Our series continues on the best players ever to wear the uniform of a current Big Ten program.
Remember, this is not to serve as a judgment on NFL careers. It’s based entirely on each player’s college career and how it was viewed in his respective time period.
Up next are the linebackers.
Dick Butkus, Illinois, 1962-64: Is there any doubt? This one is every bit as obvious as Bronko Nagurski at defensive tackle. Butkus wrote the book on great linebacker play. Annually, as you know, the top linebacker in the game is presented with the Butkus Award. Any questions? Butkus was a two-time All-American for the Illini and is widely recognized as the best college linebacker ever. ESPN ranked him as the 19th-best college player of all time. He finished sixth in the Heisman Trophy voting as a junior and third as a senior behind Notre Dame QB John Huarte and Tulsa’s Jerry Rhome. No offense, but we want a revote. Try to find an all-century team that does not feature Butkus. You won’t.
Chris Spielman, Ohio State, 1984-87: He is the standard by which all other Ohio State linebackers are judged. Plenty of dominant players at the position followed Spielman, though none have quite matched his record of greatness. He collected 546 career tackles and holds the Buckeyes’ career record with 283 solo tackles. As a junior he totaled 205 tackles, including 29 against Michigan that season in the famous Jim Harbaugh Guarantee Game. Spielman talked coach Earle Bruce into playing him as a freshman, then started for three years and earned All-Big Ten honors in each season. He was a two-time All-American and won the 1987 Lombardi Award.
Pat Fitzgerald, Northwestern, 1993-96: In career that nearly mirrored Spielman’s, Fitzgerald made his mark without with the kind of talent that surrounded the Ohio State great. Fitzgerald won the Nagurski and Bednarik awards as a junior and senior; no other player has done that. He was the two-time Big Ten defensive player of the year and directed the Wildcats to their first Rose Bowl in 47 years in 1995 as Northwestern won back-to-back league titles. And, of course, the College Football Hall of Fame member has done well for himself and the Wildcats in his post-playing career. Fitzgerald, at the time of his promotion to head coach in 2006, was the youngest head coach in the FBS.
LaVar Arrington, Penn State, 1997-99: That Arrington, the ultimate linebacker at Linebacker U, sits fourth on this list speaks to the level of ridiculous achievement of players at this position in Big Ten history. Arrington won the Butkus and Bendarik in his final season as a junior in 1999. He was the first sophomore named as Big Ten defensive player of the year and followed that with a consensus All-America season in which he registered 20 tackles for loss and nine sacks. In 2015, he named his daughter Penn after his alma mater.
Randy Gradishar, Ohio State, 1971-73: His name is not quite as synonymous with dominant linebacker play at his school at the above listed players, but Gradishar’s impact was nearly as significant. He finished sixth in the Heisman voting in 1973 and started for three seasons as a do-it-all defender, twice earning All-America honors. Gradishar was inducted to the College Football Hall of Fame in 1998.
Honorable mention: Jack Ham, Penn State; A.J. Hawk, Ohio State; George Webster, Michigan State; W.T. Dunn, Penn State; Dennis Onkotz, Penn State; Broderick Thomas, Nebraska; Tom Novak, Nebraska; Dana Howard, Illinois; Percy Snow, Michigan State; Shane Conlan, Penn State; Paul Posluszny, Penn State; James Laurinaitis, Ohio State; E.J. Henderson, Maryland, Larry Station, Iowa.