- Brian Bennett, ESPN Staff Writer
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We continue our postseason position rankings today as we move on to the linebackers.
Not surprisingly, Linebacker U takes the top spot, though it was a very close call. Depth helped the top two teams on this list, while star power marked spots Nos. 3 through 5. After that, it's a bit of a dropoff.
Away we go ...
1. Penn State: We thought this group could be the deepest linebacking corps in the league this past season, and that depth proved both true and invaluable when starter Michael Mauti went out in the fourth game of the season. Even without him, the Nittany Lions' linebackers played great, led by first team All-Big Ten performer Gerald Hodges, who had a breakout campaign. Nate Stupar filled in nicely for Mauti, and Glenn Carson was solid in his first year as a starter in the middle.
2. Michigan State: We wondered in the preseason how the Spartans would replace stars Greg Jones and Eric Gordon. The answer: very nicely, thank you. Sophomores Denicos Allen and Max Bullough emerged as fierce playmakers, especially on the blitz, and Chris Norman provided steady play on the weak side. All three return in 2012 to give Penn State a run for its money as the best group in the league.
3. Wisconsin: Mike Taylor and Chris Borland were finally healthy in the same season, and what a difference that made. They were a terrific pair, combining for 293 tackles and becoming the only Big Ten duo to average more than 10 tackles per game each. Taylor in particular made great strides. Kevin Claxton was overshadowed a bit as the third Badgers linebacker, but that's understandable given the amount of plays Borland and Taylor made.
4. Illinois: The emergence of Jonathan Brown (108 tackles, 19.5 for loss) as fire-breathing pass-rusher made this unit better than we projected in the preseason. Ian Thomas also had a good season at the position with 85 tackles, and Trulon Henry rounded out a strong crew before he missed time late following a shooting incident. The Illini defense stayed consistent throughout the team's struggles.
5. Nebraska: Depth was not a strong suit for the Huskers by any means, but there was no better linebacker in the league and few better in the nation than All-American Lavonte David. He had 133 tackles and countless big plays. Will Compton came on as the season wore along to provide a good complement to David. Finding consistent play elsewhere at the position was a challenge for Nebraska.
6. Ohio State: We pegged the Buckeyes at No. 3 in our preseason linebacker rankings, but it wasn't a vintage year for a group that struggled down the stretch drive. Andrew Sweat led the way with 72 tackles despite missing two games because of injury, and Etienne Sabino had a decent season (62 tackles, 6.5 for loss) if not the breakout season many had predicted. Freshman Ryan Shazier announced himself late in the year as a potential star in the making.
7. Michigan: The Wolverines' defense surprised everyone in 2011, though the defensive line was clearly the vanguard on that side of the ball. Kenny Demens led the team with 94 tackles, while freshmen Desmond Morgan and Jake Ryan made an immediate impact as starters. This wasn't an overwhelming group, but it was one that mostly did its job.
8. Iowa: The Hawkeyes had a hard time keeping everybody healthy and consistent, but this spot might have been the best part of their defense. James Morris and Christian Kirksey tied for the team lead with 110 tackles each, while Tyler Nielsen added 73 stops while battling some nagging injuries. The Iowa defense overall was disappointing, however.
9. Purdue: Danny Hope usually knew what to expect from week to week out of his linebackers: solid, consistent play. Joe Holland, Dwayne Beckford and Will Lucas each had between 82 and 94 stops as the top three tacklers on the team. Lucas and Holland also recorded double-digit tackles for loss. The chief complaint here is that the Boilermakers gave up some big point totals during the season.
10. Minnesota: The Gophers struggled up front and in the secondary, but linebacker was their most experienced and reliable defensive position, as expected. Veterans Gary Tinsley, Mike Rallis and Keanon Cooper played in every game, and were among the most consistent players on the team. Tinsley led the way with four sacks. Florida transfer Brendan Beal was expected to make an impact, but missed the season with a knee injury.
11. Northwestern: It wasn't a very good year overall for the Wildcats' defense, and linebacker was no exception. David Nwabuisi ranked third on the team with 84 tackles, while Bryce McNaul was right behind with 76. But Northwestern's starting trio combined for just 2.5 sacks and didn't come up with enough difference-making plays throughout the season.
12. Indiana: The good news for the Hoosiers was that Jeff Thomas was the best player on defense in 2011, finishing with 80 tackles, including 10.5 for loss. The bad news is that he was a senior. Besides Thomas, Indiana was forced to go young at the position, playing freshmen Chase Hoobler, Mike Replogle and Mark Murphy, a safety/linebacker hybrid, at times during the season. Kevin Wilson hopes the experience makes them better in '12, but this is yet another position that needs vast improvement going forward.