1. SOUTHERN CAL
Not only do the Trojans have the top linebacker corps that Notre Dame will face this year, USC boasts the best group of linebackers that maybe anyone will see this year. Senior middle linebacker Rey Maualuga has been named to the All-Pac-10 First Team in each of the last two seasons and would have been one of the top linebackers selected had he declared for the 2008 NFL Draft. Senior Brian Cushing was the 2007 Defensive MVP of the Rose Bowl, a year before Maualuga claimed the same honor. Cushing was limited by injuries for much of 2007, but is expected to be fully healthy this season and along with Maualuga is an All-American candidate. USC will have to replace weakside linebacker Keith Rivers, who was selected with the ninth overall pick in the NFL Draft. Senior Kaluka Maiava and junior Luther Brown are competing take over Rivers' spot. Redshirt freshman Chris Galippo is being groomed to replace Maualuga after next season and should see more action in 2008 after sitting out much of last season with a back injury.
The Panthers return all three of their starting linebackers from a year ago, led by senior middle linebacker Scott McKillop, who led the entire nation with 151 tackles. McKillop figures to be in line for an All-American senior campaign if he can duplicate what he did in 2007. Classmate Adam Gunn on the strong side and junior Shane Murray on the weakside will flank McKillop. Although they were well behind McKillop, Murray and Gunn were second and third on the team with 60 and 59 tackles respectively. Last year's freshman class features a number of athletes that will bring depth to the position and incoming five-star Shayne Hale will only add to that.
Linebacker could be the strongest position on the entire Cardinal roster. Stanford returns all three starting linebackers from 2007, led by junior middle linebacker Clinton Snyder. Snyder had 96 tackles, 14.5 behind the line of scrimmage and a team-high eight sacks as he made a name for himself as one of the top linebackers in the conference. Senior Pat Maynor will be in his third year as starter on the weakside where he had 88 tackles, including 16.5 for a loss last season. Sophomore Chike Amajoyi will play the strong side position after having 47 tackles and four sacks en route to Freshman All-American honors last season. Sophomore Nick Macaluso also has starting experience and will provide depth along with Will Powers. Snyder is versatile enough to play any of the linebacker positions, which will give the Cardinal added flexibility in case of any injuries.
4. BOSTON COLLEGE
The return of weakside linebacker Brian Toal, who sat out last season with a shoulder injury, should give this unit the potential to be better than last year when it helped the Eagles to the 19th ranked total defense in the country. Toal probably could have played last year, but decided to undergo shoulder surgery so that he would be 100% for his last year at Chestnut Hill and that should give him a better shot at making the next level. Junior strong side backer Mark Herzlich was second on the team with 97 tackles, including 12 for a loss last year. Junior Mike McLaughlin started just three games, but finished fourth on the team with 64 tackles and will be a full-time starter in 2008. Senior Robert Francois and junior Kevin Akins combined for 71 tackles last year and will provide depth on the outside, but sophomore Darius Bagan is the backup in the middle and has virtually no experience.
5. NOTRE DAME
It is not yet known whether the Irish will play a 3-4, 4-3 or both in 2008. Based on what they did last year, the Irish return three starters in fifth-year senior Maurice Crum and sophomores Kerry Neal and Brian Smith. Crum was fourth on the team with 84 tackles while Smith and Neal brought a burst of energy to the Irish defense. If Notre Dame stays with the 3-4, Crum will be back at one of the inside spots and may be joined by Smith, who finished the spring working out on the inside. Sophomore Harrison Smith has proved to be too good to keep off the field and much of the movement among the linebackers could be designed to give him a place to play. Junior John Ryan did not participate in the spring after having offseason surgery, but will be another option on the outside along with juniors Morrice Richardson and Kallen Wade. Reserve interior options include junior Toryan Smith and seniors Scott Smith, Kevin Washington and Steve Quinn. If Notre Dame does go back to a 4-3 a lot will change. Neal would probably play with his hand down as a defensive end and the other positions at linebacker would have to shift.
Sophomore middle linebacker Obi Ezeh is the only returning starter as the Wolverines lost 180 tackles combined with losses of Shawn Crable and Chris Graham. Ezeh had 68 tackles as a freshman and could play on the strong side if needed. Senior Austin Panter is expected to step into the role as the starter on the strong side. The hope is that he can be more like the player who was named National Junior College Defensive Player of the Year in 2006 and less like the guy who had seven tackles in seven games last year. Sophomores James Mouton and Marell Evans are battling for the weakside position, but Mouton figures to have the inside track if he can stay healthy. Senior John Thompson had 29 tackles and an interception last year and will provide depth either on the strong side or in the middle.
7. MICHIGAN STATE
The Spartans are moving sophomore Greg Jones from outside linebacker to the middle after a stellar freshman season when he led the team with 78 tackles. Classmate Eric Gordon is back after starting and making 62 tackles as a freshman from his weakside position and will move to the opposite side to replace Jones. The sophomore duo will make up one of the fastest linebacker groups in the Big Ten. Junior Brandon Denson finished the spring as the leading candidate to replace Gordon on the weakside, but he is being pushed by senior converted wide receiver Ryan Allison. Sophomore Jon Misch will bring more speed as a reserve outside linebacker while junior Adam Decker will bring some size as a reserve in the middle.
8. SAN DIEGO STATE
Last year's defense was just horrible, but that cannot be blamed on the starting linebackers, all three of which return for 2008. Senior Russell Allen led the team with 119 tackles and will be back at his spot at strong side backer this year. Junior Luke Laolagi was third on the squad with 94 stops and returns as the starter in the middle. Sophomore Andrew Preston was fifth on the team with 72 tackles after starting nine games last year. Preston took over on the weak side after junior Jerry Milling went down with an injury. Milling is back this year and is battling with Preston to get his spot back, but most likely it will be a platoon situation. Redshirt freshman Miles Burris had an impressive spring and leads a group of reserves that also features senior Zach Clarke and sophomore Marcus Yarbrough.
New defensive coordinator Ed Donatell was so impressed with junior weakside linebacker E.J. Savannah's play when he returned from suspension this spring, that there was a feeling that Donatell was going to design the defense around him. That was until Savannah broke his arm, reportedly while arm wrestling, in late-May. Savannah, who led the Huskies with 111 tackles last year, is expected to miss at least the first few games of the season. While he is expected to be back by the Oct. 25 Notre Dame-Washington matchup, his absence will make things difficult on the Huskies early on. Former walk-on junior Joshua Gage was the starter while Savannah was out for the beginning of spring and figures to return to that role at the start of the season. Sophomore Mason Foster will start at the strong side after starting four games and making 25 tackles as a true freshman last year. Senior Trenton Tuiasosopo and junior Donald Butler are battling for the middle linebacker position and if Donatell does choose to go with a 3-4, they will both probably start. Butler had 52 tackles in eight games last year, while Tuiasosopo finished with 39.
10. NORTH CAROLINA
Senior middle linebacker Mark Paschal is the only true experienced player back after finishing 2007 with 53 tackles, including 17 in the season finale against Duke. Senior Chase Rice was lost for the season to a broken ankle after starting the season opener, but is back to start again at the strong side position. Sophomore Quan Sturdivant made 47 tackles last year and is expected to start opposite Rice at the weakside. The Tar Heels' linebacker group to big hit when junior inside linebacker Wesley Flagg was kicked off the team after a violation of team rules. Converted tight end Ryan Taylor could see some time inside as sophomore Bruce Carter and junior Kennedy Tinsley look to work themselves into the rotation on the edges.
Junior inside linebacker Clint Sovie is back after suffering a broken ankle in the second game last year. Sovie brings speed and toughness to the position and will be joined on the inside by classmate Ross Pospisil, who had 67 tackles, including 20 against Air Force. Starting at one outside position is former basketball player Corey Johnson, who had 20 tackles a year ago. The other outside spot will go to junior Craig Schaefer who has the size and speed of a safety and will be looked to as a pass rusher on a team that was 116th in the nation in sacks last year. Juniors Ram Vela ad Tony Haberer have starting experience and will provide depth at the position.
Senior middle linebacker Jake Flaherty is the only returning to starter on a unit looking to get faster. Flaherty was second on the team with 95 tackles last year and is the leader of a young group of players. Greg Robinson moved last year's linebackers to other positions to make room for sophomores Mike Mele and Parker Canty, who bring speed to the position. But Mele and Canty are not going to be handed anything and will be pushed by sophomore Derrell Smith and redshirt freshman Chad Battles. Junior Mike Stenclik had 23 tackles last year and figures to back up Flaherty on the inside.
Senior Anthony Heygood returns to his strong side linebacker position after finishing 2007 second on the team with 81 tackles and is one of the team's top overall talents. But Heygood is the only returner and the unit is so thin that it could include two true freshmen at some point. Junior Jason Werner had a strong spring after offseason back surgery and the converted safety is expected to win the weakside spot. Sophomore Kevin Green made seven tackles in a reserve role last year, and will now be the starter at middle backer. Incoming freshman Chris Carlino could provide depth in the middle while classmate Dwayne Beckford could work his way into a role at one of the outside positions.