Best Big 12 Linebackers Returning for 2024

Editor’s Note: This is the next in our ongoing series, looking at “The Best Returning” in the Big XII.

On the defensive side of the ball, one of the most heralded positions is that of the linebacker. They are usually the general who drives not only the direction of the defensive coordinator but also the emotional leader on that side of the ball. Physically, they provide bruising tackles to the run game, the ability to rush the quarterback, and pass defense as well. Suffice it to say they are versatile, with unique capabilities. When it comes to the best-returning linebackers to the new Big 12, fans will notice huge changes to the conference. Texas has moved to the SEC and with them goes their star Barryn Sorrell. Oklahoma is going to the same conference taking with them a top NFL linebacking prospect Danny Stutsman. Both were listed as two of last year’s Big 12 LWOS Best Returning Linebackers.

But the Big 12 is taking in four refugees from the dismantled Pac 12. Those include Arizona, Arizona State, Colorado, and Utah. This is not without precedent, since 2023 saw UCF, BYU, Cincinnati, and Houston joining the conference. Therefore, when the 2024 college football season begins, fans of the new Big 12 will notice a couple of their best linebackers may come from the newest newbies to the conference.

Best Big 12 Linebackers Returning for 2024

Honorable Mention: Jacob Manu – Arizona

The linebacker coach at Arizona called Jacob Manu the best linebacker in the Big 12, but as one might imagine, he is a little biased. Coach Danny Gonzales says that Manu “has as high a football IQ as any player that I’ve been around, which is a lot of fun. I think Jacob Manu proved last year how special of a player he is,” Gonzales added. “I say it without hesitation.”

The “Will”, or weak-side linebacker, was the first Wildcat to lead the Pac 12 in tackles since 2014 with 116. He was named to the first team All-Pac 12, as well as to AP’s All-Pac 12 team. Manu enters the Big 12 as a junior after getting 20 starts in his first two seasons. He made seven starts right out of high school in 2022. He should make a substantial addition to the new 16-team conference.

5. Karene Reid and Levani Damuni – Utah

These two linebackers are mentioned together here because they make a formidable linebacking duo for the Utes, as they enter the new Big 12.

Karene Reid is a Utah native entering his senior season always as a Ute. He has 31 starts, making All Pac 12 first team in 2022 and second team in 2023. He was second in tackles last season with a total of 184 over his career.

Levani Damuni spent his first four seasons at Stanford, before transferring to Utah last season. In his final season there, he was named team captain, playing in 31 games with 15 starts. Coming back to his home state of Utah, Damuni led the team last year with 87 tackles bumping his career total to 291. He has one year left as a sixth-year senior.

4. Ben Roberts – Texas Tech

A lot is expected from this redshirt sophomore since last season Ben Roberts went from backup to one of the top linebackers in the conference. He led the Red Raiders in tackles with 107 (55 solo) and finished second in tackles for a loss with 6.5. This earned him Big 12 Defensive Freshman of the Year, AP second-team All-Big 12, and second-team All-American by The Athletic.

At 6’ 3” and 230 pounds, Roberts was a top recruit out of Haslet, Texas. Red Raider fans are hoping to capitalize on his success from last season.

3. Deshawn Pace – UCF

Deshawn Pace spent his first four years at Cincinnati but transferred in conference to UCF this past January.  As the Bearcats entered their first season in the conference in 2023, Pace earned All-Big 12 Honorable Mention. He led the team with 80 tackles.

But Pace shows his uniqueness since he is a bit of a hybrid. At Cincinnati, they called the position STAR. He is listed as a linebacker, but on occasion, he has played as a defensive back. As he put it from an interview with UCFSports, “They told me I’d be rotating around,” Pace said. I might play linebacker, and then one play I might go down and rush off the edge. Then I might go back to nickel or safety. You never know.” This can certainly cause headaches for offensive coordinators.

2. Collin Oliver – Oklahoma State

At the end of the 2023 season, there was a lot of buzz that Collin Oliver might jump to the NFL. However, in January he announced, via social media, that he would be a Cowboy for another season. He spent his first two seasons with OSU at defensive end but switched to linebacker last season. Given that versatility, Oliver is considered to be one of the best overall defensive threats the Cowboys have this year. In 2023, he had 73 tackles, 15.5 for a loss, and six sacks. The tackles were fourth on the team, but he led in forced fumbles with four.

With the departure of Texas and Oklahoma to the SEC, Oliver might be one of the reasons Oklahoma State could be the contender for the Big 12 in 2024.

1. Nick Martin – Oklahoma State

This might be the other reason the Cowboys could be the big shot in the conference. Nick Martin, or Nickolas as he’s sometimes listed, rounds out the best-returning linebackers of the new Big 12 as probably the best one. He had rather merger beginnings in Stillwater, as a non-starter his first two seasons. But in 2023, he exploded, leading the conference in tackles with 140. Add to those 16 tackles for a loss, six sacks, and two interceptions, and you have a linebacker that strikes dread into the heart of any offensive coordinator.

Martin and Oliver shared duties as team captains last season, and there is no reason to believe that won’t be repeated. The latter speaks very highly about his running mate’s speed. “We call him the Heat-Seeking Missile,” Oliver said in a post-game press conference. “You turn on the film and you see nothing short of that. You may even see a rocket, I don’t know. He’s a dog and he’s gonna continue to make plays like that.”

Photo Credit: Nathan J. Fish-USA TODAY Sports


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