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Michigan football's Josh Ross and Cam McGrone proclaimed to the media that they believe they have the potential to mature into the best linebacker corps in the nation.
But a case can be made that there are better units in the Big Ten.
While Ross and McGrone are indeed a good tandem, the defenses at Ohio State and Northwestern are populated with a slew of versatile, experienced defenders at the second level.
The Wildcats’ Paddy Fisher is a difference-maker. So too are the Buckeyes’ Pete Werner and Tuf Borland.
Below the Free Press ranks the best linebacker groups in the conference:
Buzz: Under new defensive coordinator Bob Diaco, the Boilermakers are expected to feature a malleable front and a thin linebacker corps. There is not much depth in this bunch and the team is expected to lean heavily on old standby Derrick Barnes, spot-starter Jaylan Alexander and junior-college transfer DaMarcus Mitchell after leading tackler Ben Holt left following his one and only season in West Lafayette. Consequently, Diaco's starters must stay healthy if Purdue has designs on maintaining some semblance of defensive integrity.
Buzz: While the loss of leading tackler Mohamed Barry stings, there shouldn’t be a significant dropoff in production at inside linebacker. Both Collin Miller and Will Honas are back after they each accumulated 67 stops last season. But on the outside Nebraska has been deficient in recent seasons, relying on their line to get to the quarterback. If anyone is going to step up here, JoJo Domann figures to be the guy. But the 6-foot-1 converted safety doesn’t look the part of an edge rusher, and the Cornhuskers will be in trouble if they must rely on him to send offenses in reverse.
Buzz: The best thing about Minnesota’s linebackers is that the Gophers aren’t terribly reliant on them. Minnesota operates out of a 4-2-5 so it may be able to camouflage one of its weaker areas through personnel usage. Kamal Martin and Thomas Barber, who were tied for second on the team in tackles, are no longer patrolling the middle of the defense. Junior Mariano Sori-Marin and redshirt sophomore Braelen Oliver are expected to have bigger roles. But neither performed especially well last season. In fact, Pro Football Focus gave Oliver the lowest grade among all Gophers defenders last season.
Buzz: The Hoosiers are bullish about their prospects at linebacker. And why shouldn’t they be? The team’s Most Outstanding Player of the Year, Micah McFadden, is back after leading IU with 61 tackles and contributing a team-high two interceptions. Cam Jones also returns following a productive sophomore campaign. Indiana will have to fill the void left by former team captain Reakwon Jones, but the staff has expressed confidence in Aaron Casey as he looks to build on the promise he showed as a freshman.
Buzz: Keandre Jones, the team’s best rusher, is gone and Maryland will be hard-pressed to replace a player who contributed seven sacks last season. Head coach Mike Locksley wants defenders who can affect the quarterback and generate consistent pressure. Shaq Smith, who once played at Clemson, fits the bill. So does North Carolina State transfer Joseph Boletepeli. They’ll be supported by inside linebackers Chance Campbell and Ayinde Eley, the Terps’ leading tackler in 2019.
9. Michigan State
Buzz: The Spartans’ linebacker corps has been in a state of upheaval since last fall. There was the transfer of Brandon Bouyer-Randle and the surprise suspension of Joe Bachie last October that expedited the end of his career. Antjuan Simmons quickly assumed a greater leadership role and now is the face of a linebacker corps that also lost starter Tyriq Thompson. He’ll team with junior Noah Harvey and sophomore Chase Kline as the Spartans try to find the stability that eluded them last season.
Buzz: No team lost as much at linebacker as Wisconsin. The Badgers will be challenged to replicate the impact Chris Orr and Zack Baun made in 2019, when they produced a combined 24 sacks. But Wisconsin is excited about the potential of sophomore Leo Chenal, who is known for his sheer strength. Chenal may be able to fill the shoes of Orr, but will Noah Burks be able to do the same for Baun? That is the question as the Badgers hope to recreate the relentless pass rush of last season.
Buzz: Holes exist all over a Rutgers roster that resembles a sieve. But a foundation exists in the linebacker corps, which is loaded with experienced players. Tyshon Fogg, who contributed 93 tackles, is back. So too is Rashawn Battle, who had a team-high three sacks in 2019. Michigan transfer Drew Singleton provides depth to a group that includes two of the team’s most productive defenders — seniors Olakunle Fatukasi and Tyreek Maddox-Williams.
Buzz: The Illini lost Dele Harding, the Big Ten’s top tackler in 2019 and an expert run defender. But Illinois still has talent at the second level. Look no further than Jake Hansen, who led the nation in forced fumbles last season and produced 3.5 sacks. He will be supported by Washington transfer Milo Eifler, who made an impact during his first season in Champaign. With experienced junior Khalan Tolson also in line to start, the Illini could cause some issues for opposing ground attacks. Defensive-minded head coach Lovie Smith would be thrilled to see that.
5. Penn State
Buzz: Micah Parsons’ decision to opt out this season changed the complexion of Penn State’s defense. He was a one-man wrecking crew last season while producing 14 tackles for loss and forcing four fumbles But while the void left by Parsons is considerable, the Nittany Lions still have talent at the position. Look no further than sophomore Brandon Smith, the former five-star prospect. He will be supported by Ellis Brooks and Jesse Luketa, who have loads of experience. It’s not a bad group. But it could have been outstanding with Parsons in the fold.
Buzz: Josh Ross and Cam McGrone believe Michigan’s linebackers can be the best in the nation. It’s a bold proclamation considering the Wolverines bid farewell to three NFL draft picks — Josh Uche, Khaleke Hudson and Jordan Glasgow — after last season. Ross is solid and McGrone has the potential to be a star. But who fills the role played by the versatile Uche? Michigan hopes Michael Barrett can replace him, but he only played 29 snaps last season. This group may experience some growing pains before they jell into a formidable unit.
Buzz: As Kirk Ferentz enters his 22nd season, the Hawkeyes have continued to evolve. After playing with three linebackers for much of his tenure, they now rely on two in their nickel base package. Iowa went into the offseason believing Djimon Colbert and Dillon Doyle would fill those roles. But Colbert opted out and Doyle transferred. So sophomore Jack Campbell and Nick Niemann, a senior who has shown playmaking ability on the outside, are expected to carry the load.
Buzz: Back in the day, Pat Fitzgerald starred at linebacker for Northwestern. As the Wildcats’ coach, he has a player — Paddy Fisher — who measures up to him as a player. Fisher is one of the best defenders in the conference and has been named to all of the preseason watch lists. Fisher is flanked by Blake Gallagher and Detroit Country Day product Chris Bergin, two seniors who together produced 176 tackles. When factoring in experience and productivity, Fitzgerald’s collection of linebackers is second to none in the Big Ten.
1. Ohio State
Buzz: Pete Werner and Tuf Borland may not excite fans in the same way other premier Ohio State defenders have. But they get the job done. Werner and Borland make up a solidly constructed linebacker group that also includes former five-star recruit Baron Browning. All three made the Butkus Award watch list this summer and have the ability to operate well in space. Ohio State never has many weaknesses and linebacker is certainly not one of them in 2020.
This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Does Michigan football really have best LB corps in Big Ten, nation?