Projecting Every Conference's Best Linebacker Corps for the 2022 CFB Season
Linebackers have a tendency to be under-the-radar players, but few positions are more important in football.
In this projection—the final edition of our offseason series—we're previewing 10 of what should be among college football's best linebacker units in 2022.
While the choices are subjective, key factors are returning production—including transfers—and expected performance.
American: Cincinnati Bearcats
Given that Luke Fickell coached linebackers at Ohio State for a decade, it's only sensible the Bearcats are typically strong at the position each season.
They'll need to replace Joel Dublanko and Darrian Beavers, but Miami (Ohio) transfer Ivan Pace Jr. is an excellent first piece. A first-team All-MAC selection last year, Pace has reunited with his brother Deshawn Pace—UC's top returning tackler.
Wilson Huber and Jaheim Thomas were backups in 2021 but are likely to start, and Ty Van Fossen (70 tackles) will be another key piece.
Though the Bearcats have to settle the rotation, they're not lacking talent at any spot.
ACC: North Carolina State Wolfpack
Clemson's front seven is soundly atop the ACC. However, the defensive line highlights that grouping, whereas NC State is strongest at linebacker.
And the Wolfpack can point to setbacks for that.
Payton Wilson (shoulder) and Isaiah Moore (knee)—who combined for 202 tackles in 2020—both missed a majority of the campaign. Their absences forced Devon Betty and Jaylon Scott into unexpected playing time next to Drake Thomas, who finished a single stop shy of 100.
Wilson and Moore are healthy, rejoining Thomas, Betty and Scott in a deep, seasoned unit on a promising team.
Big 12: Oklahoma Sooners
Most importantly, Oklahoma has the players.
DaShaun White notched 61 tackles last season, while David Ugwoegbu made 48 stops. Danny Stutsman added 38 in his injury-shortened year, and Shane Whitter contributed 27 more as a rotational player.
For good measure, Appalachian State transfer T.D. Roof brings four seasons of experience and recorded 68 tackles last year.
Similar to Cincinnati, the head coach is another positive. Brent Venables played linebacker in college and has coached the position for nearly three decades, building a reputation for strong development that figures to continue in Norman.
Big Ten: Iowa Hawkeyes
Michigan State deserves a mention after adding transfers Jacoby Windmon and Aaron Brule to a unit returning Cal Haladay. As usual, though, Iowa is stacked.
Jack Campbell led the country with 143 tackles last season, and Seth Benson provided 105 with 5.5 for loss. Jestin Jacobs would exit whenever the Hawkeyes turned to the Cash hybrid spot, but he still posted 53 stops.
That trifecta accounted for an overwhelming share of defensive snaps, so depth isn't as much a necessity for the Hawkeyes as would seem typical.
But when a defense has three reliable contributors like Campbell, Benson and Jacobs, there's little sense in forcing a rotation.
C-USA: North Texas Mean Green
This is a strong year at the position within Conference USA, considering UAB and UTEP also have a realistic chance at earning this title.
North Texas nearly lost its appeal in June.
Star linebacker KD Davis entered the transfer portal, potentially taking his team-leading 121 tackles and 16 stops for loss elsewhere. A few days later, he exited the portal and returned to the Mean Green.
Now, they return Davis with Larry Nixon III (70 tackles), Sean-Thomas Faulkner (53) and Kevin Wood (52). Jordan Brown (28) and Carson Kropp (17) give UNT additional depth, along with Quinn Whitlock (20) as he shifts to the "Eagle" hybrid spot.
MAC: Northern Illinois Huskies
Was this merely an excuse to talk about Kyle Pugh? We will neither confirm nor deny it.
Pugh has the incredibly rare distinction of being an eighth-year senior. He's dealt with a variety of injuries—for which he received an extra season—and taken advantage of the eligibility pause in 2020. He's a two-time All-MAC selection.
Additionally, the Huskies return Nick Rattin (72 tackles) with a slew of youngsters. Jaden Dolphin, Makhi Nelson-Douglas and Daveren Rayner each provided 29-plus tackles in 2021.
This sturdy group of linebackers is a main strength as NIU chases a second straight MAC crown.
Mountain West: Colorado State Rams
Jay Norvell left Nevada and inherited an impressive group of linebackers at Colorado State.
Last season, Cam'Ron Carter (100 tackles) and Dequan Jackson (84) carried the Rams. They combined for 16 takedowns in the backfield with seven sacks, too.
Colorado State's depth is promising, as well. Bam Amina, Tavian Brown and Sanjay Strickland each contributed in reserve roles last season and offered 16-plus tackles. They'll be valuable members of the rotation, along with freshman Drew Kulick.
Note: Listed as a linebacker in 2021, Mohamed Kamara is now considered a defensive end on the official roster. Since he's an edge-rusher, it would be reasonable to mention him here too.
Pac-12: Oregon Ducks
Noah Sewell is the known commodity. He's amassed 159 tackles over the last two years, leading the Ducks in that category both seasons.
Sewell arrived in Eugene in the 2020 recruiting class with Justin Flowe, a fellow 5-star who's struggled with injuries. But when he started the 2021 opener, Flowe registered 14 tackles and a forced fumble. The optimism about his future is understandably high.
Oregon is also converting Jeffrey Bassa to a full-time linebacker. The former safety slid down out of necessity last season, made 48 tackles and is staying there for 2022.
Fourth-year player Mase Funa has 85 career tackles, giving the Ducks yet another experienced option. Edge-rushers Bradyn Swinson (24 tackles) and Treven Ma'ae (20) can also shift to outside linebacker, depending on personnel.
SEC: Alabama Crimson Tide
In a word: Unfair.
Will Anderson Jr. was a unanimous All-American and brought home the Nagurski Trophy in 2021. He paced the FBS in both tackles for loss and sacks, also crossing the century mark with 101 total stops.
On the opposite side will be Dallas Turner, who notched 10 tackles for loss and 8.5 sacks in Alabama's last 10 games. Behind him, former top recruit Chris Braswell is a strong breakout candidate.
Two-time second-team All-SEC selection Henry To'oTo'o (112 tackles) is a star inside linebacker. He'll be the featured player in the middle as the Tide break in Jaylen Moody or Deontae Lawson on the weak side.
Sun Belt: Marshall Thundering Herd
One of the newcomers to the Sun Belt, Marshall brings a star duo of linebackers to the conference.
Abraham Beauplan landed first-team All-Conference USA recognition after recording 110 tackles in 2021. Eli Neal is a two-time All-Conference USA honorable mention player with 172 takedowns (12 for loss) over the last two seasons.
The final starter is Charlie Gray, who posted 55 tackles with 7.5 in the backfield last season. Northern Colorado transfer Jace Bobo (87 tackles) and J'Coryan Anderson (19) give Marshall some encouraging depth too.
Marshall has an excellent shot to earn a conference title in its debut Sun Belt season.