College Football's Top 50 Linebackers for the 2012 Season

Danny Flynn@FlynnceptionSenior Analyst IMay 22, 2012

College Football's Top 50 Linebackers for the 2012 Season

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    It only takes a quick glance at the list of players selected in the 2012 NFL draft to realize that college football lost some really special linebackers this offseason.

    Gone are tackling-machines like Boston College’s Luke Kuechly and Nebraska’s Lavonte David, as well as Alabama’s nightmare duo of Courtney Upshaw and Dont’a Hightower.

    Miami’s defense won’t be the same without Sean Spence, and the same goes for Texas’ defense without Keenan Robinson and Emmanuel Acho.

    The good news is, there’s a whole new crop of great linebacking talent that fans should get excited about. The group is led by two proven stars, Notre Dame’s Manti Te’o and Georgia’s Jarvis Jones, who both passed up the chance to be high draft picks this year in order to return to school for another season. 

    Te’o and Jones are two of the topflight talents in the country, but they won’t be the only linebackers that'll be making some serious noise this season. 

    Here’s an early look at college football’s Top 50 linebackers for 2012.

1. Manti Te’o, Notre Dame

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    I can only imagine how terrifying it must be for a running back to look across the line of scrimmage into the awaiting stone cold eyes of Notre Dame LB Manti Te'o right before the ball is snapped. 

    Te'o is without a doubt one of the most frightening and intimidating players in all of college football. What makes the 6-foot-2, 255-pound senior so great is that he backs up his threatening demeanor with his style of play. Te'o plays the game like a missile that's been sent to destroy any poor player holding the ball. 

    The former 5-star recruit from Hawaii has certainly lived up to his enormous high school hype, and with one big final campaign, he'll likely go down in Notre Dame history as one of the greatest defensive players to ever come through South Bend. 

    Te'o has already racked up 324 tackles in his college career, and he's got another season left to add to that total. 

    Although inside linebacker position seems to have been devalued in today's day and age of spread offenses and pass-happy schemes, Te'o still offers the type of presence out on the field that is invaluable to a defense. 

    The esteemed Irish 'backer would have been a first-round pick if he had decided to enter the 2012 NFL draft, but since he's chosen to return to school, Te'o will now have the chance to show scouts that he's got what it takes to be a Top-15 pick in next year's draft. 

2. Jarvis Jones, Georgia

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    Jarvis Jones apparently didn't feel like waiting to take over the SEC, as he stepped into Georgia's starting lineup in 2011 and immediately became one of the top defensive performers in the conference.

    In his first year on the field, the transfer from USC led the SEC with 13.5 sacks and 19.5 tackles for loss and he proved to be a perfect fit for the Bulldogs' 3-4 defense. 

    Jones is an explosive edge-rusher who knows how to victimize opposing offensive tackles, and more importantly, he knows how to track down quarterbacks once he flies into the backfield.

    The 6-foot-3, 241-pound junior could have entered the 2012 NFL draft and likely been a second-round pick. However, now that Jones has decided to return to school and continue to work on his game for another year, he should be one of the biggest spotlight players in the country this season.

    With Jones leading the way, Georgia will have the type of stacked defensive front-seven that it needs to repeat as SEC East division champs in 2012. 

3. Chris Borland, Wisconsin

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    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 this year. 

    Borland has to be the early front-runner for the Big Ten's Butkus-Fitzgerald Linebacker of the Year award, and if he has the type of campaign he's capable of in 2012, he's got what it takes to contend for All-American honors as well. 

4. Shayne Skov, Stanford

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    Shayne Skov seemed like he was destined for a breakout campaign in 2011, as he had entered the season as the unquestioned leader of Stanford's defense. However, after experiencing a season-ending knee injury in the team's third game of the year, Skov was left to watch the Cardinal battle without him last year as he stood on the sideline. 

    The 6-foot-3, 251-pound senior is now expected to be ready to return for the 2012 season, though, and if he's back to full health, he could be ready to take the Pac-12 by storm. 

    Physically, Skov reminds me a lot of former USC linebacker Brian Cushing. He's the type of big, well-sculpted inside-backer who has the speed and the tenacious attitude to strike fear in the heart of opposing ball-carriers. Plus, he has the endurance and perseverance to run all over the field for all four quarters without slowing down. 

    Skov is truly a sensational talent, and if his knee holds up this year, he'll be one of the most talked about defenders in the country in 2012. 

5. Jelani Jenkins, Florida

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    Jelani Jenkins arrived at Florida as a highly touted 5-star recruit, and he'll likely leave Gainesville as a Top-20 NFL draft pick.

    Jenkins is one of the most physically gifted linebackers in the country and he has all the skills that you look for in a playmaking weakside linebacker.  

    The 6'0'', 233-pound junior has the speed, instincts and tenacity of a true defensive difference-maker, and he displayed all of those traits in 2011 when he made 75 tackles. 

    Jenkins is a rare type of linebacker specimen and he should be ready to have his best season yet in 2012. 

    Florida has produced some notable linebackers in recent years such as Brandon Spikes, Channing Crowder and Brandon Siler, but Jenkins will probably end up being considered better than all of them after the completion of the upcoming season. 

6. Denicos Allen, Michigan State

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    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. 

    The strongside 'backer made a living in opponents' backfields last year, and he was an absolute nightmare coming off the edge on outside blitzes

    Allen embarrassed plenty of offensive tackles in 2011, and he'll be looking to do the same thing this 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. 

7. C.J. Mosley, Alabama

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    C.J. Mosley was surprisingly back out on the field this spring and feeling fine after returning from a gruesome-looking hip injury that he incurred after making an interception against LSU in the BCS championship game. 

    Now that he's back, Mosley will be counted on to be one of Alabama's biggest impact defenders in 2012. The athletic 6-foot-2, 232-pound junior should be one of the most coveted linebacker prospects for the 2013 NFL draft if he plays like he's capable of this season.

    Mosley's going to be asked to play a key leadership role in 2012. Alabama's defense is going to have some growing up and gelling to do early on this year, since the unit lost many of its key pieces from last year's championship squad. 

    With Courtney Upshaw and Dont'a Hightower both gone, it's time for Mosley to step up and show that he's got what it takes to be one of Alabama's next showcase star defenders this season. 

8. Sean Porter, Texas A&M

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    There's simply no way to properly replace a rare star linebacker like former Texas A&M pass-rushing sensation Von Miller.

    Apparently no one told that to Sean Porter, though, because he did everything he could last season to do just that. The 6-foot-2, 230-pound senior enjoyed a breakout campaign, as he racked up a team-leading 9.5 sacks and also notched 17 tackles for loss and six quarterback hurries in 2011. 

    Porter may not be on the same level as Miller, but that certainly doesn't mean he won't have the chance to develop into one of the SEC's elite defensive playmakers. 

    It should be fun to see what the talented veteran edge-rusher can do against the strong SEC offensive lines that he'll face in 2012. Don't be surprised if he makes a fool out of a few talented tackles this season.  

9. Gerald Hodges, Penn State

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    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 in 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-foot-2, 233-pound senior is one of the most physically gifted linebackers in the country, and Hodges is the type of extremely active and passionate defender that can pick up the energy of an entire defense with his play. 

    "Linebacker U" hasn't had a linebacker selected in the first round of the NFL draft since 2000 when LaVar Arrington was taken with the No. 2 overall pick. However, you have to expect that Hodges will surely be one of the most coveted outside linebacker prospects available for the 2013 draft, and if he plays up to his potential as a senior, he may very well break that trend. 

10. Hayes Pullard, USC

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    This season, USC's defense will feature one of the best linebacker duos in the country: Hayes Pullard and Dion Bailey.

    Pullard and Bailey are only redshirt sophomores, but they've already established themselves as two of the premier defensive playmakers in the Pac-12.

    The two linebackers tied for the team lead with 81 tackles apiece in 2011, and they'll likely be neck-and-neck trying to win that battle again this season.

    Both players will be playing on Sundays someday soon, but the real player that NFL scouts could have their eye on in 2012 is Pullard.

    The 6-foot-1, 230-pound California native is one of the most physically skilled defenders in the country, and he has the type of natural ability it takes to become USC's next big star linebacker.

11. Jake Knott, Iowa State

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    As a whole, Iowa State's defense was far from stellar last season, as the Cyclones ranked 95th in the country in total defense in 2011, giving up an average of 427 yards per game. 

    Still, it would be unfair to blame the unit's struggles on the team's two leading tacklers—linebackers Jake Knott and A.J. Klein, as the two defensive leaders both played at an elite level last year. 

    Both 'backers deserve plenty of credit for their performances in 2011, but the real player to watch this season will be Knott. 

    Last year, the 6-foot-3, 239-pound senior was one of the most productive linebackers in the country, registering 115 total tackles, including six games with at least 10 tackles. 

    Knott may have been an unheralded 2-star recruit coming out of Iowa's Waukee High School. However, he's proven that while he may not be be an top-notch athlete; he's got the type of heart, passion and desire that it takes to thrive and succeed in a prestigious conference like the Big 12.

12. Bruce Taylor, Virginia Tech

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    Virginia Tech has always seemed to put out a powerful defense during Frank Beamer's tenure and this season should be no different. The Hokies bring back plenty of playmakers, including defensive ends James Gayle and J.R. Collins, linebacker Tariq Edwards and cornerback Kyle Fuller and Antone Exum. 

    There's no question about who the leader of the unit will be in 2012, though, and that's linebacker Bruce Taylor. 

    Taylor enjoyed a breakout season in 2010, notching 91 tackles and six sacks, and he was having another strong year last season before a foot injury knocked him out in late October. 

    The 6-foot-2, 253-pound senior is the type of athlete who seems like he was born to play inside linebacker, as he possesses the type of agility, recognition skills, toughness and tackling ability that you want to see at the position. 

    If the Hokies want to contend for an ACC championship in 2012, Taylor is going to have to play a key role as the team's defensive centerpiece. If he's back to full health by the time the season starts, there's no reason that he shouldn't be up to the task. 

13. Khaseem Greene, Rutgers

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    One of the big storylines surrounding the Rutgers defense going into last season was how Khaseem Greene would handle the transition from free safety to linebacker in 2011.

    It turned out that Greene was a natural fit, as he led the Big East with 140 tackles and notched 3.5 sacks and forced three fumbles last season. It was a performance which helped earn him Co-Defensive Player of the Year honors in the conference. 

    The 6-foot-1, 220-pound senior possesses the speed of a safety and the size of a linebacker, and that combination helped him excel on the outside of Rutgers' 4-3 defense. 

    Greene suffered an awful-looking leg injury in the Pinstripe Bowl back in December. However, he should be back to man the weakside spot for the Scarlet Knights this season.

    He should once again be the Big East's most dangerous linebacker in 2012. 

14. Dion Bailey, USC

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    At 6'0", 200 lbs, Dion Bailey definitely isn't the biggest linebacker you're going to find in college football, but Bailey's lack of size didn't prevent him from making plenty of crucial stops for USC's defense last season.

    Bailey moved from safety to strongside linebacker last offseason, and he turned out to be a perfect fit for the role, as he flourished at the position, finishing tied for the team lead with 81 tackles in 2011.

    The former 4-star recruit has the type of speed, instincts and tracking ability to hunt down ball-carriers from sideline to sideline.

    With Bailey and teammate Hayes Pullard both returning, USC will have one of the top linebacker tandems in the country this season. 

15. A.J. Johnson, Tennessee

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    There weren't many freshmen defenders who could compare to Tennessee's A.J. Johnson last season. He made an immediate name for himself in Knoxville, making 80 tackles in his first year. 

    The former 4-star recruit certainly proved his worth, and now he'll be the undisputed leader of the Vols defense going into the 2012 season. The 6-foot-3, 245-pound sophomore should benefit from the return of fellow linebackers Herman Lathers and Curt Maggitt on the outside, as they should help give Tennessee one of the best linebacker trios in the conference this year. 

    Johnson seems like he's ready to become one of college football's top linebackers and one of the biggest star defenders in the SEC in 2012. 

16. Chase Thomas, Stanford

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    When Stanford's top linebacker Shayne Skov went down with a knee injury early last season, the Cardinal needed somebody to step up and become the leader of the defensive front-seven, and that's just what outside linebacker Chase Thomas did. 

    Last year, Thomas was a terror coming off the edge of Stanford's 3-4 defense, racking up 8.5 sacks and 17.5 tackles for loss in 2011. 

    The 6-foot-4, 245-pound senior is one of the most skilled rush linebackers in the country, and he has a knack for finding his way into the backfield and making plays behind the line of scrimmage. 

    With Skov set to team back up with Thomas for 2012, Stanford will now have one of the most dynamic linebacker duos in the country to flaunt this season.

17. Kevin Reddick, North Carolina

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    North Carolina's defense lost two of its most important players—DE Quinton Coples, the No. 16 overall pick in the 2012 NFL draft, and LB Zach Brown, the No. 52 overall pick. However, the Tar Heels still return a bunch of quality defensive talent for 2012. 

    The key defensive player in Chapel Hill this season will be linebacker Kevin Reddick. 

    Reddick is the team's leading returning tackler after making 71 stops in 2011. 

    The 6-foot-3, 240-pound senior has the size, speed and football aptitude to be a steady force in the middle of North Carolina's defense this year, and he should be one of the most coveted inside linebacker prospects available for the 2013 NFL draft. 

    With Reddick and other potential standouts such as DT Sylvester Williams, DE Kareem Martin and S Tre Boston all returning to the fold, the North Carolina defense may not miss Coples and Brown all that much in 2012. 

18. Mike Taylor, Wisconsin

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    Chris Borland garnered a ton 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-foot-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 this season.  

19. Tom Wort, Oklahoma

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    Oklahoma may have lost linebacker Travis Lewis, who was one of the Sooners' most steady defensive leaders for the past few seasons, but Tom Wort seems like he's capable of stepping up and becoming the new focal point of the linebacker corps.

    Last year, Wort finished fourth on the team with 71 tackles and he also notched 3.5 sacks, picked off two passes and returned a fumble for a touchdown. 

    The 6'0'', 229-pound junior has all the traits and physical tools to be a standout middle linebacker and he could end up being one of the biggest breakout defensive stars in the Big 12 this season. 

    All I know is, any time you have the Ultimate Warrior giving you advice, you just have to be destined for greatness. 

20. Jonathan Brown, Illinois

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    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 the 2012 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 job, given the type of dominant performance we saw from him last season. 

    The 6-foot-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 this season, he's got the chance to be one of the Big Ten's biggest defensive stars of 2012. 

21. Demetrius Hartsfield, Maryland

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    When Maryland LB Kenny Tate went down with an injury midway through last season, it opened the door for teammate Demetrius Hartsfield to step out and shine, and he took full advantage of the opportunity. 

    Last year, Hartsfield finished second in the ACC with 12 tackles per game, and he ended up compiling 108 total stops for the season. 

    The 6-foot-2, 240-pound senior is one of the most physically gifted linebackers in the country, all he has to do to reach his potential is make sure that he stays focused and make sure that his motor is running at full speed at all times. 

    Hartsfield has the chance to be a star in 2012 as long as he remains motivated for the whole season.

    Given the fact that Maryland ranked dead last in the ACC in total defense last year, the Terps are going to need everything they can get out of both Hartsfield and fellow linebacker Kenny Tate this season. 

22. Nico Johnson, Alabama

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    A defense doesn't lose a pair of linebackers like Courtney Upshaw and Dont'a Hightower without feeling some major after-shocks, which is why it's going to be so important for Nico Johnson to step up and become a reliable leader for Alabama's defense in 2012. 

    Johnson has been groomed for the role for the past few years and this season will be his time to shine on the national stage as one of the Tide's key defenders. 

    Last year, Johnson finished fourth on the team with 46 tackles, and he'll now go into the 2012 season as the team's leading returning tackler. 

    The 6-foot-3, 245-pound senior has just as much natural talent as his former teammates, Upshaw and Hightower, and he'll have the opportunity in 2012 to prove that he can regularly play at the same high level that they did last season.

23. Kyle Van Noy, BYU

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    BYU's defense was one of the most underrated units in college football last season. The Cougars ranked in the Top 25 nationally in both scoring defense and total defense, giving up just 20 points and 313 yards per game in 2011. 

    A big reason for the defense's success was the play of outside linebacker Kyle Van Noy. 

    Van Noy proved to be just too much to handle on the edge of BYU's 3-4 defense, as he racked up seven sacks, 15 tackles for loss and 10 quarterback hurries last season. 

    The 6-foot-3, 235-pound junior has the type of rare combination of size, athleticism and football instincts to be an unstoppable 3-4 edge-rusher, and he's got the chance to develop into a defensive star in 2012.

    The former 4-star recruit from Reno, Nevada could have played for Pac-12 schools such as Arizona, Arizona State, Cal, Stanford or UCLA, but it seems that Van Noy made the right decision to come to Provo, as he's proven to be a natural fit for BYU's defense.  

24. Kenny Demens, Michigan

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    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-foot-1, 248-pound senior will be the leader of a linebacker unit that'll be one of the deepest and most talented in the country this year.

    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. 

25. A.J. Klein, Iowa State

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    Like his fellow teammate Jake Knott, A.J. Klein was not a very highly rated recruit coming out of Wisconsin's Kimberly High School. In fact, the only BCS scholarship offer he received was from Iowa State. 

    The former lightly recruited high school prospect has definitely made all of those big BCS schools that didn't give him a chance regret their decision, as he's developed into one of the Big 12's most disruptive defenders during his time in Ames. 

    Last year, the 6-foot-2, 244-pound senior earned Big 12 Co-Defensive Player of the Year honors after leading the Cyclones with 116 total tackles. 

    Klein and Knott belong in the discussion with every other top linebacker duo in college football, and the two tough, gritty 'backers have what it takes to go toe-to-toe with any offense that the Big 12 has to offer. 

26. Arthur Brown, Kansas State

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    One of the big offseason storylines at Kansas State last year was the arrival of the highly touted Brown brothers—Arthur, a transfer from Miami, and Bryce, a transfer from Tennessee. 

    Many Wildcats fans were hoping that both players would make a big impact in Manhattan in 2011, however, Bryce never made it out onto the field 

    Still, with the way Arthur played on defense, most fans seemed to forget all about not having Bryce in the backfield last year. 

    After sitting out a year, Brown stepped into the lineup and immediately surpassed high expectations, as he ended up finishing eighth in the Big 12 with 101 total tackles. 

    The 6-foot-1, 228-pound senior finally lived up to the hype that was thrust on him when he initially came out of Kansas' Wichita East High School.

    Unlike his brother Bryce, Arthur made the most of his second chance and he'll now be one of the most coveted senior linebacker prospects available for the 2013 NFL draft. 

27. Alec Ogletree, Georgia

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    Jarvis Jones isn't the only Georgia linebacker who should have All-American aspirations this season. Jones' teammate Alec Ogletree also appears to be in store for a huge campaign as well.

    Last year, Ogletree was limited to just eight games due to an early-season foot injury, but he still managed to finish with 52 tackles and three sacks. 

    The versatile 6-foot-3, 236-pound sophomore is one of the most athletic linebackers in the country, and he has a chance to reach star status if he can have the type of campaign that he's capable of in 2012. 

    Jones will get most of the preseason publicity and attention this summer, but Ogletree may end up playing just as big of a role in Georgia's defensive success in 2012. 

28. DeDe Lattimore, South Florida

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    South Florida will be looking to bounce back this season after an extremely disappointing 5-7 campaign in 2011. One of the key players that will help in the rejuvenation of the program this year will be budding star linebacker DeDe Lattimore. 

    After redshirting for his first year in 2009, Lattimore has come in and started 24 out of the 25 games he's played in over the last two seasons, and he seems to get progressively better with the more experience he accumulates. 

    Last year, the 6-foot-1, 234-pound junior led the Bulls with 94 tackles and seven sacks, and he gained a reputation around the Big East as one of the conference's most feared defenders. 

    Lattimore's stock is on the upswing, and he now seems ready to have the best season of his career in 2012. 

    With Sam Barrington and Michael Lanaris joining Lattimore, South Florida will have one of the most talented linebacker trios in not just the Big East, but the entire country this year. 

29. Tariq Edwards, Virginia Tech

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    Bruce Taylor won't be the only linebacker on Virginia Tech's defense who's going to play a big role in the team's quest for an ACC championship in 2012. Fellow 'backer Tariq Edwards will also be looking to make a big impact for the Hokies this season as well. 

    Last year, Edwards stepped up in the latter part of the season when Taylor went down with an injury and he really elevated his play, finishing the year with 92 tackles, 3.5 sacks and eight quarterback hurries. 

    The 6-foot-2, 232-pound junior is really just starting to tap into his true potential.

    With Taylor back to mentor and guide him, Edwards should be ready to have another dominant campaign in 2012. 

30. Steve Greer, Virginia

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    Virginia's Steve Greer has played a Luke Kuechly-esque role for the Virginia defense throughout his three-year career in Charlottesville.

    Like Kuechly did at Boston College, Greer has racked up some supremely impressive stats, including 254 career tackles, and he's been the linchpin for Virginia's defense ever since stepping foot on campus. 

    The 6-foot-2, 225-pound senior hasn't received a ton of national recognition thus far in his career, but that could change if he has the senior season he's capable of and if Virginia becomes a factor in the ACC Coastal division in 2012. 

    Greer won't end up as a Top-10 pick like Kuechly did in the 2012 draft, but he has a chance to cement his status as one of the best defensive players in Virginia football history if he can put together one more outstanding campaign this season. 

31. Sio Moore, Connecticut

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    Sio Moore managed to cause quite a stir with his breakout performance in 2010, when he finished fourth in the Big East with 110 tackles. 

    Moore wasn't quite that productive last season, but he still averaged 7.1 tackles per game, which was the ninth highest average in the conference in 2011. 

    The 6-foot-2, 229-pound senior is without question one of the most talented defenders in the Big East.

    Now that he has the proper supporting cast surrounding him with fellow linebackers Yawin Smallwood and Jory Johnson, Moore will be the centerpiece of one of college football's top linebacker units this year. 

32. Jonathan Bostic, Florida

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    Jonathan Bostic may not be the same caliber of NFL prospect as fellow Gators linebacker Jelani Jenkins, but Bostic is just as important to Florida's defensive success as Jenkins is.

    Last year, Bostic finished eighth in the SEC with 94 tackles and he also notched three sacks.

    The 6-foot-1, 243-pound senior is a strong and stout inside linebacker, who really loves to get physical and bang around inside the box. 

    With Bostic and Jenkins both returning for 2012, Florida will have a top-notch linebacker tandem to lead what should be one of the strongest defensive front-sevens in the country this season 

33. Christian Jones, Florida State

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    Florida State may have lost its leading tackler from last season, LB Nigel Bradham, who was selected in the fourth-round of this year's draft. However, the Seminoles still have a strong group of linebackers returning for 2012, and the leader of the crew will be Christian Jones. 

    Jones is a former 5-star recruit out of Florida's Lake Howell High School who is just oozing with potential. 

    The big, athletic 6-foot-4, 237-pound junior notched 56 tackles and three sacks in 2011, and he showed some intriguing flashes of prodigious potential. 

    Jones is a true physical specimen, and he could arguably be the most naturally gifted linebacker to come through Tallahassee since Lawrence Timmons.

    Florida State should have a Top 10 defense once again in 2012, and Jones will be counted on to be a key factor in the unit's ultimate success. 

34. James Morris, Iowa

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    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 this 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-foot-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 in 2012. 

35. Alonzo Highsmith, Arkansas

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    Arkansas won't have an easy time replacing LB Jerry Franklin, who was a second-team All-SEC performer in 2011. However, Alonzo Highsmith should be perfectly capable of stepping in for Franklin and becoming the leader of the Razorbacks linebacker corps. 

    Last year, Highsmith finished third on the team with 80 tackles and he also notched 4.5 sacks and returned a fumble for a touchdown. 

    The 6-foot-1, 229-pound senior excelled in his first season after transferring from Phoenix College and he should perform at an even higher level in 2012. 

    While his former teammate Franklin may have gone undrafted in this year's draft, NFL teams will likely be much more interested in Highsmith when he's available in 2013.

36. Will Compton, Nebraska

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    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 tries to improve from its disappointing effort a year ago. 

37. Kenny Tate, Maryland

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    Kenny Tate had no trouble establishing a reputation as one of the most talented safeties in college football before the start of his senior season in 2011. However, when new coach Randy Edsall arrived last offseason, he gave Tate a new challenge by switching him to outside linebacker. 

    The skilled safety convert looked like a natural at the "Star" position through the first four games of the season, averaging 8.8 tackles per contest, but a season-ending knee injury shelved him for the rest of the year. 

    Luckily, Tate was granted another year of eligibility by the NCAA, and he'll now have one more season to prove himself on the college level before heading off to the NFL. 

    The 6'4", 220-pound senior has a rare combination of size, speed and range. If his knee is back to 100 percent, Tate should have no trouble consistently chasing down ball-carriers in 2012. 

38. Michael Clay, Oregon

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    Oregon's offense has received most of the attention during Chip Kelly's three seasons in Eugene, and rightfully so. The Ducks have had one of the most explosive and potent offensive attacks in the country during Kelly's tenure.

    This season, however, Oregon's defense will likely begin to garner some much-deserved publicity as well, as the unit should be one of the Pac-12's strongest in 2012. 

    The Ducks have a proven playmaker at every level of their defense, including DE Dion Jordan up front and S John Boyett in the secondary. Leading the way for the linebackers will be veteran Michael Clay. 

    Last year, Clay finished second on the team with 102 total tackles, and he ranked second in the conference with 8.9 tackles per game. He also notched three sacks, broke up four passes and forced two fumbles. 

    The 5'11", 219-pound senior plays bigger than he's listed, and he showed last season that he knows how to find the football and make key stops. 

    If Clay can build on his 2011 success and can develop into the true leader that Oregon needs him to be, the Ducks will have one of the Pac-12's premier defenses in 2012. 

39. Caleb Lavey, Oklahoma State

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    Oklahoma State returns all three of its starting linebackers from 2011—Caleb Lavey, Alex Elkins and Shaun Lewis. The real player to watch among that trio this season will be Lavey. 

    Lavey worked his way into the starting lineup as a true sophomore last season and ended up making quite an impact in the middle of the Cowboys defense. 

    The 6'3", 240-pound junior was one of the team's most consistent defenders, as he racked up 74 tackles last year. 

    With Elkins and Lewis flanking him once again, Lavey will be the nucleus of what should be one of the Big 12's best linebacker units of 2012. 

40. Kevin Minter, LSU

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    Linebacker was considered the weak spot of LSU's dominant defense last season, but that's understandable when a team has the best defensive line and the best secondary in the country. 

    Even though the Tigers lose some key veteran linebackers in Ryan Baker, Karnell Hatcher and Stefoin Francois, they do bring back a potential standout in Kevin Minter. 

    Minter finished fifth on the team with 56 tackles last year, and he really proved to be an anchor in the middle of LSU's defense. 

    The 6'2", 242-pound junior is a smart, strong and athletic middle linebacker who gives the Tigers a proven run-stuffer to rely on. 

    While he'll likely be overshadowed by his more notable teammates, such as Tyrann Mathieu, Eric Reid, Barkevious Mingo and Sam Montgomery, before the season starts, Minter should be able to carve out a name for himself in the SEC in 2012. 

41. Kenny Cain, TCU

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    TCU not only has to deal with the loss of LB Tank Carder, who was a fifth-round pick in this year's NFL draft, but the Horned Frogs will also be without LB Tanner Brock, who was booted from the team back in February after being arrested as part of a campus-wide drug sting. 

    That means that LB Kenny Cain will really have to step up in a big way in 2012.

    Cain seems like he should be up for it, though, as he had a terrific season last year. Cain led the Horned Frogs with 72 total tackles despite missing two games with an injury. 

    The 6'1", 225-pound senior may not be the biggest linebacker, but he's an absolutely ideal fit for the 4-2-5 defense that coach Gary Patterson employs. 

    Cain has the type of leadership ability it takes to help guide TCU's defense through the transition into the Big 12 this season, and he'll be able to finally prove himself against BCS-caliber competition in 2012. 

42. Jeremy Grove, East Carolina

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    Most BCS schools shied away from Jeremy Grove when he was a 2-star prospect at Maryland's Thomas Johnson High School. However, after Grove's outstanding performance as a redshirt freshman last season, it's safe to say that all the big schools that didn't think he was worth a scholarship are now regretting their mistake.

    Grove turned out to be an instant star for the Pirates defense in 2011, and he ended up finishing fourth in Conference USA with 122 total tackles.

    The 6'1", 230-pound sophomore has the strength, instincts and tackling ability that you look for in a top-notch inside linebacker, and Grove will now be counted on to be the leader of East Carolina's defense in 2012.

43. Denzel Perryman, Miami

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    Miami lost its defensive leader in LB Sean Spence, who was a third-round pick in this year's NFL draft. This means the Hurricanes are going to need LB Denzel Perryman to step up in a big way in 2012.

    Last year, Perryman finished second on the team behind Spence with 69 total tackles, and he gave some strong hints that he's ready to become a big time impact player early in his career.

    The 6'0", 225-pound sophomore has what it takes to be Miami's next great linebacker, and he's going to be counted on to be one of the key leaders of the Hurricanes defense in 2012.

44. Ryan Shazier, Ohio State

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    This year, Ohio State's linebacker corps may lack a true All-American star like James Laurinaitis or A.J. Hawk, but linebacker Ryan Shazier has the chance to really develop into a top defensive standout in 2012.

    The athletic 6'1", 226-pound sophomore finished sixth on the team with 56 tackles, and he also notched three sacks last season.

    Now it could be time for him to really come into his own. 

    Shazier will join fellow teammates Etienne Sabino and Storm Klein to form a linebacker unit that should be one of the strongest groups in the Big Ten this season.

45. Jordan Hicks, Texas

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    Texas has lost its two top linebackers, Keenan Robinson and Emmanuel Acho, who were the team's leading tacklers the past two seasons. 

    While losing Robinson and Acho certainly hurts, the Longhorns still have plenty of top-tier talent all over their defense, including standout defensive ends Alex Okafor and Jackson Jeffcoat and standout defensive backs such as Kenny Vaccaro, Carrington Byndom and Quandre Diggs. 

    We know Texas will be strong up front and strong in the back end, but the team will need a new playmaking linebacker to emerge, and it looks like Jordan Hicks will be saddled with that responsibility in 2012. 

    Hicks is hardly a newcomer to the scene in Austin. The 6'2", 235-pound junior started eight games last season and he finished sixth on the team with 65 tackles. 

    With Acho and Robinson gone, Hicks will now be asked to be the leader of the linebacker corps. It should be interesting to see how he handles his new role in 2012. 

46. Zaviar Gooden, Missouri

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    Zaviar Gooden is the type of big, athletic linebacker who is built to succeed in the SEC, and it shouldn't take long for Gooden to make a name for himself when Missouri joins the East Division in 2012. 

    The 6'2", 230-pound senior racked up 80 tackles and led the team with 54 solo stops last season.

    Gooden and fellow linebacker Andrew Wilson will be counted on to be the two key leaders for Missouri's defense in 2012,  and he should continue to be a reliable playmaker this year.

    If Gooden performs to his potential against SEC competition, you would have to expect that NFL scouts will surely take notice of his abilities as a weak-side linebacker for a 4-3 defense. 

47. Derrick Matthews, Houston

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    QB Case Keenum and the Houston offense were the main focus during the Cougars' amazing 13-1 season last year. However, the team also had some standout performers on the defensive side of the ball, and one of the key playmakers was LB Derrick Matthews.

    In his first year, the athletic outside linebacker tallied 106 total tackles, including 55 solo stops and 10 tackles for loss. He also picked off three passes and forced two fumbles.

    The 6'0", 200-pound sophomore showed that he's got a tremendous radar for finding the football, and he proved that he's one of the top young defenders in Conference USA.

    Houston's defense may have lost key linebackers like Marcus McGraw and Sammy Brown, but Matthews seems like he's ready to step up and become the leader of the Cougars defense in 2012.

48. Patrick Larimore, UCLA

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    UCLA's Patrick Larimore may not be the flashiest middle linebacker you ever lay your eyes on, but he's the type of football player who routinely finds a way to get his job done and who clearly takes pride in his work on the field. 

    Last year, Larimore led the Bruins with 81 total tackles and he was recognized as UCLA's most valuable defensive player for 2011. 

    The 6'3", 253-pound senior doesn't make many huge hits or flash plays, but he always seems to find a way to make an impact and never appears to be far from the ball. 

    Larimore is the type of, tough, instinctive, intangibles-laden linebacker that you could stick in the middle of any defense successfully. 

49. Jake Ryan, Michigan

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    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-foot-3, 230-pound sophomore is a perfect fit for the strong-side 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 the 2012 season, don't be surprised if Ryan steals his thunder and emerges as a bigger impact player for the Wolverines defense this year. 

50. Jonathan Willard, Clemson

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    Clemson's defense will enter the 2012 season coming off of one of the most embarrassing performances in college football history—a 70-33 beat down at the hands of West Virginia in the Orange Bowl. 

    That type of disastrous performance on a national stage could leave the defense feeling some after-effects, but as long as the Tigers can mentally put it in the rear-view mirror, they've actually got the chance to put out one of the ACC's toughest defenses in 2012. 

    Yes, the defensive line will have to be re-tooled after losing prominent players such as DT Brandon Thompson and DE Andre Branch, but the linebacker corps looks like it will be one of the strongest units on the team this season. 

    The leader of the group will be veteran Jonathan Willard. 

    Willard racked up 76 tackles in 2011, and he proved to be one of Clemson's most consistent defenders last year. 

    The 6'2", 220-pound senior is a strong and athletic outside 'backer who moves well and who can make plays from sideline to sideline. 

Honorable Mention: Ronald Powell, Florida

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    Florida's defense experienced some bad news this spring when it was revealed that hybrid defensive end-linebacker Ronald Powell had torn his ACL. 

    Powell's status for 2012 is still unknown at this point, but if he can handle an aggressive rehab and recovery process over the summer, he could be a factor for the defense at some point this season. 

    Gators fans had high expectations for the former 5-star recruit when he arrived in Gainesville as the No. 1-ranked prospect of the 2010 recruiting class. It's taken some time for the young edge rusher to get acclimated to life in the SEC, but after two years of continual development it looked like Powell was ready to take the next step and become a true star in 2012 . 

    The highly athletic 6'4", 248-pound junior racked up six sacks and nine tackles for loss last year, and he showed some intriguing flashes of his enormous potential. 

    If Powell's rehab goes well, and if he makes it back out onto the field this season, he will be one of the key defenders to watch in the SEC in 2012. 

    Still, it remains to be seen how quickly he'll progress, and there's a chance we may have to wait until 2013 to see what the former No. 1 recruit really has to offer. 

The ACC’s Top 10 Linebackers

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    1. Bruce Taylor, Virginia Tech

    2. Kevin Reddick, North Carolina

    3. Demetrius Hartsfield, Maryland

    4. Tariq Edwards, Virginia Tech

    5. Steve Greer, Virginia

    6. Christian Jones, Florida State

    7. Kenny Tate, Maryland

    8. Denzel Perryman, Miami

    9. Jonathan Willard, Clemson

    10. Kevin Pierre-Louis, Boston College

Other ACC Linebackers to Watch

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    Corico Hawkins, Clemson

    Daniel Drummond, Georgia Tech

    Jeremiah Attaochu, Georgia Tech

    Justin Jackson, Wake Forest

    Kelby Brown, Duke

    LaRoy Reynolds, Virginia

    Lorne Goree, Maryland

    Quayshawn Nealy, Georgia Tech

    Stephone Anthony, Clemson

    Telvin Smith, Florida State

    Vince Williams, Florida State

The Big 12’s Top 10 Linebackers

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    1. Jake Knott, Iowa State

    2. Tom Wort, Oklahoma

    3. A.J. Klein, Iowa State

    4. Arthur Brown, Kansas State

    5. Caleb Lavey, Oklahoma State

    6. Kenny Cain, TCU

    7. Jordan Hicks, Texas

    8. Corey Nelson, Oklahoma

    9. Josh Francis, West Virginia

    10. Tre Walker, Kansas State

Other Big 12 Linebackers to Watch

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    Alex Elkins, Oklahoma State

    Bryce Hager, Baylor

    Daniel Cobb, Texas Tech

    Darius Willis, Kansas

    Deryck Gildon, TCU

    Doug Rigg, West Virginia

    Rodney Chadwick, Baylor

    Shaun Lewis, Oklahoma State

    Steve Edmond, Texas

    Tunde Bakare, Kansas

The Big East’s Top 10 Linebackers

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    1. Khaseem Greene, Rutgers

    2. DeDe Lattimore, South Florida

    3. Sio Moore, Connecticut

    4. Sam Barrington, South Florida

    5. Yawin Smallwood, Connecticut

    6. Preston Brown, Louisville

    7. Steve Beauharnais, Rutgers

    8. Dyshawn Davis, Syracuse

    9. Daniel Brown, Louisville 

    10. Marquis Spruill, Syracuse

Other Big East Linebackers to Watch

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    Cameron Lynch, Syracuse

    Dan Vaughan, Syracuse

    Eric Williams, Pittsburgh

    Jamal Merrell, Rutgers

    Jory Johnson, Connecticut

    Kevin Snyder, Rutgers

    Maalik Bomar, Cincinnati

    Michael Lanaris, South Florida

    Nick Temple, Cincinnati

    Todd Thomas, Pittsburgh

The Big Ten’s Top 10 Linebackers

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    1. Chris Borland, Wisconsin

    2. Gerald Hodges, Penn State

    3. Denicos Allen, Michigan State

    4. Mike Taylor, Wisconsin

    5. Jonathan Brown, Illinois

    6. Kenny Demens, Michigan

    7. James Morris, Iowa

    8. Will Compton, Nebraska

    9. Jake Ryan, Michigan

    10. Ryan Shazier, Ohio State

Other Big Ten Linebackers to Watch

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    Chase Hoobler, Indiana

    Chris Norman, Michigan State

    Christian Kirksey, Iowa

    David Nwabuisi, Northwestern

    Desmond Morgan, Michigan

    Etienne Sabino, Ohio State

    Glenn Carson, Penn State

    Max Bullough, Michigan State

    Michael Mauti, Penn State

    Mike Rallis, Minnesota

    Storm Klein, Ohio State

The Pac-12’s Top 10 Linebackers

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    1. Shayne Skov, Stanford

    2. Hayes Pullard, USC

    3. Dion Bailey, USC

    4. Chase Thomas, Stanford

    5. Michael Clay, Oregon

    6. Patrick Larimore, UCLA

    7. Brian Wagner, Arizona

    8. Trevor Reilly, Utah

    9. Brandon Magee, Arizona State

    10. Feti Unga, Oregon State

Other Pac-12 Linebackers to Watch

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    A.J. Tarpley, Stanford

    Dan Camporeale, California

    Douglas Rippy, Colorado

    Eric Kendricks, UCLA

    John Timu, Washington

    Jordan Zumwalt, UCLA

    Kiko Alonso, Oregon

    Jon Major, Colorado 

    Michael Doctor, Oregon State

    Trent Murphy, Stanford

The SEC’s Top 10 Linebackers

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    1. Jarvis Jones, Georgia

    2. Jelani Jenkins, Florida

    3. C.J. Mosley, Alabama

    4. Sean Porter, Texas A&M

    5. A.J. Johnson, Tennessee

    6. Nico Johnson, Alabama

    7. Alec Ogletree, Georgia

    8. Jonathan Bostic, Florida

    9. Alonzo Highsmith, Arkansas

    10. Kevin Minter, LSU

Other SEC Linebackers to Watch

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    Andrew Wilson, Missouri

    Cameron Lawrence, Mississippi State

    Curt Maggitt, Tennessee 

    Daren Bates, Auburn

    DeVonte Holloman, South Carolina

    Jonathan Stewart, Texas A&M

    Michael Gilliard, Georgia

    Mike Marry, Ole Miss

    Ronald Powell, Florida

    Shaq Wilson, South Carolina

    Serderius Bryant, Ole Miss

    Trey Depriest, Alabama

Conference-USA’s Top 10 Linebackers

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    1. Jeremy Grove, East Carolina

    2. Derrick Matthews, Houston

    3. Trent Mackey, Tulane

    4. Jamie Collins, Southern Miss

    5. Ja’Gared Davis, SMU

    6. Shawn Jackson, Tulsa

    7. Jonathan Davis, Central Florida

    8. Phillip Steward, Houston

    9. Taylor Reed, SMU

    10. Cameron Nwosu, Rice

The MAC’s Top 10 Linebackers

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    1. C.J. Malauulu, Kent State

    2. Khalil Mack, Buffalo

    3. Travis Freeman, Ball State

    4. Dwayne Woods, Bowling Green

    5. Pat Hinkel, Miami (Ohio)

    6. Dan Molls, Toledo

    7. Justin Cudworth, Eastern Michigan

    8. Aaron Morris, Ball State

    9. Luke Batton, Kent State

    10. Alphonso Lewis, Ohio

The Mountain West’s Top 10 Linebackers

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    1. J.C. Percy, Boise State

    2. Shaquil Barrett, Colorado State

    3. Jake Fely, San Diego State

    4. Alex Means, Air Force

    5. Art Laurel, Hawaii

    6. Dallas Bollema, New Mexico

    7. Mike Orakpo, Colorado State

    8. Travis Brown, Fresno State

    9. Devyn Harris, Wyoming

    10. Tommy Smith, Boise State

The Sun Belt’s Top 10 Linebackers

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    1. Randell Johnson, Florida Atlantic

    2. Andrew Jackson, Western Kentucky

    3. Winston Fraser, FIU

    4. Jake Molbert, Louisiana-Lafayette

    5. Zach Orr, North Texas

    6. Nathan Herrold, Arkansas State

    7. David Hinds, Florida Atlantic

    8. Jordan Hunt, FIU

    9. Brannon Bryan, Troy

    10. Cameron Blakes, Louisiana-Monroe

The WAC’s Top 10 Linebackers

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    1. Keith Smith, San Jose State

    2. Tavaris McMillian, Utah State

    3. Conrad Scheidt, Idaho

    4. Rufus Porter, Louisiana Tech

    5. Vince Buhagiar, San Jose State

    6. Bojay Filimoeatu, Utah State

    7. Byran Bonilla, New Mexico State

    8. Solomon Randle, Louisiana Tech

    9. Robert Siavii, Idaho

    10. Derek Muaava, San Jose State

The Top 10 Independent Linebackers

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    1. Manti Te’o, Notre Dame

    2. Kyle Van Noy, BYU

    3. Matt Warrick, Navy

    4. Brandon Ogletree, BYU

    5. Prince Shembo, Notre Dame

    6. Uona Kaveinga, BYU

    7. Matt Brewer, Navy

    8. Dan Fox, Notre Dame

    9. Geoffrey Bacon, Army

    10. Danny Spond, Notre Dame