“Linebacker U” has become a contested title in recent years.
Alabama and coach Nick Saban have started to quiet the debate, though, pulling away from the rest of the pack as the destination for high-profile linebackers.
Penn State legally owns the trademark to the term “Linebacker U” and certainly stakes strong claims after decades of turning out fantastic products at the position.
Even in the last decade, the Nittany Lions turned out NFL standouts NaVarro Bowman of the San Francisco 49ers and Sean Lee of the Dallas Cowboys.
Others, including Alabama, have made holding onto the invisible mantle of “Linebacker U” a tougher challenge since the turn of the century.
The last two decades brought USC, Ohio State and Miami into the conversation. UCLA brought itself to the table—perhaps prematurely—with an offseason tweet during the summer of 2013 (h/t: The Big Lead and Dr. Saturday).
Consider this, though: If your son or brother played linebacker and could choose any school or any coach today, which would be the best choice strictly from an on-field perspective?
Since the 2005 season, Alabama statistically boasts the greatest claim as the nation’s top linebacker destination.
During that time only USC has produced more first- or second-round picks at the position. And, for the record, Alabama should tie the Trojans this year when C.J. Mosley, projected by ESPN.com as a first-round draft pick (subscription required), gets selected.
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It should be noted that just as ESPN projects Mosley as a first-round pick in the 2014 NFL Draft, it projects Ohio State linebacker Ryan Shazier too.
No program has fielded more All-America honorees or had more All-America selections than Alabama since 2005.
The Crimson Tide has placed four All-America linebackers—DeMeco Ryans, Rolando McClain, Dont’a Hightower and C.J. Mosley—as first-team members on the American Football Coaches Association or the Associated Press teams.
Only two other programs—Ohio State and Penn State—have drawn even two first-team All-America honors at the position.
Ohio State has earned four honors since the 2005 season—three from James Laurinaitis and one from A.J. Hawk (who was a two-time honoree with the other coming in 2004).
Paul Posluszny and Dan Connor represent the two All-America selections during the same time frame for Penn State. Both drew first-team distinctions once each.
Considering all-conference selections means comparing apples and oranges in some cases because qualifying as an all-conference player in one league is easier than in another.
Still, Alabama stacks up favorably in that category as well.
Ohio State, Alabama and Penn State have each fielded five first-team all-conference linebackers since 2005.
The Buckeyes have earned eight spots on first-team all-Big Ten rosters at the position, more than Penn State’s seven. Alabama linebackers have also earned all-conference honors seven times.
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ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12, SEC
Over the last five seasons, there’s little debate that playing linebacker for Saban is the safest way to gain All-America recognition. Saban—along with the players Pete Carroll recruited to USC—also provides the clearest path to the NFL for linebackers.
Fittingly, Alabama has won three of the last five national championships largely on the back of its dominating defenses while the centerpieces of the units shined brightest.
The Crimson Tide ranked nationally in the top 10 of total defense. It has ranked in the top four in scoring defense during that time period as well.
Alabama’s defensive success resonates with new recruits.
Consider that two of the nation’s top linebacker prospects in the past two years have played in the Crimson Tide’s archrival’s backyard—at Auburn High School.
Ironically, Penn State hasn’t signed a 5- or 4-star linebacker prospect (as rated by 247Sports) since 2010, leaving the high-profile linebackers out of Linebacker U. (It should be noted that Josh Barajas, rated by 247Sports as a 4-star prospect, is currently committed as part of the 2015 class.)
Five years doesn’t erase history.
Penn State’s standing as the Linebacker U doesn’t come crumbling down because of nine years or five years.
If that was the case, Miami, USC or Ohio State would have claimed the mantle within the last 25 years.
There’s little doubt, though, that Alabama is the ideal choice for today’s high-profile linebackers.