total tackles and two sacks a season ago.
9. Elijah Lee, junior LB, Kansas State
Elijah Lee continues to get bigger, faster and stronger. He is listed at 6 feet 3 inches and 228 pounds. I’m convinced it’s all muscle weight. Lee looks intimidating without shoulder pads, so I can’t imagine what he’s like on game day. He had 80 total tackles and five sacks in 2015, but those numbers could jump even higher, as many of his teammates are going to be the key players for opposing offenses to stop.
10. Joe Dineen Jr., junior LB, Kansas
At Big 12 Media Days in Dallas, Texas, this summer, Joe Dineen’s coach and teammates said that nobody plays harder than him. His 86 tackles and three sacks are just some of what proves that argument. Again, the Jayhawks might struggle to have success this year. But if opposing offenses are plowing up the defensive line, Dineen will be there to stop them at the linebacker spot.