Ranking the Big Ten Linebackers — Leaders Division
By Tony Gerdeman
Having already profiled the linebackers of the Legends Division, we now turn our attention to the Eastern Divi...I mean the Leaders Division.
Like the Legends, there is plenty of talent returning, including three first-team All-Big Ten linebackers from last season, and a few who could be first-team this season.
Starters: Chris Borland, Mike Taylor, Ethan Armstrong
Backups: Cody Byers, A.J. Fenton, Vince Biegel*, Nick Hill, Jake Keefer, Derek Landisch, Conor O'Neill, Josh Peprah, Jake Rademacher*, Ben Ruechel, Marcus Trotter, Derek Watt
Bret Bielema has the deepest group of linebackers the Badgers have had in years, and he seems pretty intent on having them unleashed yet again. Last year, Mike Taylor (150) and Chris Borland (143) finished one and two in the Big Ten in tackles and combined for 28 tackles for loss. With Borland in the middle and Taylor right next to him, neither will ever be very far from a play. Ethan Armstrong looks like the favorite to win the strongside spot, but he has to remain healthy in order to hold the job. Having dealt with injuries throughout his career, this is not a sure thing. Fortunately for the Badgers, options aren't an issue. Derek Landisch played in every game as a freshman last year and was named the team's defensive rookie of the year. Conor O'Neill is also a player who would start on many teams in the Big Ten. Keep an eye on freshman Vince Biegel, who Bielema says is ahead of where Borland and Taylor were in some aspects.
3. Penn State
Starters: Glenn Carson, Gerald Hodges, Michael Mauti
Backups: Drew Boyce, Mike Hull, Ben Kline, Kyle Lucas, T.J. Rhattigan, James Van Fleet, Michael Yancich, Nyeem Wartman*
The loss of backup linebacker Khairi Fortt to transfer notwithstanding, the Nittany Lions' top four linebackers can match up with just about anybody else in the conference on paper. Gerald Hodges had 106 tackles last season and was named first-team All-Big Ten. Given the turmoil surrounding the team, he will be counted on both on the field and off. Glenn Carson did an admirable job on the inside last year, finishing with 74 tackles, but he needs to get into the backfield more this season. Michael Mauti will likely be the other starting linebacker, provided he can finally stay healthy. He has practiced well so far in camp and the coaches are certainly liking what they are seeing. Mike Hull is the fourth linebacker, and the coaches are quick to mention his name as a guy who they will find a way to get some snaps. There isn't much else behind those four, so an injury could be devastating.
6. Ohio State
Starters: Ryan Shazier, Curtis Grant, Etienne Sabino
Backups: Conner Crowell, Joshua Perry*, Luke Roberts*, Stewart Smith, Jamal Marcus*, Camren Williams*, David Perkins*
While this unit is young, there are some very intriguing possibilities. Ryan Shazier is a 6-2 230-pound weakside linebacker who runs a 4.4 flat. He really picked up steam over the second half of last season when he was finally given a chance to see the field. Big things are expected of him around Columbus. Curtis Grant wasn't ready for college football last year as a true freshman, but things seem promising for him at this point. However, he still needs to prove it on the field. If he isn't a liability, this could be the best defense in the conference. Etienne Sabino is a senior and expected to continue his strong conclusion from last season's bowl game. How well Sabino plays on the strong side will determine how often the Buckeyes will be able to stay in a three-linebacker set. Urban Meyer brought in the best linebacker class in the nation this year, and the freshmen have earned praise every step of the way.
Starters: Houston Bates, Jonathan Brown, Ashante Williams
Backups: Ralph Cooper, Brandon Denmark, Henry Dickinson, Zepheniah Grimes, Alex Porter, Nejee Robinson, Beau Sullivan, Mason Monheim*, T.J. Neal*, Mike Svetina*, Ta'Jarvis Fuller*
The Illinois linebacking trio is essentially set, and the coaches like what they have. While technically the only returning starter is Jonathan Brown, both Houston Bates (2) and Ashante Williams (3) started games last season. Brown is a second-team All-Big Ten pick from last year following a 108-tackle season and 19.5 tackles for loss. He could challenge for All-America accolades this season. Bates is just a sophomore and is only scratching the surface of where he can be in a year or two. Williams plays the sam linebacker position, which can also double as a nickel back. He is a former safety, so he has the speed needed to cover tight ends. Together, these three could certainly end up as one of the better linebacking groups in the conference. Behind them, however, there is a lot of inexperience. There is considerable buzz surrounding freshman Ta'Jarvis Fuller, who still needs to fill out, however.
Starters: Dwayne Beckford, Will Lucas, Robert Maci
Backups: Joe Gilliam, Nnamdi Ezenwa, Zack Heiniger, Antwon Higgs, Mike Lee, Collin Link, Armstead Williams, Andy Garcia*, Jimmy Herman*, Ruben Ibarra (JC)
It looks like defensive end Robert Maci is playing linebacker with the first unit right now as the Boilermakers drift back and forth from a 4-3 to a 3-4 like many teams do these days. He brings experience to the group, but not so much in the way of linebacking experience. Dwayne Beckford returns in the middle, but missed the spring because of suspension. He was second on the team in tackles last year with 91. Will Lucas finished with 82 tackles last season and ten tackles for loss. He's got great potential, but needs to become a lot more consistent. As a group, pass coverage is a very big concern, as Beckford and Lucas had plenty of issues in this area last year. Maci, as a defensive end, won't likely help matters in that regard. There is some depth here, as Joe Gilliam, Nnamdi Ezenwa and Armstead Williams could all play a major role on this defense
Starters: Jacarri Alexander (JC), David Cooper (JC), Chase Hoobler
Backups: Griffen Dahlstrom, Kyle Kennedy, Jake Michalek, Mike Replogle, Lee Rose, Ishmael Thomas, Jordan Wallace*
The Hoosiers don't really know what they have at linebacker simply because there are so many new pieces. Linebackers Jacarri Alexander and David Cooper have come from junior college and are expected to start. Fortunately, they enrolled in the spring and have been working with Chase Hoobler on the first unit for a while now. Alexander played defensive end in juco, but the staff loves his ability to run. Cooper emerged from the spring as the starter at middle linebacker, and he has done nothing to this point to jeopardize that. Hoobler is the veteran of the group having started eight games last season as a redshirt freshman. He finished with 48 tackles and five tackles for loss last season. Linebackers coach Mike Ekeler has also been impressed with Griffen Dahlstrom and Kyle Kennedy, so he feels that his unit will be alright once Big Ten play starts.
Big Ten Linebackers
1. Michigan State
3. Penn State
6. Ohio State
Ranking the Big Ten
Quarterbacks Leaders Legends
Running Backs Leaders Legends
Receivers Legends Leaders
Offensive Line Leaders Legends
Defensive Line Leaders, Legends
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