1. Michigan State Spartans
Sparty’s outstanding run-stopping defense will show no signs of letting up in 2013 with one of the most tenacious linebacker corps powering it. Denicos Allen and Max Bullough headline this group of aggressive play-makers.
Bullough in particular was among the most productive linebackers in college football. He racked up 111 tackles (12.5 for loss), three quarterback hurries and a forced fumble. Allen was good for another 79 tackles, and three sacks. Add Taiwan Jones as a blitzing presence, and this isn’t just the best group of Big Ten linebackers; it’s among the best units in the nation.
2. Wisconsin Badgers
The move to a 3-4 likely means more aggressive blitz packages from the linebacker position, and potentially defensive ends moving positions. Sixth-year senior Brendan Kelly is one such mover. He could provide a proven blitzing presence at OLB should he make that transition.
Chris Borland was a dynamo in 2012, recording 104 tackles (10 for loss), forcing three fumbles and breaking up six passes. Another such season flourishing like that could bring All-America accolades. The Badgers also return Ethan Armstrong.
Mike Taylor, who started all 47 games in which he appeared during his Badger career, is a difficult player to replace. His void is Wisconsin’s biggest LB question mark.
3. Iowa Hawkeyes
The conference’s overall leading tackler, Anthony Hitchens, is back from a 124-tackle campaign. He keys a veteran group also returning Christian Kirksey and James Morris. Kirksey and Morris combined for another 208 tackles.
Starting Hawkeye linebackers were critical to a 22.9 point per game defense, but improving upon that rests on Iowa finding more depth.
4. Northwestern Wildcats
Chi Chi Ariguzo had an outstanding 2012, leading a vastly improved Wildcat defense that sliced almost a touchdown per game off its opponent average.
Ariguzo registered eye-popping numbers: 91 tackles (10 for loss), four fumble recoveries, three sacks, two interceptions. In other words, he was all over the field. Middle linebacker and leading tackler Damien Proby is coming off a 112-tackle campaign.
5. Ohio State Buckeyes
Talented Ryan Shazier has 1st Team All-America written all over him. He’s the conference’s best blitzing linebacker, evident in his five sacks and 17 tackles for loss. Shazier is more than a backfield terror, though. He also made a team-leading 117 tackles.
His veteran savvy must key an otherwise inexperienced group. Joshua Perry played in 10 games last season, though his production was marginal. Highly regarded recruit Mike Mitchell is one of our Big Ten impact newcomers. The potential is certainly there for OSU to have one of the best Big Ten linebackers units.
6. Michigan Wolverines
Jake Ryan’s knee injury in spring practices compounds the challenges Greg Mattison faces in restructuring the lineup. Ryan could be back for the Wolverines’ stretch run, but in the meantime, his absence means 88 tackles, 4.5 sacks and four forced fumbles worth of production needs replicating. That’s on top of losing Kenny Demens, who was second behind Ryan as the Wolverines’ most productive tackler.
Desmond Morgan is back, however. Morgan’s 81 tackles matched Demens’ output. He joins celebrated 2012 signee Joe Bolden, who saw the field in all 13 games for his true freshman campaign and recorded 31 tackles as a reserve. Ohio-produced 2013 recruit Mike McCray could have a similar, immediate impact.
7. Illinois Fighting Illini
Jonathan Brown was a play-maker last season for the Illini, recording 9.5 tackles for loss, 2.5 sacks, forcing a fumble and deflecting a pass…all in nine games.
The talented Brown has breakout potential in a veteran corps that also returns leading tackler Mason Monheim. Monheim had a stellar debut campaign en route to Freshman All-America recognition. He was all around the field at the middle linebacker position, rolling off 86 tackles (six for loss), an interception and two forced fumbles. Add fellow first-year breakthrough player Mike Svetina, and the ceiling for this group is very high.
8. Penn State Nittany Lions
Linebacker U. is facing some uncertainty in its ranks come 2013. All-American Michael Mauti’s void is tremendous, and compounding it is fellow All-Big Ten selection and leading tackler Gerald Hodges’ departure. Combined, Mauti and Hodges combined for 204 tackles in 2012.
Glenn Carson, Penn State’s third leading tackler, is back as the veteran presence keying this group along with aggressive pass rusher Mike Hull.
9. Nebraska Cornhuskers
Gone is leading tackler Will Compton, adding another question mark for a unit that was part of Nebraska’s run-stopping struggles a season ago. Defensive coordinator John Papuchis must rely on a youthful collection to improve upon the very un-Blackshirt-like 192.5 yards the Cornhuskers surrendered on the ground a season ago.
Sophomore David Santos is one of the more veteran members of the unit. He appeared in all 13 games last season. He made 24 tackles and forced a fumble. First-year players like Jared Afalava must be able to make an immediate impact, and promising Zaire Anderson needs to build off a promising spring.
10. Purdue Boilermakers
There’s certainly room for improvement in this unit, which saw opposing run games go for 4.74 yards per carry and 24 rushing touchdowns. Purdue’s linebackers must slow ball carriers in the second level. Senior Will Lucas, the team’s second leading tackler with 66, is back on one side. Opposite him is fellow upperclassmen, Sean Robinson. Robinson made 27 tackles and three pass deflections in 2012.
11. Indiana Hoosiers
Indiana’s struggles against the run were a chief concern among a defense that gave up over 35 points per game. A more experienced unit does provide some hope for improvement. David Cooper made 86 tackles (nine for loss) and recorded three sacks. Griffen Dahlstrom made another seven tackles for loss.
12. Minnesota Golden Gophers
The Golden Gophers need badly to improve upon a 4.7 yard per carry yield. Senior Aaron Hill exhibited a solid, all-around game last year and returns to lead this unit. Hill made 74 tackles, two interceptions and forced three fumbles.
The veteran leader needs support from new contributors though, with last year’s second overall leading tackler Mike Rallis gone.