First Rate: Linebackers

There are holes to fill at linebacker among the frontrunners in this category. The strength of the Navy and Army teams is their deep and productive linebacker corps.

It’s no surprise to find Michigan State and Stanford at the top of this linebacker rating. The strength of these two programs’ rise in recent years can be directly attributed to their productivity up front, starting with the line and then filtering back to the linebacker corps.

After that, it becomes a little tricky putting the rest of the units in a definitive order. Texas standout Malik Jefferson is a marquee name to be cognizant of when the Irish take on the Longhorns in the season-opener. USC, Notre Dame and Miami are retooling on the second level of defense while N.C. State offers some experience.

The most noteworthy linebacker units on the second half of this list belong to Navy and Army.

13) Nevada (No starters returning) – Only one returning starter is back among the front seven, and that’s on the defensive line. The loss of Jordan Dobrich (100 tackles, 6½ TFLs), Matthew Lyons (81 tackles, 6 TFLs) and Bryan Lane (54 tackles) – the Nos. 2, 3 and 5 tacklers in ’15 – will be hard to compensate for, particularly early in the season when the Wolf Pack take on the Irish. A couple of seniors – Alex Bertando (30 stops) and L.J. Jackson (20 tackles) -- have some experience. Ready or not, red-shirt freshman Gabe Sewell takes over in the middle.

12) Duke (Tinashe Bere) – Part-time starter Bere (58 tackles) had a solid rookie season, followed by a strong spring, but represents the bulk of the Blue Devils’ playing experience at linebacker. The loss of leading tackler Dwayne Norman (114 stops, 8½ TFLs) for a team that finished in the top 50 in rushing defense is significant. Undersized but productive DeVon Edwards (101 tackles, 6 PBUs, 4 QB hurries) moves from the Devil LB position to cornerback, making this is a position in flux for Duke.

11) Virginia Tech (Andrew Motuapuaka) – Part of the Hokies’ issues against the run (180.7 ypg.) could be attributed to a less-than-100-percent Motuapuaka, who started 11 games and finished third on the team in tackles with 73 (plus 11 tackles for loss, a pick and four QB hurries). Gone is second-leading tackler Deon Clarke. DC Bud Foster will be counting on the emergence of Tremaine Edmunds, a 6-foot-5, 235-pound sophomore, for a defense that relied less on a third linebacker and more on a nickel back as the ’15 season progressed. Junior Anthony Shegog (29 tackles) is the projected third starting linebacker.

10) Navy (Micah Thomas, Daniel Gonzales, D.J. Palmore, Josiah Powell) – The most veteran unit by far on a team that returns just eight starters (seven on defense). Thomas (73 stops) is the team’s leading returning tackler while Gonzales (65 tackles) finished fourth. Palmore and Powell combined for another 65 tackles. The Midshipmen get some mileage out of Thomas as a blitzer. This is a talented, deep unit with Ted Colburn, Mike Kelly and Ryan Harris chipping in. Much of their effectiveness in ’16, however, will depend upon the inexperienced defensive line in front of them.

9) Army (Andrew King, Jeremy Timpf, Alex Aukerman) – This is a quality unit with all three starters returning, plus sophomore Kenneth Brinson, a former Stanford recruit, who had an impactful rookie season (19 tackles, 3½ TFLs). King and Timpf tied for the team-lead in tackles with 92 apiece. King recorded an impressive 16½ TFLs, the most by any linebacker on the ’16 Irish slate. He also led the Black Knights in sacks with 4½. Timpf is a two-year captain with more than 200 tackles, 19½ TFLs and four interceptions the last two seasons. Aukerman and Brinson combined for 14 starts in 2015.

8) Syracuse (Zaire Franklin, Parris Bennett, Jonathan Thomas) -- Franklin is the anchor of the undersized Orange linebacker corps with a team-leading 81 tackles and 11 stops behind the line of scrimmage. The challenge facing Franklin is his mobility in space as he adapts to DC Brian Ward’s Tampa 2 defense. Bennett was lost for the season after eight starts in ’15, and still finished third on the team in tackles with 44. Thomas steps into a more extensive role after making 34 stops as a sophomore.
 
7) Miami (Jermaine Grace) – Beyond the team’s leading returning tackler, Grace (79), youth will be served for the Hurricanes at linebacker where disruptive Al-Quadin Muhammad (54 tackles, 5 sacks) doubles as a defensive end. Freshmen Shaquille Quarterman and Michael Pinckney both could be in the starting lineup. A wildcard is junior Trent Harris, Miami’s fifth-leading returning tackler (49), who tied for second in sacks with 3½. If Quarterman has growing pains, junior Juwon Young could usurp playing time after starting five games and finishing second on the team in tackles with 57.

6) Texas (Malik Jefferson, Anthony Wheeler) – First-team all-Big 12 LB Peter Jinkens led the Longhorns in tackles (75) and sacks (6½). He’s gone, but the most recognizable figure – Jefferson – is just getting started. Jefferson was named a Freshman All-American after making 61 tackles, seven tackles for loss and six QB hurries, numbers that don’t accurately gauge his impact. Wheeler (36 tackles), now a sophomore, should take the next step with Jefferson. The pressure is on DC Vance Bedford to get this unit to be more productive in front of a young but deep defensive line after allowing 30.3 points and 452.6 yards total offense in ’15.

5) N.C. State (Airius Moore, Jerod Fernandez) – This is the most experienced linebacker corps among the top five on our First-Rate list. Moore has 17 career starts after leading the Wolf Pack in tackles with 77. Health issues limited Fernandez to eight starts and 47 tackles a year ago. Behind a veteran, deep defensive line, these two – who have experienced some growing pains the last two seasons – should be in a much better position to thrive. In N.C. State’s 5-2 front, nickel back Dravious Wright (43 tackles) often finds himself in a linebacker-like role. This unit benefits greatly from an experienced, productive defensive line.

4) Notre Dame (James Onwualu) – Things just won’t look the same at linebacker without Jaylon Smith and his 284 career tackles/23½ tackles for loss. There will be a new look at Mike LB as well without Joe Schmidt and his 21 starts in 2014-15. Enter Nyles Morgan, the much-anticipated heir to the position with size and immense football talent, but limited playing time and a still-to-be-determined knowledge of the defense. Onwualu (38 tackles, three sacks) represents the vast majority of the returning playing time at linebacker. The Will spot is up for grabs among sophomore Te’von Coney, coming off a significant shoulder injury, junior Greer Martini, also coming off shoulder surgery, and red-shirt freshman Asmar Bilal, who got all of the first-team reps in the spring, but could fall as far as No. 3 on the depth chart. The emergence of Martini would go a long way toward making this one of the top linebacker units on the list.

3) USC (Cameron Smith) – It’s going to be a young LB corps for the Trojans following the loss of leading tackler Su’a Cravens (86 tackles, 5½ sacks, 15 TFLs) and veteran Anthony Sarao (59 tackles, 3 sacks). But talent abounds for the Trojans at LB, led by Smith, the team’s leading returning tackler (78). Smith, the Pac 12 Defensive Freshman of the Year, still must overcome a knee injury that caused him to miss the last four games of ’15. Porter Gustin, a hybrid DE/OLB, had 5½ sacks in relatively limited duty. Sophomore Osa Masina (25 tackles) likely takes a spot inside next to Smith in USC’s 5-2 front while junior Uchenna Nwosu (31 tackles) forms a bookend with Gustin.

2) Stanford (Peter Kalambayi, Kevin Palma) – Veteran LB Blake Martinez (a Pac 12-leading 141 tackles in ’15) will be missed, but there remains plenty of talent on the second level of the Cardinal defense. Palma will fill the void against the run while Kalambayi – with 11 sacks the last two seasons – is a disruptive force off the edge. He was fifth on the team in tackles (52). Sophomore Joe Alfieri (40 tackles, 3½ sacks as a freshman) will battle junior Mike Tyler (17 tackles, 5 sacks) for reps at the OLB spot opposite Kalambayi while sophomores Jordan Perez (30 tackles) and Bobby Okereke join Palma on the inside.

1) Michigan State (Riley Bullough, Jon Reschke) – Word out of East Lansing is co-defensive coordinators Harlon Barnett and Mike Tressel have put together the finest linebacker corps in the Mark Dantonio era, which speaks volumes for a defense that has been stifling for the better part of the last five seasons. Supplementing the productivity of Bullough (105 tackles, 4 sacks) and Reschke (75 tackles) is Ed Davis, a sixth-year senior who will battle Chris Frey for snaps at Sam LB. Sophomore Andrew Dowell will get reps as well. The Spartans also expect to tap into a quality freshman class of linebackers, led by another Bullough, Byron.

1. USC (17 – QB 3rd, RB 2nd, WR 1st,  OL 1st, DL 7th, LB 3rd)
2. Notre Dame (20 – QB 1st, RB 3rd, WR 6th,  OL 2nd, DL 4th, LB 4th)
3. Michigan St. (25 – QB 8th, RB 4th, WR 7th, OL 3rd, DL 2nd, LB 1st)
4. Stanford (26 – QB 5th, RB 1st, WR 11th, OL 4th, DL 3rd, LB 2nd)
5. N.C. State (36 – QB 10th, RB 6th, WR 4th, OL 10th, DL 1st, LB 5th)
6. Texas (39 – QB 4th, RB 5th, WR 10th, OL 6th, DL 8th, LB 6th)
7. Miami (41 – QB 2nd, RB 10th,  WR 9th, OL 8th, DL 5th, LB 7th)
8. Virginia Tech (42 – QB 9th, RB 7th, WR 2nd, OL 7th, DL 6th, LB 11th)
9. Syracuse (50 – QB 6th, RB 11th,  WR 3rd , OL 11th, DL 11th, LB 8th)
10. Nevada (52 – QB 7th, RB 8th, WR 5th, OL 9th, DL 10th, LB 13th)
11. Duke (54 -- QB 11th, RB 9th, WR 8th, OL 5th, DL 9th, LB 12th)
12. Army (71 – QB 12th, RB 13th, WR 13th, OL 12th, DL 12th, LB 9th)
13. Navy (73 – QB 13th, RB 12th, WR 12th, OL 13th, DL 13th, LB 10th)


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