Notre Dame's Manti Te'o was expected to be a first-round pick in the 2012 NFL Draft but made a surprising decision to return back to South Bend for one more year. Te'o is one of college football's top players and should lead a tough Notre Dame rush defense. Not far behind Te'o is Georgia's Jarvis Jones. The USC transfer was an impact player for the Bulldogs last season, recording 13.5 sacks and 19.5 tackles for a loss. After Jones, some of the top returning linebackers include Stanford's Shayne Skov and Penn State's Gerald Hodges.
When compiling the rankings, Athlon considered how each player will perform in 2012, some past performance, personnel losses around the quarterback, conference difficulty and pro potential.
College Football's Top 25 Linebackers for 2012
1. Manti Te'o, Notre Dame
In a bit of a surprise, Te’o turned down the NFL Draft for his senior year at Notre Dame. The Irish defensive staff certainly isn’t complaining, as Te’o’s play is deserving of the accolades and hype that is thrown his direction. He has posted back-to-back seasons of at least 100 tackles and has 28.5 career tackles for a loss. Te’o was a finalist for the Lott Trophy and Butkus Award last season and earned second-team All-American honors by the Associated Press. The senior is one of the top defensive players in the nation and should close out his career with another season of at least 100 tackles.
2. Jarvis Jones, Georgia
This pass-rushing outside linebacker was sensational in his first season with the Bulldogs. He led the SEC with 13.5 sacks on his way to consensus All-American honors. Jones totaled 70 tackles last season, with a conference-leading 19.5 of them behind the line of scrimmage. He also added two forced fumbles and two pass breakups for a Georgia defense that ranked No. 5 in the country a year ago. Look for Jones and the Bulldogs defense to wreak more havoc on opponents in 2012.
3. Shayne Skov, Stanford
The senior from Piedmont, Calif., has had an up and down career at Stanford. He has NFL potential, a savvy on-the-field toughness that has helped the Cardinal develop into a West Coast power. He has also dealt with major injuries on more than one occasion and an off-the-field issue. The DUI will cost him one game with a suspension this fall, but should he stay healthy, the 6-foot-3, 242-pounder could be an All-American this fall.
4. Gerald Hodges, Penn State
The exodus of quality players at Penn State has just begun, but so far the Nittany Lions’ star linebacker is staying put. An outside linebacker, Hodges led Penn State with 106 tackles last season as the defense ranked 20th nationally in yards allowed per game (323.9). When the dust settles with the roster at Penn State, Hodges, who also had 10 tackles for a loss last season, might be one of the few in contention for All-Big Ten honors or more.
5. Arthur Brown, Kansas State
A highly regarded recruit when he signed with Miami in 2008, he struggled to earn regular playing time before he transferred to Kansas State. Back in his home state, Brown anchored the Kansas State linebacker group. He finished with 101 tackles and 9.5 tackles for a loss, using his speed to help K-State finish 37th nationally in rush defense.
6. Chase Thomas, Stanford
The outside linebacker from Marietta, Ga., became an instant playmaker on on the Stanford defense the last three seasons, recording 46 tackles for a loss during that span. He led the Pac-12 last season with 2.1 tackles behind the line last season while forcing five fumbles. With Shayne Skov back, he and Thomas could be one of the nation’s best linebacker tandems.
7. Chris Borland, Wisconsin
After missing most of the 2010 season with shoulder injuries, Borland returned to action last fall and developed into a big-time playmaker at middle linebacker. The Ohio native led the team in tackles for a loss (19) and forced fumbles (5) and ranked second in the Big Ten in total tackles (143). Borland was a consensus first-team All-Big Ten pick in ’11 and has been named a third-team 2012 preseason All-American by Athlon Sports.
8. Khaseem Greene, Rutgers
Shifting Greene from safety to linebacker paid big dividends for Rutgers’ defense in 2011. He led the team with 141 tackles, recorded 14 tackles for a loss and forced two fumbles. Greene was named a first-team All-Big East selection and shared the conference’s Defensive Player of the Year honor with Cincinnati’s Derek Wolfe. Even with a new defensive coordinator, Greene is primed for another big season and is projected as an Athlon Sports second-team All-American for 2012.
9. Jake Knott, Iowa State
If not for a nagging injury last year that eventually required surgery and kept him out of spring practice, Knott was on the verge of back-to-back All-American caliber seasons. Over the last two years, the Waukee, Iowa native has 245 total tackles, 10.0 tackles for a loss, eight forced fumbles and six interceptions. And he helped led Iowa State to a bowl berth last fall. He is a watch list candidate for every major defensive national award and should have his best season to date alongside A.J. Klein.
10. A.J. Klein, Iowa State
The combination of Jake Knott and A.J. Klein might be the best one-two linebacking duo in college football. Klein earned Big 12 Co-Defensive Player of the Year honors last season, recording 116 tackles, two sacks and 7.5 tackles for a loss. He delivered a key performance in Iowa State’s biggest win over 2011, recording 14 tackles in the 37-31 overtime upset of Oklahoma State. He will shift from outside to man the middle linebacker spot in 2012.
11. Dion Bailey, USC
As only a freshman, Bailey proved to be an invaluable member of the Trojan defense. He posted 81 tackles, a pair of sacks and a pair of interceptions en route to freshman All-American honors. Now, as a sophomore, Bailey has Butkus Award potential and the chance to lead the his team to a national championship.
12. Mike Taylor, Wisconsin
The other half of one of the most devastating linebacking duos in the nation, Taylor is entering his fourth season as a starter. Last year, he earned first-team All-Big Ten honors after leading the Big Ten (and ranking third in the nation) with 150 tackles. With some issues on the defensive line and in the secondary, Taylor and fellow backer Chris Borland will need to be at their best in 2012.
13. Michael Clay, Oregon
Clay is one of the Pac-12’s most underrated players heading into 2012. Despite missing two games last season, he recorded 102 tackles, three sacks, 8.5 tackles for a loss and two forced fumbles. Despite his standout year, Clay didn’t even earn honorable mention All-Pac-12 honors. Expect that to change in 2012, as the San Jose native will be in the mix for first-team All-Pac-12 honors as the leader of Oregon’s linebacking corps.
14. Jordan Hicks, Texas
Few linebackers have the sheer explosiveness of the West Chester, Ohio native. He saw his first significant starting action last fall and should be ready to step into a bigger role as a junior. He racked-up 64 tackles in only eight starts and will undoubtedly make more plays in 2012.
15. Max Bullough, Michigan State
With Denicos Allen, Bullough makes up half of an elite linebacker tandem, and with the rest of the Spartans ‘backers, he’s in the middle of the best unit in the Big Ten. Bullough is a standout play-caller on the field and excelled as a run-stuffer for a unit that allowed 100.5 rushing yards per game (first in the Big Ten, ninth nationally).
16. Jonathan Brown, Illinois
In a league that features Gerald Hodges, Mike Taylor and Chris Borland, it’s easy for Brown to be overlooked for preseason accolades. However, the junior should be one of Illinois’ top players in 2012. Brown recorded 108 tackles and 19.5 tackles for a loss last season, along with earning second-team All-Big Ten honors. Look for the Memphis, Tenn. native to raise his profile even more in 2012.
17. Denicos Allen, Michigan State
After playing mostly on special teams in 2010, Allen was one of the Big Ten’s top breakout performers last year. He played in all 14 contests, recording 83 stops, 18.5 tackles for a loss and 11 sacks. Allen doesn’t have prototypical size, but his speed and athletic ability allows him to wreck havoc in opposing backfields.
18. Kevin Reddick, North Carolina
Reddick is a four-year starter at linebacker who finished second on team in tackles last season with 71 total stops, 39 of those solo. He was the Tar Heels' leading tackler in 2010 with 74 (48 solo stops) and was named to The Sporting News' All-ACC Freshman team in 2009.
19. Jon Bostic, Florida
The Wellington, Fla., prospect is now the elder statesman leader of the Gators defense. He led the team in tackles a year ago with 94 total stops and finished tied with second 10.0 tackles for a loss. He has played in 38 total games and made 19 career starts. His 6-foot-1, 250-pound frame makes him the most physical tackler on the Florida defense — a unit that will have to lead the team should it expect to compete in the East.
20. Nico Johnson, Alabama
The forgotten man of the 2011 Alabama linebacking corps, Johnson finished fourth on the team in tackles. This on a defense that allowed an astonishing 183.6 total yards per game and 8.2 points per game. The 6-foot-3, 245-pounder from Andalusia, Ala., will be the veteran presence on the reworked Bama defense in 2012.
21. Sean Porter, Texas A&M
Porter was Texas A&M’s top defender last season, recording 79 stops, 9.5 sacks and 17 tackles for a loss. He earned first-team All-Big 12 honors and is expected to be the leader on the Aggies’ defense in 2012. Porter will have to adjust to a new scheme, as Texas A&M is shifting from a 3-4 to a 4-3 attack. New coordinator Mark Snyder still needs to find ways to let Porter attack off the edge, but the new scheme may prevent him from recording 17 tackles for a loss once again.
22. Tom Wort, Oklahoma
Entering his third season as a starter, Wort has become a complete linebacker over the years. He’s topped 60 tackles both seasons and added his first two career interceptions last season. He’s tough and physical, but he’s filling a leadership void left by Travis Lewis.
23. Jelani Jenkins, Florida
The Northeastern prospect was an elite recruit and has proven to have athleticism to match. The only thing left for Jenkins to develop is a physical, nasty streak. Should he develop this aspect of his game, he has All-American potential – especially, with 23 career starts in two seasons under his belt.
24. Steve Beauharnais, Rutgers
It’s easy to overlook Beauharnais considering he plays next to All-American candidate Khaseem Greene. However, the senior is one of the Big East’s premier defenders, as evidenced by his 16 tackles for a loss and five sacks last year. Beauharnais will have to adjust to a new coordinator but he should close out his Rutgers’ career with a standout senior season.
25. Bruce Taylor, Virginia Tech
Taylor led the team in tackles in 2010 and was doing the same through the first eight games of last season before suffering a leg injury that cut his junior campaign short. Despite missing the last six games, Taylor still earned honorable mention All-ACC recognition after posting a total of 53 tackles, seven tackles for a loss and five sacks in less than eight full games.
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