Kickoff for the 2012 college football season is still two months away, but it's never too early to project how the year might play out. Athlon will be taking a look at how each position stacks up in the BCS conferences and nationally until the start of the season.
Each unit ranking was evaluated based upon how it will perform in 2012 - not how the team played in 2011.
Ranking the Big East Linebacker Units for 2012
1. Rutgers – This defense was the Big East's best a year ago for a reason, and it doesn't appear much has changed for the new coaching staff in Piscataway. Khaseem Greene might be the best player in the conference and he will lead a stellar linebacking corps that is deep, experienced and talented. Steve Beauharnais is one of only three Big East Butkus candidates and he isn't even the best LB on his own team. Joining that nationally acclaimed duo is returning starter Jamal Merrell. This is one of the best starting threesomes at linebacker in the entire nation, much less the Big East. Look for more of the same from the league's No. 1 scoring, passing and total defense.
2. Connecticut – The Huskies owned the Big East’s No. 1 rush defense last season but keeping that ranking in 2012 could prove to be difficult without standout tackles Kendall Reyes and Twyon Martin clogging the middle. With two starters gone at tackle, the linebacking corps will have its hands full trying to stuff the run. Sio Moore is the group’s top performer, and he returns after recording 86 tackles and 6.5 sacks last season. Jory Johnson and Yawin Smallwood are back as returning starters and both made over 90 stops last year. Don’t be surprised if both players earn All-Big East honors in 2012.
3. South Florida – There’s not much separation between the Big East’s top three linebacking corps, so the Bulls are closer to No. 1 than they are No. 4. Junior DeDe Lattimore is the headliner and returns after recording 94 tackles and seven sacks last season. He should be one of the conference’s top players in 2012. Senior Sam Barrington has 25 career starts and will team with Lattimore to handle the outside spots. Senior Michael Lanaris was solid in his first season as a starter, recording 87 stops and 4.5 tackles for a loss. The Bulls ranked 15th nationally against the run last year and largely due to the strength of their front seven, should finish in the top 25 once again in 2012.
4. Syracuse –This area of the Cuse defense was inexperienced a year ago and it led to the Orange finishing as the worst defense in the Big East. That said, four linebackers return to what could be an improved area of the team. Marquis Spruill, Dyshawn Davis and Dan Vaughn look to be the starters while senior reserve Siriki Diabate, and a host of underclassmen, provide much needed depth. The reworked defensive coaching staff for Doug Marrone should be able to count on the linebackers more in 2012.
5. Louisville – This unit will miss Dexter Heyman but don’t expect the Cardinals to drop much in the linebacking corps’ rankings. Junior Preston Brown recorded 84 tackles and 1.5 sacks last season and will slide into the middle to take over for Heyman. Senior Daniel Brown and sophomore Deiontrez Mount are expected to start on the outside but don’t count Charlie Strong from playing incoming freshmen Nick Dawson and Keith Brown.
6. Cincinnati – The Bearcats return two starters at linebacker, but the lone departure was a big one. JK Schaffer was one of the Big East’s top defenders last season and will be missed. Not only was Schaffer productive (114 tackles, 4.5 sacks in 2011), he was a key leader for the defense. The cupboard isn’t completely bare for coordinator John Jancek, as Maalik Bomar and Nick Temple are back as returning starters. Bomar recorded 61 tackles last season, while Temple made 35 stops. Expected to step in for Schaffer will be sophomore Solomon Tentman. He missed all of 2010 with a torn ACL and made three tackles in five appearances last season. If Tentman picks up where Schaffer left off, the Bearcats’ linebacking corps should finish higher in the postseason Big East linebacking corps’ rankings.
7. Pittsburgh – There isn't much experience returning to the Pitt defense, and the linebacking corps will feature plenty of new names. Todd Thomas is the only returning starter as the new coaching staff switches back to the more tradtional 4-3 scheme. He is only a sophomore but is one of the most talented players on the defense. Shane Gordon and Eric Williams will get the first crack at starting - which would give Pitt two sophomores and a junior at linebacker in a year of transition. Heavy-hitter Dan Mason returns from a serious knee injury in 2011 and will be an interesting name to track during fall camp.
8. Temple – The Owls were great statistically on defense in an offensive minded league last year. However, they now step back into Big East play and face a much tougher schedule. Blaze Caponegro is lone returning starter on a unit that was hit hard with departures. Converted running back Ahkeem Smith should be opposite Caponegro but the middle is up for grabs. Expect Chuck Heater to toy with the rotation early on in order to find the right mix.
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