The Big Ten East returns just three linebackers who earned first, second, or third-team all-conference accolades last year. All that means, however, is some new stars are itching to emerge.
While there may not be many stars, there are plenty of starters. Some programs return more than others, though.
For those teams with questions to answer, how they go about solving those problems will factor heavily into their successes or failures this season.
Just ask the 2017 Ohio State Buckeyes.
1. Michigan Wolverines
Michigan returns two starters this year and they may be the two best linebackers in the Big Ten. Junior middle linebacker Devin Bush led the team with 100 tackles, 9.5 tackles for loss, and 5.0 sacks. He may be undersized at 5-foot-11 and 222 pounds, but he doesn’t let it hold him back. Junior outside linebacker Khaleke Hudson (82 tackles, 18.0 TFLs, 8.0 sacks) is in his second season starting at Jabrill Peppers’ old spot. In his first season, he bested all of Peppers’ defensive numbers, but unlike Peppers, he was not named B1G Defensive Player of the Year. He did make Second-Team All-B1G with the media, however. Sophomores Devin Gil and Josh Ross will contend for the Will linebacker. Defensive coordinator Don Brown loves his linebackers this year, which means he is going to have them wreaking all kinds of havoc in the backfield.
2. Michigan State Spartans
Michigan State returns two starters at linebacker and has a number of options to replace their lone departed starter. Junior middle linebacker Joe Bachie was a Second-Team All-Big Ten selection last year, following his 100-tackle performance in 2017. Next to him at the Sam/Star position is senior Andrew Dowell, who finished second on the team with 74 tackles last season. He has range, but doesn’t get into the backfield often. The likely starter at Will is sophomore Antjuan Simmons, who was once an Ohio State commit. As a true freshman last season, Simmons played in every game, picking up 34 tackles along the way. There is plenty of veteran depth here as well. Overall, this should be one of the strongest units for the Spartans.
3. Maryland Terrapins
Maryland returns two starters at linebacker and brings in graduate transfer Tre Watson from Illinois. In 2016, Watson finished second in the conference with 10.3 tackles per game in Big Ten play. He now brings his experience and production to Maryland for his final year of eligibility. Junior outside linebacker/nickel back Antoine Brooks was second on the team with 77 tackles last season. He earned an Honorable Mention All-B1G nod for his performance. Middle linebacker Isaiah Davis started nine games last season as a sophomore. He put up 70 tackles and two tackles for loss, but more is expected in 2018. The Terrapins allowed 4.8 yards per carry in B1G play last season. With a healthy quarterback or two this season, perhaps the linebackers will get more of a rest than they did in 2017.
4. Rutgers Scarlet Knights
Two starters from last season return, as does a 6-game starter from 2016. Seniors Trevor Morris (118) and Deonte Roberts (104) combined for 222 tackles last season. Roberts is now in his third season as the starter at middle linebacker. Morris is also a two-year starter moving into his third year at the top of the depth chart. As the team’s Will linebacker, Morris has led the Scarlet Knights in tackles each of the last two seasons. The third member of the starting group will likely be redshirt sophomore Tyreek Maddox-Williams, who missed last season, but started six games in 2016, picking up 47 tackles. Junior college transfer Malik Dixon could also be involved somewhere. He is a hybrid guy who can also help out in pass defense. The plan this year for head coach Chris Ash is to find snaps for more than three key linebackers, which is a luxury he hasn’t necessarily had before at Rutgers.
5. Ohio State Buckeyes
Redshirt sophomore middle linebacker Tuf Borland is the lone returning starter for the Buckeyes this year. Borland stepped in for an injured Chris Worley last year, then never gave the job back. He finished with 58 tackles and started nine contests. Borland solidified the run defense for Ohio State. Junior Malik Harrison has been the backup at Sam for the last two years, and junior Keandre Jones has been the backup at Will over that same span. The Buckeyes left the spring without knowing who their three linebackers will be, and it actually might be more than three. Borland is out until September, which pitted fourth-year junior Justin Hilliard and sophomore Baron Browning at middle linebacker this spring. They’ll continue to fight in fall camp. There are four former 5-star linebackers here, including fifth-year senior Dante Booker. They should finish the season higher than this, but right now there isn’t enough production to put them further up the list.
6. Penn State Nittany Lions
Outside linebacker Koa Farmer is the lone starter returning for the Nittany Lions at linebacker this year. He finished fourth among linebackers last season with 48 tackles, however. The rest of the unit is a bit up in the air. So much so that true freshman Micah Parsons might be a good bet to win the middle linebacker job. He was a 5-star signee and one of the nation’s top 2018 prospects. He enrolled early and had a strong winter and spring. Junior linebacker Cam Brown has two career starts and plenty of snaps in his first two seasons. He could be on the other side of Farmer. Freshman Jesse Luketa enrolled early as well and impressed his coaches. There is other depth as well, in what is an unproven, but athletic group of linebackers. As with the Buckeyes, don’t expect this group of linebackers to be at the bottom come November, but the lack of production warrants caution.
7. Indiana Hoosiers
Indiana has to replace three starters, but there are glimmers here. The brightest being redshirt sophomore Marcelino Ball, who started 12 games as a freshman in 2016, but missed all but three games last year with an injury. Ball plays Indiana’s hybrid linebacker/safety spot, so getting him back this year is key for the Hoosier defense. He is a playmaker who can cover a bunch of ground. As a freshman he had 75 tackles. Replacing All-Big Ten linebacker Tegray Scales is going to be impossible, but the Hoosiers do have upperclassmen with experience. Junior Reakwon Jones has played in 21 games the last two years, but has just nine tackles to show for it. Former junior college transfer Mike McGinnis looks like the man in the middle. Senior Kiante Walton will also provide depth. This is going to be a completely different unit from 2017.