Fall practice is under way everywhere, and that means the 2012 season has started.
Today, we unveil the fifth set of our national unit rankings. We are revealing one unit per day; it started with offensive backfields, and receiving corps, offensive lines and defensive lines have followed. The series ends Monday with coaching staffs.
These rankings take into account what the players have accomplished, how we think the players will do this season and sheer talent. Production does trump potential.
Here are the linebacker rankings. Next up: secondaries.
Likely starters: Neiron Ball, Jon Bostic and Jelani Jenkins
The buzz: Bostic, a senior, and Jenkins, a junior, have the talent to vie for All-SEC honors. The duo combined for 169 tackles last season and should get much closer to 200 this fall. Ball is a phenomenal story; he missed last season after undergoing brain surgery in March 2011. He has been cleared to play and has had a strong summer camp. Depth looks to be as good as it has been since 2009, when the Gators spent the bulk of the season ranked No. 1. Junior Darrin Kitchens, sophomore Michael Taylor and true freshman Antonio Morrison, who enrolled early, should see time. Taylor should be on the field a lot, depending on the alignment. Morrison is a big hitter.
9. Penn State
Likely starters: Glenn Carson, Gerald Hodges and Michael Mauti
The buzz: Hodges is the standout. He was a reserve in 2010 but became a star last season. He had a team-leading 106 tackles, along with 10 tackles for loss. Carson is a steady hand who was fourth on the squad with 74 tackles. Mauti is a good one when healthy. He missed the 2009 season with a torn ACL in his right knee, played well in 2010, then played in just four games last season before suffering a torn ACL in his left knee. He looks to be 100 percent. Depth is fine.
Likely starters: Ethan Armstrong, Chris Borland and Mike Taylor
The buzz: Borland and Taylor are one of the best duos in the nation. They ranked 1-2 in the Big Ten in tackles, and combined for 293 stops and eight forced fumbles last season. Borland had 19 tackles for loss, and he and Taylor each had two interceptions. Armstrong, a junior, is a former walk-on who was awarded a scholarship earlier this week. He had offseason surgery on both hips and missed spring drills, but is said to be healthy now. A.J. Fenton provides solid depth.
7. Virginia Tech
Likely starters: Tariq Edwards, Jeron Gouveia-Winslow and Bruce Taylor
The buzz: Taylor, a big-play guy, missed the last six games of last season as well as spring practice with a foot injury. If he is 100 percent healthy, he has All-America talent. Edwards is steady and should contend for all-league honors. Gouveia-Winslow, whose dad, Kurt, played linebacker in the NFL, also is returning from a foot injury. If he can't go, senior Alonzo Tweedy will start; he is quick if not big (6 feet 2/190 pounds). Jack Tyler and Chase Williams provide more depth.
Likely starters: Dion Bailey, Lamar Dawson and Hayes Pullard
The buzz: The Trojans received stellar play from Bailey and Pullard last season, when they were redshirt freshmen. They tied for the team lead with 81 tackles and added a combined six sacks, four pass breakups and two interceptions. Dawson, who started four times as a true freshman last season, will man the middle. Dawson, from Kentucky, is physical and aggressive. Depth is a concern, though redshirt freshman Anthony Sarao and true freshman Scott Starr look good.
Likely starters: Kiko Alonso, Michael Clay and Boseko Lokombo
The buzz: Clay and Alonso, assuming he can stay out of the doghouse, should be a dynamic duo. Clay had 102 tackles, two tackles, three sacks and 8.5 tackles for loss last season. He is undersized (5-11/219) but is speedy and has good instincts. Alonso (6-4/246) is a senior who has played in just 25 career games because of injuries and suspensions. He was the defensive MVP of the Rose Bowl win over Wisconsin. Lokombo, who was born in the Congo, is expected to be the third starter. He is athletic and has a knack for the big play. Depth looks good, too.
Likely starters: Trey DePriest, Xzavier Dickson, Adrian Hubbard and Nico Johnson
The buzz: The Tide lost three starting linebackers, including a first-rounder (Dont'a Hightower) and a second-rounder (Courtney Upshaw). But Alabama will be fine. Hubbard, an athletic sophomore, looks primed for a big season. DePriest, who is from Ohio, should be extremely steady. And C.J. Mosley, who won't start but should see more snaps than Johnson, has all-league talent. This is a deep and talented group; it's just not that experienced. Yet.
3. Michigan State
Likely starters: Denicos Allen, Max Bullough and Chris Norman
The buzz: All three starters are back. Allen is coming off a big season, his first as a starter. He had 80 tackles and led the team with 11 sacks and 18.5 tackles for loss. Allen also had seven quarterback hurries and three pass breakups. Bullough is excellent against the run and led the Spartans with 89 tackles. Norman is heading into his third season as a starter; he has made 135 tackles in the past two seasons. There looks to be OK depth.
Likely starters: Trent Murphy, Shayne Skov, A.J. Tarpley and Chase Thomas
The buzz: Man, there is a ton of talent on The Farm. Stanford returns all four starters, but Jarek Lancaster will lose his job to Shayne Skov, who missed most of last season with a knee injury. Skov and Thomas, a pass-rush specialist, are one of the best linebacker duos in the nation. Skov is intense and instinctual, covers a lot of ground and hits a ton. Murphy, who lines up on the outside opposite Thomas, had 6.5 sacks last season. Depth is good, too.
Likely starters: Michael Gilliard, Jarvis Jones, Alec Ogletree and Chase Vasser
The buzz: Jones is Georgia's best player and might be the best pass rusher in the nation. He had 13.5 sacks and 19.5 tackles for loss last season, his first with the Bulldogs after transferring from USC. Also returning as starters are Alec Ogletree and Michael Gilliard. Chase Vasser will be the other starter, assuming he gets his job back when he returns from a two-game suspension. Sophomore Ramik Wilson and freshman Jordan Jenkins are vying for the early-season starts. Depth is excellent, to the point where two former starters, Amarlo Herrera and Christian Robinson, now are reserves.
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