It seems safe to say K-State's linebacking corps will be the strength of its defense this season, and absolutely vital to supporting a somewhat weak defensive line.
The Wildcats bring back one of the best defensive linebackers in the conference in Arthur Brown, one of the league's top 10 linebackers in Tre Walker, and one high potential but unproven question mark in either Justin Tuggle or Jarell Childs, or a combination of the two.
Iowa State and Oklahoma probably deserve to be ahead of the 'Cats as far as the Big 12's best trios, but not by a whole lot. It's not hard to imagine KSU's group earning the top spot at the end of the year, especially when I'm wearing my purple glasses, as I often do.
But could these Wildcats be as good as the linebackers of the past? It won't be easy for them to earn comparisons with Mark Simoneau-Travis Ochs-Jeff Kelly or Terry Pierce-Josh Buhl-Ben Leber/Bryan Hickman, but since we've still got a few days before the season starts, it's worth having the debate.
Brown and Walker combined for 153 tackles last season, with Brown getting about two-thirds of those. That seems impressive, until you consider Terry Pierce and Josh Buhl combined for 239 in 2002 (the year after Leber left), then Buhl's record-breaking 184 tackles gave him and Bryan Hickman an insane 381 in 2003.
Then again, tackles clearly aren't everything, and they do depend a lot on the players around you. Pierce, Buhl, and Hickman didn't have to deal with tackle-happy defensive backs like David Garrett and Tysyn Hartman, who obviously made an impact even when their pass coverage left something to be desired.
Perhaps a better indicator of a dominant linebacker unit is the minuscule 69.5 rushing yards per game allowed by the defense featuring the 2002 unit of Pierce-Buhl-Hickman, compared to 131.3 given up last season in what is almost certainly a more pass-happy league.
That 2002 number is, not surprisingly, a Kansas State record, and one that seems unlikely to be broken soon, much like the three rushing touchdowns allowed all season by the defense featuring Simoneau, Ochs and Kelly.
Brown and Co. haven't done much to get their names in the KSU record book yet, and while the preseason honors piling up are nice, I think Brown needs to earn an All-America honor better than honorable mention before we truly can start mentioning him in the same sentence as Simoneau, Leber and Pierce.
Then again, maybe Kelly (a 1998 Butkus semifinalist) is the better comparison, since he also was a valuable player at KSU for only his last two collegiate seasons.
The area where this group may have the best chance to eclipse its predecessors might come at the next level, where for various reasons no one other than Ben Leber (and to a lesser extent, Mark Simoneau) has been able to find much success.
Scouts appear to be drooling over Brown, and it's not hard to imagine Walker using his raw talent to raise his stock during the next two seasons.
Tuggle's inexperience adds yet another dose of immense talent and potential for a group that remains capable of anything from good to spectacular, depending on how well it can work together and figure out how to play under its new and (surely) improved defensive coordinator. A ridiculously tough schedule gives them even less margin for error.
Do I think this group will be remembered among the best in K-State history? As someone who grew up admiring those mentioned previously, I can't say that I do based on existing evidence. But I'm not ready to rule it out.