Dominique Alexander, Oklahoma (6-0, 224): Underclassman. Alexander received postseason honors following each of his three seasons. As a senior, he was first-team all-Big 12 with 103 tackles (54 solos). He tallied 1.5 sacks, seven tackles for losses, one interception and two passes defensed. Alexander was second-team all-conference as a sophomore with a career-high 107 tackles and a first-team Freshman All-American and the Big 12 Newcomer of the Year after tallying 80 tackles as a freshman. His three-year total: 290 tackles (152 solos), four sacks, 16.5 TFLs and three forced fumbles. "He can do it all," his linebackers coach said. "He’s a great student of the game, he watches tons of film, he understands formations and he understands what offenses are trying to do to defeat us, that takes the thinking out of it when the ball is snapped for him. He’s so athletic, he has great fundamentals and techniques. He takes great angles in the run game, takes great drops in the pass game. All those things make him the best linebacker he can be." Alexander’s father, Derrick, played at Oklahoma State and an older brother, Derrick Alexander Jr., just completed his senior season as a starting defensive end at Tulsa. They played each other three times. “It's all love between me and my brother so when he's in, I hope he does well and when I'm in he hopes that I do well," said Dominique. "He used to wake me up at 5:30 in the morning in the offseason, and after going through his college workouts, I knew what it was like to work hard. He made me the player I am today so shout-out to him.”
Steven Daniels, Boston College (6-0, 257): Daniels was second-team all-ACC as a senior with 82 tackles (51 solos), six sacks, 16 tackles for losses and one interception. His TFL total ranked sixth in the conference and tied for 20th in the nation, plus No. 6 in school history. In 47 career games, the three-year starter racked up 267 tackles, 10.5 sacks, 30 tackles for losses, three interceptions, one forced fumble and three recoveries. “Everybody calls him ‘The Thumper,” defensive coordinator Don Brown. Experience only made him a better player. “This year, he’s definitely sideline-to-sideline, he’s a better pass rusher, and when he blitzes, he still has that ‘thumpability,’’’ Brown said. “But he really is a smart football player. He is a diagnostician and can diagnose a play quickly and play fast.’’ He followed Luke Kuechly from Xavier High School in Cincinnati to the middle of the BC defense.
Josh Forrest, Kentucky (6-3, 245): Forrest had 93 tackles (39 solos) as a senior, with 3.5 sacks, six tackles for losses, two interceptions, seven passes defensed and one forced fumble. In his first season as a starter, Forrest had 110 tackles — ranking third in the SEC in tackles per game — eight tackles for losses and two interceptions. At Tilghman High School in Paducah, Ky., Forrest was an all-state performer in football and basketball. The guy’s a natural: He didn’t start playing football until his junior year. Forrest opened his Kentucky career as a wide receiver, hoping to be the next Randall Cobb, before moving to defense midway through his redshirt season of 2011. "I remember being in high school looking at a message board and it said that 'Forrest needs to be a middle linebacker.' I thought, 'That's crazy. I'll never be there.'" It wasn’t an easy transition. He was excellent in pass coverage but was called soft as a run defender. "The main thing is my eyes have become where my power is. What I see is where my power is. So it's just seeing it and seeing it so many times. So now I can get to where I need to be at and be more physical."
C.J. Johnson, Mississippi (6-1, 225): Johnson played at defensive end right away for the Rebels, starting three games as a true freshman in 2011. As a sophomore, he was third-team all-SEC with a team-high 6.5 sacks. After missing most of 2013 following an ankle injury and subsequent surgery, Johnson recorded four sacks and eight tackles for losses in 2014. Then came the big move to middle linebacker for his senior season. He was a four-star recruit at linebacker coming out of Philadelphia (Miss.) High School. "I know he can run, I know he can tackle," coach Hugh Freeze said. "I know he's smart and understands the defense. That's a different world playing there, but that's where we're going to play him." Not only did he have to adjust to being the quarterback of the defense and gain the patience to not bite on play action, he had to find the right weight. He got some good advice from longtime defensive guru Monte Kiffin. Johnson’s season was slowed by a torn meniscus, which kept him out of three games in October. He finished with 43 tackles (25 solos) with two sacks, three tackles for losses, two interceptions, three passes defensed and one forced fumble.
Raphael Kirby, Miami (6-0, 235): Kirby, one of the team captains, sustained a season-ending knee injury in mid-October. At the time, he had a team-leading 44 tackles (17 solos), which included 1.5 for losses in six games. He started all 13 games in 2014, finishing with 54 tackles (28 solos), 4.5 TFLs, two forced fumbles and two interceptions. Kirby came out of a linebackers factory in Stone Mountain, Ga.
Nick Kwiatkoski, West Virginia (6-2, 241): Kwiatkoski was a three-year starter. He put up big numbers during his final two seasons. As a junior middle linebacker, he had 103 tackles (71 solos) with 11.5 tackles for losses. As a senior outside linebacker, he had 86 tackles with 10 tackles for losses, three interceptions and one forced fumble to receive first-team all-conference recognition. For his career, he finished with 303 tackles, two sacks, 28 tackles for losses, six interceptions and three forced fumbles. He was a 195-pound running back and safety in high school. “Never did I think I’d be playing linebacker going into my senior year, let alone where I’m at today. It’s not a surprise, but it’s kind of overwhelming to think about how far I’ve come.”
Blake Martinez, Stanford (6-2, 239): Martinez was an all-conference player in each of his two seasons in the starting lineup. As a senior, he was first-team all-conference, second-team All-America and a semifinalist for the Butkus Award, which goes to the nation’s top linebacker. He piled up 141 tackles (75 solos) — nobody else on the team had more than 57 — with at least 10 in nine of his 14 games. He ranked third in the nation in tackles among Power 5 conference defenders. He added 1.5 sacks, 6.5 tackles for losses, one interception and one forced fumble. His play and leadership was key for a defense that had to replace eight starters. He came through when it mattered most, including a sack-strip that was returned for a touchdown that turned around a game vs. USC and sent Stanford to the Rose Bowl. "He's in the middle of the world," coach David Shaw said. "He makes all of the plays that he should make, but Blake also makes a lot of the plays he shouldn't make. He had 102 tackles, 4.5 sacks, seven tackles for losses, three interceptions and two forced fumbles as a junior. He wasn’t recruited by his hometown Arizona Wildcats.
Cassanova McKinzy, Auburn (6-2, 253): McKinzy started a couple games as a freshman before becoming a full-time starter for his final three seasons. For his career, he finished with 263 tackles (153 solos) with 8.5 sacks, 29.5 tackles for losses two interceptions and three forced fumbles. He had career highs of 91 tackles (60 solos) and 11 TFLs as a junior middle linebacker. As a senior, he had 74 tackles (37 solos), including 10 for losses, added a career-high five sacks. Why the change in production? He was moved to a standup defensive end in October to bolster the pass rush. That versatility will only help him in the draft, as he played every linebacker spot in a 4-3 and essentially played as a 3-4 outside linebacker in his standup role. McKinzy relishes playing run defense. "He is kind of old-school," Tigers coach Gus Malzahn said before the 2014 season. "He's a big, big linebacker that can run. He's got very good instincts and he's got a lot of talent." Why did McKinzy choose Auburn? Chick-Fil-A.
ALSO IN THIS SERIES
Outside linebackers, Part 1
Outside linebackers, Part 2
Outside linebackers, Part 3 (FREE)
Inside linebackers, Part 1
Inside linebackers, Part 2 (FREE)
Defensive ends, Part 1
Defensive ends, Part 2
Defensive tackles, Part 1 (FREE)
Defensive tackles, Part 2 (FREE)
Defensive tackles, Part 3 (FREE)
Offensive tackles, Part 1
Offensive tackles, Part 2
Offensive guards, Part 1 (FREE)
Offensive guards, Part 2 (FREE)
Tight ends, Part 1 (FREE)
Tight ends, Part 2 (FREE)
Wide receivers, Part 1 (FREE)
Wide receivers, Part 2
Wide receivers, Part 3
Wide receivers, Part 4 (FREE)
Running backs, Part 1 (FREE)
Running backs, Part 2
Running backs, Part 3
Quarterbacks, Part 1 (FREE)
Quarterbacks, Part 2 (FREE)
Quarterbacks, Part 3 (FREE)
Bill Huber is publisher of PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at email@example.com or leave him a question in Packer Report’s subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at www.twitter.com/PackerReport.