Written By T.J. Inman (@TJHoosierHuddle)
Our top five opposition pieces continue as we take a look at the top five linebacker units IU will take on this season. Rutgers and Purdue were considered but came up just short as we chose five very solid groups of linebackers. Feel free to comment on what you like or don’t like about our rankings and keep checking Hoosier Huddle for continued preseason coverage.
Top 5 Opposing LB Units
5. Wake Forest Demon Deacons
The Demon Deacons struggled mightily on offense. However, their 2014 defense was surprisingly stout. We ranked their defensive line in a tie for fifth and they come in at number five on our linebacker list as well. Every contributing member of the 2014 unit returns for the 2015 season. The group is led by BUCK linebacker Brandon Chubb. Chubb led the team with 81 tackles and he chipped in with three sacks. MIKE linebacker Marquel Lee (an intimidating 6’3”/235 pounds) had 70 tackles and an impressive 12 tackles for loss from his middle linebacker position. ROVER Hunter Williams is a returning senior starter and a trio of sophomores return after getting lots of game experience as true freshmen. Wake Forest’s offense will almost definitely be very bad (although it can’t be as awful as it was in 2014) once again but their defense should be a stiff challenge for the Hoosiers when IU invades Winston Salem in late September.
4. Michigan State Spartans
Before fall practice began, the Spartans were going to be a spot (or two) higher on this list. Putting them fourth is not a sign of disrespect and it’s certainly not my way of saying the Michigan State linebacking corps is bad. This list was difficult to put together because IU takes on multiple opponents that have pretty strong linebacker groups. So, why did I bump MSU down to third? All-Big Ten selection and Michigan State’s top returning linebacker, Ed Davis, has been ruled out for the year with an ACL injury. Davis was a senior set to man the SAM LB position and lead the group of linebackers, that position will now likely fall to Chris Frey. Frey played in all 13 games last season but only 13.5 tackles. In addition to losing Davis, MSU must replace departed MIKE LB Taiwan Jones. Jones had 45.5 tackles and 12.5 tackles for loss (tied for the team lead). This group should still be very good. After all, this defense allowed the fewest rushing yards per game in the country in 2014. Darien Harris and Riley Bullough are both experienced and solid and there’s plenty of talent and a very good system in place to replace Jones and Davis. Look for sophomores Jon Reschke (MIKE), Jalyn Powell (STAR) and Shane Jones (MIKE) to step up after seeing some time in 2014. One subplot to keep an eye on is how the Michigan State defense responds to losing longtime DC Pat Narduzzi. Narduzzi took the head coaching position to Pittsburgh. While I certainly expect the Spartans D to be just fine, the adjustment to life without Narduzzi is worth keeping an eye on.
3. Michigan Wolverines
The Brady Hoke era ended up devolving into a rather ugly separation as the offense struggled to create any kind of consistent play and the Wolverines sputtered to a couple of disappointing seasons. It wasn’t all bad during Hoke’s tenure though. During his four years in Ann Arbor, his defenses ranked between 12th and 27th in defensive efficiency rankings from S&P+. The 2014 defense was seventh in yards per game allowed and featured a very strong group of linebackers. The leader of that group, middle linebacker Jake Ryan, is now gone but the rest of the contributing players return and this should be a strong corps of linebackers once again. Joe Bolden is the best of the bunch as he had 78.5 tackles in 2014 and is expected to see that number rise to above 80 in 2015. Desmond Morgan was very good in 2013 and returns this season after missing nearly all of 2014 with an arm injury. Those two are joined by returning contributors James Ross III, Ben Gedeon and Royce Jenkins-Stone. In addition, former defensive coordinator Greg Mattison was retained and is now the defensive line coach while former Florida DC D.J. Durkin is now the leader of the defense. There’s no reason to expect anything but excellence from this group once again.
2. Penn State Nittany Lions
IU fans saw the Penn State defense on display last fall when the Hoosiers fell to the Nittany Lions in a 13-7 snoozer. That IU offense was significantly weakened by injury but still, the Penn State defense was nasty. The Nittany Lions gave up the second fewest yards in the country and we rated the fifth best unit in the nation by S&P+. The pass rush needs to be rebuilt but this should once again be a very tough team to score on. Linebacker has been a position of strength in Happy Valley for a long, long time and this season should be no exception. Mike Hull graduated after amassing an astonishing 107.5 tackles during his senior season. However, every other contributing linebacker returns. Nyeem Wartman-White, Brandon Bell and Jason Cabinda figure to be starters. James Franklin has been recruiting extremely well and a crop of multiple redshirt or true freshmen 4-star prospects are waiting for their chance to make an impact. This isn’t the most talented group of linebackers on this list but they don’t completely lack for ability and the Penn State defensive system is going to get the benefit of the doubt until proven otherwise.
1. Ohio State Buckeyes
The defending national champs and the top team in the land takes the number one spot on our opposing linebacker list. This isn’t the strongest position on their team but that says more about how ridiculously good they are on offense than it does about the linebackers. In fact, this will probably end up being the best group of linebackers Ohio State has fielded in a long time. Darron Lee is probably the best of the bunch. The SLB had 67.5 tackles with 16.5 tackles for loss and 7.5 tackles for loss (plus two interceptions) as a true freshman! Joshua Perry is a returning senior coming off of a breakthrough season that saw him lead the team in tackles with 98.5 (good for 12.5% of his squad’s tackles). Former starting middle linebacker Curtis Grant is gone but former 5-star recruit Raekwon McMillan played in 14 games last season and appears ready to step in and man the middle. The Buckeyes can withstand an injury or two as well as they are stocked with a mix of veterans and 4-star youngsters that are waiting to prove themselves. We all know Ohio State’s offense is incredible and will probably score plenty on everyone they play. But if a team is able to slow the Buckeyes, this corps of linebackers appears plenty good enough to keep Ohio State in the game long enough for the offense to figure things out.