Nebraska paces linebacker unit rankings

Linebackers are the heart and soul of any good defense. Speed, strength, athletic ability, toughness … they must embody all of it. And no Big Ten team has a better collection of linebackers than Nebraska.

Here’s my ranking of the Big Ten’s linebacking corps.

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1. Nebraska. This group took some lumps in recent years but now looks primed to excel. Athletic ability and speed abound. Michael Rose will work inside. Zaire Anderson—maybe the most consistent of the bunch–and David Santos—who used to work inside–are on the flanks. Josh Banderas and Trevor Roach are quality reserves.

2. Michigan State. Max Bullough and Denicos Allen will be missed, but talent still looms. The staff will turn to big Taiwan Jones to man the middle. He’s a hitter. Jones will be flanked by Darien Harris—who will play a STAR spot–and Ed Davis, a speedy athlete who must blitz well. Mylan Hicks, Riley Bullough and Jon Reschke offer depth.

3. Ohio State. By season’s end, this could be the Big Ten’s top linebacking unit even with Ryan Shazier gone early. Joshua Perry is back. Can Curtis Grant hold off stud true freshman Raekwon McMillan in the middle? Speedy ex-prep quarterback Darron Lee is on the strong side. Depth is augmented by Camren Williams and Trey Johnson.

4. Michigan. Coordinator Greg Mattison has a nice veteran crew. Jake Ryan is a leader who has moved inside. Desmond Morgan has gone from the middle to the weak side. The strong side is manned by James Ross III, a great athlete who excels in space. Depth is good with the likes of Joe Bolden and Desmond Morgan.

5. Penn State. Linebacker U should have a solid group. Mike Hull has moved from the outside to the middle. There will be no shortage of athletic ability on both sides of Hull in the form of Brandon Bell and Nyeem Wartman. Bell finished 2013 with a flurry. Wartman is a former touted recruit who could blossom. Ben Kline, Gary Wooten and Matthew Baney are reserves.

6. Wisconsin. Even with Chris Borland and Ethan Armstrong gone, the Badgers have the makings of a nice corps with Vince Biegel, Marcus Trotter and Joe Schobert. This triumvirate combined for 9.5 tackles for loss and 105 stops in 2013. The staff thinks Schobert could be primed for a big season. Not bad for a guy who almost ended up having to walk on at North Dakota a few years ago.

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

7. Iowa. The Hawkeyes took a big hit here, losing stalwart starters Christian Kirksey, James Morris and Anthony Hitchens. But the projected starters could be salty. Quinton Alston will line up inside, flanked by Reggie Spearman on the weak side and Travis Perry on the strong side. Alston and Perry have experience. Spearman is a top athlete.

8. Maryland. Ex-safety Matt Robinson emerged as a playmaker in 2013 in this 3-4 scheme. Cole Farrand is back after earning honorable mention All-ACC honors. L.A. Goree had 76 stops in 2013, while Yannik Cudjoe-Virgil is back after missing the last seven games with injury.

9. Northwestern. This group has plenty of athletic ability. To wit, check out wide-side linebacker Chi Chi Ariguzo. He’s the Big Ten’s top returning tackler. Collin Ellis has moved inside to replace Damien Proby. It’s a battle between ex-safety Jimmy Hall and Drew Smith on the strong side.

10. Illinois. There’s some potential. Mason Monheim has moved from the middle to Jonathan Brown’s weak-side slot. T.J. Neal—a spring star–is in the middle. He could be a one of the defense’s top players. Mike Svetina and Ralph Cooper bolster the corps. Keep an eye on Earnest Thomas III, who plays a hybrid LB/S spot called STAR.

11. Indiana. All three starters are back—T.J. Simmons, Flo Hardin and David Cooper for a group that has athletic ability. Marcus Oliver and Clyde Newton are youngsters to watch. Kevin Wilson is especially high on Oliver. They all need to excel for a defense that ranked 120th in the nation in 2013.

12. Minnesota. This unit has something to prove. The staff needs De’Vondre Campbell and Damien Wilson to play well. Campbell is an angular, athletic freak. It hurt that JC transfer Cody Poock injured a knee in the spring. That means Jack Lynn figures to start. Depth is young and largely unproven.

13. Rutgers. This unit has been massaged. Speedy Steve Longa has moved to the weak side and Kevin Snyder is now inside. Quentin Gause is slated to start on the strong side. He’s coming off a shoulder injury. Depth is young, so if injuries happen, this group could struggle.

14. Purdue. This has been an Achilles’ heel for almost a decade. Sean Robinson, who arrived on campus as a quarterback, continues to hold down a starting spot. He tries hard but often is overmatched. Joe Gilliam is another vet. Don’t be shocked if a pair of true freshmen starts: Gelen Robinson and Ja’Whaun Bentley. What they lack in experience they compensate for with talent and potential.

About Tom Dienhart BTN.com senior writer Tom Dienhart is a veteran sports journalist who covers Big Ten football and men’s basketball for BTN.com and BTN TV. Find him on Twitter and Facebook, read all of his work at btn.com/tomdienhart, and subscribe to his posts via RSS. Also, send questions to his weekly mailbag using the form below and read all of his previous answers in his reader mailbag section.

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15 Comments

Your Opinion?
Show Comments (15 Comments)
DJNiteFlite on 7/7/2014 @ 11:55am EST Said:

Fan rankings from the 247sports B1G roundtable:

1. Michigan – 1.53

2. Nebraska – 2.12

3. Ohio State – 4.12

4. Michigan State – 4.29

5. Maryland – 4.47

6. Penn State – 5.94

7. Northwestern – 7.00

8. Rutgers – 8.13

9. Wisconsin – 9.19

10. Minnesota – 9.81

11. Iowa – 10.25

12. Illinois – 11.75

13. Indiana – 13.13

14. Purdue – 13.19

Doug on 7/7/2014 @ 12:13pm EST Said:

anything with Michigan first is automatically dimissed as being legit DJNiteFlite….

SpartanPadawan on 7/7/2014 @ 1:07pm EST Said:

Not so fast Doug. Representatives from every fan base, even MSU, participated. I think MSU is overrated here, as only T. Jones is truly proven. Davis and Harris are close, but I think they have a ways to go. MSU has shown it can reload on defense, however.

Having Michigan at No. 1 isn’t a fluke. I probably wouldn’t put them at the top spot, but they are certainly top three.

MSU#1-Rose Bowl Win, B1G Champs! 13-1! 42 wins in 4 years! on 7/7/2014 @ 1:12pm EST Said:

Not this year nite-y night! lol

Big Ten Fan on 7/7/2014 @ 1:48pm EST Said:

Another hum dinger of a list of BTN. Linebacker U #5? Whatever. Mike Hull is the top linebacker in the Big Ten. He was hobbled last year with a knee injury but was merely as good as all-American Chris Borland despite playing at no better than 75%. It is helpful to look back at his 2012 season where was essentially a co-starter at middle linebacker. In 2012, he frequently outplayed both Mike Mauti and Gerald Hodges which means tagging his as the nation’s top backer for 2014 is not a stretch at all. Wartman was hampered by injury much of the year but when healthy has shown quite a bit. He and Hull are first team all- Big Ten front runners. Bell showed quite a bit.

No Tom, Penn State has the top linebacking corps in the Big Ten. While they don’t have too much experienced depth, their have the best starters and more potential for impact from its freshmen.

Big Ten Fan on 7/7/2014 @ 1:50pm EST Said:

Ohio State #3? How the heck did I miss that? OSU has a MAC caliber linebacking corps. Period. No talent. No speed. No depth. No hope for improvement, only regression with the loss of the only player that could make plays.

B1Gfan MI on 7/7/2014 @ 2:48pm EST Said:

To all Aggies who have over-indulged their mediocre football program for the past several months: reality is about to set in ! I just hope the train wreck doesn’t claim too many innocent bystanders along the way. That boring, ugly ride to Aggie Stadium will seem longer each week this Fall. Could November become the longest month of the Year?

JoeW on 7/7/2014 @ 5:06pm EST Said:

Hey Big Ten (Penn State) fan…last year LB U allowed OSU to score 63 points. In one offseason they now have the best LB unit and DL unit according to you. It’s one thing to be a homer, but come on…if the Nits were as good as you claim they would beat the Seahawks.

Doug on 7/7/2014 @ 8:38pm EST Said:

hey B!Gfan, who is going to be Michigan’s next head coach, the train wreck of season is only a few shore weeks away, they’re mediocre team is looking forward to another 7-6 season ! MSU is gonna pummel them (again)

Big P on 7/7/2014 @ 10:32pm EST Said:

@B1Gfan MI, that 29-6 loss still hurts, huh? Most conference wins over the past 4 years . . . sure is great to be mediocre! Please, the Wolverines put the capital M in Mediocre. Spartan Stadium is gonna be noisy all fall!

Josh on 7/7/2014 @ 10:39pm EST Said:

Michigan’s LBs are underrated if they stay healthy, I think too many pundits are thinking too much about last season’s struggles.

Billy Jones on 7/8/2014 @ 8:13am EST Said:

Lots of crying in TinyTown over this list > http://www.forums.gopherhole.com/boards/showthread.php?54468-BTN-Big-Ten-LB-rankings-(Minnesota-12)

Gurndogg on 7/8/2014 @ 12:31pm EST Said:

OSU is LBer U period just go look at the ESPN thats not a lie sorry PSU! Plus anyone who says something like what BIG TEN FAN wrote is questionable not intelligent just pure hate there is nothing anywhere that backs up that statement so guess agagin dude. The Buckeye’s will have the best or one of the best LBer units with all the talent & this better new scheme will make sure of it.

MGFan56 on 7/8/2014 @ 3:10pm EST Said:

Thanks for the bulletin board material Dienhart. Minnesota had one of the top defenses in the Big Ten last year and lost only two rotational starters. Wisconsin and Iowa get wiped out via graduation and rank way higher by your confusing standards. The Gophers will be getting back to you.

Richard Barnes on 7/10/2014 @ 1:52am EST Said:

I agree with MGFan56, the Gophers “D” should be in good shape. I give Dienhart some kudo’s though. He doesn’t put a list together with a chip on his shoulder. Even if wrong, he is trying to tell it the way he see’s it and you can’t ask for more than that from a sports writer. I do have one admission to make. While hanging out on this site I have come to the conclusion that I do in fact miss a true rival to quarrel with… So in light of that let me just say; Hey, Rutgers! Your place kicker wears pink shoes!! There that ought to do it!