Big Ten Football Preview 2012: Top 10 Linebackers
This is the latest in a series of articles previewing Big Ten football in 2012. A rough schedule of previous and upcoming preview articles is provided at the end of this article.
Linebackers. There is no word that puts fear into skill players and quarterbacks like linebackers. These are the middle anchors of the strong Big Ten defenses, and these players have an interesting mix of size and speed.
Some players like Greg Jones from Michigan State rack up truly outstanding numbers over their career and end up playing in the pros. Many of the others will have nice college careers but may not move on to more football after this. Without at least solid linebackers, the glue that holds the defense together will fail and the defense will fall apart.
With some of the biggest names in the defensive side of the conference returning for another season, let's take a look at some of the high risers and the returning greats making up the 10 best linebackers in the Big Ten. Just don't get in front of these freight trains when they are tracking down a quarterback or running back.
10. Will Lucas, Purdue
Lucas starts off this list of the best linebackers in the Big Ten after a respectable first season starting as a sophomore in West Lafayette. Lucas racked up 82 tackles, which was third-highest on the Boilermaker defense in 2011. Nine of those tackles were for loss, a good number that should grow this year.
Lucas also has the advantage of having a senior, Dwayne Beckford, playing middle linebacker and drawing some attention away from him. He has the speed to rush around the edge of the line and bust up plays moving laterally. If he can increase his sack total this year, he could be well placed for a run at a top three spot in his senior season.
Definitely a pick of more potential than proven, but Lucas should prove he belongs on this list in 2012.
9. James Morris, Iowa
James Morris tied with fellow junior Christian Kirksey for team lead in tackles a season ago with a whopping 110. That was enough to get an honorable mention for all-conference, which followed a freshman season where Morris was named to the freshman All-American team.
With two years left to continue racking up the tackles, expect Morris to keep making a bunch of plays and leading his defense from the middle linebacker spot. Most sacks in the Iowa defense come from the defensive line, but that should not detract from what Morris brings to the table.
If Morris can snag a couple of interceptions and keep his tackles high, he may be a candidate for a true All-American in the next two years. Anything less than making an all-conference team will be a disappointment.
8. Denicos Allen, Michigan State
Denicos Allen jumped onto the scene as a sophomore a season ago and racked up an incredible 11 sacks and 7.5 tackles for loss in his first year starting. This earned him second-team all-conference honors, despite having to sit behind truly incredible linebackers like Greg Jones and Eric Gordon.
However, learning from a guy like Greg Jones may explain why a relatively unheralded recruit coming out of high school has learned how to make a lot of big plays. Jones may actually do more with less talent than some of the backups in the deep Spartans linebacker corps.
Repeating the double-digit sacks may not happen, but Allen has earned the right to draw our attention. Let's see if he can continue to capitalize on it.
7. Ryan Shazier, Ohio State
Shazier was part of a youth movement under interim head coach Luke Fickell a season ago, and that caused the Buckeyes to surrender more than 15 points per game (21.0) for the first time since 2005. Most of the additional yardage came from opposing running games, which was a result of the inexperience and some injuries along the defensive front.
This year under Urban Meyer, the trials from a season ago should now pay off with the entire defensive line and backfield returning. With Storm Klein being dismissed, that will make Ryan Shazier a likely candidate for filling the middle linebacker spot.
Shazier is only a sophomore, but he is likely destined to become a star, as Ohio State rises back to the top of the conference (in all likelihood) over the next three seasons.
6. Kenny Demens, Michigan
Kenny Demens stands alone as the only upperclassman linebacker that survived the culling that Brady Hoke performed in his first year as head coach. Two freshman shared the linebacker role with Demens a season ago and that allowed him to stand above the rest of the team easily with 94 tackles.
With all three of these linebackers returning, Demens should again be the anchor in the middle of the Wolverines' defense. A team does not cut their points allowed per game by 50 percent without dedicating a lot of time to offseason workouts and tough drills in fall camp. That should be the case again in year No. 2 under Hoke.
Demens should exceed 100 tackles this season. If Michigan finishes in the Big Ten Championship, it will be difficult to see anyone other than Demens locking down a spot on the all-conference team at the end of the year.
5. Jonathan Brown, Illinois
It seems that the list thus far has been chock-full of linebackers who made second-team all-conference a season ago, and Brown is yet another in that category. In only his sophomore season, Brown led the revitalized Illini defense with 108 tackles, 13.5 for loss.
Brown is the only member of the linebacker crew that will return, so expect the spotlight to fall squarely on him once again this season. Assuming that the talented defense keeps up the high level of production in the new schemes of Tim Beckman, Brown will be a rising star with a chance at first-team all-conference.
One portion of Brown's game that could be better is making plays on the pass. After only breaking up four passes and intercepting one a season ago, this is one portion of play that could be improved (the picture above is a nice example).
4. Max Bullough, Michigan State
Similar to Brown, Bullough managed to make second-team all-conference a season ago as a sophomore. Bullough, like his teammate Denicos Allen, emerged as a superstar replacement for Greg Jones, who racked up ridiculous numbers of tackles in his seasons at the position.
Bullough led the team with 89 tackles a season ago and added 3.5 sacks and 3.5 tackles for loss. He is not just a run stopper though, as Bullough racked up the quarterback hurries as well in 2011. Look for him and Allen to continue bringing selective blitzes that really put the pressure on opposing quarterbacks to avoid throwing into coverages that lead to turnovers.
Bullough was one of the top 20 linebacker recruits coming out of high school, and now he has the opportunity to live up to his full potential as one of the conference's best linebackers.
3. Mike Taylor, Wisconsin
Now, we get into the players that separated themselves from the pack in conference play a season ago and earned first-team all-conference honors. Three of those players return in 2012 and they should all be even stronger in 2012. The first player in this top group is Mike Taylor, who has 58 tackles in 2010 before exploding for 150 tackles in 2011.
Yes, I said ONE HUNDRED FIFTY.
As if that were not enough, Taylor added seven tackles for loss and two interceptions to the mix. Taylor is one of the biggest reasons opposing passing games really struggled to get anything going against the Badgers. With a future superstar in Vince Biegel in the two-deep, Taylor may not reach the ludicrous numbers from a season ago.
Even without those numbers, Wisconsin will have the best linebacker crew in the conference and Taylor will be recognized again for his consistent high-level play.
2. Chris Borland, Wisconsin
Speaking of that great Wisconsin linebacker crew, Chris Borland sneaks just ahead of his teammate Taylor for the No. 2 spot. Borland also made first-team all-conference in 2011 for the Badgers with 143 tackles, which obviously pales in comparison to the 150 Taylor put up.
However, Borland added more pass breakups (five) and tackles for loss (16.5) than Taylor, and has more opportunities to lead defensive plays from the middle linebacker spot. As a result, Borland looks like the better all-around player.
It is really splitting hairs with these Badgers players though. Wisconsin fans may be unhappy that both players rank behind No. 1, but they will enjoy watching Wisconsin dominate on defense again thanks to these two great talents.
1. Gerald Hodges, Penn State
Perhaps the best player remaining at Penn State is Gerald Hodges, who won first-team all-conference honors for the Nittany Lions in a season that went horribly awry at the end thanks to scandal. When other upperclassmen at the top talent levels have bolted for greener pastures, Hodges has decided to stay for his final season and acts like the true leader of a unified team.
Hodges racked up 106 tackles, including 4.5 sacks and 5.5 tackles for loss, a season ago. That was good enough to push him to the top of the conference. While it is true that the overall defensive unit and the statistics may be better for the linebackers in Madison, Hodges is a true MVP and will really shine with the defections of some of the best players.
Hodges cannot make Penn State go to the top of the conference by himself, but he gives Bill O'Brien a great leader on that side of the ball to build around. He's an honorable kid, and we should applaud his decision while enjoying the opportunity to watch him again this season.
Thanks for reading! If you have any comments or questions about this or other articles in the 2012 Big Ten football preview series, please contact David on Twitter.
Big Ten Season Preview 2012 Recap/Summary
Previous B1G Scouting Reports: Sun Belt/WAC report
Previous Top 10 Position Rankings: top 10 offensive linemen
Coming soon: Iowa team preview, top 10 linebackers, Scouting Report on the MAC and Independents
More to come throughout August!