First rate: Linebackers

Although Jaylon Smith has yet to fulfill his promise, bouncing between OLB, ILB has prevented a quicker ascent. He should have the experience to reach that potential in 2015.

Judging linebacker corps can be a bit tricky because so much is dependent upon what happens in front of them with their respective defensive lines running interference. Defenses that have lines doing the dirty work make the jobs of linebackers much easier.

In our First Rate series, we try our best to separate the two and judge linebacker units on their own merits, although there’s an undeniable correlation. With that in mind, we rate the Notre Dame corps and its 12 opponents with the Irish possessing experience, a player (and maybe two) with superstar potential, role players and depth.

13) Navy (ILB-Daniel Gonzales)
Gonzales is a weapon for the Midshipmen with 86 tackles and three interceptions in ’14. Navy has high hopes for Micah Thomas, a big Mike LB by Mids standards (249 pounds) after claiming the starting spot in the spring. Thomas is one of two projected sophomore starters on defense, joining D.J. Palmore.

12) Texas (No starters returning)
Like Virginia (see below), the Longhorns saw productive LBs Steve Edmond and Jordan Hicks (third-round draft choice) walk out the door after they combined for nine sacks and 22.5 tackles for loss. That leaves promising but relatively unproven seniors Dalton Santos (11 tackles) and Peter Jinkens (23 tackles) to man the LB positions. HC Charlie Strong also will be counting on freshmen Malik Jefferson. It’s a good-sized unit, but one that has much to prove, although that defensive front will make the transition a bit easier.

11) Virginia (No starters returning)
DC Jon Tenuta’s LB corps is the only one in the ACC that must replace all three starters. Tons of productivity went out the door with LB/DE combo Max Valles (nine sacks, 21.5 tackles for loss), a sixth-round draft choice, as well as the top two tacklers – Henry Coley and Daquan Romero. The transition for junior LBs Mark Hall and Zach Bradshaw, and sophomore Micah Kiser, won’t be as taxing with the return of a dynamic defensive front.

10) Georgia Tech (P.J. Davis)
The junior Davis headlines a three-man corps that is expected to have two seniors in the starting lineup. Tyler Marcordes should improve upon his 5.5 tackles for loss as a full-time starter. Anthony Harrell will join Davis and Marcordes in the starting lineup. Davis put up disruptive numbers as a sophomore (119 tackles, 8.5 tackles for loss, four sacks).

9) Pittsburgh (Matt Galambos)
Former Michigan State DC, first-year head coach Pat Narduzzi always has ball-hawking linebackers, and MLB Galambos (72 tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss) will patrol the middle while physical OLB Bam Bradley (two sacks, four tackles for loss) may have the most upside. Senior Nicholas Grigsby is the only LB to force a fumble last year (two) to go with an LB-high three sacks.

8) Massachusetts (Jovan Santos-Knox, Trey Seals, Kassan Messiah)
First-team all-MAC inside linebacker Santos-Knox (143 tackles, 8.5 tackles for loss, three fumbles forced) is a game-altering presence in the middle of the Minutemen defense. Messiah and Seals combined for 5.5 sacks and 15.5 tackles for loss. If the DL can run some interference – UMass allowed at least 41 points in half of its games last year – this good-sized unit will shine again.

7) Clemson (Korrin Wiggins)
The Tigers obviously will miss first-round draft choice Stephone Anthony (86 tackles, 13.5 tackles for loss). Part safety, part linebacker, Wiggins technically is the only starter returning, but Ben Boulware easily won the job in the spring after recording 26 solo tackles and five tackles for loss as a sophomore. The most disruptive of the group is B.J. Goodson, who had 3.5 tackles for loss. As a whole, this is an undersized unit.

6) Boston College (Steven Daniels)
MLB Daniels is the elder statesman following the departure of Josh Keyes (four sacks, 11.5 tackles for loss). Daniels (72 tackles, seven tackles for loss) and WLB Mike Strizak (43 tackles, five tackles for loss) will clean up what a fine DT tandem (Connor Wujciak and Truman Gutapfel) can’t get. A mix of upper class leadership (Tim Joy) and sophomore risers (Connor Strachan and Kevin Bletzer) give this unit some nice talent, depth.

5) Temple (ILB-Tyler Matakevich, ILB-Nate D. Smith, Avery Williams)
A big reason why the Owls finished in the upper half in the FBS (52nd) vs. the run is Matakevich, a vacuum cleaner in the middle with three straight 100-tackle plus seasons under his belt, including 117 in ’14 with an impressive 88 solos and 10.5 tackles for loss. Smith is the team’s second leading returning tackler. He also forced three fumbles.

4) Wake Forest (Brandon Chubb, Marquel Lee, Hunter Williams)
Wake Forest has the best linebacker corps in the ACC? It’s difficult to argue with Chubb, Lee and Williams returning to the fold after combining for 270 tackles, 25.5 tackles for loss and eight sacks. Williams became the vocal leader of the unit last year while Lee was a candidate for most improved at LB in the league. Chubb was the most productive with 109 tackles and three sacks. This is a top-notch unit in any league with capable backups behind each of the starters.

3) Stanford (OLB-Kevin Anderson, ILB-Blake Martinez)
Although undrafted (but signed by Buffalo), A.J. Tarpley is a notable loss. Martinez (102 tackles, seven tackles for loss) steps to the forefront while Anderson had 5.5 sacks. Although junior Peter Kalambayi technically is not a returning starter, he was credited with an impressive 6.5 sacks in spot duty. Noor Davis – another one of those long Stanford LBs -- is the third senior linebacker in the 3-4 alignment.

2) USC (Su’a Cravens, Anthony Sarao)
Gone are disruptive LBs J.R. Tavai (13.5 tackles for loss), who terrorized Notre Dame in ’14, and Hayes Pullard (5.5 tackles for loss). Those are noteworthy losses. But the Trojans get Lamar Dawson back after red-shirting in ’14 with a knee injury. Sarao is the top returning tackler in the unit with 74 while Cravens – the former safety – is a beast at 225 pounds. He’ll be missed on the back end (three interceptions, nine passes broken up), but the closer he moves to the football, the more damage he does.

1) Notre Dame (ILB/OLB-Jaylon Smith, ILB-Joe Schmidt, ILB-Nyles Morgan)
It’s a bit difficult to evaluate/compare Notre Dame’s LBs to its opponents because of the uncertain status of Schmidt and Jarrett Grace, who are coming off significant (Schmidt) and horrific (Grace) injuries respectively. If they return to peak levels of productivity, the Irish have a deep, well-rounded unit with versatility, particularly if Smith (112 tackles, 3.5 sacks, nine tackles for loss) – the best LB on this entire list – can be a moveable inside/outside piece for DC Brian VanGorder. James Onwualu also could be ready for a breakthrough campaign, and when it all clicks for Morgan, the Irish could have the best/deepest unit.

Here is the running tally:

1. USC (15--QB 1st, RB 3rd, WR 3rd, OL 1st, DL 5th, LB 2nd)
2. Notre Dame (21 -- QB 7th, RB 2nd, WR 2nd, OL 3rd, DL 6th, LB 1st)
3. Clemson (25 -- QB 4th, RB 6th, WR 1st, OL 5th, DL 2nd, LB 7th)
4. Stanford (31 -- QB 5th, RB 4th, WR 6th, OL 2nd, DL 11th, LB 3rd)
5. Pittsburgh (36 -- QB 6th, RB 1st, WR 5th, OL 7th, DL 8th, LB 9th)
6. Georgia Tech (44 -- QB 2nd, RB 8th, WR 13th, OL 4th, DL 7th, LB 10th)
7. Boston College (46 -- QB 13th, RB 5th, WR 10th, OL 11th, DL 1st, LB 6th)
8. Texas (48 -- QB 10th, RB 7th, WR 8th, OL 8th, DL 3rd, LB 12th)
9. UMass (50 -- QB 8th, RB 11th, WR 4th, OL 6th, DL 13th, LB 8th)
10. Virginia (53 -- QB 12th, RB 10th, WR 7th, OL 9th, DL 4th, LB 11th)
11. Wake Forest 57 -- QB 9th, RB 13th, WR 9th, OL 13th, 9th, LB 4th)
12. Navy (59 -- QB 3rd, RB 9th, WR 12th, OL 10th, DL 12th, LB 13th)
13. Temple (61 -- QB 11th, RB 12th, WR 11th, OL 12th, DL 10th, LB 5th)

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