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Alabama’s Will Anderson Jr.Michael Ainsworth/Associated Press
Defensive linemen get most of the sacks, and defensive backs get most of the interceptions, but linebackers are the heart and soul of a football defense. While they aren’t usually the ones involved in the highlight-reel plays, they are the primary tacklers—and often the ones in charge of pre-snap adjustments—tasked with making sure the opposing offense doesn’t get highlight-reel plays.
A great linebacker corps can make up for weaknesses elsewhere, but it’s pretty tough to thrive without above-average linebackers.
So, which schools appear to be in the best shape at this position heading into the 2021 college football season?
Rather than our tried-and-true approach of ranking the 10 best “[insert position group]” in the country, we wanted to make sure to show some love to more than just the occasional Group of Five team. Thus, we’re taking a conference-by-conference look at the various position groups for the 2021 season.
Within each conference, we’ll highlight which team should reign supreme at that position, pinpoint the one team most likely to make a serious push for that title and mention another squad worth monitoring. That third “Keep an Eye On” group isn’t necessarily expected to be third-best in the conference, but it’s an intriguing unit.
Conferences are listed in alphabetical order.
Previous installments in this series:
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Cincinnati’s Darrian BeaversBenjamin Solomon/Getty Images
Best of the Bunch: Cincinnati Bearcats
While most leagues put three linebackers on their all-conference first team and are getting at least one of those 2020 stars back for 2021, the AAC had four first-team all-conference linebackers, and they’re all gone. That quartet was Cincinnati’s Jarell White, Houston’s Grant Stuard, Tulane’s Patrick Johnson and unanimous first-team All-American Zaven Collins from Tulsa.
Without a clear-cut star to talk up, it only makes sense to go with Cincinnati here, as the Bearcats have led the AAC in scoring defense in each of the past three seasons.
Though they lost White, Darrian Beavers (58 tackles, 2.5 sacks, two interceptions) emerged as quite the second fiddle in 2020 and should be ready for a starring role this year. He’ll be joined by returning starter Joel Dublanko and Ty Van Fossen, who had 28 tackles and two sacks in what was mostly a reserve role.
Top Challenger: Tulane Green Wave
Replacing Johnson’s impact won’t be easy, but Tulane does still have arguably the best one-two punch in the AAC in Dorian Williams and Nick Anderson, each of whom had at least 88 tackles and 10.5 tackles for loss in 2020. Among AAC teams, Tulane ranked second to Cincinnati in both yards allowed per carry and rushing yards allowed per game last season. That figures to continue into 2021.
Keep an Eye On: Navy Midshipmen
After allowing an AAC-best 105.9 rushing yards per game in 2019, that rate ballooned to 204.7 last year for Navy. However, the Midshipmen were much better over the latter half of the season (135.6 YPG) than they were in the first five games (273.8 YPG), and they bring back arguably the best linebacker in the conference in Diego Fagot.
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Clemson’s James SkalskiRick Scuteri/Associated Press
Best of the Bunch: Clemson Tigers
Thanks to the blanket free year of eligibility, James Skalski returns for a sixth season at the center of Clemson’s defense. (And with any luck, he won’t get ejected for targeting in the College Football Playoff for what would be a third consecutive year.) Skalski was limited by a groin injury last year, but he was Clemson’s second-leading tackler in 2019, trailing only the positionless phenom Isaiah Simmons.
In Skalski’s stead, Baylon Spector was the top tackler for the Tigers last year. He also led the team with 10.5 tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks. He’ll be back this season, as will Jake Venables and Trenton Simpson as part of a deep, talented group. It’s so deep that Clemson lost former 4-star recruit and key reserve Mike Jones Jr. as a transfer to LSU just so he could find more playing time.
And it’s worth keeping in mind that Clemson’s linebackers basically just need to not be terrible in order to look good this year. Skalski, Spector and Co. will be lining up behind linemen Bryan Bresee, Myles Murphy and Tyler Davis and in front of defensive backs Andrew Booth and Nolan Turner, each of whom was named to the preseason all-ACC first team. This should be one heck of a stingy D.
Top Challenger: North Carolina State Wolfpack
Definitely a 1A and 1B situation here with the Wolfpack boasting an impressive linebacker corps. Payton Wilson was named first-team All-ACC last year, and Isaiah Moore may well join him in that club this coming season. They each had at least 94 tackles, 11 tackles for loss and three sacks last season. Drake Thomas also returns after tallying 58 tackles and 9.5 tackles for loss in 2020.
Keep an Eye On: Virginia Cavaliers
Zane Zandier and Charles Snowden are both gone, but Nick Jackson returns after averaging better than 10 tackles per game in 2020. He should be one of the top linebackers in the ACC, though we’ll see what his new starting outside linebackers are able to do for this corps.
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Iowa State’s Mike RoseMatthew Putney/Associated Press
Best of the Bunch: Iowa State Cyclones
Not only was Iowa State’s Mike Rose named Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year, but he is the lone returning 2020 first-team All-Big 12 linebacker. And making matters worse for the other nine teams in the Big 12, Jake Hummel and O’Rien Vance are also still with the Cyclones. That means they’ll have three veteran starting linebackers who each have at least 150 career tackles.
This was already the best linebacker group in the Big 12 last year, and Iowa State will be a legitimate College Football Playoff contender if that trio gets even better with age.
It will be interesting to see if Rose or Hummel becomes a bit more of an edge-rusher in the absence of JaQuan Bailey (25.0 career sacks). If either outside linebacker steps into that void, one would have to assume it’ll be Hummel since Rose was so valuable in pass coverage last year. He had more interceptions (five) than the rest of Iowa State’s defense combined (four). Though, if he were to add some sacks to that arsenal, he could run away with quite a few National DPOY trophies.
Top Challenger: Oklahoma Sooners
Oklahoma has some big question marks in the secondary following the departures of Tre Brown, Tre Norwood and Brendan Radley-Hiles. Losing pass-rushing D-lineman Ronnie Perkins to the NFL could hurt, too. But the Sooners are pretty well set at linebacker with Brian Asamoah II, Nik Bonitto, DaShaun White and David Ugwoegbu all returning. Prior to the Cotton Bowl against Florida, Oklahoma had been holding opponents to 90.8 rushing yards per game last year.
Keep an Eye On: Oklahoma State Cowboys
Replacing Amen Ogbongbemiga (180 tackles, 20.5 tackles for loss, 7.5 sacks over the past two seasons) won’t be easy, but at least the Cowboys still have Malcolm Rodriguez, who has tallied at least 80 tackles in each of the past three years. Redshirt senior Devin Harper will be stepping into a bigger role too.
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Wisconsin’s Jack SanbornTony Ding/Associated Press
Best of the Bunch: Wisconsin Badgers
Penn State has long been heralded as “Linebacker U,” but while the Nittany Lions have fallen off as of late, Wisconsin has ascended to that throne in recent years.
In five of the past six seasons, the Badgers have held their opponents below 100 rushing yards per game, and they had eight linebackers drafted from 2016-20. That includes leading the Big Ten in rushing defense this past season, and it should continue this coming fall with all four starters returning at linebacker.
Inside linebackers Jack Sanborn and Leo Chenal had a combined 98 tackles, four sacks and two interceptions during Wisconsin’s truncated seven-game season, and they’ll be back to anchor what figures to be one of the stingiest defenses in the nation. The Badgers also still have outside linebackers Nick Herbig and Noah Burks. If that duo can generate more of a pass rush in 2021 after combining for just two sacks last year, look out.
Top Challenger: Indiana Hoosiers
Wisconsin should have the best all-around group of linebackers, but Indiana has the biggest individual star in Micah McFadden. He led the conference with six sacks in 2020 and added a pair of interceptions while the Hoosiers allowed just 20.2 points per game—their lowest such mark since 1993. Cam Jones also had a solid season alongside McFadden, so we’re not trying to imply that he’s a one-man show.
Keep an Eye On: Rutgers Scarlet Knights
If McFadden isn’t the Big Ten’s top linebacker, it’s perhaps only because Rutgers’ Olakunle Fatukasi is. The star of the Scarlet Knights defense had 170 tackles over the past two seasons and emerged as a disruptive backfield presence in 2020. OLB Mohamed Toure is a solid pass-rusher, too. However, Rutgers’ defense as a whole is…not good.
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Marshall’s Eli NealEmilee Chinn/Associated Press
Best of the Bunch: Marshall Thundering Herd
All three of last year’s Conference USA first-team linebackers are now out of the picture, and that includes Marshall’s Tavante Beckett. He had more than 200 tackles and six fumble recoveries over the past two seasons, leading the Thundering Herd in each category in both years.
That’s a significant loss, to say the least, but Marshall still has the other linebackers who helped hold opponents to 95.5 rushing yards per game—more than 40 yards better than any other team in this conference.
Eli Neal and Abraham Beauplan combined for 130 tackles last season and will now be the primary duo in the middle of the defense. Whether this remains the top corps in the league will depend on how well Brian Cavicante and/or Charlie Gray steps into a bigger role. But the gap in defense between Marshall and the rest of C-USA was so wide that the Thundering Herd should be more than fine.
Top Challenger: UTSA Roadrunners
Consider this your official “Watch out for UTSA” warning. The Roadrunners held foes to 383.3 total yards per game in 2020, and they bring back all 14 of their leading tacklers, plus added a few potential impact transfers on defense. Returnees Trevor Harmanson, Charles Wiley and Jamal Ligon all have all-conference potential at linebacker.
Keep an Eye On: Louisiana Tech Bulldogs
Louisiana Tech had an atypically awful year of defense in 2020, but that can be largely attributed to needing to replace nine of their 11 leading tacklers during an unprecedented offseason. This time around, the Bulldogs bring back most of the starters, including the entire linebacker corps of Tyler Grubbs, Trey Baldwin and Ezekiel Barnett. Expect a bounce-back year for this defense.
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Ball State’s Anthony EkpeRick Scuteri/Associated Press
Best of the Bunch: Ball State Cardinals
At the end of a stellar 2020 campaign, Ball State had two linebackers named to the All-MAC first team (Brandon Martin and Anthony Ekpe), one named to the second team (Christian Albright) and another named to the third team (Jaylin Thomas).
No other team had more than one linebacker named to any of the three teams, let alone four of them.
Now the bad news for the rest of the MAC: All four of those Cardinals return in 2021 as either seniors or graduate seniors.
Ball State’s defense wasn’t actually that good last year. It allowed 434.4 total yards per game and nearly 6.0 yards per play. But with all that returning talent at linebacker, they should improve on defense and could repeat as MAC champions.
Top Challenger: Buffalo Bulls
After Lance Leipold took the head coaching job at Kansas, a half-dozen Bulls transferred to remain with him. But the linebacker corps should be in good shape with James Patterson, Kadofi Wright and Tim Terry Jr. still there to anchor a veteran group. They probably won’t get back to their level of dominance in 2019 when they held opponents to 2.86 yards per carry, but they should at least rank among the MAC’s best linebackers.
Keep an Eye On: Central Michigan Chippewas
If nothing else, Jim McElwain has improved CMU’s run defense since arriving in Mount Pleasant. The Chippewas allowed 3.5 yards per carry in his first year as the head coach, and they dropped that to a MAC-best 3.13 this past season. And with Troy Brown and George Douglas both back as starting linebackers, they ought to be solid again.
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San Diego State’s Caden McDonaldGeorge Frey/Associated Press
Best of the Bunch: San Diego State Aztecs
SDSU has led the Mountain West in rushing yards allowed per game in each of the past three seasons and has not finished below third in that category since 2014.
While the Aztec defense did lose a bunch of key members of the secondary, the front six of their 3-3-5 defensive scheme is well-preserved from last season.
The most noteworthy returnee of that group is Caden McDonald, who had 10 tackles for loss en route to first-team All-MWC honors. They’ll also still have fifth-year seniors Andrew Aleki and Segun Olubi.
Top Challenger: San Jose State Spartans
After seven consecutive seasons of allowing at least 200 rushing yards per game, defense was the biggest catalyst of San Jose State’s wholly unexpected undefeated regular season in 2020.
The Spartans slashed that rushing defense down to 120.3 yards per game with Kyle Harmon leading the way. He had 45 solo tackles and 78 total tackles as the centerpiece of the linebacker corps. And the return of defensive ends Junior Fehoko and Cade Hall—each of whom had at least 12 tackles for loss in SJSU’s eight games last year—will make it even easier for Harmon and Co. to thrive.
Keep an Eye On: Wyoming Cowboys
Wyoming has had one of the stingier defenses in the Mountain West for the past four years, and Chad Muma returns to extend that streak to five. The Cowboys only managed to play six games in 2020, but Muma racked up 71 tackles, eight tackles for loss and three sacks during that time. All three sacks came in one game against UNLV, too. Maybe he has a few more huge games up his sleeve for this season.
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Utah’s Devin LloydRick Scuteri/Associated Press
Best of the Bunch: Utah Utes
In Devin Lloyd and Nephi Sewell, the Utes boast arguably the best linebacker tandem in the Pac-12. In just five games last season, they combined for 88 tackles and 15 tackles for loss. Lloyd had two sacks, and Sewell had two interceptions and two fumble recoveries. And they limited opponents to 107.8 rushing yards per game.
For Lloyd, it was to be expected. He had 91 tackles and 6.5 sacks the previous year. But for Sewell, it was an impressive breakout for a guy who was previously a safety at Nevada. He played sparingly after walking on at Utah in 2019 before stepping up in a big way at linebacker following Francis Bernard’s departure.
Yet, if anything, 2020 was a disappointing year by Utah standards under Kyle Whittingham. The previous season, the Utes allowed just 56.4 rushing yards through their first 12 games, boasting one of the best defenses in the nation. 2019 was their fifth consecutive season holding opponents below 24 points per game.
Can they get back to that in a more normal 2021 season?
Top Challenger: Oregon Ducks
Speaking of Sewell, Nephi’s brother Noah was also a breakout star for Oregon, darn near leading the Ducks in total tackles as a true freshman. Of course, he and fellow Duck Justin Flowe were both 5-star recruits and the two highest-rated linebackers in the 2020 class, so it wasn’t exactly a stunning development. Flowe barely saw the field last year, but with veteran LB Isaac Slade-Matautia transferring out of the program this summer, he should step into a starting role alongside Sewell this fall. It’s a young linebacker group for sure, but there’s a ton of potential here.
Keep an Eye on: California Golden Bears
While Oregon should thrive with its youth, Cal’s experience at linebacker will be critical. Kuony Deng and Cameron Goode return as fifth-year seniors who had a combined total of 180 tackles, 12.5 sacks and nine passes defended back in 2019.
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Alabama’s Christian HarrisCollegiate Images/Getty Images
Best of the Bunch: Alabama Crimson Tide
There are some areas in Alabama’s 2021 roster where one could express rational skepticism because of inexperience, but linebacker is very much not one of those.
Christian Harris is back after leading the Crimson Tide in tackles as a sophomore. He has 140 tackles over the past two years and became a real nuisance in the passing game with 4.5 sacks and an interception in 2020. But that merely makes him the third-best returning pass-rushing linebacker on this roster, as Will Anderson Jr. (7.0 sacks as a true freshman) and Christopher Allen (6.0 sacks as a breakout junior) each spent quite a bit of time in the opposing backfield.
Yes, they lost Dylan Moses, but bringing in Tennessee transfer Henry To’o To’o to help soften that blow was a case of the rich getting richer. Just like Harris, To’o To’o has tallied 140 tackles over the past two seasons, and the former top-50 overall recruit figures to get comfortable in his new SEC home in a hurry.
Top Challenger: Georgia Bulldogs
Georgia was the only team in the country to hold opponents below 75 rushing yards per game in either of the past two seasons, and the Bulldogs did so both years. Azeez Ojulari’s (9.5 sacks, four forced fumbles in 2020) departure leaves UGA with big shoes to fill, but the combination of Adam Anderson, Nakobe Dean, Quay Walker and bound-to-breakout-soon Nolan Smith will be more than enough to remain one of the nation’s top linebacker units.
Keep an Eye On: Arkansas Razorbacks
As a whole, Arkansas’ defense has a lot of improving to do in order to become relevant. At linebacker, though, the Razorbacks are in great shape. Grant Morgan was named first-team All-SEC last year, and Bumper Pool received second-team honors. Each one had more than 100 tackles last season. Along with Alabama’s Allen, they are the only returning linebackers who were first-team or second-team in 2020. That’s got to count for something.
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Appalachian State’s D’Marco JacksonIcon Sportswire/Getty Images
Best of the Bunch: Appalachian State Mountaineers
While Coastal Carolina and Louisiana jostled for the Sun Belt crown last year, Appalachian State rather quietly put together a nine-win season with a defense that allowed a conference-best 20.0 points per game.
The seven leading tacklers from that defense all return, headlined by inside linebackers D’Marco Jackson and Trey Cobb. The latter led the team in tackles and ranked second in both tackles for loss and sacks. The former wasn’t far behind in any of those three categories and also had a pair of interceptions.
Jackson’s two picks were only half as good as Brendan Harrington’s four, though, and he’ll be back at outside linebacker. Those two LBs combined for six interceptions and 12 passes broken up, so good luck throwing over the middle against this D.
Top Challenger: Coastal Carolina Chanticleers
When we previously did this exercise for defensive linemen, we listed CCU’s “Bandit” Jeffrey Gunter as part of the DL, so we won’t consider him a linebacker here. But even without accounting for their top returning pass-rusher, the Chanticleers are in excellent shape at LB with top tacklers Silas Kelly, Enock Makonzo and Teddy Gallagher all back for another year. If that experience makes them a little bit better against the run, they’ll just be that much tougher to beat in 2021.
Keep an Eye On: Troy Trojans
Troy’s Carlton Martial has been named first-team All-Sun Belt in each of the past two seasons, leading the conference in total tackles per game in both years. The Trojans suffered through a second consecutive sub-.500 season last year, but the defense was substantially improved. Martial, KJ Robertson and Jayden McDonald could help steer this team back toward competing for a conference title.