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Big Ten Football: Power Ranking the 2011 Linebackers

David Fidler Correspondent IJune 26, 2011

Big Ten Football: Power Ranking the 2011 Linebackers

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    COLUMBUS, OH - OCTOBER 10:  Chris Borland #44 of the Wisconsin Badgers stops Lamaar Thomas #7 of the Ohio State Buckeyes at Ohio Stadium on October 10, 2009 in Columbus, Ohio.  (Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images)
    Jamie Sabau/Getty Images

    It is amazing how much Big Ten defenses lost to graduation and NFL draft defection last season.

    I thought it notable in my recent article ranking the top conference defensive lines that all of the first team All Big Ten linemen had moved on, with only three of the six second team linemen (between coaches and media) still remaining in the college ranks.

    However, with the linebackers, all of the first and second teamers are gone. Even most of the honorable mention linebackers have moved on with the three exceptions being Purdue's Dwayne Beckford, Wisconsin's Mike Taylor and Minnesota's Gary Tinsley.

    In short, there will be a lot of new faces in Big Ten front sevens this year. And those new faces will have a lot of opportunities to establish themselves.

     

    A few notes

    The players in italics are returning starters. A "returning starter," for my purposes, is any player that has started four or more games in his career.

    Players in italics and bold denote multi-year starters.

    Players with an asterisk next to their names were first or second team, media or coaches, all-conference last season. 

    Players with three asterisks next to their names would be returning consensus All-Americans, but as there are none this season, this is irrelevant.

    Finally, I have not factored true freshmen into this projection, aside from Ryan Shazier of Ohio State, who graduated high school early and has been on campus since January. Nonetheless, while true freshmen can fill out a depth chart and have important roles to play, if a true freshman is starting, that is rarely a good sign.

Northwestern Wildcats

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    Probable Starters

    OLB Ben Johnson (Sr)

    MLB David Nwabuisi (Jr)

    OLB Bryce McNaul (Sr)

     

    Players in the Mix

    Damien Proby (So)

     

    The Lowdown

    The Cats graduated a three-year starter in Quentin Davie and a two-year starter in Nate Williams.

    Moreover, while Johnson does have the requisite starting experience needed to call him a "returning starter," it has come here and there. He started seven games in 2009 and the first two games of 2010 until he was pulled for McNaul.

    After assuming the role of starting strongside backer, McNaul had a decent season, but he will be expected to play a much larger role this year.

    Finally, the most glaring issue with NU's linebackers is the lack of depth. After Proby, there is nothing but redshirt freshmen.

    Last year, the Northwestern rush defense let up 5.15 ypc, and that was with experienced linebackers. The Cats will want substantial improvement out of this group.

Illinois Illini

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    ST. LOUIS - SEPTEMBER 4: Ian Thomas #38 of the University of Illinois Fighting Illini wraps up De'Vion Moore #26 of the University of Missouri Tigers during the State Farm Arch Rivalry game on September 4, 2010 at the Edward Jones Dome in St. Louis, Misso
    Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

    Probable Starters

    WLB OPEN

    MLB Ian Thomas (Sr)

    SLB OPEN

     

    Players in the Mix

    Jonathan Brown (So), Houston Bates (RFr), Ashante Williams (Jr), Earnest Thomas (RFr), Brandon Denmark (So)

     

    The Lowdown

    The Illini lost two-year starter Nate Bussey to graduation and two-year starter Martez Wilson to the NFL draft. Wilson was drafted with the eighth pick of the third round. The last Illinois linebacker to be taken higher than the fifth round was Kevin Hardy in 1996. In short, Wilson will be particularly difficult to replace.

    Ian Thomas is a two-year starter and is a solid foundation. The problem is there is very little experience in the linebacking corps other than Thomas.

    In fact, both Williams and Earnest Thomas are converted safeties. Certainly, converted safeties can be successful linebackers (Ian Thomas is a converted safety), but this will be their first season at linebacker.

    Couple the linebacker inexperience with a lot of holes on the D-line and you've got a rag tag front seven.

Michigan Wolverines

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    COLUMBUS, OH - NOVEMBER 27:  LInebacker Kenny Demens chases down the ballcarrier against the Ohio State Buckeyes at Ohio Stadium on November 27, 2010 in Columbus, Ohio.  (Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images)
    Jamie Sabau/Getty Images

    Probable Starters

    WLB OPEN

    MLB Kenny Demens (Jr)

    SLB OPEN

     

    Players in the Mix

    Cam Gordon (So), Jake Ryan (RFr), Mike Jones (Jr), J.B. Fitzgerald (Sr), Isaiah Bell (So), Brandon Herron (Sr)

     

    The Lowdown

    Kenny Demens did not begin 2010 as a starter, but after continued awfulness by the Michigan linebackers, he was given a shot, and he delivered. In limited play last season (he only started seven games), he picked up 82 tackles. He is a strong leader and will vie for all-conference honors.

    After Demens, it is a bit of a toss-up. Gordon gained plenty of experience last season, but he did so as a hybrid safety. Moreover, he wasn't that impressive (how many Michigan defensive players were impressive over the last three seasons?). This will be his first year as a true linebacker.

    Fitzgerald is a utility player that is not the second coming of Larry Foote, but he could be dependable.

    After that, it is mostly young, unproven players.

Indiana Hoosiers

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    COLUMBUS, OH - OCTOBER 9:  Leon Beckum #48 of the Indiana Hoosiers assists on a tackle against the Ohio State Buckeyes at Ohio Stadium on October 9, 2010 in Columbus, Ohio.  (Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images)
    Jamie Sabau/Getty Images

    Probable Starters

    WLB Leon Beckum (Sr)

    MLB Jeff Thomas (Sr)

    SLB OPEN

     

    Players in the Mix

    Chase Hoobler (RFr), Chad Sherer (Jr)

     

    The Lowdown

    Both Thomas and Beckum are solid, high-effort guys that won't make the highlight reels, but they'll get the job done. They will be aided by a fairly experienced defensive line and overall, Indiana should be solid against the run.

    The problem is after Beckum and Thomas, there is nobody. Sherer started a few games last season, but Hoobler was above him on the spring depth chart.

    Moreover, in the spring game, new coach Kevin Wilson opted to start a fifth defensive back in lieu of a third linebacker. It remains to be seen if he will go in that direction during the season.

    Either way, the first two linebackers are gamers. After that, the prognosis does not look very good.

Purdue Boilermakers

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    EAST LANSING, MI - NOVEMBER 08:  Joe Holland #30 of the Purdue Boilermakers breaks up a pass in the endzone by Blair White #25 of the Michigan State Spartans at Spartan Stadium on November 8, 2008 in East Lansing, Michigan.  (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Im
    Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

    Probable Starters

    WLB Joe Holland (Sr)

    MLB Dwayne Beckford (Jr)

    SLB OPEN

     

    Players in the Mix

    Mike Lee (RFr), Will Lucas (So), Kaulana Judd (JUCO), Chris Carlino (Sr), DeVarro Greaves (Sr)

     

    The Lowdown

    Holland is a solid if unspectacular player. Beckford is still learning and could wind up with an impressive career.

    Meanwhile, coach Danny Hope will either go conservative and start another solid though unspectacular upperclassman, or he will take the risk and start Lee or Lucas.

    Either way, there is established depth here. It remains to be seen how good the top three are.

Michigan State Spartans

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    ANN ARBOR, MI - OCTOBER 09: Chris Norman #10 and Trenton Robinson #39 of the Michigan State Spartans make the stop on Dana Dixon #12 of the Michigan Wolverines during the game on October 9, 2010 at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor, Michigan. (Photo by Leon H
    Leon Halip/Getty Images

    Probable Starters

    SLB Denicos Allen (So)

    MLB OPEN

    STAR Chris Norman (Jr)

     

    Players in the Mix

    Max Bullough (So), Steve Gardiner (Jr), TyQuan Hammock (So), Kyler Elsworth (So), Jeremy Gainer (So), Ty Hamilton (RFr)

     

    The Lowdown

    Two-time All-American Greg Jones is gone. His partner-in-crime, Eric Gordon, is gone. Gordon was a three-year starter. Jones was a four-year starter.

    Michigan State was not completely unprepared for their departure, but if you think MSU won't have a void to fill at linebacker, then you have not paid attention the last four years.

    Norman was the third linebacker last season, and he will be expected to fill larger shoes.

    Meanwhile, Allen, Bullough and Gardiner got a good amount of playing time last season in spot situations.

    Overall, there is a lot of potential with this bunch, but right now, it is just potential.

Minnesota Golden Gophers

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    Probable Starters

    LB Gary Tinsley (Sr)

    MLB Brandon Beal (So)

    LB Mike Rallis (Jr)

     

    Players in the Mix

    Keanon Cooper (Jr), Ryan Grant (Jr), Spencer Reeves (Jr)

     

    The Lowdown

    With the availability of Florida transfer Brandon Beal, the Gophers find themselves with a wealth of players at linebacker. In fact, the linebacking corps is supersaturated to the point that arguably the only Gopher defensive player that wasn't terrible last season—Gary Tinsley—found himself behind Beal on the spring game depth chart.

    My guess is that one way or the other, Tinsley will start. It remains to be seen if it will be at another linebacker position or a switch to the defensive line.

    For that matter, given the somewhat sorry state of the Minnesota D-line and the abundance of linebackers, Minnesota might consider employing a 3-4.

Iowa Hawkeyes

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    TEMPE, AZ - DECEMBER 28:  Wide receiver Michael Egnew #82 of the Missouri Tigers is tackled by James Morris #44 and Brett Greenwood #30 of the Iowa Hawkeyes after a 16 yard reception during the Insight Bowl at Sun Devil Stadium on December 28, 2010 in Tem
    Christian Petersen/Getty Images

    Probable Starters

    OLB Tyler Nielsen (Sr)

    MLB James Morris (So)

    WLB OPEN

     

    Players in the Mix

    Bruce Davis (Sr), Shane Dibona (So), Christian Kirksey (So), Anthony Hitchens (So)

     

    The Lowdown

    When the 2010 season began, James Morris was the third string middle linebacker. Then injuries ravaged the Iowa linebacking corps, and Morris ascended the depth chart, starting the final six games as a true freshman.

    Though his inexperience was evident at times, he represented himself well. He is no longer a true freshman, and he will compete for all-conference honors this year.

    For three years, Nielsen had been waiting his turn to play behind former Iowa linebacker A.J. Edds. Then, eight games into the 2010 season, it was discovered he had a cracked vertebrae, and his year was finished prematurely. He will be back at 100 percent by August.

    The last spot will be the most competitive position battle on the team. Davis is a senior that is more suited to the middle linebacker position. He has some starting experience, but this is his last shot to be the man. Dibona started three games last year before injuries took him out of commission. Kirksey and Hitchens are true sophomores that have the most speed and upside of any of the potential starters.

Nebraska Cornhuskers

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    LINCOLN, NE - OCTOBER 30: Linebacker Lavonte David #4 tof the Nebraska Cornhuskers takes aim at quarterback Blaine Gabbert #11 of the Missouri Tigers during first half action of their game at Memorial Stadium on October 30, 2010 in Lincoln, Nebraska. Nebr
    Eric Francis/Getty Images

    Probable Starters

    LB Lavonte David (Sr)*

    LB Will Compton (Jr)

    PESO Daimion Stafford (JUCO)

     

    Players in the Mix

    LB Sean Fisher (Jr), Alonzo Whaley (Jr), Graham Stoddard (Jr), Mathew May (Sr)

    PESO PJ Smith (Jr), Corey Cooper (RFr)

     

    The Lowdown

    In 2010, Bo Pelini exclusively started a hybrid safety—what he calls a pesoback—instead of a third linebacker. He has hinted that he will stick with that strategy in 2011. Last season, his pesoback was All-Big 12 safety Eric Hagg, who has since graduated.

    In my opinion, in the Big Ten, Pelini would be better off with a third linebacker, as Big Ten teams are more rush-heavy than teams from the Big 12. In fact, in 2010, teams from the Big 12 not named Nebraska rushed on 47 percent of their offensive plays. By comparison, Big Ten teams rushed 57.2 percent of the time.

    Perhaps in part due to Nebraska's base 4-2-5, the Huskers had a mediocre rush D, ranking 44th in the nation in YPC allowed. Certainly, other Big Ten teams regularly employ 4-2-5 schemes—OSU, Iowa and Wisconsin to name a few—but the 4-3 is still their base defense.

    Either way, Pelini, who has previously worked in both the Big Ten and the SEC, presumably knows what works.

    Part of the reason his pesoback did work was because his top linebacker, Lavonte David, is a tackling machine. David came in third in the nation with 152 tackles. He will vie for all-conference honors and maybe All-American honors.

    Meanwhile, Compton is a solid player, Whaley has starting experience and Fisher has the biggest upside out of the non-starters. Moreover, Stoddard has spot experience, Santos shined as a true freshman and May is a veteran. In effect, if Pelini chooses to go with the third linebacker, he has options.

    As for the pesoback, Daimion Stafford is a highly recruited JUCO transfer that will likely start at safety or peso.

    Player-for-player, I would put Nebraska higher on this list. However, if Nebraska sticks to the 4-2-5, I feel it will hurt them in the Big Ten, and thus, at the linebacker position.

Penn State Nittany Lions

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    STATE COLLEGE, PA - NOVEMBER 27: Tight end Brian Linthicum #88 of the Michigan State Spartans is tackled by cornerback D'Anton Lynn #8 and linebacker Gerald Hodges #6 of the Penn State Nittany Lions during a game on November 27, 2010 at Beaver Stadium in
    Hunter Martin/Getty Images

    Probable Starters

    OLB OPEN

    LB Michael Mauti (Jr)

    LB Gerald Hodges (Jr)

     

    Players in the Mix

    Nate Stupar (Sr), Michael Yancich (Jr), Khairi Fortt (So), Mike Hull (RFr)

     

    The Lowdown

    Perhaps the most disappointing aspect of the PSU 2010 season was the play of the linebackers. Part of that had to do with injuries, but the fact is the linebacker play at Linebacker U was decidedly down.  

    Along with the injuries, it had a good deal to do with Joe Pa's preference of playing experience over talent. This is an admirable attitude, and it says a good deal about why Penn State has remained such a clean program over the duration of Paterno's tenure. Still, it occasionally hurts on the field.

    This year, the better players will start, which will translate to better results.

    Both Hodges and Mauti will contend for all-conference honors. Meanwhile, Stupar and Fortt look to be the two most likely to win the third starting position, and Hull is a pleasant surprise that will push for playing time.

Ohio State Buckeyes

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    COLUMBUS, OH - OCTOBER 23:  Running back Keith Carlos #1 of the Purdue Boilermakers is tackled by Andrew Sweat #42 of the Ohio State Buckeyes at Ohio Stadium on October 23, 2010 in Columbus, Ohio.  (Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images)
    Jamie Sabau/Getty Images

    Probable Starters

    WLB Andrew Sweat (Sr)

    MLB OPEN

    SLB Etienne Sabino (Jr)

     

    Players in the Mix

    Storm Klein (Jr), Jonathan Newsome (Jr), Jordan Whiting (So), Tony Jackson (Sr), Scott McVey (RFr), Ryan Shazier (TFr)

     

    The Lowdown

    Linebacker play, like the entire defense, was a constant during the Tressel era (it's odd to refer to the Tressel era as a thing of the past). It remains to be seen if that will continue or if this is the beginning of a new era or simply a transitional year until the beginning of the next era.

    Regardless, the talent is still there. Last year, Sweat was the third linebacker behind Ross Homan and Brian Rolle. Now, he will get his chance to shine and will vie for all-conference honors. 

    Meanwhile, Etienne Sabino was considered the favorite to win Sweat's spot last season. This season, it is unlikely anybody will beat him out of a starting part.

    Right now, Storm Klein is the most likely to win the third starting spot.

Wisconsin Badgers

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    COLUMBUS, OH - OCTOBER 10:  Linebacker Mike Taylor #53 of the Wisconsin Badgers makes a tackle against the Ohio State Buckeyes at Ohio Stadium on October 10, 2009 in Columbus, Ohio.  (Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images)
    Jamie Sabau/Getty Images

    Probable Starters

    OLB Mike Taylor (Jr)

    MLB Chris Borland (Jr) OR Kevin Claxton (Sr)

    OLB Kevin Claxton (Sr) OR Chris Borland (Jr)

     

    Players in the Mix

    Ethan Armstrong (So), A.J. Fenton (So), Conor O'Neill (So)

     

    The Lowdown

    Chris Borland is the player that every Big Ten fan outside of Wisconsin will know about by the end of the 2011 season.  

    In 2009, he won the Big Ten Freshman of the Year. He only started six games, yet he totaled 54 tackles, 10.5 TFL, five forced fumbles, and five sacks. Oh yeah, he also returned one punt and seven kickoffs. And he kicked three extra points. And blocked one kick.

    One can only imagine what he would have done last year, except he missed most of the season with a shoulder injury.

    The reason he wasn't a starter to begin 2009 was because of Mike Taylor. Taylor began his true freshman year as the starter and was well on his way to capturing the Big Ten Freshman of the Year award when an injury derailed his season.

    Taylor started 12 games last season. He wasn't exceptional, but he was solid, and keep in mind, he was a true sophomore.

    Borland and Taylor, if they stay healthy, will be the best pair of linebackers Madison has seen in a while.

    Kevin Claxton is the most likely to win the third starting spot. He is not a great player, but he is decent, and surrounded by Borland and Taylor, that is all he has to be.

    Finally, the depth, while not experienced, is talented.

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