Welcome back to my ongoing Big Ten positional ratings as I try to predict the two teams who will face off in the Big Ten Championship Game this December. We’ve made it through quarterbacks, running backs, pass catchers, offensive lines, and defensive lines. Now we move to the back seven and continue with the linebackers. You can find links to the completed positions at the end of this piece.
Every team in the East Division will field multiple linebackers with starting experience this season, save for one. The Buckeyes don’t have a single linebacker returning with starting experience, but they could gain one if the NCAA would finally get off of its ___ and grant Palaie Gaoteote his waiver.
Until then, we will continue our exercise of breaking down the Big Ten position by position so that we’ll know who will be playing each other in Indianapolis this December.
1. Indiana Hoosiers
Indiana is one of the many Big Ten teams that features a hybrid linebacker/defensive back. Sometimes that guy is considered a defensive back, but for our purposes with Indiana, we’re considering their “Husky” position a linebacker. Last year that position was manned by Bryant Fitzgerald — who is still around, but this year it reverts back to Marcelino Ball, who has been around forever. He missed last year with an ACL tear. Ball was a Freshman All-American back in 2016. He’s active and capable of making plays everywhere. Middle linebacker Micah McFadden is back as well. He was a First-Team All-Big Ten selection last year after posting 58 tackles, 10.5 tackles for loss, 6.0 sacks, and two interceptions in eight games. Senior Cam Jones is back as well. He was an Honorable Mention All-Big Ten selection last year after posting 35 tackles and 3.0 sacks. This is a playmaking group.
2. Penn State Nittany Lions
Penn State is expected to play quite a bit of 4-2-5 this year, but it looks like they will still employ a 4-3 look at times. They certainly have the linebackers to do it, as all three starters from last year return, and one of them is likely going to be replaced. Former five-star signee Brandon Smith is now a junior. He was sixth among linebackers in the Big Ten last year with 8.0 tackles for loss. He will be at the Will this year and should lead the team in tackles. Senior Ellis Brooks led the team with 60 tackles in nine games last year and should be in the middle. Jesse Luketa was second on the team with 59 tackles and will probably be coming in off the bench. Sophomore Curtis Jacobs looks like the Sam because of his athleticism. He finished with 9 tackles last year. This is a pretty deep group, but may only be fielding Smith and Jacobs the majority of the time this year.
3. Rutgers Scarlet Knights
Only two First-Team All-Big Ten linebackers from last season return this season and one of them is Scarlet Knights linebacker Olakunle Fatukasi. He led the conference with 101 tackles in nine games (11.2 per game) last year, which was 15 more than anybody else in the Big Ten. He also tallied 11 tackles for loss and three sacks. In their 48-42 loss to Michigan, Fatukasi posted 17 tackles and 2.5 tackles for loss. Tyshon Fogg is the other starter returning. He was an Honorable Mention All-Big Ten pick last year with 70 tackles. He has 19 career starts and provides experience in the middle. Rutgers is another hybrid 4-2-5 defense, but they will possibly show some Sam linebacker looks. Mohamed Toure is a reserve linebacker who led the team with 4.5 sacks last year as a pass rusher. There is actually quite a bit of depth here, especially when there are only two linebackers playing.
4. Ohio State Buckeyes
Ohio State must replace all three starting linebackers from last year, but the good news is they return three seniors who have been in the two deep for years. The Buckeyes may be moving to a 4-2-5 this season, however, which means those three seniors will be vying for two starting spots. Teradja Mitchell is a former five-star prospect who is the likely starter at the Will, but he has just 19 career tackles. Dallas Gant is another senior who will be vying to be the starter at middle linebacker. He has 44 career tackles. K’Vaughan Pope (16 career tkls) is the third senior who could line up anywhere. Sophomore Cody Simon has impressed in the spring. USC linebacker Palaie Gaoteote has transferred in and is waiting to be cleared by the NCAA to play this year. He has experience, but where does he line up? These are all former blue-chip recruits who should be fine, but it still has to happen.
5. Michigan Wolverines
The Wolverines lost talented middle linebacker Cam McGrone to the NFL. They are now moving to a more mysterious 3-3-5 or 3-4 or 2-4-5 or 3-2-6 or 1-5-5 or any other mathematical combination that you can come up with. Does that mean they’re still trying to figure it out and will eventually stick with whatever works? Probably. Two starters return. Michael Barrett moves from the hybrid Viper position to the Will. He was an Honorable Mention All-Big Ten selection last year. He’s athletic and can make plays when he’s at his best. Josh Ross has been around a long time. He started every game last year, leading the Wolverines with 53 tackles. There may also be a stand-up pass rushing linebacker like a David Ojabo who had offers from all over the nation’s. He’s got good size (6-5 250) but could also be a defensive end. There are a ton of questions here, but also some young talent with possibilities.
6. Maryland Terrapins
Former Illinois head coach Ron Zook has been added to head coach Mike Locksley’s full-time staff as the outside linebackers coach in the Terps’ 3-4 defense. This is an interesting mix of linebackers, featuring some top recruits and some newish veterans looking to make their first sizable mark. Sophomore Durell Nchami will likely be one outside linebacker, but the other job is still apparently open. It could feature any number of options, including a rotation of sorts depending on the down and distance. Whoever plays opposite the 255-pound Nchami, may not be nearly as big. On the inside it looks to be junior Fa’najae Gotay and sophomore Ruben Hyppolite. Both have flashed in assorted opportunities, including starts. Four-star signees Demioun Robinson and Branden Jennings were recruiting wins and could factor in immediately somewhere. Five-star Terreance Lewis tore an ACL in the spring.
7. Michigan State Spartans
The Spartans must replace departed Antjuan Simmons, who is a huge loss. He was a full-field defender in Michigan State’s 4-2-5 defense. There are only two linebackers returning from last year, but fortunately one of them is starting middle linebacker Noah Harvey, who finished second on the team with 54 tackles in 2020. Harvey is a senior with 12 career starts and over 100 career tackles. He will be relied upon heavily this year. The other returning Spartan is Chase Kline, who finished fourth on the team last year with 29 tackles. He could be starting or he could be coming off the bench depending on how the wave of incoming transfers perform. Tennessee transfer Quavaris Couch finished third in tackles last year for the Vols with 57 stops. He is an interesting and athletic prospect with three years of eligibility remaining. Itayvion Brown came from Minnesota. Ben VanSumeren is a former Wolverine.
Rating the Big Ten
[Penn State header photo courtesy GoPSUSports.com.]