With most of the conference’s linebacking groups either experiencing substantial turnover or lacking in returning star power, it’s actually pretty easy to peg the top group in the Big Ten. After that, though, it gets kind of murky, and since there was off-year local election participation levels in our data-gathering internal polls for this piece, we’ll give a nod to the top dogs before moving into generalities.
Top Tier - Northwestern, Indiana, Ohio State, Rutgers
Northwestern’s offseason talk has, with good reason, focused on the complete rebuild the offense is about to undergo. Lost in last season’s misery was the fact that the defense was for the most part reliable (if consistently overtaxed), and the backing combo of Paddy Fisher and Blake Gallagher is as good as they come.
Indiana sends off Reakwon Jones, but does return Micah McFadden, Thomas Allen, and Cam Jones with a lot of experience also returning elsewhere on the defense.
Although Ohio State fans have been heard to grumble about the lack of top-shelf playmaking from the linebacking unit, of late, there’s still a lot of experience here, and talent that most other teams would happily take. Tuf Borland, Pete Werner, Baron Browning (those three are all seniors), plus Justin Hilliard.
Rutgers’ Tyshon Fogg was an unsung star given the team’s atrocious performance and midseason firing of Chris Ash, but on any other roster, he would be an all-B1G contender and headline-grabber. As it is, the team being bad doesn’t mean there’s nothing to build on, and Rutgers should expect good things from its linebacking this season between Fogg, Olakunle Fatukasi, and Tyreek Maddox-Williams.
Star-Powered With Turnover - Penn State, Michigan State, Illinois
If this were an individual list, Micah Parsons would be the no-brainer number one with a bullet. The former top-shelf recruit has lived up to every bit of his high school hype, piling 191 total tackles, 18 TFL, 6.5 sacks, and 6 forced fumbles in two years. He feels like as safe a bet as there is to repeat as a first-team All-B1G selection and most likely will scoot for the draft after the season. Penn State graduates Jan Johnson, but has plenty of blue chip options to replace him.
Although Michigan State’s defense as a whole was less than the sum of its parts last year, Antjuan Simmons was a consistent playmaker. Joe Bachie’s midseason suspension last year did give Noah Harvey some extended playing time, but as Tyriq Thompson is also out of eligibility, the new staff will have plenty of configuring to do.
Illinois loses a tackling machine in Dele Harding, but does have one of the more clutch defensive playmakers in the conference in Jake Hansen back to anchor the defense.
Not Much Proven But Getting Benefit Of The Doubt - Wisconsin, Michigan, Iowa
Wisconsin once again sends off multiple devastating playmakers, as Zack Baun and Chris Orr leave and take a mountain of production with them. However, this program’s ability to spawn equally productive linebackers to replace departed stars has really become every bit as good as its consistency with running backs and offensive linemen. Jack Sanborn made plenty of plays last year, and it’s fair to assume they’ll find the guys they need.
Michigan, meanwhile, loses two very different but very important starters, Jordan Glasgow (139 career tackles, 10 TFL, 7 sacks) and Khaleke Hudson (225 career tackles, 23 TFL, 10 sacks, 2 INT, 2FF). They did find their long-term answer in the middle last season in Cam McGrone, but there isn’t much else proven on the roster.
Iowa’s linebacking group has Djimon Colbert back, but graduates Kristian Welch and had a bit more roster-shuffling there last year than is typical for them. There are experienced bodies around (Nick Niemann, Dane Belton) but the real question here is what the defense looks like without AJ Epenesa.
Who Knows What To Expect - Minnesota, Maryland, Purdue, Nebraska
Minnesota quietly turns over most of its most prominent defensive playmakers, and that’s as true at linebacker as anywhere. Kamal Martin and Thomas Barber are big losses, and whoever steps forward as new starters won’t have the benefit of Carter Coughlin in front of them or Antoine Winfield Jr. playing center field.
Maryland sustains massive turnover from a defense that generally struggled pretty badly last year, and at linebacker, losing Shaq Smith and Keandre Jones adds this to the list of position groups in need of a reset. Ayinde Eley is a decent start, but there’s still a lot more questions than answers here.
Purdue returns some experience in Jaylan Alexander, but Cornel Jones’ surprising transfer and the end of Markus Bailey’s time puts the linebacking group in flux. Semisi Fakasiieki appears to be a big piece of the solution, but the defense needs work overall.
Finally, Nebraska has an intriguing safety hybrid type in Jojo Domann, along with Collin Miller in more of a traditional role, but losing Mohamed Barry, the playmaking heart of the defense, is going to require solving.