Big Ten: Chris Graham
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
The position rankings resume with the linebackers, which is usually a strong position in the Big Ten but one that lacks headliners this season. Ohio State boasts two standouts in preseason Defensive Player of the Year James Laurinaitis and Marcus Freeman, but most teams welcome new players to their defensive midsection. Illinois lost All-American middle linebacker J Leman, Michigan lost backfield beast Shawn Crable and Penn State lost standout Sean Lee to a season-ending knee injury this spring. But I'll get to the individuals later.
Here's a look at the linebacker groups in the Big Ten:
1. Ohio State -- Laurinaitis and Freeman passed up the NFL for one final season together and one final stab at the national championship. The star tandem has combined for 429 career tackles, easily putting Ohio State in the top spot for linebackers. Sophomore Ross Homan, a candidate for the third starting spot, could be the next great Buckeyes linebacker.
2. Wisconsin -- This group admittedly underachieved a bit last season, but better things are on the way with all three starters back. Senior Jonathan Casillas led the team in tackles last season and looks to regain his playmaking form of 2006, when he had a team-high 12.5 tackles for loss. DeAndre Levy provides leadership and should flourish under new coordinator Dave Doeren.
3. Illinois -- Leman's production can't be replaced and Illinois also lost second-leading tackler Antonio Steele, but there is plenty left over at linebacker. Veteran Brit Miller, who has slimmed down this offseason, slides over to middle linebacker, a position he's played before. Miller has the personality to lead and will be able to mentor highly touted sophomore Martez Wilson.
4. Penn State -- The Lions undoubtedly would have been higher with Lee leading the way, but they still have some playmakers here. Penn State needs big things from veteran outside linebacker Tyrell Sales, who had three sacks last season. Promising sophomore Chris Colasanti will play a larger role along with junior Josh Hull, who appeared in every game last fall.
5. Indiana -- Despite boasting the league's best pass rusher in end Greg Middleton, Indiana's campaign for a better defense hinges on this unit. Incumbents Will Patterson and Geno Johnson return, and there's plenty of buzz about junior Matt Mayberry. Patterson recorded three forced fumbles and three fumble recoveries last season.
6. Michigan -- This appears to be the weak point of the Wolverines defense, which will miss All-Big Ten selection Crable and Chris Graham. But Obi Ezeh has experience at middle linebacker and will be pushed by John Thompson. Sophomores Marell Evans and Jonas Mouton bring speed to the weak side.
7. Iowa -- A.J. Edds is a budding star at outside linebacker after ranking second on the team in tackles last season. But after Edds, there are questions. The Hawkeyes must replace two productive players in Mike Humpal and Mike Klinkenborg and need promising sophomores Jacody Coleman, Jeff Tarpinian and Jeremiha Hunter to step up.
8. Michigan State -- Here's another young group that could finish higher but needs more than one proven commodity. Greg Jones is on his way to a stellar career after a strong freshman season. His move to the middle should help the Spartans, but they need more from returning starter Eric Gordon as well as a reliable player to emerge at the third spot.
9. Purdue -- Anthony Heygood has been productive at outside linebacker, racking up 15 tackles for loss last season. If Heygood continues to cause havoc and Jason Werner takes another step after a strong spring, Purdue could soar up this list. Werner showed good durability in spring ball, but he must avoid injuries after back problems nearly ended his career.
10. Northwestern -- Linebacker is usually the strongest position group on a weak defense, but for the second straight year there are questions. The Wildcats lose Adam Kadela, the league's No. 3 tackler last season, and need Malcolm Arrington to build off a decent 2007 season as he shifts to middle linebacker. Senior Prince Kwateng hasn't reached his potential thus far, while promising young players like Bryce McNaul and Nate Williams are ready to step up.
11. Minnesota -- Despite some strong additions this offseason, last year can't be overlooked. The Gophers return experience with Steve Davis and Deon Hightower, and hopes are high for junior-college transfer Rex Sharpe. But run-stopping was a disaster in 2007, so until Minnesota shows otherwise, it will linger at the bottom.