Football

Rating the 2019 Big Ten Linebackers — West Division

Ohio State football running back J.K. Dobbins

Our annual process to determine the division champions in the Big Ten is a nearly flawless exercise of tedium, but it’s our nearly flawless exercise of tedium.

Today, we finish 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.

The top three tacklers in the Big Ten return from last season, which is a pretty good start, and all three reside in the Big Ten West.

So often, however, it takes the teams in the West a couple of years to develop their tacklers. Recruiting is more about talent evaluation than anything else.

There are just six 4-star linebackers in the Big Ten West. For a comparison, Ohio State has eight, and that’s not including their two 5-star linebackers.

This may end up simply being a rating of who has the most veterans.

But we won’t know until we get started.

(As always, the numbers in parentheses next to the team name is the number of recruiting stars at that position on the roster.)

1. Northwestern Wildcats (29)

If there is one linebacker unit in the Big Ten West that will hit the ground running this year, it should belong to Northwestern. The top two tacklers in the B1G last year were Wildcats, and both return this year. Will linebacker Blake Gallagher led the conference with 127 tackles last season, earning third-team all-conference honors. He also added 7.5 tackles for loss. Middle linebacker Paddy Fisher is the true star here, however. Already with 26 starts in his career, Fisher finished with 116 tackles last season and 113 tackles as a freshman. He earned First-Team All-Big Ten accolades last year and second-team honors as a freshman. Joining them will be fellow junior Chris Bergin, who started four games last year and finished with 51 tackles in a reserve role. Together, the three of them should allow the Wildcats to remain as one of  the Big Ten’s best run defenses.

2. Purdue Boilermakers (24)

All three starting linebackers from last season return for Purdue, but one of them — Derrick Barnes — has been moved to LEO, which is a pass rushing hybrid. We’ve talked about him with the defensive line previously, so he is not part of the equation here. Senior Will linebacker Markus Bailey is headed for his fourth season as a starter. He finished with 115 tackles, 5.5 sacks, and 10 tackles for loss last season. He is a productive leader for this defense, but more guys like him need to step up. Junior middle linebacker Cornel Jones put up 69 tackles in 2018 and led the team with 12.5 tackles for loss. The new guy here is Western Kentucky graduate transfer Ben Holt, who is the son of Purdue defensive coordinator Nick Holt. Holt put up over 100 tackles last season. He’s not the biggest guy (5-10 220), but he has been productive. Purdue was middle of the pack in rush defense last season. Moving into the clear top half of the Big Ten would be a huge step this season.

3. Nebraska Cornhuskers (40)

Nebraska runs a 3-4 defense, but they need to replace a couple of starters. Fortunately, one starter does return and three other linebackers with starting experience are back as well. Leading tackler Mohamed Barry returns. He was a third-team all-conference selection last year with 112 tackles. Barry also put up 11 tackles for loss and two sacks. Outside linebacker Alex Davis looks like the prototype 3-4 OLB, but as a senior and with nine starts over the last two seasons, there hasn’t been much production. Upperclassmen JoJo Domann and Tyrin Ferguson are experienced ‘backers as well, and both will be on the field, presumably outside. Joining Barry on the inside are juniors Will Honas and Collin Miller. Honas missed all but the first four games last season. There are a number of options this year and with one more year in this system, don’t expect the Huskers to have the third-worst run defense in the Big Ten this season.

4. Iowa Hawkeyes (40)

Iowa has switched to a 4-2-5 defense, which is the closest their offense will ever come to running the spread. For our purposes, we will include the hybrid “Cash” position as a linebacker. Junior Barrington Wade and redshirt freshman DJ Johnson are seemingly the two options here. They are very different players, however, with Wade being linebacker sized (6-1 233) and Johnson not (5-10 183). Senior middle linebacker Kristian Welch started six games last year and notched 49 tackles. His 1.5 sacks were his only tackles in the backfield. Of course, TFLs have never really been a big thing for Iowa linebackers. Sophomore Will linebacker Djimon Colbert started 10 games last year, putting up 52 tackles and one TFL. There will still be some 4-3 here, which means snaps for experienced junior Nick Niemann, who started five games last year and finished with 43 tackles. The Hawkeyes are looking for another top two rush defense finish in the Big Ten this year.

5. Minnesota Golden Gophers (33)

Leading tackler Blake Cashman is gone, and so are his 104 tackles. Back are senior starters Kamal Martin and Thomas Barber. Barber has started 24 games the last two years, was a third-team all-conference selection in 2017, and finished with 81 tackles last season. Martin started once as a freshman, nine times as a sophomore, and nine times last season. He finished with 59 tackles and 3.5 tackles for loss. The other linebacker spot is up in the air. This Gopher defense will fluctuate from a 4-3 to a 4-2-5 depending on the opponent and circumstance. Sophomores Thomas Rush and Mariano Sori-Marin will compete to be the third linebacker. Only Rutgers and Illinois allowed more yards per carry than the Gophers (5.2), but this group of linebackers has two veterans to hold the fort while the young guys figure out exactly who the reinforcements are.

6. Wisconsin Badgers (35)

The Badgers run a 3-4 defense and must find three new starters this year. Senior Zack Baun started every game last year and finished third on the team with 63 tackles and fourth with 7.5 tackles for loss. Senior Chris Orr wasn’t a starter last year, but he has started 16 games in his career. He is plenty experienced on the inside. Sophomore Jack Sanborn played a bit inside as a freshman last season and is one of the favorites to take over this year. He will compete with junior Noah Burks for the job. The outside spot opposite Baun is also up for grabs. Sophomore Izayah Green-May is an imposing figure at 6-foot-6, but is still a bit light at 223 pounds. Can he handle the pass rushing duties that arise at OLB for the Badgers? Junior Christian Bell has played in 17 games the last two seasons and is vying for the job as well. There are a number of other veteran linebackers that can be called upon as well. Players generally step up here for the Badgers.

7. Illinois Fighting Illini (29)

Two starters return from last year, though one of them was a safety. Sophomore Delano Ware started eight games last year as a freshman safety for the Illini and produced 35 tackles. He now projects to the strongside linebacker position where he will be able to use his coverage skills closer to the line. Weakside linebacker Jake Hansen is back as well. He tied for the team lead with 95 tackles, and his 8.5 tackles for loss were second on the team. Senior Dele Harding is the likely starter at middle linebacker. He has had some sporadic starts in his career playing behind veterans, but now he is the veteran. He was still productive off the bench with 37 tackles last year. There is also a ton of excitement around the program for Washington transfer Milo Eifler who could end up at any of the three linebacker spots. Illinois was dead last in the Big Ten last year in rush defense, allowing 245.3 yards per game and 6.0 yards per carry. Those numbers should improve this season.


Big Ten Ratings

Quarterback — East | West

Running Back — East | West

Receivers — East | West

Offensive Line — East | West

Defensive Line — East | West

Linebackers — East |