Our annual process to determine the division champions in the Big Ten is a nearly flawless exercise of tedium, but it’s ours.
Today, we tackle the linebackers of the B1G.
Some will tell you that linebackers are only as good as the defensive line in front of them, but that is absolutely untrue when you are simply rating them as a standalone unit as we are doing here.
In the East, this is a batch of linebackers that has more mystery than a dark stain on the carpet in Alfred Hitchcock’s den.
Is it wine? Is it blood? Is it barbecue sauce?
This season, there appears to be a lot of mysterious stains in the respective linebacker rooms around the Big Ten.
Only one linebacker returns in the East who appeared on any of the three All-Big Ten teams last season.
Talent has departed, but new stars will step up. They always do.
So who has the best group of linebacker in the Big Ten East?
Each of the top three teams has a claim for the No. 1 spot, but they all also have their flaws and questions.
1. Penn State Nittany Lions (31)
Penn State doesn’t have the deepest group of linebackers, but the talent continues to be raised through recruiting each year. The Nittany Lions return two starters in senior middle linebacker Jan Johnson and senior Sam linebacker Cam Brown. They also return their leading tackler — sophomore Will linebacker Micah Parsons, who finished with 83 tackles, 5 tackles for loss, and 1.5 sacks last year. Parsons came in as a 5-star defensive end, but proved early on that he was capable of playing linebacker. Johnson is a former walk-on who started all 13 games last season, putting up 72 tackles. He could be pushed this season by sophomore Ellis Brooks, who tallied 30 tackles as a freshman. Brown finished fifth on the team with 63 tackles and is a leader of the unit. There are some talented freshmen here as well, including 5-star freshman Brandon Smith and 4-star freshman Lance Dixon. Sophomore Jesse Luketa is also one to watch this year.
2. Ohio State Buckeyes (51)
All three starting linebackers from last season return. Leading tackler Malik Harrison decided to return for his senior season, and he will be looking to improve upon his 81 tackles last season. Only four returning linebackers in the Big Ten had more than Harrison’s 55 solo tackles last season. Junior middle linebacker Tuf Borland is back. He put up 67 tackles and 9.0 tackles for loss last season while still recovering from an Achilles injury. Pete Werner returns at Sam. He finished fourth on the team with 58 tackles, fifth with 7.5 tackles for loss, and second with seven PBUs. There has been a scheme change here, however, as the Buckeyes will now utilize a hybrid safety/linebacker. In this defense, that will be former starting deep safety Brendon White. He and the Sam (Werner?) will split reps depending on the down, distance, and opponent. Werner is being challenged by sophomore K’Vaughan Pope. Borland is being pushed by junior Baron Browning and sophomore Teradja Mitchell. After a down year in 2018, there is only one direction for this group to go.
3. Michigan State Spartans (33)
The star for the Spartans is senior middle linebacker Joe Bachie, who finished ninth in the Big Ten last year with 102 tackles and was named First-Team All-B1G by the conference coaches. He finished 14th among linebackers in the conference with 47 solo tackles. Bachie has complete command of the MSU defense and has seen everything in his 26 career starts. Senior Tyriq Thompson returns as well, having started a dozen games last year and finishing with 31 tackles and a sack. Production needs to increase with Thompson. Junior Antjuan Simmons is expected to be the third starting linebacker this season. He has played a lot in his first two seasons, putting up 34 tackles as a freshman and 32 as a sophomore. He is an active defender who is on the smaller side, but he finds the football. Depth took a hit with senior departures, so some of the young guys will need to be ready to provide depth.
4. Michigan Wolverines (34)
The Wolverines will play four linebackers regularly in Don Brown’s defense, and possibly even more than that. They return two starters in Viper Khaleke Hudson, who plays a combo Sam/Safety hybrid. He was outstanding in 2017, bettering every number put up by Jabrill Peppers the year before. Last year, however, his numbers dropped to 44 tackles, 2.0 sacks, and 3.5 tackles for loss. He needs to get back to his 2017 form, and certainly could. Will linebacker Devin Gil returns as well, but his job isn’t necessarily safe. He put up 33 tackles last year, which was 50 fewer than Mike McCray managed the year before. Maybe a young guy gets in there and takes that job. Junior Josh Ross will likely step in at middle linebacker. He was fourth on the team with 61 tackles off the bench. He is active and a solid tackler. Pass-rush specialist Josh Uche led the team with 7.0 sacks last season, but managed just one tackle over the last four games, and it didn’t happen in the backfield.
5. Maryland Terrapins (42)
Maryland is going through a defensive scheme change. Last year they played with a full-time nickel, but now they’re moving to a 3-4 with a Jack ‘backer rush end. For our purposes, the Jack was part of the defensive line ratings. With the scheme change, Maryland must find two new starting linebackers. Senior middle linebacker Isaiah Davis finished second on the team last year with 94 tackles, but only got into the backfield twice. He is a productive guy in the middle. Maryland also adds a pair of transfers who are eligible to play immediately. Senior Keandre Jones comes from Ohio State where he spent his career behind starters Jerome Baker and Malik Harrison at the Will. Clemson transfer Shaq Smith comes back home to Maryland where he will be vying for a starting spot somewhere. Sophomore Ayinde Eley started once last year. People around the program believe he bears watching this season. The Terps were middle-of-the-pack against the run last year. They obviously expect to be better this season.
6. Indiana Hoosiers (28)
Indiana’s nickel defense has been effective at times for head coach Tom Allen. For our purposes, we’ll include that nickel back — junior Marcelino Ball — here at linebacker. Ball has been a productive and disruptive player throughout his career. He was third on the team last year with 59 tackles, and his 7.5 tackles for loss led the team. He has the speed to cover ground and cover receivers. Senior Reakwon Jones started 10 games last season, but his 36 tackles will need to be improved this season. Sophomore Thomas Allen looks like the man in the middle. He has 28 tackles in 12 games as a freshman last season. Depth may be an issue, but 4-star freshman Cameron Williams could be one to watch. He was the No. 16 outside linebacker in the 2019 class. This is a fairly experienced group of linebackers who should help improve the 4.6 yards per carry the Hoosiers allowed last year.
7. Rutgers Scarlet Knights (32)
Rutgers must replace two starters from last season, and those two happened to also be their leading tacklers in 2018. Despite the losses, the addition of new defensive coordinator Andy Buh and a new position coach for Rutgers’ hybrid 3-4 (which we’ll consider a 4-3 because of the rush end) has people thinking this group will be better despite the inexperience. Starting Sam Tyreek Maddox-Williams returns, but his 48 tackles and 4 tackles for loss last season weren’t exactly awe-inspiring. Junior Tyshon Fogg looks like the guy in the middle. He also managed 48 tackles last season, doing so off the bench. Junior Olakunle Fatukasi put up 20 tackles in 11 games last year and could be the Will. Michigan transfer Drew Singleton is a New Jersey native and the expectations are that he’ll be competing at Will or Sam. Expect a more inspired attack by the Rutgers defense, but will the talent be able to keep up?