Rating the Big Ten - The Linebackers
By Tony Gerdeman
Having a stout defensive line is necessary for any defense to succeed, but we can't ever neglect the importance of having talented linebackers behind them.
You can have any number of potential NFL draft picks on the defensive line, but as the Buckeyes have seen the last two seasons, if there are question marks at linebacker, there are going to be question marks surrounding the entire defense.
A talented group of linebackers can cover over a lot of sins, but an inconsistent group can expose an entire defense. It won't be a coincidence when the teams with the best linebackers also finish near the top of their respective divisions. (Except for Iowa.)
1. Michigan State
The Spartans lose just one starter at linebacker (Chris Norman), but his replacement should be more productive. Taiwan Jones slides in for Norman, as he did last year at times as well. He finished with 38 tackles and 5.5 tackles for loss. He is joined by two of the most productive linebackers in the Big Ten. Middle linebacker Max Bullough was a First-Team All-Big Ten player last year, leading the team with 111 tackles. Denicos Allen had a bit of a down year last year, but was a Second-Team All-Big Ten player in 2011. Jairus Jones started five games at free safety last year, but will also battle for playing time at linebacker as the Spartans look to increase their team speed.
The Hawkeyes return all three of their starting linebackers from last season, which equates to 332 tackles from a year ago. Anthony Hitchens, James Morris and Christian Kirksey are all seniors, and they have combined for 65 career starts. Hitchens led the Big Ten in tackles (124) and tackles per game (11.27). He was an Honorable Mention All-Big Ten performer, as was Morris. Morris finished with 113 tackles and nine tackles for loss. Kirksey was the only starter who didn't receive All-Big Ten notoriety, and he finished with 95 tackles. There's really no need to talk about depth here since nothing bad ever happens to Iowa's players.
Chris Borland has been a First-Team All-Big Ten performer the last two season, and will likely make it three in 2013. Ethan Armstrong finished with 93 tackles last season, and will join Borland as the Badgers' two inside linebackers in their new 3-4 alignment. Brendan Kelly has 13 starts the last two seasons, but those came at defensive end. He is now playing outside linebacker, and is considered an "ideal guy" for the spot by his defensive coordinator. The opposite outside linebacker looks to be redshirt freshman Vince Biegel, who was a High School All-American and could be a terror off of the edge. There is a lot of experience in this unit, as well as some young potential.
4. Ohio State
The Buckeyes return arguably the conference's most disruptive linebacker in Ryan Shazier. He led the Big Ten in tackles for loss last season (17), and that was with a slow start over the first half of the season. Shazier is a favorite to win the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year Award. Ohio State still needs to find a pair of linebackers to stand next to Shazier, however. Sophomore Joshua Perry is a tremendous athlete and is the starter on the strong side. Junior Curtis Grant had a solid spring and is the middle linebacker. He was also the middle linebacker last season before being replaced after just three games. There is talent, but it is young and unproven.
The loss of Jake Ryan at strongside linebacker means that the defense will lose its best and most disruptive player. Others will have to step up and find ways to make the plays that he had come to be known for. Cameron Gordon and Brennan Beyer will take his spot for now, though Ryan could be back before the season ends. Desmond Morgan moves to the middle, where he is likely better suited. He may not match the 81 tackles he had last season, but he should still prove himself to be a better player. James Ross played quite a bit as a true freshman last season, and this season he is expected to be everywhere for the Wolverine defense. He's talented, but has also shown the intangibles you look for in a linebacker.
Jonathan Brown was a Second-Team All-Big Ten linebacker as a sophomore in 2011. Injuries derailed him last year, but he still finished with 9.5 tackles for loss and was Honorable Mention All-Big Ten. Middle linebacker Mason Monheim started as a true freshman and led the team with 86 tackles. Junior college transfer Eric Finney is the likely starter at Star, despite only being at Illinois since the spring. As a true freshman, Mike Svetina stepped in due to injuries a year ago, starting five games and finishing with 40 tackles. Together, these four could be one of the more productive linebacking groups in the conference. Given the youth on defense, they'll have little choice but to produce.
Even though Northwestern is more known for their offense, they do return two Honorable Mention All-Big Ten linebackers in Chi Chi Ariguzo and Damien Proby. Proby returns for his third season as the Wildcats' starting middle linebacker. He led the team with 112 tackles last year. Ariguzo will move from the strong side to the weak side. He should improve upon his 91 tackles from a year ago. The strongside will be a battle between Drew Smith (who started in the spring) and Collin Ellis. Ellis, who was a starter in 2011, played in the middle this spring in place of the injured Proby. Pat Fitzgerald loves Smith's attitude and tenacity.
8. Penn State
The Nittany Lions will always have talent at linebacker, and this year is no different. However, the amount of talent has changed, as there will only be six scholarship linebackers on the team this season. Glenn Carson returns for his third year of starting and will look to top his 85 tackles from last season. Mike Hull only started one game last year, but his 58 tackles and 4 sacks last year are indicative of his importance and talent. Redshirt freshman Nyeem Wartman is expected to be the third starter. Behind those three, however, there isn't much else. They will need to remain healthy in order to hide their lack of depth. If they can do that, they could be okay.
The Cornhuskers return a grand total of 12 solo tackles from last season. David Santos had 11 of them last year as a redshirt freshman, and he is expected to be starting somewhere this year. The other tackle went to junior college transfer Zaire Anderson, whose season was ended almost immediately due to injury. He was expected to be an impact player last season, and is expected to be again this year. Redshirt freshman Jared Afalava could perhaps be a pass rusher, and redshirt freshman Michael Rose has the motor to overcome his undersized frame (5-11 230). True freshmen Marcus Newby and Courtney Love add to the talent and the depth, but not to the experience.
Former Ohio State linebacker Marcus Freeman is the new linebackers coach at Purdue, and while he has some veterans to work with, they have been under-productive. Joe Gilliam returns after starting all 13 games last season, but finishing with just 57 tackles and 2.5 tackles for loss. Will Lucas has started for half a season each of the last three years, and will likely be pushed again. Redshirt freshman Andy James Garcia was already pushing him in the spring. Former quarterback Sean Robinson started the final seven games last year at linebacker, and should be in the lineup again. This is a veteran group, but it has been underwhelming in the past.
The Hoosiers return every major contributor at linebacker from last season. They were also part of the worst run defense in the Big Ten last season, though improvement would seem inevitable. Middle linebacker David Cooper finished second on the team with 86 tackles in his first year as a junior college transfer. Jacarri Alexander (30 tackles), Chase Hoobler (25 tackles), Griffen Dahlstrom (48 tackles) and Forisse Hardin (48 tackles) combined for 19 starts last season. Linebackers coach William Inge will hope to make his group more consistent, and less piecemeal in 2013.
The Gophers return just one starter at linebacker from last year, and that's Aaron Hill, who had 74 tackles in 2012. Jerry Kill has brought in a pair of junior college linebackers to help pick up the slack. Damien Wilson was in during the spring and the hopes are high for him after a strong preseason performance. De'Vondre Campbell also joins the Gophers, and he has the frame (6-5 225) that coaches like. James Manuel returns as well. He started once last year, picking up 50 tackles on the season. There is very little experienced depth here. Redshirt freshman Jack Lynn was the Scout Team Co-Defensive Player of the Year last season.
Rating the Big Ten Quarterbacks
Rating the Big Ten Running Backs
Rating the Big Ten Receivers and Tight Ends
Rating the Big Ten Offensive Lines
Rating the Big Ten Defensive Lines
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