- Brian Bennett, ESPN Staff Writer
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Our preseason position rankings keep on keeping on as we turn to the linebacker units. On Friday, we ranked the individual linebackers in the Big Ten for 2012. Remember that we are considering 2011 performance most heavily in these rankings.
The top three here are really strong, while several other teams have a chance to be really good at linebacker this season.
1. Michigan State: Remember when there were concerns about the Spartans' linebacker corps last August? Seems pretty silly now. All three starters are back from a standout unit in 2011 that included defensive quarterback Max Bullough, sack artist Denicos Allen and the underrated Chris Norman. Add in some promising youngsters like Darien Harris, and this has a chance to be one of the best linebacker groups in the entire nation.
2. Penn State: Linebacker U. took a hit when potential starter Khairi Fortt transferred to Cal. But don't feel too sorry for this Nittany Lions' unit, which still boasts All-Big Ten big hitter Gerald Hodges and veteran Michael Mauti, who just needs to stay healthy to be a star. Glenn Carson was sturdy in the middle as a starter last year as well. Experienced depth is the only real question.
3. Wisconsin: You'd be hard-pressed to find a better duo than Chris Borland and Mike Taylor, who finished one-two in the Big Ten in total tackles last season. Ethan Armstrong will likely fill out the trio, which gets rated this high because of sheer star power.
4. Ohio State: The Buckeyes' linebackers will be young but have loads of potential. Etienne Sabino is the lone true veteran of the group, while Ryan Shazier showed late last season that he has game-changing ability. Former blue-chip recruit Curtis Grant looks ready now to be a major contributor. The dismissal of Storm Klein did hurt the depth here, however.
5. Michigan: Here's a group that was very solid in 2011 and could be even better in '12. Senior Kenny Demens is the anchor who led the way last year as freshmen Jake Ryan and Desmond Morgan got their feet wet. Another rookie in Joe Bolden could bolster the crew this season.
6. Illinois: The Illini have a budding superstar in Jonathan Brown, who could challenge for Big Ten defensive player of the year honors if he builds on his breakout sophomore year. Houston Bates had a good redshirt freshman year and at 240 pounds can be force. The third spot will be more of a hybrid role, likely filled by safety Ashante Williams. Defensive end Michael Buchanan could play some standing up as well.
7. Nebraska: This is senior Will Compton's group to lead after Big Ten linebacker of the year Lavonte David took his superhuman tackling skills to the NFL. Alonzo Whaley and Sean Fisher will have to raise their games in David's absence. Juco import Zaire Anderson and riser David Santos are expected to push for playing time as well.
8. Iowa: James Morris and Christian Kirksey give the Hawkeyes two 100-tackle men at the position, and they should be better as juniors. But Iowa wasn't as good overall at linebacker in 2011 as it needs to be. Anthony Hitchens likely moves into a starting role at the other spot, and there isn't much in the way of seasoning for the backups.
9. Purdue: Linebacker has been just so-so the last couple of seasons for the Boilermakers. Dwayne Beckford is back after some off-the-field issues and should easily be the best player at the position. Will Lucas also started on the outside last year. There's not much other experience here, but with the defensive line and secondary projected to be strengths, Purdue doesn't need its linebackers to do more than their fair share.
10. Minnesota: The Gophers' defense wasn't very good last year, but the linebackers might have been the highlight. It's one of the few units with considerable experience this year, led by seniors Mike Rallis and Keanon Cooper. Former Florida transfer Brendan Beal will try to make an impact after being hurt last year.
11. Northwestern: David Nwabuisi is a good tackler and leader for this crew, which nonetheless lacked many difference-makers in 2011. Is this where prized recruit Ifeadi Odenigbo makes an immediate impact?
12. Indiana: Linebacker was a sore spot for the Hoosiers last year, which led them to bring in two junior college transfers at the position. Both Jacarri Alexander and David Cooper looked good this spring and are ticketed to start right away. That also tells you something about the returning talent there for IU.