After a huge comeback season in 2011, Wisconsin's Chris Borland will now be looking to solidify his status as one of the Big Ten's elite defensive playmakers next season
Last year, the Big Ten created the Butkus-Fitzgerald Linebacker of the Year Award, an honor that will annually be bestowed upon the top linebacker in the conference.
The inaugural winner, Nebraska's Lavonte David, won't be back to defend his award, as he's now gearing up for the NFL. However, the league will have no shortage of contenders in 2012, as many of the Big Ten's top linebackers will be returning for next season.
Teams like Wisconsin, Michigan State, Michigan, Penn State and Iowa will feature some of the best linebacker corps that college football has to offer next season, and there are plenty of other 'backers from around the conference who will be looking to garner accolades and honors as well.
So who are the must-watch players at the position?
Here's a look at how the Big Ten's top 15 linebackers stack up for the 2012 season.
Last offseason, the big news surrounding the Wisconsin defense was the return of LB Chris Borland, the 2009 Big Ten Freshman of the Year, who missed the majority of the 2010 season with a shoulder injury.
Badgers fans were eager to see Borland back in action after his long absence, and the 5'11'', 250-pound junior certainly didn't disappoint, as he stepped back into the starting lineup and racked up 143 tackles, the second highest total in the Big Ten in 2011.
Obviously, it didn't take long for Borland to shake off the rust last season, and after such a dominant performance, you have to wonder what the Badger 'backer will be capable of in 2012.
The strong, physical and tenacious middle man has now developed into the linchpin leader of the Wisconsin defense, and with fellow linebacker Mike Taylor joining him once again, the Badgers will have one of the best linebacker tandems in the country for next season.
Borland has to be the early front-runner for the Butkus-Fitzgerald Linebacker of the Year award, and if he has the type of season he's capable of in 2012, he's got what it takes to contend for All-American honors as well.
Michigan State's linebacker corps is shaping up to be one of the best in college football in 2012, and the spotlight player for the unit will once again be Denicos Allen.
Last season, Allen stepped into the starting lineup and emerged as one of the Big Ten's most disruptive and dangerous defenders. The 5'11'', 232-pound junior proved to be a force on the outside of the Spartans defense, as he caused consistent havoc all season long.
Allen notched 83 tackles and finished second in the Big Ten with 11 sacks and fourth in the conference with 18.5 tackles for loss.
Allen embarrassed plenty of offensive tackles in 2011, and he'll be looking to do the same thing next season.
The Spartans are loaded with potential star defensive playmakers such as DE William Gholston, LB Max Bullough, CB Johnny Adams and S Isaiah Lewis, but don't be surprised if Allen is the one who has the biggest individual impact for the Michigan State defense in 2012.
Penn State loses a ton of key defenders from last season such as DT Devon Still, DE Jack Crawford, LB Nate Stupar, CB D'Anton Lynn and S Drew Astorino. However, the Nittany Lions do return a few key leaders at the linebacker unit, with the most notable being Gerald Hodges.
Last year, Hodges led the team with 106 tackles and he notched 4.5 sacks and 10 tackles for loss, as he proved to be one of the real "heart and soul" players for the Penn State defense.
The former 4-star recruit finally came into his own in 2011 with a breakthrough performance that caused quite a buzz around the Big Ten, and now he'll be looking to take the next step and become a national star in 2012.
The 6'2'', 233-pound senior is one of the most physically gifted linebackers in the country, and Hodges is the type of extremely active and energetic defender that can pick up the energy of an entire defense with his play.
"Linebacker U" didn't have a linebacker selected in the 2011 NFL draft, and the Nittany Lions won't have one taken this year, but you have to expect that Hodges will surely be one of the most coveted outside linebacker prospects available for the 2013 draft, which means that the drought shouldn't last much longer.
Illinois' defense has produced an unlikely first-round NFL draft prospect in each of the past two years with DE Whitney Mercilus and DT Corey Liuget, and the Illini may have another breakout candidate for next season in LB Jonathan Brown.
With Mercilus gone, Brown and DE Michael Buchanan will now be asked to take on the leadership roles for the defensive front-seven. Brown should be capable of thriving in the role, given the type of dominant performance we saw from him last season.
The 6'1'', 235-pound junior led the team with 108 tackles in 2011, and he finished the season with six sacks and 19.5 tackles for loss.
Brown is one of the most athletic linebackers in the country, and last year, he showed that he's the type of natural playmaker that can change the complexion of an entire defense.
If Brown plays up to his potential next season, he's got the chance to be one of the Big Ten's biggest defensive stars of 2012.
Chris Borland garnered a lot of attention during his comeback season in 2011, but it was another Wisconsin linebacker, Mike Taylor, who ended up leading the Big Ten with a whopping 150 total tackles last season.
Taylor's stellar performance helped prove that he's just as big of a defensive difference-maker as his highly touted teammate.
The 6'2'', 222-pound senior may not be the biggest or most intimidating linebacker in the Big Ten, but he plays a smart and intense brand of football that has helped lead him to great success during his time in Madison.
Taylor earned first-team All-Big Ten honors for his 2011 campaign, and the savvy and experienced veteran will again be looking to garner the same type of accolades with another big effort next season.
The play of Michigan's linebacker unit in 2011 was one of the main reasons that the Wolverines defense was able to make such a marked improved last season. The leader of the group was Kenny Demens, who led the team with 94 tackles and also racked up three sacks.
Demens emerged as the team's most reliable defender after the departure of Jonas Mouton, and he now appears ready to step out and become one of the Big Ten's true showcase star defenders in 2012. The 6'1'', 248-pound senior will be the focal point of a linebacker unit that should be one of the best in the country next season.
With Demens, Jake Ryan, Desmond Morgan and Brandin Hawthorne all returning, Michigan will have the type of linebackers it needs to once again have one of the most stout defenses in the Big Ten in 2012.
Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz may be best known for the strong offensive lines that he puts together year after year, but during Ferentz's tenure, the Hawkeyes have also routinely featured some solid linebacker units as well.
That's not about to change next season, as Iowa welcomes back two of the Big Ten's most talented linebackers, James Morris and Christian Kirksey.
Last year, the two 'backers shared the team lead with 110 total tackles, and they'll likely be neck and neck in that race once again in 2012.
There's a lot to like about both players, especially Morris, who mans the middle spot for the Hawkeyes.
The 6'2'', 230-pound junior is the typical type of strong, physical and tough linebacker that we've become accustomed to seeing at Iowa in recent years, and he has the potential to develop into a Pat Angerer-type of leader for the Hawkeyes defense next season.
There's no doubt that the Nebraska defense is going to miss the presence of outside linebacker Lavonte David, who tallied an astounding 285 tackles during his two years in Lincoln.
There's simply not a linebacker on the current roster that's capable of producing at that kind of rate.
There is a 'backer, however, who is capable of stepping into David's shoes and becoming a leader for the Cornhuskers defense next season, and that's Will Compton.
Last year, Compton finished second on the team behind David with 82 total tackles, and he proved to be a steady force against the run.
The 6'2'', 230-pound senior will once again man the middle for the Nebraska defense in 2012, and he'll be counted on to step up and develop into a true impact playmaker, as the unit hopes to improve on its disappointing effort from a year ago.
James Morris isn't the only linebacker to watch at Iowa next season. Flanking Morris on the outside once again will be his weakside counterpart, Christian Kirksey, who tied him for the team lead with 110 tackles last season.
Kirksey has the prototypical skill set that you look for in a playmaking weakside 'backer, as he possesses the instincts, vision, speed and athleticism to make plays all over the field. Last year, he also showed that he could man the strong side, as he split time at both positions.
The 6'2'', 220-pound junior is truly one of the most talented and versatile linebackers in the Big Ten, and he's an invaluable asset to the Iowa defense.
With Kirksey and Morris both returning, the Hawkeyes will have a terrific tandem to build the rest of their defense around for 2012.
Denicos Allen may have been the biggest impact player for Michigan State's defense last season, but it was actually Max Bullough who led the team with 89 tackles.
In his first year as the starting middle linebacker, Bullough proved to be a tremendous asset inside for Michigan State, as he was an active defender against the run who seemingly took pride in corralling as many ball-carriers as possible.
The 6'3'', 252-pound junior isn't as naturally explosive as Allen, his counterpart on the outside, but he possesses the strength, instincts and intelligence to diagnose plays and come up with critical stops when needed.
With Bullough, Allen and weakside linebacker Chris Norman all returning for 2012, Michigan State will have one of the strongest and most experienced linebacker corps in the country next season.
Glenn Carson fits the prototype of what you would expect a Penn State linebacker to look like. Carson is a tough, athletic, intelligent and instinctive defender who seems like he was born to be a middle linebacker.
The 6'3'', 238-pound junior proved to be a natural fit for the Penn State defense last season, as he racked up 74 total tackles.
While there's no telling what type of attitude the Nittany Lions will play with next season, given all the distractions that the program has endured in recent months, its veteran leaders like Carson who should help keep the team's focus where it needs to be in 2012.
With Carson, Gerald Hodges and Michael Mauti leading the way, Penn State will have one of the strongest linebacker corps in the country next season.
Minnesota's defense was one of the worst in the Big Ten last season, ranking 10th in the conference in total defense and 11th in scoring defense. It doesn't help that the Gophers lost their top two tacklers from 2011, S Kim Royston and LB Gary Tinsley, who tragically passed away this offseason.
What does help, though, is that the team welcomes back two intriguing linebackers, Mike Rallis and Keanon Cooper, who combined for 160 tackles in 2011.
Rallis is the team's leading returning tackler after notching 83 stops last year, and he'll be the defense's most valuable player in 2012.
The 6'2'', 231-pound senior won't be able to turn the Gophers' defensive fortunes around by himself, but he at least gives Minnesota a strong anchor to build the front-seven around for next season.
After redshirting for his first year in Ann Arbor, Jake Ryan stepped onto the field last season and made an immediate impact for the Wolverines defense. Ryan turned out to be a valuable and dependable contributor in his first season of action, racking up 37 tackles and three sacks.
The 6'3'', 230-pound sophomore is a perfect fit for the strongside linebacker spot in Michigan's defense, and he's got the potential to continue to develop into a true star over the next few years.
While Kenny Demens may be the biggest name among Michigan's linebackers going into next season, don't be surprised if Ryan steals his thunder and emerges as a huge impact player for the Wolverines defense in 2012.
When Etienne Sabino arrived at Ohio State as a highly touted 5-star recruit back in 2008, many were calling him the next great Buckeye linebacker.
Up until this point in his career, though, Sabino has yet to develop into the dominant figure that many were expecting him to become.
In his first year as a starter last season, the 6'2'', 237-pound senior did show some flashes of his potential, though, as he racked up 62 total tackles in 2011.
With the departure of Andrew Sweat, Sabino and fellow linebackers Storm Klein and Ryan Shazier will now be asked to step up and really pick their game up a notch next season.
It should be interesting to see if Sabino can finally live up to his high school hype in 2012.
Northwestern has only had one linebacker drafted in the past decade, but that could change in 2013 if David Nwabuisi has the type of senior season that he's capable of.
The 6'1'', 240-pound Nwabuisi may be a bit short by NFL standards, but he certainly plays bigger than his size. Last year, Nwabuisi racked up 84 tackles and he turned out to be one of the team's most consistent and reliable defenders.
Now that he has a year of starting experience under his belt, Nwabuisi should be able to play fast and loose and put his full array of talents on display in 2012.
Alonzo Whaley, Nebraska
Anthony Hitchens, Iowa
Brandin Hawthorne, Michigan
Chase Hoobler, Indiana
Chi Chi Ariguzo, Northwestern
Chris Norman, Michigan State
Derek Landisch, Wisconsin
Desmond Morgan, Michigan
Dwayne Beckford, Purdue
Keanon Cooper, Minnesota
Michael Mauti, Penn State
Ryan Shazier, Ohio State
Sean Fisher, Nebraska
Storm Klein, Ohio State
Will Lucas, Purdue