We continue our Editor, Andy's, look at the different position groups across the Big Ten. Today we look at a unit that screams what Big Ten football is all about – physicality and toughness.
Of course, we're talking linebackers today. This is a group that is loaded with some great talent and a diversity we haven't seen in some time across the league. So, who tops Andy's list? Will there be some surprising groups in 2013? Come, explore the group with us!!
1. Michigan State: Having Max Bullough and Dennicos Allen certainly help you out in the rankings – you know, since they only happen to be two of the best linebackers in the Big Ten. Allen is perhaps the fastest linebacker this league has and pairing him up with Bullough, who's tough as nails and assignment sure is a match made in heaven. Tawain Jones and Kyler Elsworth are big names to watch opposite of the two stars. Jones had 5.5 tackles for loss and 1 sack to go along with is 38 total tackles last season as a backup. Elsworth also showed flashes of brilliance with 3.5 tackles for loss and 2.5 sacks in a limited role. Both have potential to show up in much bigger ways this season. Overall it's hard to see how this group from top to bottom isn't the best this conference has to offer.
2. Wisconsin: Chris Borland is simply an animal of a linebacker, which is funny because he's the exact opposite off the field. He could be primed for an even bigger season with the switch to the vastly more aggressive 3-4 scheme that allows a lot more freedom for playmakers like Borland. He's got a lot of help and experience around him with the likes of Ethan Armstrong and Connor O'Neil on the inside. One person to really watch will be converted DE Brendan Kelly at OLB. He's likely to be joined by impressive redshirt freshman Vince Biegel at OLB as well. This groups has about the right balance of experience and youth to make this one of the Big Ten's best linebacking units. What could stop this group from success could be health issues as Kelly and Borland have both had major injury histories – Kelly's very recent and Borland's in the past. As long as all goes right on that front there won't be anything to worry about.
3. Northwestern: I'm a big fan of both Chi Chi Ariguzo and Damien Proby. Ariguzo is a star and should be a household name in Big Ten country. Ariguzo had 91 tackles, 10.5 tackles for loss, and 3 sacks. He'll be flipping sides with the graduation of David Nwabusi. Teams who try to go away from Ariguzo will find it hard going with Proby, the leading returning tackler for NU, patrolling the middle most likely and Drew Smith taking over at Ariguzo's old spot. Smith is a great athletic option, but will be make a huge jump to the starting lineup after being just another option in the rotation last season. Expect Collin Ellis to be a key cog off the bench for this group as well. Overall this is perhaps the most athletic group of linebackers NU has had in quite some time and with the recruiting classes the Wildcats are bringing in, things are only looking up for this group.
4. Michigan: This group would've been higher on my list but hard to do that when the 2nd best linebacker in the Big Ten, Jake Ryan, may not be around until the last month of the season if at all. Junior Desmond Morgan is a great speed option on the outside and is experienced, making 18 career starts. He'll need to step it up a bit in the absence of Ryan. Replacing Ryan in the starting lineup will be Cam Gordon, an experienced senior who had 77 tackles as a redshirt freshman, so he should be at least capable while filling in for Ryan. Look for Joe Bolden and James Ross III to be big options after standout seasons. This is a group that is deep, but needs to prove that losing two starters won't hurt much.
5. Iowa: This group returns all three starters from last season in Anthony Hitchens, James Morris, and Christian Kirksy, with Hitchens leading the Big Ten in tackles last season (124). So, why are these guys so low then? Experience is great and individual stats are good numbers to throw out there, however making a bunch of tackles deep down field doesn't do you any good when you are trying to win football games. This unit for all it's huge tackle numbers wasn't very explosive with not a single returning linebacker ranking in the top 20 of tackles for loss in the conference last season. Additionally this is a group that contributed to a rushing defense that gave up over 4 yards a carry and ranked just 7th in the conference in rush defense. This group has potential to be great, but sometimes the devil is in the details and the details on this group keep it from being a top third group in the Big Ten for me.
6. Ohio State: Ryan Shazier is back and is one of our preseason Top 25 players in the Big Ten, coming in 7th. So that alone is great, problem is he's the only one returning as a starter from a season ago and there isn't a single senior to this linebacking corp and that means Shazier has to be a leader both on and off the field this season. Additionally those expected to start alongside of him, Curtis Grant and Joshua Perry, haven't exactly lived up to the promise they held while being recruited to OSU. Grant, a former five-star recruit, had all of 8 tackles a season ago while seeing action in 8 games. He looked better in spring but there's a long way from doing it there to doing it against other teams' schemes. If Grant lives up to his promise at middle linebacker this group will rank higher for me at the end of the season, but as you should know by now I firmly believe in the wait and see approach to most situations like this.
7. Penn State: Linebacker U was in good form last year with Michael Mauti and Gerald Hodges around, but both are gone this season and that means a lot of transition. Glenn Carson will patrol the middle of this unit for the Nittany Lions and he is a nice part. Replacing Mauti and all he meant to this team won't be easy to say the least, but they have a potential star in the making in Nyeem Wartman, who redshirted last season to learn the position better and put on some weight. Mike Hull is the other outside linebacker and he performed well last season, recording 58 tackles, 5 tackles for loss, and 4 sacks in 2012. This team will need more of that if they are going to be successful with all the parts they've lost around the linebacking unit.
8. Purdue: The saving grace for this unit is one Will Lucas. I love what he brings to the table as a hitter and a man who can play in space. Fellow senior Sean Robinson is another good option on the outside, but look out for Armstead Williams to be a force as a sophomore on the outside in the rotation. Up the middle is Joe Gilliam and his ability to be a bigger playmaker will be huge. Overall, this group isn't all that spectacular, but they at least return some decent parts and I personally expect bigger things from Lucas this season thanks to the increased competition behind him.
9. Nebraska: Perhaps we should be issuing a ban on the term "blackshirts" at Nebraska – they haven't earned them in forever and a day it seems. All you need to know about this group can be learned by watching the Big Ten championship game – they can't and didn't play well in space and got repeatedly torched by the Badgers offense. A lot of that was squarely on the shoulders of the LB's. Well, they lose two of the best players they had there last season in Will Compton and Alonzo Whaley. They are hoping a youth movement corrects the issues from last year and are expecting big things out of Jared Afalava, Thomas Brown and Michael Rose. However, this is big boy football and expecting a ton of freshman to all be reliable is asking a bit much for me. Best case scenario is this group becomes a top half group when the season is done and dusted. If so, look for the Huskers to be in Indy again, hoping for different results.
10. Indiana: David Cooper and Jacarri Alexander are a decent one-two punch to have a linebacker if you are Indiana. Cooper can fly around and Alexander, while unspectacular is assignment sure and his work rate is second to none. The problem is, that's only two out of three and there is very little in terms of quality depth behind them at all. If Griffin Dahlstrom happens to flash more than he has at IU this group could become the surprise of the team if you ask me. They'll also become better with a better line in front of them, which isn't the case this season.
11. Illinois: Jonathan Brown is a name you would know if he was playing anywhere else last season, he's one of the top 6 or 7 LB's in the conference. Problem is that he's but one man. Mason Monheim showed vast improvement from last season to the spring and that could be good news for a team desperate for true playmakers on defense this season. He was good as a freshman and we'll see if he can live up to the expectations in his sophomore season. The problem for this group as with a lot of them down near the bottom is that they lack true depth. This group is thin on experience as is and should Brown or Monheim go down… Well, I'd shudder to think of what could happen.
12. Minnesota: You know things are bad when you rank below a team that couldn't win a single game in the Big Ten last season, but that's what happens when you've got issues stopping the run and applying pressure from your linebackers. That was the story of the 2012 Gophers and it may not be much better in 2013 thanks to just one starter returning in Aaron Hill. JUCO's will be key if this group wants to help Minnesota make a jump defensively and to that end the name to watch is Damien Wilson at middle linebacker. Five linebackers were part of the 2013 recruiting class and with the lack of experience along this group don't be surprised if one or two of them become major players as the season goes along. Sorry Gopher fans, this group is a mess and it could be the only thing holding them back from a big improvement in 2013.