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 12th annual Athlon Awards.
Athlon's Top 20 Linebacking Corps for 2012
1. Georgia – Thanks to the arrival of Jarvis Jones, the Bulldogs emerged as one of the top defenses in the SEC last year. After sitting out 2010 as a transfer from USC, Jones turned in a monster 2011 season, recording 13.5 sacks and 19.5 tackles for a loss. Ramik Wilson is expected to start at the other outside linebacker spot, while Mike Gilliard and Alec Ogletree anchor the middle. Ogletree recorded 52 tackles last year and is one of the SEC’s rising stars on defense.
2. Stanford – Even with Shayne Skov sidelined for nearly all of 2011 with a knee injury, the Cardinal still finished third nationally in rush defense. Chase Thomas has been a standout performer throughout his career with Stanford, earning first-team All-Pac-12 honors last year. Skov is expected to return at full strength early in the season and leads a deep group of linebackers that includes experienced options in Jarek Lancaster, AJ Tarpley, Trent Murphy and James Vaughters.
3. Michigan State – Thanks to the return of all three starters from last season, the Spartans own the Big Ten’s top linebacking corps for 2012. Max Bullough is a prototypical middle linebacker and should be better in his second year as a starter. Denicos Allen led the team with 11 sacks and also registered 83 stops. Chris Norman rounds out the starting trio, and he recorded honorable mention All-Big Ten honors last season.
4. Iowa State – A.J. Klein and Jake Knott are quietly two of the best linebackers in the nation. Klein earned Big 12 co-Defensive Player of the Year honors last season after registering 116 tackles and two sacks. Knott picked up second-team All-Big 12 honors in 2011 and has posted more than 100 tackles in each of the last two seasons. The third starting spot will likely go to sophomore C.J. Morgan.
5. Wisconsin – The Badgers finished 60th nationally against the run last year, but that number should improve in 2012 with two standouts returning in the linebacking corps. Chris Borland ranked second on the team with 143 tackles last year and picked up 19 tackles for a loss. Mike Taylor registered 150 stops and forced three fumbles in 2011. The unit must replace Kevin Claxton, but Ethan Armstrong and Conor O’Neill are experienced candidates.
6. Alabama – Courtney Upshaw and Dont’a Hightower will be missed, but the cupboard is far from bare for coordinator Kirby Smart. Nico Johnson and C.J. Mosley should be in the mix for All-SEC honors, while sophomores Trey DePriest, Adrian Hubbard and Xzavier Dickson are on the cusp of a breakout season. Expect a small drop-off in performance early in the year, but this unit should rank as one of the SEC’s best by the end of 2012.
7. Florida – If the Gators want to challenge for the SEC East title, the defense will have to carry this team in the early part of the year. Will Muschamp and Dan Quinn have plenty of talent to work with, including senior Jon Bostic and junior Jelani Jenkins in the linebacking corps. Bostic recorded 94 tackles last season, while Jenkins made 75 stops. Freshman Antonio Morrison could break into the rotation as a backup on the outside this year.
8. Penn State – With the transfers of Silas Redd and Justin Brown, scoring points will be a challenge for the Nittany Lions’ offense this season. The good news for Penn State? The defense should be strong, especially at linebacker with senior Gerald Hodges and junior Glenn Carson back as starters. Hodges earned second-team All-Big Ten honors after recording 106 stops and 4.5 sacks last year. This unit could rank even higher at the end of the year if senior Michael Mauti can stay healthy. The depth took a hit with Khairi Fortt’s decision to transfer to California.
9. Notre Dame – Manti Te’o turned down a spot in the first round of the NFL Draft for one more year in South Bend. The senior led the team with 128 stops and 13.5 tackles for a loss last season and is a first-team Athlon Sports All-American for 2012. Joining Te’o as likely starters in the linebacking corps should be Prince Shembo, Dan Fox and Danny Spond. Sophomore Ishaq Williams will see plenty of snaps on the outside, and he will be counted upon to help ease the loss of Aaron Lynch. Having Te’o back boosts Notre Dame’s ranking in this list, but the rest of the unit needs to pickup their performance in 2012.