College Football's Top LBs Entering 2014 Spring Practice
2013 was a solid year for linebacker play, featuring players across the nation who filled the spectrum of what coaches were looking for from the position. There were outstanding pass-rushers, guys who played downhill to make big impacts and versatile athletes who could do a little bit of everything.
As Anthony Barr of UCLA, C.J. Mosley from Alabama and Chris Borland from Wisconsin transition to the next level, the time comes to take a look at who will rise up to fill the void. Plenty of athletes showed promise a season ago, and now, in 2014, expect the linebacker position to be filled with another crop of elite players.
Here is a look at some of the top returners at the position, players that will have big impacts for their team in 2014, in alphabetical order.
Bryce Hager was one of the most underrated players at the linebacker position for the Big 12 champion Baylor Bears. He loses his linebacking teammates Eddie Lackey and Sam Holl to used-up eligibility, and that leaves him as the anchor of a defense that has to continue to improve in 2014.
Lackey and Holl, along with safety Ahmad Dixon, were rocks for the Bears, and now Hager will be tasked with rallying the troops out of the gate in 2014. Although Baylor loses key pieces out of the linebacking corps and the secondary, the Bears do have good depth in front of Hager to help make his job easier.
With plenty of defensive linemen in the fold, including budding star Shawn Oakman, Hager should be free to run down ball-carriers for Baylor. As the defense looks for new playmakers in the back end, he and the front seven will have to set the pace and help the secondary find its footing.
Myles Jack was a standout linebacker for much of the 2013 season, but the nation only seemed to pay attention to the Pac-12 freshman when he started getting touches in the run game. He won both the Pac-12 defensive and offensive rookies of the year awards, and many were pushing for the linebacker to go full time at the glamorous position.
However, the rising sophomore is steadfast about being a linebacker, and that means the defensive side of the ball will be blessed with watching the athletic backer fly around to the football. Jack, next to fellow linebacker standout Eric Kendricks will anchor a UCLA defense that loses linebackers Anthony Barr and Jordan Zumwalt, plus defensive end Cassius Marsh.
Jim Mora has recruited talent to the defensive side of the ball, and players like Jack are going to help lead the way for a team that is poised to push its way toward the Top 10. With Jack and Kendricks in the fold, UCLA still features the linebacking position as an area of strength, even as two NFL players in Barr and Zumwalt move on.
A.J. Johnson garnered All-SEC status as a linebacker who made a ton of tackles in the 2013 season. Unfortunately for Tennessee, most of Johnson's tackles were made while chasing plays downfield or laterally, not coming downhill to minimize gains.
In Year 2 with defensive coordinator John Jancek, this Volunteers defense will have to take a big step to improve Tennessee's lot in the SEC. That means playing more aggressively, reading plays more correctly and playing better assignment football.
And that all starts with defensive leader Johnson showing he can get his team lined up and then go make plays at, or behind, the line of scrimmage. The rising senior, who decided to return for his final season, has work to do not just to improve his draft stock but also to elevate Tennessee back to the ranks of teams headed to bowl games.
Last season, Lorenzo Mauldin was a hand-down defensive end who got the opportunity to stand up and rush the quarterback while playing the second to Marcus Smith, who is set to be drafted in May. Now, with Smith gone and new defensive coordinator Todd Grantham in the fold, Mauldin will be the guy who is standing up and looking to make plays.
Mauldin explained why he is excited to Tim Sullivan of The Courier-Journal:
“Coming off the line as a defensive end, you raise up and the play is already happening,” Mauldin said Thursday afternoon. “The two or three seconds my face is down in the turf, I can’t see what the formation is. I can’t see what’s going on. I’d listen to the linebackers and the (defensive backs) to know what the play is. ...
“I would like to see the play before it happens and be able to get accustomed to it.”
Last year, Smith flourished in this role, and despite the coaching changes, Mauldin seems poised to the do the same as a hybrid, rush linebacker. Grantham is the same coach who helped get Georgia linebacker Jarvis Jones into the NFL as a first-round draft pick.
In 2014, Mauldin is looking to become the next successful hybrid backer for the defensive coordinator. The rising senior has the tools; it is up to him and Grantham to work together to maximize the production.
Louisville has plenty of quality talent that is returning to the defensive side of the ball. If Mauldin has a big year, this unit should again be among the nation's best.
Denzel Perryman would have been one of the most sought-after linebackers in the 2014 draft, but the junior elected to return for his senior season to help lead the Hurricanes defense. He was the leading tackler for Miami and the anchor for a defense that, despite flashes in 2013, has a lot of room to improve in 2014.
Miami surrendered 30 or more points in six of its 13 contests a season ago, and while Perryman put together a season worthy of being an All-ACC player, the team was a mediocre defensive unit. This year, Miami gets pieces back into the fold, plus the addition of some help. The group is looking to start playing reliable, every-down defense.
Perryman is going to be essential to that effort; as a near prototypical interior linebacker, the senior is at his best coming downhill to meet ball-carriers in the hole. Calvin Heurtelou is a junior college defensive tackle who comes in tasked with keeping Perryman's path to the football clean.
As Juwon Young and Darrion Owens start their first springs on campus, Perryman will have to be a true rock for this defense. He should continue building on 2013, but it will take production from some new faces for the front seven to get stops.
USC has historically produced elite-level linebackers on a near yearly basis. In 2014, Hayes Pullard is looking to be the next high-quality backer to leave the Trojans and enter the NFL. Playing for his third coordinator in as many seasons, he will have to be the leader in the middle of the USC defense.
As is usually the case with the Trojans, there is talent leaving for the next level. Dion Bailey (a linebacker turned safety), Morgan Breslin and Devon Kennard (two pass-rushers) and George Uko (a defensive tackle) are no longer in Los Angeles. However, as is also the case in Troy, talent is available to fill the void for new head coach Steve Sarkisian.
Justin Wilcox is the new defensive coordinator, and he will blend a little of the 4-3 principles with which Pullard started his career with the 3-4 and 5-2 ideals that Clancy Pendergast brought into the mix a season ago. With Wilcox's use of the rush end and attempt to get linebackers moving toward the line to make plays, look for Pullard to have a big 2014.
Noah Spence enters 2014 as the nation's best option at the rush as a hybrid linebacker-type player. He has speed off of the edge and the power to uproot tackles when he strikes them on his way to the quarterback. He is the cream of the crop, and because he is comfortable standing up or with his hand down, he is a problem for opponents.
He is listed as a defensive end, but given the frequency with which he stands up as a rush backer, he deserves to be on this list. The rising junior is not a one-trick pony: He's as comfortable fighting in the run game as he is tearing around the edge to get to the passer.
This year, expect him to take another step, following a season that saw him make the All-Big Ten second team.
Unfortunately for Spence and Ohio State, the talented player will remain on the same suspension that forced him out of the Orange Bowl. Spence was suspended for ecstasy, and his suspension carries over into the 2014 season.
When he returns, expect big things on the field.
Oklahoma enters spring feeling as high as it has felt in quite some time, thanks to a win in the Bedlam Game and a throttling of Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl.
On the defensive side of the ball, getting linebacker Eric Striker back is a good reason to be excited. He, along with leading tackler and fellow linebacker Frank Shannon, is returning to set the tone for a team that will be eyeballing the playoff.
Shannon is the reliable thumper, but Striker is the playmaker in the linebacking corps for the Sooners. He led the team in sacks and tackles for loss and was second in quarterback hurries, per CFBStats. In 2014, for a team that started the transition between a true four-man front into a three-man front hybrid, spring will help move Mike Stoops' defense further along into the process.
That means Striker will settle into his role of getting after the quarterback and playing behind the line of scrimmage as he makes quick reads and inserts himself into plays. He should push his way onto the first-team All-Big 12 team, and if his production improves, he has a shot to become a nationally recognized player.
In 2012, Shaq Thompson was a safety who seemed to be a bit confused and a step too slow. In 2013, thanks to Justin Wilcox, the sophomore was a speedy linebacker who was making plays all over the field. The move helped Thompson, a former 5-star safety, according to 247Sports, become an honorable mention All Pac-12 performer.
In 2014, he should be even better.
Thompson has the talent to be a first-round draft pick in 2015, and as he enters into Year 2 at the position, his star should continue to rise. Pete Kwiatkowski, the new defensive coordinator, has a lump of clay that Wilcox started, and this year will be about Thompson taking the next step in his development.
Washington needs him to continue to use his speed to make plays. However, the Huskies also need to see more growth out of the linebacker when it comes to reading his keys and getting downhill to make plays. The speed helps to run down plays, and the next step in quality linebacker play is rooting out action at or near the line of scrimmage.
If Thompson can improve at diagnosing plays quickly, look for the Huskies defense to stay on the path for improvement that Wilcox started. Kwiatkowski's teams play technically sound football, and with several quality pieces coming back, including Thompson, this unit should get much better.
Ramik Wilson, like fellow All-SEC linebacker A.J. Johnson, played on a defense that needs to produce more stops in 2014 to get the desired result. Wilson made plenty of tackles, but this coming season, he and the Bulldogs defense must turn the corner from running down its troubles to forcing the issue.
Luckily for him, both Amarlo Herrera and Jordan Jenkins are also back in the fold to anchor an experienced linebacking corps for new coordinator Jeremy Pruitt. The former Florida State defensive coordinator runs a tight ship that is predicated on letting his players play fast, downhill football—something the Dawgs need in a bad way.
Wilson will fill the Telvin Smith role for this Dawgs defense; he will be a player who flows to the ball and pushes to meet ball-carriers in the hole instead of dragging them down while they pick up quality yards. As long as the defensive line can keep bodies off Wilson, he should be able to get through the wash to be an impact linebacker heading toward the line of scrimmage.
Other Notable Linebackers
At Nebraska, whose defense will find its strength in the front seven this year, there are a few quality linebackers working into the mix. Michael Rose, Josh Banderas and David Santos make up what has a shot to be one of the Big Ten's best groups in 2014. Also in the Big Ten, Michigan, with Joe Bolden, Jake Ryan and Desmond Morgan, has a crop of quality players.
In the ACC, North Carolina's Norkeithus Otis is a hybrid linebacker who should show more of his increasing knack for getting to the quarterback. At Florida State, Terrance Smith was a solid player this season and will be tasked with helping younger players push into the lineup as the leader of the linebackers. Clemson's Stephone Anthony will also be a quality linebacker ready to lead a Clemson defense with a lot of talent.
Texas is a team in transition, but both Dalton Santos and Steve Edmond are solid pieces for new defensive coordinator Vance Bedford to use at the linebacker spot.
However, it is not just the big schools. Temple's Tyler Matakevich might be one of the nation's best-kept secrets at the linebacker position. He finds a way to the football and delivers a blow when he gets there; 2014 should be no different.
The same goes for fellow AAC linebacker, UCF's Terrance Plummer. Both are quality players who will make big impacts next season.