Linebackers...the quarterbacks of the defense. The great ones make it look so easy. They flow with the play, take a step into the hole, and blow up the running back before he gets momentum. As B1G fans, we are spoiled with some great linebackers over the years...and 2015 was no exception.
Wisconsin's Joe Schobert, Rutgers' Steve Longa, Northwestern's Anthony Walker, Ohio State's Darron Lee, and Illinois' Mason Monheim hammered opposing running backs all season long.
There were thirteen linebackers nominated for the SB Nation's All-American team for 2015. This was post-bowl game honors chosen from among all of college football. While none of our linebackers made the final three, McMillan, Schobert, Lee, and Walker were all on there.
To put that another way, the #big had 1/3 of the top linebackers in the nation...
As an aside, with apologies to Reggie Ragland and his Alabama group who were awesome, the SEC only put up two players to that list...#NoDinSEC.
Unfortunately for many B1G teams, the NFL beckons to many of our 2015 standouts. Darron Lee is the fourth ranked OLB in the draft. He was the next-man-up after Ryan Shazier left in 2014...and pro teams are salivating over the prospect.
He's not alone. Maryland's Yannick Ngakoue, Rutgers' Steve Longa, and Ohio State's Josh Perry sit at the seventh, fourteenth, and seventeenth best OLB prospects in the draft. That's a lot of talent moving on to the pros.
Read that Maryland and Rutgers, and weep now. Your best players will be in the NFL. You are relegated to the [redacted] zone. Again.
So what do the rest of the B1G's line backing corps look like for 2016? Even better than last year...if you can imagine that. There were a lot of youngsters filling gaps in 2015 and most of them come back this year. I predict a fantastic group of linebackers this year. It wouldn't surprise me at all to see a B1G linebacker take home some national awards at the end of the year. (Cough, Bullough/McMillan...cough cough.)
Here's your list:
Anthony Walker Jr. had the second most solo tackles in the Big Ten (63) and averaged over 9 tackles per game...as a sophomore. He's a true stud and he's back.
Anthony Walker and NU should probably rate out Top 3. The Wildcats' corps, arguably its strongest defensive unit in 2015, loses only Drew Smith to graduation, returning standouts Jaylen Prater and the aforementioned Walker. Watch out for redshirt sophomore Cameron Quiero as well, who has the luxury of backing up Walker.
As a unit, this group (still under the watchful eye of one of the B1G's best LBs) notched over 35 TFLs, 8 sacks, and a couple forced fumbles. Of that? Walker had 20.5, 2, and 1. Dude is the heart and soul of Northwestern's linebackers and deserves, if not _at_ the top, to be damn near it.
Sparty may have lost the Cotton Bowl to Alabama, but their defense was solid. They lose stud linebacker Darien Harris, but starters Riley Bullough and Jon Reschke return.
MSU's LB group should be in great shape next year. Riley Bullough is your senior MLB captain prototype, should be a lock for +100 tackles if healthy, and next to him will have another capable run-stopper in Jon Reschke. Ed Davis should also get a sixth year after missing all of last year with a knee injury. Where MSU needs a new starter is at Darien Harris' STAR spot, which involves a lot more coverage responsibilities. Sophomore Andrew Dowell is a possibility there. Overall, the Spartans should have one of the best groups in the conference.
The 2015 Badger defense was a seriously good bunch. Joe Schobert won the Butkus-Fitzgerald Linebacker of the Year and a first team All-B1G selection. Outside Linebacker Vince Biegel was third team All-B1G as well.
In 2016, Schobert is gone but Biegel is back. And freshman phenom T.J. Edwards will join him. Edwards received an all B1G Ten honorable mention in 2015. In his sophomore season, Edwards will need to step up to keep Wisconsin's defense operating at a high level.
Everyone is back except for Joe Schobert. Who is a big loss but Jack Cichy is pretty decent. 3 straight sacks in a bowl game isn't bad. It'll be interesting to see what happens now that Aranda is gone with the linebackers. Lots of talent. Should be a solid unit again this year.
#4: Iowa Hawkeyes
If you have the Hawkeyes on your schedule in 2016, your offense will need to game plan for a great linebacking corps. This group was the second best rushing defense in the league in 2015. The linebacking group only loses Cole Fisher. In 2016, Josey Jewell leads a cohort of tough youth. Ben Niemann, Bo Bower, and Parker Hesse will wreak havoc on running backs this year.
Josey Jewell will be expected to have a monster year after making 2nd Team All-Conference at MLB. He's been a tackle machine there, and is making a case to be up there as one of the best at his position under Ferentz.
Ben Niemann, though, might play a more important position in the Iowa defense. He's tasked with dropping into coverage more. He was honorable mention All-Conference, and think he'll be integral to Iowa's defensive success.
The third spot, though, is a more up for grabs after Cole Fisher graduated. RS JR. Bo Bower is probably the odds on favorite to get slotted there.
The Lions return a solid group with Brandon Bell and Jason Cabinda as returning starters. Nyeem Warman-White should be back from injury. They lose Troy Reeder, a starter for much of the year, who is going to be a Delaware Blue Hen with his brother.
It's a head scratcher of a move. It may be the result of a "care-frontation" where the coaches told Reeder that he'd likely get jumped in the depth chart by rising talent. And there are some good looking youngsters making waves...
Penn State has a chance to have quite the linebacking corps in 2016, especially if Nyeem Wartman-White bounces back from last September's season-ending injury and has the breakout campaign he was supposed to have in 2015. With pass-rush specialist Brandon Bell and 2015 tackles leader Jason Cabinda also set to return, this looks like the most fearsome group Penn State has had since the late 2000s.
#6: The Ohio State Buckeyes
The Buckeyes boasted one of the best linebacking corps in the Big Ten in 2015. But they lost Josh Perry and Darron Lee to the NFL, so there is a modest amount of rebuilding. The good news is that the leading tackler on the team, Raekwon McMillan, returns. How good is McMillan? Well, he ranked fourth in the Big Ten in tackles in 2015...as a sophomore. He was also a Butkus award finalist...as a sophomore.
He's a stud, but the rest of the linebacking corps will be new starters. Replacing stud Darron Lee outside will be either Chris Worley, Dante Booker, and/or sophomore Jerome Baker
The stud is far and away Raekwon McMillan. With Joshua Perry and Darron Lee gone, this is the time for the veteran to step up and become a superstar.
In 2015, the Huskers fielded a group of young linebackers. The problem with that is that the top four leading tacklers were all defensive backs. That's usually a sign that your backers aren't playing well. That said, this year, they bring back all four: Senior Josh Banderas, sophomore Dedrick Young, junior Chris Weber, and Junior Marcus Newby. In 2015 those backers went 4th, 5th, 6th, and 8th in tackles, respectively.
Nebraska fans can look forward to a much better run-stopping group in 2016, based on continuity and experience alone.
This is strangely a place of decent strength for Nebraska in 2016. Michael Rose-Ivey returns and he's about as solid a contributor as you can have, but the big surprise is Dedrick Young. Crazy smart kid who played as a Freshman and looks the part of an anchor at LB. He, Josh Banderas, Chris Weber, Marcus Newby, and Rose-Ivy represent a suddenly deep position. Of note, Luke Gifford played a lot as a Freshman before getting hurt. I think he's going to add even more depth to what was a really young group. This should be the strongest defensive unit for the Cornhuskers in 2016.
#8: Indiana Hoosiers
The team loses some big names on defense this year. One of the biggest is inebacker Zack Shaw, who was a force in the opposing teams' backfields all last season. However, the team returns a pair of studs for 2016.
The names to watch in 2016 are Marcus Oliver, T.J. Simmons, and Tegray Scales. Most good Hoosiers fans already know Oliver, as he led the team in tackles in 2015. Simmons was third and Scales came in fourth in tackles last season. The three combined for 13 sacks as well, so this should be a stout group.
Allow me to preface this by saying I really don't know how IU intends to line up next year on defense, as there's been enough shuffling of coaches that I'm no longer totally sure who does what. That said, the four names to know for IU's linebacking corps are Tegray Scales, TJ Simmons, Clyde Newton, and Marcus Oliver. If the majority of those four continue to play up to their potential, expect IU's front seven to make additional steps forward and possibly arrive at "pretty good" before the end of the year.
The Gophers return three of their four linebackers for 2016. Cody Poock, the redshirt junior is the star to watch. He'll be joined by redshirt senior Jack Lynn, and junior Jonathan Celestin. Poock, Lynn, and Celestin went 2nd , 4th , and 7th in tackles last year. They'll be joined by true freshman Carter Coughlin.
Uhhhhhhh I'm in full on hockey mode...Carter Coughlin is a consensus 4 star at lb who will play right away.
#10: Purdue Boilermakers
Danny Ezechukwu and Andy James Garcia went 2 and 3 in tackles for the Boilers in 2015 and both come back for 2016. With them come Ja'Whaun Bentley and Jimmy Herman. The experience is here. The big problem for the Boilers is that the rest of the leading tacklers were defensive backs.
That said, I think this could be a stout bunch in 2016...for [Redacted] that is.
#11: Michigan Wolverines
The Fightin' Tantrums return just one starter from last year, Ben Gedeon. Devin bush Jr. is a freshman who will compete with sophomore Noah Furbush. Furbush saw time on special teams in 2015. This group is young and untested. We'll see how they hold up through a tough 2016 schedule.
Michigan's linebackers...are bad.
The best description I have for the Illini linebacking situation is a tire fire in a dumpster fire on a landfill fire. The best linebacker on the team took a grad transfer to Auburn...I can't even.
Linebacker: i'm gonna be a good fan and do exactly what the university's interim administration wants me to do, and that's stop caring.
/Townie prods Thump with a sharp stick...
Ugh. Fine. We're switching from the Tim Banks scheme to a conventional 4-3. James Crawford, who split time at Star last year (hybrid safety/linebacker type) will likely start at WLB. He is a junior.
We would have also returned graduated seniors La'Keith Walls, Raphael Barr and BJ Bello, who were mostly experienced depth and special teams players, but Cubit apparently Creaned them to bring in more 2 stars out of Florida or something.
When that happened, TJ Neal had had enough and announced that he was transferring. Our second leading tackler, he would have started at MLB to take over for Mason Monheim but he is much quicker. So now we will start redshirt sophomore Tre Watson at MLB. He looked decent in limited action last year.
Julian Jones is in theory the starter at SLB but he is still suspended in definitely and may be facing a 30 year prison term, so we'll likely start senior Mike Svetina. He hasn't played since 2013 due to lingering foot/ankle issues and did not have elite quickness then. Beyond those guys we have virtually nobody.
So, basically, get past the defensive line and it's a touchdown
#13: Maryland Terrapins
The good news for Maryland fans is that the leading tackler, Jermaine Carter is back for his junior season. He's joined by fellow junior Jalen Brooks, sophomore Brett Zanotto, and sophomore Tyler Burke. The group only loses Avery Thomson from last year. This is a cohesive group that should show some improvement over last year. The biggest concern here is that, with the exception of Carter, these kids lacked productivity.
They return a ton and Abner Logan is back from injury until he injured himself again. That being said...I'm still thinking they are average until someone or everyone in the unit proves otherwise. Logan is full of potential but is always injured, so who knows.
Steve Longa was the heart and soul of the 2015 Rutgers defense. The Scarlet Knights lose Longa and his cohorts Quentin Gause and Kaiwan Lewis. These three went 1st, 2nd, and 3rd in tackles in 2015.
It's safe to say that the 2016 linebacking corps will be young and untested. This is, without a doubt, the weakest linebacker group in the B1G. Best of luck folks.
I really don't have any... Uhhh, Rutgers has a lot of work to do in that area. New Strength and conditioning coach, Kenny parker, should (hopefully) bring our LB's up to a reasonable level based on who we have.