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Thursday, August 22, 2013
League of extraordinary linebackers

By Adam Rittenberg

Last summer, Gary Andersen was studying film of Wisconsin's defense when his eyes locked on the three men lined up at linebacker.

Andersen, then Utah State's head coach, had started scouting the Aggies' Week 3 opponent. He stopped the tape and called in his son Chasen, an inside linebacker for nearby Logan High School.

Kyler Reed, Shelton Johnson, Chris Borland
Wisconsin senior Chris Borland is one of the headliners in what is a talented linebacker class in the Big Ten.

"I said, those kids -- it was Ethan, it was Taylor, it was Chris," Gary Andersen said, referring to Wisconsin linebackers Ethan Armstrong, Mike Taylor and Chris Borland, "you need to watch them."

After a few minutes, Chasen turned to his dad.

"Forty-four's kind of short like me, Dad," he said, referring to the 5-foot-11 Borland.

"Good," the elder Andersen replied. "Watch him."

Gary Andersen no longer admires Borland from afar. Named Wisconsin's head coach in December, he watches daily as the Badgers' All-Big Ten linebacker prepares for the final season of an incredible college career that could end with national honors.

To familiarize himself with his new league, Andersen spent recent months watching film of Wisconsin's future opponents. And like he did last summer with Borland & Co., he came away impressed with the linebackers around the Big Ten.

"They're well-coached, they run well, they're extremely physical, they're set at the point of attack," he said. "A great linebacker, it's not really how well he runs, it's not really how well he reads, how much of a leader he is. It's all important, but a great linebacker is what he can do in the last six inches of his ability to be a physical football player -- his ability to get over the cut block, his ability to make plays.

"I see a lot of suddenness in that last six inches in the Big Ten linebackers. I knew that a long time ago."

Even a Big Ten newcomer like Andersen echoes a common sentiment: that linebacker play always has been a strength of the league. After a recent dip, at least by Big Ten standards, the adage should prove true this season.

No Big Ten position group returns more talent and production than linebacker. The list of returnees includes four first- or second-team All-Big Ten selections from 2012 -- Wisconsin's Borland, Ohio State's Ryan Shazier, Michigan State's Max Bullough and Michigan's Jake Ryan -- along with two other former All-Big Ten selections (Michigan State's Denicos Allen and Illinois' Jonathan Brown), plus a host of other potential stars. Eight of 12 teams return multiple starters at linebacker -- Iowa's senior trio of James Morris, Anthony Hitchens and Christian Kirksey has combined for 65 career starts and 662 tackles -- and only one squad (Nebraska) must replace its entire starting group from last season.

"Everybody has really good linebackers," said Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald, a College Football Hall of Fame linebacker for the Wildcats and the recipient of the first two Chuck Bednarik Awards for national defensive player of the year in 1995 and 1996. "I can't look at a group in the conference and not go, 'Wow.' It's a fun position in this league."

Penn State senior middle linebacker Glenn Carson played between two All-Big Ten linebackers (Michael Mauti and Gerald Hodges) last season. But when he surveys the league's linebacker landscape for 2013, he sees talent across the board.

Mike Kwiatkowski, Ryan Shazier
Ohio State linebacker Ryan Shazier figures to wreak havoc on a questionable Michigan offensive line.

"That's one thing the Big Ten has always been able to produce, really good linebackers," Carson said. "Not only is it a great honor to be part of the Penn State linebacker corps, but the Big Ten one as well."

Penn State claims the label "Linebacker U," but the Nittany Lions aren't the only Big Ten program to thrive in the defensive midsection.

Since the Butkus Award launched in 1985 to recognize the top linebackers at the high school, collegiate and professional levels, eight Big Ten players have taken home the hardware, the second-highest total among conferences behind the Big Eight/12 (nine selections). The Bednarik Award has gone to a Big Ten linebacker six times. No other conference has had more selections, even when all positions are included.

The league's linebacker lineage stretches back to players like Dick Butkus (Illinois), Bobby Bell (Minnesota), George Webster (Michigan State), Larry Station (Iowa) and Chris Spielman (Ohio State).

"Where I've grown up and what I've been involved in, I've always thought there have been some outstanding linebackers in the Big Ten," Illinois coach Tim Beckman said. "Every year, you know the names."

The Big Ten (not counting Nebraska) has had 19 consensus All-American linebackers since the 1994 season. Ohio State produced one each year between 2004 and '08 (A.J. Hawk, James Laurinaitis) and Penn State had a run between 2005 and '07 (Paul Posluszny, Dan Connor). But the Big Ten hasn't had a Butkus or Bednarik winner since 2007, and only one Big Ten linebacker, Michigan State's Greg Jones, has earned consensus All-America honors in the past five seasons.

Don't be surprised if the recent downturn ends this year. Linebackers like Shazier, Borland and Bullough appear on preseason All-America lists. Seven of the league's top 10 tacklers are back, and six linebackers ranked in the top 15 in tackles for loss -- Shazier (led the league with 17), Ryan, Bullough, Allen, Borland and Northwestern's Chi Chi Ariguzo -- return.

The group's playmaking skills stand out. Ryan, scheduled to return in October from an ACL injury, led the league in forced fumbles (4) last season, followed by Shazier, Borland and a host of others with three. Ariguzo and Iowa's Kirksey tied for the league lead in fumbles recovered with four. Allen made a name for himself when he leaped – "Waterboy" style – over Ohio State running back Jordan Hall to sack quarterback Joe Bauserman in a 2011 game.

The increased speed and athleticism of Big Ten outside linebackers represents a change from what Fitzgerald jokingly calls the "neck roll era." Fitzgerald and his neck roll played in the mid-1990s, a golden age of sorts in the Big Ten, which had stars like Illinois' Simeon Rice, Kevin Hardy and Dana Howard; Michigan's Jarrett Irons; and Ohio State's Andy Katzenmoyer. Back then, size was king.

"You look at the top guys now, and all of them have an athletic skill set of a safety," Fitzgerald said. "Denicos, Shazier, Borland, Chi Chi, I could keep going on and on. There are a lot of guys who are really successful making big plays in that athleticism skill set."

The prevalence of spread offenses, both within the Big Ten and outside, has demanded different priorities from linebackers. But the league's identity hasn't changed too much.

"There still are some smashmouth teams in this conference," Michigan offensive coordinator Al Borges said. "It forces your linebackers to not just be space players. … There are several teams that do spread it from sideline to sideline, so your linebackers have to be able to do that and maybe next week go into the box and take on isolation blocks.

"In this conference, maybe more than any of them, that position has to be very, very versatile."

Max Bullough, Denicos Allen
Max Bullough and Denicos Allen lead the way at Michigan State. Ryan Shazier refers to Bullough as the "mastermind" of the Spartans' defense.

No Big Ten linebacker -- perhaps none in college football -- exemplifies versatility more than Borland. Playing multiple positions at Wisconsin, he has had a role in at least six takeaways and recorded 10 or more tackles for loss in each of his first three seasons.

He needs one more forced fumble to tie the FBS career record of 14. Not only a sound tackler and effective blitzer, Borland is terrific against the pass, recording three career interceptions and 13 pass breakups in the past two seasons.

"He's got it all," Andersen said. "He's the whole package. It's a big statement, but I speak for what I believe in: There's a lot of great linebackers out there, but he's the best linebacker that I know of in this country."

Borland is a favorite of other Big Ten 'backers like Shazier, Carson and Iowa's James Morris. Bullough also impresses fellow players and coaches around the league as he serves as the nerve center for a Spartans defense that has established itself among the nation's elite the past two seasons.

Shazier calls the 6-3, 245-pound Bullough, the "mastermind of their defense." Bullough has started the past 27 games for the Spartans and boasts 223 career tackles, including 21 for loss.

"I'm probably a little biased because I liked his grandfather, too," said Michigan coach Brady Hoke, referring to Hank Bullough, a former guard for Michigan State who went on to coach for the school and in the NFL. "He's a tremendous, instinctive football player. He's a big body. He's got a lot of range to him."

Shazier, the only returning starter in Ohio State's defensive front seven, might have the most upside among the Big Ten linebackers. He blossomed during Big Ten play in 2012, recording 15 tackles for loss, including four sacks, an interception returned for a touchdown and a forced fumble at the goal line in Ohio State's overtime win at Wisconsin.

The 6-foot-2, 222-pound Shazier is well aware of the linebacker tradition at Ohio State and around the Big Ten. He considers Laurinaitis a mentor and calls himself a fan of former Penn State standout Navorro Bowman, an All-Pro for the San Francisco 49ers last season.

"It's an amazing tradition," Shazier said. "Most of the best linebackers in the NFL in the past are from the Big Ten. We talk about it and we watch film on older games, to see how those guys played, so we can try to be just like them."