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2018 Big Ten Positional Previews: Linebackers

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NCAA Football: Indiana at Michigan State Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

Saner minds than mine have argued that linebackers are the most important players on a defense unit, and for good reason. Nine of the top ten tacklers in the B1G last year were linebackers. Or, if you like bigger numbers, 22 of the top 25 tacklers were also linebackers.

No other player is subject to such wide interpretation by defensive coordinators across different systems. No other player is subject to such an evenly split set of paradoxical responsibilities. Corners and strong safeties work hard in run support, but neither touches the effort that linebackers give in stopping a rushing attack. At the same time, an elite linebacker is expected to master coverage against quick-hitting passes and disguised “underneath” routes. Stop the run. Stop the pass. Clog up the middle. Keep the linemen off you. Scrape fast. Crash on the run, but don’t get caught looking in the backfield. Suffice it to say, it ain’t easy.

Though PSU lost the “Linebacker U” crown even before longtime LB recruiter Joe Paterno got shown the door, the B1G is no stranger to top linebacker talent these days. This year looks to be no different...

1. Joe Bachie - MSU

After a standout first season as a full-time starter, it would be hard to imagine Bachie not dinging the 100-tackle bell in his 2018 campaign. He returns to anchor a unit that was good at stopping the run inside last year, but not so hot against everything else.

2. TJ Edwards - Wisconsin

Wisconsin has TJ Edwards and whatever an Andrew Van Ginkel is at LB. Edwards will probably end up 1st team and Van Ginkel is a goofy name. (I relied on beezer07 for this gem)

3. Malik Harrison - OSU

Harrison became familiar to Buckeye fans and Sparty fans last year after earning his way into the nickel package and eventually starting at strong side linebacker in the 48-3 pummeling in East Lansing. With several of OSU’s linebacker spots up for debate, expect Harrison to be a three-down backer this season.

4. Devin Bush - Michigan

Bush, along with Edwards, had an excellent 2017 season that landed them both in the small pool of Butkus finalists. With the strength of Don Brown’s defense missing from the middle after Mike McCray’s departure, the Wolverines will have to rely more than ever on Bush’s talents—and the personnel moves could get interesting for a top-ranked defense that got blown off the ball by every team with a pulse and South Carolina.

5. Dante Booker - OSU

It’s hard to ignore a returning senior—especially one who’s got something to prove to NFL scouts. Booker’s 2017 season was derailed by injury and the rise of young talent like Harrison.

Honorable Mention/Newcomers to Watch:

Barron Browning (OSU) - A young star expected to fight for (and win) a job as a starter or heavy rotator, despite going against Tuf Borland for the position. The staff and talking heads are quite high on his potential to be an impact player.

Micah Parsons (PSU) - A former defensive end who’s already branded by the college football twittersphere, word has it that he’s being tapped as the replacement for Cabinda at middle linebacker. Hopefully the PSU linebacking corps stays healthy this year (lest the offense be held to 10 points in Ann Arbor again on account of missing linebackers).

Nick Niemann (Iowa) - He’ll be playing OLB, taking over for his older brother, Ben Niemann, who was pretty underrated. By most accounts, Nick is a bit more athletic than Ben, which is going to be important as OLB is asked to play a lot of coverage in Iowa’s defensive scheme.

Andrew Van Ginkel (Wisconsin) - He made his debut with Wisconsin in 2017 after transferring from Iowa Western Community College, tallying 10 tackles for loss and 6.5 sacks. He’ll return as the veteran of an OLB group stocked with talent but lean on experience