10 – Brandon Archer (Kansas State) – 6-2, 215, Jr. – By the end of the year, this could be a woefully low ranking for what should be Kansas State's second best overall defensive player behind fellow linebacker, senior Ted Sims
Archer has good football speed and for someone as light as he is, he's very good at not getting caught up with blockers. More than that, though, he's much better at avoiding them altogether.
What's going to make his year will be having Sims back for an entire season, the senior missing most of last year, suffering from one thing after another.
If Sims does stay healthy, he, Archer and senior Matt Butler could make up one of the better linebacking cores in the conference.
2004 Statistics : 11 games – 75 tackles (35 SOLO, 40 ASST), 6.5 tackles for loss, 1 sack, 1 fumble recovery
9 – Dedrick Harrington (Missouri) – 6-3, 235, Jr. – Like Archer, Harrington could end up being one of the better linebackers in the conference, but his success in the middle will key on Missouri getting a quality replacement for all-time tackle leader James Kinney.
Harrington gives you a little of everything, but he's probably going to be one of the more athletic linebackers around, as he's a little lankier than most middle linebackers you'll see, but that doesn't make him any less physical.
Harrington shared time with Henry Sweat last year, so this year is his time to shine and with the defensive line of Missouri being almost completely retooled, chances are, he and his cohorts at LB will have plenty of opportunities to make plays.
2004 Statistics: 11 games – 43 tackles (22 SOLO, 21 ASST), 4.5 tackles for loss, 1 sacks, 1 quarterback hurry, 1 forced fumble
8 – Brock Stratton (Texas Tech) – 6-0, 230, Jr. – Stratton won't go down as one of your most physically imposing middle linebackers, but he's potent nonetheless and what makes him possibly the main weapon for what should be a steadily improving Raider defense is that he's got lots of experienced bodies around him.
The defensive line was overall pretty decent last year, but wasn't a real threat at getting to the QB, so you could expect a generous helping of blitzing this time around and you don't have to look much farther than this linebacking core to provide the sting in many of those situations.
What Stratton will give the Raiders is very good versatility in going side-to-side. He's not a physical phenom, but like you want to see in most middle linebackers, he knows where to be and when. His intelligence will make him one of the most valuable Raiders on the team.
2004 Statistics: 11 games – 62 tackles (32 SOLO, 30 ASST), 4 tackles for loss, 2 pass break ups
7 – Thad Washington (Colorado) – 5-11, 240, Jr. – Washington is going to be one of the better linebackers in the conference, but he's going to be part of what should be one of the better linebacking cores in the country. This unit will be the core strength of the ‘Buffs this year.
Washington's strength is just that; his strength. He's ferocious at the point of attack and hard to keep blocked. He's ideal in close to the line and does extremely well in lateral pursuit. That line presence will be key for Colorado this year as there's some inexperience on the interior, James Garee moving in from the end position.
What is going to be key for this group of physical linebackers is just how much help they get over the top. With a secondary that got their brains beat in last season, their success early on will dictate just how much freedom this LB group has to play close to the line, thus playing to their strength instead of spending too much time in coverage.
For Washington, basically, he's a good athlete and were it not for a certain teammate of his, the Buff's leading tackler last year would be the star on this side of the ball. As it is, he'll do just fine being one of them, this group of LBs as prolific as any you are likely to find.
2004 Statistics : 12 games, 89 tackles (47 SOLO, 42 ASST), 8 tackles for loss, 1 sack, 2 interceptions, 3 pass break ups
6 – Stewart Bradley (Nebraska) – 6-4, 240, Jr. – If Bradley can make another step in his improvement this year, he could be one of the better outside linebackers in the conference. He's got the size to be sure, the strength to get off blocks, plus he has deceptively good speed.
His success, though, is going to depend on a group of newcomers to starting duty at the other linebacker spots, Nebraska's most prolific tackler ever, Barrett Ruud now off to the NFL.
There is still no certain starter at middle and there's another Ruud on the team fighting to take over the starting job at WILL.
The good news for this group will be that the entire defensive line returns, including some much needed depth on the interior. So, if anything, this group of linebackers could see a little more breathing room, the line expecting to do enough in the pass rush this season, so blitzing becomes a luxury rather than a necessity.
There's going to be a lot of pressure on this group of linebackers to do a variety of things, but the good news is that they won't be utilized a ton in coverage, Nebraska switching to the zone. But, with an almost completely retooled secondary taking the field this year, the emphasis now turns to the line and getting pressure on the QB.
Bradley actually started at Nebraska as a rush end, so he'll have the savvy to get back there and if he has success early on, this could be a banner year for this particular blackshirt.
2004 Statistics : 11 games, 67 tackles (38 SOLO, 29 ASST), 11 tackles for loss, 2 pass break ups, 5 quarterback hurries
5 – Rufus Alexander (Oklahoma) – 6-1, 225, Sr. – Like Colorado, the Sooners have a solid linebacking core this year and while Alexander is our pick as one of the best, he could be supplanted by teammate, senior SAM linebacker Clint Ingram.
The thing is, that means it's all good for a group that should be competing with Colorado as one of the conference's best.
What Alexander gives you is a straight up ballhawk, combining solid athleticism with a propensity at knocking people's heads off, something any defensive coordinator loves to see.
And like all great individual efforts, there has to be a team around it and typical to OU's talent-laden squads, he's got that and then some.
Along the defensive line, there's not a lot of experience and the Sooners did lose Dan Cody. But, if senior Dusty Dvoracek has put his personal issues behind him and his bicep is one hundred percent healed, he'll be one of the best interior defensive players in the conference.
The secondary will be key, though, dictating what these linebackers do in space and coming off a year where they weren't quite the equal of the rest of the team, there's questions to be answered.
You won't have to worry about the linebackers doing their job, though, because Alexander and company should have a solid year.
2004 Statistics : 13 games, 74 tackles (49 SOLO, 25 ASST), 7 tackles for loss, 2 sacks, 1 INT, 4 pass break ups, 3 fumble recoveries, 3 forced fumbles
4 – Brian Iwuh (Colorado) – 6-0, 225, Sr. - In a conference known for having its fair share of great linebackers, Colorado could have one of the best in Iwuh. He's fast, physical and best of all, he's got a great nose for the ball.
Another trait that he has that isn't terribly common for linebackers of his size is a nasty habit of being in the backfield a lot, sometimes seemingly all game long.
The advantage sometimes for linebackers is if they have a lot of help around them, but for Iwuh, that could actually take a little statistical luster off of his swan song year. He's got help all over the place, just one of many solid linebackers the Buffs have this year.
Where he is used the most is what I will be personally curious about as the CU secondary probably gave Iwuh more opportunities in space than he might have wanted or should have gotten. If he gets to work close to the line this year and is freed up from a lot of coverage duty, this group of LBs is going to be super hard to get anything done against on the ground.
The only other question isn't about Iwuh being good, but will he even be the best linebacker on his team. For Buff fans, that's a nice problem to have.
2004 Statistics : 13 games, 87 tackles (61 SOLO, 26 ASST), 12 ½ tackles for loss, 2 sacks, 1 interception, 2 pass break ups, 2 quarterback hurries, 1 fumble recovery
3 – Ted Sims (Kansas State) – 6-1, 230, Sr. – Within every list of probable or possible stars, there's likely to be some controversy with at least one of your choices. Sims is no doubt going to be mine.
Barely playing last year due to myriad injuries, Sims couldn't capitalize on a sophomore year where he was ripping everyone apart.
Sims has it all and what he was doing only his second year in, most linebackers don't do until they are seniors and this one has had a lot of time to sit.
He moves in space well, can get into the backfield effectively, is hard to block, but almost impossible to block consistently.
Sims is obviously going to get a lot of help from his fellow linebackers, more specifically junior Brandon Archer, but it will be whatever help this unit as a whole gets from a defensive line and secondary that wasn't anything to write home about last season.
Sims has a real shot at busting BACK out this year, missing most of last year and if he does stay healthy, I think he'll do just that.
2004 Statistics: Appeared in 7 games, but only started one, 17 tackles (7
SOLO, 10 ASST), 3.5 tackles for loss, 1 sack, 1 interception
2003 Statistics : 15 games (started 7), 79 tackles (38 SOLO, 41 ASST), 6 tackles for loss, 4 sacks, 1 interception, 1 pass break up, 1 quarterback hurry, 1 forced fumble, 1 blocked kick.
2 – Aaron Harris (Texas) – 6-0, 235, Sr. – With Derrick Johnson getting all the publicity last year, it was actually easy to overlook another linebacker that in his own way was just as vital to what Texas was doing on the defensive side of the ball.
Ranking second on the team from the middle position, Harris proved a steady and physical force, proving staunch against the run and not bad in pass-rushing situations.
The help he has around him is considerable, Texas sporting possibly the best defensive line in the conference and that will in turn help the secondary, one that is probably still smarting from a bad experience against Michigan's Braylon Edwards.
There's not going to be any real weak points for the entire defense, so for offenses, it will be a matter of picking your poison.
The loss of Johnson is going to be big no matter who you are, but with Harris leading the way as one of the most prolific returning linebackers in the conference, you'd be best served by not going too much towards him.
2004 Statistics : 12 games, 118 tackles (65 SOLO, 53 ASST), 10 tackles for loss, 2 sacks, 1 interception, 9 pass break ups, 6 quarterback hurries, 1 fumble recovery, 2 forced fumbles
1 – Nick Reid (Kansas) – 6-4, 230, Sr. – Yet another trio of linebackers will stake its own claim as the conference's best. But, make no mistake where KU will look as this group's biggest weapon.
Basically putting it, Reid has it all from the size to take on blockers, plus the quickness to avoid them and the hands to work his way out of staying blocked for a very long time. He's almost a machine at getting behind the line of scrimmage
Reid adds to that some sound fundamental play, using as much intelligence as he does his impressive physical ability.
Other than his own impressive attributes, Reid will have help amongst his position, senior Kevin Kane and senior Banks Floodman providing some solid and almost always, efficient help against both the run and working in space.
To be honest, it's Reid's help that is going to let Nick do what he does so well, but honestly, there's not much he doesn't. This kid should end up leaving KU in style.
2004 Statistics: 11 games, 109 tackles (52 SOLO, 52 ASST), 15 tackles for loss, 3 sacks, 1 interception, 2 pass break ups, 2 quarterback hurries, 1 forced fumble