While the Big Ten's talent level has been questioned over the past few years, few have ever questioned the conference's linebacker strength, as its top teams, Ohio State, Penn State, Iowa, and Wisconsin, routinely develop the best linebackers in the country.
But this year, the Big Ten is looking at a very different scenario. While most of the conference should be strong, the linebackers will be relatively unproven after the graduations of 2009's top linebackers, Iowa's Pat Angerer and AJ Edds and Penn State's Navorro Bowman and Sean Lee.
This year's group will be full of relative newcomers, as loads of talent have left and traditional power "Linebacker U" doesn't even have single player ranked in the top 10 (granted, Penn State linebacker Bani Gbanyu would have been ranked No. 11).
Will the Big Ten be able to reload at the position its dominated for the past few decades? If so, young players need to step up. Here are the top ten linebackers who can help restore the Big Ten to prominence at their position.
No. 10: Troy Johnson, Iowa
While most of the 2009 Iowa defense will remain intact in 2010, the linebackers will have two newcomers to fill the void left by AJ Edds and Pat Angerer.
An outside linebacker, Johnson is the likely replacement for Edds, who was one of the best linebackers in the Big Ten three years in a row.
The Hawkeyes normally reload at linebacker, and don't expect a significant drop-off in production next season with two seasoned players, Johnson and middle linebacker Jeff Tarpinian, stepping in.
Johnson started one game last fall, the season's final contest against Minnesota, and recorded 11 tackles, a forced fumble, and a recovered fumble, and won Big Ten co-Defensive Player-of-the-Week honors. He has great size and athleticism and if last year's glimpse was an indication of his future potential, Iowa will have a solid outside linebacker in 2010.
No. 9: Quentin Davie, Northwestern
Davie returns as a starter for Northwestern and will likely be the Wildcats' defensive leader in 2010 with the departure of Corey Wootton.
Davie started every game for Northwestern in 2009 and was second on the team with 90 tackles. He showed up in big games, especially the Outback Bowl, recording nine tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss, one sack, and a pass breakup. He was also named an honorable mention on ESPN's All-Bowl Team.
While Davie has been impressive throughout his career, 2010 could be the year he receives national attention. If he continues to show up for Northwestern in big games, look for him to show up on some All-Big Ten lists.
No. 8: Eric Gordon, Michigan State
Living in the shadow of Greg Jones, the "other" linebacker in East Lansing has quietly put together a solid career for Michigan State.
Gordon collected 92 tackles last season, second on his team behind Jones, and has recorded 239 career tackles in 27 straight starts.
He's versatile and can either play inside or outside for the Spartans, and last year started three games at WILL and nine games at SAM. He's a very explosive player who should complement Jones nicely again in 2010.
No. 7: Ian Thomas, Illinois
Ron Zook teams, and Illinois squads in general, aren't known for their defensive excellence, but linebacker has been the lone defensive strength for the Illini in recent years, starting with the Brit Miller years.
Thomas will look to continue that success in 2010 after a successful 2009 season in which he recorded a team-high 95 tackles.
A rising junior, he will be the leader of the Illinois defense next season, and may be forced to carry the weak unit on his shoulders. But look for him to be a contender for an All-Big Ten team come November.
No. 6: Mike Taylor, Wisconsin
Wisconsin's leading tackler until a season-ending injury against Iowa, the redshirt freshman Taylor was showed signs of brilliance in 2010's first seven games.
He recorded 46 tackles, a forced fumble, a fumble recovery, and an interception in those seven games and was one of the leading defensive play makers for the the Badgers.
While Taylor could end up being a huge success for Wisconsin, the Badgers need to make sure he doesn't end up like former Penn State linebacker Sean Lee. Lee had tremendous talent, but couldn't stay healthy, amounting to a career of wasted talent. But if he can stay healthy, expect a solid career from Taylor and a strong linebacker corps from Wisconsin for the next few years.
No. 5: Chris Borland, Wisconsin
After Taylor was injured, Wisconsin's linebacker corps didn't miss a beat, as true freshman Chris Borland stepped up to lead a solid unit.
Borland recorded 54 tackles, but was also a big play-maker for the Badgers, forcing five fumbles and recovering three others. He helped ease the transition after the loss of Taylor, and now with both healthy, Wisconsin should have a very solid defense in 2010.
If Borland is able to improve next season, the honors will continue to pour in. And if he bulks up even more, he could be an All-American sometime in his four years in Madison.
No. 4: Jeremiah Hunter, Iowa
Playing in the shadows of A.J. Edds and Pat Angerer, Jeremiah Hunter has quietly put together an impressive career at Iowa. With Edds and Angerer now gone, it's Hunter's turn to shine, and the rising senior will need to step up to lead a relatively inexperienced linebacker corps.
Hunter ranked second on his team last season with 89 tackles and recorded an interception. He also was exceptional on special teams play, and his game saving blocked field goal against Northern Iowa earned him Big Ten co-Special Teams Player-of-the-Week honors in Week 1.
Hunter's size (6'2", 235) and speed make him a solid pro prospect, and he can elevate his draft status and increase his award count with a big 2010 season.
No. 3: Brian Rolle, Ohio State
A rising senior, Rolle will be the one of the anchors of the Ohio State defense in 2010 and will help make the OSU linebacker corps the best in the Big Ten.
Rolle recorded 93 tackles during an impressive junior season in 2009 and opted to forgo the NFL Draft for his senior season.
He will lead the Buckeyes' linebacker corps along with Ross Homan and will look to improve on a solid 2009 season. His draft stock was already high, and with improvement, he could be a first day pick in April 2011.
No. 2: Ross Homan, Ohio State
One of the standouts on the 2009 Ohio State defense, Homan recorded 108 tackles and five interceptions last season, proving himself to be one of the best returning linebackers in the Big Ten, and in the nation.
He stepped up for the Buckeyes in big games, recording 12 tackles and an interception in a Rose Bowl win against Oregon, and recording eight tackles and an interception returned for 21 yards in an overtime win against Iowa.
Homan will lead the Ohio State defense and anchor the Big Ten's best linebacker corps, and look for his name on some All-Big Ten, and possibly All-American, lists come November.
No. 1: Greg Jones, Michigan State
Any Big Ten fan had to know this was coming. Jones is one of the best Big Ten linebackers in recent history and has put together an outstanding career at Michigan State.
The rising senior and returning All-American decided to forgo the NFL for his senior season and has a chance to rack up even more national awards in 2010.
Jones's size (6'1", 228) isn't particularly impressive, but his strength, determination, and athleticism make him possibly the best linebacker in the country in 2010. And he has the stats to prove it.
He led the Big Ten last season with 153 tackles last season, and also recorded nine sacks to lead the Spartans' outstanding pass rush.
Look for Jones to be a Big Ten, and national, leader in tackles once again in 2010 and expect his name to be called very early in the 2011 NFL Draft