Notre Dame is among the nation's best at linebacker.
Picking the top linebacker units in college football is no easy task. After all, schemes dictate how linebackers are used and the rise of spread offenses generally means more defensive backs on the field. Regardless of whether a scheme utilizes a 4-3, 3-4, 4-2-5 or nickel package, linebackers are a critical component to any defense. How should a team with four starters at linebacker compare to one that uses only two? That's a tough question we tried to address.
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 2015 all factored into the rankings for the backfield. While some teams may have experienced a down year last season, having a different quarterback or a change of scheme can make a huge difference. These rankings reflect projection for 2015, not solely what teams have accomplished in 2014.
College Football's Top 30 Linebacker Units for 2015
The addition of Jeremy Pruitt as coordinator paid big dividends for Georgia’s defense, as the Bulldogs held opponents to 20.7 points per game in 2014. This unit is only going to improve with six starters back this season, anchored by a linebacking corps that features standout edge rushers in Lorenzo Carter, Leonard Floyd and Jordan Jenkins. The trio combined for 25 tackles for a loss and 15.5 sacks in 2014. The interior must be rebuilt with the departure of Ramik Wilson and Amarlo Herrera, but Reggie Carter, Tim Kimbrough, Jake Ganus and Natrez Patrick should ensure little drop in production.
2. Ohio State
Two-year starter Curtis Grant departs, but the Buckeyes won’t miss a beat at linebacker. In fact, this group could be even better than it was in 2014. Darron Lee was an impact defender as a redshirt freshman last season, finishing second on the team with 16.5 tackles for a loss and 7.5 sacks. Joshua Perry returns for his senior season after leading the team with 124 tackles and recording three sacks and one interception. Grant’s departure opens the door for Raekwon McMillan — the No. 22 recruit in the 2014 247Sports Composite — to move into the starting lineup.
Reggie Ragland is the next star in Alabama’s run of standout linebackers under coach Nick Saban. In 14 games last year, Ragland anchored the interior of Alabama’s 3-4 scheme, recording 95 tackles (10.5 for a loss) and one forced fumble. Senior Denzel Devall is the only other returning starter at linebacker for the Crimson Tide, but talent certainly isn’t an issue at the other spots. Ryan Anderson and hard-hitting Reuben Foster have the inside track to fill the starting positions, but Shaun Dion Hamilton, Tim Williams, Dillon Lee and Rashaan Evans will factor into the rotation.
The Sooners enter 2015 with question marks about the defensive line and secondary, but coordinator Mike Stoops has little concern about the linebackers. All three starters are back this season, with senior Eric Striker the group’s leader and one of the Big 12’s top impact defenders. Striker recorded nine sacks and 17 tackles for a loss in 2014. Joining Striker as starters will be Dominique Alexander and Jordan Evans, but Frank Shannon is back from suspension and is a key addition to this group after recording 92 tackles in 2013.
5. Notre Dame
The linebacker unit is the strength of the Fighting Irish in 2015, as Jaylon Smith returns after earning second-team All-America honors by the Associated Press last season. Smith led the team with 112 tackles and also recorded 3.5 sacks in 2014. Joe Schmidt started eight games and recorded 65 tackles before suffering a season-ending ankle injury. Getting Schmidt and Jarrett Grace both back to full strength from injury is critical to help a run defense that ranked 72nd nationally in 2014. Sophomore Nyles Morgan is another name to watch.
Eric Kendricks must be replaced, but UCLA’s linebacker corps should remain one of the best in the Pac-12. Myles Jack returns as the headliner, and the junior is an Athlon Sports first-team All-American for 2015. The Washington native is also a two-way threat, spending a little time on offense for the Bruins. Deon Hollins finished 2014 on a tear, recording six sacks over UCLA’s final four games. If Hollins picks up where he left off, any concerns about the pass rush will be erased. Sophomore Kenny Young and senior Aaron Wallace are likely to fill the remaining starting spots.
For the second consecutive season, the Cardinal enters a season with a few holes to fill at linebacker. However, expect this unit to quickly reload and remain one of the Pac-12’s top groups. Seniors Kevin Anderson and Blake Martinez lead the way for coordinator Lance Anderson. This duo combined for 9.5 sacks last season. Sophomore Peter Kalambayi is poised for a breakout year after recording 6.5 sacks and 9.5 tackles for a loss in 2014. Kalambayi and Anderson will man the outside spots, Martinez is locked into one position on the interior, with Kevin Palma the favorite at the other inside position. Junior Noor Davis is expected to miss a few games due to injury.
After a stingy 2014 first season under coordinator Todd Grantham, Louisville’s defense could be just as strong in 2015. It seems odd to suggest that notion with a revamped secondary, but the front seven is loaded with talent and depth. Keith Kelsey and James Burgess are the headliners for Grantham, and both players should push for first-team All-ACC honors. Kelsey is the team’s top returning tackler (87), while Burgess registered 71 stops last season and recorded 10 tackles for a loss. Sophomore Henry Famurewa is due for a bigger role on the outside, and Keith Brown returns after recording 20 tackles in a reserve role last season. The wild card of this group is former TCU end/linebacker Devonte Fields. The junior college transfer arrived on campus in August and has the talent to be a difference maker for Grantham.
With defensive end Leonard Williams off to the NFL, there’s added pressure for the other units to step up for the Trojans in 2015. The linebacking corps should be a strength for coordinator Justin Wilcox, as this unit is headlined by junior Su’a Cravens and seniors Lamar Dawson and Anthony Sarao. Dawson missed 2014 due to an injury, but his return should alleviate the loss of Hayes Pullard and J.R. Tavai. There’s also help in the form of junior Scott Felix and touted true freshmen Porter Gustin, John Houston Jr. and Osa Masina.
10. Penn State
“Linebacker U” is never hurting for talent and impact defenders in this group. Mike Hull’s 140 tackles won’t be easy to replace, and his toughness and leadership will be missed. However, the Nittany Lions return two proven options in Nyeem Wartman and Brandon Bell. Wartman ranked second on the team with 75 stops last season, while Bell finished with 47 tackles and two sacks. Sophomore Jason Cabinda is a rising star after recording 17 tackles in eight games last year. There’s quality depth in the form of senior Ben Kline and freshmen Troy Reeder and Koa Farmer.
14. Utah State
16. Arizona State
18. Boise State
20. Oklahoma State
22. Michigan State
24. Wake Forest
25. West Virginia
28. Florida State
30. San Diego State