Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
The position rankings march on with the linebackers, another position that looks fairly stacked throughout the Big Ten. Much like the D-lines, I don't see many truly weak groups here, though there's a drop-off after No. 4.
1. Penn State -- The Lions return the Big Ten's most explosive linebacker from a year ago (Navorro Bowman) and one of the league's most productive 'backers from 2007 (Sean Lee). If Lee returns to form, he and Bowman will form arguably the nation's best linebacker tandem and anchor a Nittany Lions defense that led the Big Ten against the run. Josh Hull adds experience at the third starting spot, while hopes are very high for sophomore Michael Mauti.
2. Iowa -- Pat Angerer and A.J. Edds lead a group that always seems to get it done. Angerer tied for the league lead in interceptions last year and led the team with 106 tackles in a breakout junior season. His production overshadowed the solid play of Edds, who should have a big senior season. Jeremiha Hunter also returns for his second year as the starter. Depth might be a bit of a concern here, but the top three are very good.
3. Michigan State -- Big Ten preseason Defensive Player of the Year Greg Jones is the headliner, and he has a nice supporting cast around him. Jones has led the Spartans in tackles in each of his first two seasons and consistently finds his way into the offensive backfield. Eric Gordon has developed into a fine outside linebacker, and Brandon Denson takes on a bigger role this fall. The Spartans also can look to their bench for Adam Decker, who made the game-clinching tackle against Iowa's Shonn Greene last year.
4. Ohio State -- The Buckeyes lose one of the more productive linebacker tandems in recent Big Ten history, as James Laurinaitis and Marcus Freeman move on to the NFL. The good news is Austin Spitler, Tyler Moeller and others have waited their turn and probably would have earned starting jobs on any other team. Spitler and Moeller step into bigger roles along with Brian Rolle, and Ohio State needs bigger things from Ross Homan in his second year as a starter. There are some question marks, but this should be a good group.
5. Michigan -- Linebacker figures to be Michigan's strongest area on defense. Obi Ezeh has proved to be a reliable Big Ten defender, and he'll benefit from having a healthy Jonas Mouton in the fold. The big question is whether Stevie Brown makes a smooth transition from safety and builds on a strong spring. If Brown steps up, the Wolverines should be fine here. Hopes are also high for Brandon Herron and Marell Evans.
6. Minnesota -- This group could take a major step forward in 2009, but the Gophers must defend better against the run. Lee Campbell quietly had a nice junior season, recording 80 tackles and four sacks, and Simoni Lawrence proved himself as a playmaker with 10.5 tackles for loss (4 sacks), two forced fumbles, a fumble recovery and an interception. Minnesota boasts a ton of speed at linebacker, and it'll be interesting to see how Keanon Cooper and Gary Tinsley perform. Sam Maresh could provide an emotional lift after his amazing return from heart surgery.
7. Indiana -- It's time for Matt Mayberry and his fellow 'backers to lead this defense to better results in 2009. Mayberry has the talent and the experience to turn in a monster senior season, but he needs to show up every week and make big plays. Will Patterson provides leadership at middle linebacker, and Tyler Replogle steps into a bigger role. If Indiana turns things around on defense, the linebackers must lead the way.
8. Northwestern -- Head coach Pat Fitzgerald identified his top three linebackers in spring, which bodes well for a group that loses Malcolm Arrington and Prince Kwateng. Outside linebacker Quentin Davie has quietly put up some very impressive numbers, and Nate Williams will be more comfortable in a major role. Fitzgerald is excited about speedy sophomore Ben Johnson, and safety Brad Phillips might see more time in a hybrid role. There are some lingering questions here, but this group could make a big jump.
9. Wisconsin -- The jury's out on the Badgers after they lose DeAndre Levy and Jonathan Casillas, who combined for 15.5 tackles for loss last year. I like what Jaevery McFadden brings at middle linebacker, but he'll need some help from Culmer St. Jean, who saw increased time down the stretch in 2008. Aside from McFadden and St. Jean, the group is unproven and needs to show it's not the weak link of the defense.
10. Illinois -- Ron Zook thinks this will be the year Martez Wilson emerges as an elite Big Ten defender, and history is on his side. The move to middle linebacker worked out well for Brit Miller last year, and Wilson showed some promise in the middle this spring. Illinois needs big things from Wilson because it lacks much experience around him. Junior college transfer Aaron Gress might be a key addition, but I'm far from sold on this group.
11. Purdue -- The Boilers lose an extremely productive and underrated linebacker in Anthony Heygood, and a lot of questions remain with this group. As much as Purdue wants to see Jason Werner healthy, the team can't rely on a guy with a history of back problems. Joe Holland and Chris Carlino need big seasons this fall, and Purdue must build some depth around them.