Linebacker is an interesting position. Sometimes reliant on athleticism, sometimes built from the weight room and years studying film, more teams do more, different things at this position than any other. In some ways, the position has become less important than before: more teams are going to 4-2-5 alignments than at any other time. On the other hand, it's become more important - many of the game's best coaches, from Saban to Bob Stoops, are depending on them more to maintain the quality of their defense. And for all the talk of building a defense from the front end or from the back, I wonder what would happen if a Notre Dame or a USC pulled three or four great linebackers together with some press corners.
Unfortunately, linebacker is also a position without as many bona fide stars as a short while ago. The off-season was extremely unkind: gone are Florida State's leading tackler, all of Wisconsin's and Texas A&M's starters, Stanford's two best players (Shayne Skov and Trent Murphy), Ohio State's best player, and four Michigan State linebackers. Lamin Barrow is gone from LSU, C.J. Mosley is gone from Alabama, Spencer Shuey is gone from Clemson, and underrated defenses like Oklahoma State, BYU, and Arizona State got completely decimated. No position fared worse in retaining its talent.
The defense's reinforcements, then, will need some reinforcements. This list includes some superstars - Georgia's Ramik Wilson, Tennessee's A.J. Johnson, Notre Dame's Jaylon Smith - but it's also a mixed bag of converted defensive ends (Oklahoma's 6'4", 263-pound Geneo Grissom) and converted safeties (Oklahoma's 6'0", 221-pound Eric Striker).
|Conf.||School||Class||Tackles||TFL + Sacks||INT + PD
|Big 12||OKLA||Jr.||Eric Striker||31.0||17.0||3|
|Big 12||OKLA||Sr.||Geneo Grissom||31.0||12.5||5|
Looking at this list, it's hard not to be a believer in good linebacker play preceding good overall play. If Jake Ryan is on his top form (2012: 72.0 tackles, 16 TFL's, 4.5 sacks, 3 passes broken up, 4 forced fumbles), Michigan will be an elite team. Eric Striker and Geneo Grissom combined for this memorable and season-defining play, and the SEC is formidable at linebacker. UCLA had a lot of things going for it - great safeties, Brett Hundley - but thanks to Myles Jack, Eric Kendricks, and Anthony Barr, a first-round pick, UCLA had the best linebacker unit in the nation. The Bruins went 10-3 while facing two top-5 teams, five top-20 teams, and eight teams in the top 31. And Nebraska (F/+: 39). Great linebacker units tend to mean great wins.
So, with all that out of the way, let's talk about the Big Ten for a little bit. I'm high on Taiwan Jones, as well as quite a few others: Jake Ryan, James Ross III, Joshua Perry. Taiwan Jones, who's taking over as the play-caller for Max Bullough, is already every bit as physically imposing, but Pat Narduzzi has warned about his defense not being as smart - this is a veiled reference in part to Jones, whose need for improvement this off-season was strictly his command of the defense. Joshua Perry had 10 tackles and a sack against Clemson, and admitted a light came on late in the season. Almost half his tackles came in the final four games. Michigan, meanwhile, has probably the best linebacker corps in the conference.
Elsewhere, teams and players will need to step up. I'm not very high on Northwestern's Chi Chi Ariguzo, whose tackles tend to come after the ball carrier has already gotten some extra yards. Northwestern's group seems like a well-coached and solid, high-effort unit, but they haven't had athletes who can keep up with playmakers in space at 230 pounds. De'Vondre Campbell is an intriguing player (at 6'5", 241) for Minnesota, and the Gophers also have Michigan-like depth at the position - something Iowa, Nebraska, and Wisconsin all lack.
Looking at some other potential snubs, a big one is USC's Hayes Pullard. He's a good middle linebacker who's gotten some high tackle numbers and national attention, but watching his film, I was reminded of Kadeem Carey, who put up unbelievable numbers as a RichRod running back (back-to-back 1,800-yard seasons) but simply looked solid on film. Ole Miss fields a lot of safety-sized 'backers, but they have some good ones in Serderius Bryant and Denzel Nkemdiche.
The Florida State Seminoles have hung over this series, with elite options at almost every position. However, if there is a weak spot on the Seminoles, it's here. (Granted, they also lose their top three options at nose tackle in a 3-4 defense, but there are no less than four good options coming up. How they had room for seven nose tackles on their roster, I don't know.) After Mike backer Terrance Smith (46.5 tackles, leader of the front seven) and Reggie Northrup (217-pound WILL), there are only sophomores and freshmen for Fisher to work with. Several were highly touted recruits, and as weak spots go, it's not a glaring one. Unfortunately, Fisher's staff has proven to be adept scouts - finding the right four-star players - and impressive teachers.
Hitting the Links Is An All-American
This is a very, very nice feature they have.
OSU Defensive Scheme Questions
This was both technical and easy to understand.
Two Big Ten players on the first team, six on the second team.
The last five usually have the greatest variance between the outlets; SI has two interesting picks in Oregon State and Marshall.
MSU's Defense Will Be Faster, Not Necessarily Better
Pat Narduzzi talks about his defense, and discusses position changes as casually as changing socks. He should be nicknamed The Wizard.
The Daily Gopher Michigan Preview
I've read a lot of Michigan previews, and, well, this was the first one I enjoyed reading. I liked their three questions and overall succinct analysis. Michigan definitely has played Minnesota well of late, but they will be a tough opponent for us this year.
Minnesota Recruiting: Quinn Oseland
The Gophers also do a BBQ in the summer for recruits. I'd be mad at them for stealing
RichRod's our awesome idea, but really I just want the Big Ten to recruit better.
That will be a monumental task, but the blueprint is there, even if it's still easier said than done.
WVU Coach: Recruiting Means Lying
Dana Holgorsen had some interesting things to say about the recruiting process.
Auburn Looks to Evolve Its Offense
Gus Malzahn has been lauded as a brilliant coach; he did have to do something like this.
Three of the first four players are defenders. Then they get pretty offense-happy.
Here's an interesting SI piece on him.
I stumbled on this snapshot of one day of Clemson's practice. Surprisingly absorbing.
This is a technical look at something we need to improve on.
Well, I'm still gushing over their win over Ohio State, so why not. This third piece is again centered on the Tigers but an enjoyable read regardless of fandom.
In case you forgot some of the points from an earlier LSU preview on the Brews, this will get you caught up. A surprisingly fair and gump-less preview from a Bama fan.
14 for '14 (SEC Edition): Les Miles and the Long Game
I enjoyed this read on Les Miles and coaching longevity. The other coaching bios on Team Speed Kills are also worth a look, if you liked this one.
All are very good. Kevin Norwood's is my favorite.
Assume the Position: Defensive End
Iowa's defensive ends are really supplemental defensive tackles instead of pass rushers.
Great, athletic play, and a bone-jarring hit on the quarterback.