College Football's Top 25 Linebacker Units for 2013

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Stanford takes the top spot for 2013

It’s a tough call for the No. 1 spot in college football’s linebacker units for 2013. Stanford and Alabama are both deserving of the top honor, but a slight edge goes to the Cardinal. Shayne Skov should be closer to full strength now that he is a full year removed from a torn ACL, and Trent Murphy is poised to be an All-American this season. The Crimson Tide is led by C.J. Mosley, with Trey DePriest, Xzavier Dickson, Adrian Hubbard and Denzel Devall all capable of being standout performers. UCLA also boasts a strong trio, led by future NFL first-round pick Anthony Barr.

How did we come up with these rankings? A couple of factors were considered. Depth, overall talent, production, level of competition and projected output in 2013 all factored into the rankings for the backfield. While some teams may have experienced a down year last season, having a different quarterback or a change of scheme can make a huge difference.

They’re the teams within the team — those cohesive little units bound together by their shared responsibilities within the larger team context. 

Whether it’s the offensive linemen firing off time after time into those familiar blocking sleds, or the defensive linemen drilling repeatedly on how to shed blockers, or the defensive backs breaking on ball after ball — these teams in miniature hone their tasks on the practice field until those tasks become second nature. 
 
Whether or not these units function as one can make the difference between winning and losing, and a single unit can carry a team to New Year’s Day — or beyond.
 
It’s entirely fitting, then, for us to honor the best of the best at each position with our 13th annual Athlon Awards. 

 

Ranking the Top 25 Linebacker Units for 2013

1. Stanford
The Cardinal will miss Chase Thomas, but three starters return, including seniors Shayne Skov and Trent Murphy. Skov led the Stanford defense with 81 tackles last year, while Murphy recorded 10 sacks. A.J. Tarpley joins Skov on the interior and is poised for his best season on The Farm. Senior Blake Lueders or James Vaughters will replace Thomas on the outside. Jarek Lancaster and Kevin Anderson will contribute as top reserves.

2. Alabama
If Stanford has the No. 1 linebacker unit, then Alabama is essentially 1b. C.J. Mosley is one of the top linebackers in the nation and is joined by Trey DePriest on the interior. Mosley and DePriest combined for 166 tackles last year. Adrian Hubbard and Xzavier Dickson combined for 10.5 sacks in 2012, and the coaching staff hopes this duo can provide a more consistent pass rush in 2013. Denzel Devall, Tana Patrick, Ryan Anderson and Reuben Foster are valuable reserves.

3. UCLA 
Anthony Barr was shifted from offense to defense last year, and the move paid huge dividends for the Bruins. Barr recorded 13.5 sacks and 21.5 tackles for a loss in 2012, and his athleticism off the edge is a matchup nightmare for offensive lines. Eric Kendricks led all Pac-12 defenders with 149 stops last season and is joined on the interior by Jordan Zumwalt. Sophomore Aaron Wallace is the frontrunner to replace Damien Holmes at the other outside spot, but true freshman Myles Jack and sophomore Kenny Orjioke could factor into the rotation.

4. Michigan State 
With three starters departing from the defensive line, the Spartans will depend on the linebackers to keep the rush defense near the top of the Big Ten. Max Bullough enters his third year as Michigan State’s middle linebacker. The senior led the team with 111 stops last season. Junior Taiwan Jones is set for a breakout season after recording 5.5 tackles for a loss and 38 tackles as a reserve last year. Strong-side linebacker Denicos Allen is a three-year starter. Senior Jairus Jones should see plenty of snaps as the unit’s top reserve in 2013.

5. LSU 
Thanks to the emergence of Kevin Minter and Lamin Barrow last season, the Tigers emerged as one of the SEC’s top linebacker units. Minter left for the NFL, but Barrow is back after recording 104 stops. This position is overflowing with talent, starting with sophomore Kwon Alexander and freshman Kendell Beckwith. A broken ankle ended Alexander’s 2012 season after seven games, while Beckwith is one of the top recruits in LSU’s 2013 signing class. Junior D.J. Welter is fighting to hold onto a starting spot this fall, while Tahj Jones is expected to start on the strongside. Deion Jones, Ronnie Feist and Lamar Louis are all battling Beckwith and Alexander for snaps and spots on the two-deep.

6. Notre Dame
Manti Te’o is gone, but the Fighting Irish return two starters and plenty of talent at linebacker. Senior Danny Spond was forced to end his playing career this fall, which will likely open the door for sophomore Ben Councell to start at one of the outside spots. But Councell will be pushed for time by incoming freshman Jaylon Smith – the No. 1 linebacker in the 2013 signing class by Athlon Sports. Senior Prince Shembo anchors the edge after recording 7.5 sacks last year. Junior Ishaq Williams will provide depth, while Carlo Calabrese, Dan Fox and Jarrett Grace will replace Te’o’s production on the interior.

7. Florida State
The Seminoles have a new coordinator (Jeremy Pruitt) and only four returning starters on defense, but this unit should still remain one of the best in the nation. The line needs to be rebuilt, so the linebackers may need to be a little more active around the line of scrimmage. Senior Christian Jones earned second-team All-ACC honors last year and led the team with 95 tackles. Jones should push for All-American honors in 2013. Senior Telvin Smith and sophomore Terrance Smith should round out the starting trio. Telvin Smith recorded 9.5 tackles for a loss last year. There’s no shortage of talent behind the starters, but the second and third wave of linebackers lacks experience.

8. USC
With the change to a 3-4/5-2 scheme, it’s hard to classify where certain players fit in USC’s scheme this year. Dion Bailey has moved to safety, while Hayes Pullard and Lamar Dawson are back as returning starters. Dawson struggled in 2012 but should hold off Anthony Sarao for a starting spot. Pullard ranked second on the team with 107 stops last year. Seniors Devon Kennard and Morgan Breslin factored into our defensive line rankings as ends in USC’s new scheme. However, we’ll factor part of their production here as well, especially since both players will be tasked with getting to the quarterback in a hybrid rush end/linebacker role.

9. Washington
What a difference a year makes. The Huskies considered the linebacking corps one of the weak links on the defense going into the 2012 season. However, the emergence of Shaq Thompson and Travis Feeney, along with the arrival of coordinator Justin Wilcox, brought big improvement to the Huskies’ defense. Washington finished 2012 ranked second in the Pac-12 in pass defense and fourth in scoring defense. With Thompson poised to challenge for All-American honors, and the return of Feeney and John Timu into the starting lineup, the Huskies are in great shape at linebacker.

10. BYU
Kyle Van Noy turned down the NFL for one more year in Provo. The senior was outstanding in BYU’s 3-4 scheme last season, recording 22 tackles for a loss, 13 sacks, two interceptions and six forced fumbles. Van Noy is a first-team Athlon Sports All-American for 2013. Joining Van Noy on the outside will be senior Spencer Hadley (66 tackles and 1.5 sacks last year). The interior spots will feature new starters, as Uani Unga (28 tackles) and Tyler Beck (1 tackle) step into the lineup for Uona Kaveinga and Brandon Ogletree.

11. Ole Miss
Returning Starters: 2
Athlon 2013 All-SEC Performers: Denzel Nkemdiche (2nd)

12. Iowa
Returning Starters: 3
Athlon 2013 All-Big Ten Performers: James Morris (2nd)

13. Cincinnati
Returning Starters: 2
Athlon 2013 American Athletic All-Conference Performers: Greg Blair (1st), Jeff Luc (3rd)

14. Wisconsin
Returning Starters: 2
Athlon 2013 All-Big Ten Performers: Chris Borland (1st)

15. Ohio State
Returning Starters: 1
Athlon 2013 All-Big Ten Performers: Ryan Shazier (1st)

16. Florida
Returning Starters: 0
Athlon 2013 All-SEC Performers: Antonio Morrison (3rd)

17. Clemson
Returning Starters: 3
Athlon 2013 All-ACC Performers: Spencer Shuey (3rd)

18. Baylor
Returning Starters: 3
Athlon 2013 All-Big 12 Performers: Bryce Hager (1st), Eddie Lackey (2nd)

19. Oklahoma State
Returning Starters: 2
Athlon 2013 All-Big 12 Performers: Shaun Lewis (2nd), Caleb Lavey (2nd)

20. Texas
Returning Starters: 2
Athlon 2013 All-Big 12 Performers: Jordan Hicks (1st)

21. Tennessee
Returning Starters: 2
Athlon 2013 All-SEC Performers: A.J. Johnson (1st)

22. Louisville
Returning Starters: 2
Athlon 2013 American Athletic All-Conference Performers: LB Preston Brown (1st)

23. Arizona State
Returning Starters: 3
Athlon 2013 All-Pac-12 Performers: Carl Bradford (2nd)

24. Virginia Tech
Returning Starters: 1
Athlon 2013 All-ACC Performers: Jack Tyler (1st)

25. Michigan
Returning Starters: 2
Athlon 2013 All-Big Ten Performers: James Ross III (3rd)

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