Ranking the Big Ten Linebackers — Legends Division
By Tony Gerdeman
Unlike some other positions in the conference this season, the Big Ten is pretty loaded at linebacker, though it may be hard to tell at times because of some of the thinness on the defensive lines.
Talent returns at linebacker for just about everybody, and where there are starters lacking, there are young players ready to step in.
Depth is always a concern, for some teams more than others, but those with a lack of depth generally have experienced starters hoping to stay healthy.
1. Michigan State
Starters: Denicos Allen, Max Bullough, Chris Norman
Backups: Ed Davis, Kyler Elsworth, Danny Folino, Steve Gardiner, Ty Hamilton, TyQuan Hammock, Darien Harris, Taiwan Jones, Pat Rhomberg, Riley Bullough*, Jamal Lyles*
The Spartans return all three starting linebackers. They combined for 248 tackles and 32 tackles for loss. Denicos Allen and Max Bullough were both named to the second-team All-Big Ten squad, while Chris Norman was an honorable mention. Allen makes plays in the backfield like few others, as he finished with 18.5 tackles for loss last season. Bullough took over the middle from Greg Jones and played well as a sophomore. Now a junior, even more is expected of him. Senior Chris Norman enters his third season as a starter, and though he gets overlooked because of his teammates, he is one of the team leaders and generally knows where to be. There is also depth with sophomore Taiwan Jones, who will be used as a pass rusher as well. Redshirt freshman Darien Harris has earned praise for a strong spring, and he should contribute immediately on special teams.
Starters: Anthony Hitchens, Christian Kirksey, James Morris
Backups: Quinton Alston, Marcus Collins, Shane DiBona, Cole Fisher, Palmer Foster, Dakota Getz, Macon Plewa, Travis Perry, Jim Poggi, Laron Taylor*
The Iowa linebackers will be looked upon to lead the Hawkeye defense this year, and they should prove quite capable. James Morris had 110 tackles as a sophomore in the middle last year, but battled injuries over the second half of the season. We have yet to see exactly what he's capable of. Christian Kirksey also finished with 110 tackles on the outside, and brings speed enough to go from sideline to sideline. Anthony Hitchens will be the third linebacker, and they also like his ability to run, though size (6-1 224) is a concern for some. With a new defensive coordinator calling plays for Iowa this year in Phil Parker, the promise of linebacker blitzes has pleased everyone. Morris, Kirksey and Hitchens combined for just one sack last season, and with a completely unproven defensive line, they will need to be called upon to get after the quarterback routinely this season. Aside from the three starters, however, there are serious depth issues. If there are injury problems, the Hawkeyes could be in trouble.
Starters: Kenny Demens, Desmond Morgan, Jake Ryan
Backups: Joe Bolden*, Cameron Gordon, Brandin Hawthorne, Mike Jones, Antonio Poole, Kaleb Ringer*, Royce Jenkins-Stone*, James Ross*
The Wolverines return all three of their starting linebackers from last season, and really only lose one backer from last year's team. Last year was a learning experience for everybody, and Brady Hoke has said that his linebackers have a much better understanding of the defense this season. Kenny Demens led the team with 94 tackles last year, but also battled injuries. He should be even better this season. Desmond Morgan started seven games as a true freshman last year. He has his faults, but nobody has managed to take his job yet, so he's obviously doing what the coaches are asking him to do. Jake Ryan was a pleasant surprise on the strongside last year as a redshirt freshman. He only had 37 tackles, but eleven of them were in the backfield. He will probably get some snaps at defensive end this season as well. Along with veterans like Cameron Gordon and Brandin Hawthorne, the Wolverines also add one of the better linebacker classes in the nation.
Starters: Collin Ellis, David Nwabuisi, Damien Proby
Backups: Chi Chi Ariguzo, Doug Diedrick, Roderick Goodlow, Drew Smith, Will Studlien, Timmy Vernon, Ifeadi Odenigbo*, Jaylen Prater*, Eric Wilson*
Northwestern returns all three starting linebackers from last season, and despite being tenth in run defense in the conference last year, this is actually a good thing. Damien Proby will start in the middle, and he brings a little bit more speed and athleticism than past mike backers. David Nwabuisi moved from the middle to the outside last season, and looks to remain there in 2012. He finished third on the team in tackles last year with 84, and first in tackles for loss with 8.5. However, the potential star of the group is sophomore Collin Ellis, who began last season with an injury before earning the starting nod the final nine games of the year. The belief is that Ellis is the most explosive of all of the linebackers, and could find himself in the backfield making plays quite a bit in 2012. There is some depth here, as Chi Chi Ariguzo racked up 32 tackles last season, and true freshman Ifeadi Odenigbo was one of the most sought-after recruits in the nation a year ago.
Starters: Will Compton, Sean Fisher
Jack Gangwish, Micah Kreikemeier, Matt Manninger, Max Pirman, Trevor Roach, David Santos, Derek Slaughter, Colby Starkebaum, Alonzo Whaley, Jared Afalava*, Zaire Anderson (JC), Michael Rose*, Thomas Brown*
Nebraska won't be able to make up for the loss of Lavonte David with just one player, but nobody is expecting them to. Senior Will Compton has 23 starts spread over his first three seasons, and much will be needed of the Huskers' middle linebacker. His 82 tackles last season were second on the team, but his numbers should increase this season without David taking everyone's tackles. Sean Fisher has battled injuries the last two seasons, but the senior knows what he is doing. If he can stay healthy, then the strongside should be well-manned this year. The most interesting position will be the will linebacker, where Alonzo Whaley and junior college transfer Zaire Anderson will stage a month-long battle to see who gets to fill the unfillable shoes of Lavonte David. There is some fair depth here as well, and that's not even including the three incoming freshmen who will bolster the roster even more.
Starters: Spencer Reeves, Mike Rallis, Keanon Cooper
Backups: Joey Balthazar, Quinn Bauducco, Brendan Beal, Lamonte Edwards, Ryan Grant, Aaron Hill, Jephte Matilus, Dwayne Mitchell, Judd Paffrath, James Manuel, Dominic Schultz, Peter Westerhaus, Jack Lynn*, Nick Rallis*
The Gophers will have one of the faster linebacker groups in the conference this season. Mike Rallis moves from the outside to the middle, and will be able to run from numbers to numbers to play the run. Keanon Cooper is one of the fastest linebackers in the Big Ten, and will be asked to disrupt the backfield much more this season. The battle for the other linebacker spot will be between Spencer Reeves and James Manuel. Manuel moves from safety, and was last seen taking reps with the first unit. If anything, he will make this group even faster, which is what defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys wants. Depth is pretty good here too, as the loser of the Reeves/Manuel battle becomes one of the first men off of the bench. Also keep an eye on Brendan Beal and Lamonte Edwards. Beal was injured last season, but has already been impressive in practices. Edwards moved from tailback last year, and is still learning the position.
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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