Big 10 Loaded at LB

Players like Iowa's Chad Greenway and Abdul Hodge, Ohio State's A.J. Hawk and Northwestern's Tim McGarigle roam the middle of defenses around the Big Ten making it likely the strongest position in the league. They create nightmares for offensive coordinators and quarterbacks. HN.com explores how these great players respect each other, how quarterbacks respect them and reasons why they've changed the game in this full-length feature story.

CHICAGO _ Milling around downtown Chicago's Hyatt Regency Monday afternoon, Chad Greenway and Abdul Hodge couldn't resist giving Tim McGarigle a hard time. The Iowa duo jokingly pleaded with their linebacking counterpart from Northwestern to slow down on accumulating tackles so they could catch up.

McGarigle's Wildcat teammate Brett Basanez jumped in to assist his friend.

"I was like, "Listen, man, you guys are splitting (tackles). One of you guys needs to transfer and get out of there so you guys can get more tackles.""

Basanez was needling Hodge and Greenway, but the Northwestern quarterback surely wouldn't mind seeing either one, or even both, of the Hawkeye all-Americans heading to a different conference. While they're at it, he'd probably enjoy it if the entire lot of strong linebackers in the Big Ten found a new home.

"There are great linebackers, and this is a great defensive conference," said Basanez, who finished second in the conference with 258.0 passing yards per game in 2004. "The linebackers are big, quick, and smart. When you put that together, it's kind of a scary combination."

McGarigle paced the nation in tackles with 151. Ohio State's A.J. Hawk, the '05 Preseason Defensive Player of the Year selection, recorded 141 stops, while Hodge (116) and Greenway (113) also topped the century mark. The all kicked off their senior seasons at the Big Ten Media Conference in Chicago this week.

"In the Big Ten, it's probably the strongest position," McGarigle said. "In fact, we have the best group of linebackers in the nation in the Big Ten. You're watching film of all of these guys as they play teams you're about to play. It's fun watching other linebackers and modeling your play after them and seeing how they play against other guys and how they play against teams you're going to play."

McGarigle earned first-team all-conference from the media last year, but the coaches left him off of their squad.

"You're going to get the recognition based on how good your team is," he said. "I don't feel like I get lost in the shuffle. We didn't go to a bowl game last year. The first thing is to win some football games as a team. Then, the recognition will come."

Said Basanez: "Northwestern gets that stigma. It's not a football school. It's a smart school. That's bad for a guy like Timmy. Timmy leads the nation in tackles and plays games where he makes 27 tackles and people don't even realize it. But he's humble. He just uses it as motivation. He doesn't care about the stats or the accolades. He wants to win."

In fairness, Hodge could have joined McGarigle on the complaint line. The media left the Iowa middle man off of its all-league team, but he did receive the nod from the coaches. But voters only were allotted three spots for the aforementioned foursome, which doesn't even include other talents like Penn State junior Paul Posluszny (104 tackles in ‘04) and sophomore Dan Conner (85), Indiana's Kyle Killion (106) and Ohio State's Bobby Carpenter (93).

"I guess you can say that this is a linebacker conference," Purdue quarterback Brandon Kirsch said. "You have to have good linebackers in this conference because you can say the Big Ten Conference is a running conference. You have to have stout linebackers to stop that. I'm sure that's a top priority on every head coach's recruiting plan every year."

Kirsch relieved injured starter Kyle Orton during last year's game in Iowa City and faced Greenway and Hodge. The Hawkeyes pulled out the victory, 23-21.

"Geesh, it's tough to have two of that caliber of player on the same team staring at you every time you walk up to the ball," he said. "That's definitely a challenge. It's hard. I can't wait until they come to Purdue. It will be a good game. We've always had epic battles with Iowa. And any time you have your defense led by two preseason all-Americans, it's tough."

"You have to know where Hodge and Greenway are at all times," Basanez said. "You have to account for those playmakers."

The speed and versatility of the top linebackers in the Big Ten likely has encouraged coaches to find slick-footed quarterbacks like Kirsch, Basanez, Iowa's Drew Tate, Ohio State's Troy Smith, Penn State's Michael Robinson and Michigan State's Drew Stanton.

"You can definitely attribute the strong linebacking play to the changing of the quarterback position," Kirsch said. "The mobility of the quarterback these days is a necessity. You can no longer sit in the pocket, take a hit and deliver the ball. You need to make plays by moving around because of the linebackers."

In addition to making the quarterback position change, the linebackers improve each other's play.

"I've seen a decent amount of film on (Greenway and Hodge) just trying to pick things up because they're both such great players," Hawk said. "I want to see what they're doing and try to learn some things from them. It's unbelievable this year. The linebackers in the Big Ten, there are tons of great ones. It's fun to be a part of something like that."

Said Hodge: "It's good that there are a lot of good linebackers in the conference. Linebacking is a big part of a lot of people's defensive schemes. When you've got guys like A.J. and Tim, you can always pick up some things and learn something from someone."

McGarigle confesses to watching defensive tapes of Iowa if Northwestern is preparing for an opponent that already has played the Hawkeyes.

"(Hodge and Greenway are) great football players," he said. "They've been at Iowa for the last three years getting 100 tackles apiece every year. So, they're good guys to watch, especially if they've played a team before you play them when you're watching film. You can see their tendencies and how they match up against guys."

Greenway admires the ability of Hawk, who averaged 11.8 tackles a game last season. The Ohio State linebacker also pushes his Big Ten rival.

"He's got a knack for being around the ball and being in big plays," Greenway said. "If you have a 140 plus tackles a season, you're doing something right. When you see someone doing the things that he does, it's always going to motivate you, especially when it's at your position.

"Maybe we've motivated him at some point. We can feed off of each other in a way that me and Abdul feed off each other on the same team. When you have a conference like this where there are so many good linebackers, it helps raise your level of play."

As good of a season as Hawk enjoyed in '04, he didn't look back upon the Iowa game as one to remember. The Hawkeyes rolled to a 33-7 victory despite Hawk's 15 tackles. Hodge racked up 12 stops, and quarterback Drew Tate threw for three touchdowns and ran for another.

"Last year, (Tate) had a huge game against us," Hawk said of Tate. "He can do everything. He scrambled around and threw the ball on us. We had a tough time containing him. He had a great season last year, and he's going to be even better this year. It's going to be tough to stop him. That's going to be a tough game for us."

Tate's ability to move and improvise caused the Buckeyes fits.

"There were times when he should have been sacked, and he's out there scrambling around throwing or running for a touchdown," Hawk said. "It makes it really tough to stop guys like that. Going against Troy Smith in practice every day is like that. It's tough to stop."

Despite the difficulties in containment, Hawk welcomes the challenges presented by the conference's multi-dimensional signal callers.

"That's what's great about playing in the Big Ten, you get to play against great players," he said. "If you want to be the best, you've got to beat the best."

And being considered the best of the best from a strong linebacker group in the Big Ten rates as a pretty big compliment for Hawk, although he's not so sure it's deserved.

"I guess it's nice to be recognized," he said. "But I think you can put any of the guys at the top. It's an honor to play among these great linebackers in the Big Ten. It's nice to come down here and see these guys before we go to camp. It's going to be a long season. It's going to be fun to watch them and see how they do."

And while it's nice to accumulate gaudy tackle statistics, they're all playing for the same reason.

"Linebacker has to be the core of the defense," Hodge said. "A lot of leadership comes from the linebacker position. For me, I don't really keep up with stats. The biggest thing is if you're helping your team win. How much are you contributing to helping your team win? That's what it's all about."


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