1. Michigan – Jake Ryan is the type of player any coach would love to have, and, now fully healthy, is probably the best LB in the conference. And Desmond Morgan is no slouch himself. This group is full of talent and experience.
2. Nebraska – I have a feeling this could be one of the most improved Big Ten units on the defensive side of the ball. They lose nobody, and David Santos and Zaire Anderson both have an opportunity to vault themselves into the top linebacking tier in the conference.
3. Maryland – The Terps’ linebacking corps was ravaged by injuries in 2013. But one of the positive developments stemming from those injuries is an abundance of experienced players returning in 2014. And senior Cole Farrand is a rock in the middle.
4. Ohio State – Could this finally be the year that Curtis Grant breaks out? The former top recruit has been a colossal disappointment in Columbus. He showed positive signs last year, but was also nagged by injuries. If Grant can put it all together, he and Joshua Perry would push this group into the top three in the conference.
5. Michigan State – The Spartans lose a fair amount from what was arguably the best bunch of linebackers in the country in 2013. But Taiwan Jones is back, and MSU has enough depth to replace the likes of Max Bullough and Denicos Allen.
6. Northwestern – Basically, there are two near sure things and two unknowns at the LB position for Northwestern. The two sure things are Chi Chi Ariguzo, who should be a candidate for All-Big Ten honors, and Collin Ellis, who, despite moving to a new position (from outside to middle), should be solid. The two question marks are the other starting spot, where coach Pat Fitzgerald says Drew Smith and Jimmy Hall are essentially co-starters, and depth – Brett Walsh and Anthony Walker, the backups to Ariguzo and Ellis, are unproven. So naturally, that leaves NU’s crop of linebackers somewhere near the middle of the pack in the conference, with a chance to be better than that if they can stay healthy.
7. Rutgers – Steve Longa recorded 123 tackles as a redshirt freshman in 2013, and now, even though he’s still an underclassman, could be a standout playmaker on defense. However, overall, this unit (and the defense as a whole) struggled last year, so although RU only loses one starter, it’s tough to see the Scarlet Knights’ getting too much more from their LBs.
8. Penn State – If he can evade the injury bug, senior Mike Hull appears to be ready to establish himself among the Big Ten elite. But Glenn Carson is a huge loss, and alongside Hull, there are question marks.
9. Wisconsin – The Badgers are the wild card here. They return no starters, so the linebacker position could end up being a major weakness. But they do have two seniors who have waited their turns starting on the inside, and reports from those in the know indicate that this group could surprise a lot of people and be just as good as previous Wisconsin linebacking crews. Vince Biegel is a name to watch not only this year, but one or two years down the road as well.
10. Illinois – The Illini defense’s back seven was appalling last season, despite supposedly having some talent. And to make matters worse in 2014, they lose star MLB Jonathan Brown. However, with Earnest Thomas moving to linebacker, this unit should be more experienced and stronger in 2014. Just don’t expect too much improvement.
11. Minnesota – Quite simply, there’s nothing too special about Minnesota’s linebacking corps, nor is there any reason to think they’ll be atrocious. This is just an ordinary, mediocre group... I know, great analysis.
12. Indiana – With four returning starters, it’ll be extremely difficult for this Hoosiers LB group to not be better than it was last year. But even if it improves, it still could be one of the worst in the Big Ten. There’s optimism in Bloomington that this IU defense could become respectable in 2014, but I’m not buying it just yet.
13. Iowa – The Hawkeyes have boasted some very accomplished linebackers in past years, but man, they lose everything at the position in 2014. Quinton Alston, who will start in the middle this year, had all of 12 tackles in 2013, and that’s more than any other returning ‘backer. A major drop-off seems inevitable.
14. Purdue – We try not to be too harsh on the Boilermakers, but it’s really tough. This roster, on both sides of the ball, is just flat out depleted, and the linebacker position is no exception.
Why Northwestern should be higher: Ellis could turn out to be a hit in the middle, so if Fitz and defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz can rhythmically rotate Smith and Hall, there’s no reason this can’t be a top five unit.
Why Northwestern should be lower: All reports suggest that Ellis has adjusted well to his new position, but what if he gets into game situations and his head starts to spin? That, coupled with an inexperienced Smith or Hall beside him, could spell disaster.
Second thoughts: I’m of the belief that Ellis will be just fine, and that Ariguzo could be a star. I could see Rutgers’ or Penn State’s linebackers outproducing NU’s, but I think this is Northwestern’s most underrated unit, and having them at No. 6 is just about right.