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Last updated: 04/11/2011 0:19 AM

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Rating The Big Ten Linebackers
By Tony Gerdeman

Our spring positional breakdown tour finally makes a stop at linebacker.

Every team in the conference returns at least one starter back, and nobody lacks possibilities. Still, the teams you would expect to see at the top of defensive rankings won't be hard to find.

1. Wisconsin

Starters: Chris Borland, Mike Taylor

Possible Starters/Backups: Ethan Armstrong, Marcus Trotter, Kevin Claxton, A.J. Fenton, Conor O'Neill, Josh Harrison, Cody Byers, Nick Hill, Michael Caputo (Fr.), Jordan Frederick (Fr.), Jake Keefer (Fr.)

Chris Borland (5-11 244) is listed as a starter above, but he was lost for the year after the second week of the season. He's still being held out of contact drills this spring, but reports from the coaches say that he's quicker, faster and more agile than he's ever been. The plan is to move him to middle linebacker where he can create as much havoc as possible. Like Borland, Mike Taylor (6-2 229) has had his own issues with injuries. Even though he played and started in twelve games last year, he was never 100%. He gets overshadowed by Borland, but shouldn't. He finished fourth on the team in tackles last season with 58, and finished second in tackles for loss with 8.0. He will be one of the more active linebackers in the conference. Kevin Claxton (6-1 233) looks like he'll be the starting Sam linebacker, and the former safety certainly has the speed and athleticism to match up in coverage situations. Ethan Armstrong (6-2 232) and A.J. Fenton (6-1 232) add depth, and Bret Bielema has said he wouldn't be surprised if one of the incoming freshmen sees the field this season. Overall, if this unit stays healthy—which is the biggest of ifs—there probably won't be a more disruptive trio of linebackers in the Big Ten.

2. Iowa

Starters: James Morris, Tyler Nielsen

Possible Starters/Backups: Shane DiBona, Christian Kirksey, Anthony Hitchens, Dakota Getz, Bruce Davis, Jim Poggi, Quinton Alston (Fr.), Melvin Spears (Fr.)

James Morris (6-2 215) played in all 13 games last year as a true freshman, starting the last six. He finished fourth on the team with 70 tackles, and showed himself to be active from many different angles. He'll be starting at middle linebacker unless the staff decides they need Bruce Davis (6-0 232) on the field and there's nowhere else to put him. He started once last year, but tore an ACL in week three and was lost for the season. Kirk Ferentz calls him an inside guy, but the weakside linebacker is essentially an inside linebacker in today's game anyway, so there actually should room for both Davis and Morris if Davis can
prove himself. Shane DiBona (6-2 230) will also contend for the weakside spot, but is coming off of shoulder surgery in the offseason as well as the effects of rhabdomyolysis. Tyler Nielsen (6-4 235) should be starting at the other spot. He started all eight games that he played in last season before he broke his neck. He's back now but not really participating in the contact aspect of practice. He finished with 42 tackles and 4.5 tackles for loss last year. Morris and Nielsen make this a group worth reckoning with. If they can find a third legitimate linebacker, this group will surprise some people. Though depth is a large concern.

3. Ohio State

Starters: Andrew Sweat

Possible Starters/Backups: Etienne Sabino, Dorian Bell, Storm Klein, Scott McVey, Jon Newsome, Jordan Whiting, Tyler Moeller, Curtis Grant (Fr.), Ryan Shazier (Fr.), Ejuan Price (Fr.)

The Buckeyes are looking to fill two open spots in the linebacker corps, and there is no shortage of candidates. Etienne Sabino (6-3 248) and Storm Klein (6-2 230) are both are working at middle linebacker, but Sabino is pretty far ahead right now and has looked very good in the spring. Dorian Bell (6-1 225) is one to keep an eye on after getting limited minutes last season. He's athletic and able to move in coverage, but has to prove himself on the field yet. Andrew Sweat (6-2 238) will be the weakside linebacker and should garner All-Conference consideration. He played on the strongside last year, but is much more comfortable playing inside. When pressed into duty at the weakside last season he stepped in and played very well. There should be no drop off where Sweat is concerned. What may ultimately end up happening, however, is that Tyler Moeller (6-0 210), who plays the nickelback “star” position, will simply be too good to take off the field, and he'll be the “third” linebacker. Overall, the position is littered with high-quality recruits, including incoming freshman Curtis Grant (6-3 225), who was the nation's top-ranked linebacker prospect in the 2011 class. This will be the first major opportunity for everybody but Sweat, so there could be a learning curve, or this unit could simply turn out to be the best in the Big Ten.

4. Nebraska

Starters: Lavonte David

Possible Starters/Backups: Will Compton, Sean Fisher, Alonzo Whaley, Matthew May, Graham Stoddard, Micah Kreikemeier, David Santos (Fr.), Max Pirman (Fr.)

As it stands now, the three starters will be Lavonte David (6-1 220), Will Compton (6-2 230) and Sean Fisher (6-6 235). Compton and Fisher are both juniors who started multiple games as freshmen, but both dealt with injuries last season. Fisher broke his leg last summer and missed the entire season, so even though he's slotted for one of the two open spots, the coaches aren't quite sure how he'll come back. Compton played in nine games last year, starting four, but only came up with 15 tackles. David was a second-team All-American last year as a junior college transfer, and should make a host of Watch Lists this year. Bo Pelini is not happy with the depth behind his three intended starters and has said everybody will need to take a step up if the Huskers are going to get to where they need to be. Coming from the spread-happy Big XII, they didn't play many three-linebacker sets last year, so that will be a bit of an adjustment for them this season. Don't be shocked if defensive end Eric Martin (6-2 255) moves back to linebacker if the coaches aren't happy with the way things are developing.

5. Penn State

Starters: Nate Stupar, Michael Mauti

Possible Starters/Backups: Khari Fortt, Gerald Hodges, James Van Fleet, Glenn Carson, Mike Hull, Dakota Royer, Kyle Lucas, Ben Kline (Fr.)

The term you'll hear the most when talking about the loss of starting linebackers Chris Colosanti and Bani Gbadyu is 'addition by subtraction'. Last year was viewed as a down year for linebackers at Penn State, and those around the program are excited to see what the new batch has in store. Nate Stupar (6-1 239) and Michael Mauti (6-2 234) both started seven games last year, but Mauti is penciled in as the middle linebacker this year, so expect big things from the junior. Stupar and Gerald Hodges (6-2 234) are expected to flank Mauti, but keep an eye out for Khari Fortt (6-2 227), who started one game as a true freshman last year. Stupar has a nose for edge rushing, Hodges is active and able to play in space, and Fortt just might be able to do it all. These would appear to be the top four linebackers at Penn State this year, but don't forget about Mike Hull (6-0 219) and Dakota Royer (6-1 232), who came in with Fortt and were just as highly-regarded. This could be one of the Big Ten's better units if potential has anything to say about it.

6. Minnesota

Starters: Gary Tinsley, Keanon Cooper, Mike Rallis

Possible Starters/Backups: Spencer Reeves, Ryan Grant, Aaron Hill, Brendan Beal, Quinn Bauducco (Fr.), Jephete Matilus (Fr.), Gabe Mezzenga, Dwayne Mitchell, Brent Singleton, Patrick Sveum, Peter Westerhaus (Fr.)

The Gophers return every single linebacker start from last season and add Brendan Beal (6-3 245), a transfer from Florida. Beal missed all of 2008 and 2009 with injuries, and sat out last year due to transfer rules. The Gophers feel confident, however, that he will get back one of the two years lost to injury, giving Beal three seasons as a Gopher. He's currently patrolling the field as a middle linebacker, and is apparently impressing after basically sitting out for three years. This will likely leave Mike Rallis (6-2 236) as the odd man out after starting six games last year as a sophomore. Gary Tinsley (6-1 237) led the team with 90 tackles and 9.5 tackles for loss last season and should be a mainstay at the weakside spot. Keanon Cooper (6-0 217) can hardly contain himself when talking about what Jerry Kill's new defense means for him. Cooper will be asked to do more things this season, spanning from covering the slot to blitzing the quarterback, and everything in between. He's fast enough to do it, now he'll just need to put it all together. Minnesota certainly has the parts to have an outstanding linebacker group, the staff simply needs to make sure that they don't ask their players to do more than they're capable of doing.

7. Purdue

Starters: Joe Holland, Dwayne Beckford

Possible Starters/Backups: Will Lucas, Joe Gilliam, Kakpindi Jamiru, Mike Lee, DeVarro Greaves, Antwon Higgs, Armstread Williams (Fr.), Brandon Cottam (Fr.), Kaulana Judd

Danny Hope is calling this the fastest Purdue team since he's been there, and that description definitely extends to the linebackers. The Boilermakers return two starters in Joe Holland (6-1 225) and Dwayne Beckford (6-1 228) who have been productive players throughout their careers. Holland is in his fourth year as a starter and has 230 career tackles to his credit. Beckford started as a sophomore last year and has the most potential of any of the Boiler linebackers. He's got the speed that Hope wants, which means that he can get to more tackles, as evidenced by his 84 tackles in his first year as a starter. Will Lucas (5-11 226) looks to be the starter at the Will linebacker, of course. He started a few games last year and came up with 43 tackles on the season. There is a need for depth, but the top three Boiler 'backers are as good as Purdue has seen in quite some time.

8. Michigan State

Starters: Chris Norman

Possible Starters/Backups: Steve Gardiner, Denicos Allen, Jeremy Gainer, Ty Hamilton, Tyquan Hammock, Max Bullough, Kyler Elsworth, Ed Davis (Fr.), Darien Harris (Fr.), Taiwan Jones (Fr.), Lawrence Thomas (Fr.)

Chris Norman (6-1 225) is the lone returning starter from last season. He finished with 59 tackles last year as a true sophomore, and he's expected to increase that number this season. He will move to the strong side this year and be able to be a little bit more aggressive in getting into the backfield. He only had 0.5 tackles for loss last season, so he should double that in the first quarter of the Spartans opener this year. Greg Jones' middle linebacker spot is a battle between Steve Gardiner (6-1 215) and Max Bullough (6-3 240), though due to Bullough's recent off-field trouble, expect Gardiner to hold the spot until fall camp at the very least. Gardiner is fast, and has the range to play the middle, but he's not as big as Bullough, so he may not hold up as well at the point of attack. Denicos Allen (5-10 218) will play the star, which is a linebacker spot with a little defensive back mixed in. He's a little undersized, but is known as a tackling machine. He should gain even more notoriety throughout the season. The Spartans also bring in a very intriguing class of freshmen linebackers. They feature speed and versatility, but watch out for Lawrence Thomas (6-4 245), who could play a couple of linebacker spots and also line up at defensive end a time or two.

9. Michigan

Starters: Cameron Gordon, Kenny Demens

Possible Starters/Backups: Mike Jones, Isaiah Bell, Marell Evans, Thomas Gordon, Kevin Leach, J.B. Fitzgerald, Brandon Herron, Brandin Hawthorne, Jordan Paskorz, Antonio Poole (Fr.), Kellen Jones (Fr.), Desmond Morgan (Fr.)

Kenny Demens (6-1 250) started seven games last year and finished third on the team with 82 tackles. He's bothered by a shoulder injury right now, but should be good to go for the season. Once he broke into the lineup last year, he was impressive. Cameron Gordon (6-3 207) is now learning his fourth position while at Michigan. He came to the Wolverines as a receiver, then got moved to safety, then to Rich Rodriguez's version of an outside linebacker. Now, he'll be an actual outside linebacker, lining up on the strong side. He has been getting rave reviews from defensive coordinator Greg Mattison. Gordon still has things to learn, but the coaches love the possibilities. That leaves one open spot for about a dozen candidates to fill. Mike Jones (6-2 208) and Isaiah Bell (6-1 245) are former safeties, so they have the mobility you'd like in a Will linebacker, but they'll also be looking for understanding and instinct. A freshman could make a move here because there just isn't anything established aside from Gordon and Demens.

10. Illinois

Starters: Ian Thomas

Possible Starters/Backups: Ashante Williams, Russell Ellington, Evan Frierson, Jonathan Brown, Tony Hyde, Mark Wilson, Houston Bates, Brandon Denmark, Earnest Thomas, Fritz Rock, Henry Dickinson (Fr.)

It looks like the starting linebackers will be Ian Thomas (6-0 240) (even though he has repped with the twos during practices at times), Ashante Williams (5-10 205) and Jonathan Brown (6-1 235). Williams, who came to Illinois as a defensive back, has Ron Zook's blessing on the strong side after an impressive offseason. Brown recorded 31 tackles as a backup last year and should be very productive on the weakside. The coaches call him the most instinctive linebacker on the team. Thomas will step into Martez Wilson's spot at middle linebacker, and he'll be bringing 24 career starts with him. He finished with 67 tackles last year, but should approach triple digits this season. That is, of course, if he can hold off Brandon Denmark (6-3 220), who is more athletic. There isn't a lot of experience providing depth, and the staff would like to play more than just three linebackers. As it stands, they should be a solid starting unit, but there really isn't anything outstanding here.

11. Indiana

Starters: Jeff Thomas, Leon Beckum

Possible Starters/Backups: Chad Sherer, Chase Hoobler, Ishmael Thomas, Zack Shaw (Fr.), Demitrius Carr-Watson, Griffen Dahlstrom, Matt Zakrzewski, Lee Rose, Brandon McGhee

The Hoosiers return Jeff Thomas (6-1 244) and Leon Beckum (5-11 215) from last year's starting linebacker unit, which will go a long way in helping get this new Indiana defense up on twenty-two feet. Thomas finished second on last year's team with 82 tackles and 7.5 tackles for loss. Beckum finished third with 69 tackles while leading the team with 9.0 tackles for loss. New head coach Kevin Wilson wants those numbers increased this season, which may explain why he wants the defensive line to do more occupying than penetrating this year. Thomas, Beckum and whoever wins that third spot should be very active on most every snap. Speaking of the third spot, it's anybody's guess right now, though Chad Sherer (6-0 221) did start a handful of games last year, so he might be the best bet. Overall, it's not the most talented group, but expect Wilson's staff to put the players in the best position to maximize their abilities.

12. Northwestern

Starters: Bryce McNaul

Possible Starters/Backups: Chi Chi Ariguzo, Collin Ellis, David Nwabuisi, Roderick Goodlow, Ben Johnson, Stone Pinckney, Damien Proby, Will Studlein, Tim Riley, Timmy Vernon, Drew Smith (Fr.)

Pat Fitzgerald feels that this is the most athletic group of linebackers that he's had at Northwestern, and they're going to need to prove it. Bryce McNaul (6-3 230) is the lone holdover from last year, and he should start on the weakside, even though Fitzgerald says all jobs are open right now. McNaul finished fifth on the team with 62 tackles last season, but should approach 100 this year if he keeps his job. Chi Chi Ariguzo (6-3 215) is at the top of the depth chart on the strong side. He's a redshirt freshman who is already known for his athleticism and tenacity. David Nwabuisi (6-1 240) will likely be the middle linebacker. He's the second-leading returning tackler (26) among the linebackers. Ben Johnson (6-3 225) started on the outside for the first two games last year, so he's got the experience that will come in handy throughout the season. Damien Proby (6-0 235) also got a start last year and finished with 20 tackles. This Northwestern group of linebackers is an inexperienced one and will need to prove itself to its opponents.

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