Can you believe it? We made it through the offense and Kickers and now we are finally into defense. Initially, my goal was to look at the Defensive Linemen first, but then Graham said, "Jesse, I would love the next piece to be Linebackers because I LOVE Linebackers." Well, Graham's the boss and so we look at the 'Quarterback of the Defense' and this conference is not lacking for some superstars at the position. With the obvious caveats about football watching and such, let's take a look at the Very Early Best Linebackers in the B1G:
1. Ryan Shazier
I mean, where do you start with this guy? In his Sophomore expedition into the B1G, he just made first team All-B1G, led the conference in TFL, forced three fumbles, picked off a ball, was second in solo tackles with 69 tackles, and was third in the conference overall with 114 tackles. Simply put, he was everywhere and for a national contender, Shazier should be on the short list for postseason awards. Like I said before, Graham loves him some Linebackers, so let's hear what he has to say:
Good lord. A hitter, perfect size, 6'2'' 220 lbs, plays angry...second-leading tackler in the Big Ten last year, first-team All-Big Ten, should be an All-American candidate in the fall as a junior....
2. Max Bullough @bullough40
Let's start with Graham here:
Basically a star in the middle, everything you ask for in MLB leadership, doesn't miss tackles, head of the top B1G defense.
And he's right. Bullough puts up monster stats with 51 solo tackles, 59 assisted tackles, 2.5 sacks, and 12.5 tackles for loss. Even more importantly, he is the star of the incredibly stout Michigan State defense. Despite this being a ridiculously loaded team, he managed to stand out and turn heads. As a returning All-B1G player as well, he has the potential to break into some All-American lists as well. Basically what I am trying to say is that he's not too shabby and will probably strike fear into a lot of B1G Offensive Coordinators next year.
I should have let Graham write this entire piece. Let's throw it back to him for his two cents on Chris Borland:
Borland has been around for 30994 years and is the anchor. You cannot underestimate the power of having an anchor.
He's been around a really long time. At least it seems like it, right? I spent a really long time making sure he really was on Wisconsin's 2013 roster, because I feel like he's got to be as old as me, but alas, he is only a redshirt Senior. So good for him! So why is he here? He's another All-B1G performer with crazy stats. This seems to be getting redundant, no? 56 solo tackles, 48 assisted, 4 sacks, 9.5 tackles for loss, and 4 passes defended. He is the heart of the new Wisconsin defense, and while they are moving into a more 3-4 based scheme, Borland has the tools to shine.
Why hello Iowa! It's so nice to see you on these lists. But seriously, Hitchens was a tackling machine for the Hawkeyes last year. He led the B1G in tackles with 124 overall, and despite only one of them coming as a TFL, Hitchens stakes his claim fair and square. Hitchens is one of those guys who just knows where he needs to be to make the play, and he routinely finishes things off. Going into 2013, he will anchor a fairly impressive Iowa Linebacking corp. Will it change the fortunes for Iowa? Probably not, but Hitchens should make some more plays this year. I think when it's all said and done, he can make All-B1G second team easily. At minimum, people will know his name by the end of the year.
5. Jake Ryan
A couple of things. Jake Ryan should be much higher on this list. He was a beast last year leading the B1G with 16.5 TFL. He routinely made game changing plays, and he made sure the rest of the Wolverines were where they needed to be. The problem, however, is that he tore his ACL in the Spring which means we don't really know what to expect out of him. More importantly, how much or how soon he plays is up in the air.
By all accounts, I have read that he should be ready by the Fall, but he will probably be a little rusty and where will his mental state be? Can he be dominant again? Absolutely. It sure seems like guys are coming back from these knee injuries faster and stronger. Still, until we know exactly what he is capable of, it is really hard to project him higher. Even so, with the injury and unsettled state, he's quite deserving of this spot. If he is okay, I think he'll be a Top 3 guy.
Next Man Up: Damien Proby
So a Northwestern guy making a defensive list. That seems as absurd as a Nebraska guy making the list... later. Moving right along, Proby is here because he, like Hitchens, is kind of a tackling machine. With 74 solo tackles, Damien Proby provided some consistency to the Northwestern defense last season. He is not a TFL or Sacks guy with only 4.5 TFLs and .5 Sacks, but he keeps his hands up and had 3 Passes Defended. As Northwestern gets better athletes in the secondary, Proby will be more free to be used in attacking style, and his stats should look a lot fancier by the end of 2013.