Ranking the Big Ten Positional Groups: Linebackers
We continue our week-long analysis of the Big Ten by taking a closer look at the linebacking corps.
Monday – Offensive Backfield Tuesday – Receivers Wednesday – Offensive Line Thursday – Defensive Line Friday – Linebackers Saturday – Secondary Sunday – The Coaches
Linebacking has become much more complex as teams spread the field but still try to control tempo by running the ball. Heading into this season the Big Ten lost a lot of talent at linebacker so defensive coordinators will have their work cut out for themselves.
The best units from top to bottom…
1. Michigan – Michigan returns all three starters this year and the group is headed by senior MLB Jake Ryan (6’3, 235). Ryan received All-Conference accolades from multiple outlets following his sophomore campaign (88 tkls, 16 tfl) but missed the first half of last season with a knee injury suffered in the spring. He came back to start down the stretch. At SLB the Wolverines return junior James Ross Jr. (6’1, 225, 85 tkls) and on the weak side senior Desmond Morgan (6’1, 232) will be a four year starter who has 31 starts already accumulated. Depth should not be a concern as all members of the second string were ranked top 35 at their position coming out of high school.
2. Nebraska – All three starters return from last season and one will have a hard time hanging onto his starting spot as the Nebraska linebacking corps is long on experience and full of talent. In the middle returns sophomore Michael Rose (5’11, 240) who started seven games last year as a freshman and accumulated 66 tackles. On the weakside, senior Zaire Anderson (5’11, 200) returns after coming in from Junior College and starting the second half of last season. The SLB has junior David Santos (6’0, 225, 87 tlks) returning after starting 10 games last season. Santos will be challenged by promising sophomore Josh Banderas (6’2, 235) who started four games as a true freshman last year.
3. Michigan State – It will be difficult to replace both Max Bullough and Denicos Allen along with two others off of the 2013 preseason two-deep. That being said, Sparty still has a lot of talent to work with. In the middle should be senior Taiwan Jones (6’3, 252, 18 career starts). He should be flanked on the outside by two juniors in Ed Davis (6’3, 230) and Darien Harris (6’0, 228). Both Davis and Harris have yet to start but each has 27 career games played. Highly touted redshirt freshman MLB Jon Reschke (6’2, 234) could be the next in line to star for Michigan State.
4. Ohio State – Ohio State loses SLB Ryan Shazier to the NFL but returns two starters and will incorporate young talent in this year’s unit. Senior Curtis Grant (6’3, 240) returns after starting 12 games last year but that doesn’t mean he will be given his starting spot back. Early enrollee freshman Raekwon McMillan lived up to the hype spring ball and will make his case to earn a starting spot this summer. At WLB the Buckeyes return junior Joshua Perry (6’4, 250, 64 tkls) who started ten games last year at SLB. Redshirt frosh Darron Lee (6’1, 225) looks to have the lead for the starting spot over a second talented true freshman Kyle Berger and a host of other highly recruited linebackers.
5. Rutgers – The Scarlet Knights return two full time starters and one part time starter as the unit looks to improve from a disappointing 2013. Moving to WLB from MLB will be sophomore Steve Longa (6’1, 220) who is the leading returning tackler in the Big Ten after amassing 123 tackles last season. Flipping positions with Longa is senior Kevin Snyder (6’3, 235, 39 career games) who brings size and experience to the middle. Junior Quentin Gause will man the SLB position after platooning last season and ending the year with 53 tackles. There is young talent behind the starters as sophomore LJ Liston (6’2, 230) returns to the two-deep and the two outside spots will be backed up by redshirt freshmen Myles Nash (6’5, 215) and TJ Taylor (6’3, 205).
6. Maryland – Three starters return in Maryland’s traditional 3-4 defense. The interior looks to be manned by two seniors, LA Goree (6’2, 255, 75 tkls) and Cole Farrand (6’3, 245, 19 career starts). The third senior returning starter is SLB Matt Robinson (6’3, 240, 10 tfl) who has been injured but has been very good at times. The WLB looks like it will be sophomore Yannick Ngakoue (6’2, 250) who did play in all 13 games last year as a true freshman. Injured OLB senior Yannick Cudjoe-Virgil will provide depth if he can stay healthy.
7. Northwestern – The Wildcats bring back two experienced and accomplished starters this season. In the middle returns senior Collin Ellis (6’2, 230, 78 tkls, 32 career games played) and at WLB standout senior Chi Chi Ariguzo (6’3, 235) will add to his 229 career tackles. The SLB is more open as senior Jimmy Hall (6’2, 205) has the game experience but sophomore Joseph Jones (6’1, 210) may have more upside. Northwestern needs someone to nail down the SLB position for this unit to outperform their preseason ranking.
8. Penn State – The starters are solid here but depth is a real concern for Penn State. In the middle will be senior Mike Hull (6’0, 232) who started nine games last year. At WLB is Penn State’s promising sophomore Nyeem Wartman (6’1, 236) who platooned last year and finished with 32 tackles. SLB looks to be manned by fellow sophomore Brandon Bell (6’1, 222) who contributed 24 tackles last year as a true freshman. There is a real chance that a walk-on may crack the two-deep which illustrates why depth is a concern this year for Penn State.
9. Wisconsin - A whole new crew will play LB for Wisconsin this upcoming year as three Badgers have used up eligibility and Michael Caputo should start at SS. Two ILB spots should be manned by two seniors in Derek Landisch (6’0, 230, 33 tkls) and Marcus Trotter (6’0, 233, 23 tkls). SLB will be junior Joe Schobert (6’2, 230, 24 tkls) and sophomore Vince Biegle (6’4, 233) will play WLB. This unit is short on starting experience but does have some talent.
10. Indiana – Five players with staring experience return for an Indiana team that allowed Big Ten opponents to score 42 points on four separate occasions. The good news is that this unit will not be as porous as last year’s was. At MLB returns sophomore TJ Simmons (6’0, 228) who started 12 games as a true frosh last year. Alongside Simmons on the interior will be former JC David Cooper (6’1, 237, 86 tkls). Senior Flo Hardin (6’1, 230, 14 career starts), sophomore Clyde Newton (6’1, 230, 32 tkls) and former DL Nick Mangieri (6’5, 265) will man OLB for this year’s team.
11. Minnesota - This three-man linebacking crew is led by senior MLB Damien Wilson (6’2, 254). Wilson was JC transfer last year but came in and made an immediate impact starting 12 of 13 games and finishing with 78 tackles. WLB looks to be manned by another former JC in highly touted junior JeVondre Campbell (6’5, 225). The SLB position could be manned by a few candidates. Sophomore Jack Lynn (6’4, 234), redshirt freshmen De’ Niro Lastro (6’4, 230) look to vie for playing time but both could be overtaken.
12. Iowa – It will be a changing of the guard in Iowa this year as the three-man unit that started for three consecutive years is gone and will be replaced by an untested group. In the middle looks to be senior Quinto Alston (6’1, 232) who has 24 career tackles under his belt. At SLB junior Travis Perry (6’3, 232, 10 tkls) takes over and WLB will be sophomore Reggie Spearman (6’3, 230) who appeared in 10 games as a true freshman last year.
13. Illinois – Three players return with starting experience (although one in a position change) but this was a unit that was very weak last year as they allowed over 41 points per game in B1G ten play allowing B1G opponents to score 50 points or more on three separate occasions. Three year starter junior Mason Monheim (6’1, 235, 97 tkls) will man the MLB position once again. WLB looks to be between junior Mike Svetina (16 career starts) and sophomore TJ Neal (12 games played). Junior Earnest Thomas will be moved down a level from SS and man the STAR position while pass-rushing LEO should be sophomore Dawuane Smoot (6’3, 250) who got his feet wet playing in 7 games as a true freshman.
14. Purdue – When your team’s only win is a 6 point victory over Indiana St. you know the defense had problems. The Boilermakers look to improve off last year and if they are able to make gains they will need to see improved play from the LBs. Kentucky transfer Langston Newsome (soph) appears poised to take over one of the OLB positions along with senior Joe Gilliam (6’1, 227, 21 career starts). MLB should be handled by senior Sean Robinson (6’3, 240, 17 career starts) while freshman Gelen Robinson (6’2, 230) may handle the other linebacking position.
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