Unlike the defensive linemen, the Big Ten returns most of its top linebackers.
In fact, six of the the conference's eight All-Big Ten honorees will be back for 2012.
That leaves this position ranking decidedly top-heavy. Teams that would have been No. 1 last season are No. 3 or 4 this season.
Most football teams—college or pro, Big Ten or otherwise—play a weak-side, middle and strong-side linebacker. However, different teams have different names and responsibilities for each position. I have labeled the positions according to how the team in question refers to its linebacker.
The number of asterisks next to a players' name indicates how many years he has started. A "starter," for my purposes, had at least four starts in any one season.
Players in italics are returning all-conference honorees.
A pound sign (#) indicates a player who hasn't started consecutive years or didn't start last year.
I based my ranking on returning experience, inherent talent (recruiting rankings), as well as what the teams and coaches have turned out in the past. For example, Iowa and Kirk Ferentz have proven they can regularly turn out quality linebackers. Indiana and Kevin Wilson, on the other hand, have not.
Finally, a lot can change in the next few months.
This article is based on what the rosters of Big Ten teams look like, and what we know, right now.
Check out previous articles in this series, beginning with the most recent, Power Ranking the Big Ten Defensive Lines.
SLB: Chase Hoobler (So.)*
Other Players in the Mix: Jacarri Alexander (JUCO Jr.), Griffen Dahlstrom (Jr.), David Cooper (JUCO So.), Mike Repogle (So.), Ishmael Thomas (So.), Jake Michalek (So.), Kyle Kennedy (RFr.), Jordan Wallace (TrFr.)
The Lowdown: Last season, with two experienced starters, head coach Kevin Wilson preferred to employ nickel and dime packages, as opposed to traditional 4-3 looks.
This year, those two starters are gone and seeming desperation has caused Wilson to look for help from the JUCO ranks, bringing in Jacarri Alexander and David Cooper.
Don't expect much, if any, improvement from the IU linebacking corps, as it tries to bolster 2011's worst conference scoring, total, rush and pass defenses (opponent passer efficiency).
WLB: Keanon Cooper (Sr.)** or Aaron Hill (Jr.) or Lamonte Edwards (So.)
MLB: Keanon Cooper (Sr.)** or Brendan Beal (Sr.)
SLB: Mike Rallis (Sr.)**
Other Players in the Mix: Ryan Grant (Sr.)#*, Spencer Reeves (Sr.), James Manuel (Jr.), Joey Balthazor (Jr.), Dwayne Mitchell (So.), Quinn Bauducco (RFr.), Jephte Matilus (RFr.), Peter Westerhaus (RFr.), Jack Lynn (TrFr.), Nick Rallis (TrFr.)
The Lowdown: The Gophers return a lot experience, but will have to replace Gary Tinsley, who had been their best defensive player for the last two seasons.
Keanon Cooper spent 2010 and 2011 on the weak side, but he might move to the middle if Florida transfer Brendan Beal can't adjust or get healthy.
Otherwise, there are plenty of experienced linebackers on the roster.
The question is how much can they hope to improve last season's second-worst conference scoring defense?
OLB: Chi Chi Ariguzo (So.) or David Nwabuisi (Sr.)* or Collin Ellis (So.)*
MLB: Damien Proby (Jr.)* or David Nwabuisi (Sr.)*
OLB: Collin Ellis (So.)* or David Nwabuisi (Sr.)*
Other Players in the Mix: Roderick Goodlow (Sr.), Will Studlien (Jr.), Timmy Vernon (Jr.), Drew Smith (RFr.), Jaylen Prater (TrFr.)
The Lowdown: Damien Proby began 2011 as a backup but played his way into the starting role.
His ascendency offers a bit of hope for a linebacking corps that was moribund for much of last season.
Ellis and Ariguzo are young players with potential, and Nwabuisi isn't a game-changer, but he can be a solid player if he has better players around him.
Overall, there is hope for the Northwestern linebackers. But with what projects to be a lousy defensive line in front of them, there will have to be much more than hope in order to achieve results.
MLB: Will Lucas (Jr.)*
SLB: Joe Gilliam (So.)
Other Players in the Mix: Nnamdi Ezenwa (Sr.), Antwon Higgs (Sr.), Sean Robinson (Jr.), Jalani Phillips (So.), Mike Lee (So.), Joe Gilliam (So.), Armstead Williams (RFr.), Andy Garcia (TrFr.), Jimmy Herman (TrFr.)
The Lowdown: One of the biggest issues with Purdue's defense during the Danny Hope era has been the linebackers' lack of improvement and mediocre play.
Dwayne Beckford*** is a perfect example. The would-be senior had a strong sophomore year, prompting predictions of future all-conference honors. However, last year was up-and-down, and now he may or may not wear the black and gold again.
Other than Beckford, there is little experience returning and minimal reason to hope for a big turnaround.
***Would-be returning starter Dwayne Beckford is in limbo stemming from multiple brushes with the law over the past year. I have not found any evidence of his dismissal, but he is not listed on the official Purdue football roster. If available, he would be the starting middle linebacker.***
WLB: Jonathan Brown (Jr.)* or Houston Bates (So.)
MLB: Jonathan Brown (Jr.)* or Houston Bates (So.)
SLB: Ashante Williams (Sr.)
Other Players in the Mix: Brandon Denmark (Jr.), Ralph Cooper (So.), Earnest Thomas (So.), Henry Dickinson (So.), Zephenia Grimes (RFr.), Mason Monheim (TrFr.), T.J. Neal (TrFr.), Mike Svetina (TrFr.)
The Lowdown: Last season, Jonathan Brown was one of the surprise players of the year. He totaled 108 tackles, one interception, 19.5 tackles-for-loss and six sacks.
It remains to be seen how he'll fit into new head coach Tim Beckford's defense, as it is much less aggressive than former coach Ron Zook's.
Either way, it is evident that he is a top-notch player to build a defense around.
As for the other linebackers, Houston Bates grabbed two starts as a true freshman in 2011. The Louisiana native chose Illinois over LSU, so he's got an impressive pedigree.
Meanwhile, Ashante Williams is a veteran and will be able to find a place to fit in.
Overall, there is a lot of upside with this bunch, but also a lot to prove.
WLB: Christian Kirksey (Jr.)*
MLB: James Morris (Jr.)** OR Quinton Alston (So.)
OLB: Anthony Hitchens (Jr.) OR James Morris (Jr.)**
Other Players in the Mix: Shane DiBona (Jr.), Dakota Getz (Jr.), Marcus Collins (So.), Jim Poggi (So.), Cole Fischer (RFr.), Nate Meier (TrFr.), Laron Taylor (TrFr.)
The Lowdown: Iowa's young linebackers experienced growing pains and severe injury issues over the last two years.
That will begin to pay off this year, as the Hawks have a wealth of experienced players at linebacker.
James Morris is the most versatile and can play either the middle or the outside. He had an up-and-down year in 2011, but his "ups" lead one to believe that he is close to putting it all together.
Kirksey is a speedy weak-side player who showed skills in coverage and in blitz packages, though he had some trouble finishing tackles. He is another player who is one piece away from putting it all together.
Finally, Hitchens and Alston both gained valuable experience last season, while DiBona had three starts in 2010, but missed 2011 with an ACL tear.
This group is still a year away from being among the most dominant in the conference, but they will be a solid bunch in 2012.
WLB: Alonzo Whaley (Sr.) or David Santos (RFr.)
MLB: Will Compton (Sr.)***
SLB: Sean Fischer (Sr.)** or Alonzo Whaley (Sr.)
Other Players in the Mix: Graham Stoddard (Sr.), Trevor Roach (So.), Max Pirman (RFr.), Jared Afalava (TrFr,), Zaire Anderson (TrFr.), Thomas Brown (TrFr.), Michael Rose (TrFr.)
The Lowdown: Nebraska returns a lot talent and experience in the linebacking corps, but one pretty notable player is gone—Lavonte David.
David spent two years in Lincoln, during which time he racked up a number of records and awards.
He is gone, and the remaining linebackers—most notably Compton, Fischer and Whaley—will be expected to pick up the pieces.
Those three are quality linebackers. But up to this point, none has shown anywhere near the playmaking ability of David.
If one of them, or an underclassman, breaks out, this could be a Blackshirt group to rival some of the great Nebraska linebacking corps of the past.
If not, it is still a solid and deep, if unspectacular, group.
WLB: Ryan Shazier (So.) or Curtis Grant (So.)
MLB: Storm Klein (Sr.)*
SLB: Etienne Sabino (Sr.)*
Other Players in the Mix: Connor Crowell (RFr.), David Perkins (TrFr.), Jamal Marcus (TrFr.), Josh Perry (TrFr.), Luke Roberts (TrFr.), Camren Williams (TrFr.)
The Lowdown: This group may have the most upside of any linebacking corps in the conference.
Klein and Sabino are solid players and will play well behind what will be the most dominant line in the conference.
However, the real flash is with the sophomores.
Shazier came on last year as a true freshman. He started the final three games and is in line to be the Buckeyes' next great linebacker.
Meanwhile, Grant—Rivals' No. 1 linebacker recruit and No. 2 in the country at any position in 2011—played a limited role last year. He will press for more playing time behind Klein and will be groomed to take over the MLB position next year.
WLB: Desmond Morgan (So.)* or Brandin Hawthorne (Sr.)*
MLB: Kenny Demens (Sr.)**
SLB: Jake Ryan (So)*
Other Players in the Mix: Cameron Gordon (Jr.)#*, Mike Jones (Jr.), Antonio Poole (RFr.), Joe Bolden (TrFr.), Royce Jenkins-Stone (TrFr.), Kaleb Ringer (TrFr.), James Ross (TrFr.)
The Lowdown: Is Kenny Demens the best linebacker to wear maize and blue since Larry Foote graduated in 2001?
It's hard to say, but the only other Michigan linebacker that has been in his league since Foote left was David Harris, who graduated in 2006.
Demens is gearing up for a big senior year, and he will have to be on top of his game, given the graduation of three of the UM front four.
Nevertheless, he will get help from returning starters Morgan, Ryan and Hawthorne, all of whom will be much improved from their 2011 campaign.
This is especially true of Morgan and Ryan, the former of whom was a true freshman.
WLB: Gerald Hodges (Sr.)*
MLB: Glenn Carson (Jr.)*
SLB: Michael Mauti (Sr.)**
Other Players in the Mix: Khairi Fortt (Jr.), Mike Hull (So.), James Van Fleet (Sr.), Michael Yancich (Sr.), Ben Kline (RFr.), Nyeem Wartman (TrFr.)
The Lowdown: Linebacker U returns most of its key starters. It also gets its best linebacker—Michael Mauti—back after he missed the final nine games of the 2011 season with a torn ACL.
There is no question about Mauti's skill level, but there are questions regarding his durability. Mauti missed 2009 with a torn ACL, and, in 2010, lost two full games and parts of other games with various injuries.
If he is healthy, he, along with Gerald Hodges, will press for all-conference honors.
Glenn Carson isn't at the level of Mauti and Carson, as well as past PSU linebackers, but he can hold his own in the middle.
Furthermore, Penn State makes up in quality what it is missing in quantity.
Fortt and Hull could start on half the teams in the Big Ten, while Van Fleet and Yancich add solid depth.
WLB: Mike Taylor (Sr)***
MLB: Chris Borland (Jr)**
SLB: Ethan Armstrong (Jr)
Other Players in the Mix: A.J. Fenton (Jr.), Conor O'Neill (Jr.), Josh Peprah (Jr.), Derek Landisch (So.), Marcus Trotter (So.), Cody Byers (So.), Derek Watt (RFr.), Jake Keefer (RFr.), Vince Biegel (TrFr.)
The Lowdown: Arguably the two best UW linebackers over the past decade currently reside in Madison.
Both Borland and Taylor battled health issues early in their careers. However, last season, for the first time, both were healthy and on the field at the same time, and the results were impressive.
Not only were the Badgers a top-20 scoring defense for the first time since 2006, but Taylor and Borland made just shy of 300 tackles.
Expect more of the same in 2012.
Their newest partner-in-crime is Ethan Armstrong. He earned two starts last season, but missed the Big Ten championship game and the Rose Bowl due to injuries.
Finally, there is solid depth behind the starting three.
STAR: Chris Norman (Sr.)**
MLB: Max Bullough (Jr.)*
SAM: Denicos Allen (Jr.)*
Other Players in the Mix: Steve Gardiner (Sr.), TyQuan Hammock (Jr.), Jeremy Gainer (Jr.), Kyler Elsworth (Jr.), Taiwan Jones (So.), Lawrence Thomas (RFr.), Darien Harris (RFr.), Ed Davis (RFr.), Riley Bullough (TrFr.)
The Lowdown: Before last season, I described the Spartan linebacker group as possessing "a lot of potential...but right now, it is just potential."
In 2011, the players lived up to their potential.
Bullough and particularly Allen thrived in Mark Dantonio's ultra-aggressive defensive scheme.
Bullough notched 89 tackles, seven tackles-for-loss and 3.5 sacks, while Allen added 83 tackles, 18.5 TFL and 11 sacks.
Norman is quieter than his teammates, but he is a solid role player.
In 2012, it will no longer be a matter of living up to potential. Instead, it will be a matter of how dominant they can be.