- Brian Bennett, ESPN Staff Writer
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Linebacker was arguably the deepest and most talented position in the Big Ten last year. This season, the position takes on a new look, as stars like Wisconsin's Chris Borland, Ohio State's Ryan Shazier, Michigan State's Denicos Allen and Max Bullough and Iowa's trio of James Morris, Christian Kirksey and Anthony Hitchens have all moved on.
Who's in the best and worst shape at the linebacker spot? Let's take a look as we continue our preseason position series:
Best of the best: Michigan State
Say what? The team that lost Bullough and Allen is still ranked first here? No, we haven't completely lost our minds. We just believe in the talent on hand -- and especially defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi's ability to mold it into something special. Taiwan Jones probably would have started for most other college teams the past couple of years and looks poised to break out as Bullough's replacement in the middle. Darien Harris played well while helping fill in for Bullough during the Rose Bowl and will have an outside spot locked down. Ed Davis is a great athlete who was a third-down specialist last year; he can make up for Allen's absence as a blitzer. Backups like Riley Bullough and Jon Reschke will push the starters. This is not a sure thing, as the group has some questions to answer. But it's a safe bet that the Spartans' linebackers will come through.
Next up: Michigan
The Wolverines return all three starters to a crew that should be their best position group on defense. Jake Ryan might well be the best linebacker in the Big Ten, especially if he returns to his playmaking ways after dealing with his ACL tear recovery last fall. He moves to the middle this year, pushing James Ross III to the strong side. Ross is a little undersized for that spot but could overcome it with athleticism and instincts. Desmond Morgan has been rock solid the past couple of years. We'd like to see a few more big plays out of this group, but Ryan should be able to provide that. Nebraska and Penn State are also contenders for having the best linebacker position this season.
Sleeper: Ohio State
Outside of Shazier, the Buckeyes struggled to find standout players at linebacker the past couple of years. So his jump to the NFL stings. Still, the coaching staff is optimistic about the direction of this group. Joshua Perry started coming on late last year, including a strong Orange Bowl performance, and could step in Shazier's shoes as the leader here. Darron Lee is an excellent athlete who made waves this spring. Can senior Curtis Grant finally live up to his potential? If not, true freshman Raekwon McMillan could step into his place in the middle. The talent level here is getting back to vintage Silver Bullets days.
Problem for a contender: Iowa
Not a big problem, per se, as the Hawkeyes like what they have in former top backups Quinton Alston and Travis Perry, along with talented true sophomore Reggie Spearman. Still, any time you lose the experience and production that Iowa did -- the trio of Kirksey, Morris and Hitchens combined for 985 career tackles and 105 starts -- the transition to a new era may not always be smooth. The good news is the Hawkeyes' defensive line remains strong, allowing the linebackers more freedom to simply make plays. Don't expect this to be much of a problem for long, if at all.