Under Nick Saban’s watch, it’s no secret Alabama has developed its share of standout linebackers. Despite losing a couple of key players at this position from last season’s group, the Crimson Tide take the top spot in Athlon’s linebacker unit rankings for 2018. Dylan Moses and Mack Wilson will step in as the new anchors on the interior of the 3-4 linebacker unit, and both players are poised for a breakout 2018 campaign. Michigan checks in at No. 2 behind Alabama, but Miami, Wisconsin and USC aren't far behind in the top five.
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 2018 all factored into the rankings for the linebacking corps. While some teams may have experienced a down year last season, having a change of scheme, impact freshman or transfer or new coach can make a huge difference. These rankings reflect projection for 2018, not solely what teams accomplished in 2017.
College Football's Top 25 Linebacker Units for 2018
Injuries took a toll on this unit last season, but Alabama seemingly had an endless supply of former top recruits ready to rise to the challenge. With better injury luck, the Crimson Tide’s linebacker unit should be the best in college football for 2018. Dylan Moses and Mack Wilson will fill the void left behind by Shaun Dion Hamilton and Rashaan Evans on the inside of the 3-4 alignment. Both are breakout candidates for 2018. Anfernee Jennings and Christian Miller battled injuries last season, but, if healthy, they form a dynamic and athletic trio of pass rushers for coach Nick Saban. Terrell Lewis suffered a knee injury in the summer and is out indefinitely. Lewis could return late in the year, giving the Crimson Tide a boost off the edge in (potentially) the CFB Playoff. Additional help could come in the form of four-star prospect Ale Kaho, who is eligible at Alabama after being released from his National Letter of Intent at Washington in August.
Khaleke Hudson and Devin Bush delivered breakout performances for Michigan’s defense in their first year as starters. Hudson — a converted safety — recorded 82 tackles (18 for a loss), eight sacks, nine pass breakups and two forced fumbles en route to earning second-team All-Big Ten honors in 2017. At 5'11" and 222 pounds, Bush packs a punch as a prototypical middle linebacker. In his first full year as a starter, Bush recorded 102 tackles (9.5 for a loss), five sacks and one interception. Devin Gil and Josh Ross are battling to replace Mike McCray as the team’s third starter at linebacker.
Shaquille Quarterman, Michael Pinckney and Zach McCloud have manned the linebacker spots for Miami’s defense in each of the last two seasons. After going through a learning curve as freshmen, this trio blossomed into one of the nation’s best groups last year, helping the Hurricanes hold opponents to 3.5 yards per carry. Quarterman is the best of the group and should challenge for All-America honors. Depth behind this group could be an issue, so it’s vital for Miami’s defense that all three stay healthy in 2018.
With just three returning starters, the Badgers have significant needs to address in order to match last year’s dominant defense. The linebacker unit was one of those groups hit by departures, as starters Garret Dooley and Leon Jacobs exhausted their eligibility. However, a quick rebuild at this spot is in order for coordinator Jim Leonhard. Inside linebackers T.J. Edwards, Ryan Connelly and Chris Orr return after anchoring one of college football’s top run defenses. On the edge, Andrew Van Ginkel (10 TFLs last year) and Zack Baun (missed 2017 due to injury) are set to assume full-time jobs.
Linebacker is the unquestioned strength of USC’s defense this season. Cameron Smith is one of the Pac-12’s top defenders and has led the Trojans in tackles for two years in a row. John Houston joins Smith as a starter on the interior of USC’s base 3-4 scheme. Houston recorded 84 tackles in 13 games during a productive 2017 season. Porter Gustin played in only four games due to injury last year and suffered a knee injury in fall practice. However, he’s on track to return early in the 2018 season. Assuming Gustin returns to full strength, he will bolster a pass rush that recorded 84 tackles for a loss and 46 sacks in 2017. Jordan Iosefa starts opposite Gustin on the outside.
7. Michigan State
8. Notre Dame
11. Texas A&M
20. Iowa State
22. Ohio State
24. Texas Tech