The Big Ten West features an interesting batch of linebackers this year. It also features different schemes for those linebackers to maneuver around in.
Two programs run a 3-4 defense, while other programs employ a basic 4-3 defense, and others utilize a nickel/linebacker hybrid. There are all different types of linebackers in the division, which creates some interesting matchup problems for offenses throughout the conference.
The teams that create the most problems are generally the ones with the most talent. And each of the teams in the West is headed in the right direction. Not all of them are there yet, however. And those that aren’t won’t be hard to find this season.
1. Wisconsin Badgers
Wisconsin runs a 3-4, and despite losing a pair of starters, still returns plenty of firepower at linebacker. Chief among them is senior inside linebacker T.J. Edwards, who was a First-Team All-American last season with 81 tackles, 11 tackles for loss, and four interceptions. Next to him will be senior Ryan Connelly, who started six games last year. He actually led the Badgers with 88 tackles last season. He also notched 11 tackles for loss, earning Honorable Mention All-B1G notice. Outside linebacker will feature two new starters, but there is experience here as well. Senior Andrew Van Ginkle contributed 6.5 sacks and 10 tackles for loss as a reserve last year. There are several options for the other OLB spot, and the confidence is high that a playmaker will be found. Wisconsin led the B1G in total defense last season (262.1 ypg).
2. Northwestern Wildcats
Northwestern lost linebackers coach Randy Bates to Pitt, but they replaced him with Tim McGarigle, who just happens to be a former NU linebacker and the school’s all-time leading tackler. Two starters return for the Wildcats, most notably reigning Big Ten Defensive Freshman of the Year Paddy Fisher. Fisher won the middle linebacker job last season and produced 113 tackles and nine tackles for loss. Senior Nate Hall also returns. He was an Honorable Mention All-B1G selection last year following a 2017 where he managed 79 tackles, 5.0 sacks, 16.5 tackles for loss. The third spot is still up for grabs, but sophomore Blake Gallagher put up 33 tackles last season as a true freshman. There are other possibilities here as well, but Gallagher seems to be a pretty good start.
3. Minnesota Golden Gophers
Minnesota’s defense is such that the linebacker position can incorporate both a defensive end and a nickel back, but for our purposes here, the nickel back is a linebacker. That player this year is likely going to be senior Jacob Huff, who started every game last year and finished third on the team with 65 tackles. Junior middle linebacker Thomas Barber finished third in the B1G with 115 tackles. He was named third-team all-conference. Junior weakside line backer Kamal Martin started nine games last year, finishing with 42 tackles and 6.5 tackles for loss. There is some depth here as well. With another year in the system, these linebackers could turn what was a middle-of-the-pack defense into a group that finishes in the top half of many statistical categories this year.
4. Nebraska Cornhuskers
Even though Nebraska is replacing two starters in their 3-4 alignment, things should be better this year under new leadership. Senior inside linebacker Dedrick Young is back for his fourth year as a starter. Last year he finished second on the team with 80 tackles. Also back is senior outside linebacker Luke Gifford, who started seven games last year. He finished eighth on the team with 39 tackles. Alex Davis started five times last year, managing 17 tackles over his 12 games played. Senior Sedrick King has also started a few games over the years. Junior college transfer Will Honas could be a starter at inside linebacker. Scott Frost likes him a lot. Frost is also excited about Ole Miss transfer Breon Dixon, who was a top linebacker recruit in 2017 with offers from Alabama and Ohio State. His athleticism and versatility have already earned comparisons to 2016 AAC Defensive Player of the Year Shaquem Griffin, who played at UCF under Frost.
5. Purdue Boilermakers
Purdue must replace two starters, but there are some interesting twists that could emerge here. The linebacker unit is led by junior Markus Bailey, who is in his third year as a starter. He was second on the team last year with 89 tackles and led the Boilers with 7.0 sacks. Three true sophomores are going to be relied upon as well, most notably Derrick Barnes who is the likely starter at middle linebacker. He started twice last season, but was not ready for the big time. He needs to be ready this year. The Sam linebacker could end up being senior T.J. Jallow, who was a junior college safety who was better as a seeker than a pass defender last year. This year, they plan on using him better. Purdue allowed 19.2 points per game in conference play last season. That was better than Michigan, Ohio State, and Michigan State.
6. Illinois Fighting Illini
There were no senior linebackers on the Illinois roster last year, but four players from the unit transferred after the season. So…yeah. The only known commodity here is senior middle linebacker Del’Shawn Phillips, who led the team last year with 85 tackles. Illinois is yet another defense that fluctuates between three linebackers and a nickel back. Don’t expect anything to be settled here until about December. Dele Harding started five games last year, played in three more, and finished with 32 tackles — all on the defensive side of the line of scrimmage. Sophomore Jake Hansen started once in his career, and junior Jimmy Marchese has two starts to his credit. There are other names here, but you’re never going to remember them. So much of the Illinois defense is a mystery, and the linebackers are cloaked in more darkness than any other area.
7. Iowa Hawkeyes
All three starting linebackers have departed, which means Iowa needs to rely on three unproven players to replace the over 100 combined starts that are now gone. Junior Amani Jones began spring football as the No. 2 at Will, but ended it as the No. 1 at middle linebacker. He has 10 career tackles. Junior Kristian Welch looks like the Will at this point, and he carries nine career tackles with him into the 2018 season. The other outside linebacker spot is awash in odd possibilities. There have been murmurs of Iowa utilizing a hybrid star/linebacker here on occasion. On basic downs, however, sophomore Ben Niemann looks like he could be the guy at Sam. He has five career tackles, by the way. Safety Amani Hooker started six games last year, but he has been talked about as a possibility on passing downs.
2018 Big Ten Ratings
Linebackers — East |