This is the seventh installment of Maize and Go Blue’s series that ranks the best Big Ten players at each position for the upcoming season. Each week until Michigan’s opener, one position will be previewed, looking at the players who will excel in 2014, not necessarily the ones who did so in previous seasons. The analysis provided is thorough and in-depth, so each position preview will be split into two parts. The best Big Ten players on offense and the defensive line have been covered. This week, it is time to preview the linebackers. Here is Part One:
Quarterbacks: Part One, Part Two.
Running Backs: Part One, Part Two.
Wide Receivers: Part One, Part Two.
Tight Ends: Part One, Part Two.
Offensive Line: Part One, Part Two.
Defensive Line: Part One, Part Two.
|10. Michael Rose, Nebraska | RS Sophomore – 5’11”, 240 lbs
Last week, Tom Dienhart of BTN.com—a notable media outlet—published his Big Ten linebacker unit rankings for 2014. Which school had the best set of linebackers according to Dienhart? Nebraska. If a person took only a quick peek at the most basic defensive stats, an argument could somewhat be substantiated that the Huskers do indeed have the best linebacker crew in the conference. Nebraska returns all three linebackers who were starters by the end of last season, and those three combined for 205 tackles, 18 tackles-for-loss, and five sacks. They also contributed to a rushing defense that allowed only 3.78 yards per carry, which was fifth in the Big Ten. And, finally, all three have been praised for their athletic ability and speed. If these were the only metrics and attributes that determined the skill of a linebacker, then Dienhart decision to select Nebraska as the Big Ten school with the best set of linebackers would be understandable.
The problem, though, is that those are not the only metrics and attributes. I was shocked—yes, shocked—when Dienhart put Nebraska at the top of that list. Why? A deeper dig into the numbers reveals that Nebraska’s rushing defense was actually quite poor last season. Its yards-allowed-per-carry figure is very misleading. In college football, sacks and sack yardage are tallied as carries and rushing yardage. It is silly. Because of this, basic statistics suggest that college teams with a superb pass-rush have a better run defense than they actually do. Nebraska is the perfect example. The Huskers were tied for seventh in the nation and first in the Big Ten in sacks per game. However, when these sacks are excluded, Nebraska’s yards-allowed-per-carry figure rises from 3.78 to 4.60 and is sixth in the conference. Further, the Huskers’ Rushing Defense S&P+ ranking, which takes an advanced look at a team’s rushing defense, was 84th in the nation and the worst in the Big Ten. Yes, even worse than Illinois and Purdue. While some of this must be attributed to Nebraska’s defensive linemen, including pass-rushing extraordinaire Randy Gregory, much falls on the shoulders of Nebraska’s linebackers. So Dienhart can continue to be fascinated with Nebraska’s linebackers’ tackle totals and athleticism, but, until they can prove they are not members of the worst rush defense in the conference, they are not part of the best linebacker crew in the Big Ten. Sorry, Dienhart.
Nonetheless, this does not mean that there is no talent there. Middle linebacker Michael Rose has the potential to be a budding star for Nebraska. As a redshirt freshman last season, Rose started only seven games. In those starts, he tallied 62 tackles, five tackles-for-loss, and one pass breakup. Accordingly, Rose averaged 8.86 tackles per game in his seven starts, which would have been the fifth-best in the conference if he had started the entire season. Further, Nebraska’s rushing defense actually improved in the final five weeks of the year—all of which Rose started. In those last five contests, the Huskers allowed only 4.09 yards per carry once sacks were excluded. This is not an elite number, but it would have been just shy of the fourth-best in the Big Ten. Rose’s presence helped solidified Nebraska’s linebacker corps. And his impact should be even greater in 2014 as the starter for an entire season with another offseason of development under his belt. Rose may not be able to rectify all of Nebraska’s rush-defense woes, but he could be a breakout star next season.
|9. James Ross III, Michigan | Junior – 6’1″, 225 lbs|
James Ross III is listed at No. 9 by himself, but the space here will be dedicated to both Ross III and fellow Michigan linebacker Desmond Morgan. Ross III and Morgan were members of a Michigan defense that eroded as the season progressed. Early in the season, the Wolverines’ defense was stout. Through the first five games, Michigan had allowed only seven offensive touchdowns, which was one of the best marks nationally. However, Michigan’s offense self-destructed midway through the year, resulting in an endless supply of tackles-for-loss allowed and three-and-outs, and it forced Michigan’s defense to spend more minutes on the field than desired. The defense could save the offense’s behind only so many times each game before it wore down. By season’s end, the defense was a shell of its former self.
Despite this, Ross III and Morgan turned in respectable seasons. As a sophomore in his first season as a full-time starter, Ross III was Michigan’s second-leading tackler, notching 85 stops, 5.5 tackles-for-loss, and 1.5 sacks. He was the only Wolverine to average over seven tackles per game, and his 7.08 stops per game are tied for the fourth-most among returning Big Ten linebackers. He also added two forced fumbles, a fumble recovery, and two pass breakups. On the other hand, Morgan’s junior season eerily resembled his sophomore campaign. After recording 81 tackles, 5.5 tackles-for-loss, a half-sack, and two pass breakups in 2012, Morgan had 79 tackles, 4.5 tackles-for-loss, and three pass breakups in 2013. Morgan also generated a few turnovers last year, forcing a fumble, recovering a fumble, and intercepting a pass one-handed to jumpstart a second-half rally against Connecticut.
Together, Ross III and Morgan spearheaded a solid rushing defense. The Wolverines allowed the fifth-fewest yards per carry in the Big Ten once sacks were excluded and ranked 33rd nationally in Rushing Defense S&P+. This may not seem applause-worthy until one realizes how undersized and injured Michigan’s defensive line was. During the season, nose tackle Ondre Pipkins tore his ACL, and nose tackle Quinton Washington was sidelined for reasons unknown. This forced Jibreel Black to be inserted at nose tackle despite weighing only 285 pounds. Also, Brennen Beyer, who weighs only 250 pounds, started at strong-side defensive end in a 4-3 under scheme, which essentially made him a defensive tackle. Accordingly, Michigan’s defensive linemen were tossed around like rag dolls, and it forced Michigan’s linebackers to eat blocker after blocker. So, given these circumstances, it is quite remarkable that Ross III and Morgan did what they did.
Next season, both Ross III and Morgan likely will be two of the top 10 linebackers in the Big Ten, or at least near it. The reasons why Ross III is slotted at No. 9, while Morgan remains unranked, are that Ross III has more potential and should benefit more from Michigan’s transition to a 4-3 over scheme. Entering last year, Ross III was tabbed as a potential breakout star. Notwithstanding his smaller size, Ross III possesses amazing football instincts and the athleticism to capitalize on them. However, he works better in space and struggles to get off blockers because of his smaller stature. With Michigan’s defensive line unable to keep gaps clean for him, Ross III did not have the impact many expected him to have. This fall, Ross III will shift to strong-side linebacker in Michigan’s 4-3 over. In this spot, he should have more of an opportunity to use his instincts to read the play and his speed to shoot into the backfield for more tackles-for-loss. Conversely, Morgan’s transition from the middle to the weak side should see him continue to eat blocks as offensive guards should be able to release to the second level without much trouble. While Morgan’s thick build will allow him to remain effective in these situations, it would not be surprising to see his production decline from the past two seasons. This is why Morgan just missed the cut, while Ross III made it.
|8. Kevin Snyder, Rutgers | Senior – 6’3”, 235 lbs.|
Rutgers had a very substandard defense last season, finishing 73rd nationally in total defense, 80th in scoring defense, and 91st in Defensive S&P+. But this was mostly the fault of a horrendous secondary that allowed Rutgers to be ranked 120th in passing yards allowed, 100th in passing efficiency defense, and 99th in Pass Defense S&P+, not the fault of a surprisingly solid linebacker unit. And one of those linebackers was Kevin Snyder. Snyder manned the middle of the field for the Scarlet Knights in his first season as a starter last year and made his presence known. He was the team’s second-leading tackler with 96 stops, which would have been the third-most among returning linebackers if he was in the Big Ten last season. Further, Snyder is not shy about introducing himself to the quarterback or the running back in the opponent’s backfield. He had 7.5 tackles-for-loss and two sacks just one year after he recorded seven tackles-for-loss and two sacks as a reserve in 2012. Snyder has proven himself to be one of the few solid talents on a lackluster defense.
The one area where Snyder makes his impact felt the most is preventing the run. Notwithstanding Rutgers’ poor ranks in total defense, scoring defense, and pass defense, the Scarlet Knights actually were quite terrific at defending the run. They were fourth in the nation in rushing defense, allowing only 100.77 rushing yards per game. They were fifth in the nation in rushing yards allowed per carry (3.10). Once sacks are removed, Rutgers allowed only 3.82 yards per carry, which would have been the third-best in the Big Ten, just behind excellent rush defenses in Michigan State and Wisconsin. And, lastly, Rutgers finished 22nd nationally in Rushing Defense S&P+. Although the advanced statistics suggest that Rutgers’ rushing defense was one of the five best in the nation as the basic statistics do, it was still quite stingy. While much of this credit belongs to Rutgers defensive tackle Darius Hamilton, who is No. 9 in my Big Ten Defensive Line Rankings, Snyder deserves a big chunk of it for his production and organization of the front seven as the middle linebacker.
However, there are two concerns about Snyder’s game that must be addressed as the 2014 season approaches. The first is how Snyder and Rutgers’ front seven handle the transition from the AAC to the Big Ten. As I wrote when breaking down Hamilton last week, the offensive lines in the AAC are much smaller in stature than the behemoths in the Big Ten. Also, there are more offenses in the Big Ten that prefer to line up in power formations and run the ball down a defense’s throat than in the AAC. It will be interesting to see how much this affects Snyder’s performance, especially if his defensive line cannot keep the gaps as clean as they did last season against weaker competition. The second concern is Snyder’s ability as a defender against the pass. While many of Rutgers’ struggles in pass defense are due to the secondary’s awfulness, Snyder and his fellow linebackers are not free from blame. They play a vital role in the back seven, and their lack of aid in that area is a giant red flag. If Rutgers wants to enjoy some success in its inaugural Big Ten season, Snyder must be better when dropping into coverage. This is why a man with 96 tackles that was a key cog of one of the better rushing defenses in the nation is not higher on this list.
|7. Matt Robinson, Maryland | 5th-yr Senior – 6’3”, 240 lbs|
Whereas the first three Big Ten linebackers on this list have shown their worth as run defenders, Maryland’s outside linebacker Matt Robinson has shown his as a defender against the pass. Robinson’s skills as a coverage linebacker are no surprise because he started his collegiate career as a safety. In fact, as a true freshman in 2010, Robinson played all 13 games and even started his first career contest at safety. He made seven more starts at the position over the next two years, but missed large chunks of both seasons due to injuries. Nonetheless, when Robinson recovered, bulked up, and transitioned down from safety to outside linebacker in preparation for the 2013 season, his coverage skills were still intact.
The Terrapins’ pass defense was below average by any metric one uses—57th nationally in passing yards allowed, 64th in passing efficiency defense, and 64th in Passing Defense S&P+. But one man cannot shut down an entire passing offense—unless he is Charles Woodson, of course. Alas, Robinson is no Woodson. However, this does not mean that Robinson did not provide excellent coverage in the middle of the field, especially against slant routes. This is evidenced by the four pass breakups he notched last season. Further evidence of Robinson’s prowess as a coverage linebacker can be seen by looking at how opposing tight ends and slot receivers performed when he missed two games with a shoulder injury. With Robinson absent, Virginia tight end Jake McGee had his best game of the season with eight receptions for 114 yards, while Wake Forest slot receiver hauled in 11 throws for 122 yards. Maryland may have issues in other spots critical to its passing defense, but Robinson is a strength in coverage in between the hash marks.
Although Robinson was one of only three Terrapins with double-digit tackles-for-loss last season, tallying a smooth 10 of them, his presence in the rushing defense leaves much to be desired. Some have praised Robinson for his run support, including those who have watched more Maryland football than I have, but I remain somewhat skeptical. Last season as a full-time starter at linebacker, Robinson made only 73 tackles. The total number may not seem like it should invoke uneasiness, but Robinson was involved in only 9.13 percent of Maryland’s tackles. For context, every other linebacker on this list that started for a full season was involved in between 11 and 17 percent of his team’s tackles. Then, it is even more troubling when one realizes that 17 of Robinson’s 73 tackles were in one contest against North Carolina State. Accordingly, Robinson had only 56 tackles in his other 10 starts. Hmm.
Why was Robinson not more involved in Maryland’s rush defense? Was it a consequence of Maryland’s 3-4 scheme? Or was Maryland’s strategy to send stud outside linebacker Marcus Whitfield, who recorded 15.5 tackles-for-loss, towards the line of scrimmage while dropping Robinson back into coverage? Either way, Robinson still needs to prove he can flow to the ball more consistently and make more plays at the line of scrimmage. With Whitfield gone after graduating last season, Robinson should slide into Whitfield’s role and do just that.
|6. Mike Hull, Penn State | 5th-yr Senior - 6’0”, 232 lbs|
For decades, Penn State has been a football factory that has pumped out excellent linebacker after excellent linebacker. There was Dennis Onkotz, Shane Conlan, LaVar Arrington, and Paul Posluszny, all of whom were two-time first-team All-Americans. Between the four of them, they won three Chuck Bednarik Awards and two Dick Butkus Awards, which are given to the nation’s best defensive player and best linebacker, respectively. There have been nine other Penn State linebackers that have been named a first-team All-American once. And then there are numerous others who were named second-team All-Americans or had successful NFL careers. Because of this, Penn State was bestowed with the moniker “Linebacker U.”
For the upcoming season, there does not appear to be a linebacker on the Penn State roster that will contend for All-American honors like those that played in State College before him. But the one that has the best chance to do it is Mike Hull. Last season was Hull’s first year as a full-time starter at middle linebacker. However, he started only eight games because he suffered a minor knee injury early in the season that sidelined him for two games and forced him to see only limited action in another two. Nonetheless, Hull was at his healthiest in the Nittany Lions’ eight conference games. In Big Ten play, Hull posted 73 tackles, 4.5 tackles-for-loss, a half-sack, a forced fumble, and two pass breakups. His 9.13 tackles per conference game were the highest on the team and are the best among returning Big Ten linebackers. Additionally, Hull compiled these stats for a defense that was considered one of the 25 best overall and one of the 10 best against the run according to advanced metrics. Hull did not earn any all-conference honors for his production, likely due to the injury, but was named to Athlon Sports’ preseason All-Big Ten first team and Phil Steele’s preseason All-Big Ten second team for 2014.
Yet, Hull will face a new challenge this fall. Last year, Hull benefited enormously from defensive tackle DaQuan Jones’ presence on the defensive line. Jones was a monster. Not only did he penetrate into the backfield for 11.5 tackles-for-loss, he also had the ability to consume double-teams without losing ground. Accordingly, this allowed the Penn State linebackers, including Hull, to surge freely into the gaps without the obstruction of an offensive lineman for easy tackles at the line of scrimmage. This season, Hull will not have such a luxury as Jones now is in the NFL. Although Penn State returns its two starting defensive ends, both of whom are talented, there is lots of uncertainty regarding who will replace Jones inside. It seems likely that, no matter who the replacement is, he will be inferior to Jones. This will make life harder for Hull as the middle linebacker. It may be more difficult for Hull to have a clean path to ball-carrier to make stops. This could lead to a dip in his statistics. But, given that Hull is a senior product of Linebacker U, it may be best to give him the benefit of the doubt.
What do you think so far? Do you agree with our rank of the five players listed above? Who should have been ranked higher: James Ross III or Desmond Morgan? Should both Ross III and Morgan have been included in the top 10? Was there anyone missing from this list in your opinion? Who do you think will be in the top five? Please post your comments below as we will reveal tomorrow who will be the five best linebackers in the Big Ten in 2014.