Big Ten Football: The Best Linebackers of the Decade, 2001-2010

David Fidler Correspondent IFebruary 28, 2011

Big Ten Football: The Best Linebackers of the Decade, 2001-2010

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    When you think of the Big Ten, you think of linebackers: ugly, mean, nasty linebackers that like to injure opposing players.

    Dick Butkus, Chris Spielman, Randy Gradishar, Ron Simpkins, Jack Ham, LaVar Arrington, Ray Nitschke.

    All of these players played for current Big Ten institutions (though Ham's Penn State was not actually in the Big Ten at the time).

    Needless to say, this tradition has continued.

    Interestingly enough, it seems like linebacker is a position where it is all about hard work and effort.

    Specifically, most of the linebackers on this list were not highly recruited. In fact, only two of them could be said to have been highly recruited, while two of them only had one FBS offer.

    Perhaps this tells a good deal about the position. In the end, only players that are looking to lay it all on the field are meant to play linebacker.

    Finally, just to reiterate what I wrote in the first installment of this series, the selected players were chosen based on their individual presence and production over a duration of time on the college football field.

    "Talent" or hype or NFL productivity or one-and-done situations didn't factor in.

    Big Ten Football: The Best Defensive Linemen of the Decade 2001-2010

Honorable Mention (In No Particular Order)

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    Abdul Hodge: Iowa Hawkeyes MLB, 2001-2005 (redshirt year 2001)

    Tim McGarigle: Northwestern Wildcats WLB, 2002-2005

    Bobby Carpenter: Ohio State Buckeyes SLB 2002-2005

    Ross Homan: Ohio State Buckeyes WLB 2006-2010 (redshirt year 2006)

    NaVorro Bowman: Penn State Nittany Lions LB 2006-2009 (redshirt year 2006)

Pat Angerer: Iowa Hawkeyes MLB, 2005-2009

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    MIAMI GARDENS, FL - JANUARY 05:  Linebacker Pat Angerer #43 of the Iowa Hawkeyes defends against the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets during the FedEx Orange Bowl at Land Shark Stadium on January 5, 2010 in Miami Gardens, Florida.  (Photo by Doug Benc/Getty Im
    Doug Benc/Getty Images

    Pre-College: Angerer was a moderately recruited linebacker prospect out of Bettendorf, Iowa.

    College Highlights: Angerer redshirted his first year on campus. He spent his first two active seasons in relative obscurity. His sophomore year was marred by injuries and a bout with mononucleosis.

    As his junior year began, he was still listed as second-string middle linebacker. However, after two games, he captured the starting job.

    His junior season totals were 107 tackles, 6.5 tackles-for-loss, one sack and five interceptions. This was good enough to earn him second-team All-Big Ten honors.

    In his senior year, he anchored the eighth top scoring defense in the nation. Angerer personally contributed 145 tackles, five tackles-for-loss, one sack, one interception and two forced fumbles.

    He was named first team All-Big Ten, and was on a few All-American lists.

    Post-College: In the 2010 draft, Angerer was drafted 63rd overall by the Indianapolis Colts.

    He began his rookie year as the backup middle linebacker. However, when Gary Brackett went down with an injury in the sixth week of the season, Angerer stepped in, and retained the starting job for the remainder of the season.

Matt Wilhelm: Ohio State Buckeyes MLB, 1999-2002

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    Pre-College: Wilhelm was a highly recruited player out of Lorain, Ohio. In high school, he played linebacker, running back and tight end.

    College Highlights: Wilhelm played moderately as a true frosh.

    As a sophomore, he became the starting middle linebacker; a spot he held for the final three years of his collegiate career.

    Known primarily for his attacking style, Wilhelm finished his career with the sixth-most tackles-for-loss of any OSU player.

    In 2002, he led the No. 2 scoring defense in the country to the national championship.

    Along the way, he garnered 121 tackles and 19.5 tackles-for-loss. He was named first-team All-Big Ten and a consensus All-American.

    Post-College: Wilhelm was taken by the San Diego Chargers in the fourth round of the 2003 NFL draft.

    The majority of his first four seasons were spent on special teams and as a backup. He became a full-time starter in 2007. However, the Chargers released him before the 2009 season.

    Since then, he has bounced around a number of teams including the Eagles, 49ers and Packers.

Larry Foote: Michigan Wolverines MLB, 1998-2001

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    Pre-College: Foote came to the Wolverines as a moderately recruited linebacker prospect out of Detroit.

    College Highlights: Foote played mostly special teams his first two years on campus.

    However, in 2000, he became the full-time starter. He totaled 84 tackles, 19 tackles-for-loss, one sack and two interceptions en route to being named first team All-Big Ten.

    In 2001, he had 82 tackles, 26 tackles-for-loss and six sacks. He was named first team All-Big Ten, the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year and was on the Football News All-American team.

    Post-College: The Pittsburgh Steelers took Foote in the fourth round of the 2002 draft.  

    His first three seasons saw him playing a peripheral role, but he grabbed the starting job in his fourth season; a season in which the Steelers won the Super Bowl.

    He was released by Pittsburgh in 2009, after which he signed with the Detroit Lions. He remained in Detroit for one season.

    In 2010, he re-signed a three-year contract with the Steelers.

J Leman: Illinois Illini MLB, 2003-2007

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    Pre-College: Jeremy Leman is a native of Champaign, Ill., having graduated from Champaign Central High School.

    He came to the Illini as an extremely lightly recruited linebacker. In fact, Illinois was his only FBS scholarship offer.

    College Highlights: After redshirting his true freshman year, Leman became a starter in 2004. He was a solid, if unspectacular player through his sophomore year.

    Nevertheless, he broke out as a junior. In 2006, he had 154 tackles, 19 tackles-for-loss, four sacks and two forced fumbles. He was named a first team All-Big Ten linebacker.

    In 2007, he helped lead the Illini to the Rose Bowl. He accumulated 132 tackles, 10.5 tackles-for-loss, 2.5 sacks, one forced fumble and one interception. He was once again first team All-Big Ten, and earned a spot on various All-American teams.

    Post-College: Being the prototypical player that has physical limitations but succeeds through prodigious effort and hard work, Leman went undrafted in 2008.

    He signed a free-agent contract with the Minnesota Vikings, but was subsequently cut.

    Since then, he has bounced around a number of NFL teams, as well as the Florida Tuskers of the United Football League.

Dan Connor: Penn State Nittany Lions LB, 2004-2007

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    Pre-College: Connor was the second highest-ranked linebacker recruit in the country. He came out of Wallingford, Pa., where he played both offense and defense.

    At the next level, there was little doubt where he would end up.

    College Highlights: Connor came right in and started for Penn State, moving between the outside and inside spots. Accumulating 85 tackles his freshman year, Connor was named a Freshman All-American.

    In his sophomore year, he moved to full-time starter and posted similar numbers. However, he made a name for himself during his junior year.

    En route to earning his first first team All-Big Ten and All-American recognition, he 113 tackles, nine tackles-for-loss, five sacks, two interceptions and three forced fumbles.

    In his senior year, he had 145 tackles, 15 tackles-for-loss, 6.5 sacks and one interception. On top of first team All-Big Ten and All-American status, he won the Chuck Bednarik Award for the nation's top defensive player.

    Post-College: The Carolina Panthers drafted Connor 74th overall in the 2008 draft. He played sparingly to begin his rookie season, but was lost for the year with a torn ACL.

    He played 16 games in 2009, though he didn't start any. Then, in 2010, after capturing the starting middle linebacker spot, he broke his hip after eight games, and was lost for the season.

Chad Greenway: Iowa Hawkeyes WLB, 2001-2005

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    Pre-College: Greenway was an extremely lightly recruited quarterback/safety out of Mount Vernon, S.D. 

    He played nine-man football in high school, and had no FBS offers other than Iowa.

    College Highlights: He redshirted his first year on campus. In his first active year, he was instrumental on special teams.

    He became the starter in 2003 and made 132 tackles, 11 tackles-for-loss, two sacks and two forced fumbles. He earned second team All-Big Ten accolades.

    In 2004, he had 113 tackles, eight tackles-for-loss, three sacks and a forced fumble. This was good enough to earn him first-team All-Big Ten honors.

    In his senior year, he made 156 tackles, 10 tackles-for-loss, two sacks and an interception. He was once again first team All-Big Ten, and he made multiple All-American teams.

    Post-College: The Vikings picked Greenway 17th in the 2006 NFL draft.

    He missed his entire rookie season with an ACL tear. However, since 2007, he has been Minnesota's starting weakside linebacker, and has totaled 463 tackles.

Paul Posluszny: Penn State Nittany Lions WLB, 2003-2006

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    Pre-College: Posluszny was a moderately recruited linebacker out of Aliquippa, Pa. In high school, he played both linebacker and running back. However, he projected to play either linebacker or tight end in college.

    College Highlights: Posluszny played in spot duty in his true freshman year.

    However, he earned a starting spot in his sophomore year. He led Penn State in tackles, tackles-for-loss and sacks, and earned a a place as a second-team all-conference player.

    In 2005, he accumulated 116 tackles, 11 tackles-for-loss and three sacks. He was named first team All-Big Ten and consensus All-American. He also won the Butkus Award and the Chuck Bednarik Award.

    As a senior, he once again was first team All-Big Ten, having totaled 116 tackles, 9.5 tackles-for-loss, three sacks and two forced fumbles.

    Moreover, he received his second Bednarik Award and his second consensus All-American status.

    Post-College: Posluszny was picked 34th overall by the Buffalo Bills in the 2006 draft.

    He became an immediate starter, but his rookie season ended prematurely with a broken arm.

    Since then, he has had a number of struggles with various injuries, but when healthy, he has been one of the more consistent and productive linebackers in the NFL.

Greg Jones: Michigan State Spartans MLB, 2007-2010

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    Pre-College: Jones was a moderately recruited linebacker prospect out of Cincinnati, Ohio.

    College Highlights: Jones was a starter in his true freshman year. He was named a freshman All-American.

    As a sophomore, Jones had 127 tackles, 14 tackles-for-loss and two sacks. He was named a first-team All-Big Ten linebacker by the coaches and second-team by the media.

    In 2009, Jones had 154 tackles, 14 tackles-for-loss, nine sacks and one forced fumble. This was good enough to earn him first team all-conference, the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year and recognition as a consensus All-American.

    In his senior year, Jones captained his Spartans to 11 wins and a share of the Big Ten title. He accumulated 106 tackles, 10 tackles-for-loss, one sack, two interceptions and three forced fumbles. He was once again first team All-Big Ten, as well as a unanimous All-American.

    Post-College: Jones is currently projected to go in the middle of the second round in 2011's NFL draft. More than anything else, his size and strength are keeping him out of the first round.

James Laurinaitis: Ohio State Buckeyes LB, 2005-2008

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    Pre-College: Laurinaitis was a moderately recruited linebacker out of Minnesota.

    In truth, it's quite surprising that Ohio State "found" Laurinaitis, as they are not known for recruiting in Minnesota. If Laurinaitis had been a player that every team had been after, it might have been more predictable.

    Either way, Laurinaitis' recruitment is a credit to the OSU staff.

    College Highlights: Laurinaitis played in all 12 games in his true freshman year. However, his most memorable games were filling in for an injured Bobby Carpenter in the year-end rivalry game against Michigan and in the Fiesta Bowl against Notre Dame.

    In 2006, he became the full-time starter at middle linebacker. In three years of starting, he totaled 356 tackles, 23.5 tackles-for-loss, 15 sacks, four forced fumbles and nine interceptions.

    He was a three-time first team All-Big Ten linebacker and a three-time All-American. In 2006, he won the Bronco Nagurski Award, in 2007, he won the Dick Butkus Award and in 2008 he won the Lott Trophy. He also won the Jack Lambert Award in both 2007 and 2008.

    Post-College: Laurinaitis was drafted 35th overall by the St. Louis Rams.

    He found a starting spot immediately and was named to the NFL All-Rookie team. In two years of NFL football, he has started 32 games, and accumulated 234 tackles, five sacks and three interceptions.

A.J. Hawk: Ohio State Buckeyes WLB, 2002-2005

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    Pre-College: Hawk was a moderately recruited player out of Centerville High School near Dayton. In high school, he played both linebacker and running back, and could have been a linebacker or fullback at the college level.

    College Highlights: Hawk played in his true freshman year, and was a key special teams contributor on the Buckeyes' 2002 national championship team.

    In 2003, he broke into the starting lineup and led the Bucks with 106 tackles. He also had 13 tackles-for-loss, four sacks and two interceptions, and was awarded first team All-Big Ten laurels.

    In 2004, he had 141 tackles, 7.5 tackles-for-loss, one sack, one interception and a forced fumble. He was once again first team All-Big Ten and also was named a consensus All-American.

    Saving his best for his senior season, he captained the nation's top rushing defense and fifth-best scoring defense.

    Hawk individually totaled 121 tackles, 16.5 tackles-for-loss, 9.5 sacks, one interception and two forced fumbles.

    He was not only first team All-Big Ten, but he was a unanimous All-American and he won Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year, the Lombardi Award and the Jack Lambert Trophy.

    Post-College: The Green Bay Packers picked Hawk fifth overall in the 2006 draft.

    Hawk has started since his rookie year. Originally, he was an outside linebacker, but when the Packers switched to a 3-4, he moved inside.

    He has the 14th most tackles amongst linebackers since the 2006-2007 season.