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.
10. Oregon – The Ducks must replace two key contributors from last season’s linebacking corps but don’t expect this unit to miss a beat in 2012. Senior Michael Clay is an underrated defender in the Pac-12 and he recorded 102 tackles and three sacks last year. Kiko Alonso had a breakout performance in the Rose Bowl (five tackles, 2.5 TFL, 1 INT, 1.5 sacks) and will help Clay anchor the interior. Boseko Lokombo will man one outside spot, while end/linebacker Dion Jordan will start at the hybrid rush position.
11. USC – With three sophomores likely to start, the Trojans could have the nation’s youngest starting trio at linebacker. Dion Bailey excelled after switching from safety last year, recording 81 tackles and Pac-12 Defensive Freshman of the Year honors. Hayes Pullard also had a standout freshman year, tying Bailey for the team lead in stops and recording four sacks and two forced fumbles. Lamar Dawson (25 tackles) is expected to start in the middle this season.
12. Rutgers – Three starters – including All-American candidate Khaseem Greene – are back to lead the Scarlet Knights’ linebacking corps in 2012. Greene led the team with 141 stops last season, while recording 3.5 sacks and 14 TFL. Steve Beauharnais anchors the interior, while making plenty of plays behind the scrimmage (16 TFL, 5 sacks). The third spot is expected to go to Jamal Merrell (44 tackles last year).
13. Oklahoma State – While the Cowboys’ offense garnered most of the attention last year, the defense led the nation in takeaways. A key reason for last season’s success was due to the trio at linebacker. Shaun Lewis picked up honorable mention All-Big 12 honors after recording 61 stops and 9.5 TFL last year. Alex Elkins didn’t play high school football, but excelled on the junior college level and finished second on the team with 90 stops last year. He should be better in his second year as a starter on the FBS level. Junior Caleb Lavey is expected to start at middle linebacker. With a few losses on the defensive line, the Cowboys need the linebacking corps to be active against the run.
14. Oklahoma – Travis Lewis was the heart and soul of the Sooners’ defense and there’s no question he will be missed. However, new linebacker coach Tim Kish will have plenty to work with. Juniors Tom Wort and Corey Nelson have played in Lewis’ shadow over the last two years and should be ready to push for All-Big 12 honors. The third spot is expected to be a hybrid linebacker/safety position, which could go to senior Joseph Ibiloye.
15. Ohio State – Improvement. That’s the key word surrounding the Buckeyes after a disappointing 6-7 season. Even with three new starters taking over at linebacker, this unit should be one of the best in the Big Ten. Senior Etienne Sabino is due for a solid senior year, while sophomores Curtis Grant and Ryan Shazier are primed for breakout seasons. Shazier recorded 57 tackles in 13 appearances last year. The biggest question mark about this unit will be depth, as there is very little in the way of experience after the starting trio.
16. Virginia Tech – Injuries wrecked havoc on the Hokies’ linebacking corps last season, and there’s plenty of concerns about this group going into 2012. Bruce Taylor was off to a solid start in 2011 - 53 tackles and five sacks through the first eight games - but a foot injury ended his season prematurely. Tariq Edwards played in all 14 contests last year but a shin injury limited his availability for preseason workouts. Senior Jeron Gouveia-Winslow was sidelined for most of the year with a foot injury but is expected to regain a starting spot this fall. Alonzo Tweedy and Jack Tyler will be the top reserves and could play major snaps early in the season with Taylor and Edwards working their way back to full strength.
17. Kansas State – Arthur Brown was one of the nation’s top linebacker prospects in the class of 2008 but failed to make an impact during his two years with Miami. However, the light switch flipped on for the Wichita native last season, recording first-team All-Big 12 honors and 101 tackles. Brown should be one of the Big 12’s top 25 players in 2012 and an All-American candidate. Junior Tre Walker will return at one of the outside spots, while converted quarterback Justin Tuggle will likely man the other.
18. Texas – Emmanuel Acho and Keenan Robinson were two of the Big 12’s top defenders over the last couple of years and won’t be easy to replace. However, the Longhorns aren’t short on talent in this area. Jordan Hicks is primed for a breakout year after making 65 stops last season. Sophomore Steve Edmond is another breakout candidate to watch at middle linebacker, while the coaching staff is high on junior Demarco Cobbs on the weakside.
19. Texas A&M – The Aggies are shifting from a 3-4 to a 4-3 attack, so the returning personnel will have an adjustment period. Sean Porter should be the headliner and the Aggies’ top playmaker on defense after recording 17 tackles for a loss and 9.5 sacks last year. Senior Jonathan Stewart returns after leading the team with 98 tackles in 2011, while Steven Jenkins is expected to win the third spot (61 tackles last year).
20. Michigan – This unit still has a ways to go before Brady Hoke or coordinator Greg Mattison consider it a strength, but it’s definitely on the right track. Senior Kenny Demens is back after leading the team with 94 tackles last year, while Jake Ryan and Desmond Morgan are promising sophomores on the outside. Freshman Joe Bolden was one of the nation’s top linebacker recruits and will be tough to keep on the sidelines.
by Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven on Twitter)
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