Dienhart: Welcome to the 'Year of the Linebacker' in the Big Ten

Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Dienhart: Welcome to the 'Year of the Linebacker' in the Big Ten

B1G INTERVIEW - JT Barrett, Pat Elfein, and Raekwon McMillian sit down with Dave, Gerry, and Howard, during the 2016 Big Ten Football Media Days.

If you like linebackers, you’ll love the Big Ten. It’s loaded with them.

There’s Iowa’s Josey Jewell, Penn State’s Brandon Bell, Wisconsin’s Vince Biegel, Michigan State’s Riley Bullough, Purdue’s Ja’Whaun Bentley and Nebraska’s Josh Banderas. I could go on, and I think I will. There also is Minnesota’s Jack Lynn, Maryland’s Jermaine Carter, Indiana’s Marcus Oliver and Northwestern’s Anthony Walker.

And don’t forget about Ohio State’s Raekwon McMillan, who will give Walker a run for his money as the Big Ten’s primo linebacker. If not Walker or McMillan, how about Michigan’s Jabrill Peppers, who is a newbie to the position. Even Illinois has a good one in Cal transfer Hardy Nickerson, Jr. So, take your pick. You can’t go wrong, really. But there are five that are truly a cut above.

THE NATURAL: Jabrill Peppers, Michigan.

Keep an eye on Peppers, a special player who could be the best defensive player in the Big Ten.

“Anything is accomplishable for Jabrill Peppers in the game of football,” Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh said. “Again, they’ve got to be worked for. He is a — let me start by saying this: I think football players, professional football players are the greatest athletes in the world and Jabrill is that kind of athlete,” Harbaugh said. “He’s that kind of athlete that has the greatest in the world type of athleticism.

“He can play just about anywhere on a football field and be effective.”

If Peppers is as good as Harbaugh is to have us believe, you wonder why Michigan wouldn’t make him a running back. It goes back to pee-wee football: you put the ball in the hands on the best player on the team. Regardless, Peppers figures to get the ball a few times each game—in addition to primarily lining up at linebacker, as well as other spots on defense. Offenses must know where he is at—at all times.

“Jabrill is a special player,” said Wolverine corner Jourdan Lewis, who himself has said he would like to play some offense this season.

THE STAR: Raekwon McMillan, Ohio State

McMillan also could be a special player, as Ohio State looks to replace some key players at linebacker, including the likes of Joshua Perry and Darron Lee. McMillan led Ohio State in tackles last season with 119. And he should pace the squad again. He could be the program’s best linebacker since James Laurinaitis or A.J. Hawk.

“He has a nose for the ball and loves to play the game,” Pat Elflein said. “Football is important to him.”

McMillan will be the centerpiece of an Ohio State defense that may need to carry the squad early on while the offense breaks in new skill-position talent. And McMillan will anchor what could eventually be the best set of linebackers in the league with Chris Worley and Dante Booker flanking him.

“We have a chance to be pretty good,” McMillan said. “I like the way the linebackers work. And I like the potential of this defense.”

THE THROWBACK: Josey Jewell, Iowa

Close your eyes and think of the black-and-white era for football, the day of leather helmets. Now, picture Jewell. Perfect. Jewell is a the quintessential throwback, a special talent who may end up being one of the best linebackers in Iowa history.

He emerged last year as a gem, notching second-team All-Big Ten honors. What’s next? All-American accolades? His leadership and maturity are unique to Kirk Ferentz. Last year, Jewel was the first sophomore to be named a captain under Ferentz, who has been in Iowa City since 1999. And Jewel was one of three Iowa players brought to Big Ten media days, marking the first time that Ferentz has brought a non-senior to the event.

“It’s interesting, to that point we’ve never brought anybody other than seniors here,” Ferentz said. “It’s something we’ve tried to do traditionally. Going back 18 years, I’ve already surveyed the staff on who they thought would be the three best players to bring here. And our staff was basically unanimous with Josey. Took it into a staff meeting. What I concluded was it was pretty obvious. Josey is the first sophomore captain we’ve had. It’s an award selected by the teammates, and Josey was an overwhelming choice last December to be a team captain. It just made common sense I think to bring him here.

“He’s achieved something that no player’s done in the last 17 years at our place.”

And just think: Jewell’s only major college offer came from Iowa.

THE GEM: Anthony Walker, Northwestern

What makes him special? Here, just listen to Wildcat boss Pat Fitzgerald.

“First of all, I think, it’s his athleticism,” Fitzgerald said. “You watch from the opener Stanford to Tennessee in the bowl game, two very explosive football teams with great talent offensively. And there was a non-issue when it came to athleticism, speed, not only playing in the box but more importantly playing out in space for Anthony. His ability, I think, to play in all aspects of the linebacker position — against the run, against the pass, and then rushing the passer from the standpoint of when we pressure him or when he’s being aggressive.

“And maybe using the scheme to his advantage. You couple that with his leadership, his ability to be a servant leader. He’s done a terrific job of taking younger players, the rest of the defense under his wing, showing them how to prepare in the film room, in the weight room and then just how to carry yourself on a daily basis.”

Walker was a first-team All-Big Ten choice last season who tallied a conference-best 20.5 TFLs. Playing in the middle, Walker is able to roam sideline to sideline. His instincts and smarts are unmatched.

THE BULLDOG: Vince Biegel, Wisconsin

He is playing for his third head coach and third coordinator. Regardless, Biegel has been a steady force on the outside who made 14 TFLs last season.

“I have really committed myself in the offseason,” Biegel said. “You can ask my friends and family. This is my senior year. And I want to make sure it’s a big one.

New coordinator Justin Wilcox knows he can count on Biegel playing a big role with Big Ten Linebacker of the Year Joe Schobert gone.

“We will miss Joe,” Biegel said. “But we have some talent to work with. We will develop and come together. I can’t wait to get started.”

Tom Dienhart, BTN.com Senior Writer

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, and send him questions to his weekly mailbag.

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