Best of the Big Ten: Linebackers

STATE COLLEGE, PA - OCTOBER 8: Gerald Hodges #6 of the Penn State Nittany Lions tackles Marcus Coker #34 of the Iowa Hawkeyes during the game on October 8, 2011 at Beaver Stadium in State College, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)

Positional Breakdown
* Defensive Line
* Linebackers
* Secondary
* Receivers
* Running Backs
* Quarterbacks

After Alex took a look at the B1G's best defensive linemen, it's time to take a step back and compile a top 10 linebackers list. Standard "this is just an offseason list and the exact order isn't worth quibbling about" caveats apply. Paired with the strength of the defensive lines across the league, the strength of various linebacking units will lead to quite a few stingy front sevens this season. Several other players could've easily made this list for didn't for various reasons, including Michigan's Jake Ryan, PSU's Michael Mauti, and OSU's Ryan Shazier. For the ultimate hipster pick, you could even argue for a guy like Northwestern SLB David Nwabuisi, a senior who notched 84 tackles (8.5 TFL) last season.

However, after some mostly arbitrary decision-making intense meditation, this is what I came up with.

10.) Kenny Demens--MLB, Michigan

I'll admit, I hesitated on whether or not: a) Demens deserved to be on this list and b) whether or not Jake Ryan was in fact the Michigan 'backer to include if I was going to include one at all. However, part of this ranking is predictive (i.e. I am factoring in how well I think these players will perform in 2012 in addition to their past performance). At this point, Demens is not quite yet known for much other than being the guy that replaced Obi Ezeh, which seems like faint praise but perhaps is more indicative of the nature of the MIKE linebacker position. Not noticing him is an improvement over what we had with Ezeh, whose mistakes were often painfully obvious. He's been a solid player thus far, and he led Michigan in tackles last season with 94. He's not a big play guy on the blitz and sometimes he can look a little bit slow, but overall he is a classic Big Ten middle linebacker worthy of recognition here. With the departure of three 2011 starters on the DL, Demens will probably see even more action this season.

9.) Chris Norman--WLB, Michigan State

One of a trio of excellent Spartan linebackers, Norman would probably get a little more attention on a team with a less talented group of linebackers/one that doesn't have a Jerel Worthy. Still, Norman is a very talented and athletic player on the weak side. He came up big in games against Michigan (10 tackles), Wisconsin (nine tackles in each outing, at home and the B1GCG), and against Georgia (5 tackles, 1.5 TFL, and 1 forced fumble) last season. At 6'1'' 233, Norman is a very good athlete and a productive player on a defense littered with talented players.

8.) Will Compton--MLB, Nebraska

The second MIKE linebacker on the list, the 6'2'' 230 pound redshirt senior Will Compton, appears to be lined up for the most prolific season of his career. He finished second on the team in tackles last season, only trailing undersized tackle machine Lavonte David. With the departures of Lavonte David and Jared Crick (the latter whom missed he second half of last season due to a torn pectoral muscle, which sounds like possibly the worst thing ever), Compton is probably the most important player on this defense and Bo Pelini will lean on him significantly. As a long time starter and contributor, the 5th-year senior will be asked to make all the calls and clean up whatever the defensive line doesn't handle.

7.) James Morris--WLB/MLB, Iowa

At 6'2'' 230, Morris is another solid athlete and has been very productive in his career thus far. Morris won First Team Freshman All-American honors in 2010 from multiple outlets, starting six games and finishing fourth on the team in tackles with 70. Last season he finished fifth in the conference with 110 total tackles, a total that would have been even higher had he not missed the Northwestern game due to injury. Iowa's defensive line does not appear to be as strong as it has been in the past, so Morris will likely have a shot--albeit an outside shot--at leading the conference in tackles this year.

He started last season at MLB before switching to the weak side about two thirds of the way through the season; it sounds like Morris should be back in the middle this year. Like Demens, he doesn't seem to be a big play guy as far as TFLs or any other metric other than pure total tackles goes, but he's a dependable player in the middle that will rack up tackles and generally clean up mistakes but shouldn't be asked to drop back in pass coverage too often.

6.) Max Bullough--MLB, Michigan State

The second Spartan and fourth MIKE linebacker on the list, Bullough doesn't get quite the same respect in Big Ten circles that players like WIll Gholston, Jerel Worthy, and even Trenton Robinson got last season. Bullough, a 6-3, 252 pound junior enters his second year as the starter in the middle for the Spartans. He led the team in tackles last year with 89, also notching 3.5 sacks and 7.0 TFLS along the way. Against Michigan, he had 8 tackles--one for loss--and forced a fumble, in addition to being a frequent blitzer right up the middle, a strategy which almost single-handedly brought Michigan's offense to a halt that day after the opening drive.

Odds are, Denard will see a lot of him again this year. With the departures of Jerel Worthy and Kevin Pickelman on the interior of the defensive line, Bullough's role as the sweeper of the middle becomes even more prominent. As an upperclassman, he should step his game up accordingly, which should be a scary concept for Big Ten offenses because he was already very good.

5.) Jonathan Brown--OLB, Illinois

Now we veer away from the middle linebacker spot for a play-making OLB. The Illini's Jonathan Brown continues the recent trend of front 7 excellence at Illinois, coming back for his junior season after leading the team in tackles with 108 last year. Brown is an elite TFL-maker: with 19.5 TFLs, he was 6th in the nation, and he also led the Big Ten in TFLs during conference play (2.07 per game). Brown also contributed: 6.0 sacks, four pass break-ups, three hurries, two fumble recoveries, one interception and one forced fumble.

Needless to say, if you're a Big Ten tackle or tight end, good luck preventing this guy from getting in ur base and tackling ur doodz. The trio of Spence and Buchanan on the line and Brown at OLB will headline what should be another quietly very strong Illinois front 7.

4.) Denicos Allen--SLB, Michigan State

I was so, so tempted to put Allen at #3. Forget about who he plays for, Allen might be my favorite non-Michigan defender to watch in the Big Ten. Playing the SAM position, Allen--a redshirt junior--is by far the smallest of MSU's starting group (6'1' 225). That said, he was probably the Spartans' most fearsome linebacker, he was second on the team and tackles with 83. I'm pretty sure many Legends division offensive coordinators have had a nightmare featuring Denicos Allen at some point.

While former MSU defensive end Jonal Saint-Dic may have gone by the nickname the "Sack Master", Allen actually had more sacks from his SLB position last year (11.0) than Saint-Dic did during his senior year (10.0), good for 2nd in the B1G and 6th nationally. Allen is a speedster, a true sideline to sideline guy. If you can stomach it, revisit the 2011 Michigan-MSU game and you'll find that Allen was making plays all over the place. For all the talk about the SEC's advantage in front 7 speed and quality, guys like Allen and Brown are SEC-level OLB talents.

3.) Mike Taylor--WLB, Wisconsin

The 6'2'' 222 pound redshirt senior is back for another year of linebacking excellence with fellow running mate Chris Borland. Taylor racked up a fairly insane 150 tackles last season, good for first in the conference and sixth nationally. He notched double digit tackles 7 times last season. Taylor is basically the Phillip Roth of linebacking: prolific as all get out.

He might not be s eye-poppingly talented as Brown or Allen, but production is production, man. You can't really argue with it.

2.) Chris Borland--MLB, Wisconsin

Borland, like Taylor, is also a tackling machine. At 5'11'' 250, Borland is, you could say, a fairly squat dude. He notched 143 tackles, second in the B1G behind only Taylor (and 7th nationally). However, in spite of the productivity of Borland and Taylor, Wisconsin was only 60th in run defense last year, which I guess makes sense given that the defensive line doesn't seem to have any big name stars. With that said, it wasn't as if Borland and Taylor's stats are the result of average line play giving them a lot of work...far from it. Borland's 19.0 TFLs last year--first nationally among middle linebackers--are a testament to his activity and ability. He's not the fastest guy, but he simply makes tackles.

Wisconsin definitely needs to improve defensively, but that improvement will need to come from the defensive line.

1.) Gerald Hodges--OLB, Penn State

Hodges is simply the next guy in a long and respected tradition of PSU linebacking. A former safety, Hodges brings an extra bit of speed to the position. He played safety in high school and started out there in State College but was eventually moved down to LB due to other injuries at the position during his freshman season in 2009. Thus, as an early enrollee, Hodges has been a contributor from the very beginning. However, last year was his official breakout season. He led the Nittany Lions with 106 tackles, also notching 10.0 TFLs and 4.5 sacks. At 6'2'' 233, he's both exceptionally fast and strong. He can track a skill player down in space and he can also beat pass protection en route to a meeting with the opposing quarterback. He'll also hit you pretty hard. All in all, he might just be the best overall linebacker the B1G has to offer this season.

It's difficult to argue with the pure production of guys like Taylor and Borland, but I think that Hodges is clearly on another level. Hodge's senior campaign should be a productive one, and he will likely be one of only a few constants in what will probably be a tumultuous season in Happy Valley.


Comments, questions, or criticisms? Let us know in the comments.

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