Not gonna lie to you, Off Tackle Imperials, we did not get a quorum of votes to allow a meaningful election to take place on linebacker power rankings. As such, this is more of a ranking by fiat done by me and my chief lieutenant, He Was A High School Quarterback.
It seems impossible, but somehow Iowa’s entire crew of starting linebackers always has 3 years of starting experience, and that’s the case this season as well. Jack Campbell and Seth Benson will be out there for the huge majority of Iowa’s snaps in competitive game situations, while Jestin Jacobs rotates with whoever wins the derby to replace Dane Belton as Iowa’s cash (nickel), looking at this point to be junior Sebastian Castro.
Normally, losing all three starters from a still-thin roster would be calamitous for a team like Illinois, but even with a strong group in Jake Hansen, Isaiah Gay, and Khalan Tolson all moving on, Illinois isn’t starting from scratch. Tarique Barnes got some run in relief of Hansen, so it’s not a total mess here. Illinois also gets back Calvin Hart Jr., the former NC State transfer who was lost for the season in Week Zero last year.
Despite finding a very capable starter in then-redshirt freshman Cal Haladay last year, Mel Tucker’s staff aggressively worked the portal with this group, to the extent returning starter Quavaris Crouch saw the writing on the wall and portaled out. Besides Haladay, Tucker’s staff can now consider UNLV transfer Jacoby Windmon and Mississippi State transfer Aaron Brule. Windmon in particular had plenty of options after racking 118 tackles and 6.5 sacks in 2021, and given MSU’s base is a 4-2-5, it will be very interesting to see how this group shakes out, especially with former safety/nickel Darius Snow moving to the position this spring.
Micah McFadden’s impact on the Hoosier defense went well beyond his impressive counting stats, so given he’s gone, it’s very fortunate that his running mate Cam Jones is still around. The apparent frontrunner to replace McFadden is Miami (FL) transfer Bradley Jennings Jr., but Kentucky transfer Jared Casey seems likely to factor into the rotation as well. There’s also the crown jewel of the recruiting class, top-100 prospect Dasan McCullough, who presumably has an immediate place in the exotic blitz plans Tom Allen and his staff are cooking up.
T-5. Ohio State
Going into 2021, Ohio State was replacing a large cohort of experienced linebackers, and the results were...eh? As such, perhaps it’s to be expected that the depth chart here sounds kind of fluid. The returners who saw the field most include Teradja Mitchell, Tommy Eichenberg, and converted tailback Steele Chambers. C.J. Hicks is the bonkers-talented true freshman to keep an eye on, and former USC transfer Palaie Gaoteote is another serious talent, but it’s also yet to be seen how many of these guys will have big opportunities in new DC Jim Knowles’ 4-2-5 base.
Death, taxes, and Wisconsin replacing two or three NFL-bound sticks of dynamite in the linebacker room. This year it’s Jack Sanborn, Leo Chenal, and Noah Burks moving on, and doubtless some outlets will wonder aloud how the Badgers will ever replace such stalwarts without a deep well of recruiting talent to plug in. As with the offensive line (last year notwithstanding), this is just a spot where some benefit of the doubt has been earned. Nick Herbig is the guy returning from a big role last year; a crew of as-yet-untested new guys such as Tatum Grass and Maema Njongmeta will probably flirt with 100 tackles apiece.
Lost in the durm and strang of a team consistently finding ways to lose, Nebraska found a pair of quality linebackers last season, and returns them both on a defense that will have some attrition at its other levels. Junior Luke Reimer (90 tackles, 5 PD) and redshirt sophomore Nick Henrich (99 tackles) don’t add much pass rush with only a sack and a half between them, but that’s about the only nit to pick and it isn’t much of one given the structure of this defense.
8. Penn State
Penn State loses a pair of NFL linebackers in Brandon Smith and Ellis Brooks, but James Franklin’s recruiting has been sufficient that one expects there to be a certain floor. Moreover, they do return a potential All-B1G candidate in Curtis Jacobs. Still, the rest of the two-deep is currently deep reserve upperclassmen and a pair of intriguing redshirt freshmen, Kobe King (not the former wisconsin basketball player, we’re pretty sure) and Jamari Buddin.
This is a position group with plenty of athletic potential, mainly in the person of Junior Colson, though he was a bit prone to chasing shiny objects last year (understandable for a true freshman). With Josh Ross graduating, the other logical options are Nikhai Hill-Green and Michael Barrett in yet another system that will only play two traditional linebackers a lot of the time.
The Boilermaker defense loses its leading tackler by a mile with Jaylan Alexander’s departure, but the linebacking group is otherwise intact. Kieran Douglas and Jalen Graham return as starters, and you can probably pencil former Auburn transfer OC Brothers in as the third starter.
One-year plug-in Jack Giddens moves on from Dinkytown, but a Gopher defense that took a big step forward last year does return two veterans in Mariano Sori-Marin and Braelen Oliver. Is there proven depth? Ehhhhhh no, and the massive turnover on the defensive line is going to show us if these guys are legit gamebreakers or if they just benefitted from a very experienced line in front of them last year.
The Terrapin linebacker group struggled to make plays last year, as Ruben Hyppolite was the only backer to amass more than 30 tackles and Durell Nchami is the only returner who notched any sacks (he had 3). Former superstar recruits Terrance Lewis, Demeioun Robinson (who, spicily, is off to Penn State) and Branden Jennings have all left the team already, but the benefit of a coach who recruits like Mike Locksley is that there’s always fresh reason for hope. This year it’s West Virginia transfer VanDarius Cowan and blue-chip freshman Jaishawn Barham, but it would behoove the Terrapins to find a way to hang onto these guys for more than one season.
This unit fell off a cliff last year without Paddy Fisher and Blake Gallagher in the defense’s first year under Jim O’Neil, consistently blowing angles and run fits in a way we just were not accustomed to seeing from the Wildcat defense. Now, they must also reckon with Chris Bergin’s departure. Bryce Gallagher returns, and Mac Uihlein was well-regarded as a recruit, but with massive turnover on the line in front of them, there’s going to be huge pressure on this unit to vault forward.
It’s a season of transition for the Rutgers linebackers, as Olakunle Fatukasi, Drew Singleton, Tyshon Fogg, and Tyreek Maddox-Williams all move on. Fatukasi in particular was an absolute wrecking ball, piling up 282 career tackles. Greg Schiano seems content with the depth he’s built in this group, though, as he has so far passed on the portal. Veteran Deion Jennings is probably a big part of the picture here, but it’s otherwise a very young group with four redshirt freshmen and a true freshman projected to compose the rest of the depth chart.