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 begin with the linebackers. You can find links to the completed positions at the end of this piece.
Thanks to the free year of eligibility from the NCAA, there is even more returning starters back this year than normal. As such, there is a bunch of experience in almost every linebacker room in the Big Ten West. Some teams even return more players with starting experience than they have jobs available.
As is generally the case out West, everything starts with the Wisconsin linebackers.
1. Wisconsin Badgers
Wisconsin returns their entire two-deep at linebacker, which is pretty impressive when you consider they run a 3-4 defense. Sophomore outside linebacker Nick Herbig started every game as a true freshman last year, posting 26 tackles, 6.0 tackles for loss, and a sack. Much more is expected of him in year two. At the other outside spot is super senior Noah Burks, who needs to create more havoc than he did last year with just 18 tackles and one tackle for loss. Inside linebackers Leo Chenal and Jack Sanborn are veterans. Sanborn led the team with 52 tackles last year, which was six more than Chenal produced. Chenal and Herbig led the team with 6.0 tackles for loss last year. Overall, this group needs to make more plays in the backfield, but they probably will. This is an experienced group that has seen it all.
2. Iowa Hawkeyes
Iowa is expected to once again go with their “Cash” defense, which is essentially a 4-2-5. They must replace last year’s leading tackler in linebacker Nick Niemann, but they have more than a couple of capable players to turn to. Seth Benson started seven of eight games last year and finished second on the team with 47 tackles. After recording 21 tackles in his first two games, he only managed 26 over the final five. The Hawkeyes need more of the guy from the first two games this year. There is a ton of excitement around junior Jack Campbell. Campbell is a big guy (6-5 245), but he can move and tackle the football. Campbell missed three games last year and finished with 29 tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss, and a sack in five games. There is depth behind these two, including Ohioan Jestin Jacobs.
3. Nebraska Cornhuskers
Nebraska loses one part time starter from last year and returns six other linebackers with starting experience for their 3-4 defense. This will be a very experienced group, but they need to start putting the experience to much better use. Leading tackler JoJo Domann was an Honorable Mention All-Big Ten selection last year following a season where he posted 58 tackles and 6.5 tackles for loss on the outside. An All-B1G season wouldn’t be outrageous for him this year. The other outside spot could be manned by any number of options. Garrett Nelson, for instance, tallied 30 tackles, 4.0 tackles for loss, and 1.5 sacks last year in eight games. There are three options at inside linebacker, all with starting experience. Will Honas was second on the team last year with 57 tackles. They need to cut down on big plays allowed.
4. Northwestern Wildcats
Northwestern finally had to say goodbye to linebackers Paddy Fisher and Blake Gallagher, who were both freshmen when the University of Chicago was actually Chicago’s Big Ten team. Together, they combined for over 700 tackles in their respective careers. All is not lost, however, as senior Chris Bergin returns. Bergin posted 78 tackles and 4.0 tackles for loss last year. He has over 200 tackles in his career and should be one of the Big Ten’s top linebackers this year. The former walk-on was an Honorable Mention All-Big Ten honoree last year. Peter McIntyre figures to figure in somewhere. He’s a fourth-year player with experience. The other starting spot is likely to come down to Bryce Gallagher and Khalid Jones, but they could also end up rotating. This unit is going to take a drop in 2021.
5. Illinois Fighting Illini
The return of Second-Team All-Big Ten linebacker Jake Hansen is huge. He left and was headed for the NFL, but was eventually convinced to return for his sixth season. He’s a ball-finder who makes turnovers happen. Hansen posted 68 tackles in eight games last year. He also came away with 2.5 sacks and a pair of interceptions. Has has 243 career tackles to his credit as he looks to reach the 300 club this year. North Carolina State transfer Calvin Hart is a good possibility to start at the other inside spot. He had a strong freshman season in 2019 with 35 tackles, but responded last year with just 18 stops in 10 games. There is still a question of if Illinois is going to a 3-4 or a 3-3-5 or exactly what they’re going to do. They have experience and depth at linebacker to do either, but they must stay healthy.
6. Minnesota Golden Gophers
Five linebackers with starting experience return on a defense that plays quite a bit of 4-2-5. Middle linebacker Mariano Sori-Marin returns after leading the team with 54 tackles. He’s got good size, but could stand to get into the backfield more. He could be pushed by Abilene Christian transfer Jack Gibbens, who was a four-year starter. Those two could also end up playing next to each other because the inside linebacker spots (Will, Mike) are interchangeable. There are several other options, including Braelen Oliver who missed last year with injury. Oliver got a start as a freshman in 2019, so the staff has liked him for a long time. Having so many options is nice, but it’s also a product of not having a consistent three or four players to rely on. Depth is nice, but production and consistency is better.
7. Purdue Boilermakers
The loss of Derrick Barnes is big, and some would say it’s been a while since Purdue’s defense was at a stage when losing a single player really meant anything. Last year, however, the Boilers had the No. 4 rush per carry defense (3.4 ypc) in the Big Ten, so Barnes is definitely a loss. Four other linebackers with starting experience return, which will help ease the pain a bit this year. Jaylan Alexander finished second on the team in tackles with 49 in six games. He has 13 career starts and will help provide a veteran presence. Junior Jalen Graham is the team’s outside linebacker. He started eight games as a true freshman and five last year. He only managed 16 tackles last year. Middle linebacker will likely be Semisi Fakasiieiki or walk-on Kieren Douglas, both of whom have a smidge of starting experience.
Rating the Big Ten
[Wisconsin header photo courtesy UWBadgers.com.]