Written by: TJ Inman (@TJHoosierHuddle)
We are ranking each position group for all of IU’s 2019 opponents. Today, we focus on the linebackers.
1. Penn State Nittany Lions
The top spot on the list belongs to the Penn State Nittany Lions. While there are questions nearly all over the field and new faces aplenty for James Franklin’s squad, linebacker is a reassuring strength. Micah Parsons, Jan Johnson and Cam Brown are nailed down starters and the coaching staff reportedly feels good about sophomores Jesse Luketa and Ellis Brooks as back-ups. Parsons is a star in the making after leading the team in tackles in 2018, despite starting only one game. He came to the Nittany Lions as a defensive end and should be even more comfortable as a linebacker in year two. Johnson and Cam Brown are both senior leaders that have proven to be high-level players. There’s talent behind them as well as five-star freshman Brandon Smith enrolled early and will likely see snaps in 2019. The Hoosiers visit State College on November 16 and this will be a ferocious defense to try and deal with.
2. Michigan Wolverines
The Wolverines and their all-star defense from 2018 are in reload mode after Devin Bush Jr. was picked early in the NFL Draft. However, defensive coordinator Don Brown has said he loves the depth of his linebackers (he told theathletic.com it was the best overall depth he’s had at linebacker since he’s been at Michigan) and there’s lot of talent left in Ann Arbor. Khaleke Hudson was a stud in 2017 but suffered through a start-stop 2018. He’ll need to return to being an All-Big Ten level disruptor. Josh Ross, Devin Gil and Jordan Glasgow are all solid veterans. Josh Uche is a pass rushing specialist that had seven sacks in a limited role in 2018 and he’ll likely be used more in 2019. Youngsters and former elite recruits like Jordan Anthony, Michael Barrett and Cameron McGrone (from Lawrence Central in Indianapolis) are all hoping to burst into the rotation. I love the way Don Brown uses linebackers in his aggressive system and this group gives him lots of options.
3. Michigan State Spartans
Michigan State is in this spot solely because of the exemplary play of senior Joe Bachie. He led the team in tackles in 2018 and he’s poised for an All-American final season in East Lansing. In addition to Bachie, I really like the potential of his partners: Tyriq Thompson, a big-hitting senior, and Antjuan Simmons. Simmons has not been able to have a starring role in his first two seasons but in part-time duty last year, he managed 32 tackles. Thompson needs to be better but I feel he now has the experience, combined with opponent’s attention on Bachie and the MSU defensive line, to get to where he needs to be. Brandon Bouyer-Randle is a better backup than most have and MSU has recruited okay at this position. Without Bachie, MSU is in trouble but he gives them a star behind their exception defensive line.
4. Ohio State Buckeyes
It feels strange placing the Buckeyes at fourth on this list but the reality is the defense underperformed in 2018 and the linebackers were seen as the primary culprit. For better or worse, all three starters return but with a new position coach and a number of highly-rated recruits behind them, there is reason to believe someone could go from starter to backup. Malik Harrison was tied for the team lead in tackles in 2018 and he seems like the best bet to start in 2019. Oft-injured but talented Tuf Borland, Pete Werner and Baron Browning are the other three primary candidates. The Buckeyes gave up a lot of big plays and were gashed up the middle in 2018 meaning they need more speed and more playmaking ability at this position. If the returning players can’t provide it, they will turn to Teradja Mitchell, Dallas Gant or K’Vaughn Pope to try and help. According to reports from the spring, Ohio State will be utilizing a different package this season. IU fans will recognize the role as the Husky, a hybrid defensive back/linebacker. Ohio State is calling the position the “bullet” and playmaker Brendan White will fill it. This is a tough position group to predict but I’m hedging my bets and placing them fourth.
5. Northwestern Wildcats
If Northwestern’s linebackers are the fifth best group of linebackers your offense is going to face, you are playing some elite linebackers. The Wildcats have a pair of All-Big Ten linebackers in Paddy Fisher and Blake Gallagher leading the way. Fisher, a junior, has been All-Big Ten in his first two seasons and he’s a potential All-American at Mike linebacker. He’s a tackling machine and a playmaker. Shockingly, he didn’t end up leading his own team in tackles in 2018 as Blake Gallagher led the league in tackles with 127 from his Will linebacker position. As a duo, they are probably as good as anyone in the Big Ten. However, Northwestern drops to five on this list because of the questions behind them. Chris Bergin started four times in 2018 and he’ll be a very good third starter but they have no proven depth behind the starters.
6. Purdue Boilermakers
When we last saw the Purdue Boilermakers, they were getting obliterated by the mercurial Auburn Tigers in their bowl game. The defense looked awful and they did take a step back in 2018 but the linebackers were a solid unit and they return all three starters plus a few good young pieces for depth. Markus Bailey is the best of the bunch and he bypassed the NFL Draft to return for his senior season. He led the team in tackles with 115. In addition, juniors Derrick Barnes and Cornel Jones return. Jones is a hard-hitter that was fifth on the team in tackles in 2018 (69) and Barnes is an athletic linebacker that could develop into an NFL player in time. Jaylan Alexander played extensively as a freshman and there is reason to believe he’s ready for a larger role. The Boilers don’t have any proven depth at this position so an injury or two could cause some real trouble but the starters are a very good group.
7. Maryland Terrapins
The Terrapins would have been further down the list, possibly at ninth, but they recently secured the talents of an important transfer from Clemson and have been bumped up the list accordingly. Shaq Smith comes to the Terrapins after serving as a backup for the Clemson Tigers. He was expected to start this season for the defending national champions but opted to “go home” to Maryland. He’ll help fill the spot left by Tre Watson, the team’s leading tackler in 2018. Young players like Chance Campbell and Ayinde Eley are expected to have much larger roles after impressing in the spring and sophomore Durell Nchami will be a primary backup. This group would get better if Ohio State transfer Keandre Jones is granted eligibility (yet to be determined). Maryland has an athletic and young group and the addition of a talented veteran like Smith, who will probably play Maryland’s “JACK” position and provide pass rushing help, ups their potential.
8. Nebraska Cornhuskers
I really like the potential of the Nebraska Cornhuskers but the defense is not a large part of the optimism surrounding Lincoln this season. The second and fourth leading tacklers from 2018 (Dedrick Young and Luke Gifford) are both gone and there are not obvious or ready-made replacements for those spots. Mohamed Barry returns after leading the team in tackles (112) and he figures to lead the unit once again for his senior season. Darrion Daniels will need to excel in a bigger role and JoJo Domann could be a linebacker after playing last season as a big safety. Nebraska surrendered more than 30 points per game in 2018 and the Huskers linebackers will need to get big performances from undetermined young players if they are to improve on that in 2019.
9. Rutgers Scarlet Knights
Things get tricky from here on out as Indiana will face a lot of teams with high-quality linebacker units. Rutgers does not have bad linebackers, I want to make that clear. However, they are not great and the teams above them have a higher talent and/or depth level, in my opinion. Tyreek Mattox-Williams is a team captain and he’s back to start at the Sam linebacker position. Tyshon Fogg is going to start at Mike, a new position for him after he played outside a season ago. Olakunle Fatukasi is a good utility player but Rutgers will need him to start at Will linebacker. Michigan transfer Drew Singleton and redshirt junior Rashawn Battle are the only depth pieces Rutgers will probably feel comfortable with if they are pushed into action.
10. Ball State Cardinals
The Cardinals struggled on defense in 2018 but linebackers Ray Wilborn and Christian Albright were two of their best defenders and they combined for 18.5 tackles for loss, 8.5 sacks, nine passes defensed and 21 run stuffs. Wilborn is probably the best player on the defense. The Cardinals run an aggressive 3-4 defense built around pressuring the quarterback but they were unable to generate enough of that in 2018. The biggest issue, and what places Ball State at tenth on this list, is a lack of depth outside of Wilborn and Albright. While the linebackers were not primarily responsible for the failure of the run defense, they played a part and it was putrid. The game plan for Indiana will likely be to hit the Cardinals with a heavy dose of Stevie Scott and the bevy of running backs in their talented backfield.
11. UConn Huskies
There is no sugarcoating this: the UConn defense was historically bad in 2018. They surrendered a whopping 50.4 points per game and gave up at least 49 points in 10 of 12 contests. Randy Edsall is hoping returning linebackers Eddie Hahn and Kevon Jones can step forward and progress after being thrown to the wolves as youngsters last season. Edsall didn’t bring in a lot of players that figure to contribute in 2019 but JUCO linebacker Dillon Harris figures to be one. Rather, Edsall is banking on the youth he relied on last season to grow up quickly and progress into adequate FBS players. Even with significant progress, the Hoosiers failing to have a good day on offense against UConn would be a major red flag.
12. Eastern Illinois Panthers
The Panthers surrendered more than 40 points and almost 500 yards per game. They gave up at least 40 points in six games and there was basically nothing that could be described as a strength for the defense. Joe Caputo and Dytarious Johnson were the top two tacklers for the Panthers top two tacklers but someone has to get tackles, even on a bad defense. While I think these two are solid, they don’t figure to challenge the Indiana offense much.