Linebackers had a landmark season in 2012, thanks to Notre Dame senior Manti Te’o's runner-up finish in Heisman Trophy voting. His was the best finish a linebacker had ever reached in the award’s nearly 80-year history. Another linebacker, Jarvis Jones, cracked the top 10.
The Jones-Te’o debate is intriguing. Each brought much different qualities to their defenses, but shared the common quality of contributing profoundly. Both were team MVPs, consensus All-Americans and are destined for the NFL. The debate continues in ranking the nation’s top 12 linebackers of 2012.
On one hand, Te’o captained a BCS championship-contending, No. 1 overall defense. His seven interceptions were most in college football behind only Fresno State safety Phillip Thomas. More importantly, Te’o made interceptions at most opportune times. His pick at Oklahoma, for example, firmly turned the tide in the Fighting Irish’s premiere win.
On the other hand, Jones was the among the nation’s leaders in sacks, tackles for loss and forced fumbles. His play against Florida was the catalyst for the Bulldogs’ SEC East-sealing victory.
A strong case for either as the country’s premiere linebacker can be made. But which one tops this list? Read on.
12. KYLE VAN NOY, BYU
BYU junior Kyle Van Noy led the nation’s No. 5 scoring defense in sacks (11.5), tackles for loss (18.5) and quarterback hurries (eight). His ability to bring pressure on blitzes fueled the Cougars’ stingy rush play, as he disrupted plenty of plays in the backfield before they could develop.
11. C.J. MOSLEY, ALABAMA
Nick Saban-via-Kirby Smart’s 3-4 defense thrives on outstanding linebacker play, and no member of the Crimson Tide corps was more key than C.J. Mosley. A 1st Team All SEC selection, Mosley made a team high 99 tackles, including seven for loss; intercepted two passes and returned one for a touchdown; and recorded four sacks.
10. KHALIL MACK, BUFFALO
One of the unheralded gems of college football, Khalil Mack racked up tackles and sacks to add to a resume that will earn him a spot in the NFL. Before he plays on Sundays, Mack is noteworthy as a Sports Illustrated All-American. He made 21 tackles for loss; only Jarvis Jones and Jadeveon Clowney had more. The Buffalo junior also forced four fumbles.
9. DAN MOLLS, TOLEDO
He lost the FBS lead for tackles per game because of an injury suffered on the first play of Saturday’s Famous Idaho Potato Bowl, but Dan Molls still finished 2012 with an NCAA high 166 tackles.
8. MIKE MAUTI, PENN STATE
Mike Mauti’s season was cut short, but nonetheless he established himself as the latest great Nittany Lion linebacker with 95 tackles, three forced fumbles and three interceptions. Perhaps most interesting among Mauti’s stats is that he returned his three picks for an average of 41.7 yards.
Mauti was recognized as a 1st Team All Big Ten honoree.
7. ANTHONY BARR, UCLA
A surprise, breakout star for the Pac-12 South champion UCLA, Anthony Barr was originally recruited to play wide receiver. Lou Spanos saw Barr’s value as a blitzing linebacker, and the result was 13.5 sacks, 20.5 tackles for loss, and an invaluable presence on the Bruins’ run to the conference championship game.
Barr will forever be tied to four-year USC starting quarterback Matt Barkley, whose final collegiate play was taking a sack from the Bruin junior.