College Football Position U: Linebacker U
Welcome to the most contentious string of debates among college football fans. It's Position U Week 2.0.
Having previously completed quarterback, running back, wide receiver, defensive line and defensive back, Bleacher Report writers David Kenyon and Kerry Miller are identifying the college programs that have generated the most productive NFL players at tight end, offensive line, linebacker, overall offense and overall defense since 1970.
In this edition, the focus is on linebackers. Please note we're not necessarily looking to form the best possible four-man unit of linebackers, though. In other words, if a school's best alumni are all inside linebackers or all edge-rushers, it wouldn't negatively impact its ranking.
At every position, the discussion has several possible angles. Is your preference total NFL alumni? The number of players drafted from a certain position group? Actual NFL production? All of these measures are reasonable to use as the guide.
Throughout this Position U series, B/R's focus is on the latter point. While the total number of players is considered, on-field production since 1970 shaped the final order.
Alabama Crimson Tide
In addition to a solid active alumni base of Dont'a Hightower, C.J. Mosley, Rashaan Evans, Reggie Ragland, Mark Barron and Mack Wilson, Alabama also boasts Hall of Famer Derrick Thomas as one of its own.
The cumulative production over the past 50 years isn't quite as impressive for the Crimson Tide as it is for our top three programs. However, given head coach Nick Saban's rate of signing 5-star players and turning them into first-round picks, it shouldn't be much longer before Alabama makes a strong push for the undisputed Linebacker U.
If we were solely evaluating active NFL players, Georgia almost has to be Linebacker U. Justin Houston, Alec Ogletree and Thomas Davis Sr. highlight a deep group of current linebackers who are former Bulldogs. But aside from Mo Lewis and Randall Godfrey, Georgia has virtually no retired alumni worth mentioning.
North Carolina Tar Heels
North Carolina produced Lawrence Taylor and Chris Hanburger, each of whom is in the Pro Football Hall of Fame after combining for 19 Pro Bowl selections. That's quite the dynamic duo. But the Tar Heels only get an honorable mention because the rest of their alumni base of linebackers has just one Pro Bowl selection in the past half-century—Zach Brown in 2016.
Ohio State Buckeyes
While the Buckeyes don't have a Lawrence Taylor or a Derrick Thomas, they do boast quite a few guys who were starters in the NFL for a decade or longer. Relatively recent additions to that list include Na'il Diggs, Mike Vrabel and A.J. Hawk. Ohio State also put Randy Gradishar, Pepper Johnson and Chris Spielman in the NFL, each of whom was named first-team All-Pro at least once.
3. Penn State Nittany Lions
Back in the 1970s and for a little while thereafter, Penn State was Linebacker U, and there wasn't much of an argument against it.
The cream of the crop was Hall of Famer Jack Ham.
A shoo-in for a spot in the top 10 in any ranking of the NFL's best linebackers of all time, he was an eight-time Pro Bowler and was first-team All-Pro six times during an entire career spent with the Pittsburgh Steelers. Pittsburgh's defensive line—the Steel Curtain—got a lot of the credit for winning four Super Bowls in the span of six years, but Ham's presence at the second level of the defense was equally invaluable.
And, again, Ham was merely the cream of Penn State's disco-era crop. The Nittany Lions also produced Matt Millen, Rich Milot, Lance Mehl, Ed O'Neil, John Ebersole, John Skorupan, Jim Laslavic and Kurt Allerman, each of whom was drafted between 1970-80 before spending at least three years as a starter in the NFL.
In the 40 years since then, however, Penn State's rate of churning out viable linebackers has slowed considerably, allowing several other schools to stake a claim at Linebacker U.
Among players drafted between 1981-2006, the only Penn State linebackers to amount to much of anything were Shane Conlan (1987), Andre Collins (1990) and LaVar Arrington (2000), and Arrington's promising career was derailed by injury.
The Nittany Lions did have quite the mini-renaissance in the late 2000s. Paul Posluszny (class of 2007) had a good run of more than a decade, and the 2010 one-two punch of Sean Lee and NaVorro Bowman each went on to earn at least one first-team All-Pro honor.
Penn State hasn't had any linebackers worth mentioning in the past 10 draft classes, but look for Micah Parsons to flip that script next April.
2. Miami (FL) Hurricanes
Only 16 linebackers meet each of the following two criteria:
- Drafted more recently than 1965
- Inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame
And in that group of 16 players, Miami is the only school represented more than once.
Ted "The Mad Stork" Hendricks was The U's original linebacker phenom. He was an eight-time Pro Bowler who earned first-team All-Pro honors four times—doing so with three different franchises.
His first All-Pro season came with the Baltimore Colts in 1971, one year after playing on his first Super Bowl-winning team. His second All-Pro year was with the Green Bay Packers in 1974. And then he had a spectacular tail end to his career with the Oakland/Los Angeles Raiders, winning three more Super Bowls and earning All-Pro honors in 1980 and 1982 at the ages of 33 and 35, respectively.
Miami's more well-known Hall of Fame linebacker is Ray Lewis.
Lewis was a seven-time first-team All-Pro selected to 13 Pro Bowls. He was also the Associated Press Defensive Player of the Year in both 2000 and 2003. He was the heart and soul of the 2000 Baltimore Ravens, who boasted one of the greatest defenses in NFL history en route to winning the Super Bowl. And 12 years later at the age of 37, he racked up 51 tackles in Baltimore's four postseason victories, riding off into retirement after winning a second Super Bowl.
Beyond that Hall of Fame duo, Miami has also produced multiple-time Pro Bowl linebackers Jessie Armstead (five), Dan Conners (three), Jonathan Vilma (three) and Jon Beason (three). Armstead was also part of perhaps the most ridiculous linebacker draft class ever. He, Micheal Barrow and Darrin Smith all came out of Miami in 1993 and accumulated a combined 2,877 tackles and approximate value of 241, per Sports Reference.
1. USC Trojans
It was a close call between Miami and USC for the top spot. Certainly in terms of the best one-two punch, Miami takes the cake. However, USC's sheer volume of linebackers who at least amounted to something was too great to ignore.
Per Sports Reference, USC has had 26 linebackers drafted since 1966 who had a career approximate value of 24 or better. The only other program with more than 14 such players is Penn State, which is still well behind USC at 18.
Yes, 24 is a completely arbitrary cutoff point for a data set, and it isn't that impressive for a career mark. Active players at other positions at or near 24 AV include Jimmy Garoppolo, Jordan Howard and JuJu Smith-Schuster, each of whom is still young enough to play for another decade. But it's an arbitrary line in the sand at which USC is head and shoulders ahead of every other school.
Only 10 of those 26 Trojans were drafted in the past 35 years, so you're forgiven if you didn't immediately think of USC as Linebacker U.
That said, USC's class of 1990 alum Junior Seau was one of the greatest to ever play the position, and the 2009 crop of Trojan linebackers—Clay Matthews III, Brian Cushing, Rey Maualuga and Kaluka Maiava—simply has to be the best quartet of linebackers ever produced by one school in a single draft class.
Seau was a 12-time Pro Bowler, Matthews has received that distinction six times, and his father—Clay Matthews Jr., who also went to USC—was selected to four Pro Bowls. In all, 12 different USC linebackers have been named to at least one Pro Bowl in the Super Bowl era.
As far as quality depth is concerned, no other school can hold a candle to the Trojans.