1. Michigan State – This is one of the best collections of linebackers in the nation for what should be one of the top defenses in the nation. All three starters are back on a unit which has a bit of everything. Denicos Allen is heat-seeking missile in pursuit of the ball. Max Bullough, the Spartans’ No. 1 tackler in 2011, is the classic tough guy in the middle who is from a bygone era. Chris Norman plays a “star” spot that is a blend of safety and linebacker that takes advantage of his considerable athletic skills. And the depth chart is bolstered by promising young talent like Lawrence Thomas.
2. Penn State – Save for Nate Stupar, all the key players are back. That’s why this group has a chance to maintain the school’s “Linebacker U” moniker. Gerald Hodges leads the way as one of the Big Ten’s top linebackers. Not bad for a guy who arrived as a safety. Michael Mauti is primed for a big season at the other outside slot after he suffered a season-ending knee injury four games into last season. He also missed 2009 with a knee injury. If he stays healthy, Mauti may be the top linebacker in the Big Ten. Tough run-stuffer Glenn Carson and Khairi Fortt are battling for the middle linebacker spot. Mike Hull also will play a key role.
3. Wisconsin – The offense gets the headlines in Madison, but the defense is darn good, too. And it begins with one of the conference’s top linebacking units. There may be no better tandem than Mike Taylor and Chris Borland, who both were All-Big Ten selections while finishing 1-2 in the league in tackles in 2011. Kevin Claxton is gone from the strong side, but the staff likes A.J. Fenton and Ethan Armstrong. Fenton is the team’s fastest linebacker.
4. Ohio State – This area teems with potential and will be a strength for what should be an outstanding defense. Ryan Shazier was a revelation as a true freshman last season. He’s a future star on the weak side for a unit whose only key loss was Andrew Sweat. It looks like the light finally has come on for Curtis Grant, the top signee in Ohio State’s 2011 class. Storm Klein is a plugger in the middle who will compete with Grant. Etienne Sabino has been more about potential than production. Time is running out for the senior.
5. Michigan – Kenny Demens is a rock in the middle, showing savvy as a leader and skills to make plays by filling the hole or pursuing. He could be All-Big Ten after leading the defense in tackles in 2011. Jake Ryan enjoyed a solid debut on the strong side, holding up well at the point of attack while showing advanced smarts and athletic ability. Desmond Morgan adapted quickly, showing speed and instincts to thrive in a baptism-by-fire season. This strong unit could get a big boost from some talented true freshmen. Joe Bolden arrived early and went through spring drills. And keep an eye on Royce Jenkins-Stone and James Ross.
6. Illinois – This unit will be one of the strongest on the team, as speed and athletic ability abound for a group that only lost Ian Thomas. And it all begins with Jonathan Brown, who led the team in tackles. Is there a better linebacker in the Big Ten? Maybe not. He’s an athletic tackling machine who makes plays from sideline to sideline. Houston Bates is a big linebacker with speed who is primed to come into his own. The defense will feature a “Star,” which will be a hybrid safety/linebacker. Ashante Williams will fill the role. True freshman Ta’Jarvis Fuller also will play the spot for this underrated Illini corps.
7. Nebraska – Tackling machine Lavonte David will be missed following an ultra-productive two-year stint after arriving from junior college. But the staff will build around gritty and rugged Will Compton in the middle and Sean Fisher on the strong side. Coaches have been pleased with Alonzo Whaley taking over the weak-side spot after playing on the strong side and in the middle. He could be primed for a big season. But after the top three, depth is iffy for a unit that needs to get bigger and stronger. Look for a few newcomers to figure in the mix this fall headed by JC Zaire Anderson, who could claim a starting job.
8. Iowa – The Hawkeye defense has questions up front and in the secondary but not at linebacker, with only Tyler Nielsen gone. James Morris and Christian Kirksey—who both tied for the team lead in tackles–are the bellwethers for a defense that has lots to prove and needs playmakers. Morris is a try-hard guy in the middle who eats up tackles. Kirksey is quicker and more athletic than Morris but every bit as productive for a unit that was good but not great in 2011. Anthony Hitchens could be a force on the weak side now that he’s over a knee injury. The depth is talented but inexperienced.
9. Purdue – This group hasn’t been as productive as it needs to be in recent seasons. But that could be changing. The unit will miss gutty Joe Holland, a leader who thrived on guts and guile. Dwayne Beckford is a classic middle linebacker who is back on the team after legal issues. Good thing, because the Boilermakers need his size and strength inside. Will Lucas and Joe Gilliam are speedsters on the flank who need to be more consistent and productive. Depth is largely unproven, which is a concern for a defense that needs more difference makers.
10. Northwestern – In the middle on the outside, it doesn’t matter where David Nwabuisi plays—he’s the centerpiece and star of a unit that’s a nice blend of veterans and promising youth. But the Wildcat linebackers need to be more hard-nosed vs. the run. Damien Proby is a good athlete with quickness who can play inside or outside with equal aplomb. Collin Ellis and Chi Chi Ariguzo are underclassmen who are filling out and look like playmakers. Stay tuned. And it will be sooner rather than later for true freshman Ifeadi Odenigbo to be on the field. He’s a touted recruit who has coaches excited.
11. Minnesota – The Gopher linebackers have a lot to prove with the late Gary Tinsley and Patrick Sveum gone. Keanon Cooper is a fast linebacker with potential on the strong side. Mike Rallis is back in the middle as the team’s top returning tackler. James Manuel needs to make plays on the weak side. Former Florida Gator Brendan Beal could be a factor after missing 2011 with a knee injury. He’s smart, tough and strong.
12. Indiana – This unit struggled in 2011, as playmaking ability was lacking. And leading tackler Jeff Thomas is gone. But the Hoosiers significantly bolstered their linebacking corps by bringing in junior-college standouts Jacarri Alexander and David Cooper. Upon arriving for spring drills, each claimed a starting spot. Alexander is more athletic on the weak side, while Cooper is more of a stuffer in the middle. Bottom line: Their ability will raise the effectiveness of this often-moribund unit. Strong side ‘backer Chase Hoobler is a blue-collar plugger who thrives on effort and technique. Don’t be shocked if true freshmen like Jordan Wallace and Nick Mangieri get on the field. The bleeding has to stop.
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