If defense wins championships, then linebackers ought to win an award. Good thing the Butkus Award Selection Committee agrees with me. Their 2008 Collegiate Watchlist includes 66 players from 53 institutions. As the cleats have torn the turf and the helmets have pounded the pads, many of these, and others, have risen to the top.
Using a point system that combines individual defensive statistics and average points allowed, I have ranked what I consider to be the top 35 linebackers in college football (see below). These are my Butkus Award Semifinalists. The top 10 from that list are my finalists. They have the numbers no one else has.
But winning the award is about more than statistics. So, for the final selection, the numbers go out the window.
The Dick Butkus Award is about a player’s presence both on the field and off. Off the field, it’s about a commitment to responsibility, living clean, and being a role model. On the field, it’s about commanding the attention of an offense and earning the respect of the defense.
A great linebacker makes an offense adjust to him. A great linebacker makes quarterbacks look twice before they cross the road, because it hurts more when you get hit the second or third time, and you can still feel the first.
If a player has won the Butkus Award, you can be sure that one thing has been said about him all season long: Man, that kid is everywhere! The ability to change a play, and therefore a game, with his mere presence makes a great linebacker a force unto himself.
The top 10 on my list have been punishing offenses every weekend this fall. Navorro Bowman has recorded nearly a hundred tackles and helped Penn State to a Big Ten Championship and its first Rose Bowl since 1994. Brian Cushing and Rey Maualuga have recorded over 120 tackles between them on a USC defense that has held opponents to a mere 8.3 points per game.
As a junior, Florida’s Brandon Spikes has 74 tackles on the books and returned two of his three interceptions for touchdowns. Robert Henson and TCU’s stingy defense have given up just over 10 points per game, while allowing fewer than four yards per play.
Then there are guys like Mark Herzlich at Boston College (92 tackles), Sean Weatherspoon at Missouri (119 tackles, 4.5 sacks), Pat Angerer at Iowa (101 tackles, five interceptions), and Brit Miller at Illinois (132 tackles, six sacks), who seem determined to record enough defensive statistics to fill an entire roster by themselves.
And then there is the son of the Animal, James Laurinaitis. Fans don the makeup and spiked pads that his father wore in his professional wrestling days and scream for him in the stands. Offenses, well, they just scream.
If ever there was a man with an internal radar for the ball, this is the guy. Every time the ball is in play, Laurinaitis is somewhere in the picture, usually with his claws around the carrier, bringing him down. Running backs take the long way around just to avoid his territory, and quarterbacks wish they had about five more blockers when they see him blitzing.
And you know what? None of that matters. He still finds a way to stop you—he still finds a way to get through. Last year, with 121 tackles, two interceptions, and five sacks, Laurinaitis became the second Buckeye to win the Dick Butkus Award (Andy Katzenmoyer won it in 1997).
This year, with a near-perfect follow-up 121 tackles, two interceptions, and four sacks, he could become the first to win it a second time since the award’s first two years when Oklahoma’s Brian Bosworth won it (1985, 1986).
I am not one of the 51 members of the selection committee, but I know that there are few guys who have ever played the position of linebacker with more authority than James Laurinaitis.
Top 35 NCAA (FBS) Linebackers: Rank - Player (School) Rating
01 - Navorro Bowman (Penn State) 17.86; 02 - Brian Cushing (USC) 17.83; 03 - Rey Maualuga (USC) 16.08; 04 - Brandon Spikes (Florida) 15.13; 05 - James Laurinaitis (Ohio State) 14.82; 06 - Robert Henson (TCU) 13.55; 07 - Mark Herzlich (Boston College) 13.28; 08 - Sean Weatherspoon (Missouri) 12.38; 09 - Pat Angerer (Iowa) 11.52; 10 - Brit Miller (Illinois) 11.45; 11 - Aaron Curry (Wake Forest) 11.19; 12 - Quan Sturdivant (North Carolina) 10.96; 13 - Mark Paschal (North Carolina) 10.85; 14 - David Nixon (BYU) 10.72; 15 - Marcus Freeman (Ohio State) 10.48; 16 - Travis Lewis (Oklahoma) 9.47; 17 - Zach Arnett (New Mexico) 8.68; 18 - Zack Follett (Cal) 8.47; 19 - Gerald McRath (Southern Miss) 8.47; 20 - Scott Lutrus (UConn) 8.28; 21 - Tyrone McKenzie (South Florida) 8.27; 22 - Joe Pawelek (Baylor) 8.16; 23 - James Holt (Kansas) 7.93; 24 - Clint Sintim (Virginia) 7.93; 25 - Sergio Kindle (Texas) 7.77; 26 - Boris Lee (Troy) 7.38; 27 - Keaton Kristick (Oregon State) 6.88; 28 - Dominic Douglas (Mississippi State) 6.82; 29 - Purnell Sturdivant (Virginia Tech) 6.74; 30 - Nevin McKenzie (Tennessee) 6.74; 31 - Mike Wright (Utah) 6.42; 32 - Rico McCoy (Tennessee) 6.38; 33 - Justin Winters (Buffalo) 6.36; 34 - Derek Burrell (Kent State) 5.74; 35 - Jerry Franklin (Arkansas) 4.73