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Around The Big Ten: Linebacker

Now that summer has nearly arrived, we’re inching closer and closer to football. This post marks the start of our newest series: a look at how each of the Wildcats’ units stands put up against other units in the Big Ten. Next up is linebacker.

Conference overview

Every defense pulses from the middle on out. A linebacking corps inhabits the central area of the field, and any weakness, depth deficiencies, or significant structural flaw within this unit can unravel an entire defense’s constitution. You need strong linebackers, and the Big Ten has them scattered about this season. The usual suspects – teams that have placed near the top of our rankings in most units – did not default on packing their respective linebackers with talent, speed and experience, but there are a few teams whose LB groups might turn out better than you might have otherwise thought.

Teams to watch (NU Excluded)

Iowa – You can poke fun at Iowa’s offense. That’s easy. Their defense isn’t a whole lot better, but it does return three seniors and a combined 65 starts at linebacker, which gives Iowa fans one of several personnel concerns to cross off the list heading into this season. Christian Kirksey, James Morris and Anthony Hitchens should hold up over 12 games, offer a steady guiding hand for a shaky defense and see that the Hawkeyes do a better job keeping opposing offenses in check. They need all the defensive help they can get; asking this offense to score any more points could lead the Hawkeyes to another dismal win-loss season endpoint.

Michigan State – The two names you probably already know – and if not, keep reading – are Max Bullough and Denicos Allen. Together they are, with little doubt, the best linebacking tandem in the Big Ten, and as such they give the Spartans a definitive edge over any other LB corps in this conference. Rival fanbases may disagree, or point to last season’s 7-5 season as some vague generalized indicator of a poor “winning attitude,” but those people are completely missing the point (sorry!), which is that MSU’s linebacking corps, a distinctly separate entity evaluated in isolation, is pretty close to brilliant.

Michigan – I encourage you to “watch” Michigan’s linebacking corps this season, because sometime in October, you can expect this unit to get a powerful infusion of emotional and physical energy from Jake Ryan. When he tore his ACL in the spring, most people assumed the worse – that Ryan would be lost for the entire season. At best, no one expected the junior ‘backer to do his best Adrian Peterson impression and return in time for the second half of Michigan’s slate of games. Alas, Ryan is expected to return, and when he does, a talented cast including sophomore Joe Bolden and junior Desmond Morgan will be waiting. Not that the All-Big Ten second teamer needs any prolonged assistance before getting up to speed.

Surprise unit

Illinois – Nothing Illini-related will be popular in this space, and I’m willing to concede this pick has more to do with sheer predictive impulse than anything else. Jonathan Brown is a talented All-Conference level player, so there’s that. The Illini also have two emerging sophomores in Mason Monheim and Mike Svetina, both of whom could take major leaps forward this season. If Brown turns his senior season into a personal platform for NFL draft advancement, and can somehow ignore the pile of losses his team might and probably will accumulate over the course of this season, this group of linebackers could detach itself from the perception of this roster’s generally mediocre-to-substandard state.

Where does NU fit in?

In the lead up to the 2012 season, Northwestern football people could all agree on at least one thing: the Wildcats’ best defensive position group was its linebacking corps. The unit took that title and embossed their claim from the start of the season to the Gator Bowl trophy celebration. David Nwabuisi moved on in the offseason, but the distinction survived the test of a 13-game sample size and a key senior departure. Once again, this linebacking corps is Northwestern’s best defensive position group.

This particular breakdown doesn’t care what you or I think about the relative standing of Northwestern’s own position units. It asks yours truly to project the Wildcats LB corps onto the broader scope of the Big Ten. The way I see it, Northwestern’s linebackers rank 5th out of 12 teams. If you made a really convincing argument, maybe I’d push them up one spot, but even after last year’s proficient linebacking performance, I can’t mount a reasonable argument for NU’s LBs ranking among the top two or three best groups. Progress is incremental.

Way too early All-Big Ten team 

1. Ryan Shazier, Ohio State

2. Chris Borland, Wisconsin

3. Max Bullough, Michigan State

Way too early power rankings

1. Michigan State, 2. Michigan, 3. Ohio State, 4. Iowa, 5. Northwestern, 6. Wisconsin, 7. Penn State, 8. Nebraska, 9. Illinois, 10. Purdue, 11. Minnesota, 12. Indiana