Georgia takes the top spot in LB unit rankings.
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. Additionally, the 2017 season features a significant amount of turnover at this position. Some of the nation's stars at linebacker last season have moved onto the NFL.
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 2017 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 2017, not solely what teams accomplished in 2016.
College Football's Top 50 Linebacker Units for 2017
With 11 starters returning, Kirby Smart’s defense is expected to take a significant step forward in 2017. Leading the way for this unit is a linebacking corps that features rising star Roquan Smith (95 tackles in 2016) in the middle, while pass rushers Lorenzo Carter and Davin Bellamy are back to wreak havoc around the line of scrimmage after combining for 10 sacks last year. Natrez Patrick will flank Smith on the interior, while the depth is plentiful with Reggie Carter, Chauncey Manac and D’Andre Walker returning.
There’s a similar theme surrounding Alabama’s linebacker unit and defensive line this offseason. A few standouts are gone, but the defense won’t miss a beat with the next wave of stars ready to step into new roles. Reuben Foster, Ryan Anderson and Tim Williams leave big shoes to fill this offseason. However, the drop-off should be minimal with seniors Shaun Dion Hamilton and Rashaan Evans back to anchor the interior. Hamilton is recovering from an ACL tear suffered in the SEC Championship Game. Anfernee Jennings, Terrell Lewis and Christian Miller will be tasked with replacing the 18 sacks Anderson and Williams combined for in 2016. Five-star recruit Dylan Moses is expected to see time on the interior and on the outside as an edge rusher.
Replacing standout cornerback Desmond King and tackle Jaleel Johnson won’t be easy, but the Hawkeyes should be tough on defense once again thanks to the linebacker unit. All three starters from last year’s standout group return in 2017 for coordinator Phil Parker. Josey Jewell ranked second among Big Ten defenders with 124 stops last season and is entrenched as one of college football’s top linebackers after earning all-conference honors in each of the last two years. He’s flanked by two other seniors in Bo Bower and Ben Niemann — both all-conference candidates in 2017. Sophomore Amani Jones is a name to watch as a reserve this fall.
4. Virginia Tech
With the Hokies losing a trio of key players in the trenches, the strength of Bud Foster’s standout defense shifts to linebacker this season. A pair of 100-tackle enforcers headlines this group. Andrew Motuapuaka finished fifth in the ACC with 114 stops last year, while Tremaine Edmunds contributed 18.5 tackles for a loss and 4.5 sacks among his 106 tackles. Foster uses a hybrid safety/linebacker position as the third starter to match up better against spread offenses. Mook Reynolds is back at that position after a standout first full season as a starter in 2016.
Injuries to Azeem Victor and Joe Mathis hindered this unit late in the year, but the Huskies have reloaded and are poised to rebound in 2017. Victor recorded 67 stops in 10 games last season and is the leader of a unit that led the Pac-12 in scoring defense in 2016. Senior Keishawn Bierria has been a steady running mate for Victor over the last two seasons and is expected to push for first-team All-Pac-12 honors. The development of Connor O’Brien, Benning Potoa’e and freshman Amandre Williams off the edge is critical to replace Mathis’ and Psalm Wooching’s 11 combined sacks last year.
6. Ohio State
Raekwon McMillan will be missed, but Ohio State’s linebacker unit is still among the best in the nation. Leading the way for coordinator Greg Schiano’s defense is Jerome Baker, who is the team’s top returning tackler (83) and also posted 9.5 for a loss last fall. Senior Chris Worley is slated to shift to the middle to replace McMillan, while senior Dante Booker is expected to claim the third starting job. Booker missed nearly all of 2016 due to injury. Schiano has quality depth here too, as Baron Browning, Keandre Jones, Malik Harrison and Justin Hilliard anchor the reserves.
Similar to its Big Ten counterpart Ohio State, Wisconsin has to do a little retooling here this offseason. The Badgers lost standouts Vince Biegel and T.J. Watt to the NFL after this duo combined for 21.5 tackles for a loss last year. However, the cupboard is hardly bare for new coordinator Jim Leonhard. Senior Jack Cichy was slated to be the leader for this group after missing the final seven games of 2016 due to injury. However, Cichy - a potential All-America linebacker this year - suffered a season-ending knee injury in August. Junior T.J. Edwards (89 stops) is the team’s top returning tackler and a second-team Athlon Sports All-Big Ten selection for 2017. There’s plenty of depth on the interior with Chris Orr back from injury, along with junior Ryan Connelly. Sophomore Zack Baun and seniors Leon Jacobs and Garret Dooley will battle for the two outside spots vacated by Watt and Biegel. Junior college recruit Andrew Van Ginkel and Alabama transfer Christian Bell will also push for snaps. (Note: Jack Cichy was ruled out for the year after these rankings were published.)
The strength of USC’s defense in 2017 rests with its linebackers. Coordinator Clancy Pendergast will utilize hybrid formations, so players like Porter Gustin or Uchenna Nwosu could spend some time at end instead of the traditional linebacker role. Regardless of the formation, Pendergast has plenty of talent here. Middle linebacker Cameron Smith is the unit’s top performer and paced the defense with 83 stops last fall. Michael Hutchings’ departure has opened the door for John Houston Jr., true freshman Levi Jones or Jordan Iosefa to claim the other spot on the interior. Gustin ranked second on the team in tackles last fall but wreaked havoc in the backfield by registering 13 tackles for a loss and 5.5 sacks.
The Hurricanes went with a youth movement at linebacker last fall. Zach McCloud, Shaq Quarterman and Michael Pinckney each started as true freshmen in 2016, providing a strong foundation for Manny Diaz’s defense in 2017. Quarterman is the unit’s top performer, ranking as a second-team All-ACC selection by Athlon Sports for this season. He’s also the top returning tackler after registering 84 in 13 games last fall. Pinckney (61 tackles) and McCloud (37) should continue to develop in their second year as starters. Sophomores Darrion Owens and Jamie Gordinier are expected to provide depth.
Standout defensive end Solomon Thomas will be missed, but coordinator Lance Anderson can lean on a standout linebacker group to carry the Stanford defense in 2017. The Cardinal return nearly all of their key cogs from last year’s unit, including disruptive junior Joey Alfieri (10.5 tackles for a loss and five sacks in 2016) and senior Peter Kalambayi (six tackles for a loss). Bobby Okereke and Kevin Palma are expected to return to starting roles, while Casey Toohill, Sean Barton and Curtis Robinson will provide depth.
13. Florida State
21. Penn State
24. Arizona State
25. Notre Dame
29. South Carolina
30. Washington State
33. Boston College
35. NC State
36. Mississippi State
37. Michigan State
40. North Carolina
44. San Diego State
46. Appalachian State
47. Oklahoma State
48. West Virginia
49. Texas A&M