On The Mark Friday mailbag

Choosing college football's best linebacker and more

Originally Published: September 28, 2012
By Mark Schlabach | ESPN.com

Who is college football's best linebacker?

Georgia's Jarvis Jones, who is ranked as the No. 1 prospect eligible for next year's NFL draft by ESPN analysts Todd McShay and Mel Kiper Jr., ranks third nationally with 4 tackles for loss and fourth with 4 sacks in four games.

[+] EnlargeJarvis Jones
Scott Cunningham/Getty ImagesOutside linebacker Jarvis Jones has proved his importance to Georgia so far this season.

Notre Dame's Manti Te'o leads the Fighting Irish with 38 tackles and is tied for the team lead with three interceptions. Te'o, who is ranked the No. 8 NFL draft prospect by Kiper and McShay, helped Notre Dame hold Michigan State and Michigan without a touchdown in consecutive games.

Both linebackers have helped guide their teams to undefeated records in the first month of the season, emerging as potential Heisman Trophy candidates along the way.

We tackle the great linebacker debate and more in this week's Mailbag:

Chris in Springfield, Va., writes: Jarvis Jones may not even be the best player on Georgia, much less better than Heisman Te'ophy. Look, Georgia has not beaten a team in the Top 20 since 2009. This year, they beat Vanderbilt and Missouri. So let's say we hold off on anointing Jarvis Jones until he leads Georgia's defense to an actual real win.

Jones, a junior from Columbus, Ga., did lead the Bulldogs to an SEC East title last season and helped hold together a UGA defense that was missing four suspended starters at the start of this season. And, for the record, Georgia defeated two ranked opponents last season (No. 20 Auburn and No. 23 Georgia Tech). We'll find out a lot more about the Bulldogs next week, when they travel to No. 6 South Carolina.

I can't think of a player better than Jones on Georgia's roster. Quarterback Aaron Murray is off to a sizzling start, but Jones has certainly been the No. 5 Bulldogs' most valuable player so far. He almost beat Missouri by himself, finishing with nine tackles, two sacks, two forced fumbles, five quarterback pressures and an interception. It was the most impressive individual performance I've seen by a defensive player so far this season.

Aaron in Vermont writes: It's a tough call. From a pure pass-rush standpoint [it's] Jarvis Jones, but as an all-around player, I would go with Te'o. The guy has outstanding character and leadership qualities, not to mention he is a tackling machine. However, I couldn't fault anyone for taking Jarvis Jones. I should add the disclaimer that I am a Notre Dame fan.

I don't think you could go wrong selecting either one of them. Te'o, a native of Hawaii, has been Notre Dame's inspirational leader in the first month of the season. After tragically losing his grandmother and girlfriend in less than 24 hours earlier this month, Te'o played his best football in close victories over Michigan State and Michigan.

[+] EnlargeManti Te'o
Matt Cashore/US PresswireManti Te'o has been Notre Dame's inspirational leader during the first month of the season.

Jones and Te'o are different types of players. As an outside linebacker in Georgia's 3-4 scheme, Jones' primary objective is to rush the quarterback, although the Bulldogs do use him as a spy against mobile quarterbacks at times. He's also a very athletic linebacker who does a nice job of defending the run from sideline to sideline.

As an inside linebacker in Notre Dame's 3-4 defense, Te'o's primary goal is to tackle runners, which he does very, very well. He has only one sack and two tackles for loss, but rushing the quarterback isn't his primary job. He has done a great job of dropping into coverage and picking off passes this season.

Colin in Tampa, Fla., adds: I would take Te'o every time. He's got the big-hit mentality and always wraps up. His coverage game has improved so much this year. Most of all he has heart [and] he puts it on the line every week for his team, regardless of his personal struggles.

Jones has overcome a lot in his life, too, which I chronicled on ESPN.com earlier this week. But one of the best scenes I've seen in college football in many years took place at Notre Dame Stadium last week, when an estimated 20,000 Irish fans honored Te'o by wearing leis, a tradition in his native Hawaii. Te'o responded with eight tackles and two interceptions in Notre Dame's 13-6 victory over the Wolverines. How can you not root for the guy to play well?

@CorbClark609 on Twitter writes: Did Lou Holtz hack ur Twitter??? Jones, and it's not even close.

Holtz, the former Notre Dame coach and current ESPN analyst, is right about this: The Fighting Irish are back. I'm not ready to predict that the Irish will finish undefeated and play for a BCS title game, but I think a 10-win season and BCS bowl game are definite possibilities. Notre Dame's defense is good enough to keep it in every ballgame, and the offense should get better as quarterback Everett Golson gains experience and gets more comfortable.

@jsb14516 on Twitter adds: That's a dumb question. A guy who played high school [football] in Hawaii and plays against Big Ten/service academy schedule or a top-5 pick?

Have you seen Georgia's schedule? The Irish still play Stanford (home), Oklahoma (road) and Southern California (road). Georgia will get good tests from South Carolina and Florida, but Notre Dame's schedule is much more difficult this season.

Matt in Texas writes: How good can the Longhorns be this year?

I think they have a chance to compete for a Big 12 championship, as long as quarterback David Ash continues to play well and improve. We still don't know much about the Longhorns after three games, but we'll learn a lot about them in the next four weeks. After playing at Oklahoma State on Saturday night, the Longhorns play No. 9 West Virginia (home), No. 16 Oklahoma (in Dallas) and No. 25 Baylor (home).

I think Kansas State and Texas might be the Big 12 favorites now, after Oklahoma lost to the Wildcats at home last week and West Virginia's defense showed some serious deficiencies against Maryland.

Jay in Midland, Texas, writes: Mark, I will extend the same invitation to you as I did to [ESPN.com Big 12 blogger] David Ubben. Your ticket has expired and you will not be allowed to board the Texas Tech Train, the next time you try and board. I, the ticket master, will be watching for your attempt!

I never jumped on the Boise State bus, either. I'm impressed by the way the Red Raiders dismantled Northwestern State, Texas State and New Mexico in their first three games, but the next six weeks are going to be absolutely brutal. After playing at Iowa State on Saturday night, Texas Tech plays five consecutive games against ranked opponents: No. 16 Oklahoma (home), No. 9 West Virginia (home), No. 15 TCU (road), No. 7 Kansas State (road) and No. 12 Texas (home).

If Tommy Tuberville gets out of that stretch with three victories, he's officially off the hot seat.

Steve in South Jersey wants to know: Can you explain the disaster that is Maryland Terrapin football? OK, they wanted to get rid of [former coach Ralph] Friedgen (don't know why, 9-2 and bowl game), but bringing in [coach Randy] Edsall from UConn could not have been a worse decision. I don't know how he recruited [freshman receiver Stefon] Diggs and [freshman quarterback Perry] Hills, but the team is horrible and there is no sign of recovery. Please tell me Edsall is done after this season and we get a good coach. I'm surprised the ACC hasn't asked Maryland to get out of the conference for football.

I didn't agree with Maryland's decision to fire Friedgen after he went 9-4 and was named ACC Coach of the Year in his final season in 2010. Yes, Maryland's recruiting had slipped, which is a big reason Edsall struggled so badly in a 2-10 campaign last season. But Maryland's administration seems committed to Edsall, and the Terps have shown some signs of improvement this season. Edsall hasn't gotten many breaks, and the Terps lost starting quarterback C.J. Brown to a season-ending knee injury in the preseason.

Diggs was a major recruiting coup for Maryland. Edsall hired former New Mexico coach Mike Locksley as his offensive coordinator after the 2011 season. Locksley was a terrible head coach, but he is a fantastic recruiter and does particularly well in the Washington, D.C., region.

Mark Schlabach | email

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