When you think of Big Ten Football, you think of two things — linebackers and cased meats.
We’re not rating sausages here, because that would be unfair to everyone but Wisconsin.
Instead, we’re rating the linebackers of the Big Ten as we inch closer to letting you know who will be playing in the Big Ten Championship Game in December.
Only three linebackers return from any of the three All-B1G teams released by the coaches and media last season, so there are some new stars on the horizon.
Rating some of this position group properly was quite easy, but the vast majority was difficult because of the number of experienced returnees who were okay a year ago, but could be on the verge of being very good in 2017. And then you have some teams (Hello Michigan) where all you can really do is take a guess and hope you get it close.
Let’s get to it.
Big Ten East
1. Ohio State
The Buckeyes return three linebackers who started last year, but only one of them will be at the same position he was last year. Senior Chris Worley enters his second year as a starter, but first at middle linebacker. Junior Jerome Baker is an All-America candidate this year and is one of the fastest linebackers in the nation. Redshirt junior Dante Booker beat out Baker last year, but was lost for the season in the opening game. He has earned a starting spot and will be put in a position to make plays. Linebackers coach Billy Davis says OSU is nine deep here.
Any discussion of the linebackers at Indiana must begin with senior Tegray Scales. Scales led the Big Ten with 126 tackles last season. His 23.5 tackles for loss were the most in the Big Ten since Ryan Shazier in 2013. Scales is incredibly active and he doesn’t stay blocked. The Hoosiers run a 4-2-5 defense with a hybrid safety/linebacker. That hybrid is Marcelino Ball, who started 12 games a year ago as a freshman. He finished third on the team with 75 tackles and eight PBUs. Senior Chris Covington has also played quarterback in the past, so that’s…something.
3. Penn State
The Nittany Lions lose one starter from last year’s linebacker group, but due to a season marred by injuries, they still return four players with starting experience. Middle linebacker Jason Cabinda has 181 tackles the last two seasons and provides leadership, production, and consistency. Manny Bowen started 12 games as a sophomore last year, finishing fifth on the team with 68 tackles. He is expected to take another big step forward this year. Junior Koa Farmer started twice last season and had his moments. There is talent here, but not much high-quality depth.
The Wolverines return one starting linebacker from last year, but there is plenty of potential waiting to emerge. Senior Mike McCray finished second on the team last year with 76 tackles and 12.5 tackles for loss. Defensive coordinator Don Brown did a great job of putting McCray in position to make some plays. Sophomore Khaleke Hudson takes over for Jabrill Peppers and was really impressive in the spring. He is definitely a player to watch. Sophomore Devin Bush looks like the guy in the middle. Noah Furbush provides depth, as do some talented freshmen.
Senior middle linebacker Jermaine Carter was an Honorable Mention All-B1G honoree last season. He led the Terps with 110 tackles, six sacks, and nine tackles for loss. He is one of the most active defenders in the conference, but it’s a defense that faces a large number of offensive plays per game. Fellow Honorable Mention linebacker Shane Cockerille returns, as do his 108 tackles from last season. He is under suspension, however, so while he is practicing, he hasn’t been fully reinstated by D.J. Durkin yet. Sophomore Isaiah Davis could be one to watch. There are a significant number of questions here, which leads one to believe Cockerille will be reinstated soon.
6. Michigan State
Michigan State brings back a pair of starters from last year’s group of linebackers. Senior Chris Frey led the team with 96 tackles last season, but only got into the backfield with 4.0 tackles for loss. Andrew Dowell started eight games last year, finishing fourth on the team with 67 tackles. He’s athletic and solid in coverage. He is also an effective pass rusher in the right situations. Sophomore Joe Bachie steps in as the new starter in the middle. He played in six games last season as a true freshman. There are veteran backups here as well.
Rutgers was returning three starters at linebacker, but sophomore Tyreek Maddox-Williams reportedly tore an ACL in fall camp, which is a blow. The Scarlet Knights still return their top two tacklers from 2016. Middle linebacker Deonte Roberts (95 tackles) started every game last season, while leading tackler Trevor Morris (102 tackles) started 11 games. Neither player managed to do much damage in the backfield. They need to find a replacement for Maddox-Williams, who was making strides as a producer. There’s plenty of questions here.
Big Ten West
The Hawkeyes return all three starters from last year. Bo Bower, Josey Jewell, and Ben Niemann have combined for over 80 starts in their careers. All three are seniors. Jewell was second in the B1G last year with 124 tackles. He is active from sideline to sideline. He anticipates well and leads his defense. Bower is a former walk-on who started in 2014, then lost his job in 2015, then took it back last year. He’s tough and predictable, which is a good thing in the Iowa defense. Niemann finished with 59 tackles last season. It’s a very solid group.
The Badgers just lost starting inside linebacker Jack Cichy earlier in the week with a torn ACL. Wisconsin does have two other inside linebackers with starting experience, however. Playing a 3-4 defense, they can’t afford to lose linebackers, especially not somebody as good as Cichy, who had dominating performances against Ohio State and Michigan. In his place could be Chris Orr, who missed 2016 with a knee injury. T.J. Edwards returns. He has started each of his first two seasons in Madison. He led the Badgers with 89 tackles last year. Ryan Connely also has plenty of starting experience. Finding outside linebackers is a must, but it’s something that Wisconsin does every year.
Purdue has four linebackers with extensive starting experience, thanks to Western Kentucky transfer T.J. McCollum. McCollum has compiled 191 tackles over the last two seasons and 15.5 tackles for loss. His sophomore season was much more productive than his junior season, however. Sophomore Markus Bailey led Purdue with 97 tackles last season as a freshman. He should be even better in 2017. Middle linebacker Ja’Whaun Bentley is back for his fourth season as a starter. Danny Ezechukwu has 22 career starts. With a new defensive coordinator, this is expected to be a much more aggressive linebacker group.
Northwestern returns basically one starter, but there is other starting experience on the team. Junior Nate Hall is the lone starter back. He finished third on the team with 73 tackles last season. He has been productive his first two seasons. There is a two-man battle at middle linebacker between redshirt freshman Paddy Fisher and sophomore Nathan Fox. Pat Fitzgerald loves both players, so he feels good about where they stand here. Senior Brett Walsh is the Will and started the final five games last year. This is a fairly talented group that will get better.
Junior Tre Watson is the lone returning starter here, and he moves from outside linebacker to middle linebacker. He was second on the team with 102 tackles last season. He has continued to learn more and more about this Illinois defense. Sophomore Jake Hansen started once last year, but finished with just eight tackles. He has had a very good fall camp and defensive coordinator Hardy Nickerson is excited about him. Juniors Julian Jones and DelShawn Phillips both have potential.
Nebraska essentially returns 1.5 starters from last season. The Huskers have moved to a 3-4, which means they need to find a handful of linebackers to fill out their depth chart. Senior Marcus Newby has played plenty and has 10 career starts to his credit. He should be on the outside as a pass rusher. Junior Luke Gifford is on the other side and has had a very strong fall camp. Junior Dedrick Young has 20 career starts. He finished seventh on the team with 60 tackles last season. Sophomore Tyrin Ferguson could also find himself in the mix. Things aren’t entirely settled here, but there are options.
With basically two starters returning and other possibilities in the pipeline, the Gophers don’t look too bad at linebacker. They are apparently deep enough to move the talented Carter Coughlin to defensive end. Senior middle linebacker Cody Poock has started 14 games the last two years, but the production hasn’t matched the minutes. Senior Jonathan Celestin started 10 games and recorded 80 tackles last year. The outside linebacker opposite Celestin will need to be figured out. Junior Blake Cashman had 7.5 sacks last season.