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Thursday, January 15, 2009
Big Ten year-end linebacker rankings

By ESPN.com staff
ESPN.com

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

The rankings continue today with another of the Big Ten's strongest positions -- linebacker. Ohio State's James Laurinaitis won Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year honors, but he didn't top this list, a testament to the league's depth at linebacker. 

Here's your top 10. 

1. Navorro Bowman, Penn State -- Bowman began the season as a reserve, but was easily the league's most noticeable linebacker by the end. He racked up 31 more tackles than any other Penn State player and finished with four sacks, two forced fumbles and 16.5 tackles for loss, tops among Big Ten backers. One of few bright spots in the Rose Bowl, Bowman racked up five stops for loss. The LaVar Arrington comparisons look legit.

2. Brit Miller, Illinois -- The Illini didn't have the season they wanted, but Miller did his part and then some as J Leman's replacement in the middle. Miller led the Big Ten in tackles (132) and ranked eighth in both sacks (6) and tackles for loss (15.5). He forced three fumbles, returning one for a touchdown, and was by far Illinois' most consistent defensive player. 

3. James Laurinaitis, Ohio State -- Laurinaitis turned in a very solid senior season, piling up 130 tackles and four sacks. He didn't always make the spectacular play, but consistently carried out his assignments and seemed to get stronger as the season progressed. Laurinaitis leaves Ohio State as one of the most decorated players in team history, and he certainly made a mark on the Big Ten. 

4. Greg Jones, Michigan State -- He flies under the radar a bit at Michigan State, but Jones will undoubtedly be a household name in 2009. The Spartans sophomore finished third in the league in tackles (127), bringing his two-year total to 205. Jones is only a junior, but along with Bowman he will enter next season as a candidate for All-Big Ten and All-America honors. 

5. Pat Angerer, Iowa -- In addition to having a great name for a linebacker, Angerer showed this fall that he can cause a lot of problems for opposing offenses. He rallied from a very frustrating 2007 season to finish second in the league in interceptions (5) and sixth in tackles (107). With Laurinaitis graduating, Angerer might be the league's best linebacker against the pass, tallying eight deflections to go along with his five-pack of picks. 

6. Marcus Freeman, Ohio State -- He played second fiddle to Laurinaitis throughout his career, but would have been the No. 1 linebacker on almost any other team. Freeman was solid this fall, leading Ohio State in tackles for loss (9.5) and ranking second in total tackles (84). A second-team All-Big Ten selection in each of the last two seasons, Freeman will be missed next fall. 

7. Anthony Heygood, Purdue -- Purdue's defense was better than the numbers showed this fall, and Heygood led the way with 114 tackles. Though his tackles for loss total dropped from 2007, he had six or more stops in nine games and racked up 11 solo tackles against Ohio State. 

8. Obi Ezeh, Michigan -- It was a tough year for Michigan's defense, which got next to no help from the offense and endured its own problems. But Ezeh blossomed as a bright spot in the middle, leading the team with 98 tackles to go along with an interception and a fumble recovery. He won Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week after the season opener and contributed seven tackles for loss and a sack. 

9. Matt Mayberry, Indiana -- Many readers would rank Mayberry much higher, but I need to see more from the Hoosiers' talented middle linebacker. He clearly has tremendous physical gifts and racked up five sacks and 8.5 tackles for loss this fall. If he continues to make strides and elevates a historically bad defense, Mayberry will find himself in the top five next season.

10. DeAndre Levy, Wisconsin -- Levy was one of few consistent performers on a Badgers defense that looked great at times and awful at other times. He won National Defensive Player of the Week honors after the Fresno State win, in which he registered four tackles for loss, including a critical sack, as well as an interception and a pass breakup. Levy led Wisconsin with 9.5 tackles for loss and ranked second in sacks (5).