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 2016 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 2016, not solely what teams accomplished in 2015.
College Football's Top 50 Linebacker Units for 2016
The Crimson Tide consistently churn out standout linebacker groups. Despite the loss of three key players from last season’s unit, don’t expect Alabama to take a step back at this position. Reggie Ragland leaves big shoes to fill as the leader here, but senior Reuben Foster is back to anchor the interior of the 3-4 scheme after recording 73 stops and two sacks. Shaun Dion Hamilton is expected to claim the other starting spot on the interior, with Rashaan Evans and Keith Holcombe also contributing valuable snaps. Tim Williams and Ryan Anderson — 16.5 combined sacks last year — headline a deep group of edge rushers. Five-star prospects Ben Davis and Lyndell Wilson only add to the options for coordinator Jeremy Pruitt.
The Cardinals have arguably the nation’s best one-two punch at linebacker in Devonte Fields and Keith Kelsey. Fields became a force as the season progressed, earning 7.5 of his 11 sacks over the final three games. Kelsey is a sideline-to-sideline enforcer who led the team with 107 tackles in 2015. This unit suffered a setback when senior Trevon Young was ruled out for the 2016 campaign due to a hip injury suffered in the Music City Bowl win over Texas A&M. With Young sidelined, James Hearns will take on a bigger role on the outside, with redshirt freshman Jonathan Greenard also expected to contribute. Stacy Thomas joins Kelsey as a starter on the interior, with redshirt freshman Amonte Caban a player to watch in fall camp.
New coordinator Justin Wilcox probably won’t make any drastic changes to the defense after last year’s unit held opponents to 13.7 points per game. That’s good news for an aggressive and deep collection of linebackers in the Badgers’ 3-4 scheme. Joe Schobert’s production off the edge will be missed, but Vince Biegel has recorded 17.5 sacks in his career, and Jack Cichy is coming off a three-sack performance in the Holiday Bowl. T.J. Edwards anchors the interior after a standout freshman season (84 tackles), while Chris Orr and T.J. Watt return as proven options. Edwards' status for the start of the 2016 season is in jeopardy due to an offseason foot injury.
4. Michigan State
With the Spartans retooling up front, coach Mark Dantonio may lean more on his linebackers to set the tone for the defense in 2016. That shouldn’t be a problem for this unit, as Riley Bullough (106 tackles last year) and Jon Reschke are back as returning starters. Ed Davis (seven sacks in 2014) is expected to receive an additional year of year of eligibility after missing all of 2015 due to injury. Chris Frey and Andrew Dowell are two other promising options expected to see plenty of snaps in 2016.
The addition of coordinator Bob Shoop should transform Tennessee’s defense into one of the nation’s best in 2016 and successfully utilize the talent of standout linebackers Jalen Reeves-Maybin and Darrin Kirkland. Reeves-Maybin earned second-team All-SEC honors, recording 105 stops (14 for a loss) and six sacks last year. After 66 tackles in 13 appearances as a true freshman, Kirkland is only scratching the surface of his potential. Cortez McDowell is expected to round out the starting trio, with Kenny Bynum, Colton Jumper and Quart’e Sapp supplying depth.
6. Ohio State
Losing two standouts like Joshua Perry and Darron Lee would be a huge setback to most Power 5 programs. While both players will be missed, Ohio State has recruited well enough to limit the drop off at this position. And it certainly doesn’t hurt the rebuilding effort to have a standout like Raekwon McMillan anchoring the group in a transition year. McMillan led the Buckeyes with 119 stops last fall and could be the nation’s top returning linebacker for 2016. Juniors Chris Worley and Dante Booker are expected to join McMillan in the starting lineup. However, freshman Justin Hilliard and sophomore Jerome Baker will be tough to keep on the sidelines.
Injuries and roster turnover hit TCU’s defense hard last season. However, the added experience and depth will pay off in a big way for the Horned Frogs in 2016. Travin Howard leads the way at linebacker after recording a team-high 105 tackles last season. Ty Summers and Montrel Wilson return after solid 2015 campaigns, and this unit should get an additional boost from the return of Sammy Douglas from injury. Howard, Summers and Wilson combined for 16 tackles for a loss last season.
Even though new coach Kirby Smart has to replace all four starters from last year’s linebacker unit, the Bulldogs still have the potential to own a top-10 group in 2016. Reggie Carter returns to the starting lineup after missing nearly all of 2015 due to a shoulder injury. Sophomore Natrez Patrick is expected to join Carter as a starter on the interior, with Roquan Smith also expected to factor prominently into the rotation. Lorenzo Carter and Davin Bellamy expected to start on the edges. The development of this duo is critical for Smart’s defense, as Carter and Bellamy need to spark a pass rush that generated only 21 sacks in 2015.
The Bruins clearly missed Myles Jack last season, but his absence provided coach Jim Mora some insight into this group for 2016. There’s a lot of promise at linebacker for UCLA, as Jayon Brown and pass rush specialist Deon Hollins are expected to challenge for all-conference honors. Five-star prospect Mique Juarez should make an immediate impact, and the Bruins can lean on steady veterans Isaako Savaiinaea and Kenny Young and redshirt freshman Keisean Lucier-Smith.
10. Arizona State
It’s no secret coach Todd Graham wants an attacking, aggressive defense. The Sun Devils have ranked first or second in the Pac-12 in tackles for a loss in each of the last four seasons, and a big reason why that streak should hit five is the returning cast of linebackers. This unit is the unquestioned strength of Arizona State’s defense. Senior Salamo Fiso is one of the Pac-12’s top returning linebackers after recording 20 tackles for a loss in 2015. Fiso has plenty of help from a strong supporting cast, which includes rising star Christian Sam and junior college recruit Koron Crump. DJ Calhoun, Khaylan Thomas and Marcus Ball provide depth.
17. Penn State
19. Kansas State
21. Florida State
22. Boston College
25. Appalachian State
27. San Diego State
28. Boise State
29. Oklahoma State
37. Mississippi State
38. Texas A&M
39. Ole Miss
43. Notre Dame
50. New Mexico