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 Ten's Linebackers for 2012
1. Michigan State – Few teams in the nation have as complete and talented a linebacking corps as Mark Dantonio has in East Lansing. A dependable, consistent tackling machine up the middle? His name is Max Bulllough. A speedy, explosive outside backer who can pressure the quarterback with the best defensive ends in the nation? Check, his name is Denicos Allen. A rangy, powerful strongside senior who fills gaps and delivers big hits? Got that too in Chris Norman. Toss in a deep group of thumpers who are champing at the bit to get playing time and Pat Narduzzi has the pleasure of the Big Ten’s top linebackers.
2. Wisconsin – The Badgers don’t have the depth of Michigan State or Penn State, but few teams in the nation have a duo like Chris Borland and Mike Taylor. Borland is a relentless playmaker who finds the football on a regular basis, while Taylor dominates the weakside with a Big Ten-leading 150 tackles. Both were healthy and both enter year two in their new positison (Borland slide inside last fall) and should be that much better. Ethan Armstrong and Conor O’Neill will battle for the third starting spot. Not many teams have one All-American candidate at linebacker and Wisconsin has two.
3. Penn State – Penn State fans certainly expect talented linebacker play in Beaver Stadium. With yet another stacked set of linebackers, the Linebacker-U moniker given to PSU many years ago won’t go anywhere in 2012. Gerald Hodges is one of the nation’s best outside players and could be a Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year candidate. The consistent Glenn Carson returns to the middle while Michael Mauti is welcomed back into the starting lineup after tearing his ACL last September. With future stars like Khairi Fortt and Mike Hull on the depth chart, this unit will easily be the most dependable group of Nittany Lions this fall.
4. Ohio State – When Storm Klein was dismissed from the roster this summer, Urban Meyer was faced with a linebacking corps with no returning starters. Have no fear, however, as this is still Ohio State. There is plenty of talent left on the roster in the form of Ryan Shazier, Etienne Sabino and Curtis Grant. This trio could be more explosive and athletic if it can deliver on its elite recruiting status. Conner Crowell and Stewart Smith will figure in the mix as well. With a powerful defensive line in front of them, whoever lines-up at linebacker for the Buckeyes will have little excuse in 2012.
5. Michigan – There is a lot to like about the Wolverines linebacking corps. All three starters return, including an extremely talented true freshman named Joe Bolden. Although the Wolverines bring back some solid talent, there are also concerns about toughness and consistency. Desmond Morgan, Kenny Demens and Jake Ryan could all be shuffled around if Bolden can pick up the college game quick enough. Ryan seems the safest at strongside, but Demens could easily shift outside to accommodate Bolden. There is a lot of talent and experience here, but nothing is set in stone for this Maize and Blue tackling unit.
6. Illinois – Champaign is no joke when it comes to linebackers. A long and storied tradition of tacklers should continue in 2012 with star junior Jonathan Brown. His 108 stops paced the Illini a year ago and he should develop into the leader of the Orange Crush defense. A trio of southern linebackers — Houston Bates, Ralph Cooper, Henry Dickinson — will fill the other traditional spot next to Brown. Technically, Ashante Williams is listed as a linebacker but is really more of a hybrid at the STAR position. He is 5-11, 205 pounds and got plenty of experience last year after Trulon Henry went out. This is a unique alignment that was ranked the No. 2 defense in the Big Ten last fall. Brown is being counted on as the next big star on the Illini defense.
7. Iowa – Two starters return to Kinnick Stadium in the form of juniors James Morris and Christian Kirksey. Each tied with the team lead in stops at 110 a year ago and should continue the recent Iowa tradition of stout linebacker play. If they both can stay healthy all year long, this unit has a chance to be improved. Former defensive back Anthony Hitchens will try to hold off a collection of hard-charging underclassmen for the third and final spot. The group has to show improvement in a crucial year in Iowa under new coordinator Phil Parker.
8. Nebraska – Lavonte David was a special talent who cannot be replaced. Yet, that is exactly what Will Compton has been charged with doing in 2012. He is now the leader of this set of tacklers from his middle backer position. Alonzo Whaley will get the first chance at filling David’s weakside spot while Sean Fisher brings senior experience to the strongside. Two possibly contributors will be fellow redshirt freshmen David Santos and Max Pirman. Santos was poised to play a year ago before an injury forced Bo Pelini’s hand. Both could play significant minutes now that David is gone.
9. Purdue – The return of middle linebacker Dwayne Beckford is a must for Danny Hope’s bowl aspirations in 2012. After some legal issues at the end of last fall and into the spring, Beckford appears ready to anchor the middle of the Boilermakers defense. Will Lucas will be more productive in the simplified system. Joe Gilliam, Armstead Williams and Andy Garcia are three youngsters who will battle for starting time in the base 4-3 scheme.
10. Minnesota – Senior outside backer Mike Rallis was a pleasant surprise in the spring when moved inside. He showed a knack for recognition and leadership and his shift inside stabilizing the middle of the Gopher defense. Keanon Cooper and converted safety James Manuel are now free to roam the edge with the speed and quickness that Jerry Kill desires. The duo should make the Gophers defense significantly faster in 2012. Jephte Matilus provides intriguing depth as well. This unit should be improved.
11. Northwestern – It’s only fitting that a Pat Fitzgerald-coached team will have experience and leadership at the linebacker position. With three starters back, the former linebacker himself has to be excited about his former unit. David Nwabuisi, Damien Proby and Collin Ellis return the linebacking corps completely intact for 2012. Now, they need to show improved toughens and mental acumen. Something that shouldn’t be an issue for a coach of Fitzgerald’s pedigree. The staff is also excited about the athleticism and depth behind its starters as well.
12. Indiana – This unit will feature plenty of new faces in 2012, as two junior college recruits could be starting from day one. Both David Cooper and Jacarri Alexander enrolled in January and proved to be talented enough in spring to start. Redshirt sophomore Chase Hoobler also showed in spring that he could take on more of a role in his second year. This defense finished last in the Big Ten in scoring, rushing and total defense, so newcomers were needed to inject energy.
-by Braden Gall
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