For the second year in a row, Alabama takes the top spot in Athlon's ranking of the best linebacker units in college football. The Crimson Tide have to restock one spot on the inside, but Dylan Moses, Terrell Lewis and Anfernee Jennings could all push for all-conference or All-America honors at the end of the year. Georgia and LSU join Alabama in the top five, with Miami and Penn State rounding out the top tier for 2019.
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 2019 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 2019, not solely what teams accomplished in 2018.
College Football's Top 25 Linebacker Units for 2019
The Crimson Tide enter 2019 with a couple of big questions surrounding their linebackers, but this group is still the best in college football. Dylan Moses is the next great middle linebacker for Nick Saban and is primed for his best all-around season. The spot next to Moses is up for grabs after Mack Wilson left early for the NFL and Joshua McMillon suffered a knee injury in fall practice. A freshman – Christian Harris or Shane Lee – could take McMillon’s spot. Anfernee Jennings suffered a knee injury in the 2017 CFB Playoff but returned to full strength and collected 14 tackles for a loss in ’18. Can Terrell Lewis follow the same path after missing last season due to an ACL tear?
Kirby Smart’s depth chart at linebacker was still in flux during fall practice. But make no mistake: This unit is loaded with talent. Monty Rice and Tae Crowder combined for 112 tackles last season and are the front-runners to start on the interior of Georgia’s 3-4 scheme. However, both veterans could be pushed by five-star prospect Nakobe Dean. The picture is just as cloudy off the edge. Adam Anderson and Walter Grant return, but a touted junior college recruit (Jermaine Johnson) and a five-star recruit (Nolan Smith) give Smart plenty of options. Additionally, redshirt freshman Azeez Ojulari will push those players for snaps on the outside.
3. Miami (Fla.)
The trio of Zach McCloud, Shaquille Quarterman and Michael Pinckney is back to anchor Miami’s starting linebacker unit for the fourth season in a row. And with the Hurricanes dealing with some transition up front and in the secondary, coach Manny Diaz can lean on this group to keep this defense among the best in the ACC. Quarterman earned first-team All-ACC honors after collecting 82 stops and six sacks last fall. Pinckney finished third on the team with 74 stops, while McCloud pitched in 44. Depth behind this trio is a concern.
4. Penn State
Micah Parsons came to Happy Valley with high expectations and didn’t disappoint in his first year on campus. He paced the team with 83 stops over 13 games and is the next star at this position for Linebacker U. Jan Johnson — a former walk-on — ranked second on the team with 72 tackles and is back to patrol the middle of the field. Parsons will be flanked by senior Cam Brown at the other outside spot. Coordinator Brent Pry is likely to turn to Charlie Katshir, Ellis Brooks and Jesse Luketa as the top backups, but five-star prospect Brandon Smith and fellow touted recruit Lance Dixon will be tough to keep on the sidelines.
Replacing the leadership and production of Devin White won’t be easy. However, it’s safe to assume coordinator Dave Aranda will find the right answers. Jacob Phillips should help to fill the void left behind by White and is poised to emerge as one of the top linebackers in the SEC. Michael Divinity (10.5 TFLs in 2018) is expected to start next to Phillips on the inside, with Patrick Queen (40 tackles) providing depth. The wild card of this group is K’Lavon Chaisson. The sophomore was poised for a breakout year in 2018 but suffered a torn ACL in the opener against Miami (Fla.). Assuming he’s back to full strength, he could be among the SEC’s top pass rushers in 2019.
6. Michigan State
7. Mississippi State
8. Iowa State
11. Arizona State
13. Ohio State
20. Virginia Tech
22. Florida State
23. Appalachian State
24. Northern Illinois
25. Utah State